Show Up or Else: The So-Called Scandal of the Semi-Churched


Apparently there is a new category for the less-than-faithful-church-goer: not the ‘unchurched’ or ‘de-churched’ or ‘sick of church’ or even the ‘nones’, no, these new targets of evangelical exuberance are the semi-churched. Which probably describes many of you. Probably even me. Who are the semi-churched? Those who go to church usually, but not always.

Well, the word is out. A pastor in Michigan is on to your scheming and conniving ways. You’d think a pastor concerned with the kingdom of God might have an issue to speak about like hunger, or armed conflict, or global warming, or local housing issues, or building up his own community. Because there are real problems and challenges facing churches, neighborhoods and all of us.

But instead, who is the target? That empty pew from last Sunday. The pew that should have been filled with the sophomore college student in his congregation who didn’t show up last Sunday, or the middle-aged couple who went up north for a few weekends this summer, or the single mom who works weekends, or the executive who sometimes just needs a quiet morning at home. These folks? They’re the real problem.

Using words like intermittent, nominal and derelict, Pastor Kevin DeYoung goes on in today’s post to note such wonderful things as:

  • going to church is more important than having french toast for breakfast.
  • try cutting your weekend visit to the grandkids short by a day so you can be in church on Sunday. (After all, you still have the whole day of Saturday to spend with them! Well, part of Saturday, if you include traveling time. OK, just don’t expect to see them as much.)
  • enjoy going to your cottage for the weekend? Well don’t. Or at least, don’t enjoy it too much, and feel guilty if you also went during Labor Day.
  • feel like going to church is a chore? Well, consider Jesus: he went to the cross. [YES, HE GOES THERE]. He compared the challenge of showing up to a Sunday service with ‘the way of the cross.’ Enough said.

Perhaps you think I’m being too hard on this pastor. And maybe I am. But remember: he’s being even harder on you. Not fazed by the above? Well, he saves the best for last:

If you don’t show up to church every single Sunday, there’s a decent chance that you’re actually going to hell.

“Who knows how many people God saves ‘as through fire’?”

Who knows indeed? Apparently someone has at least some idea. Better to be safe than sorry. Thinking about skipping church for that brunch with friends? Think again. You might consider skipping the roasted sweet potatoes rather than find yourself roasted for eternity.

Let me close this commentary by noting that I’m grateful for the community I find in many church settings. I’m grateful for my own community here in DC. And yes, it is nice—and important—to see each other regularly. Any group seeking to develop community needs time together. But is it the way of Jesus to become legalistic about showing up to a one-hour service? Is it loving to treat people like children, wag your finger, and say: “You’d better be there…!”? I think it communicates trust when we treat people like adults and assume that when they aren’t in our presence, they may well have a good reason for it. Many folks who miss Sunday gatherings do so for very legitimate reasons: work responsibilities, travel, family visiting, illness, transportation challenges or gasp, serving their communities! Why not give people the benefit of the doubt instead of first thinking: “They’re up to no good, those slackers!” And if there is a concern about someone in particular, the place to address that is within the context of that relationship, not a general blog post bashing more than half your congregation (and all congregations).

As a side note, many have found that churches aren’t even the best place to nourish their spiritual journeys, and after reading a post like this, one can hardly blame them. Many find time in nature, at home in silence, in a yoga studio, on a boat, or getting their hands dirty in a community garden as much more spiritually-invigorating endeavors.

In fact, it could even be argued that too much church attendance isn’t good for you. It anesthetizes you to thinking that you’re making a huge difference in the world or that you’ve done your Christian duty, and that now you can get on with your week. It can insulate you to one particular way of thinking. Not that the writer is advocating church attendance as the only thing one should do as a Christian, but you could come away from the post thinking it’s at the top of the list. The piece—to my reading—is fraught with legalism, the need to control, and a yearning for ‘how it used to be.’

Well, it’s a new day. Unless you’re planning to attend a certain church in the mitten state on Sunday. In that case, best be early.

