What T. S. Eliot Would Say to the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley Dr. Gil Stieglitz, western district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The older pastor tends to think about electing a Christian president and being only one or two Supreme Court justices away from ‘winning.’ The most common point of view among younger pastors is that the culture war is over and we lost."

Culture wars have been lost before. I have been comparing the American evangelical situation to T. S. Eliot's description of pre-war Britain in The Idea of a Christian Society. How did illusions of "winning" politically fare then?

Eliot wrote (pp 6-7), “I am not at this moment concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it appear desirable; but I am very much concerned with making clear its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” To call Britain a “Christian society” was “an abuse of terms.” Eliot said, “We mean only that we have a society in which no one is penalised for the formal profession of Christianity; but we conceal from ourselves the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

Among his many probing observations, Eliot said that the institutional structure of Britain had turned (pp 17-18). Believers now had the problem “of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society.”

It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals [emphasis original] holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.

We have seen evidence that the implication of American evangelicals in networks of non-Christian institutions is profound.

While formally professing a biblical view of the family, a large proportion of evangelical households are not only living contrary to that profession but are captive to the social engineers of the state. Many churches themselves are exiled to a media Babylon, with vision and mission that live parasitically on the marketing strategies of larger organizations, lulling the people into an infotainment stupor, giving them a diet of consumer cake under a biblical glaze. And the financial condition of churches tells the story: overhead is up, giving is down.

The more disturbing reality is that evangelicals seem unaware of the problem. As Eliot said, they are being “more and more de-Christianised” by “unconscious pressure.” That pressure, I believe, is coming from their own churches. The little platoons of evangelicalism are weakening because they have de-Christianised themselves.

Because of this change of values, it should come as no surprise that a new political atmosphere among evangelicals has been developing for some time. With the death or retirement of conservative organizers like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and the rise of liberal evangelical leaders like Brian McLaren and Donald Miller, the grass roots structure that supported conservative causes is troubled.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported on the new atmosphere as early as October 28, 2007 for The New York Times Magazine. As polls then showed, "White evangelicals under 30—the future of the church—were once Bush's biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders." Kirkpatrick wrote that the “sharpest falloff” in evangelical identification with the Republican party was among the young.

There was further evidence of the slide in Republican support in exit polls from the presidential election in 2008. John McCain won the evangelical vote 57% to 41%. But in 2004, George W. Bush won evangelicals 65% to 34%. McCain’s showing was nearly identical with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, a strong one. But the most telling number may be that Barack Obama’s 41% was ten points higher than Bill Clinton’s in 1992, and seven points higher than John Kerry’s in 2004.

Those evangelical votes may shift back. But there cannot be any question that they are in play. The only way the religious right can retrieve them is with populist appeals to "Christian values" that many Christians themselves no longer have. Those appeals will probably work, at least in the near-term. But the spiritual fact of the matter is -- and pastors need to face this -- populism is not Christianity.

What would Eliot say to the religious right? You need urgently to face "the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

The Erosion of the Religious Right By Divorce

by Matthew Raley The political organizations of the religious right are dependent on evangelical churches, but many churches close every year without enough new ones to replace them. Regardless of whether the alliance between evangelicals and conservatives should continue, I question whether it will.

As we have seen, churches are now financially entangled in a secular way of life, their programming increasingly dependent upon the multi-billion dollar parachurch sector. The smaller the church, the more it focuses on surviving the steep overhead increase. The larger the church, the more it has gamed the marketplace to grow.

But there are deeper indicators of trouble. The condition of evangelical families is symptomatic of a broad cultural decline in churches.

The Barna Group has repeatedly found that evangelicals divorce at high rates. In its most recent study of this problem, published March 31, 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 a conservative view of Christian doctrine have broken homes.

This statistic is more than a public relations black eye.

Dr. Gil Stieglitz, superintendent of the Western District of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The family in evangelical Christianity has unfortunately allowed itself to be boiled in the cultural milieu. No family dinners, no family devotions, too much TV, little fatherhood, over-commitment to sports and materialism.” The high divorce rate reflects the disappearing Christian ethic of family life.

When we consider what the divorce rate means in practical terms, the cultural weakness of evangelicalism 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, restraining orders, and a stream of court dates.

Nor is divorce the end of the entanglements.

Illegitimate births are common among evangelicals, as any pastor can attest. While I haven't been able to find specific studies of evangelicals in this regard, I do not lack stories. The trials of Sarah Palin’s family are common among regular church-goers, and Palin’s handling of her daughter’s pregnancy won her strong identification from grass roots conservatives 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 these problems on churches is on the grandparenting role, that key informal link in the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Evangelicals in their fifties and sixties, who would normally be entering a period of comparative freedom with their time and money, are frequently raising their grandchildren instead. Thus, 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 leaves people in the prime of life discouraged and heartsick.

For all practical purposes, then, a sizable proportion of evangelical families and their children are under the management of the state. Evangelicals in this system are no longer as free to pass on their ethics, even when they might otherwise be capable of doing so.

Here's the reality of leading a church.

If you have 400 people in your congregation, 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.

Yet the business plan of churches, as they struggle to survive the slow liquidation, is to attract more such people, betting that staff can disciple them cost-effectively by sending them to conferences and showing them Focus on the Family videos. The bet that this plan nurtures strong Christians is not paying off. (More in a couple of weeks on why Orland EFC has not followed that business plan, and on what plan we are following.)

The first problem here is the hypocrisy of pushing "values" on secular people while tolerating divorce in churches. The loss of integrity has deepened the cynicism not just of secular people toward churches, but of the people in churches themselves.

The second problem is even worse. Systemically and culturally, not in their finances alone but in their family lives, many evangelicals are living like non-Christians.

T. S. Eliot predicted the future of British politics by analyzing “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy. In the 1930s, he found that substratum to be pagan. Six decades later, the last prime minister to represent a biblical worldview, Margaret Thatcher, left office without a traditionalist successor. The pagan culture of Britain is no longer implicit.

If American evangelical culture is intoxicated with anti-biblical ways of life, there is no mystery why its churches are closing. The political results must follow.

The Declining Economic Viability of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley In reevaluating the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement, I have moved from asking whether it should continue, to asking whether it will. Conservatives are assuming that their grass-roots base is vibrant, perhaps more energetic than ever.

