Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at

Hope in the Pharisee's Spiral

by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.

The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.

I tapped the little trashcan icon.

That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).

The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.

The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.

Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.

If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.

They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?

Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.

As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.

At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at

Amy Grant, Entertainment, and Worship

by Matthew Raley After the North State Symphony's show with Amy Grant in Redding last week, conductor Kyle Pickett button-holed me for a discussion. Grant had sung "El Shaddai" near the end of the show, getting predictably warm-hearted applause. And the predictability was at the core of Kyle's question.

"Is that kind of response real faith in God? Or is it the result of a great performer crafting her show well?"

Kyle wasn't questioning either Grant’s or our audience's sincerity. He was questioning the mixture of entertainment and worship. Good performances and devout worship are both emotionally powerful. But the worshipper’s emotions are supposed to come from a connection with God, not with a performer. Kyle put his finger on a longstanding issue for Protestant evangelicals: when does a skillful performance eclipse God's presence? And when does human passion drown reverence?

He said, "You need to write an article on this." That's my cue.

For Protestants, this issue goes back to the Reformation.

The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did away with the distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” They taught that all aspects of life give glory God in Christ--all vocations, all settings, all human endeavor, not just church activities. Colossians 3:17 says, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." This principle turns even a Christian's "secular" pursuits into worship. This is why Grant sings "El Shaddai" in the same concert with "Big Yellow Taxi."

But the reformers also taught a high view of corporate worship, fashioning a restrained liturgy to emphasize solemnity in the presence of a holy God. No "Big Yellow Taxi" as an offertory.

J. S. Bach often ran afoul of Pietist Lutherans because these two principles were (and are) in tension. A consummate performer and devout worshipper, Bach had no problem giving virtuosity free rein in church. But the Pietists wanted music kept simple to give free rein, as they saw it, to God.

The evangelicals who make up most of Grant's audience have a solution to this tension. Ditch solemnity. Let the popular passions loose with all their boisterous sentimentality. Amy Grant, church, entertainment, worship--they're all whooping it up at the same gospel party.

As an evangelical, I'm not thrilled with that solution. Entertainment often becomes a flippant substitute for doing business with God. To celebrate new life in Christ without attention to the fact that it came at the cost of his life is presumptuous. Because our sins are destructive to ourselves, others, and God’s glory, Christ's forgiveness calls us to express something deeper than "Woo hoo!" True worship comes from an attitude of submission, while entertainment stops at pleasure.

Still, I did not feel that Grant's "El Shaddai" encouraged flippancy in the audience. She directed the audience’s pleasure to the right source.

First, she was clear about being on stage to entertain. Great performers are able to touch deeper themes without being pretentious or manipulative by being straightforward about their purpose. “I’m here to give you pleasure.”

Second, Grant's three decades as a celebrity have seen plenty of controversy. She has received criticism for both her career and personal decisions. From her perspective of the ups and downs of fame, to sing about one of the Hebrew names of God, who "age to age is still the same," is to make a very personal statement of devotion.

Third, she used the craft of performance to focus attention on the words of the song. A manipulative performer would've pulled out all the stops--the full orchestra, back-up singers, a couple of chromatic modulations--to get the audience on their feet with a longstanding hit. Instead, Grant sang alone, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, communicating with directness and intimacy. This is how performers say, "Remember this one. Walk out with this song on your mind."

Of all the things she could have said at such a moment, she chose to say that God is always faithful to us. It was a great use of performance skill—giving pleasure with truth.

What the audience does with such a moment is another matter. Experiencing Grant's testimony, even identifying with it, is too passive. The glory of Christ calls us to go much further, and entertainment cannot take us there. To worship with integrity, we have to marshal all our skills to spotlight Christ.

To put it more directly, Amy Grant has offered her worship. Where’s ours?

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."

Vertigo: The Ink-Blot Problem

by Matthew Raley Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?

These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.

These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film -- or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.

It is a rare work that has both greatness and a "message." Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.

In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that "Christian" books, music, and films will have a "good message," and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.

