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…

12 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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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