This assumption is all too easy to make, with Sarah Palin storming the country and selling books in vast quantities. There are long lines at her book signings and the evangelicals whom she represents are fired up. But a media frenzy is not the same as grass-roots strength. Many a politician has imagined that he or she could surf to power on a wave of media without troubling overmuch about organization.

Media attention is fleeting and capricious. Organization wins.

Last week, we began to face the reality that the religious right is in slow liquidation. Evangelical churches are closing. Let's look closer at why.

The economic viability of churches is waning.

One factor is size. Christ Community Church, which I sketched last week as having an attendance of two hundred, had to compete with megachurches of five- to ten-thousand, with specialized staff for all ages and lifestyles. The church drew in part from military bases in the area, which meant that its attendance could fluctuate severely as committed people were moved on. This was in addition to an already transient exurban population. As a simple matter of size, the church did not have a large enough attendance to offer a variety of programs or market itself to new people. The larger churches did.

Another economic strain on churches like Christ Community is the housing market. During the housing bubble, the cost of replacing or adding pastoral staff went up with the price of real estate. Even the current depressed home values have not returned prices in all regions to where they were ten or fifteen years ago. Thus, when a long-serving senior pastor resigns, small- to mid-size congregations face sticker shock when they begin to negotiate the new pastor’s salary. Sometimes a church cannot pay a pastor enough to live locally. Such a church might call a pastor who commutes, or it might return to the parsonage model, building a house on land it already owns and treating the house as in-kind compensation.

The housing environment here in California has been particularly hostile to churches, but the same issues can be found in many other parts of the country.

No matter how a church faces such challenges, the cost of doing ministry has escalated. To the strains of maintaining programs to attract people and of adding staff with expensive compensation, we have to factor in escalating premiums for all forms of insurance, and the hidden costs of protecting a congregation against threats like lawsuits and sexual predators.

To make matters worse, financial giving has not kept up. In December, 2008, Christianity Today’s cover shouted, “Scrooge Lives!” Rob Moll’s story surveyed giving patterns among Christians in America. Citing sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell, whose study Passing the Plate was published by Oxford University Press, Moll reports that only 27 percent of evangelicals tithe, or give a tenth of their income. “Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income.” Ten percent give nothing. “The median annual giving for an American Christian is actually $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income.” And these figures were pre-recession.

Moll notes that American Christians earn $2.5 trillion every year. “On their own, these Christians could be admitted to the G7.” If they tithed, they could add $46 billion to ministries domestically and around the world. But their personal finances are devoted to the same consumeristic lifestyle other Americans maintain.

I'm not saying churches should keep running the same business plan, or that the atmosphere of competition among churches is good, or even that Christians should keep paying for expensive programs in churches just to attract more people. As I will argue in a couple of weeks, all of these things need to change. But we do have to open our eyes to the economic realities we face.

My point is this: Focus on the Family and other organizations like it are nothing without churches. The organizational and fund raising prowess of the religious right depends on the continued vitality of small, local institutions that nurture people and pass on a way of life. If churches close at the current rate, the people who support conservative causes will be fewer and more dispersed.

The economic viability of the religious right is joined with the viability of churches. As churches go, so goes the vast  infrastructure of the religious right.

I am convinced that Christians need to revive biblical views of the state, of the economy, and of our national heritage. In view of the urgency of that task, why are we wasting resources on media blitzes, stadium rallies, spin doctors, lobbyists, and politicians? Why aren't we nourishing a genuine cultural change by giving resources to churches, and to planting more of them?

More on that next week.

The Slow Liquidation of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley One Sunday morning in the exurbs of California’s bay area, I watch the faithful of Christ Community Church gather. The church has been active for two decades, and has converted a business complex into an auditorium, offices, and classrooms. On this morning in June, 2005, the church has a wide range of age and ethnicity, attendance of about two hundred, and a full schedule of programs.

Six months later, after the founding pastor resigns to join a seminary faculty, services are cancelled, the congregation disperses, and the property is up for sale. Why, with so many apparent resources and without any scandal, did this church close? And why do many evangelical congregations make the same decision each year?

Political conservatives have been able to rely on the evangelical right for three decades. Election after election, evangelicals have delivered money, grass-roots organization, and votes. Evangelical passion for such issues as abortion and gay marriage has framed stark, simple choices for middle American voters.

The foundation of the religious right’s support structure has been local churches, institutions where Christian ethics and spirituality are taught, encouraged, and above all practiced. In purely social terms, a church is a gathering place for people with a shared worldview. In political terms, a church is a little platoon of citizenship and service, embodying what T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society called “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy.

In evaluating the alliance of evangelicalism and conservatism biblically over the past several weeks, I've found that there is a broad agreement in priorities between biblical teaching and the conservative movement. The Bible's view of the state, many of its economic teachings, its command to honor parents, and its examples of national loyalty will consistently incline an American church that teaches these things toward political conservatism. I do not mean that the Bible is politically conservative in every sense, or that political conservatism is without spiritual or ethical problems. I only mean that it will continue to be the natural political home of Bible-believing Christians.

But I have also found that evangelicals do not deeply teach or practice these biblical principles. Indeed, evangelical churches practice them less and less.

While evangelical sophistication in grass-roots organizing has grown over the last thirty years, the local church’s ability to perform its primary mission of nurturing people ethically and spiritually has declined. A range of indicators shows this weakening of evangelical culture, and we will survey the data over the next several weeks.

There are ominous implications for the future of American political conservatism: every time a church like Christ Community folds, conservatives lose a gathering place. American evangelicalism shows disquieting similarity to the Christianity Eliot described in pre-war Britain, a faith that no longer influences the national way of life.

A superficial but telling indicator is the number of American churches.

Warren Cole Smith, editor of the Evangelical Press News Service and author of A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church (2008), gives a statistical sketch that can be found in numerous publications (pp 18-19). “In 1900 there were twenty-seven churches per 10,000 Americans. In 1985 there were only twelve churches per 10,000. Baptist Church Planting magazine estimated the number of churches per 10,000 Americans today at less than ten.” Smith adds that 4,000 churches closed in America each year during the 1990s. Church starts were typically less than half that number.

David T. Olson of The American Church Research Project reports that evangelicals started more than 7,000 churches from 2000-2008, but that over the same period more than 24,000 new churches would have been needed to keep up with population growth. Further, Olson reports that throughout the 1990s growth in evangelical church attendance was 1%. By 2006-2007, the growth rate had slowed to 0.3%.

Whatever else these data mean, the bottom line is clear: American evangelicalism is in a slow liquidation.