There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage "secular" films.

For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors.[1] Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.[2]

Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.

Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.

One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration.[3] Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology,[4] and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations.[5] More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters,[6] and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.[7]

Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.

There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.

But we have to do good work first.

[1]John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[2]Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.

[3]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4]Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.

[5]Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.

[6]Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.

[7]Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.

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.

The President's View of Rights

by Matthew Raley The last couple of weeks have seen a change of tone among Democrats about President Obama's requirement that religious institutions be forced to provide "contraception" in their health plans, and about his "compromise" that the institutions themselves don't have to pay for it but that insurers still have to provide it.

Democrats think this is a brilliant move -- and they may be right.

There are outright lies in the president's formulation of this policy, in addition to the standard tactical truth-benders.

It is a lie that this policy only concerns contraception. The president's rule covers the abortion pill. Abortion is not contraception. His first policy was that religious institutions must provide abortion coverage. Now his "compromise" is that everyone must pay for it in their insurance premiums.

The president's tactical gambit is that, if people swallow the lie that the issue is contraception, then they will also believe that the only people in America who oppose his rule are Catholic bishops. The president is hoping that evangelicals like me will assume that the only problem here is Rome's opposition to preventing conception.

This is not a Roman Catholic issue, as if "only a bishop" could possibly oppose this rule. When asked not about "contraception" but specifically about the abortion pill requirement, Americans oppose the rule, and it's not close.

Well, let's be blindly generous. Let's pretend that the word "contraception" is not a cover-up, that the president is not pandering to anti-Catholic bigotry, and that Americans do support free abortion by prescription. There's still this little issue of rights.

Here's Nicholas Kristof on religious liberty in a recent column: "The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can. But we ban polygamy, for example, even for the pious. Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to act."

Again, let's adopt the spirit of blind generosity.

We're going to accept the equating of belief in polygamy with opposition to abortion as if it were completely natural. We're going to ignore the fact that this controversy is not over a "freedom to act" but over a freedom not to act -- that is, my right not to pay for abortion pills. We're even going to ignore this interesting assertion: American life is founded on the principle that "we" will "try" to "respect" religious beliefs. This is a brief counter-factual exercise. We're just going to focus on the words, "Your freedom to believe [a religious teaching] does not always give you a freedom to act."

That formulation might be acceptable to those who do not value religious liberty. But let's see if it still works when applied to other freedoms.

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to speak."

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to vote."

"Your freedom to buy property does not always give you a freedom to keep it."

"Your freedom to invest does not always give you a freedom to keep the profits."

"Your mere existence in utero does not always give you a freedom to be born."

The president and Mr. Kristof are free to believe that rights owe their existence to governmental fiat. They have the right to reject the real "basic principle" of the United States, that liberties come from God. But in our country -- and it still actually belongs to us -- they do not have the right to subvert the Constitution by administrative law.

The president may get away with this. His tactic may be as brilliant as many Democrats claim. Life will go on and future battles over religious liberties will be fought on very different ground. But let's not pretend this is politics as usual.

Gingrich and Social Conservatives

by Matthew Raley The victory of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina puts evangelicals and other social conservatives at a crossroads. Gingrich by any measure is morally equal to Bill Clinton, upon whom social conservatives released so much rhetorical lava in the 1990s. Yet one of the GOP's most traditionalist states has just told its delegates to vote for Gingrich at the convention.

The message is hard to misunderstand. South Carolina Republicans could have voted for three family men whose private morality is unquestioned. Ron Paul is one. Mitt Romney lives the way social conservatives say public men should live. His pro-life credentials are weak, but no weaker than George H. W. Bush's were. Rick Santorum also walks the family walk, and has the additional advantage of being publicly acclaimed by evangelical leaders at a summit in Texas.

No deal. It's Gingrich.

According to exit polls, Gingrich won almost every voter category, including independents. Women favored him 38% to Romney's 29%. Married people favored him over Romney 41% to 28%. Gingrich won both "somewhat" and "very" conservative voters by large margins. He swept evangelicals with 44%. Romney and Santorum each took 21% of evangelicals, meaning that even their combined vote wouldn't have beaten Gingrich.

