What Happened to Donald Miller?

Image result for storybrand

Before I start this, I want to be clear: I respect Donald Miller, for the value of his past work alone if nothing else. My ruminations here on what has happened to him are likely going to involve a little bit of poking fun at him, and marketing gurus in general, and the whole cosmos of productivity experts and business advice and 6 steps to make your branding more effective and…crap I’m already bored.

Years ago, Donald Miller was a quirky and engaging writer who wrote a couple of books about theology that were unlike other books. One of them was even made into a movie. He made a big impact in the world of semi-progressive or progressive-leaning Evangelicalism, it seemed, and in the emerging emergent church, and in my own thinking as well. I encountered his books in seminary in the late aughts (or as some like to say, the naughties), and they presented me with some thoughts and ideas that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve actually only read three of his books: Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. In brief, the first two are about theology and the last one is about stories, including one’s life story, and the third was definitely a turn toward inspirational writing rather than thought-provoking writing, at least in my view.

But he was an interesting voice saying interesting things in the area of theology – an area where a surprisingly small number of interesting things are said. Almost all theology is just rewording past theology. Miller did some of that, but his oblique approach and awkward courage made him stand out.

Fast-forward a few years after I read A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, and there is StoryBrand, which is what Donald Miller does now. StoryBrand is a marketing and branding company that, if I’m honest, is the same as every other marketing and branding company. Telling you how to tweak your homepage to get more clicks, and how to write a welcome email that increases your sales, or how to get your employees to work together a little bit better. And if there is something that is more boring, derivative, and banal than most theology, it has to be business advice. It’s even worse than self-help because it isn’t about people, as much as marketing gurus say it is – it is about making incrementally more money than your competitors.

[Sad celebration image here]

Yaaay. Incrementally more money than my competitors.

So what happened, from my point of view, is that an interesting person with interesting things to say about questions that matter seems to have morphed into a banal person who says derivative things about questions that do not matter in the slightest on any grand scale. StoryBrand isn’t about serving the common good or making the world better. It is just about taking whatever widget you sell and helping you rearrange your words and images to sell slightly more widgets.

I would still recommend reading Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What and even A Million Miles In A Thousand Years – in that order of priority, actually. But I honestly don’t know what happened to Donald Miller. Did he sell out? Was he pierced by cold iron? Is he a pod person?

It’s just sad, when someone doing genuine good in the world just seems to give up and instead does some crap that earns more money. Am I jealous? No. Look at this blog, I’m clearly not motivated by money or even having an audience.

I’d like to have met the past Donald Miller, but from what I can tell, that guy’s long gone. But if you want to tweak your branding so that you sell slightly more widgets than the next widgeteer, I suppose I know a guy…

25 thoughts on “What Happened to Donald Miller?

  1. Wow, I couldn’t disagree more. As a lay pastor, I have supported my ability to do ministry for free by working freelance in web design. My first introduction to Donald was not as a Christian, but actually through StoryBrand. Ironically, I found the ideas he has come up with in StoryBrand to be groundbreaking, and one of the first applications I thought of was in the church, in sermon prep, in gospel presentation, etc. Then I found out he was a Christian and now it all makes sense…I couldn’t disagree more with the statement that his new company “is the same as every other marketing and branding company.” I also disagree that he is no longer doing work that matters. When I hear him, I get the impression that he has expanded his platform into the business sector, yet still maintains the values of Christian faith in all things, and without any evidence, I don’t think you should be so quick to judge whether or not he is using that new influence for the kingdom. As ground breaking as you found his original books on theology, I had the same feelings as an entrepreneur about his Story Brand material, and countless big names in the industry have said the same thing…I know this because they were how I heard of StoryBrand to begin with, and when I heard him on Amy Porterfield’s podcast, it blew my mind and started me down the StoryBrand path. Again, while I hope to someday use it for business, I already see it’s importance for the larger field of communication, particularly in ministry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Matthew – I’m happy to hear of your experience and disagreement. All I can say is that, in watching his StoryBrand videos (as many as are available before you have to go past a pay-wall) I didn’t personally see or hear anything that I hadn’t heard other times from other marketing professionals in their materials, through TED talks, and so on. It might be that I didn’t engage with what he as doing deeply – I might have seen more if I had paid for more access.

