Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

The Empty Tomb and the Empty Easter

by Matthew Raley For American evangelicals, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become a tall tale. We retell the story with gusto, but by Easter afternoon the resurrection fades to legend.

Evangelicals historically saw Christ's rising from the dead as the volcanic core of the Christian life. He conquered death not just by rising, but also by pouring his life into his followers. To a person was hostile to God, the essence of spiritual death, Christ restored love. He replaced rebellion with willing obedience. Christ's presence was the hot energy that transformed a believer's motivations.

In other words, evangelicals used to emphasize Jesus's teaching in the Bible about the new birth, that human beings must have a resurrection of God-loving energy and that nothing else can save us.

In the late 20th century, however, evangelicals' concept of the new birth degenerated. The phrase "born again" came to describe a ticket to heaven, eternal life guaranteed by a single prayer. We focused on getting people to pray that prayer, and with some success. Many got their ticket.

But we had trouble motivating ourselves to spiritual vitality. Those who prayed that prayer -- who in fact prayed it repeatedly, grasping for security with God -- were rarely taught that the new birth radically changed their identities. We generalized about "a relationship with Jesus" as if it were a life-upgrade, a fix for whatever made us unhappy, rather than life itself.

So Christ's resurrection became a mere story.

I meet countless believers who know that Christ's power is not extinct, but who only see glimpses of it. The trivial new birth taught by churches has drained their vitality.

I hear three such trivialized versions of the Christian life.

Many believers describe being born again as a cathartic emotional high, a personal, authentic experience that gives meaning to life. Following Christ to them means striving to recapture the high -- and failing. Their church has taught them existentialism with the name of Jesus attached on a post-it note. No one should be expected to build his life on such sand.

Others see the Christian life as maintaining a good family: striving to be a good wife or husband, striving to keep bad influences out of the home, striving to raise good children -- and failing. These believers have been taught moralism. Week after week in church, they have heard five steps to good communication, seven steps to good time management, and a wearying list of other "practical" suggestions for getting their act together. Christ's role in their spiritual life is to forgive their accumulating sins. And that's his only role.

Still others describe the Christian life as activism. Many older evangelicals strive to recapture America's political system and restore the culture they once knew. Younger evangelicals, reacting against their elders, often strive for progressive causes. But political striving fails too. These believers have been taught different forms of ye olde throne-and-altar religion, that Christ builds his kingdom through governments. Christ role for them is to get the right people in office.

These forms of striving -- existential, moral, and political -- have three things in common. Each replaces Christ with an idol, a totem of sanctified obsessions. Each fails to supply Christ's power, leaving the soul dessicated. And each consigns Christ's resurrection to legend: an inspirational diversion from the cares of life, but not ultimately relevant to our pressing work.

For evangelicals now, the most important thing about Christianity seems to be our responsibility to solve our own problems. Some dress that message up in therapeutic lingo. Others now supplement it with a grab-bag of medieval mystic practices. But it's the same old bad news: "God helps those who help themselves."

Churches must restore the emphasis on genuine power. Christ is risen. In him we also have been made alive.

I notice that discouraged believers still distinguish between the follies of churches and the power of God. In discouragement, they persistently hope in Christ, knowing that his subterranean heat remains fierce even if the ground looks cold.

They should take comfort. Easter is not empty.

Religious Liberty and the Ruling on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Prop 8's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. No surprise there. The real question is what will happen at the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the implications will be for religious liberty.

Some observations:

1. It is not clear how the Roberts Court will rule on Prop 8. The outcome will likely depend on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who remains the swing vote on many issues. I will be surprised if the court renders a sweeping decision on the gay marriage question. Look for a narrow one.

This is a weak position for traditional marriage supporters. A narrow ruling against Prop 8 has the effect of institutionalizing gay marriage in the U.S., where a narrow ruling in favor of Prop 8 merely keeps the issue in play.

2. Suppose the high court upholds the 9th Circuit's decision and gay marriage becomes the nation's new legal default. A church's liberty to sanction only marriages between a man and a woman comes into question, and the legal climate for this kind of liberty is very mixed.

In 2010, the high court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school could refuse to recognize a religious group that did not abide by the school's anti-discrimination standards. The fall-out from that decision is being felt by Christians at Vanderbilt, a private university. The vice chancellor recently told Christian groups that they have to allow non-Christians to be members and even leaders of their organizations if they want official recognition. He said in a public meeting, "We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus."

A rare moment of candor from a PC mandarin, and a glimpse of what life will be like if tweed totalitarianism gains even more power. There's religious decision making, and then there's good decision making. We just want you to make good decisions. That's all.

There are examples of this pushiness elsewhere. New York City recently expelled churches from using public schools on Sundays. (The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge.) The Obama administration decided to force all organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception, even Catholic institutions. Though the administration has wavered in recent days, it has shown what it really thinks about religious liberties. Catholic adoption agencies in Illinois are closing rather than comply with the state's new non-discrimination policy. A New York Times article about the controversy makes clear that religious liberty claims are insensitive and tiresome.

Some progressives clearly have an appetite to purge religion from civic, legal, and academic life. Not all progressives. There are those who agree that churches should not be forced to allow gay marriages, or to support any of a host of other choices sanctified by the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt. Such honest progressives recognize the importance of conscience.

So there is some ballast against those who want a purge.

In addition, recent infringements on religious liberty have to be balanced against the Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month that anti-discrimination employment laws must respect a ministerial exemption. The decision is sweeping, and may be a game-changer for churches.

3. The practical threat to religious liberty will not come from the suave bigotry of vice chancellors, or from gay marriage laws like the one Governor Christine Gregoire signed in Washington State this week. The threat will not come from homosexuals as a group, or from progressives.

The most practical threat is from lawyered-up thugs. In their mania for a religion-free society, radical activists will use lawsuits as a shakedown tactic. They will not need friendly Supreme Court decisions. All they will need is money enough to sue -- and they have plenty. They will move  from suing cities over crosses and nativities and public prayers to suing churches for "discrimination."

I have spent years in ministry opposing the attempts of the religious right to turn churches into centers of political activism. Demagoguery and money do not impress me. And if I have not countenanced toxic activism from the right, even though I'm a political conservative, I certainly will not roll over for the cultural left, with which I have no sympathy whatsoever.

I fear we are headed for a new low in American discourse, in which public debate is abandoned in favor of lawsuits. If so, the civil society that has made America strong will splinter, and the conscience of every person will be at the mercy of the best financed pressure group.

Reviewing My 2011

by Matthew Raley Since June, I have nearly abandoned this blog. Apologies to my faithful readers. I am finally able to resume posting.

