Since I wrote that post about Don Miller and his dislike for church, I’ve received messages from several different people asking me to clarify my positions, give them more thoughts on Miller, and even (awesomely) absolve them for skipping church. (I don’t know what to say to that last one, except I’m not His Holiness the Parson.)
Don Miller also posted a follow-up blog (which I actually linked to in my previous piece, but didn’t really address), in which he makes an interesting point:
Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts…The church in America, in other words, is a product of a school-like system mingled with best business practices and is quickly moving toward entertainment-like institutions.
And, tortured prose aside, he’s tragically right about that. As I admitted in a recent post, the evangelical church has been treating itself as nothing more than an advertisement for Jesus for far too long. And if you’re already buying the product, you don’t need to see the ads.
But the thing is, I’m not an evangelical. Not exactly, anyway. I’m a Lutheran who was raised Presbyterian, which means I’ve spent my entire life as something technically called a “magisterial Protestant,” which is sort of like being an evangelical, and sort of like being a Catholic, with a big, steamy helping of ambiguity piled on top of the whole mess. Essentially, it means that I’m obligated not to believe in the Catholic Magisterium (or, for that matter, the Orthodox Magisterium), but still obligated to believe in a magisterium (that is to say, a generic Church authority), specifically, the one of my synod and/or presbytery and/or conference and/or local congregation.
It’s confusing. Or, at least it is to Catholics and evangelicals (and probably to evangelical Catholics).
What it means is that I’ll agree with evangelicals that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. But it also means that I take the whole of the Gospel accounts seriously, and large chunks of them only make sense if you read them with the understanding that Jesus is not just wandering around in Palestine saying a lot of catchy stuff like some sort of Jewish Buddha, but is actively building a Church. Jesus gives real authority to the Church, including the authority to baptize (Matt. 28:19), the authority to excommunicate (Matt. 16:19), the authority to celebrate the Eucharist (Mark 6:37), and the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23).
The upshot of this is that I don’t go to church primarily to learn stuff, or to connect with God emotionally. Those often happen — no one likes a good sermon or a good euphoria more than I do — but in the most fundamental sense, I’m there to receive the things that only the Church can give me: absolution from my sins and the flesh and blood of Christ. In this sense, what Miller says about “connecting with God” outside of church makes about as much sense to me as “I don’t go to the grocery store anymore; I feel much closer to Billy-Bob the Grocer when I’m talking to him on the phone.” Even if it’s true, you’re missing the point, dude.
And you’re starving.
Catholics do a much better job than Protestants of making the distinction between the Church and the Mass — that is, the difference between the Body of those who follow Christ and the ordinary means through which that Body is nourished. We Protestants, though, talk about both being a “member of the church” and also “going to church,” as if those two things were somehow equivalent. (Lutherans sometimes refer to “going to church” as “attending the Divine Service,” but that doesn’t do much aside from confusing absolutely everybody.) In reality, they’re separate things in the same way that being alive and eating are. There’s no way to stay alive without eating, and there’s no point in eating if you’re not alive (unless you’re a zombie, which in this metaphor is probably a…Unitarian? or something?). The one supports the other, but they’re not equivalent.
The problem with the Protestant tradition is that we are far too focused on being not-Catholic to read the Scriptures honestly. We deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the saving power of baptism because Catholics believe that stuff, and Catholics are icky. We deny that anyone can hold authority because we’re all fans of democracy. We deny there’s any value in the Tradition because we take sola scriptura a little too literally.
All that is to say, in our efforts as Protestants to be as not-Catholic as possible, we’ve practically defined the Church out of existence — and we shouldn’t be surprised at all when people decide to walk away from such a hollow shell. If forgiveness is not to be found in the Church, and Christ is not to be found in the Host, then what purpose does the Church serve, exactly? It’s not a rhetorical question; it’s one that we should all be asking ourselves. We Protestant-types like to think of ourselves as reading the Bible seriously, so we all need to think hard about what the magisterial passages (like the ones I’ve alluded to) mean, exactly. Until that happens, we can expect to continue doing what Protestants have always done best: fragment and fragment some more.
The following is required reading for the course (at my school-like system mingled with best business practices that is quickly moving toward entertainment-like institutions):