The issue is not so much that churches close. Christ Community, for instance, didn't close because it had abandoned the faith or because the congregation didn't care about ministry. They honestly felt the closure was right in light of what they faced. The issue, rather, is that believers are not planting new churches. They simply don't believe deeply in Kingdom priorities.

With churches declining, the conservative movement is also in decline at the grass-roots, even though it looks strong as ever. Over the next decade, its ability to mobilize evangelical voters will precipitously diminish because the organizational structure won't be there.

The more important implication is this: American culture is transforming into the frigid steppes of post-Christianity not because unbelievers are winning political battles but because believers no longer believe.

On Patriotism and the Christian Life

by Matthew Raley Put the words patriotism and evangelicalism in the same sentence and you conjure the stars and stripes waving on a massive screen behind a megachurch pastor -- a use of symbols that I see as sentimental and dangerous.

I am reassessing the evangelical alliance with conservatives these days, seeking to find a theology of citizenship that is biblical. Covering various aspects of the conservative movement, we have surveyed the Bible's teachings about the state, about work, property, and profit, and about the unity of generations.

Today, I examine the idea that our country deserves our honor and loyalty.

I am not in sympathy with the way this idea has been expressed in churches over the last decade.

In waving the flag next to the cross, we're in danger of perpetuating two theological aberrations. One is that America is the New Jerusalem, or should've been, and that God gave an Israel-like benediction to our founding. The other is that, in order to advance Christ's Kingdom on earth, we have to take political action. (Dominion theology advocates have been pretty cagey about this agenda as they've raised money from dispensationalists.)

Digital flag-waving at church is also egregious sentimentality. It stirs populist emotions by using images to evade questions. Typical mass media schlock.

But ...

Patriotism belongs in the Christian life.

Consider the significant role that Jewish patriotism played in Paul's trial speeches (Acts 22-26). Paul's repeated emphasis on his good conscience as a Jew was not a rhetorical ploy, but a key point of honor.

The scene: Paul returns to Jerusalem after establishing churches around the Roman empire. He goes into the temple to keep a vow, and is spotted by Jews from Asia, who seize him and whip up a crowd (Acts 21.17-27).

The charge (Acts 21.28): "Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place."

During the trials focusing on this charge, there are several ways Paul communicates that he is a faithful Jew.

Paul addresses the temple crowd in Aramaic, not Greek (21.40-22.2), a signal of identification that the crowd recognizes. In the Sanhedrin, he submits to the high priest, even though the priest is treating Paul unjustly (23.1-5).

Before the Roman governor Felix, Paul expresses the depth of his commitment to his nation in at least three statements: that he worships "the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the prophets" (24.14), that he went to Jerusalem "to bring alms to my nation" (24.17), and that the Jews found him "purified in the temple" (24.18).

When Paul arrives in Rome, having appealed to Caesar, he summons the local Jewish leaders to make his case (28.17-22). He states that he had "done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers." Even though he was unjustly accused, Paul states that he has "no charge to bring against my nation." He is imprisoned "because of the hope of Israel."

Two observations about Paul's example.

Paul might have found many reasons to disavow his nation, both theological and pragmatic. Had he been motivated by bitterness, he might have abused his people before the Romans. But he did none of these things, consistently identifying as a Jew, and doing so with evident devotion.

Further, Paul makes all these points before both Jewish and Gentile audiences because they concern his personal honor, and therefore the honor of Christ. A person cannot glorify Christ by being disloyal to his nation. Paul makes no pretense of having been liberated from such bonds.

Patriotism, biblically considered, is a species of humility and gratitude.

We will not bring honor to Christ by bashing our homeland. The fashionable self-hating American is only aping humility, being someone who benefits from freedom and wealth while decrying it. It is decadent and self-serving.

It is a blessing to be an American. Our freedoms are precious because, among other things, they secure a peaceful society. The heritage of laws we have received is a marvel. The dignity that comes with self-government is priceless.

I fear that because many evangelicals have embraced consumerism, mass media, and populism, we are not nurturing patriotism in churches, but merely engaging in rabble-rousing. Churches could go so much deeper in fostering citizens who serve their nation and glorify their eternal King.

And churches must.

A Strategy That Calls People to Sing

by Matthew Raley The reason churches need to recover the folk singing dynamic is that individuals need to be called out of their own heads to participate in the singing of the body of Christ. Believers are too rooted in their own passions to grow in Christ. They need to pull out their headphones and make music with others, as Ephesians 5 describes. I believe that what's at stake in this issue is not their emotional satisfaction in worship, but their spiritual growth.

So here is the strategy we have followed in Orland to recover the folk singing dynamic:

1. We've given up the right to sing the music we each prefer as individuals.

Look, if I never sang another chorus, I'd be happier. Speaking as a music consumer, the entire CCM industry could disappear tomorrow and my quality of life would be undiminished.

But the reality is that very few believers feel in their guts the kind of music that I feel in mine, the kind of music that I respond to most passionately as a listener. So I have to make a decision. Am I going to claim the right to sing in worship the music that I prefer for listening?

No, I don't have that right. Christ is glorified, and I am edified, when I join others and we raise our voices together.

In Orland -- a rural, small Evangelical Free church -- we brought in all sorts of instruments, including the dreaded drums, without a worship war. Believers here saw the need to give up this "right."

2. We've made no effort to produce a certain style.

Six years ago, when our we began to change our worship, we did not pursue a certain demographic, demanding that those not in that demographic get out of the way. We said frankly that we didn't know what the style of the music was going to be. Our style would emerge over time.

3. We have embraced the musicians and singers we have, in all their diversity, and asked them to work together to lead the congregation.

We have the usual instruments, and the usual musical backgrounds: classical, rock, CCM, bluegrass. We asked all the musicians to go back to basic rehearsal and performance skills, like listening to the other players and finding a good blend, establishing rhythmic integrity, and responding to the expressiveness of others. We found that the classically trained musicians picked up improvisation, while the rock players saw better results from lower volume. (More in a moment.)

4. We have adopted a stripped-down singing style.

Vocal leaders understood that their job was not to have a personal worship experience in front of the congregation, as if they could lead "by example." Their job -- their service of worship to God -- was to give leadership that the congregation could follow musically. Singers did not slide up to notes, syncopate for expression, or ornament melodic lines. They sang the notes that they wanted the congregation to sing.

A funny thing happened. The congregation sang.