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

This post originally appeared in HuffPost Religion as “Pub Theology Is a Waste of Time”.

You’ve read, perhaps, about churches making use of beer to gain traction in connecting with people. NPR put it more starkly in a story recently: “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer.” But you’re skeptical. And I don’t blame you. It sounds like a gimmick. Trying to be trendy. Throwing a few jokes into a stale sermon to appear witty, humorous, relevant. Young. People increasingly like beer. People increasingly don’t like church. So it makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t blame churches for trying.

pubtheology waste of time_FI have my own experience connecting beer and faith. I help facilitate pub theology gatherings every week. Pub theology is simply open conversation over a pint. You’re still skeptical. “So, you go the pub to drink beer,” you might say. “Great. Some of us are actually spending time doing things that matter. Helping the poor, working on housing and jobs, advocating for justice, mentoring people and more. Going to the pub to talk about faith seems like it increases what we don’t need any more of: talk. Why do we need more talk? More hot air does not make the world a better place.” You might conclude: “Pub theology is a waste of time.”

–Related: Bar theology: Burgers, beer, and a side of spirituality in D.C. (Washington Post)–

I’ve heard some criticism along these lines, and I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Pub theology — gathering with folks to talk about life over beer — is nice. But isn’t it time to start doing some things that really matter? Isn’t it just dressing up a relic without really changing anything?

I wonder, though, if there isn’t a small flaw or two in this line of questioning: it assumes that pub theology is the only thing one is doing. Or that one is doing it as a gimmick to attract new church members. Neither of those things is true. Pub theology is not the newest trendy outreach effort. It is open, honest conversation, wherever that leads. It may lead someone to your church. It may also lead someone out of it. Now if you’re a regular reader of mine or follow me on social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pub theology is all I do. If it was, I think I’d be in heaven already. But that’s for another discussion!

So I hear these legitimate questions and critiques and occasionally wonder to myself: maybe pub theology isn’t so worthwhile. Maybe I need to find something else to do on Tuesday nights.

And then we have an evening in which a Buddhist sits across from an atheist, and a liberal Lutheran sits across from a conservative evangelical. A member of a Unity church pulls up a chair. And the discussion is rich, full, and meaningful. We talk about issues of justice, evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God is culpable for the bad things that happen in the world. Some share stories of hope and powerful religious experience, while others talk about why the church is no longer the place for them, and still others say they’ve abandoned God years ago.

Is all that is happening here just “talk”? When we can sit and learn from someone who gave up his Catholic faith in college and has subsequently been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years, something is happening. When an atheist who gave up his religious views because of deep philosophical considerations, yet is interested in issues of meaning and life enough to join us and contribute — something is happening. When a person who hasn’t stepped into a church for years, but still considers herself spiritual pulls up a chair to listen: something is happening. When ten of us from very different perspectives can wrestle together about questions like — “Can violence make the world a better place?” or “Is the weight of history unbearable without the idea of God?” or “Is privacy a God-given right?” — something is happening. When we build relationships with a bartender, a server, a pub owner, something is happening. When a beer distributor attends an interfaith event during DC Beer Week and says, “Man, this is so refreshing compared to other beer events I go to,” something is happening. When someone says, “I just don’t go to church anymore because it doesn’t mean much, but I come here because it is participatory, thoughtful and open” — something is happening.

And so as I reflect on the ongoing place of gatherings like pub theology and similar events, I liken it more and more to a spiritual discipline or practice. In other words, it is something that I intentionally participate in because it shapes me in important ways (again, it is not a gimmick to attract new members — though some might seem to use that approach). And like any other discipline or practice, it isn’t everything. So it isn’t fair to compare it to something that it isn’t, and that it isn’t trying to be. It isn’t those things, and it doesn’t need to be. It is one thing, among many things that a person might be involved in. And like a practice of, say, contemplative prayer — which incorporates deep moments of silence, one might say of it: “Nothing is happening. You should be doing something.”

