An Open Letter to My Church: Toward a Deeper Unity

Loved Ones, If there is one gem I treasure most from our life together, it is our unity.

Paul teaches that being filled with the Holy Spirit consists  in "addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." This Spirit-animated unity is what Paul commands us to guard and deepen (Ephesians 4.1-3; 5.18-21).

You are following Paul's teaching. You are building a community upon the gospel, and you are seeing the Spirit's blessing in specific ways.

To begin with, your unity in Christ is crossing many human barriers. Old and young sing the same songs together. All walks of life are represented among us, from the agricultural to the corporate, and this diversity of skills makes our ministry broader. The unity you have in Christ enfolds not only families from other races, but mixed-race families as well.

No one planned this diversity. It is the Spirit's blessing on your humility and love.

Your unity also reaches to past generations. You are a congregation that values the ministry of those who have gone before us, and that realizes the power of continuity from one generation to the next. You not only pursue knowledge of our church's history, but you pursue the teachings of godly thinkers from times and places that are far-off.

You believe that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is bigger than this church.

The unity you share in Christ has spread to other churches as well. You have made common plans with ministries not only in Orland, but also across the tri-counties region.

An important reason for your unity is your pursuit of sound doctrine. I am amazed and delighted at how people from many theological traditions come here to find a common body of truth in the Bible. We have Calvinists, Arminians, charismatics, Nazarenes, Lutherans, worshipers from the Church of Christ, and even a few Baptists. The desire of all is to hear the Scriptures alone.

You have not made a superficial contract to tolerate each other, with disagreements ignored or papered over. You have a settled resolution to follow Christ together.

As we have said over the past several weeks of this campaign, this is a moment to deepen our unity.

A new building will never be the source of a deeper spiritual life together. But our Father, as we venture larger work in the name of His Son, will be that source.

In the next several years, if we fix our hope on Christ as Master and Redeemer, we will see God do astounding things, and not only in providing facilities. We will see Him bring people to faith in Christ, heal marriages, and raise up new workers for His Kingdom in greater numbers than before. We will see our own doubts turned to faith, our own sins forgiven and turned to markers of the Spirit's transforming power.

We will stock a treasury of cross-purchased gems. And the One who paid at the cross will be the focus of our shared joy.

Consider your part in this work. Pray for an even deeper unity with Christ and His body. And fix your hope on Him.

In Jesus Christ,

Matthew Raley

Passing a Kingdom Mindset On

On Sunday, as part of our campaign for a new facility, we raised the question of how we should pass a Kingdom mindset to our children. We raise this question because it would be tragic to secure a physical tool for Kingdom work, but fail to bequeath a life-giving spirituality. Our challenges in this task are immense. Consider just three.

1. The prevailing measurement of God according to self.

Both American society at large and evangelical churches tend to view God in terms of human problems and desires. God is only valued to the extent that he is useful in our daily lives. God, from this point of view, is always small.

If this measurement of God prevails in our children's minds, then they will not inherit a Kingdom worldview. In Kingdom terms, God is infinitely large, and his purposes carry human beings far beyond their horizons. Human beings are to be measured in terms of God, from whom they derive their life, dignity, and potential.

In our families, then, we have to overcome a powerful cultural prejudice, showing children that they become large only if God is large first.

2. The busyness of adult schedules.

The lack of time dedicated to conversation and activities with our children (T.V. doesn't count), is the biggest practical barrier to passing a Kingdom worldview to them.

In days past, parents and children sustained the family by working together, not just on farms but in cities as well. The sheer amount of time they spent together created a bond between generations, and helped foster a continuity of worldview.

The profusion of entertainments today, all of them preferable to familiar and dull company at home, together with the dispersion of adults into their own worlds of work, has cut the primary line that transmits worldview: time.

In our families, we have to discover new scheduling combinations that are godly.

3. The lack of adult devotional intensity.

Adults return home from a work-world that tends to drain their passion, disrupt their sense of purpose, and break their integrity into compartments. The face that their children see, then, is often the face of worldliness seeking rest from its cares.

So the words that children hear about God from their Christian parents, living such lives, are out of tune with the actions of self-indulgence that maintain the adults' emotional reserves. The adult church-world appears to be filled with pieties, in the worst sense, while the adult work-world receives genuine devotion.