5. We put strong doctrinal and devotional themes into our singing.

A theme is a developing idea. "Jesus" is not a strong theme. "Jesus is loving" is not a strong theme, either. Both are too general. A strong theme has potential for development: "Jesus' love is sacrificial" is somewhat better.

For several years, we aligned the sermon with the scripture reading, and took a theme for the singing from them. This year, our readings aren't aligned with the sermon, but cover the history of redemption up to the birth of Christ. Next year, the readings will cover biblical doctrine. We sing lyrics, regardless of style, that best develop the themes in the readings.

What's that? You don't have scripture readings in your worship services?! What exactly is the source of your unity, then?

6. We encourage a variety of musicians to do solos, including young people.

There is a place for solos -- that is, for individual testimony in music to the greatness of God. Just as we combined a variety of musicians in the leadership team, so we encourage a wide range of styles in soloists. We have bluegrass, Gaither, CCM, classical. We've even had fifes. It was thrilling.

7. We minimize electronic amplification as best we can.

Most contemporary worship services are stupidly loud. You wouldn't hear the congregation even if they were singing.

A worship service is not a rock concert. So we took out many of the monitors (small speakers that help the musicians hear), lowered the overall volume, emphasized the vocals, and brought up the weaker instruments (e.g. acoustic guitars). These decisions had a lot to do with the "live," hard-surfaced room in which we sing.

This approach gives enough amplification so that the congregation can follow, but not so much that they're drowned out.

Over the last six years, this strategy has produced a service that is different. It's unique to us. People who come with strong stylistic preferences don't like it. But people who come to participate in a community find that there is a healthy one to join.

People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we've discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won't sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today's congregations does not qualify as singing -- the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud -- less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can't cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don't want to, they won't.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing -- a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don't question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, "Never lie."

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here's the point: people don't sing from purely rational motivations. They don't sing what they debate or question. They don't sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don't sing because they don't know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled -- and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into "At Last, I Know My Issues!" because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. "Five Steps to a Better Marriage" is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, "How can I get what I want?" Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they're sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn't like what he called "the lusty roar of the congregation." I'd love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they've stopped, we listen for the rocks.

Get Bob the Trucker To Sing

by Matthew Raley Reset the scenario of the folk singing dynamic: A diverse congregation gathers in a space that is resonant, so that they create a corporate sound. They have a shared memory of songs, a bank of tunes and lyrics that they draw upon together.

What you have so far is an intensively local group of worshipers, who have a strong sense of community and identity. That's an edifying combination, but there is a problem.

What's going to prevent the congregation from stagnating in the familiar? People need fresh musical expressions for their faith. Churches need to participate in the high interactivity of our culture, just as 1st century churches participated in their culture's interactions. This is less a need to retain "the young people," and more a need to nurture those who are older, keep their strength from becoming rigid.

The ability to interact with other cultures from a strong identity is a sign of health.

So, how does a congregation stay open to a current of new music? Christian pop is the default source for new songs. Is it the right source? If so, how can it be used without destroying the folk singing dynamic?

I think a Christian pop song can refresh a church if it passes my "Bob the Trucker" test.

Bob the Trucker is not musical. Ask him to sing a solo and he laughs at you -- and it's not a merry guffaw, more like a threatening rumble. Bob enjoys listening to country (I'm not equating "not musical" with "country," I'm just saying ...), but at church, the singing time for Bob is entirely dispensable. He not only doesn't expect the church to sing what he likes, he doesn't see why the church needs to sing at all.

Bob the Trucker -- here's the crucial point -- sees most church music as fluff. And -- also a crucial point -- he's right. If you want him to sing, you have to give him songs that are solid. He needs the third fundamental of the folk singing dynamic: a stripped-down melodic style.

Think about the style of much Christian pop in relation to Bob.

Bob cannot sing songs that make him sound like a girl. The breathy, whiny tone of much Christian pop music is something he will never identify with. This means that the selection of Christian pop songs that we can use to unite Bob with a congregation just shrank.

The style I'm thinking of is elaborately ornamented (think Whitney Houston's "Always Love Yooo-eeeooooooo-ahhhhh," taking a tune that is utterly devoid of interest and adding the sonic equivalent of whipped cream from a spray can). Lyrically, the style is heavy on the first-person singular. It has to be: the drive to communicate comes from how passionately I feel.

Strip out the breathy production values and the fancy solo ornaments of much Christian pop, and see what's left. Is there a melody underneath it all that stands on its own? Not usually. Unless there's a compelling, solid tune, I can't think of any reason to ask Bob the Trucker to join it.

More broadly, Bob cannot sing songs that are written for soloists. Have you ever heard a congregation trying to sing "Voice of Truth" by Casting Crowns? The chorus goes fine, but the verses are written for a soloist to sing/talk through, semi-improvised. When a church tries to sing it, they sound like a bunch of soloists auditioning for American Idol all at the same time. A song written as a vehicle for a pop soloist will not work for a congregation, because as a practical matter, a group cannot sing it together.

This is not just true of pop songs. Churches sometimes try to sing the famous setting of the Lord's Prayer by Albert Hay Malotte. But the melody requires substantial breath control. It also has triplets that are meant to be interpreted freely, and are difficult to feel as a congregation. It's a solo.

Bob the Trucker can and will join songs that are lyrically and melodically solid, not interpretively soft. He will sing a tune that uses formal repetition, not improvisation. In other words, he will sing songs that are meant to be sung by untrained groups. And there are new songs by Christian pop artists that meet these criteria.

The reason a song like the Gettys' "In Christ Alone" has become popular in churches is that the tune is solid and the lyrics are declarative. It is constructed so that a group can sing it. The tune has phrases that are motivically linked and repetitive for easy learning. The syncopation in the melody is natural to the rhythm of the words. The lyrics narrate the gospel story, giving the congregation truths that earn an emotional response, rather than merely telling the congregation what to feel.

The song is not great for listening, nor is it a favorite of mine. For it to work as a solo, the singer would have to vary the repetitions and make them do something compelling. Harmonically, the song is dull. But the emotional power of folk singing is in the participation of the group, not the music itself. "In Christ Alone" has the stripped-down style that meets the need.

So here's the unpopular reality of the folk singing dynamic, the quality that has driven it from favor in churches. Folk singing expresses and welcomes the emotional lives of men.

The Shared Memory of Songs

by Matthew Raley Let’s assume a congregation today gathers to sing in a space that will enliven their sound. They won’t be singing into a dead zone, but creating a corporate resonance. They will feel from the first notes that they are not in the iPod worship mode, but that they are being called out of their own heads to participate.

