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

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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.

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18 thoughts on “Show Up or Else: The So-Called Scandal of the Semi-Churched

  1. When people apologize to me for not attending more frequently (Mainline Church, you see) I always respond, “We love it when you come and bless you when you’re not here.” They usually laugh and say thanks. And come again.

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  2. I appreciate your view on this, and I also appreciate Pastor Kevin’s.

    I think it comes down to the continental reformed tradition that Pastor Kevin belongs to. I married into a conservative reformed Church and it took me a long time to get used to the nuances. What may appear as legalism, and in some cases it certainly is, may simply be the people of God attempting to glorify God and enjoy Him. The continental reformed belief of the 4th commandment is essentially that Sunday is the Lord’s day – the new Sabbath so to speak. And yes people can get legalistic about it… But think about the beauty of what is actually happening. We meet with God and his people on that day for corporate worship, to hear the preaching of the Word and rest from the routine and stress of the day to day grind. Nobody in my church works on Sunday – except the farmers, police, nurses (and myself because I am on call for emergencies at the local university I work at) etc. It is really beautiful. It took me a very long time to get used to that, but now I truly appreciate it. The day is “framed with worship” so to speak The day begins by worshipping with your brothers and sisters, and it ends with it as well. It is truly a wonderful thing.

    I did not appreciate this view of Sunday for a long time…what is wrong buying things on sunday? Or working? OR travelling? Well, nothing really, but where is our heart? Why should I go to church twice? Isn’t once enough? Sure it is…but shouldn’t our hearts want to be with our brothers and sisters in the faith? Shouldn’t we want to march into the building and sing praises to our God and king? Is it not with God and his church?

    In our society we have a hate on for authority, I certainly did. I did not want anyone telling me what to do, especially the church, and I used the argument “Show me where in the Bible it says I have to go twice?” And they couldn’t because it is not there. So I didn’t go twice, and I did all the things that took away from worship. I went to the oppostie extreme of legalism by becoming antinomian – or anti-law. But now I do go twice – or I try my best to – because it is heart thing – not a law thing.

    I do not agree with the legalism behind some peoples arguments in my church with regard to the sunday observance, but there is validity, there is something holy, something sanctifying about framing the sunday with worship, in glorifying the king of kings with our brothers and sisters in the faith.

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  3. I, too, remember my fundamentalist days of “go to church, or else…” Aside from the outright heresy of church absence sending one to hell (never listed in scripture as a condemning offence), I think people misunderstand what church is for. They say, “Don’t you want to meet with God?” Of course, but as I am a temple of the Holy Spirit, God lives in me, not the church building. He is with me every day. “Don’t you want to worship?” Absolutely. But singing and praying are only two ways in which I worship, and I don’t need to attend a service to do those, either. Church is for one thing and one thing only: the fellowship and the edification of the believers. If I get to do some worship while I’m there, that’s just icing on the cake.

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  4. Okay, let’s round this discussion out a bit. While Kevin De Young’s comments make me squirm and I roll my eyes as much as you do when I hear this type of finger wagging, there is room for something to be said about how we “keep time” with God. One of the reasons we practice spiritual disciplines is because we recognize that they can shape our worldview in a way that keeps “ourself” from being the centre of the universe. Joining a Christian community is (should be) a discipline aimed at taking our eyes off ourselves. When that community sets times for “gatherings of reorientation in a world of disorientation,” which is essentially what “going to church” is, then it seems counter intuitive to develop a take it or leave it attitude towards those gatherings.

    Our current culture of “church” has become one of self-service. You have churches which preach a hard fundamental line and many of those that show up are there so that they can be affirmed in how “right” they are…self-service. But you also have people who, go to the cottage, sleep in and have brunch with friends, or make no effort to arrange their travel times in order to make worship a priority, etc. who also participate church in a “self-service” sort of way.

    So if we look at sabbath keeping practices, I do think there is merit to asking whether or not “keeping sabbth” is about keeping time with God. The time keeping may look different for all people, but what should be consistent is that the way you use your time each week reflect an understanding that God at the centre. Now one could easily argue that “going church” doesn’t need to be the bench mark for having God at the centre of your time keeping practices for the week, but I do think we all need to stop and ask the question, “how is my time oriented this week?” “What does it reflect?” Who is at the centre?” Often the practice of gathering with your “church community” at set times and places (whatever that community may look like and whatever time they have set) becomes the space that sets the rhythm for the “rest” of the week.