Yet when I engage in contemplative practice, though it appears nothing is happening, much is happening: deep wells are being opened up within me. Space is created which heightens my awareness, deepens my senses, gives me more patience and love in which to encounter the very real challenges that life contains. My connection to the Spirit of God is renewed. It is far from nothing. In silence, I find that much is happening. And as a discipline, when I participate in it regularly and intentionally, it adds to the other things I am doing, which includes engaging in “action” and more visibly constructive types of things like building relationships in my neighborhood, being an activist for issues like peace instead of war, dismantling mass incarceration and recidivism, tuning in to environmental /climate realities and how I might be a participant in and advocate for the natural world, creating a community of people seeking to engage their world while deepening a connection to Jesus and more.

And so pub theology, like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, is a discipline. One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking.

It is also, in a way, like preventive medicine. When I know someone as a person, I am less likely to judge them harshly based on preconceived stereotypes. If I know a peace-loving evangelical or Muslim, I am less likely to judge all evangelicals or Muslims as endorsers of violence. If I meet a deeply thoughtful, liberal Christian, I realize that they aren’t just about feelings or dismissing orthodoxy, but are about careful, deep reading of Scripture and tradition. If I meet an atheist, I may well realize through her caring presence that atheists are just as thoughtful and intentional as anyone else. If all I have are stereotypes, I’m likely to help perpetuate them.

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up. It is a practice that I value deeply, and — in many different ways, under many different titles — it is happening all over, and needs to be happening, and I’m glad to be a small part of it.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  Bryan currently facilitates weekly conversations at a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Part two in a series on Atonement. Read part one here: When Jesus Died.

This week: a primer on penal substitutionary atonement.


I’ve recently been reading a book, Problems with Atonement. Some might say, “Problems? What problems? Is there a problem?” Or even: “There isn’t a problem.”

The traditional view is that humanity has a problem: sin, and God solves it: Jesus dies on the cross. It’s a concept many  of us learned in Sunday school, and perhaps haven’t thought much about since.  In other words, because we grew up with it – it is harder for us to see why there might be any sort of problem(s).

So let’s sketch out the usual, or at least traditionally evangelical, view:

1) Humanity is sinful (this is a state we  are born into,vis-à-vis Adam and Eve). It is not simply that we sin, but that our essence is sinful.

2) This sinfulness cuts us off from God.

3) God made provisional ways for people to  approach him in the ancient world of the Hebrews through the sacrificial  system, particularly  the ‘day  of atonement’.

4) But this didn’t change  the heart issue: only whether people could at some level approach God through mediators (the priestly system and  sacrifices).

5) Jesus arrives and God’s final plan for redemption is revealed: Jesus’  death is seen as the final and ultimate sacrifice, bridging  the gap between humanity  and God for all  time. Earlier  attempts are now seen as foreshadowings or  ‘types’ that were all along pointing to Jesus.  This includes both sacrificial language and language of  temple, priesthood, and even Passover.

The idea is simply  this: humanity is so sinful, and God so holy, that rectification or cleansing must occur for us to approach God.

A closely related point is that God requires sacrifice to appease his anger over sin.

All of these points seem to be in  play in the Old Testament cultic (read: *priestly*) system, and get transferred over to Jesus in the New Testament.  (I prefer to use Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels and Paul instead of ‘Old’ and ‘New’, but will occasionally use OT and NT to help us see how those terms even came to be used – and why ultimately it may be better to avoid them).

This is a comforting view for many: God love us so much that he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  In other words, because God knew we could never cross the gap, he crossed it for us. (No pun intended).

Bloody Good Music

There are plenty  of songs  that celebrate this view:

There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.


There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.


Nothing But the Blood

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

And there are plenty of others (feel free to remind us of some others in the comments).