So far, so good. A fundamental element in the dynamic of folk singing is present: participation is physically possible. But there’s the question of what to sing.

Folk singing is an expression of shared memory. People sing together because they remember the same songs. They’ve acquired those songs because they've lived together for a long time, sharing the same way of life in the same region, city, or neighborhood.

Local memory is powerful.

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was notorious as a folk song collector. One of the tunes he investigated was "Dives and Lazarus," a ballad based on a parable of Jesus. He found five different versions of the tune in different regions of Britain, with various titles, and using each version he composed a string orchestra piece called, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.

What happened with this tune is pretty common. It traveled from one region to the next, but within the long life of each place it was remembered differently. The same phenomenon played havoc with colonial American worship, in which the hymnals often contained words without music. Congregations were known to sing variants of the same tune all at once, to general annoyance.

If you want to recover the next fundamental of the folk singing dynamic, you have to sing what can be shared. You have to build up local memory.

And in order to do that, you have to think of your church not as an outlet for Christian pop culture, but as a local community with a life of its own. The unique character of place, time, heritage, work, and cultural mix needs to drive the way a congregation sings, not the most popular Jesus-as-boyfriend ballads on the radio.

Worship leaders need to ask, "Who are we as believers in this place?"

In this connection, there are two cultural reasons why folk singing has been replaced by iPod worship.

In the first place, people move around more today than ever before in history. The suburban population is especially transient, so that the natural process of building a shared memory doesn't have much time to work. This movement isn't inherently bad. The book of Acts narrates the movement of believers from place to place, and I would argue that the mingling of the cultures from different city states strengthened all the churches.

But our moving around does elevate one thing that is shared from sea to shining sea, namely Christian radio. From FM stations, it's easy to find songs that people recognize and use the hits in worship. (More about the problems with this practice next week.)

Secondly, people have little sense of history. This is catastrophic for worship.

The fact that hymnals are arranged according to doctrinal content is an outworking of history, and it is full of significance. Certain songs came from Reformation Germany (frequently composed by Martin Luther himself), or from immigrant groups ("How Great Thou Art"), or from specific theological movements (hymns by the Wesley brothers).

American evangelicalism did not sprout in the suburbs, and we're blind when we act as though it did. The past can reprioritize the present, set our troubles in context, and give us a much-needed sense of proportion. The consequences of ignoring the past are pride and folly.

Christian radio, like all mass media, is an endless Now, and that is the mind of illiteracy.

The recovery of this part of the folk singing dynamic depends on a simple but radical shift in leadership. People can learn tunes. Shared memory can be built up, and relatively quickly. But only if pastors stop using music as a way to attract the people they want, and start thinking of it as an expression of a local church's unique identity in Christ.

The Folk Singing Dynamic

by Matthew Raley "Seated Old Man Facing Right, Singing and Holding Music," by Anton Crussens, mid-17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public worship described in Ephesians 5.18-21 is not pop music -- music designed first and foremost to sell. The writing of Ephesians predates mass popular culture by almost two millennia. Furthermore, the letter does not describe what I call "art music" -- an admittedly trouble-filled term that I use for music written in and for the development of the Western tradition. Music in this tradition starts roughly with Léonin and Pérotin in the high middle ages, more than a thousand years after Paul.

(Complications regarding the interactions between pop and art music I defer, but do not deny.)

What Ephesians describes is folk singing: a group of people making a corporate sound that develops from who they are and how they live. In suburban, white America -- as opposed to ethnic enclaves -- folk singing is all but dead. We're way too cool.

I am sensitive to a danger in this line of thought about worship. Practices from the past won't restore authenticity to a church just because they are old. A church is not a museum. Public worship needs to be alive -- that is, needs to express what Christianity is now. I am not warming up to argue that we should recover the past, as if it were possible.

But I am saying that we should know what the past was, and know that it is not interchangeable with today's default musical practices. In human history, the practice of buying music instead of making it is such a recent development that it might as well have happened yesterday. People who have no sense of the past -- I'll put this very diplomatically -- have been setting evangelical standards for public worship, and as a result they tend to assume that Martin Luther thought the same way about music that they do.

He didn't.

So, what precisely do we need to recover from Ephesians 5? Do we need sheet music for the psalm chants used by 1st century Jews? (It doesn't exist. And if it did, we wouldn't be able to read it.) Do we need to ditch diatonic harmony and teach congregations to sing in the quarter-tones ancient cultures used then and still use today? (Americans-by-birth don't even hear quarter-tones. My violin professor went on a tour of the middle east in 1990. Trying to play quarter-tones with an Arab violinist, he asked whether he was playing in tune. The Arab pulled a face and said, "Close." Which is to say, no.)

I think what we need to recover is the dynamic of people making music together. Stated differently, we need to rebuild the fundamentals of singing in groups, not as performance, nor as entertainment, but as participation in a way of life. I believe those fundamentals are: a resonant physical space, a shared memory of songs, a stripped-down melodic style, and a belief system that is prejudicial.

So, pretty much all of this will be controversial.

Consider the impact of physical space on singing.

The vast majority of churches built today are designed for visual appeal and technological flexibility. They are designed for sound only as an after-thought -- and a quite expensive one. Not far from here is a church my family has long referred to as the golden golf ball. It looks like it fell from a stratospheric height and created an immense divot.

The builders assumed that the sound inside the dome would be wonderful, but for various technical reasons the sound was appalling. In order to control wave-reflection, the interior had to be piled and sprayed with every imaginable kind of sound-absorbing material. The result? You can fill the golden golf ball with thousands of people, and they can all belt out songs at the top of their voices, but the only person you'll actually hear singing is . . . you.

Farmers built barns that were more suitable for singing than most contemporary churches. Partly, the suitability was a matter of materials. Our forefathers built with wood. The churches they raised were finished inside with plaster. When the people started to sing, you felt it.

(One evening I asked Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, why orchestra members loved  playing in old vaudeville halls, whether the beautifully renovated Cascade Theater in Redding, or the less well-appointed halls in Oroville and Red Bluff. He felt sure it was the plaster.)

Now, the old spaces are too hardened for much electronic amplification, and the pre-microphone past is not one we want to recover. Even so, churches don't have to keep building dead sound spaces. They could design their worship settings to enliven the singing of the people.

More on the fundamentals of the folk dynamic next week.

