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.

‘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.

What I meant to say…

“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”
– Paul Ricouer

“Really?” you might ask.

I think most of us have a hard time believing that.  How could anyone make such a statement?

Surely the most important thing is what the author meant to say when he wrote it.  I tweeted this quote recently and someone responded in such a fashion.  The meaning then is more important than the meaning now.  I am inclined to agree.  As a student of the New Testament (and the Hebrew Scriptures), and someone who preaches, I spend a lot of time working hard to understand what a text meant when it was originally written, in other words, ‘what the author meant to say’.

My assumption is that the more I can understand the original intention, the better job I’ll do of being true to that text. So from this perspective, what the text originally meant seems to be the most important thing!  Upon first glance then, Ricouer, a French philosopher of language, appears clearly wrong.

But here arises the challenge of understanding what the original intent actually was. We don’t always get this exactly right, do we?  Someone says something, and we want to know what they intended to mean.  In reality, this isn’t always accomplished even in everyday life, in face-to-face conversation.  We want to be understood, and get incredibly frustrated when we are not:

Didn’t you say…?

“But I meant to say…”

“You misunderstood me!”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

One of the worst things possible is being misunderstood.

Yet if it can happen to us today, in face-to-face direct speech acts, how much more might the written word— indirect speech—be misunderstood?  And even further, the written word from a different language and culture by an author who is now centuries and even millennia dead.

(Of course this is where, in an act of faith, one might trust that the Holy Spirit will step in and say, “What I meant to say was…”!)  But for the purposes of this post, let’s leave that component to the side for the time being.  (Invoking the Spirit is necessary, but can often be an easy out in place of the hard work I believe God calls us to do in understanding the text).

Since misunderstandings can (and do!) happen, it seems that our best recourse is to disagree with Ricouer, and assume the original meaning as intended by the author is the most important.  After all, why would we spend all the time we do trying to understand this meaning if it were not the case?  In fact, it seems such an open and shut case, that perhaps we should be done with it.

But… yet…  perhaps…

Importance of the Now

Back to the original provocative statement:
“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”

We noted earlier that it seems almost intuitively obvious that this statement is wrong.

Yet I wonder… perhaps there is something to this after all.

I wonder, if our interpretation, our attempts at recovering what the author meant to say and thus declaring what in fact the text said and says, is, in fact, more important.  Think of it this way:  When a preacher preaches on any given text, and supplies it with meaning —that is the meaning the listeners take away.  When a person reads a verse with their morning coffee and senses, “What I just read means [this] to me”—that is the meaning this person is taking away.  In this sense, I think Ricouer is right.  What the text says now is more important than what the author meant to say.  In fact, this has to be the case.  Think about it.  What the text says now is all we have.  The author is dead.  The Apostle Paul cannot rise up when we read a selection from 1 Corinthians and say, “But what I meant to say was…!”  (Though we surely wish he would!)  What we have is our understanding of the text now.  What we have is what the preacher interprets the text to mean.  What we have is what we ourselves take a text to mean anytime we read the Bible.  That is what we have.  That is the meaning of the text here and now—and it is that meaning, not the original meaning, that goes on to have impact and live into the world.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that what the author meant to say is irrelevant or unimportant.  Hardly!  It is crucial.  And we must work hard to attempt to recover that meaning in any reading and work of interpreting.  But the facts are that we can’t sit down with the writer of Matthew when we open that Gospel and make sure we ‘get it’.  It’s impossible.  We can’t sit down with The Teacher when we read Ecclesiastes to make sure he was as skeptical as he seems.  We can’t dissect a Psalm and have David back up our interpretation.

In that sense—a perfect recovery of what any given author meant (of a text in the Bible or any other text)—is impossible.  The meaning we supply to the text is the meaning we have.  That’s it!  That’s the meaning that lives in the world today.  And the meaning that lives in the world at any given moment is the more important meaning—that is the meaning that causes people to act in certain ways, to believe certain things, to commit themselves to a certain path. We simply don’t have the original meaning in full.  What the text says now is more important, as Ricouer so daringly ventured.