You may know that this year has been full of personal changes, not least of which are a new ministry in Chico, CA, and a Ph.D. program at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.

I just finished my first semester of coursework at Southern, and the experience is invigorating. I spent the autumn reading and researching extensively for a seminar on Christianity and film, and then spent eleven days at Southern with my fellow students and professors. The other students are sharp in discussion and debate. The professors are both challenging and supportive. Some of the fruit of this program will find its way into posts here soon.

A Ph.D. program is all-consuming, so I won't be writing any books for some years. Re-starting a church is all-consuming too, and I find myself doing the two large projects at once.

I moved from the Orland Evangelical Free Church to Grace Brethren Church in April. At the time, the move was seen by many believers in Chico as incomprehensible. The gardeners of gossip around town had pronounced GBC closed. It was in desperate financial shape, with a predominantly elderly congregation of 60-80, a worn-out facility in a poor location, and a record of splits over the last five years.

The situation now is quite different, due to the resilience and tenacity of the original members, who refused to give up even when their situation seemed impossible.

  • Attendance is running between 160 and 180 each Sunday.
  • Our largest growth consists of young families.
  • The junior high ministry is reaching those who haven't attended church in the past, with 12-15 at each mid-week meeting.
  • Children's ministry is fully staffed, both in Sunday school and children's church.
  • The exterior of our facility has been repainted and the audio-visual system improved.
  • Small groups launched in September, and were immediately full. I believe a new group will begin in January.
  • The greeting and ushering teams have been reorganized.
  • A comprehensive adult discipleship course was designed during the summer. It launched in October.
  • The membership has increased substantially, and has made several important decisions quickly, including adding my brother Chris to the staff as director of operations. The tone and quality of the congregational meetings has been excellent.
  • The music team has learned new songs and created new arrangements for corporate singing.
  • The elders actively lead in key areas, and are forging great working relationships.
  • We met our entire 2011 budget by the end of October. Our cash reserves are therefore well supplied, and we are ready for 2012.

I am very pleased with GBC's new start. What pleases me most is that there has been no division between the original attenders and the new ones. They have decided to work together, in spite of how fast and, at times, confusing all these changes have been. This period has not been easy for anyone, and the joy we're experiencing now is hard-earned.

This kind of renewal happens when we realize that the Lord Jesus Christ has poured his vast wealth into his people--talent, experience, and the wisdom that comes from suffering. Recognizing this wealth is hard. Christ has stored in it people who don't always look right, and who seem to have no advantages. If we are to recognize his wealth, we have to associate with the lowly.

No surprise, then, that the glory for every good thing in every church belongs to the Lord alone.

Churches and the Decayed Culture of Learning

by Matthew Raley In a New York Times op-ed piece, "Your So-Called Education," Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa expose key failings in undergraduate institutions. The B.A. does not mean what it used to, they report, and there are structural reasons for its decline. Their sharp criticism raises questions about our cultural foundations for learning, not just in colleges but in another educational enterprise, the local church.

Arum and Roksa followed several thousand students in more than two dozen undergraduate institutions over four years. They found that in "a typical semester . . . 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester." The average student spent 12-13 hours per week studying, half the time a student would have spent in the 1960s.

With such minimal work, tests show that a large proportion of students make no significant progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing.

And for this students and their families pay the equivalent of a home mortgage?

The causes Arum and Roksa identify are all institutional, but raise cultural questions that are beyond the scope of their study.

The investments of colleges and universities are one cause: fewer tenured faculty, more counselors who attend to social and personal issues. "At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority."

The empowerment of students is another cause. Federal Pell grants are dispersed to students, not institutions, which means a student takes dollars wherever he or she decides. The evaluation of faculty emphasizes student assessments, making it difficult for a professor to advance unless he or she is popular. All of this tends to make students think like consumers who insist on being satisfied with the school's "service."

Unfortunately, undergraduate schools could adopt all of Arum's and Roksa's sensible reform proposals and never revitalize learning.

Consider the significance of schools' spending on counselors. Social dysfunctions are driving that expenditure: drinking, drugs, cutting, sexual crime, STDs and other public health dangers, and mental health issues like depression. Undergraduate culture is often a degraded underworld. Where does learning fit in such a context?

A key cultural foundation for learning has always been strong family life, and we're seeing the consequences of family decay.

Consider also the spending on gyms and sports programs. This too expresses a larger cultural reality: we are obsessed with entertainment and activities. How could learning be anything but a sideline where leisure activities are so exalted.

And the empowerment of students as consumers of education? This is quite simply an abdication of authority, a capitulation to our culture's relentless leveling of all points of view below the only one that ultimately matters: that of the divine Self.

Which brings me to the other educational enterprise I mentioned, the local church, which should be a prime mover in rebuilding a culture of learning -- and in the past was exactly that.

Churches today are so enslaved by the same culture of dysfunction, leisure, and consumerism as colleges that one struggles to envision churches as centers of learning. In fact, the idea that a church might be an educational institution is only dimly remembered, when it is not violently rejected. American evangelicals are likely to see this priority as snooty.

But how exactly are Christians to restore a degraded culture if they can't think critically, or reason about complex issues? And how are they supposed to gain those skills if they know little about the history that made us who we are? And how -- really, how exactly is this supposed to happen? -- how are they going to apply the gospel to their lives if they won't read?

Evangelicals seem to think bumper stickers, petition drives, and fun music are enough to "take back the culture." They have forgotten that our duty in Christ is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Chico News & Review Reports on Churches and Gays

by Matthew Raley Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn's language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.

The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.

Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: "There's a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members." The characterization is fair.

Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor's assertion that "there are bigger issues" than homosexuality, "such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ's mission." Olenyn asks, "But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?"

Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.

Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a "really bad" thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.

To understand the Bible's definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.

According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves -- either God or the things we put in place of God.

Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul's teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin's slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."

The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.

The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes -- more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine -- that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.

Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of "choices," "addictions," "values," or "lifestyles," as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.

But in addressing homosexuals -- without a social consensus on sexual morality -- evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can't confront homosexuality without asserting God's right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can't assert God's right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who've been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.

Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn's article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I'm grateful that Olenyn showed this.

But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?

New Chapter for the Raleys

by Matthew Raley It has been several weeks since I've made any significant posts, for which I apologize. I have been preoccupied with some personal changes. I am excited that the Lord is leading me to take a church one-third the size of my current ministry.

I will be leaving the Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) in one month and will become pastor of Grace Brethren Church (GBC) in Chico. (For readers not from California, Chico is 20 miles west of Orland.)

Chico is my hometown, and my parents and grandparents still live there. Bridget and I look forward to our boys Dylan (10) and Malcolm (5) being closer to Pops and Grandma. I'm also eager to be closer to my musical work, which centers on Chico State.

