Donald Miller: I Don’t Connect with God at Church

What you say to someone who told you the following?: “I don’t experience…intimacy [with God] in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.”

The question isn’t theoretical. Those statements are from a recent blog post by Donald Miller, who’s perhaps best known as the bestselling author of Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. He continues:

I’m fine with this, though. I’ve studied psychology and education reform long enough to know a traditional lecture isn’t for everybody. There’s an entire demographic of people who have to learn by doing, not by hearing. So you can lecture to them all day and they’re simply not going to get it.

Research suggest there are three learning styles, auditory (hearing) visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing) and I’m a kinesthetic learner. Of course churches have all kinds of ways for you to engage God including many kinesthetic opportunities including mission trips and so forth, but if you want to attend a “service” every Sunday, you best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.

Despite all of this, Miller describes himself as someone who experiences a “strong and healthy” intimacy with God despite rarely going to a church service. He explains how:

I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.

Miller isn’t the first person to express such thoughts, and he certainly won’t be the last. So it’s worth wrestling with what he has to say a bit more. Here’s at least the beginnings of my own response:

1. First, I certainly don’t dismiss the idea that people learn in different ways. I have no doubt that the research Miller mentions bears this out. For that matter, most of us know this by experience, either our own or that of others we know.

2. Still, I’d argue that the God who created human beings is more than familiar with our different learning styles. And yet, he seems to be preoccupied in his word with the importance of corporate worship in general and the specific facets of preaching and singing/playing music in particular.

3. Why might that be? For one thing, worshipping God through song is what Miller calls a “kinesthetic opportunity.” We’re actually called to do something, namely use our physical voices to sing. In doing so, we offer up our praise our and thanks, as well as our questions, fears, and doubts. I might add, that over time, we learn no small amount of the theology that ends up shaping our everyday lives. Songs are memorable in ways that sermons and other, more didactic teaching is not. Many Christians who might struggle to give a succinct summary of the gospel might find they know the words to “Amazing Grace.”

4. Biblical corporate worship also contains other “learn-by-doing” opportunities. For example, the Lord’s Supper is intended to be a sensory experience of the gospel. Giving an offering is an active and tangible expression of our trust in God as our good and faithful provider.

5. But where does this leave sermons and more traditional teaching? For one thing, learning by doing still needs what you might call a “control.” In other words, if we’re left to interpret our own experiences (our “doing”) solely by our own understanding, we’re bound to get a lot wrong. That’s simply the reality we face with a sinful, corrupted nature. Our feeling or intuiting something—whether good or bad—doesn’t always make it so. That’s why God gives us his authoritative word. We need the realities of Jesus and gospel, and their relevance to every area of life, clearly explained on a regular basis. This gives us a grid through which to see everything else more clearly.

6. An example in line with the previous point. Jesus certainly taught his disciples and others a great deal by doing things, including performing miracles and eating with outcasts. But he constantly interprets these actions through his teaching. In doing so, he routinely corrected misunderstandings that people developed as a result of those actions. And positively, he helped people genuinely grasp him and his mission. (More on this here.)

7. That said, I don’t doubt a person may genuinely connect with God through building his company. Ironically, a sound, biblically shaped theology of vocation supports that notion to a significant degree. But apart from being taught that theology—through sermons, classes, reading both the Bible and books about its teaching—how would any of us, including Donald Miller, know for sure that such a connection was possible, or learn how to discern whether it was really taking place?

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