This view we have been describing here has a technical name: penal substitutionary atonementPenal in that there was a penalty to be paid for justice to be done. Substitutionary in that Christ took the place of humanity by paying the penalty. And the word atonement itself means that this has happened: someone ‘atoned for’ or ‘covered over’ our sins.

This is what a person will generally mean when he says, “Jesus died for me.”

A similar definition is given in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

I  wanted to give this view a basic representation before beginning to get to some of the potential problems inherent in such a framework as mentioned at the outset.

A few  more questions to leave you with:

  • Does this view resonate with you? Why? Why not?
  • What texts  support this view? Are there others that undermine it? What view(s) did the earliest Christians hold?
  • Do you think Jesus had this view of his own role in God’s larger plan? Did Jesus more or less come to earth just to die?
  • Is it moral to punish one person so that others escape such punishment?
  • Is God ‘purchasing’ salvation in this framework? If so, from whom?
  • If God had planned such a complete and total way to enact forgiveness, why wait so long?
  • Why does God need someone to be punished for sin? Why can’t he just forgive straight out?
  • If God created humanity capable of committing sin, then placed them in a situation in which such sin was likely, is it moral or just to expection perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence?

Next time we’ll get into some of the background of the Hebrew sacrificial system, how it is presented (and develops) in the text, how it compares to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern cultic approaches, and how this language is re-appropriated by some of the New Testament authors.

Read Part 3 here: A Soothing Aroma.

Religion May Not Survive the Internet, Then Again… It Might.

"Does your pastor know that?"
“Does your pastor know that?”

The End of Religion?

An article appeared several days ago on entitled: Religion May Not Survive the Internet.  (Originally written by Valeria Tarico for Alternet.)

I was curious about this, so I checked it out.  Perhaps my favorite line was the following:

“Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may post viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.”

I get it.  There are many approaches to religious faith that seek to maintain a following through controlling what information is accessible (and acceptable) to its adherents.  I recall a church expressly forbidding its members from reading books by a certain author.  Not just: we disagree with that theological approach, but: “If you want to be a member here you will NOT read those books.”  The article states: “Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.”  Precisely.

To me, such an approach to faith and to God is getting it backward, and perhaps its for the best if these narrow religious approaches do not survive the internet.

After all, when did telling a group of people not to do something prevent everyone from doing it?  It’s a losing approach from the start, particularly in today’s info-accessible age.

The article goes on to note:

“A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers.  It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books.”  (This really does happen!)

Per my recent post on Harvey Cox’s book The Future of Faith, I think there is a shift in religious circles away from exclusive focus on “right belief”, particularly of the closed-system sort, toward a faith that embraces mystery, and seeks to engage one’s life in all of its facets (spiritual, emotional, physical; work, play, relationships; art, nature, beauty).  Less and less folks are content to be told: “You have to believe this, and you cannot read this.”

I hope the Internet does as the author of this article suggests: kills such approaches.  Perhaps they’ve been allowed to thrive for too long as it is.

"This online communion just isn't the same."
“This online communion just isn’t the same.”

My own sense is not that religion will not survive the internet, but the converse: religion will thrive in the age of the Internet.  A healthy approach to religion embraces the free flow of ideas.  This is exactly the idea behind my book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  That our faith grows when exposed to a diverse set of ideas and approaches, and that when we don’t engage  other religious and philosophical approaches, it stagnates, closes in on itself, and eventually goes on life-support.  The faith life of many is being given new life as the Internet age opens up new vistas of spiritual perspectives and practices.  Additionally, through online connections many new relationships are allowed to begin and flourish as people find willing conversation partners and co-collaborators.

The Salon article goes on to praise the wonders of science (who am I to argue?), but goes further than I would in declaring that science and a materialist worldview are as sufficient as, or perhaps superior to, any religious approach.  I certainly wouldn’t go that far, though I sympathize with the desire to see humanity move toward a more open, inquiring approach to life, one that doesn’t see differing ideas as competitors as much as different lenses through which to look, and through which one might see something one hadn’t noticed before.