I have a personal connection to GBC, too. My grandpa Vere was an elder there in the final years of his life. I was encouraged to see him productive and busy with ministry among people he loved. This is a spirited group with a sense of calling and a strong desire to serve.

Our personal satisfactions, however, do not mask the challenge we face. The people at GBC have experienced many difficulties and are asking for a new direction. I will be the sole pastor, financial resources are low, and I hear many around town are skeptical.

Here's the story.

OEFC has grown significantly over the years. Part of the growth has come from other towns, Corning and Chico in particular. A sizable number of people have felt a strong enough kinship with the OEFC's focus on expository preaching and its philosophy of ministry to keep driving to Orland each Sunday. But our Chico and Corning attenders have always felt a strong desire to minister actively in their own towns. We have all felt that our worship together would be temporary.

So, two years ago, OEFC began exploring how to help our Corning attenders start a church there. They have done just that, holding the first service of Christ Community Church on February 13th at a school in Richfield under the leadership of Jeff Tollison.

When the opportunity with GBC came to my attention, I felt it might be a chance to do something similar in Chico. Perhaps OEFC might send the Chico attenders to join and refresh GBC. When the leadership GBC welcomed the idea, I knew I had to do something dangerous. I told the OEFC elder board of my strong desire to lead this effort myself.

That was a difficult thing to say in some ways. I knew my revelation would hit them hard, and I did not want to hurt the men I've served with closely for so many years. But, in another way, telling them about my desire was easy. I know these men. In spite of their sadness, I was certain they would see a new opportunity to help believers from another town.

And that's exactly how they responded. One of them said what the rest were thinking: "The Kingdom has to get bigger."

Together, we agreed to take another dangerous step: Tell the OEFC congregation about my desire. Again, this was difficult emotionally. I have served the Lord at OEFC for 12 years. I didn't want to hurt my congregation. But, again, telling them what was stirring in my heart-and-mind was the obvious step to take. I have always trusted them to receive hard things graciously. They are my colleagues.

Three weeks ago, the elders and I announced at OEFC the possibility that I would move to GBC. That evening, I told the congregation the story, took their questions, and asked them to pray for the Lord's leading the following Sunday when I candidated. There were many tears.

But since that meeting, person after person has spoken or written to Bridget and me, many after deep wrestling. They have variations of the same thought: we're sad, but we see the Lord leading you. One said, "I'm sad, but I'm full of hope." Another said, "We are planting you over there!"

These blessings are powerful to me because I know they come at a price.

GBC extended a call to me on February 20th, and I accepted. The two churches, OEFC and GBC, will worship together in a special service of dedication on April 3rd in Orland, colleagues now in something new.

Book Review: Colors of God

by Matthew Raley Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.

The list of problems in churches is familiar.

For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that's when the preaching is comprehensible at all.

Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people's lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can't deal honestly with our failings and that church isn't safe.

Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to "values" without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises -- joy and thankfulness.

Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today's evangelicals.

The book's strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God's grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals' guilty consciences.

But I found the book unreadable.

I think the authors' decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.

And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what's wrong with "preaching." The fact that most preachers couldn't give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.

If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.

Are We About To See an "Awakening?" [Yawn]

by Matthew Raley The term awakening is important to American evangelicals -- and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.

So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment's websites announces that it is "awakening the Christian community." Another is more specific: "The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal,  and educational systems."

The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. "Awakening" gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.

Here is one pastor about the "evening of prayer and spiritual renewal" Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: "I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . ." The pastor concludes, "Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America."

The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.

"Great awakening" is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.

Here's the problem: Beck's regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.

Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), "With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention."

Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came "leanness of soul" (p 76).

This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.

Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment -- falling, stumbling, slumbering.

The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it "induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come."

At this moment in our nation's life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.

I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.

Christians In Kuala Lumpur

by Matthew Raley On Sunday I spoke at The Latter Rain Church, which meets in a live arts theater in suburban Kuala Lumpur.

It was a thrill to see this great city, and meet a few of its people. We had conversations with several taxi drivers, each lengthened by the terrible traffic. They told us stories of whole towns, with infrastructure and high rise condominiums, replacing the jungle in the space of ten years. All over the metroplex, buildings are torn down and replaced at an amazing pace. Many-storied cranes are everywhere.

My wife Bridget and I attended an Independence Day event hosted by the American embassy at a glittering hotel in the city center. We met the ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Croatia, and from the last of these I learned much about the recovery of his nation from the wars of the 1990s. I met a Malaysian barrister as well, whose firm specializes in insurance law. No clients insuring Gulf Coast oil rigs. Yet.

We also talked with various American expats, like the manager of a Texas Instruments factory and the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia.

There being no chairs -- none, anywhere, not even in the ballroom lobby -- we were given to understand that this party was not to go on all night. So we went out to get a taxi home and were forcefully reminded that we were in neighborhood of the Petronas Towers.

But it was the Christians in KL whom we had come to meet.

Andrew and Yuki were our hosts. Their condominium north of the city center housed 16 people the night we were there, and the couple were gracious and unflappable. Andrew is a sound engineer, Yuki a travel agent. They are very active with Latter Rain. Andrew engineered the theater in which the church meets, and his company runs sound for the theater and leads worship on Sundays. His work places him at the heart of the active arts community in Malaysia.

The dominance of Islam is much more obvious in KL than in Penang. Only blocks from Andrew's and Yuki's place is a huge, new mosque, the prayers from which awakened me from a dead sleep at 6 a.m. -- in spite of my ear plugs.

We had lunch with a corporate accountant, Greg, and his wife Nancy, parishioners at a Presbyterian international church in KL. They were full of strategic ideas for the opening of a Christian international school here in partnership with Dalat, the Penang-based school where our guide Russell Wiesner works. Originally from Oklahoma, Greg has 17 years of business experience here with various companies, and the numerous contacts that go with it. Greg and Nancy are key supporters of the school effort.

Then there was the pastor of Latter Rain, Elijah, and his wife Sarah.

Educated at the University of Wisconsin, with a business career that has taken him to Singapore, Germany, the UK, and Chicago, Elijah is pursuing the goal of poverty eradication through market-driven means. Like others, he is down on the famous micro-lending schemes, which he says loads people who have few business skills with debt. The efforts of the United Nations at promoting education and infrastructure have made matters worse. Without investment and jobs, there is nothing for the newly educated population to do.

His answer: a new secondary equities market that would match investors with entrepreneurs from the developing world. Stay tuned.

A picture of Christianity in KL: energy, expertise, and a sense of mission that embraces Asia and even the globe.

My Students In Penang

by Matthew Raley Today, after sixteen hours of teaching over four days, I said goodbye to my students. It was difficult for me to do.

