Back some years ago, one of my favorite singer-songwriters was (and still is) a guy named Mark Heard. Long before “Contemporary Christian Music” became an industry, Mark Heard was with his guitar singing folk songs about life and Jesus. But Mark was out there on the edge. In those days, his style of music was not as acceptable in the mainstream of evangelical Christianity as it is today. Yet neither was he welcome that much in the secular world of music.
From his 1981 album, Stop the Dominoes, you can get a flavor of his existential angst in the song “Stuck in the Middle“:
Well my brothers criticize me
Say I’m just too strange to believe
And the others just avoid me
They say my faith is so naive
I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave
Here is one of my favorite Mark Heard songs, “Dry Bones Dance“, harkening back to the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. Someone has put together a collection of all of Mark Heard’s lyrics, including Dry Bones Dance if you want to read along as he sings.
From time to time, I love to spin up one of Mark Heard’s albums, but over the years I have come to see also a darker side to Mark Heard’s spirituality. And I think a brief look at his story can show us how often stories like his can get repeated today and relatively few seem to notice.
Mark Heard’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Church
Mark Heard was one of those avant garde kids who made their way out to Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri in the 1970s. The father of Contemporary Christian Music, Larry Norman, stumbled on him playing guitar once and knew that this guy was talented. Norman produced Heard’s first album, and soon thereafter Mark Heard became an underground success among young evangelical Christians like myself. Mark Heard went onto become a major influence on a new generation of songwriters in the Christian music “scene” in the 1990s up until our current era. Tragically, Heard’s life was cut short when he suffered a devastating heart attack at a Christian music festival. Thousands of dollars and a few weeks later, Heard left the hospital, but he died within a few months in 1992.
It was not until a few years after his death that I learned how desperate his situation was at the end of his life. His friends in the music industry put together a fund raiser to relieve Mark Heard’s family from the burdensome medical bills. People really came together to help the family out. But what was missing in Mark Heard’s life?
Sure, Mark Heard had Christian friends. But sadly, I learned from this article here that he was not involved with any expression of a “local” church. In other words, there was no place where he gathered with others nearby to his home on a weekly basis for worship. His Christian community was essentially his fan base and other working musicians. This is clearly better than no Christian support, but frankly, a “fan club” is not a substitute for authentic Christian community. Sociologist Robert Bellah in his classic 1985 edited work, Habits of the Heart, called these type of social arrangements lifestyle enclaves. Sociologically, in my view, what Mark Heard did was to gravitate more towards people who had similar private interests, consumption habits, and leisure patterns instead of being a part of a community of diverse people, albeit sharing a common history.
You see, Mark Heard was a discontent. He loved Jesus but he had a lot of trouble with the organized church. For Mark Heard, it was his out-of-the-box approach to music that did not fit any “church” paradigm that he knew. His story of discontent is a familiar one. Many people can tell their own story pretty much the same way.
And that is the rub of the problem. A lot of people skip out on the local church because of the pressure to conform, hoping to avoid the “cookie-cutter” Christianity mold that they reject in the “traditional” church. Sadly, they do not realize that they are just remaking another cookie-cutter mold that merely reflects their own wants and desires.
The Church is Not a Fan Club… Nor a Lifestyle Enclave
Mark Heard was incredibly creative. He had a brilliant mind and a cracking sense of humor. But he really missed it in his theology of the church. Heard had drawn people like me into his circle of adoring fans, but the church biblically speaking does not really function like that. As Saint Paul has said, the church is like a body, having many different parts. The irony of Mark Heard is that he was fresh and innovative, so it is really peculiar to think that towards the end of his life, his experience of community had been reduced to what appears to me to be a bunch of like-minded friends, fans and colleagues in a type of lifestyle enclave.