Does the Internet spell the end of faith?  Maybe for a few (like those who aren’t allowed to use it).  But for myself and many others, it is a resource that allows us to engage God and each other at new levels.

‘Spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out

“I’m meditating, dude!”

By Alan Miller, originally posted on CNN’s belief blog.

Note: Alan Miller is Director ofThe New York Salon and Co-Founder of London’s Old Truman Brewery. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas at London’s Barbican in October.

By Alan Miller, guest post

The increasingly common refrain that “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious “movement” – an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect – highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.

Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.

It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.

That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that “feeling” something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more “true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

What is it, this “spiritual” identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?

The accusation is often leveled that such questions betray a rigidity of outlook, all a tad doctrinaire and rather old-fashioned.

But when the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist “truths” and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one “feels” and even governments aim to have a “happiness agenda,” desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society, then being old-fashioned may not be such a terrible accusation.

It is within the context of today’s anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate – in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being – that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.

The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.

Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.

A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur’an, let alone The Old or New Testament.

So what, one may ask?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.

Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses – an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity.

Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the “me” generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.

The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.

Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience “nice things” and “feel better.” There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is “something out there,” so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions – and for the future.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.

Sikh-ing Peace

A Necessary Conversation

The recent shooting in Wisconsin at a Sikh Temple has many wondering if religiously-rooted violence is about to erupt, or if this is one of the dying gasps of intolerance as our world continues to become a more hospitable place.

I would like to lean toward the latter, but realize we have a long ways to go.My own experience in interfaith conversations, as highlighted in my new book, Pub Theology, is that we need to work toward listening and learning, rather than antagonizing.

A few comments by young people of various faith traditions highlight as much (from an article in the Huffington Post):

Hannah Shirey, Christian, New York, USA

Through the pain, I have been reminded of the deep gratitude I feel for my time spent at a Sikh NGO this last year.

As we move forward, I am inspired by Sikh scripture that calls devotees to “recognize the human race as one” and by Jesus of Nazareth’s famous words, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” In our differences and our pain we are all interconnected and we all are capable of being peace-builders.

Nomi Teutsch, Jewish, Jerusalem, Israel

The injunction to “love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt” is one of the most central teachings of my Jewish faith. To me, this speaks to the connection that all minorities have to one another. We must not only feel hurt and anguish, but rather remember to transform those feelings into standing up for other groups in their times of need.

I spent the last year working at UNITED SIKHS along with Hannah Shirey, and I became more and more connected to Sikhi’s message of equality and openness each day. I pray that Sunday’s devastating events remind us all to get to know the strangers in our midst so that we may love them.

Sana Rahim, Muslim, Chicago, USA

On Aug. 5, ignorance and hatred materialized into a tragedy that will be etched in my memory for years to come. Last night, I went to my local gurdwara and stood in solidarity with the Sikh community as an American Muslim. While the Quran stipulates that our differences exist so that we “may come to know one another,” it is only when our friendships compel us to action that we truly begin to challenge the status quo.

Eric Farr, Bahá’í, Toronto, Canada

As a Bahá’í, I commit myself to helping usher in a day when people of every race and religion will look at each other with an understanding and protective love akin to what we feel for the members of our own family. I offer my sincere condolences and prayers for my brothers and sisters of the Sikh Faith affected by the tragic events of this past Sunday.

Immy Kaur, Sikh, Birmingham, UK

The last few years have seen me move from skeptical to utterly convinced about the need for interfaith interaction, friendship and shared experience. During this painfully difficult time as a community, I have been touched by the global outpouring of love and support towards the Sikh community. The state of Chardi Kala by the American Sikh organizations leaves me yet again in awe of my brothers and sisters across the shores.