      That being said, I’m glad that you’re finding what he offers to be helpful. On a certain level, I can’t blame him – he has moved from being successful in a small niche that isn’t very profitable to being successful in a much larger arena. The audience for marketing strategy is far larger than that for post-evangelical, post-modern theological musings. I just personally found what he did before StoryBrand to be far more meaningful and interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s great that StoryBrand is impacting you but I absolutely have to agree with the blog article – Donald Miller now is an entirely different human than the one who wrote Blue Like Jazz. The Donald Miller of that era is no longer expressed in the human who started StoryBrand, and while StoryBrand seems to be doing a significant amount of good in the world, it is clearly not coming close to the impact of Don’s writing, and that is a truly epic loss for humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I certainly hope StoryBrand is doing good in the world. It is definitely helping people to sell widgets. Here’s hoping some of those are widgets the world needs. I have to assume that some of the old Donald Miller comes through, but…well, people change.


  2. Cool, well thanks for the kind response. I would add that I’m not justifying getting out of ministry to pursue personal gain…but I don’t see that here. Being an evangelistically minded person myself, If I found a way to have a certain level of influence in secular work I’d jump all over it…consider the alternative…if he was able to be monetarily successful in theology, would it be more virtuous if he stayed there? What I mean is, when Christian leaders become “successful”, I would rather it be with a secular product than a Christian one…pastors with successful books in the Christian world might be tempted to water things down to gain a larger audience and they end up taking their original audience with them. However, if an important Christian voice is successful in secular vocational work, I think it expands Christianity’s influence and even attractiveness to the world.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah, I have to say I’m very saddened by seeing those story brand videos. Blue Like Jazz may have changed my life when I read it in 2003. I’ve read almost all of his books. I’ve listened to several of his talks, some of which are about the evil-ness of marketing messages. Hearing him speak in the StoryBrand videos just seemed so antithetical to what I’ve heard him speak on before. His book “Million Miles” did seem to go down this road a bit (but his main point is “don’t be living just to get rich”). And now with the StoryBrand videos he says: “People buy products after they read words that make them want to buy products…. we are here to save you money and to make you a lot of money.” This just sounds so different from what he was talking about 10 years ago. And it sounds so different from scripture. Can I trust what I read from him back then?

    He’s definitely a genius. And an excellent writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what he wrote previously is trustworthy in the same way that any writing is trustworthy – put it to the test. If it still holds up, then good. If not, then acknowledge the loss and move on. It’s possible for someone to have insights and then lose them, or lose track of what is most important, over the course of their life – just as it is possible for someone to realize what is of utmost importance later in life. I still value his earlier books, up to Million Miles…after that, in my humble opinion, he seems to have lost his way.


  4. I know nothing of what Donald wrote previously but stumbled upon him as a keynote at a conference I decided to attend at the last minute earlier this year. As a 15 year marketing professional of multiple disciplines his 45 minute speech alone provided a framework for everything I already knew but hadn’t really organized into a palatable offering–let alone the book and endless supply of complimentary online tools. I immediately put his principles to work and began closing deals with prospective clients on my initial discovery calls–which cut my sales cycle by nearly 70%. StoryBrand not only made it easier for me to talk about my business and service offerings–but made it simple for my prospective clients to see how they were misrepresenting themselves and their own businesses, how it was costing them and how I could help them fix it. It cut my design/launch timeline by about 30% by implementing structured sales funnels that continue to get results for myself and my clients. That said, I too may have a different opinion of Donald if I would have started further up stream with his earlier books. But I didn’t. And purley from a business and marketing standpoint his framework immediately changed my direction as a marketer and my business’s future outlook and has directly contributed to a nearly 3x revenue bump for my side consulting business over prior year. Eureka moments come to people at different times in their lives and from different experiences. I can truly say mine came from Donald last March and I am so thankful I ended up serendipitously attending that conference. Thanks for the platform to share my opinion. I would be more than happy to continue the discussion. Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m glad he was helpful for you – I don’t know enough about marketing to be able to tell good advice from less good. At my level of engagement, it all comes off the same. It’s also value-neutral, very different from what Donald was about in the past. That is, great marketing techniques can sell something bad or something good seemingly equally well. I guess it isn’t surprising that he’s good at what he’s turned toward doing, it’s just that with my own priorities it’s a disappointment.


