Acton Institute Powerblog

Donald Miller’s Lopsided Theology of Work

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When it comes to theology of work, the church has enjoyed a healthy season of self-critique and introspection. Sermons, books, and seminars abound. Dead theologians and forgotten works are routinely remembered and resurrected, challenging a host of our modern assumptions about wealth, exchange, and the nature of work itself.

We have, as one commonly hears it, begun the process of tearing down the “divides” between Sunday-morning spirituality and grindstone temporality.

In line with such a development, bestselling author Donald Miller recently shared his own work experiences, which include plenty of transcendent purpose and edification. For Miller, however, such a worshipful encounter is offered as support for why he needn’t attend “traditional worship service”:

I learn by doing the very thing I don’t learn by hearing! My guess is because teaching is a kinesthetic discipline rather than an auditory discipline. But that’s a side note. Here’s the real question: How do I find intimacy with God if not through a traditional church model?

The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. 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…

… So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest.

I’m glad that Miller has found room for worship in his daily work. Alas, many struggle to come even this far. Yet in tearing down the artificial divides between the sacredness of church and the sacredness of work, Miller has proceeded to flatten the order of creation altogether.

He is not, I fear, alone, particularly among low-church evangelicals such as myself. For as encouraged as I am by this push to find eternal significance across all of our endeavors, Miller demonstrates the risk of going too far, of over-spiritualizing and, in turn, emoting our way to “balance” and “integration.” Without a healthy theology of the church — one grounded not just in “teaching” or “individual learning styles,” but in praying, communing, partaking, sacrificing, and serving — our theology of work is bound to tilt toward a pseudo-spiritual humanism. Without submission to the Word — which includes, as Denny Burk thoroughly outlines, going to church — we’ll drive our bulldozers into divides and constraints that are essential for Christian discipleship.

As Derek Rishmawy concludes, in what is perhaps the most comprehensive critique on the matter, Christianity requires the context the church provides:

The idea that a Christian can experience healthy, Christian worship and community outside of the context of church is an American myth that Miller seems to have played right into. A healthy, functioning Church is about putting Christ on display for the world to see, not our individualism.

Such a context is no less important when it comes to the realm work itself. Let us remember, it is from the church that we are called and sent forth. It is through the routine and communal instruction, teaching, wisdom, prayer, and fellowship among ministers, elders, and fellow believers that we are effective, earnest, and empowered in serving our communities. As Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write, “Christian stewardship will be most successfully practiced whenever and wherever the church most obediently is the church.”

We should expect to see God glorified across creation — whether in business, the arts, family, education, or a prayerful hike in the woods — and we are called to participate and respond accordingly. But let us not misplace and confuse the local church as merely an optional component — one additional topping on the chocolate sundae of Christian living.

The church is, and shall remain, the fountainhead of Christian worship, and that includes stewardship.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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