You don’t know me, but I’ve been a fan of your book Blue Like Jazz since I read it a few years ago. It draws from a worldview perspective I do not share, but taken on its own terms, it’s a work of art. I mean that.
I don’t have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, “Here you are.” Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.
All that to say, reading your book was like walking up to a painting that captures the spirit of the age, only this painting captured my own. Thank you.
From that shared starting point, my life and spirituality traveled down a road—a way out of the inauthenticity—that’s very different from yours. And here is where I have wanted to strike up a conversation with you ever since reading the book. Yes, that means pushing back a bit, but perhaps you can do the same with me.
Your recent blog post, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.,” reminded me of all this background. In addition to saying you “don’t connect with God by singing,” you also say “I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon” since “a traditional lecture is not for everybody.” And you admit that you don’t attend church often since “church is all around us.”
The worldview and spirituality here resembles what I found in Blue Like Jazz. But now we’re not talking about a piece of art. We’re talking about how a Christian chooses to live. And, as I said, the path I’ve taken from those early days of angst and displacement, neither at home in the world nor in the American evangelical church, has turned in a very different direction. Instead of moving away from the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, I’ve moved toward them. My way out was deeper in.
I’m now an elder in a church with hour-long sermons, several long prayers, lots of singing, membership classes and interviews and meetings. We talk about repentance, practice church discipline, and use phrases like “submitting to the elders.” In fact, Don, it gets worse. I’ve written about these things. I’ve advocated for them. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and then filled a tray of Dixie cups to hand out.
No, we must not mistake these structures for authentic Christian living and love. But I do believe they are both the food that gives life to the body, as well as the skeleton that holds the organs and muscles in place. And I believe they are biblical, by which I mean prescriptive for all Christians in all times and places, albeit with circumstantial adjustments.
Spiritual life comes by hearing, seeing, and submitting, typically in that order. We hear God’s Word preached, sung, prayed, and counseled. We see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians and leaders. And we submit ourselves to the Word and these fellow sinners, with all their faults and eccentricities, in a local congregation. As my own pastor has put it, we admit that we are not the world expert on ourselves, but need one another and his Word in order to see ourselves clearly and to follow Christ. Life in the midst of Word-centered, accountability-giving fellowship, he has said, is like throwing paint on the invisible man. Wow! I didn’t know I looked like that.
Pick just one word out of the Bible—say, patience. I will not know how wonderfully patient God is, and how impatient I am, until I close my mouth and listen to a fellow believer open the Bible and say, “God is patient.” And then ask, “How patient were you this week with your wife and kids?” And finally tell me, “Consider God’s patience for you in Christ!”
Even then, this word patient will remain a little abstract. So on Sunday morning I look across the pew at Tom, who I know is being treated unfairly at work. But there he is, belting out at the top of his lungs, “When through fiery trials, thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply.” The next day I ask Tom how he’s doing, and he tells me how he’s praying for his colleagues and inviting them to dinner. That’s what Jesus’ patience looks like: Tom waiting on the Lord—forgiving, praying, and singing with joy.
I need Tom, and I need every other member. I need the honorable parts of the body and the dishonorable parts. I can’t say to the hand or foot, “I don’t need you.” I need all of them, the weak and strong, the winsome and irksome. And we all need the Word—in sermon, song, and prayer—guiding us. So we gather weekly to listen. Then we scatter to look, love, and help each other live.
I’m glad you connect with God in your work, as you wrote. Your comment reminded me to be more prayerful in my work. But shouldn’t connecting with God in work be the “output”? Don’t we need the “input” of Word-centered fellowship, so that we truly “connect” with him and not subtly spiritualized regurgitations of the world’s influence on us?
Speaking of connection, the main thing that struck me about your article were the words connect and intimacy. They occur over and over, and seem to be the measure and goal of your spirituality. And how life-giving both are!
But if we’re brainstorming on a whiteboard, we need to jot down a few more words to get the full biblical picture, words like submission, obedience, love, and worship. Jesus says that anyone who loves him will obey his teaching (John 14:23). He says that claiming to love God but failing to love our brothers makes us liars (1 John 4:20). He says the world will know we are Christians if we lay down our lives for other Christians just like Jesus laid down his life for us (John 13:34-45).
And here’s where the rubber meets the road: I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.
Let me say it again: Our love and unity with the church should manifest itself in a church. Our listening to God means listening to his Word—spoken and sung.
Bottom line, Don, I’ve always appreciated much about your diagnosis of the contemporary evangelical church. But I don’t understand your prescription. Since you’re obviously a thoughtful person, I hope you will receive my challenge as a sign of respect, which I mean it to be.
Best regards to you.
P.S. Just saw your reply to a number of critics, posted around the same time as my letter. Again, some diagnoses I agree with, like, churches over-programatize. But you keep saying no one’s church looks like the church in Acts?! Many churches I know do. People gather to hear the teaching of the apostles. And they scatter to enjoy fellowship and hospitality and care for one another’s needs. They baptize as a way of declaring who belongs to “their number.” And they exercise discipline when a professor lives falsely (okay, here I’m borrowing from the epistles, unless you count Peter’s responses to Ananias, Sephira, or Simon as discipline).
In other words, Don, the main thing I want to highlight in response to both of your posts is the difference between what you call “community” and what the Bible calls the “church.” Jesus actually gave authority to those local assemblies called churches (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). The assembly is not just a fellowship, but an accountability fellowship. It’s not just a group of believers at the park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances. It declares who does and does not belong to the kingdom. It exercises oversight. And exercising such affirmation and oversight meaningfully means gathering regularly and getting involved in one another’s lives.
Your idea of community, to my ears, honestly, sounds more American and Romantic (as in the -ism of the 19th century) than biblical. All authority remains with the individual to pick and choose, come and go, owing some of the obligations of love, perhaps, but always on one’s own terms, happy to stay as long as the experience “completes me” and my sense of self.
Last thought, friend: I do think you’re overplaying the “people have different learning styles” card. You’ve read Hebrews. Talk about tough trudging, right? But it’s a sermon! And you know the original hearers didn’t have as much education as most Americans. But for some reason the Holy Spirit thought it was adequate for everyone.
Best to you.