The conclusion is inescapable: the people who wanted President Clinton removed, and who only recently heaved Mark Sanford (R) from the governor's office for his notorious adultery, just said that adultery doesn't matter in Gingrich's case.

The hypocrisy cannot be healed by excuses such as:

1. Christianity is really about forgiveness.

Rick Perry used the line when he endorsed Gingrich. And, to be sure, there's something in this forgiveness thing. But some evangelicals in the 90s, notably Tony Campolo, tried to alert evangelicals to the gospel's potential for President Clinton, and got the smack-down. Is forgiveness only for Republicans?

2. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy that uses the politics of personal destruction.

Yes, the ABC interview with Gingrich's ex-wife was transparently an attempt to sway the South Carolina primary. It was too exquisitely timed. But, when the words were "vast right-wing conspiracy," social conservatives scoffed.

3. The accusations against President Clinton were never about sex, but about his perjury.

Yes, the impeachment process was about perjury. But what really bothered social conservatives at the time was Bill Clinton's cultural significance. He was not merely a 1960s liberal, but a 1960s libertine. He represented the triumph of moral relativism and the mainstreaming of sexual immorality. Or so they said. Why not Gingrich? Why doesn't his behavior equally symbolize the decline of sexual ethics? Symbolize it more?

Bottom line: social conservatives in Bob Jones country voted for Gingrich because they think he can win. And that's always the bottom line in politics, left and right.

I do not believe Clinton's or Gingrich's transgressions tell us much about American culture, in the 1990s or today. In fact, public presidential immorality has been worse in the past. Grover Cleveland assumed responsibility for an illegitimate child in 1884, going on to serve two terms as president. The public shame of such politicians is just the continuing story of power. For the story of American culture, we have to examine what ordinary people do.

I'm one of many pastors have been arguing for years that the evangelical political machine is wrong both about the gospel and politics. Those who believe we can take back our culture through political means, and who have been selling us politicians for the last 25 years, have yet to show one cultural transformation. They keep stumbling over their spin. They have failed to understand that the political process rarely shapes culture, but is culture's slave.

The only hope for transforming our nation is for evangelicals to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people's hearts. When we get our message clear again, we will see God change lives, and our culture will change as a result. Pastors are doing this with leaders of both parties, choosing to see them as men and women who need counsel, healing, and repentance rather than as enemies who should be crushed. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. If followers of Christ never said another word about pro-family policies and spoke only of the restoring power of Christ through his death and resurrection, we would be amazed at the results.

The power-game will always be with us. It's past time for us to choose Christ instead.

God's Redemptive Justice

by Matthew Raley Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. "The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so."

The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.

Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God's every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God's nature.

Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, "Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain."

Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity's evolution.

Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God's character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?

Let's probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).

Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ's blood to be the "propitiation," the appeasement of God's justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." That is, God's justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.

Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God's nature. But to call God's nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do "remedial" sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.

In other words, Christ's death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God's plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God's wrath. It paid the ransom.

No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.

The argument from God's mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used -- indeed, has been used -- to attack Christ's atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn't have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.

I have never been impressed with modernism's treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today's notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.

Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. "'The Sopranos' never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it."

Rob Bell's notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. "But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

The Pantheon's Embrace

by Matthew Raley The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.

As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.

Time, the American century's literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell's teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.

I'll write another post about Bell's book, Love Wins. I don't want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won't draw any conclusions about Bell's teachings based on Meacham's piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.

My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.

How does Time present Bell?

He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as "a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following." The message in this package seems to be, "Don't mess with Bell. He's way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him."

How does Meacham frame the theological issues?

Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell's ideas. Of Bell's suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, "If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?" Meacham accurately says that Bell is "more at home" within the "expansive liberal tradition" of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

R. Albert Mohler notes, "This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake."

So, hat-tip to Meacham.

What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?