I didn't know what to expect of the class when I arrived. I wondered how extensive their Bible knowledge would be, whether they would have an understanding of doctrine, and what their English level would be. On all points, I was impressed.

To a person, they were deeply engaged in the subject of how to tell biblical stories. Most were experienced teachers, and articulated many problems of teaching the Bible. Their questions showed a keen interest in how to interact with their listeners effectively. They know the Bible well. There was little that was unfamiliar to them, in terms of the basics of biblical history and of hermeneutics. They were ready to move ahead.

I feel that I worked them pretty hard. My ways of analyzing biblical texts to discover meaning and application are in some ways different from established procedures. I ask different questions than many pastors ask. But the class pushed through the concepts and, I believe, understands them quite well.

Several came to me with projects they were working on, or problems they were having in teaching. The issues ranged from preaching to established congregations to developing stories for the children of dockworkers in Taiwan. It was clear that both younger and older students were using my grid to solve their problems, and that was highly encouraging to me.

Between classes, I was able to interact with an American missionary who had been in China for thirty years, and who expressed frustration with Western modes of teaching. For the first time, she said, she found some of the tools she was looking for. One of the most common problems I hear from missionaries is the disconnect between the way Westerners are trained to teach and the way most peoples of the world learn.

Another student was a young architect, who audited the class, sitting perfectly still, watching and listening intently, missing nothing, but absolutely silent. During one lengthy break, she began asking me probing questions, and we discussed the professional world she lived in, and the insular world of churches. She was exceedingly well informed about developments around the world. The fact that Malaysian Christianity has people filled with such cultural curiosity and professional savvy bodes well.

There were young men preparing to be pastors while working to provide for their families, like one young man who is here from South Korea, or caring for parents, like another who was taking his mother for cancer treatments between classes and sermon preparation.

Most of the students were preparing for lay work, which also will be a tremendous source of strength for churches. Many lay people do not have the zeal to gain real skill in God's Word. But these do, and they are succeeding.

It was hard to leave them today. I am energized by this level of dedication.

An Hour With a Hero

by Matthew Raley This afternoon I met a man who has planted many underground churches in a closed Asian nation. He is now in exile, permanently banned from his country.

Shielded from the intense sun in an outdoor restaurant, he bounces up to greet me. He is short, muscular, powerful. He throws his arms wide when he talks, and his voice is resonant.

He tells me stories of defiance of the government, and the resulting crackdown. There were beatings by the police. When he posted on the internet the names of those jailed, the government released them, but hired thugs to beat them up again. Some were hospitalized, and one nearly died.

This veteran believes open defiance is a mistake. Christians can achieve more by planting many churches quietly. His voice tightens when he talks about "extreme daring."

I begin to understand his attitude as he describes his church planting effort, and its results. His work is fast, driven, urgent.

He dismisses the systems of some denominations. "They make someone wait too long to be a deacon. Six months they make them wait! Six months!" Six months after conversion.

He starts testing new believers in leadership right away, giving them small tasks and training them for larger ones. He strips them down to the bare essentials of church: the Word, song, the Lord's supper, and baptism.

He sets them in a bare room -- no lights, no fans, no chairs -- and says, "Okay, let's do church!" When someone stands up to get a hymnal, he says, "No, just sing a song you know." When someone stands up to get a Bible, he says, "Let's study the Bible without a Bible."

His people memorize forty passages of scripture and forty songs so that they can do church empty-handed. "What if you're in prison and they won't let you have anything? How are you going to keep up your faith if you don't meet with other believers?"

This man trains believers to advance the work without any resources. They do communion with water and a cookie if they have to. To baptize, they use barrels, or holes that they dig and line with plastic, or sewers.

Over the last few years, he has planted 5 churches outside his country among migrant workers, plus 3 outreach stations that cannot yet govern themselves. These ministries gain about 1,000 conversions among migrants every year, about 250 of whom persevere in the faith. As workers have returned home, they have planted 11 underground churches inside their closed nation.

This man is waging war. How do you prevail over a man who doesn't have to be present to advance his work, and from whom you cannot take anything because he needs almost nothing?

Simple: you don't prevail.

Remarks to Supporters of North Valley Christian Schools

by Matthew Raley Here is the text of a speech I gave last Thursday, May 20th, at a luncheon for supporters of NVCS.

One of the first words a child learns is mine. As parents, we try to loosen a child’s grip on his stuff, mainly to stop the squabbling. We try to teach him another word, share.

But we Americans have an insight into that word mine. The first draft of the Declaration of Independence said that every person is endowed with “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” The more famous version that George III read, “pursuit of happiness,” only tells us more about what the founders thought of citizenship. A citizen is happiest—and does the most good—when he governs the property he owns.

James Madison wrote of our constitution that Americans have “an honorable determination . . . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”[1]

The founders believed that we could govern ourselves, which means America’s success of failure depends on whether her people understand the words mine and share.

What does self-government look like? Self-government happens when a person takes care both of his own property and what his community shares—not because he is told to do it, but because he knows he must.

Jane Jacobs gave us a good example in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. One day an alarming scene unfolded on the sidewalk across the street from Jacobs’ building in New York. A man was trying to get an 8-year-old girl to go along with him, and the girl was resisting. Jacobs wrote:

As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene . . . , I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop . . . had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia, who . . . keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waited. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

Jacobs added, “I am sorry—sorry purely for dramatic purposes—to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.”[2]

The people in that neighborhood knew the word mine.

Self-government happens when people invest in their own place, with their own money, time, and ingenuity. When they invest, they care. When they care, they budget, maintain, and guard.

But the people in Jane Jacobs’ neighborhood also knew the word share. Self-government is not done by loners. It’s the action of a community. All the owners on her street knew that they shared the sidewalk, that what happened on the sidewalk affected them, and that they were responsible for keeping it safe.

As a pastor, let me tell you what bothers me about our country today.

Many of us are vigilant over what is our own. We’re eager enough to assert the word mine against Washington, D. C. or Sacramento. But we are not vigilant enough over the property we share. Our communities are not governing themselves.

Consider the reality of our shared life as Christians. The two issues I’m going to talk about have brought heartache to everyone in this room. I’m discussing them not to stigmatize people, but to help us face problems we all share, and to tell you that there are powerful solutions.

The Barna Group has repeatedly found that evangelicals divorce at high rates. In its most recent study of this problem in 2008, 33% of the American adult population has had at least one divorce, and the same is true of 26% of evangelical adults. While the evangelical divorce rate is lower than the national average, it still shows that more than a quarter of people who profess to follow Christ have broken homes.