For adults to pass a Kingdom mindset to children, the adults have to be refreshed, not by brain-candy, but by the Spirit of God. The children have to see continuity between the words adults say about God and the refreshments the adults seek.

Meeting these three challenges might seem impossible. How can we overcome American ethics, schedules, and emotional poverty?

If the challenges are seen in pragmatic terms, truly, I don't see how they can be met.

Christians have been trying to get their kids to reject the entertainment industry, trying to fill their kids' hours with wholesome company and activities, and trying to find time for their families, as if the barriers to passing on a Kingdom worldview were entirely practical. Yet children are still living for the world.

But notice that, in each of the three challenges, the real problem is not the corrupt American culture, or the children who are easily seduced, but the Christian adults themselves.

Only a Christian adult can change her sources of refreshment from entertainment to devotion to Christ. Only a Christian adult can command his schedule to exclude waste and sloth, and create the zones of time to deepen bonds with his wife and children. Only a Christian adult can follow purposes that rise above worldliness.

And there is only one way a Christian adult can do these things: by measuring him- or herself using God's point of view and purposes.

As in so many areas, passing on a Kingdom mindset means recovering a high view of God.

Our Project and the Economic Mess

by Matthew Raley At some point last September -- maybe it was the collapse of Wachovia or the meltdown of the Dow Jones average, or it could've been the suspension of the McCain campaign -- I said to myself, "You are one brilliant pastor."

I said, "Other pastors take the obvious route. They raise money for buildings when the economy is roaring, when retirees are flush with dividends, and when re-fi's and 0% credit card offers just keep on coming. But you," I said, "you go all counter-intuitive. You decide to raise money during Great Depression II."

And, as the autumn degenerated into the disasterous Christmas retail season, I used more vituperative language.

Granted, we would rather have timed this campaign to coincide with a Gipper-scale expansion of GDP. But consider some items that have helped restore my own sense of proportion.

1. The economy has not been strong in Orland for decades, yet the church has expanded ministry.

Good economic news nationally and statewide has rarely translated into good news for Orland or Glenn county. Indeed, good news elsewhere has done little but raise the cost of living here. The bubble in housing prices was great if you were about to retire in San Jose, but it priced young families out of the market locally. Add the oil price shocks and rising food prices of the last couple of years to already tightening household income, and we've been in quite a squeeze.

But for three years in a row beginning in 2004, we raised the general budget of the church by 20% per year, and met budget every time. Even in 2008, bloody though it was, December saw more than $60,000 come in above the monthly average, bringing us closer to ending the year on budget. Furthermore, congregational giving over this period has been broad-based, not the generosity of a few.

God's character has proved to be more relevant to us than the leading economic indicators.

2. Past economic distress has brought us opportunities.

Several years ago, before the real estate bubble really inflated here, one of our deacons found a 10-acre parcel with curb, gutter, sidewalk, and city sewer and water connections. The investor who had made those improvements was not able to develop the land further. So the church bought it for less than $200,000 as a future site for WestHaven, our assisted living facility.

Only a short time later, we sold most of the acreage to a Bay Area developer for more than twice what we paid for the entire parcel. The sale helped finance the construction of WestHaven's first phase, and the facility opened within a couple of years.

God has shown us that he has plans in the midst of distress.

3. The current downturn has already been a huge opportunity for North Valley Christian Schools.

The campus of NVCS sits on a corner of the 20 acres it owns on Highway 32. There is an adjacent parcel to the east with another 20 acres, and still another 20-acre parcel bordering the north. These two properties were tied up by housing developers, who were hoping to outlast the mortgage crisis and continue with their plans. But last year they gave up their options on the land, and generous donors have purchased both parcels for NVCS and the church.

60 acres, debt-free. God has again shown that what disrupts men's plans can materially benefit His.

4. There are more reasons for us to proceed with this project.

The cost of construction in some key materials is falling, especially steel. While such things are volatile, it is safe to say that it will rarely be cheaper to build than during a deep recession.

I do not believe that our faith in God's provision should make us blind to economic realities. But we have seen hard times before, and there are good reasons for trusting God to provide what we need now.

Put the Kingdom First

by Matthew Raley When organizations ask individuals and families to put the Kingdom of Christ first in their time and finances in order to support the ministry, the response is often justifiable cynicism. Aren't you really asking me to put you first? Is this really about the Kingdom?