Three Conclusions on Public Worship

by Matthew Raley If I start with Ephesians 4-5 as the authoritative prescription for life in Christ’s churches, and for the musical worship churches offer to God (previous posts here and here), then I am driven to three conclusions.

1. Nurturing and expressing body unity is the top priority of worship in music.

When a congregation gathers to sing, the assumption must be that the people are all different, that they bring to the worship radical diversity of knowledge base, experience, ethnic inheritance, and cultural ways of thinking. This variety, even in a group of fifty people, is immeasurable.

Musical worship, therefore, must tap this intense energy and focus it on the work of praising Jesus Christ. The music must enable diverse individuals to sing as one voice about the same reality. For this to happen, the music must express the truth of the gospel and the impact of that truth on daily life.

I believe the inescapable reality is that musical style cannot unify believers. The effort to unite people through style has driven out diversity and created uniformity, the false fellowship of demographic sameness. What believers need in worship are perspectives that they have not considered before, and that give fresh insight into the truth of Christ.

2. Recovering true worship in music requires an emotional shift.

Most evangelicals now expect music to stimulate their individual passion for God. They want to receive musical expressions that they can join. But when a congregation is singing in the dynamic Paul shows in Ephesians 4-5, believers feel a different passion. Their emotional desires and expectations shift. Instead of waiting to receive expressions they can join, believers give expressions that others can join.

This is a shift from passive, entertainment-oriented expectations to active, body-oriented expectations. Passion in worship comes from giving edification.

3. Recovering true worship in music requires a cultural shift.

Pop music is the vocabulary of a passive audience. The music is sold not to be made, but consumed. I don't see any way to escape the consumer mindset of contemporary worship by continuing to sing radio hits.

Technically, pop music is designed to be so stylistically strong that it attracts the consumer’s notice and then closes the sale. The style is visually expressed: the hair and make-up, the photography, the graphic design of posters and packaging. The style is also expressed in the production values of the recordings. Ultimately, the music and lyrics are saturated with a certain style.

The cultural shift we need is to recover the practices of folk music.

Folk music is as old as humanity. It is the music of participation, not performance. It grows out of a way of life. It is for people who make music throughout their daily routines, not for people who consume music. It is only in modern times that anyone considered writing this music down, much less recording it. Folk music is not designed to sell or to please, but to express. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of folk music being designed at all. It grows out of life.

The reason the hymns of the church are important now is that they are for the most part folk tunes. That is, the people just knew them, and knew them from infancy. They are an inheritance, not an artifice.

It is this kind of society that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.18-20. A Jewish child knew psalm chants before he knew words, just as a Greek child knew pagan hymns before he knew words. There was no marketplace for music as a consumable item.

What we have been developing in Orland for the last several years are ways to make these three principles a reality. We have found ways that our congregation can nurture and express musical unity. We have seen the beginnings of a shift in emotional expectations for worship. And we have made progress toward rebuilding the ways of folk singing.

More next week.

Individuality in Community, Continued

by Matthew Raley Evangelical teaching about being “filled with the Spirit” has tended to be individualistic. You have your own personal faith in Jesus Christ, and God responds by giving your own personal immersion in the Spirit.

I don’t deny this teaching. It became an evangelical emphasis because of cultural inertia in churches, in which individuals coasted toward heaven on the strength of group membership. The individual new birth, and the resulting personal transformation, is an antidote to self-righteousness.

But the Bible’s teaching about the Spirit goes into more detail about how personal transformation works. Each of us is transformed by interacting with a Spirit-bonded community.

In Ephesians 4.1-6, Paul teaches that there is “one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” For Paul, all these things are the substance of “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Individuals in a church have each had a bonding experience. They have come to see their own sins (unique to them, not shared), have heard the gospel of Christ (teaching held in common with others), and have each gained new life directly from the “one God and Father of all” (an experience that mixes the common and the unique).

That is to say, an individual is bonded with Christ and with other believers at the same time. The depth of the individual’s baptism in the Spirit also deepens the individual’s human relationships.

In this context, the personal transformation begun by the new birth accelerates as an individual participates in the body of Christ “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That worthy manner requires “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Individuals who are jarringly different become more like Christ as they suffer through their disagreements with grace.

(Yes, I have expounded these verses “backwards,” starting with the reasons in vv 4-6 that motivate the commands in vv 1-3.)

As I said in the previous post, this teaching gives life and health to individuality. There is no implication that individuals conform to each other, ceasing to be unique. On the contrary, Paul teaches their continued diversity explicitly (Ephesians 4.11-16).

But in that diversity there is not independence or autonomy, as if the parts of the body function separately. The individuals interact, being transformed by the process of giving and receiving. And their interactions are governed by the one thing we postmodern iPod worshipers instinctively reject: a bond, a tie to others that cannot be cut or ignored. In Christ, the Jew is bound with the Greek, regardless of whether either would choose to be.

Paul applies this theology directly to worship in music (Ephesians 5.18-21). Singing together is one of the interactions that are governed by the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace, and as such is one of the tools Christ uses to express his own self in us. This is Paul's conception of being "filled with the Spirit."

Therefore, corporate singing is not about my passions at all, but Christ's. Music is a way of submitting my passions to His.

Contrast that application with most worship in music today.

1. What holds musical worship together in most churches is sameness of style.

The style of a church’s music is carefully crafted to target a specific demographic. The invitation most churches extend is, “Join us because we are exactly like you!” The other (unspoken) part of this invitation is, “If you aren’t like us, you won’t really fit here.”

This conformity kills the interaction individuals need with believers who are different from them. It replaces a genuine filling of the Spirit with mere human affinity.

2. The demographic bond is cheap.

People in the same demographic share the same media reference points, many of the same likes and dislikes, the same stage of life, the same job. They relate to each other, as T. S. Eliot put it, only with the most conscious part of themselves.

The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is a bond at once deeply personal and deeply relational. It supernaturally overcomes ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions, and blows away superficial, market-based identities. It makes individuals larger and larger.

The ugly truth is that many churches are actively manufacturing small, superficial people whose ability to interact is retarded.

3. The demographic bond is false.

Many people now link their personal identities to their choices as consumers. The cars, clothes, music, food, and attitude with which they upholster their lives all make up their identities. Thus, people labor to join certain demographics, and flaunt their status once their satisfy their ambition.

What churches create in their pursuit of demographic affinity is a lie. People seem to be bound together. But they are only attached by their choices, which they are free to reverse at any time.

