Learning about Church from the Pope, Donald Miller and an obscure man called Hobab

An unlikely, somewhat random collection of people.

Everyone knows who the Pope is; Miller is less well-known (he’s a 40-something Christian writer in America: Blue Like Jazz, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years); Hobab sounds like the answer to the millionaire question in some kind of quiz game on lesser-known Bible facts (he was related to Moses).

So what, exactly, might these three have in common?

Consider this:

The Pope:

Just a few days ago it was reported that the Pope had stirred up ‘controversy amongst evangelicals’ over remarks he had made about the importance of the Church. In his sights were those who talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus ‘outside the communion and mediation of the church.’ He was keen to stress his conviction that no one becomes a Christian on their own.

Donald Miller:

Earlier this year Miller also caused some controversy (among evangelicals too – even though he situates himself theologically within the evangelical camp ‘in many ways’). It also had to do with the church. Miller wrote that, basically, he does not connect with God by means of the things that happen in the customary expressions of church – what he calls the lecture/worship/performance. He finds that he connects with God in more significant ways through his work.

We’ll save Hobab for the end of this piece, but let’s reflect. Traditional evangelicals will have trouble both with the Pope and with Donald Miller.

One of the traditional hallmarks of evangelicalism has been its emphasis on a personal, direct relationship with Jesus that does not depend on the church. A spiritual awakening could happen anywhere at any time. No one gets saved by joining a church. After all, there is only one Mediator between God and people – and that is Jesus. And those evangelical protestants who emphasise the priesthood of all believers are surely right.

So, if the Pope wants to dampen the enthusiasm of those who preach and practice a direct relationship with Jesus, that is certainly a problem for evangelicals.

However – and here I may get into trouble – it’s worth noticing some of the rest of what the Pope said.  He said that ‘we are able to live this journey not only because of others, but together with others.’ He warned about the temptation of thinking that we can make it without the others, that we can get along without the church.’

Do I hear any evangelical ‘Amens’ to that?! Yes, of course the ‘mediation’ language is an issue, but how many evangelicals would point to the role played by someone else – a preacher, a friend, a personal evangelist – in helping them to come to faith? And does some of the Pope’s sentiment not chime with Hebrews 10:25 and its warning about neglecting the fellowship?

In fact, speaking of Hebrews 10:25, one wonders how many evangelical readers of Donald Miller’s blog might have been tempted to send him a copy (how many did?).

…not neglecting to meet together…

The thing is, Miller would probably not disagree with that verse. In fact, in a follow up post to his original, he writes about community. His community is ‘rich, deep, spiritually sound, gracious, sacrificial….’ His issue is not with community but with the model of church that depends on the lecture/worship/performance model – listening to a lecture (as he calls it) does not light his fire.

I don’t like lectures and I don’t emote to worship music. 

So, for Miller, it seems that if you worship more meaningfully by planting a garden than by singing a song, that’s fine. There are plenty of ways to worship God. Which is true, not least insofar as everything we do has the capacity to be done for the glory of God. But the Bible has more to say about the specific place of music and singing as an expression of corporate spirituality than it has commands about planting gardens.

So for many evangelicals the Pope wants to make too much of the church and its role in mediating salvation; in contrast, many will be concerned that Miller seems to want to make too little of the church – at least as commonly expressed in much of Western Christianity.


Where on earth does Hobab fit?

Hobab came onto my radar yesterday morning as I was doing some last minute prep for preaching on Moses (in one of those lecture/worship style services!).

His identity is shrouded a little in mystery as the Bible is not clear on whether he was the father in law or the brother in law of Moses. He appears in Numbers 10 where Moses tries to persuade him to join the Israelites on their journey to the Land of Promise. ‘Come with us,’ says Moses, ‘and we will do good to you.’ We learn that Moses was quite keen to have Hobab on board, given his knowledge of the desert – it would be useful to tap into his expert knowledge when it came time to find somewhere to camp.

And this,

If you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same we will do to you.

In other words, Moses was trusting in God’s promise to do good to Israel – the community of his covenant people. If Hobab was willing to join them, he too would benefit.

Based on the Hobab story I tweeted a question yesterday morning:

How many Christians could say this morning to their friends – as Moses said to his brother in law: come with us and we will do you good?


Hobab’s story has something to say to us as we reflect on the issues stirred by the Pope and Donald Miller: for the Church is a covenant community that is on a journey of promise. It’s a community built on the promises of God. It’s a community that should be about discovering and sharing the blessings of grace to fellow travellers.

Simple – isn’t it!

I know there is so much more.

  • Church governance – elders, bishops or congregationally led?
  • Worship and the regulatory principle
  • Is it communion or the Lord’s Supper?
  • And how often should we observe it?
  • Drums on Sunday morning
  • Dress codes
  • is it time to change the carpet?
  • What colour should the new one be?
  • Should the evening service be cancelled in July and August?
  • Is it OK to screen the World Cup on the big screen in the ‘sanctuary’?
  • Should it be called a ‘sacntuary’ anyway?
  • The coffee rota
  • Hymn books or projector?
  • Church prayer meeting or small groups?
  • Women elders?
  • The cleaning rota
  • Should the pews be replaced with chairs?
  • What colour should they be?
  • Committees
  • Sub committees
  • Why has the minister’s son pierced his ear?
  • Who’s going to organise the summer picnic?
  • Can we have coffee after the morning serivce?
  • Bible translations
  • Who should we baptise and how much water should we use?
  • Should the preacher talk for more than 25 minutes?


Come with us and we will do good to you

All of those other things are part of it too – and (I hope you realise) some of them are more important than others. But it’s easy for churches to lose sight of what they are meant to be about.

That’s enough of a ramble. What do you think?

  • Can evangelicals learn from the Pope in terms of their ecclesiology?
  • Does Donald Miller have a point?
  • How can your church be a covenant community experiencing and sharing the blessings of grace?

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