I contributed to the problem by fanning Mark Heard’s fan base, dragging friends hundreds of miles to go to Mark Heard’s concerts. Hey, it was a lot of fun, but part of the mystery of the church is that there can be times where we would have no good reason to be together other than simply worshipping God. But according to Scripture, that is precisely the point. The church is not about us. It is about Jesus. This is not about shaming people to “go to church,” it about the reality that God is transforming. The different body “parts” in the church help to enhance the full picture. Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to gravitate towards people who are just like us. I had to learn that I could have genuine Christian fellowship with people who were very different from me , even if, gasp(!!), they were not Mark Heard fans!!
True, if we are thinking of looking for a new local church home, we need to be mindful of a number of factors, such as how good a fit the community is for our family, where we are spiritually at the time, etc. Most importantly, the church needs to be a place that is doctrinally sound and that will challenge us towards Biblical obedience. But at times, our reasons for leaving a church can be less than exemplary.
For example, what typically happens is that we may have an experience with other Christians that drives us simply bananas (I just had one such experience here on Veracity recently!), and then we use that as an excuse to cut ourselves off from that undesirable part of the body. Our estrangement can start off with just one person, only to eventually include our alienation from an entire local church body. Strangely, we then convince ourselves that we are superior to the other and justify our independent existence. In the most extreme cases, we can leave “church” universally altogether, all at the same time telling ourselves that we are being very “Christian” about what we are doing.
The problem is that this is not how we authentically grow in our relationship with Christ. Instead, when we make the investment in getting to know that bothersome “appendix” when we think we are that indispensable “hand”, we realize that true maturity in Christ happens when we stand shoulder to shoulder, bearing one another’s burdens even when we are not all alike. It is very difficult to look down upon your fellow brother or sister in Christ when the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
So it really saddens me when I see trends that remind me of following the “I-am-done-with-organized/traditional-church” tendency I finally saw in Mark Heard.
Donald Miller: Following the Heard?
For example, Donald Miller garnered a lot of attention in Christian publishing about ten years ago with his New York Times best-seller Blue Like Jazz. I never read the book, but I am sure I probably would have liked it (there is even a movie). I resonate with his emphasis on the importance of “story” that he embraces and his critique of evangelical church life from what little I know. However, I never felt compelled to read the book as the enthusiasm over it in my church bothered me. As I listened in on the conversations, there was this sense that Donald Miller had somehow stumbled on ideas that were revealing, different, and liberating. That sounds really great in principle, but it left me wondering exactly where Jesus, the Bible and notably, the church, fit in for the long run. I do not mean to be picking on Donald Miller alone. I could probably rattle off at least a half dozen authors and artists just like him over the past decade or so. I just had this “been there, done that, got the T-shirt” thing going on. The Mark Heard “discontent” ethos just went trendy.
I want to try to be fair, so I decided to check out the following, latest Donald Miller Storyline YouTube video promoting small group community. I have to say that I was okay with some of it, but I was still bothered. What I saw was a homogenous bunch of young, white probably-Portland-based, college-educated post-modern Americans all fashionably drinking wine out of Mason jars, all seemingly fascinated with themselves. There was plenty of talk about connecting, ambition, life purpose, and relationships, but there was not much about Jesus. Sure, this is a form of community, but if that is the ONLY form of Christian community one has, is it really like the church of the New Testament?
Perhaps some might think I am being way too critical, but let me tell you that I was not surprised recently when I learned that Donald Miller wrote on his blog in early 2014 that he does not go to a local church regularly anymore. According to Donald Miller in a followup blog post partially entitled “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often…”:
Theologically, I find myself in the evangelical camp in many ways, but as for the “one way to do life and church” I’ve gone a different path. And I’m hardly alone. While I love the traditional church, I love it like a foundational part of my past, as though it were a University I’ve graduated from to join a much larger church those still in the University program are quite suspicious of.
Seriously, dude? You have “graduated” from traditional church?
True, various local churches can express themselves very differently, emphasize different learning styles according to Miller, and that is all a great thing. One size does not fit all. Furthermore, a lot of communities in the contemporary evangelical megachurch culture can function as lifestyle enclaves themselves, with people every Sunday driving past dozens of local churches near their home simply to be near people like themselves. That is a good point.