The stark reality is that style-driven worship music resists the Spirit's work of bonding, his work of love.

Music That Edifies, and Music That Doesn't

by Matthew Raley The word edify seems to be out of favor. It has the feel of an antique, and the stigma of obscure religiosity. When reaching for an equivalent, evangelicals often use encourage, and the substitution tells a story.

The words are similar.

To encourage is to hearten or animate -- to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Though one can encourage a group, we usually think of encouraging an individual, someone who needs a pat on the back.

Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact but is more specific about the purpose. To edify is to build, as both the Latin and Greek roots attest. Edification speaks of joining, cementing, adding, raising. It refers particularly to moral and spiritual improvement.

This is how Paul uses the Greek term (1 Corinthians 8.1): “Knowledge inflates, but love builds.”

Throughout the history of Western culture, sacred music has embraced the mission to edify. Congregations expected their music to cement them together in the praise of God, not just with people of one class but all classes, not just people of one generation but many generations. In the experience of being built together with other Christians, they expected to be improved. Music in worship was viewed as a corporate matter, as participation in a common sound.

This mission of connecting generations and classes was artistic. To achieve its goals, sacred music had tools to draw people in, like using familiar tunes from hymns and folk songs. It had other tools to propel people out of the familiar, not merely repeating tunes week after week, but resetting and combining them so that the folk elements acquired symbolic meanings. Until the late 1700s this music was not sold or performed outside the context of worship, and so had no commercial value.

It was crafted to evoke the spiritual zone where Christ’s people of all times and nations live.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a theology for this art -- a view of how God uses music. He believed that the glory of God came upon his people whenever the congregation made music, a belief he based on the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5.11-14. But for this art, Bach also had a cosmology -- a view of how music operates in the physical universe. He believed that the planets and stars made literal music that human beings could join with their own sounds, all to God's praise.

Bach’s music expresses this worldview. In the motet Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy), for instance, he takes a hymn that was familiar to his people, intersperses its stanzas with quotes from Romans 8, a familiar passage, and then propels the worshipers into God’s cosmos.

Notice that at the beginning the hymn is sung in ordinary chorale style (familiar), but that the second stanza (movement 3, 3:55) is more complex. The hymn tune is set in even more complex ways toward the middle of the motet. Notice also that the words from Romans 8.1 are set with five intricate, mutually-imitating lines. This counterpoint evokes the universe's singing, the "music of the spheres." (English translation below.)


Jesus, my joy, pasture of my heart, Jesus, my adornment ah how long, how long is my heart filled with anxiety and longing for you! Lamb of God, my bridegroom, apart from you on the earth there is nothing dearer to me.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who wander not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8, V. 1)

Beneath your protection I am free from the attacks of all my enemies. Let Satan track me down, let my enemy be exasperated -- Jesus stands by me. Even if there is thunder and lightning, even if sin and hell spread terror Jesus will protect me .

This music doesn't leave a worshiper in a familiar world. It connects worshipers to each other, to past generations of Christians, to the apostle Paul, to the physical universe (as they believed), and to God. It uses the familiar as a doorway into God's larger world. It edifies. The music is powerful enough to connect with people today.

It is hardly news that contemporary evangelical music does not have a mission to edify. Evangelicals use commercialized pop modes almost exclusively, and the mission of this music is merely to encourage individuals.

Pop music certainly succeeds in its mission. But it has little communal value, since pop audiences have become narrower and narrower, representing the divisions of demographics rather than the unity of Christ’s Church throughout time and space. Some churches do well by singing a broad selection of pop styles, and there are possibilities for unity by using pop tools.

But there are two things evangelicals need to face about music. First, music has been given a spiritual mission by God, a mission that requires it do go further than encouragement. Second, the category of "what I like" will never edify. Giving people only what is familiar will make them smaller.

Sacred music needs to embrace its mission of love.

Books: Christ In Y'all, by Neil Carter

scan0002 Christ In Y'all: Following Jesus into Community

Neil Carter (Ekklesia Press, 2008, 196 pp)

by Matthew Raley

In our crisis of identity as American evangelicals, we are several decades into a period of radical (root-seeking) experiments with local church life. Fellow believers are heading in many directions seeking community.

The church growth movement has fostered enterprises that are intimately in step with suburban consumerism. The Reformed movement is trying to revitalize body life through sharper doctrine. Many emergents have moved on from café churches to think in terms of missional communities.

Believers are amassing a lot of wisdom from these experiments. This period, though it is often painful and bewildering to me, will leave followers of Christ far healthier and with more varied skills for advancing Christ's kingdom. I think the home church movement will prove to be a big contributor to all this wisdom.

That is why I was eager to read Neil Carter's book, Christ in Y'all: Following Jesus into Community, and why I'm glad I did. I found much wisdom to keep working through our identity crisis.

Carter is focused on needs that, for believers, are primal. He asks, for example (p 30), "[H]ow many things do you do, either on your own or within your church, that honestly could not be done without God's indwelling presence?" Concerning prayer, he observes (p 41), "Somewhere along the line we got a picture of God as a task-oriented Being who gave us prayer primarily as a way to make us as task-oriented as he is. But what would we be left with if we removed from our prayer lives all prayers that ask God to do something? We'd be left with simple communion."

He also writes (p 45), "Spiritual formation is a collective endeavor [original emphasis]. It's not about you, the individual, becoming more like Jesus. It's about him coming to reside among the saints in their relationships with each other."

The theology behind these statements is life-giving and biblical. Carter loves the Bible, and he communicates from the deep intentions of texts, not from idiosyncratic passions.

In addition, Carter makes penetrating observations about American life (p 39). "While declaring our independence from each other, we simultaneously mimic each other in everything from our clothing and our possessions to our language, our political views, and even our personalities. American culture may very well be the most advanced manifestation of this malady to date."

This book is informed by experience. Carter and the brethren have taken these ideas and applied them seriously in a home church. He discusses how many of them intentionally live near each other, so that (p 158) they "often bump into each other and spend time together on the spur of the moment."

At the heart of the book, and the experiences it reflects, is the reality that suffering with other believers, and being hurt by them, is essential to the Christian life. Chapters 5-6, in this respect, are worth the whole book, and give a call to sobriety that believers deeply need.

The only weakness of this book is common to literature from radical experimenters. In a word, judgmentalism.

Those who seek the root of matters and do things differently get stared at by the community's worst face -- the snide, dismissive, over-confident face. This experience stings, and it's difficult to keep one's writing and teaching from stinging back.