The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, "All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest."

The invitation is pointed. Meacham's theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father's Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell's Christianity is "less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions." Adopting Bell's attitude will get evangelicals the "seat at the table" they have coveted.

Further, the invitation is backed by power -- the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, "Is Bell's Christianity ... on an inexorable rise?" Then he quotes Bell himself: "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air." Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.

The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time's invitation to evangelicals. You know you can't hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.

The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome's culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon's blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor's permission to rule.

This is Bell's moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus' followers do not deny the other gods their place.

What is Rob Bell's creed?

The Path To Genuine National Renewal

by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.

If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.

President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.

A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.

So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.

Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?

Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?

We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.

Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.

None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.

If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:

Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.

And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)

If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.

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.

Glenn Beck's Rally For Religion

by Matthew Raley Last Saturday's headline at the New York Times pretty much said it all: "At Lincoln Memorial, a Call for Religious Rebirth."

Glenn Beck aims to unite evangelicals and Mormons spiritually using generalized pietistic language to make America more religious. According to the Times: “'Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck told the crowd, in what was part religious revival and part history lecture. 'America today begins to turn back to God.'”

Several features of that statement strike me.

For starters, Beck does not say what is happening that is "beyond man." Indeed, his second statement undermines that portentous claim: The nation's repentance begins "today," with Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, powered by high celebrity wattage and stimulated by plenty of free media. The event, whatever it was, came entirely "from man," and was not in any sense "beyond man."

Further, Beck's use of the idea of repentance is safely generalized. "America," Beck says, the nation corporately, turns back to God. The populist implications are clear: we who already follow "God" have gathered, and those other people who do not follow "God" would do well to pay attention.

Even further, the repentance is vague because the "God" to whom "America" is turning is a squishy sort of being. Beck appeals to us to pray to this God on our knees in front of our children. This God drops giant sandbags on Beck's head, apparently. But does this God forgive sinners? Did he give his Son in an atoning death to save them? Is it this God's sole purpose to build an eternal kingdom for His Son that is categorically greater than America? Is this, in other words, the God who revealed himself to all in the Bible?

Or is this the God who invites us to be initiated into one secret teaching after another under the strict guidance of a prophet in Utah, whose revelations continue to add to the good but insufficient work of Jesus Christ? Is he the God of the gnostics?

Those devoted to mere religiosity won't care. But those devoted to the Gospel should.

Ross Douthat in the Times nailed what went on at the rally with his usual perceptiveness.

Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals’ enduring support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women. The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.

Beck's Mormonism blends in well with the lifestyle of religiosity that the rally sought to affirm, and the evangelicals he woos always seem to be desperate for someone to affirm them. The courtship has been ongoing and shrewd.

David Gibson at Politics Daily reported earlier in the summer on Beck's commencement speech at Liberty University.

"I want you to know that the invitation to speak today is not meant as an endorsement of my faith," he said, absolving Falwell -- son of the late Jerry Falwell Sr., icon of the religious right and founder of Liberty, which he envisioned as a Baptist Notre Dame. "But I also want you to understand that my agreeing to speak here today is an endorsement of your faith."

Big applause, understandably, and then a good follow-up, as Beck told his listeners that this was no time for division on the right over things like doctrine and dogma. "We may have differences, but we need to find those things that unite us."

It's possible, even likely, that the courtship is a two-way street. I can readily understand some evangelical leaders making the most of an opportunity to influence Beck toward a true understanding of the Gospel.

But why are they promoting his bid for national spiritual leadership? Having a man who has not professed faith in Christ alone be a commencement speaker to Christian graduates, to say the least, is a novel form of outreach. And forming a "black-robe regiment" of evangelical pastors to amplify populist pieties under Mormon generalship is not going to advance the Bible's Gospel. Such efforts will blur it.

That does indeed sound like something "beyond man," but not from the direction of heaven.

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.