This statistic is more than a public relations black eye. When we consider what our divorce rate means in practical terms, our cultural weakness becomes alarming.

Divorced people with children are automatically under the thumb of the family legal system. They no longer control their schedules, their practice of parenting, or even, in extreme cases, their most basic interactions with their children. They are vulnerable to inspection by county officials, to restraining orders, and a stream of court dates.

About essential parts of their lives, they can no longer say mine.

Nor is divorce the end of our entanglements with the state.

Illegitimate births are common among evangelicals, as any pastor can attest. I haven’t been able to find specific studies of evangelicals in this regard, but I do not lack stories. The trials of Sarah Palin’s family are common among us, and Palin’s handling of her daughter’s pregnancy won her strong identification from evangelicals for this very reason.

But a child born out of wedlock is likely to end up under the indirect supervision of social workers, with a young parent, grandparents, and pastors often struggling to safeguard a Christian parenting ethic from official intrusion.

A hidden impact of divorce and illegitimacy in churches falls on grandparents—those crucial links in the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Evangelicals in their fifties and sixties, who would normally be entering a time of greater freedom in life, are frequently raising their grandchildren. So the resources grandparents would otherwise put into their churches, they devote to their families in crisis. Further, they struggle to demonstrate godliness to grandchildren growing up amid the moral chaos of a wayward adult and the psychologized ethics of social workers.

All this can leave people in the prime of life heartsick.

For all practical purposes, then, a large proportion of evangelical families and their children are under the management of the state. The state’s system may be necessary: there are dangers to children during a divorce. The state’s workers often do the best they can to bring some order to children’s lives, and we should be grateful that there are Christians among them shining some light. But we have to face facts. Evangelical parents in this system are not as free to pass on their beliefs, even when they’re competent to do so.

Here’s the reality of our shared life.

If you have 400 people in your church, figure that 100 of them are (or have been) in the family court system. Their finances are almost entirely devoted to maintaining two households where there used to be one. And unless they have an unusually high personal income, they are not keeping up. Their emotional strength is spent trying to survive the strife and the loneliness. They have little time or energy to devote to their walk with the Lord.

100 people. Even when the economy is good. And the ripple effect spreads the weakness.

We have to be frank about our failure to govern ourselves and what that failure means. It means that the loss of American identity is not happening in Washington; it’s happening here in the tri-counties. The loss of the dignity of self-government is not Sacramento’s problem. It’s ours.

My parents have already decided who they’re voting for in 2012. The bumper sticker on their car says, “Reagan for President.”

In the stadium where he accepted the nomination for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan said, “At the heart of our message should be five simple familiar words. No big economic theories. No sermons on political philosophy. Just five short words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, peace.”

He delivered on that vision of self-government, and his legacy has come to us. What have we done with it?

I can speak for our church, and I believe I can speak for everyone in this room. We are determined to govern what is our own, and also what we share.

We are not going to allow children to be dragged off into a godless system. We are not going to let children be labeled victims by a system that offers no hope. We’re not going to let adults suffer the trials of divorce or illegitimacy alone. What happens to the least of these, happens to us.

People in our region are coming out of their doorways to challenge what happens on our sidewalks. They are building the tools to reassert self-government, and our church is contributing three.

One tool our community needs is churches that know their business. We have decided that church time is Gospel time. It is not time for politics, or hot-button issues, or slick entertainment. Furthermore, church time is not therapy time, where we focus on our “issues.” The time we spend together in the name of Jesus Christ is devoted to him, to preaching his Word, and to exalting the transforming power of his grace.

Do this at your church. Recover the Church’s true business. It’s the Gospel.

Second, our community needs a tool for discipleship. The core of our ministry is called SoulCare. It puts believers from many churches alongside each other to be equipped with the Gospel. There is nothing revolutionary about it; it’s just hours of face-time in the Word of God. We see this ministry as a tool for self-government through the Gospel, the body of Christ doing its work.

More and more believers from many churches are being trained to equip others in the Gospel, and to counsel families in crisis. We don’t win them all. Sometimes we are a resource for those trying to be godly in the midst of family break-up. But over the last 4 years, 26 marriages have been rebuilt by God’s grace, many of them pulled back from the brink of divorce. That’s 26 families that are not governed by social workers, but that govern themselves in the power of Christ.

At your church, find ways to recover the power of Christ’s body. Release that power.

Third, as a church we are investing heavily in North Valley Christian Schools. For single parents and for grandparents who want their children to know who they are in Christ, to know that they come from the grace of God in Christ, and to know that they are headed toward the Kingdom of Christ, this school is a critical resource.

At NVCS, both children and parents find connection, a shared life, with other believers. Material, emotional, and spiritual needs are met by the body of Christ on a daily basis, simply because people like you have come out to govern our sidewalk.

Our church has entered into an agreement to share facilities with NVCS because we want every dollar in our ministries to have maximum impact. We support the schools with dollars, with leaders, with hours. We’re doing it because we must go beyond taking care of our own, to take care of what the larger community of believers shares.

Thank you for coming out of your doorway and reasserting the dignity of self-government. Let’s be the region that finds once again the meaning of the word ours.


[1] The Federalist, No. 39.

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), pp 38-39.

A Community's Agony Over the Schatzes

by Matthew Raley Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz pleaded not guilty last Thursday to charges of torture and murder in the death of their 7-year-old daughter Lydia. The D.A. cited an autopsy concluding that she died of "'blunt force trauma' over a period of hours on Feb. 5, which caused a breakdown of muscle tissue fatally damaging her kidneys and other vital organs." The defense attorney said he is "exploring extensively ... other explanations for the death of this child."

For me this is not a news item or an abstract legal issue, but a regional agony.

I do not know the Schatzes. But I know and love many of their friends, a group that includes some of our church's families. This wide circle of people is grieving for Lydia and for her surviving brothers and sisters, whose lives have been upended.

Friends of the Schatzes are also grieving for the parents, praying for them and trying to understand how they could have committed such crimes. These friends cannot match the picture of the Schatz home that has emerged in news reports with the family they thought they knew.

I can empathize with their sorrow, and I have no desire to add to it.

There is a larger group of local believers. The vast majority of Christians I know are sickened and enraged by Lydia's death, and by the "not guilty" plea. They have no personal acquaintance with Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz, and feel at liberty to vent.

It is tempting to hold one perspective as more pure than the other. Friends might feel that they're maintaining love toward two sinners, no matter how extreme their sin. The wider community might feel that such love is twisted. Both perspectives have problems.

How should Christians conduct themselves in relation to the Schatz family? Some thoughts:

1. In their grief for the accused parents, the friends of Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz are not defending or rationalizing child abuse. Anybody whose loved one has committed a crime knows the feelings of watching justice be done -- understanding that it must be done, but also mourning over the personal losses. Friends have a right to grieve over this couple without their motives being impugned.