The leaders of Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) know that the church can't ask individuals to do what the organization itself isn't willing to do. The building plan we're proposing was born out of a conviction that we need to put the Kingdom first institutionally.

As I said on Sunday morning, we are asking the congregation to invest in a building it will not own.

There are two ministries that will use this building, North Valley Christian Schools (NVCS) and OEFC. NVCS has its own board of directors, its own property, its own goals, its own staff and operations. Some leaders do serve on both the OEFC and NVCS boards, but NVCS's directors come from several churches in the area, including home churches.

Both of these ministries have visions for new facilities.

The building we are proposing was designed by a site committee, some of whose members come from other churches. It was designed not as a church that can also support school uses, but as a school that can also support church uses. The plan is that OEFC will invest in this school building, in return gaining use of office space, classrooms, and an auditorium.

The representatives from other churches see this not as a threat to their ministries, but as an opportunity for NVCS to gain a better facility than it could otherwise build. They express this confidence because area churches are developing a strong working relationship.

The facility will be both owned and managed by NVCS. The school will not only hold title but will administer scheduling and maintenance. OEFC, in other words, will have a say in facility use, but will not have control. As I said on Sunday, "We're asking the congregation to put the school in the driver's seat. That will accomplish more for the Kingdom."

A use agreement has been drafted that details both the responsibilities of the two organizations in using the building, and how their respective investments will be tracked.

The arrangement we are proposing is open-ended, but explicitly temporary. At some point in the next twenty years, the two ministries will grow so much that sharing one building will be a hindrance rather than an advantage. Then NVCS can buy out OEFC's investment, and OEFC can build a specialized church facility on its own adjacent parcel, a facility that will give the school still more space.

In effect, then, we are asking OEFC's congregation to delay the dream of having its own facility under its own control -- delay it indefinitely. Sharing facilities will involve intensive coordination, much patience, and clear accountability. But these are disciplines we should cultivate anyway.

I am proud of this congregation's unity and large spirit. I am particularly excited to see this spirit connecting us to other churches in the region. I have no doubt that as the church institutionally puts the Kingdom first, individual members will follow with joy.

Cathedrals and Their Messages

"A Sea of Steps," Wells Cathedral, 1903, by Frederick H. Evans, Museum of Modern Art My son Dylan and I are reading through David Macaulay's fantastic series of books about buildings. We've read about the construction of castles, pyramids, and cities, and right now we're reading Cathedral.

The timing is interesting, given that our church is in the middle of fund-raising for a new facility. The morality of such construction projects is increasingly questioned by those who cite the poverty of the developing world, and the massive needs around us here at home. I find myself reading Macaulay's book and looking at his drawings through the lens of my own struggles with our project.

Why do some buildings strike me as self-indulgent and offensive, while others impress me with a message?

In the case of the medieval cathedrals, I can't help reacting to the abuses that financed them, like the display of relics and the sale of indulgences. I also react to the throne-and-altar alliances that the cathedrals incarnated: the church sanctified the kings of this world and their wars. History rightly pours scorn on these aspects of cathedrals, and highlights the fact that on Sundays most of them are now empty.

As I've watched contemporary building programs both at a distance and up close, I notice that a project's legacy is often soured by manipulative funding campaigns, or by designs that are patently self-serving. Such buildings become symbols of corruption rather than places for fostering godliness.

I recall a visit to the Crystal Cathedral in southern California years ago. Parts of the campus were beautiful. But the famous building itself was bizarre. Wherever I went around the exterior, I saw myself in a massive mirror. When I went inside, I found that all the seats faced straight ahead, not toward the pulpit, so that it was far more pleasing to watch the massive TV screens than to look at the actual preacher.

In fact, I was in a space built for cameras, for viewership rather than worship. In such places, I don't begrudge the cost so much as the message.

Consider some ways in which the medieval cathedrals transcended their often vainglorious origins:

1. The cathedrals were direct expressions of the faith of common people.

Bishops didn't build cathedrals; craftsmen did. Whole lifetimes would be spent cutting stones, carving ornaments, blowing glass, climbing scaffolding. The craftsmen remain anonymous, individual contributors to a vast conception meant to evoke the created order. That kind of devotion is worth something. It is not to be sneered at. The level of skill these laborers had is stunning even in the pages of a book for children.

