Donald Miller asks on his blog “Should the Church be led by Teachers and Scholars“?  He opens with these succinct observations:

The church in America is led by scholars. Essentially, the church is a robust school system created around a framework of lectures and discussions and study. We assume this is the way its supposed to be because this is all we have ever known. I think the scholars have done a good job, but they’ve also recreated the church in their own image. Churches are essentially schools. They look like schools with lecture halls, classrooms, cafeterias and each new church program is basically a teaching program.

But I think I could reword the paragraph this way and not be much further than Miller from the mark:

The church in America is led by Christian celebrities.  Essentially, the church is a robust entertainment industry created around a framework of conferences and concerts and events.  We assume this is the way it is supposed to be because this is all we have ever known.  I think the big personalities have done a good job, but they’ve also recreated the church in their own image.  Churches are essentially theaters.  They look like theaters with platforms, stages, drum pits and each church program is basically an entertainment program. 

I love Donald Miller’s work.  I am a huge fan of his writing.  And I like what he is trying to do in his writing.  But I think his claim that the church is led by scholars and his caricature of the church as a school are both overblown.

Oversimplifying that with which we disagree  is a standard method of critique.  The concise assertion, “the church is led by scholars” is a classic instance of oversimplification. The photograph accompanying the post is brilliantly chosen to convey his points, but so laden with caricature that it just ought not to be taken seriously.  Notice that the professor is 1) older, 2) male, and 3) Caucasian—”the man,” if ever there was one.  And notice the angle of the shot.  The image is presented from a position poignantly beneath the lectern.  Enshrouding the bespectacled head of “the man” is the green of a chalkboard, a classroom decoration which is not only outdated, but evocative of many unpleasant memories from our grammar school days.  Don’t miss the fact that there are numbers on the chalkboard.   The overall effect in associating this image with the church?  The Christian faith is under the hegemonic guidance of outdated, out-of-touch, finger-pointing lecturers. 

(By the way, I love Donald Miller’s work.  I am a huge fan of his writing.  And I like what he is trying to do in his writing).

Don is certainly on to something very important.  Sure, there are scholarly interests driving the agendas that make headlines in church-related media circles.  Sure, many of these scholars are out of touch with the masses.

But to claim in a sweeping, across-the-board sense (a move very easy to make in the medium of a blog post, by the way) that scholars lead the church is at best an oversimplification.  And maybe even just plain wrong.

Seriously—how many megachurches are led by bona fide scholars respected not only by their congregations/readers/blog-followers but also by their peers in the academy?

I just went to Amazon’s list of the top-selling books in the Religion & Spirituality category.  How many of these bestselling books are written by trained academics?  Not many at all.

Don is writing from a certain context, of course (we all do).  And in his context, he may be witnessing the damaging effects of high-brow intellectual elitism.  But in my own context, I would say that the church is not at all led by scholars.  Embedded within my own religious upbringing in the deep south, however, is a certain anti-intellectual distrust for all those high-brow scholarly folk.  In keeping with generations-old trends, many American church-folk seem to be more inclined to follow celebrity status over academic pedigree.  Famous pastors, writers, and musicians wield much greater influence than those who have exhausted their monetary resources and enormous amounts of physical and cognitive energy in laboring over primary texts and ancient languages (who might actually really know their stuff).

I actually wish the church were much more led by scholars than it is.  As a matter of fact, I think we might actually be much less divided over those sticky theological issues if we listened more to the church’s scholars than the church’s big name personalities.

Don grieves the ecclesial distance between him and his Lutheran neighbor, a distance he attributes to the fact that “a couple academics got into a fight hundreds of years ago.”  Yes, the Reformation was sticky.  Yes, doctrinal warmongering seems to be a favorite pastime for many (semi- and quasi-) academics.  But doctrinal mudslinging is often much less civil at the ecclesial level than at the academic level where there is a much greater sensitivity to how theological discourse should be conducted.  We are witnessing the waging of much theological warfare these days (though note: nothing is new under the sun).  When the scholars themselves debate with one another, though, I think the scene is much less bloody than when their populist followers take shots at each other in the comment sections beneath the blog posts.

Early in his writing career, I am sure Don discovered the disappointing reality in the publishing world that platform is oftentimes more marketable than content.  In other words, you can be a brilliant writer (which Don is, of course), but a brilliant writer with superb content but no public persona will have a hard time competing with a mediocre writer with shallow content but a widespread audience (at the end of the day, the publishing house has to pay rent, too).  A Christian leader who looks good on the big screens while preaching via-satellite and whose voice sounds great on the podcast doesn’t necessarily have to be competent in exegesis or conversant in historical theology.

I would even venture to say that Don Miller, as a popular writer with a vast audience, actually wields considerably more influence than most of the theologians and exegetes I read.

(Did I mention that I love his work, that I am a huge fan of his writing, that I like what he is trying to do in his writing?).

Is the church led by scholars?  Not exactly.  But kind of.  At times.  Certainly not always.  And certainly not in the sweeping sense Miller claims on his blog.

Both anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism flourish within the church.  It will continue to flourish if we keep over-reacting to each other, perpetuating the damaging cycle by which we look to certain members of Christ’s body and say, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21).

I do acknowledge heartily that Miller is onto to something very important, though.  He raises a number of concerns that I share and which must be addressed.  I have a chapter in Faith Without Illusions on “Anti-intellectualism” where these concerns are addressed more fully, but I will write a new post soon on what I think we should heed from Don’s claims.

4 thoughts on “Donald Miller: “The Church in America is led by scholars”… or is it big name personalities? (part 1)”

  1. Miller seems to disregard the well-trained (and wee bit important) disciple, Paul of Tarsus. Unless Paul was just making up that piece about being brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3) then Paul’s rabbinic training would certainly surpass Miller’s supposed “teachers and scholars” that drive the school system of the church. Seriously, what kind of churches is Miller visiting to come to this conclusion? What sermons is he listening to?

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