2. The community's expressions of rage against the Schatzes are understandable but unhealthy. Comments that I have read on local news sites are frequently violent, profane, and hysterical. (If this describes you, don't bother venting off-topic here. I am now moderating all comments.) The surviving Schatz children will eventually be exposed to the community's rage against their mom and dad. The children can't be shielded from it. Their grief will be long and complex, and they will not feel in the least comforted by the braying of a mob. Christians in particular should not join in. Justice is cool and deliberate for a reason.

3. I would urge friends of the Schatzes that this is not a moment for wishful thinking. Some may offer conspiracy theories about trumped-up election-year indictments or persecution of Christians in the media. These speculations blur the issue. The defense attorney's suggestion that there could be a cause of death besides the beatings will stand or fall on evidence. But it in no way invalidates the claim that there were beatings. This grim reality, reportedly established by the autopsy, is not now in dispute. We have to face the horror of the abuse. The glare of media attention on it is right.

4. There is inevitably the foolish person who wants to find "the good that God is doing" through Lydia's death. If you are this person, let me advise you as a pastor, and as a firm believer in Romans 8.28, that this is an excellent opportunity to keep your folly to yourself. Flippant applications of that verse are never a balm to those in mourning. There are times to grieve, to feel the bite of loss. This is a time for our whole community to feel the loss of a 7-year-old girl -- a loss that will not be restored in this life. Grief is good for us.

Our hope for Lydia and for ourselves is not in some repair of this life, but in the redemption stored up in the next.

Michael Pearl's Response To Critics

by Matthew Raley Here is Michael Pearl's response to those who have been warning about his teachings: laughter. You'd never know from his post that a girl had been killed. This is all about him, apparently.

By the way, what's up with this "our children" thing? Does he think he has millions of children?

You can read a devastating take-down of Pearl's statement to the Paradise Post at TulipGirl, who has been doing serious work on this issue.

Is Michael Pearl Responsible For a Girl's Death?

by Matthew Raley A few weeks ago, a prayer request went out at church for a family whose child had died suddenly. We later learned that the unnamed family was that of Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, now charged with the torture and murder of their 7-year-old adopted daughter Lydia.

The couple will enter pleas on March 18th.

Many of our people know the Schatzes personally through home school groups, so the story has already hit them hard. Could the couple really have done this? What could have motivated them?

But Butte County D.A. Mike Ramsey asserts a "direct connection" between Lydia's killing and the teachings of Michael Pearl, raising the killing to another level. The story has been picked up by Salon, which had already run a critical examination of Michael and Debi Pearl in 2006.

Many of our people read the Pearls. Privately, I have been asked several times over the years about the Pearls' teachings, and my answer has always been, "They're authoritarians. Run away." I give the same answer about Bill Gothard and Gary Ezzo, other child-rearing gurus. Since Lydia's death, however, I have been looking more closely at the Pearls' teaching, and I need to make my views public.

Before doing so, I want to be specific about where I think Michael Pearl's responsibility lies in relation to Lydia's death. Local law enforcement investigators and national journalists have not accused the Pearls of advocating child abuse, being careful to quote Pearl's warnings against doing physical harm to children.

These critics are making a different argument, namely that Michael Pearl irresponsibly encourages abusers, even if the encouragement is unintentional.

I agree, and I want to show you that the encouragement toward abuse is in Pearl's theology. His false gospel imposes mandates on parents that go far beyond what God requires.

1. Michael Pearl does not believe in the imputation of Adam's sin to all human beings.

He writes, "When a descendent of Adam reaches a level of moral understanding (sometime in his youth) he becomes fully, personally accountable to God and has sin imputed to him, resulting in the peril of eternal damnation." Pearl adds, "When man reaches his state of moral accountability, and, by virtue of his personal transgression, becomes blameworthy, his only hope is a work of grace by God alone."

This seems like a minor quibble, but it is profound. The Bible's teaching that all human beings have an inherited sin nature means that no human institution has the ability to purge sin and do away with guilt. Only Christ can change our nature. Throughout history, teachers consistently attack this doctrine in order to tell their followers, "If you put yourselves under my authority, you can learn the secret to getting rid of your sins."

Pearl imposes on parents the mandate to form godliness in a child before the "age of accountability." Pearl believes that parents have a direct role in saving children. The "hope" he offers in "a work of grace by God alone" is for those whose parents failed.

2. Michael Pearl believes that spanking delivers a child from guilt.

Because Pearl does not believe you inherit a sin nature, he articulates a new doctrine of salvation that is dependent on a parent's will. In his article, "In Defense of Biblical Chastisement", he writes,

When a child is bound in self-blame and low self-esteem, parents are not helpless. God has given them the gift of the rod. The rod can bring repentance, but it goes much deeper than that. The rod in the hands of a righteous authority will supply the child’s soul with that moment of judgment that he feels he so deserves. Properly applied, with instruction, it will absolve the child of guilt, cleanse his soul, and give him a fresh start through a confidence that all indebtedness is paid [my italics].

That simply annuls the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Notice that forgiveness is granted only on the basis of the punishment of the sinner, and that a human "righteous authority" is the source of this "gift." "All indebtedness is paid," Pearl says, not by Christ, but by the rod. No parent can believe this statement without also believing that he or she has the authority to cleanse a child of guilt.

Pearl goes much further:

To the child, a righteous parent is a surrogate god, representing the rule of law and the bar of justice. When the child is yet too young to fathom God, he is nonetheless able to relate to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God. The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation. It is the ultimate enforcer, preserving the child in authority and discipline until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God.

These statements are the logical and inevitable application of his semi-Pelagian view of sin. Before the age of accountability, O parent, thou art a god.

(For another detailed treatment of Pearl's teachings, cf this analysis.)

To spank a child as a reasoned limitation on his or her behavior is one thing. But to imagine that you are purging the child of the guilt of sin, and that the pain is psychologically purifying, is to cross into another rationale entirely. In the wrong mind, it forms the imperative to "give" more and more pain. Such a mind would ignore Pearl's warnings against abuse, to be sure, but not necessarily his logic.

The news accounts of "quarter-inch plumbing supply line" sold by Pearl are chilling, but nowhere near as disturbing as the doctrine he sells.

The Political Role of Churches

by Matthew Raley The religious right asserts that America must be turned back to biblical values through legislation and judicial decisions. It assumes that correcting the laws will free a godly citizenry to restore American culture. Thus, today's social conservatism tends to be defined by what politicians will do.

Over a series of posts (starting here), I have rejected all three points.