But Miller makes the rather confusing argument that you can have real Christian community without doing what he considers the “traditional” church, whatever that is. It really begs the question as to what Miller really means by church in the first place. But it comes across to me that he thinks that he has somehow risen above it all. Huh? Miller warns that his blog might be misquoted, so please go ahead and read his thoughts in full. Now, I happen to agree with many of his criticisms of the church. But that is not the point.
Biblically speaking, the church is Christ’s body. We may not always like it. We may not always feel like we connect with the church. And for sure, there are times where we may need to take a break from our local church a bit to get some perspective for a variety of reasons. I get that. I have done that myself. But if we really expect to grow spirituality in an authentically Christian way, we must remember that God gives us His church for a purpose. No matter how we might justify our independence, our attempts to tear ourselves away from Christ’s diverse body and only put people just like us in our closest circle of friends ultimately will lead to our disconnection with Christ.
It may not happen right away. Please do not misunderstand me. I still love to listen to Mark Heard’s music, and perhaps Donald Miller was just having a hard week when he was writing on his blog. After I finish this blog post, I will probably grab a Mason jar, pour me some lemonade, and give a toast to honor Donald. Sadly though, there are just too many folks in the history of the church who have lost their way spirituality and theologically when they become unbalanced in their criticism of the “church.”
A Crisis of Ecclesiology
The study of how we think about church is called ecclesiology by theologians. The root Greek word for church is ekkelsia, which simply means “assembly”, or within the context of the Bible, those who are called out of the world to God. When we find ourselves frustrated by the local church, we need to go back and drink from the well of Holy Scripture to recover God’s purpose to build his people as an expression of a renewed and authentic humanity. The church has a particular mission that requires a robust ecclesiology at its foundation.
Be careful, though! Some might be tempted to respond and think that these “emerging church” types like Donald Miller have simply “gone liberal.” With theology like Miller’s, who can blame “traditionalists” when they think the whole emerging church thing, whatever that is, is heretical? Donald Miller may think that his detractors are on some kind of witch hunt, but even his more generous critics have clearly exposed a serious problem dating back to the original release of Blue Like Jazz.
But do not be deceived. How many times have people gone into a local church and complained that the pastor preaching does not sound like their favorite conservative Bible teacher on the radio? A lot of “traditionalist” folks can look to their favorite Christian celebrity in the media and get frustrated that their local church does not look like so-in-so’s church. Lest you throw stones at Donald Miller since you never really liked him in the first place, examine yourself to find out if you are elevating some famous preacher above the person in the pulpit where you worship and secretly despise your local place of worship.
We can fuss. We can debate. We can call others to give an account for things we do not believe are right. We can vigorously disagree. We can be terribly embarrassed by some of the absurd things we find in some expressions of Christianity. Yet we still need the local church.
Yes, we do need voices like Mark Heard and Donald Miller to prophetically remind the church of its calling to mission and authenticity. But the moment we start to treat the local church community as some type of “option” for the Christian life, then we have gone off the rails. We end up following the herd, just like so many have done, and we miss the unique calling of being God’s people that crosses racial, ethnic and other social barriers.
It all comes down to this: how we think about the church matters. Ultimately, the church is God’s idea, not ours.
Donald Miller’s Storyline website. If you do not know much about Miller, here is a brief glimpse of him at his best before his ecclesiological collapse:
An essay at Christianity Today responds to Donald Miller’s “graduation” away from the local church. For an even more generous, yet still critical analysis, here is Carl Medearis on the whole thing. I am no expert on the so-called emerging church movement, but whatever it is, it looks like it has run its course: just ask folks like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. But have no fear: it is only matter of time before something else like the emergent thing pops up again, raises a few good issues capturing people’s imaginations for awhile, and then eventually lose its ecclesiological center and fizzles out.
The following video is from Mark Heard’s final performance, on the night he had his heart attack. The audio quality is not that great, but you can hear a studio version at the top of this blog post.