My Accidental Life Skill

The other day, it hit me that I accidentally developed a life skill, one that I’ve been using since I was 28 years old. I didn’t build the habit consciously. It just never occurred to me to live any other way.

Twenty years ago this month, I became pastor an elder-led church that had no elders. At 28, I was the only officer constitutionally in charge of setting policy and direction.

I see now what I should’ve done—if I had been smart. I should’ve gone to seminars on how to maximize my own performance, extend my influence, and incentivize others to buy into my vision. I should’ve become a driven executive imposing my will on the organization. And I probably could have done it. Within two years, I was not only the sole elder of this church, but the founding chairman of two non-profit enterprises.

But I wasn’t smart. I wasted this opportunity to expand my power. I brought on more elders, recruited boards for the two non-profits, stepped aside as the chairman, and handed them off to paid leadership.

I was not smart enough to be threatened by the expertise of people who understood childhood education, real estate, and business strategy better than I did. I was so dumb that I thought my job was to support, spiritually feed, and advise those people.

And they took all the power. Elders, managers, board members, counselors, school teachers, fellow pastors took the power and used it without me. They discipled others without my looking over their shoulder. They had meetings without me. They even spent money without my vote. They built buildings, created jobs, taught classes, and helped people through intense personal crises—as if I didn’t even matter.

In spite of how dumb I was, all of these institutions still exist, show resilience, and have the ability to reach people. My failure to actualize myself somehow made space for other leaders to serve Christ and his people.

What hit me the other day was this: giving away power is a life skill. Christians who give their power away to others and support them in their work are the pistons driving the growth of Christ’s Kingdom. Christians who hang onto their authority, positions, and opportunities, who assert their own value against others, and who guard their status against every threat are the brakes. They stop the flow of energy from one person to another, clamp down the drive of churches, and sometimes bring entire institutions to a halt.

It amazes me how people resist giving away power. There is no shortage of people who have low opinions of others. Their argument is always the same. If you give power to this person, he/she will do damage.

Indeed. We all do damage just by showing up. Some of the people I’ve supported misused their power. They sometimes became haughty. Some froze and became indecisive. Others refused to develop their own character, so that they lost credibility with those they needed to lead. A few did all of these things.

Most of the time, the community of leaders helped those who stumbled. The faltering leaders took their lumps, grew, and became more effective. The Lord redeems damage. He is also capable of stopping leaders in their tracks when they are willfully destructive. I’ve seen him do that too.

But the damage that comes from turning ministry into a battle of wills, or a turf war, or a popularity contest is far worse. This damage lasts for decades because many people become trained in slander and malice. It has also impossible to calculate: who can tally the lost love from attitudes that James 3.13-18 calls demonic? There is in my memory a sad gallery of people who spent so much energy neutralizing threats to their personal worth that they now accomplish little for Christ’s kingdom.

Some might imagine that the faces in that gallery are all old. Not so. Many old people learned the skill of giving away power early in their lives, and still thrive in ministry as a result. In fact, if people do not learn this skill early, they rarely learn it later. I am frightened at the number of young and middle-aged people I see whose energy is devoted to controlling their kids, controlling their homes, controlling their business, controlling their free time, and controlling their image.

Every Christian says he or she loves Jesus, wants to serve him, and wants his kingdom to thrive. Every single one. Every church corporately says these things. But a church’s spiritual success may hang on the answer to a single question.

Do you spend your energy creating and guarding a ministry role for yourself, or creating and guarding roles for others?

The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.

Pastor Wilson and Gay Ballet

Doug Wilson has decided that ballet is “a few parsecs beyond the utter frozen limit.” It’s gay.

Before I get into that, here’s a little background on my artistic education.

The walls in my childhood home showed my dad’s drawings. Steve Raley is a singer-songwriter. When I was a baby, he did his music theory homework with me on his lap, teaching me how to analyze orchestration by listening to recordings of pieces by Ravel and Bartok. Dad has also been a trucker, a pilot, and a small business owner. We lived in a nice mobile home.

My Grandpa, Vere Raley, was a farm kid who played football, and who somehow got connected with vocal coaches. He learned to sing Schubert from a German lieder specialist in Los Angeles, and won an opera competition in San Francisco. When he wasn’t singing, he broke his own horse and ran his ranch. His day often started on the tractor and ended in the recital hall.