Start with the assumption that evangelical Americans are godly, and therefore have the capacity to restore the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evangelicals have shown little capacity even to restore their own churches, much less America.

If the assumption about a godly citizenry is mistaken, then the religious right's whole strategy is flawed. Without citizens who actually follow Christ, the legislative and judicial changes sought by the religious right will not restore our culture.

Even further, what the religious right proposes is not conservatism.

Anglo-American traditionalism of the Burkean variety does not put up with abstract principles. Genuine social conservatism says, "The state must deal with the culture it actually governs, not the theoretical culture it desires." The ethics and ways of the people rule the nation. This is not only the view of conservatives from Burke to Eliot, it is the basic view of the state taught in the Bible.

Conservatives know that healthy cultures change through strong mediatorial institutions, especially families and churches. Conservatives call them mediatorial because they stand between the individual and the government. These institutions pass on and enforce ethics. They nurture relationships that mold people through influence rather than punishment. If the state tries to change a culture by force -- and the law is force -- it will only twist people's ways.

In this analysis, the ruinous effect of political liberalism has not been to impose sinful patterns on a citizenry that would never otherwise choose them, but to weaken the mediatorial institutions that, for evangelicals, pass on the Gospel. The pastor has been replaced by the therapist, the church by the welfare agency, and the family by the social worker.

I agree that our nation needs to return to the biblical worldview. But it will never do so until those who profess the name of Christ actually follow him, and follow him institutionally. If evangelicals want a political impact, they need to do what the founders of America envisioned: they need to govern themselves.

Therefore, I see two political goals for churches in American society.

1. Churches and families must campaign and vote for the preservation of their liberties. Aggressively, they should make the case that freedom of association is foundational to a healthy, peaceful society. No faction should be allowed to impose its principles on the consciences of others. The approach has complications. But if we base our arguments about specific issues on this principle, we will find broader agreement, and we will preserve our local spheres of influence.

2. Churches must not only grow, they must govern themselves with the Gospel. They should stop trying to be malls, and return to their natural mandate, both from the New Testament and from Western culture at large, of being strong mediatorial institutions. If churches return to the calling Christ has given them, a cultural and political impact will follow.

The religious right's populist tactic of blaming elites for our cultural problems is tempting, but it is not conservatism. Conservative Christians must come to grips with the fact that the departure of the nation from a biblical worldview is not a failure of the federal government, but of self-government. If we govern ourselves once again, there can be a return of our culture to Christianity.

The Colossians 1.28 Plan, Concluded

by Matthew Raley The tired line on ministry is that it's not our job to produce results, only to be faithful. Unfortunately, I hear this most often from people who agree with me theologically.

I am convinced that God alone produces spiritual life. I hold and teach the reformed understanding of salvation, that Jesus Christ has purchased a finished redemption for his people, and that he sovereignly works out this redemption in their lives. This includes opening our eyes to his truth and enabling us to believe him.

Life is God's alone to give.

But some pastors in this doctrinal camp, when discussing the practice of ministry, misapply these truths. They're too quick to explain a lack of spiritual growth in their churches as God's problem, not theirs. Many failings of craft can be responsible for people not growing in Christ. If a pastor doesn't make truths clear but masks them in technical language, people will not grow. If he purposefully opens the Bible to both mind and emotions, life will blossom in most.

The sovereignty of God should not be twisted into an excuse for inattentive, self-satisfied workmanship.

God has given congregations tasks to do. He declares that he will give spiritual life in Christ through specific methods, like preaching. Devoting ourselves to these tasks with fervency is at the heart of what I am calling the Colossians 1.28 plan. I am so crass as to call it a business plan: we can direct resources into this toil and expect a return on the investment, namely, maturity in Christ. We should be bold in this expectation because God has declared that he is in this business.

So, I have laid out five outcomes for which we should toil (here and here), sketching the nature of the resources that need to be directed to toward them. I believe that, without these outcomes, church life is mere words.

Here is the final outcome I see as essential:

6. Public integrity in spiritual governance.

Spiritual governance consists of the actions and systems by which elders help restore people from specific sins. Jesus teaches his process for restoring people in Matthew 18.10-35. The purpose of confronting a sinful action or pattern is to arrive at forgiveness and repentance. The purpose is not to punish (which is why I increasingly feel the common label "church discipline" is inaccurate).

When spiritual governance is effective, the average church member understands his or her responsibility to keep relationships clear of breaches, lies, and grudges, doing everything possible to give and seek forgiveness. In this atmosphere, there is an informal ethic that limits gossip. Individuals seek counsel how to resolve their conflicts respectfully. Personal conflicts, in the vast majority of cases, do not break out into public feuds.

I am not talking about theory. In ten years here at Orland, this is the ethic the congregation has demonstrated over and over. Our life together has never been without conflict. But we have seen continuous restoration.

This is long-term, constant, exhausting work. In Orland, it has the been fruit of many senior pastors striving against bitterness over many decades. I teach on this issue regularly, and the elders are constantly advising people about conflict resolution. The counseling and discipleship systems I described last week are essential.

Because churches have committed so many resources to entertainment, they have no time or energy left for this labor. They simply are not governing in the way Christ called them. Pastors are continually "putting out fires" rather than teaching people how to keep from starting them.

The outcome of governance has to be public integrity. Part of this integrity is the leadership's record of discretion and achievement in helping people be restored to each other in Christ. Another part of it is simple justice. Known sins that go unaddressed, hasty judgments, inaccurate public statements, vendettas, and ignorance of Scriptural application will harm the leadership's public integrity. The aim of governance to build a confidence, even amid many imperfections and mistakes, that leaders are going to initiate restoration in appropriate ways, at the right levels.

The word for this is trust. Without it, the whole spiritual life of the church degrades into mere words.

Here is the heart of what I have been saying over the past few months.

Local churches have been fooling themselves that they can accomplish God's business by toiling in politics and entertainment. As a result of this confused planning, churches are closing. Let churches toil at God's business again, and we will see amazing results.

A final thought about how this relates to genuine conservatism next week.

The Colossians 1.28 Plan, Continued

by Matthew Raley I believe churches need to have a business plan to reverse their decline, a plan that directs resources toward the New Testament goal of moving people to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1.28-29).

The reason local churches are in decline is that they have confused goals, and incoherent business plans. They direct resources toward activities and programs that contribute nothing to a person's spiritual maturity -- even detract from it. Consequently they get zero New Testament return on investment.

Last post, I gave three outcomes that a church business plan needs to produce. I think we either "toil" to produce this kind of maturity in Christ, "struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works" within us, or else admit that our church life is nothing but words.

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible. Evangelical churches say they want this outcome, but mere pep talks will never produce it. Significant resources have to go to preaching. A pastor has to labor in scholarship, and in honing his rhetorical craft.