An excerpt from the introduction of Pub Theology calls for this needed conversation together:

My argument in this book is simple: good things happen when we sit down at the same table together and talk honestly about things that matter — and frankly, having a beer doesn’t hurt. We don’t need to agree on whatever it is that we discuss — that isn’t even the point. The point is that we are all stuck here together on this planet (for the unforeseeable future) — and we might as well get to know each other while we’re here. My sense is that more and more people are hungry for this. People of all backgrounds are opening up about the broadness and diversity of thought and belief around them. And I sense that there is a growing desire for this among my fellow Christians as well. People are ready. Ready to see openness happen in their own lives and communities. Ready to move beyond fear to understanding. Ready to take a brave step forward in learning to live out their own faith honestly and with integrity in the increasingly pluralistic and global world we find ourselves in.

Here’s the good news. It’s happening. In conversation. At the pub. Over beer. From London to New York to Ann Arbor, people are gathering to communicate, connect, and learn from one another over the topic of religion and theology, of all things.

In the past we’ve typically assumed that if you want to find God, going to church is the place to go. I wonder if this is still the case. It seems to me that God is breaking out of churches everywhere. In fact, some would say that’s not the best place to find him. Given the places Jesus frequented, that shouldn’t surprise us (hint: he never went to church!). It turns out that a pub creates a perfect setting in which to encounter people who are interested in spiritual topics, philosophy, life, and — yes — theology, and they are open to being honest about it. For some, it even becomes a place to encounter God himself.

Let me be up front that I write this as a Christian. But I write in the hope that readers of any perspective, religious or not, might garner something from these pages. Further, my hope is that as you read you will encounter a shift toward a more chastened, humble, and inviting Christianity — one that will have a seat at the table in the important conversations our world is having.  Unless we are willing to first listen and make space for the other, we won’t be invited. Here you will find real life stories, real people, real questions — many gleaned from conversations and encounters during actual Pub Theology gatherings. These recollections will attempt to give flesh and bones to this needed shift.

Where is God?

Who is God?

What do other religions say?

What do those who’ve given up on God say?

Turns out agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, humanists, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans and many others have wonderful traditions that have wrestled with these very questions for centuries. It’s time we start to listen. If you’re tired of pat answers that exclude wrestling and doubt while presuming certainty in the face of serious questions, welcome to the club. I wrestle with these issues in my own life. I wouldn’t be surprised if you do as well. I hope you’ll find encouragement and ideas here toward living out a more global faith.

How are you engaging those around you who have different ideas about God, faith, and life?  

Here’s to more good conversations.  We need them.

Pub Theology Topics April 12

A good group at the ol’ pub last night.  The Firestarter Chipotle Porter was quite enjoyable, as was the conversation…  Did you miss it?

Here were the topics:  (it was a full sheet!)

1.    What is your favorite day of the week?

2.    How do you nourish yourself spiritually?
What is a spiritual experience?

3.    What does the church look like at its best?
At its worst?

4.    “There is a time when it is right to explore many religions.  One often has to do this in order to find what grasps one at a level deep enough to permit at least initial commitments to be made.  But those who stay merely students of religion into middle age become dreary.  They know facts and doctrines, and laws and rites, but they know nothing of Mystery.”  Thoughts?

5.    Is there a difference between respect for a person and respect for his/her ideas?
Are we what we stand for?

6.  Resurrection:  literal, mythical, mystical?

7. Should everyone be allowed to ‘stand their ground’ ?
Is the right to bear arms a ‘God-given’ right?

8. Does the separation of church and state mean churches should be silent on issues of justice?

9. What role does the state have in determining whether or not people have healthcare?

10.  “we allow ourselves to believe in a sovereign god not because we really believe in a sovereign god, but because (much like western politics) we need to somehow justify our need to be power-dominating people who quite literally ‘lord’ ourselves over other people…”   Anyone agree?

11. Some religions emphasize the endless cycles of history (Hinduism) where an individual seeks to eventually merge into oneness with universe.   The Christian religion is linear, envisioning a culmination in the return of Christ – an escape from the cycles of history.   Is our culture inclined toward the linear model for some reason or is it just chance that we are a predominantly Christian society?