The Behavior Modification Gospel

by Matthew Raley

So, I'm watching the ads on "mute" and I notice the repetitive cycling of images. One public service spot against smoking goes like this: parent takes a drag from a cigarette, kid puffs on his asthma inhaler, parent with smoke, kid with inhaler, smoke, inhaler, smoke, inhaler.

Soon, I'm fighting for breath myself.

This is the state of California spending yet more money it doesn't have to change the behavior of its citizenry, and using the time-honored marketing tactic of repetition. It will probably work. I feel guilty by the end it and I've never smoked a cigarette.

Our society is mad about behavior modification. It works.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) became one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century by applying a simple discovery. He observed that, if you wanted a rat to press a bar, prodding him with stimuli was less effective than rewarding him after he pressed it. Skinner taught how positive and negative reinforcement could change behavior.

The applications go well beyond marketing and management.

On June 25, 2006, the New York Times published an article called, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." Author Amy Sutherland related that, in the course of researching a book about animal trainers, she had an epiphany. "I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband."

Could she get her husband to pick his dirty shirts off the floor and put them in the hamper? By rewarding small steps toward the desired outcome, she found that, lo, she could.

Her article was on the most-emailed list for a long while.

Evangelical parents are keen to train their kids in the right behaviors, and their focus is overwhelmingly on  modification strategies. Here is some advice on how to deal "creatively" with lying:

Draw up a contract with your child. After everyone agrees that lying, for example, is a cause for correction, establish and transcribe a reasonable punishment. Have you and your child sign and date the document. Then, whenever a situation comes up that would invite lying, gently remind him about the contract. Knowing that you will follow through on the penalty may be the extra incentive your child needs to choose to tell the truth.

Notice that the decision about lying is incentivized. The child makes a voluntary agreement about the punishment, and is reminded of it under temptation. If this scheme works, the child is not being taught to tell the truth, but to negotiate and weigh consequences. If I wanted to nurture a little pragmatist, this is exactly what I would do.

More from the same article:

Last week we ran into a few "heart" issues with Haven. It all came to a head when we caught her lying. Her correction has been to listen to the New Testament on tape. She usually gets to listen to an Adventures in Odyssey tape, but for the next 20 nights she will be filling her heart with the Truth.

Not the New Testament, Mom! Anything but that! Sentimentalizing the consequence with the words "filling her heart with Truth" doesn't cover up the fact that the Bible is being used as negative reinforcement.

Locally, we are dealing with the dark side of behavior modification in the killing of a 7-year-old girl. Michael Pearl's teaching on parenting is now under deserved scrutiny, not because he advocates child abuse (which he does not) but because of his extreme views about training children.

Pearl repeatedly compares children with animals, and uses the words training and conditioning interchangeably, as here (To Train Up a Child, p 12):

If the dog learns through conditioning (consistent behavior on the part of the trainer) that he will never be allowed to violate his master's command, he will always obey. If parents carefully and consistently train up a child, his or her performance will be as consistently satisfying as that rendered by a well trained seeing-eye dog.

"Performance." "Consistently satisfying." Even if that expansive claim were true, I wouldn't want my sons to obey like dogs. I want them to obey as respectful human beings.

Pearl makes an easy target, with this kind of irresponsible comparison and with his outlandish doctrine. But our culture as a whole is fixated on behavior modification. From marketing to management to relationships, we are profoundly manipulative. And evangelical Christians are little different.

I believe Christian parenting can demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ. Christ does not condition children for performance; he raises them up in new life. A parent's job is to guide a unique little person, made in the image of God, to his or her Savior.

This starts with recognizing that the child's soul and conscience are able to relate to God directly, apart from our control (Luke 1.39-45; Matthew 18.1-4; Mark 10.13-16). Further, a wise parent does not frame behavioral issues in terms of giving a satisfactory performance, but in terms of the new life Christ gives (Colossians 3.1-17).

Our parenting should be about Christ, not about us.

It's time to reject the degrading puppetry of behavior modification, regardless of whether the puppeteer is a fundamentalist or a psychologist. We need to engage firmly, humbly, and humanely with children's souls.

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.