And this actually squares with a Reformed understanding of preaching.  There’s a classic statement that says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” (As stated in the Second Helvetic Confession.)  I always thought this was a bit presumptuous, and laid too much emphasis on the role of the preacher.  Yet, in light of Ricouer’s analysis, I think there is a  lot of merit to this approach.  When the community gathers, and the Word comes forth, and that Word is explicated, interpreted, delivered: we all have some sense that something sacred is happening, that God is engaging us, indeed, that God is speaking.

Consider Calvin:
“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

Or Luther:
“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth…”

Invisible Readers

Ricouer notes that through writing, “discourse escapes the limits of being face to face. It no longer has a visible auditor.  An unknown, invisible reader has become the unprivileged addressee of the discourse.”

In other words, at one time, the text belonged to the writer—he wrote it down, and he shared it with people, and could inevitably correct misunderstandings if they engaged the writing in person.  But once the work becomes widespread – such corrections vis a vis a face-to-face encounter with the writer, becomes less and less possible.  And once the author dies, impossible.  The text will reach readers that were invisible to the author, indeed, readers who did not yet exist.

Merold Westphal says it is this invisibility that gives the text an autonomy, an independence from authorial intention. This is known in interpretive circles as “the death of the author.” The absolute author (the one who knows what he or she meant to say) is not replaced by an absolute reader, but by one whose authority is limited, relative to a particular context, and without the presence of the author.

You and I are such readers when it comes to any ancient text (or even reading Steinbeck or Updike).

But here our interpretive journey takes another turn.

Perhaps the author him- or herself is not in full possession of the meaning of what they have written.  Perhaps more is being said than even the author was intending!

Merold Westphal notes that “not even the author is in full possession of the whole that would give fully final and determinate meaning.”

In other words, perhaps what the author intended isn’t the whole of its meaning. (I would say this is particularly the case when it comes to Scripture.)

Nick Wolterstorff gives an example of this possibility of a multiplicity of meanings:

At dinner Mom says, “Only two more days till Christmas.”  To her young children, who think that Christmas will never come, her speech act is a word of comfort and hope.  But to her husband “she may have said, in a rather arch and allusive way, that he must stop delaying and get his shopping done.  One locutionary act [vocal utterance], several illocutionary acts [words of comfort and hope, words of warning, even command], different ones for different addressees.”

Wolterstorff shows how a single utterance can have different meanings for different hearers, and they can each be right!

Merold Westphal notes that as Wolterstorff tells the story, Mom is the godlike author whose words have just the meanings she put into them.  They mean different things to different hearers so that the meaning of her discourse is a plurality of different meanings.  In godlike sovereignty she knows all the hearers and controls the meaning each receives.

Westphal then proposes:

But suppose they weren’t all at dinner and Mom didn’t know that Dad was in a position to overhear her.  Dad would rightly take Mom’s speech act to be one of reminder, warning, and perhaps even command, though that was not the meaning she (intended to) put into her discourse.  The meaning of the utterance escapes the horizon of its author and its original, intended audience precisely because of the invisibility of at least one additional audience.  This is the situation of human authors in general, says Westphal, biblical or otherwise.

By now you’re incredibly uncomfortable with this analysis.  You’re resisting this approach.  You’re thinking that preachers and scholars are in an awfully important (and scary) position – because they most often are entrusted with helping us understand the text.

This is true.  Yet in a sense we all are in this position, we are the invisible readers, at least those of us who read and engage texts (of any sort), especially the Bible.

But fortunately, there is more to it.  We’ll get to this in the next post.

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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No Interpretation Needed? Part 2

Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.

It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory.  Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist.  In fact:

Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?

We cannot escape interpreting the Bible.  We are not God.  Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).

The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.

Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?

approaching the text

If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity.  But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity.  This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.

We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same.  James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:

For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new.  Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents).  One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself.  In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst.  Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition.  The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.

But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:

“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””

Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”

This, however, is simply not the case.  We all interpret.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.

This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.  Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century.  This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms.  It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.  (Westphal, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?)

So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation?  Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say.  But the point holds: we are not God.  Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text.  This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives.  We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.

My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:

Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.

Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.


So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this?  Yes!  Of course.  God will speak.  Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”