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    1. I’m not sure we have record of that. But even if we did, we know he had words for religious authorities who ‘laid heavy burdens’ on people while missing the broader point. My recollection is that he did some things on the Sabbath that riled people up. He’d probably do the same today.

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  5. As a Catholic this is very familiar. I can recall as a child the priest going on and on to those present about Hell as the punishment for those who were not attending. It didn’t work, it doesn’t work today. We freely worship and even more freely accept the invitation to join others who accept the call to the Lord’s table.

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  6. I don’t think Jesus demanded weekly church attendance. He asked for us to love God and love our neighbors. He encouraged us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. None of those things require a building. One of my favorite Christian singers, who passed away years ago wrote about what God wants us to do. Look up Keith Green. His wife Melody still runs their effort and makes his songs available. One of the first things Keith and Melody did when they were very young married adults was to bring homeless people into their home and then to start finding other houses in which to make a place for people in need. They eventually moved out of the Southern California area to Texas where they could afford more land and build more places. That to me exemplifies how to be a good “Christian”. OR for that matter to be a good “Buddhist” or a good person.

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  7. Nothing says Christian love or hospitality like a threat with a trip to hell for not showing up the church 52 out of 52 Sunday mornings each year. I work for the church and I don’t have the chance to worship every Sunday.

    This is exactly the reason why the “semi-churched” and unchurched want nothing to do with the church as a whole!

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  8. Perhaps the largest Christian denomination of the future will consist of those who believe, and practice that belief outside of the confines of our existing church walls.

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  9. Pretty sure that the Body of Christ (believers in Christ the Son, The Father, and the Holy Spirit) are the church, NOT some building glorifying mans alter to religion rather than God Himself. Nature is my temple to worship as I so choose (albeit it my thin and meager beliefs due to being so many times kicked out of temple for my inquisitive nature of challenging what the pastor had said)

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  10. As a teenager, I did a summer’s worth of “missionary outreach” to my small Midwestern hometown. Part of that “missionary” work involved going to other churches in our (ultra-conservative) denomination and take notes on what the preacher was preaching, then send the notes back to the mother-church for them to review to see if the preacher was towing the denomination’s hard line. So with the “love of Jesus” in our hearts (and the wrath of Jehovah in the reports we were going to write about the preacher), we visited a small “missionary church” on the outskirts of our district. It was a struggling farm-land church that had a reputation for long-ish term members drifting away, without attracting new members. It didn’t take us long to understand why the attrition was so bad. The rather unpleasantly harsh preacher spent half of his hellfire-and-brimstone sermon explaining, in graphic detail, why, if somebody skipped his evening service that Sunday, they risked everlasting damnation in Hell. Wow he was hard-core, ranting on and on about how the vast majority of the people in his pews on Sunday mornings, wouldn’t return on Sunday evenings, and therefore would probably wind up in Hell. As a trusting teenager, I was naive enough to be half-scared into coming back for evening services, though I had to return home in the afternoon so I could file my “missionary report” at my home church during evening services. So after the tongue-lashing sermon, I talked to several parishoners, convinced that they would all heed the hellfire-guy’s warning, and return to church that evening. The parishoners just chortled and said, “don’t worry, he’s been trying that scare-tactic schtick on us for years, and nobody listens, and there won’t be more than 3 or 4 people in evening services today.” One person even said, “he’s a jerk, his sermons suck, he has the personality of a hand grenade, but he’s the only preacher we can afford to preach in our small town, so we have no choice but to put up with him.” His congregation had tuned out this blowhard, spending the warm summer Sunday at the lake, or at home watching Disney with kids, or whatever. Hmmmm. That was decades ago, and many of the older parishoners are probably long dead. I wonder how many of them have wound up in Hell for skipping evening services that Sunday???

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    1. Hi Theo, sorry your had such a wretched experience all those years ago. So far as “towing” the party line, that’s pretty much what denominations are all about, in our town, the churchgoers play musical chairs, not doing much to grow the Body of Christ, but moving from church to church looking for the “right”one. (BTW, the phrase is “Toeing the line”, as in everyone making a perfectly ordered rank and file, being in perfect agreement with each other… jimi

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