2. The cathedrals united generations.

The people who dug the foundations were dead long before the cathedral was consecrated. In these projects there was a sense of continuity, of one generation receiving a charge from another, carrying on the work, and passing the charge on to their children.

This aspect of cathedral-building in a community's life is no longer seen as valuable or even desirable, a fact that speaks of a deeper corruption in us than mere materialism. In a word, it indicates decadence.

3. The cathedrals have a present-day impact on a person's soul.

They say something. They speak to even the most unlearned child. When you walk around the outside of a cathedral, it doesn't flash back your own image, but a vision of another world. When you go inside, it doesn't say, "Look at the jumbo-tron." It says, "Look up!"

The aspersions cast on buildings can also be cast on all the arts. If it is a selfish luxury to make buildings with a message, then it is also selfish to make songs, paintings, photographs, poems, and novels. All of the arts require time, devotion, and money. But we miss the balm of God-given creativity when we lower all of life to the utilitarian bottom-line.

Our building in Orland will not rise above commercial-grade design and construction, which saddens me. But I also know that our design is flexible. We can humanize it by the arts we can afford, and we will. Above all, we will have worship space that encourages participation, not viewership. We'll have large spaces for many purposes, but also very small spaces set aside for one-on-one counseling and prayer.

The cathedrals were only possible because a strong culture knew what it wanted to say and how to say it. While our building will never be an artistic marvel, it will be a clear message.

The Temptation of Salesmanship

By Matthew Raley As the Orland Evangelical Free Church raises funds for a new facility, I am in charge of communicating the vision. I have had many struggles with the fundraising process, most of them in the small hours of the morning.

Fundraisers, as a rule, shouldn't confess their doubts, but should project certitude. This building is God's will. They should not admit that the future holds uncertainties, or wonder aloud about communication ethics.

Furthermore, in our case, response to the vision for ministry that we've articulated has been positive. In many cases, passionately so. We're getting this response because the ministries that will be advanced by a new building are the fruit of decades of prayerful work by many, many believers in this region.

Why bother confessing pastoral struggles when the laws of fund raising forbid it and when support for the project is already strong?

Simply put, I don't feel that people should accept my certainties until they've heard my struggles. Here is one: how to show leadership when so many people are used to salesmanship.

There are similarities between the two.

Both salesmen and leaders have to present a strong case for their proposals. They have to show passion, and they have to transfer that passion to others through articulate presentations. In the final analysis, they have to move people.

But there is a crucial difference, one that goes to the heart of what a pastor is.

A salesman aims his message at people's existing priorities. The customer wants a red car. She likes red. She wants to see the red cars the salesman has. The salesman who walks her over to a yellow car and spends five minutes extolling the virtues of yellow is an idiot.

If I'm a salesman-pastor, my goal is to sell the new building. I speak to the most immediate, tangible priorities the people have, and show that the building will scratch their itch. Y'all want larger space, better lighting, no more leaks? Have we got the plan for you!

But a leader aims his message at what people's priorities must become.

The people in any church have narrow priorities. Some are devoted to their families, but not engaged with the community. Others are passionate about learning the Bible, but need to put that learning into practice. For most, the weekly grind of life forms horizons that are too near, and they need to see how the Kingdom of God calls them further.

So, if I'm a leader-pastor, my goal is to draw people out of their narrow corners to embrace new priorities. I show how scripture calls us all to personal growth, and how it calls us to be part of corporate experiences of God's power. For a leader, the building is a secondary product of this kind of spiritual growth -- an important indicator of whether something real has happened, but only an indicator.

We are living in a time of salesmanship, not leadership. Many of those who are supposed to lead -- pastors and politicians all the way to artists and intellectuals -- have given up their callings and opted for the easier course of selling.

We are now smaller, uglier, and more cynical. We expect communication to be manipulative.

But in the struggle to communicate I have two certainties.

First, the believers in Orland are constantly striving to enlarge their Kingdom priorities. They have given more time, money, and prayer to their ministries every year. They are seeking training, giving counseling, crossing generational and cultural lines to build each other up.

I am certain they will see the need for larger kingdom priorities not as manipulation, but as encouragement. I return to this confidence as a way of keeping my tone with Christ's people respectful.

Second, I am certain that the Lord will notice his people changing their priorities, and that he will provide the facilities we need -- in the time and the manner of his choosing. We will see God move -- the greatest sight of all.

To sell a mere building would be to settle for considerably less.