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 Synagogue Shooter

At Living Hope’s leadership meeting last Sunday security was the dominant topic. The day before, John Earnest, 19, had assaulted a San Diego synagogue, killing 60-year-old Lori Kaye and wounding 3 others, including a young girl. A week prior, bombers killed Christian worshipers in Sri Lanka. A month ago, Muslims were massacred in Christchurch, New Zealand. Six months ago, 11 worshipers were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Our church, like many others, has been preparing for this kind of incident for years. In every meeting, it is a shock to contemplate what murder would look like in our building.

John Earnest, however, raises an additional problem for evangelical pastors. He was raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian church. In eighteen months, he rejected his evangelical faith, and radicalized himself to such a degree that he tried to burn down a mosque in March, and began planning his assault on the synagogue.

Terrorists are not “them” anymore. The lone gunman may be hanging around evangelical churches. Self-radicalization is now so unpredictable that law enforcement is struggling keep up. And California, in a fact that belies its self-image, leads the nation in the number of organized hate groups that encourage him. Evangelicals, like many other subcultures, are stirring their political opinions into a cocktail of racial ideologies.

A few months ago, I got a message from a man who has been in and out of our congregation. It was a chain email (“Do you have the guts to forward this?”) protesting black pride. White pride is not racism, it said, and whites have been too ashamed to stand up for themselves. “That’s why we have LOST most of OUR RIGHTS in this country [caps original].”

The narrative in the man’s email plays right into the theology that Earnest espoused in his manifesto. Kinism, which Earnest wished he had been taught by his church, claims that God created ethnic groups, and that ethnicities must remain pure. Ethnic pride is his new religion. Lots of people are ready to convert to this sort of piety and to use fake-intellectual jargon to label people who disagree with them, terms like “cultural Marxism.” (Joe Carter’s post is essential reading on these issues.)

The man who messaged me had been subjected to the most powerful accelerator of racial hostility in our nation: the prison system. Some of our men have described to me the pressure to conform to racial identity in prison. “It’s how you survive,” said one. California’s incarceration rate may have more to do with its high number of hate groups than anyone wants to admit.

I don’t mean to suggest that this man will become the next shooter, or that his chain email is at the same moral level as Earnest’s manifesto. But if he wants to feed his racial grievances, he will have plenty of help.

Further, converts to the religion of race just as easily come from the upper middle-class. Constricted sources of information—approved cable news and YouTube channels—are enabling people of every demographic to live in their own heads.

Many evangelical pastors find it hard to imagine that racism might be strengthening among professing Christians. Many others are tired of their social and political views being equated unjustly with racism—enough to have stopped listening to the alarms going off around us. But we have to engage far more deeply on matters of race and theology.

John Earnest will not be the last terrorist to have dropped out of an evangelical church.

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.

Defiance Without Malice

by Matthew Raley

As gay marriage becomes the law of the land, AmericanChristians may rediscover how to defy mainstream culture without malice.

For most of our history, we thought of ourselves as mainstream Americans. Churches had a well-defined role in civic life. We associated easily with most institutions. Political and artistic leaders felt obliged to reflect our language and principles.

But this was a dangerous illusion. It stiffened us with entitlement. It made us jealous for our social position. We imagined that we could avoid becoming peaceable outsiders.

We thought that we’d be able to follow Christ without having to say, as Peter did, “We must obey God rather than men.” We would never have to choose between employment and conscience, as English Puritans did. We would never have to face the scorn of our peers as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he became a theologian.

We thought we could be disciples without cost.

As our illusion is being smashed, Christians often spit malice at others, as if it were unjust to lose a bit of worldly welfare for Christ. Malice is not even a substitute for wit, much less for the Holy Spirit.

We should recognize that marriage is only part of a deeper disagreement. Do we set the terms for our lives or does God? Many say that we determine identity, relationships, sexuality, the beginning and the end of life for ourselves. Christians reply that God determines all those things. The very depth of the divide should soften our hearts.

In the permanent adolescence of identity politics, activists are reducing this disagreement to hatred. For years, I’ve defied right-wing populists stoking up malice in churches. Activists on the left who charge bigotry won’t find me shaking in my shoes. Americans understand that dissent is different from hatred.

So here’s my position as a pastor on gay marriage: I won’t participate in it. I will continue to teach and apply the same view of marriage I’ve always held—one man with one woman. No court, threat, lawsuit, fine, or tweet will change my views. I do not hate anyone who disagrees with me. Disagreement is part of life in our big country.

But conformity is not.