Burt Miller knew he wanted to come back to Delaware. After years of studying the nature of God, faith and Christianity, the Cape grad came home to found a church in Dewey Beach.
He said he knows many will raise an eyebrow at the prospect of a church in Dewey, a town thrumming with revelers during the summer months. For Miller, Christianity isn’t about building a church on a hill, aloof and untouchable. It’s about fellowship.
“We need to have a ministry position where we meet people where they are,” he said. “There isn’t a Christian mold, you know.”
Miller is minister of Solid Ground Community Church, a fledgling group of Christians with varying perspectives. With thick, dark eyebrows and eyes that bulge slightly when he laughs, Miller seems constantly on the verge of cracking a joke or quipping a line from The Simpsons.
His church is young – at 28, Miller is among its oldest members – and casual. Its Sunday-night meetings, held in his living room, are based on discussion and dialogue.
Miller said his sermons are brief, more jumping-off points than lectures.
Miller’s love for theological banter stems from two polar experiences: his undergraduate education at Eastern University and a short-lived graduate stint in Missouri.
At Eastern, a small Christian college tucked into the outskirts of Philadelphia, Miller said professors encouraged students to challenge doctrine. Debate was a given.
“The professors never shoved it down your throat,” Miller said. “They encouraged you to critically engage them. I valued that, man.”
The seminary he attended in Missouri, however, seemed to stifle the intellectual development he’d enjoyed at Eastern. Chapel services were mandatory. He chafed under the constraints. If the intellectual landscape was bleak, so was the cultural: Miller said he was surrounded by a homogeny of mega-churches. His wife, Katie, attended a nearby university; she too found the bland sameness suffocating. They moved to Boston, where Miller finished his master of divinity degree at Gordon Cornwell Theological Seminary.
Miller knew he wanted to start a church in Dewey – he’d carried the ambition through Eastern and seminary, and now he wanted to turn theory into practice. In building his ministry, he drew heavily on both his positive and negative experiences.
“We call ourselves the church for people who don’t like church,” said Miller with a wry grin. “We do things differently. We wanted to create a church that people would want to go to.”
Miller said many mainstream churches have lost sight of the fellowship noted in Acts, the book of the Bible relating Christianity’s earliest days under the Roman Empire. Christians should approach their communities with gentleness and respect, he said, not with a confrontational and belligerent attitude.
“No matter who you are, you are valuable,” Miller said. “People are made in the image of God, so if you honor God, you must honor them.”
Not all Solid Ground parishioners classify themselves as Christians, Miller said. He welcomes disparate viewpoints – it’s healthy for fruitful conversation. “I’m not going to change what I’m saying, but whether you accept my doctrine or not, you have a place in my church,” he said.
Miller said he’s afraid many will hastily associate the concept of a church in Dewey with some sort of puritanical mission.
“I don’t want the partiers out of Dewey,” Miller said, laughing. “I’d rather be there with them.”
On Sundays, Miller said, Christians in Dewey must travel to Rehoboth or Lewes to worship. He’d like to give them something a few blocks closer.
“I believe it’s where God told me to go,” he said..
Though a sense of mission pulls him home, Miller’s ties to the Cape region run strong and deep. He grew up here, he said – he loves the beach, and he loves the people.
Some may remember Miller as a zealous Cape marching band drum major; in the fall of 1999, his hyperkinetic direction of the Vikings halftime show had the home stands in stitches. Audiences hooted and clapped as Miller furiously swung his arms, nearly hopping off the stand during a popular swing number.
For now, Solid Ground is a fellowship in the purest sense of the word. Serious discussions of faith share time and space with unabashed, giddy fun. Parishioners drop in for games of “Risk” or episodes of “24,” or they join Miller at the Rehoboth Ale House where he takes the stage during Wednesday open-mic nights. Recently, Miller hosted an eat-off where several members tackled the “manwich” – hamburger patties, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, potato wedges and macaroni and cheese, all pressed between two hefty slabs of French bread. Hot sauce optional.
Miller has his doubts. It isn’t always easy, he said – while the church struggles to find its legs financially, he and Katie make ends meet through several part-time jobs. Ministering to the spiritual needs of 16 people isn’t easy either, he said, and it sometimes exhausts him.
“Honestly, some weeks I’m more enthusiastic about it than others,” he said. “But when I see the good that’s being done – that fuels me for a long time.”