2. An individual, daily practice of worship. Again, churches say they want this. But ask leaders what operations they have put in place to produce it and the response tends to be vague.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment. Many evangelicals don't want to honor older people. There is little emphasis on it, much less any clear operational thinking on how to teach it, much less any resources devoted to it. Indeed, I've never heard an evangelical leader say that honoring parents is a decisive part of nurturing healthy congregational life.

I also promised additional outcomes. And here are two:

4. Daily faith in God financially.

The people I know who are gaining Christ-like maturity are trusting God economically. I have found that people who want godliness without growing in their practice of work, giving, and spending restraint are deluded.

People must be apprenticed in trusting God with money, and this can't be done solely in a classroom. Trusting God economically is learned through counseling, or through a trusted friendship, or through that great but neglected teacher, an employer. I am convinced that churches need to become junctions of faith, work, and entrepreneurship.

Much of our discipleship in Orland actually happens on the job. Our leaders invest their personal time and finances heavily in job creation. Many of our people, some profoundly weak in crucial skills, have been trained by our employers spiritually. These employers do not put up with excuses. The process takes hard, daily, purposeful, prayerful work. It can only be done by employers who believe Christ transforms people.

A promising young guy named Matt moved to Orland without a job several years ago to attend our church with his new wife. We were just starting WestHaven Assisted Living, and our hard-nosed-employer-in-chief, Wade, offered Matt a job. After a few short years, Matt is a skilled manager, churchman, husband, and father. He is a self-controlled director his time and money, and a multi-generational asset to this community. He will tell you that God's power working through his boss is a major factor in his growth.

Building a community to provide this kind of organic discipleship costs money, hundreds of hours of paid and volunteer time, expertise, and requires a willingness to say no to many decent but ultimately frivolous activities that dissipate energy. It is also slow going. But ...

Return on investment: By apprenticing people economically, the church gains disciplined volunteer workers and generous financial givers. Capacity for ministry expands here.

5. Gospel-focused spirituality within the trials of divorce.

Divorce is today what slavery was in the 1st century: a common form of servitude for Christians. But if a church uses its resources wisely, it can toil in the power of the Spirit and succeed at producing godly people even amid the emotional, sexual, and financial losses of divorce.

To accomplish this, a church must reject the lie that divorced people are hopeless, and believe that Christ will use them to build his Kingdom. A church must deploy staff both to offer intensive crisis counseling and to train people in the congregation to equip each other biblically. Orland began putting resources into this kind of equipping system years ago, even putting one of our women through a M.A. program in biblical counseling. The work is slow and costly, but ...

Return on investment: we have a growing team of lay disciple-makers, a documented crisis intervention system that has successfully interacted with welfare and court systems, and a lengthening roster of saved marriages. And we are a small church.

More outcomes next week.

Reverse the Decline of the Local Church

by Matthew Raley As we've seen over several weeks (starting here), three trends contribute to churches' loss of mission:

1. Politicization: the alliance between evangelicals and the religious right has confused the purpose of church life. Many now view churches as centers of political activism to "redeem the culture."

2. Media dependence: Many churches are vendors for conferences, videos, and books from parachurch organizations. Such churches do not have a mission developed locally, but purchase a mission from Focus on the Family or Rick Warren. This trend has degraded relationships, as media-focused living always does.

3. Weakened gospel: Many evangelicals are hocking the messages of political change and personal fulfillment, which, while salable, are not the message of the New Testament. The Gospel of the apostles is about the resurrection of human beings from the dead in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This message can only be communicated effectively by a church with profound and stubborn focus. No focus, no Gospel.

A business plan for local churches has emerged from these trends. Attract a lot of new people. Give them activities that are fun and broadly Christian. Try to motivate them toward believing in Jesus.

Like any business plan, this one says that investment will yield a return. The investments required for attracting masses of people -- in snap-crackle-and-pop media, high-energy staff, well-designed activities that people want to join -- will yield maturity in Christ over time. That return on investment will then power the church into more growth.

Three problems.

This business plan is expensive in both time and money. Furthermore, this expensive plan has been designed to serve a confused mission. Finally, it does not deliver the promised Christian maturity. The failure to deliver a return is now a documented fact, published by, among other sources, the eminence grise of church growth, Willow Creek.

In business terms, investment plus unprofitability equals closure. Churches are closing because they operate on poor business plans designed to support a confused mission.

The issues are both spiritual and practical. The goal of the New Testament has to be restored in its brilliant clarity: move people toward completeness in Christ (e.g. Colossians 1.24-29). The spiritual requirement for this restoration is depth of experience in relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Leaders must have this depth, and they must bring congregations along.

But the practical requirement is just as important. If there is no business plan to advance the New Testament mandate, then church life deteriorates to mere words. How is your church going to move people toward completeness in Christ? What resources of money, personnel, and time are you going to devote to the task corporately? And how are you going to measure the return on that investment?

I believe that no business plan to direct the investment of church resources will yield a return today unless it produces the following outcomes:

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible.

Churches need to devote money and time to the exposition of Scripture from original languages at weekly worship. This teaching must be effective enough to spur one-on-one discussion of the Scriptures among the congregation. The scholarship must be fresh, the applications specific, and the presentation excellent. The financial cost is the salary of a preaching pastor. The time involved is also costly: few educators have to produce brand-new material every single week.

Return on investment: the deepening and stimulation of the congregation's intellectual and spiritual life. (Don't underestimate how important this is: a community needs a clear agenda.)

2. An individual, daily practice of worship.

Individuals need to be apprenticed in the spiritual disciplines. This requires a financial investment in staff and in lay leadership training so that the intensive mentoring is being done by lots of people. Here, too, the time invested is costly: apprenticeship is about face-time with individuals and small groups.

Return on investment: intensifying the vitality of people's relationship with God and experience of the Gospel. This refreshes a person's motivation to serve God, which in church life is the first thing to dry up.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment.

This requires the programmatic decision to mix generations intentionally rather than segregate them. If there is no reverence cultivated in younger people for elders, church life is mere words. This should not cost a lot of money that a church wouldn't otherwise spend. It need not cost any. But it does cost time in focused planning.

Return on investment: Reverence for your elders refreshes motivations again with love and regard for prized relationships, and it establishes a natural form of ethical accountability.

There are several more crucial outcomes I'll outline next week, along with specific methods we have found useful in Orland toward these ends.

But I'll sign off with this: criticizing the religious right, media-driven culture, or the church growth movement is not enough to reverse the local church's decline. Dippy stewardship is not overcome by preaching or prayer alone, but by stark realism. And that means taking a hard look at business plans.