My violin teacher was a guy named Cal Rainey, who puttered around with fiddles the way some guys work on motorcycles. My orchestra teacher was Leonard Duarte, whose fiery temper laid low more than one jock who was too cool for music. He had no difficulty staring down the PC police of that day, insisting that we would perform blatantly Christian works as part of the Western classical tradition. He also insisted that we learn the vocabulary of musical style, like appoggiatura and other gay stuff.

Yes, as a violinist in a public school, I had every slur against homosexuals thrown at me. And there was always a caring evangelical on hand to make sure I understood how weird I was. But I was nurtured by men who didn’t have a chip on their shoulder about their identity or art, and there were many Christians who encouraged my musical work. With that support, hurtful remarks from others didn’t strike as deeply as they might have.

Still, when it comes to Pastor Wilson’s rant against a dance performed at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, I understand all too well what it is like for anyone, gay or straight, to be on the receiving end. Wilson writes:

“What is the problem with this [dance]? Summed up, it is that this performance is gayer than the kiwi queen at the Fire Island Fruit Festival. This performance is gayer than an HR memo at Google headquarters. How gay was it? It was gayer than an NPR tote bag full of rainbows. It was gayer than a unicorn parade through the Castro District. It was gayer than a lavender sparkly pen.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that Wilson worked pretty hard on those lines. Let’s ignore the charge of effeminacy against the dancers, whose physical strength in performance is obvious in their grace. Let’s also pass over the contempt Wilson expresses for entire classes of people. Let’s even withhold comment on his mockery of gays themselves. With a paragraph that flamboyant, Wilson is on his knees begging us to call him a bigot. He’s got more jokes, and he needs an excuse to use them. So why bother?

Instead, let’s focus on something very simple.

Silas Farley, the choreographer of the dance in question, is not gay. It took all of 45 seconds to discover his engagement to a woman in the New York City Ballet. I am sure that Phil Johnson, who found Wilson’s paragraph too scofftastic not to tweet, could have gotten the information even faster. Pastor Johnson is famous for his research prowess. What about the dancers in the video? Does it matter to these pastors, or to those who comment on their posts, whether the words they sling at the dancers are accurate?

Theological hotshots like Wilson, Johnson, and their fan base want to tell us about propriety in worship. But to them, apparently, an individual Christian like Farley is just cannon fodder in the culture wars. Their smear tactics show a breathtaking mixture of cunning and flippancy. I do not take sermons about aesthetics — or any subject — from slanderers.

I want to believe that Wilson can write posts that are not warped by belligerence. He has an intellect. But he seems to have left it behind flying too many parsecs into the frozen void of his obsessions.

The Churched and the Dechurched

The Barna Group reports that the Chico-Redding area is the 11th most “dechurched” region in the nation. Dechurched people used to attend church but have not in the last six months. In crucial ways, dechurched people are right.

In our region, about 41% of people have dropped out of church. 2 out of 5. Our churches not only fail to gain the “unchurched.” (We’re the seventh most unchurched region nationally.) We alienate our own attenders.

I spend a lot of time with people who stopped attending church, but decide to try again. Here’s what they say to me:

  1. Churches should go deep. Quit with the banners, cliches, and Christianish activities. There’s more to God than sentimentality and cheerleading. Talk to me about things that matter.
  2. Churches should be above politics. Christians can’t keep disrespecting each other when they have different views. If the church doesn’t believe in a power above politics, there’s no point in going. (I hear this from Iraq veterans shunned by progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters shunned by conservatives.)
  3. Churches should be safe. In the shallow, self-absorbed social worlds of churches, backbiting is incessant. Favoritism toward the rich and good-looking is rampant. If you are not secure in a clique, you are ignored. Why should I have to conform to someone’s Instagram fantasy in order to be accepted?

People may have poor reasons for dropping out of church. But these are the three convictions that I hear most from the dechurched who are trying again. And they are right.

Solving these problems will require a change of heart from everyone.

If church-goers continue to see themselves as consumers of programs, then even more people will conclude that churches lack integrity. If, by contrast, the followers of Christ see themselves as citizens of a new Kingdom, they will see different results. They will yearn for more depth in their knowledge of God. Because of that depth, their eyes will lift to the power beyond politics. In the fear of God, they will begin to love one another more than themselves.

This change is not only possible. I see it happening quietly. The alienation of church-goers can stop. But we urgently need to recognize that this problem cannot be solved by marketing, only by integrity.