– – –
Love to hear some thoughts on any of the above.  Post below! 

I Need the Resurrection

Four echoes of Resurrection hope

Read during Easter worship at Watershed, 2012

I need the Resurrection
because my sister is sick
and can’t afford insurance,
because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,
“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”
because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street
so the police could blow up a package that could’ve blown up us.
Because I’ve exploded
in rage
and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.
because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses.
Hope triumphs.
And Life and


I need the Resurrection

because I’m tired and worn
the hours are long, the pay not enough
the second job barely covers the costs
for the kids to eat
the rent to be paid;
because life throws you some pitches
that you just can’t hit.
Because she left, and
I stayed.
Because some days a good cup of coffee
just isn’t enough.
Because I’m tired. . .
I need the Resurrection
because night gives way to morning,
darkness. . . to light
and because one day: all things will be new.

I need the Resurrection

because this life is so wonderful
despite its fragility;
the softness of dew on the morning grass
The house quiet while all are yet asleep
The promise of a new day.
Because each day comes and goes
And so many have now gone too.
I need the Resurrection
because I want one more day
with those who have already
Gone to sleep.
One more hello
One more long afternoon on the front porch
Telling stories

I’ve heard so many times
But long to hear again.
I need the Resurrection
because the story must not end.

I need the Resurrection

Because life has never
been as it should be
for me
or, I guess, for you.
I’ve never seen a rainbow
Or a lily. . .
a mountain, or a tree.
Yet these ideas are more
than just ideas,
and one day, I shall see.
I need the Resurrection
Because I long to touch, and feel, and smell
and wonder over
forever… this
Clean earth… which has been sullied.
One day, renewed.
And one day, as I use my senses
to drink deeply of all that is,
I shall see that Creation
Crowned, with a King.

*first story courtesy of Kara Root, pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota 


Sacred Reading


Lectio Divina is the Latin for ‘Holy Reading’ and was a form and approach to praying with Scripture that was common among medieval religious orders. The value of Lectio Divina was rediscovered in the twentieth century.

Essentially Lectio Divina involves taking a short passage of Scripture and pondering it. This can be done alone or in a group, and normally involves prolonged periods of silence.




Choose a reader.  The reader will read the text through four times, slowly, with a time of silence between each reading.  Allow the words to wash over you.  Be present.  What is God saying to you right here and now?  Open yourself to His Words.

From the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John:


“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.  Where can you get this living water?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water. . .”

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breaking out of ruts

Vinyl records are made by cutting grooves or ruts into the vinyl.  The record (at this point called a lacquer) is placed on the cutting machine where electronic signals from the master recording travel to a cutting head, which holds a stylus or needle.  The needle etches a groove into the record that spirals to the center of the circular disc.  The imprinted lacquer is then sent to a production company, where it is coated in metal, such as silver or nickel, to create a metal master.

Our lives also operate in grooves.  We operate a certain way, day after day after day.  Sometimes our grooves — our habits, our ways of being — create beautiful music.  Sometimes our grooves are more like ruts — they create sounds that are less inviting, even harsh.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to break out of the ruts we may have fallen into, by changing up our habits, and acknowledging that our lives, by God’s grace, do not have to fall into ruts that are etched in metal or stone.
We can be changed.

Grab a record, feel its edges, its grooves, its texture.  Imagine the music it creates.  Consider your own present practices:

— what are the grooves that create music?  How can you nourish them?
— what are the ruts that you would like to get out of?  Consider ways you can change your present practices.  What are new grooves you could create?  What space might open up if you change a current habit?


God thank you for this life you given me.
I cherish the music you have allowed me to hear, as well as to create.
Forgive me for the ruts that increase the chaotic noise of the world.
Free me to live into grooves of grace that create beautiful music.
Music that sings of you.
In Christ, Amen.

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