  6. Thinking this is all a little unfair to Donald Miller. If you look at the StoryBrand message, it is clear that the whole purpose is to position yourself as someone who can *serve* others. In other words, helping others (a Christian ideal) makes you someone that others want to work with. Doesn’t sound so sinister to me. Also, if you read his story and why he pivoted, the added financial security has allowed him to *give away* more money than he ever dreamed possible to help others.


    • I don’t think I said sinister, or anything like that. Just, for me, profoundly disappointing. There aren’t things he’s saying, anymore, that aren’t things I see innumerable marketing consultants saying.


  7. My friend is founder of Madlug, a company that sells designer back packs. He differs from mainstream rivals in that he provides a free bag for every bag sold to children moving between care homes and the like. He followed the Storybrand principles very closely and his business is super successful. Richard Branson even approves. Having said that I loved and gained a lot from Donald’s earlier writings on spirituality. I miss that side of him but maybe he felt there was nothing else left to give in that realm?


  8. Reblogged this on reylo: and commented:
    I was pondering this very thing today and wondering about writing something when I came across this “unfinished” post on another blog. Hard to improve on something that so clearly reflects my own thoughts. Whoever you are, Douglas Underhill, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I work with a life and business coach who uses Donald Miller’s frameworks, including the courses he provides through Business Made Simple University. Completing his Hero on a Mission course has helped me clearly lay out the goals for my life and come up with a plan for achieving them. His StoryBrand course and the other business courses he offers have helped me reshape my businesses and product offerings. Regardless of what people make or sell using his teachings, this guy is impacting lives significantly for the better. He’s helping people to be more intentional in how they live and giving them the resources they need to make the most out of their lives and work. And he does all of this while staying true to his Christian values… His business teachings give him the opportunity to reach a much wider audience and thus to expose that audience to Christ. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for him.


  10. It is alarming to me reading these comments in support of this man. It is clear that none of you actually know the real Don Miller. Don Miller is a hypocritical sociopath who attempts to manipulate and cloud the minds of those he chooses. Please don’t read a few of his books and think you know the man. A truly iniquitous man who has used his fame gained from BLJ as a public facade, masking a much less Christian private life. This is not a man to admire, follow or praise.


  11. Hi Doug, I recently saw a facebook post about Donald’s new book, and googled “What happened to Donald Miller?” a few minutes later. Your blog post here was one of the first few results that came up, and I have to say it’s reassuring to see other people—including yourself—feeling disenfranchised by the seeming 180 he’s done from “Evangelical Philosophy Provocateur” to “Narrative Marketing Purveyor.”

    I personally have had many an unanswered question and unvoiced question in the years surrounding when I first read *Blue Like Jazz,* *What is God?* by Jacob Needleman, and *Everything Must Change* by Brian McClaren. Many times over these years I’ve even had the rush of chutzpah enough to consider writing my own book on things like the 1) How if we are made in the image of God, everything we create must, by proxy, be an expression of God’s character (and how to reconcile that with contemporary Christian moral philosophy) 2) The obsolescence of Judaic tribalism and how it’s killing Christianity’s chances of maintaining relevancy in the next 100 years as anything more than a glorified folk tradition. 3) The desperately counter-productive effects of Christian musicians and artists mimicking popular “secular” trends in a bid for relevancy, I could go on…yet every time I think to sit down and start writing, all I can think of is how little good it would really do, and I imagine this may be somewhat similar to the thought processes Donald went through whenever this change started to come about.