The edge of judgment on others' efforts comes through in several of Carter's paragraphs about stereotypical traditional church activities, staffs, buildings, etc. The verdict on p 168 is one of a few unsustainable pronouncements: "It took me a while to admit that 'body life' cannot survive long within the traditional church setting because these two things are antagonistic to each other."

This doesn't match my experiences. But such sparks keep the experimentation lively. I'll put up with them to get Neil Carter's wisdom.

Evangelical Wrath and God's Righteousness

by Matthew Raley Sometimes I slip statements into my posts to see who's paying attention to what. The award this week goes to my brother Chris, who spotted a matter of some importance in last week's post about the court decision on Prop 8.

What I said was,

Having entered the political fray with a fractured base — a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact — the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That’s elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.

So the enemies are homosexuals.

This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God.

Chris pulled out the last sentence: "That has a lot of implications. Like, to what extent do we do this to fellow Christians?"

My allusion was to James 1.19-21. In teaching how to endure temptation, James commands us to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." He is warming up to say later that wrangling and fighting is demonic (3.13-13; 4.1-12).  But here, the basic reason he gives to resist anger is that "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires."

Rather, we must lay aside our own wickedness, and "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." The word of God implanted in the receptive heart-and-mind is the source of godly obedience. Our anger is not the source.

James would say that we do inflict our wrath on other believers to produce righteousness, and we must repent. Here are some specific ways that we do what James forbids:

1. We often rely on conformist instincts to uphold standards.

No one wants to provoke the community's anger and bring shame or rejection on themselves. It is a high cost to bear. So, much of the time, church-goers keep their heads down. They will avoid any public non-conformity to the church's explicit and implicit standards, hiding any behavior that might expose them to disapproval.

Threats of the anger of man, in this case, produce lying rather than truth.

James teaches that God's righteousness is produced when someone responds directly to God's goodness (1.18). "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Conformity to other human beings is spiritually barren.

2. We often use guilt manipulation to motivate people to godliness.

Guilt manipulation, to define it broadly, is making people feel bad about what they've done. It is what one human being does when trying to control another human being's behavior. This comes in a range of language from "Burn in hell, you sinner" to "We're disappointed in you." We do this because we know that shame is a disabling emotion.

In this method we, the human beings, are supposed to police sin and arrest it.

The use of shame is a kind of vengeance -- which is to say, the satisfaction of anger. It does not produce righteousness because it is disabling, not redeeming. God nurtures a living, joyful righteousness.

Obviously, a church needs to confront sins. James is not teaching that we can shirk that duty, nor am I. Rather, confronting sin must be done with abundant listening and the tender maintenance of meekness. God is the one who convicts sin, not us. It is his implanted word that has the power to save, not our emotional appeals.

3. We fight to preserve a culture that reflects our standards, believing that this will save future generations.

The whole motivation behind the campaign against gay marriage is to preserve our society's reflection of particular biblical values. This and other such issues are labeled the culture wars. They are social battlegrounds. The scenes of anger.

What these battles have unleashed in the conversation of Christians around me is not the righteousness of God. They have unleashed jealousy, mocking, lying, brawling, gossip, slander, and condemnation. If we "win," I can say with some confidence that not one soul will gain eternal life as a result. As for the souls of our children, many are filled with revulsion.

And all this for a goal that is of dubious value. Jesus Christ does not redeem human cultures. He redeems souls. Those redeemed souls then alter the character of the cultures in which they live.

James would not have shrunk from declaring God's will for sexuality, nor will I. But let the focus of our speech be where James focused his, on maintaining the meekness of souls to receive the implanted word.

No souls will be saved any other way than by the new birth in Jesus Christ.


by Matthew Raley A church is not a business. A church is a town.

Many kinds of people live in a town, and they stay because, in their diverse ways, they are connected to the town's life. A doctor can live in the same town as a carpenter because both contribute to its vitality. A town has different sections in which people congregate at different times for different reasons. The variety of resources available -- available in an organic and free way -- is what makes the town feel lively.

A town doesn't have a mission, in the business sense. It has a culture. It doesn't  tell residents where to go, or what their priorities should be, or what skills they should have. Such a town would be oppressive. A town is attractive if the way of life it offers is strong, meaning there's energy and laughter and productivity. Businesses contribute mightily to that life, but ultimately they are nurtured by the town.

So with a church. It is a congregation of differences united in a life.

Churches often become oppressive because they drive out diversity, as if they were businesses working a plan. Seeking to be purposeful, such churches instead become destructive.

I think one of the toughest challenges of pastoral leadership is nurturing oneness in diversity.

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column this week that caught the problem.

He describes the traits that make a good business executive.  Three studies of strong executives, he says, have shown that "warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive."

Such findings swim upstream. Many leadership books emphasize that the CEO should be out relating to people, showing his or her human side. There is a glut of writing on team dynamics, on inspirational leadership, and on "vision," as if business people are temperamentally unsuited for their jobs.

There is also a deep-rooted aversion to business culture among professionals in literature, education, and the arts, who use business as a cuss word, and think the marketplace is inherently crass.

Brooks is onto the cultural animosity that makes the critique empty.

The personality types that make great business people are not strong on being reflective or expressive. "For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence."

What we have here, Brooks says, is one culture sniping at another. It's just, They should be more like us.

"Fortunately," he writes, "America is a big place. Literary culture has thrived in Boston, New York and on campuses. Political culture has thrived in Washington. Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond." He wonders what a drive for control from Washington will do to the nation's life.

Churches should be big places -- even the numerically small churches. They should have little districts where the arts, social action, scholarship, and enterprise all thrive, and those districts should be open to traffic, so that people congregate at different times and for different reasons.

Like a town.

We all read 1 Corinthians 12 about the body and its diversity, and we all agree with it. But we tend to say, "Yeah, those people really need me," in blunt rejection of the text's point.

These days, churches seem to cater to specific interest groups. They gather a demographic -- Mosaics, say -- and they base their oneness on their shared cultural perspective, implicitly or explicitly criticizing all the others. This is an illusory oneness, and the illusion is ugly.

Actual oneness in Christ comes when people of diverse races, professions, and ages form a way of life together founded on his atoning death and resurrection. They form a culture based on love. They live together in a little town. I have seen that this oneness is attractive.

And, as a pastor, I have learned that I cannot nurture it by remaining a small man.

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.