    After trying to speak out a few times in my (slightly) younger naiveté, finding no real tangible drive even in many of my more open minded Christian friends, I came around to accept the fact that most of the people who give a damn about Christianity have a vested interest in maintaining some semblance of the status quo, and those who don’t tend to not have much less to care about nuances of doctrinal and progressive perspectives. For me personally, my parents, many of my oldest friends, and my current pastor and church family would likely all also have a simultaneous heart attack if they knew the details of what my belief truly entails. As the icing on the cake, I know several Evangelicals who would be so eager to condone Donald Miller “living out his faith in the workplace” and deride him if they read any of his writing which inspired me so much 15-odd years ago.

    If you’ve read this far, thank you for indulging my thought process. I can just imagine him going through similar trains of thought as I have for the last decade “is this really what I want to be known for or base my livelihood on? Even if it is, will writing about everything that could be so much better about Christianity really help anyone in the end? If I have to choose one field to be successful in, can I justify going with a field that will leave me known as the black sheep of that religion most people want to hear as little as possible about, and might even make it difficult to be taken seriously as an author if I choose to write about anything else?”

    As much as these points are as valid as they are selfish and fatalistic, it saddens me to see that Donald took the same route that I’ve been taking. I saw him, like you did, as brave, bright, and one of the few voices in theology in our time who really had something different to say.

    Maybe that sheds a little light on “what happened” to Donald Miller?

    Lastly—even though I feel my points may have already answered this question—I’m curious about your opinion on all this. Should I write the book? Would it matter? Is it worth the presumed risks? I know it’s an ironic question as the conclusion to this already-novel-sized blog comment! haha

    I feel in my heart that what I have to say would mean something to someone somewhere, but I guess I’m still holding onto these same fears that our “mutual friend” here may have been facing when he chose to go corporate. I have no need for my ego to be stroked, just curious of a fellow writer’s opinion who seems to care about some of the same things I do.

    It’s after 1am here in Japan, so I’m heading off to bed. I apologize if any of this was hard to follow or could have been condensed if I had the time and mental capacity to do so.

    Cheers, and blessings from the Land of the Rising Sun,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Erik – sorry, I read this earlier than I have found time to reply.

      I think you might be right – I can only guess what he’s been thinking during his (to me, lamentable) transition from interesting theologian and writer to far-less-interesting marketing consultant. At least, compared to other books of theology, he often stood out. I’m not sure what would make a marketing consultant at this point stand out…it all seems so much the same to me.

      I also think you should write the book, if and only if you feel a need to write a book. Having written a few books, expect the process to be about 5-10x harder than you think it will be, and the only thing that will carry you through, or the only thing that carried me through at least, was an inner desire, even need, to write.

      Blogging is much easier, to scratch that itch. You can always accumulate a bunch of shorter posts and articles into a book later if you are still moved to do so.

      Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful comment. Cheers and blessings 🙂


  12. This post is disappointing. It feels basically like a fundamentalist whining that their favorite writer has gone liberal because they no longer teach out of the King James Bible.

    Miller no longer writes about theology, so his current endeavors must be worldly? His message to business owners is “I can save you money and help you make more,” so he is more evil? Should businesses not employ wisdom? Do his biblically sound principles count for nothing?

    Why am I even wasting my time on such armchair critics? Don is growing with God. Good for him. He is not disappointing. This useless fundamentalist fretting is disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. We can’t all be Thomas Merton, now can we?

    I’ve recently discovered the Donald, and very much like what he has to say. Yes, his message is frankly uninspired, if your view of business is uninspired. If you are passionate about what you do, then it might strike you differently. Not all of us entrepreneurs see ourselves as dull widget purveyors. Others are, of course, at liberty to criticize our trajectory in life however they choose; it’s a free country. Would any of the critics in these comments be willing to put their own lives on display as a role model for others?

    I’m not a religious person, but I am a California ex-Democrat, and there’s no end to similar criticism of any leftist who decides to lean conservative, even if they still end up left of center. Nor anyone of either major party who has the temerity to call out the corruption in their own party. Live and let live, my friends…


  14. Interesting that you see this in the context of someone ‘leftist’ who decides to ‘lean conservative.’ Have you read any of this writing before he started StoryBrand? This seems like a comment that is about you far more than it is about the post.


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