October 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
The name “Jesus” has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that “Jesus” is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.
Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our “Jesus.”
We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive “Jesus” who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist “Jesus” who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting “Jesus” of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we’ve inveighed against the gnostic “Jesus” who had a child with Mary Magdalene — a savior for conspiracy theorists.
Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We’re right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can’t seem to reject the blank screen itself. We’ve profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we’d undermine our salesmanship.
For the last forty years at least the evangelical “Jesus” has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.
In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he’s way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn’t lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, “Dude!”
This “Jesus” can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for “Jesus,” maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice “Jesus” is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.
The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.
The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible’s words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can’t abide: “God’s plan isn’t all about you.”
But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.
Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus “did not entrust himself to them.” (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6.15)
So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he’s still commanding, “Follow me.”
March 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
For American evangelicals, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become a tall tale. We retell the story with gusto, but by Easter afternoon the resurrection fades to legend.
Evangelicals historically saw Christ’s rising from the dead as the volcanic core of the Christian life. He conquered death not just by rising, but also by pouring his life into his followers. To a person was hostile to God, the essence of spiritual death, Christ restored love. He replaced rebellion with willing obedience. Christ’s presence was the hot energy that transformed a believer’s motivations.
In other words, evangelicals used to emphasize Jesus’s teaching in the Bible about the new birth, that human beings must have a resurrection of God-loving energy and that nothing else can save us.
In the late 20th century, however, evangelicals’ concept of the new birth degenerated. The phrase “born again” came to describe a ticket to heaven, eternal life guaranteed by a single prayer. We focused on getting people to pray that prayer, and with some success. Many got their ticket.
But we had trouble motivating ourselves to spiritual vitality. Those who prayed that prayer — who in fact prayed it repeatedly, grasping for security with God — were rarely taught that the new birth radically changed their identities. We generalized about “a relationship with Jesus” as if it were a life-upgrade, a fix for whatever made us unhappy, rather than life itself.
So Christ’s resurrection became a mere story.
I meet countless believers who know that Christ’s power is not extinct, but who only see glimpses of it. The trivial new birth taught by churches has drained their vitality.
I hear three such trivialized versions of the Christian life.
Many believers describe being born again as a cathartic emotional high, a personal, authentic experience that gives meaning to life. Following Christ to them means striving to recapture the high — and failing. Their church has taught them existentialism with the name of Jesus attached on a post-it note. No one should be expected to build his life on such sand.
Others see the Christian life as maintaining a good family: striving to be a good wife or husband, striving to keep bad influences out of the home, striving to raise good children — and failing. These believers have been taught moralism. Week after week in church, they have heard five steps to good communication, seven steps to good time management, and a wearying list of other “practical” suggestions for getting their act together. Christ’s role in their spiritual life is to forgive their accumulating sins. And that’s his only role.
Still others describe the Christian life as activism. Many older evangelicals strive to recapture America’s political system and restore the culture they once knew. Younger evangelicals, reacting against their elders, often strive for progressive causes. But political striving fails too. These believers have been taught different forms of ye olde throne-and-altar religion, that Christ builds his kingdom through governments. Christ role for them is to get the right people in office.
These forms of striving — existential, moral, and political — have three things in common. Each replaces Christ with an idol, a totem of sanctified obsessions. Each fails to supply Christ’s power, leaving the soul dessicated. And each consigns Christ’s resurrection to legend: an inspirational diversion from the cares of life, but not ultimately relevant to our pressing work.
For evangelicals now, the most important thing about Christianity seems to be our responsibility to solve our own problems. Some dress that message up in therapeutic lingo. Others now supplement it with a grab-bag of medieval mystic practices. But it’s the same old bad news: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Churches must restore the emphasis on genuine power. Christ is risen. In him we also have been made alive.
I notice that discouraged believers still distinguish between the follies of churches and the power of God. In discouragement, they persistently hope in Christ, knowing that his subterranean heat remains fierce even if the ground looks cold.
They should take comfort. Easter is not empty.
February 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Prop 8′s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. No surprise there. The real question is what will happen at the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the implications will be for religious liberty.
1. It is not clear how the Roberts Court will rule on Prop 8. The outcome will likely depend on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who remains the swing vote on many issues. I will be surprised if the court renders a sweeping decision on the gay marriage question. Look for a narrow one.
This is a weak position for traditional marriage supporters. A narrow ruling against Prop 8 has the effect of institutionalizing gay marriage in the U.S., where a narrow ruling in favor of Prop 8 merely keeps the issue in play.
2. Suppose the high court upholds the 9th Circuit’s decision and gay marriage becomes the nation’s new legal default. A church’s liberty to sanction only marriages between a man and a woman comes into question, and the legal climate for this kind of liberty is very mixed.
In 2010, the high court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school could refuse to recognize a religious group that did not abide by the school’s anti-discrimination standards. The fall-out from that decision is being felt by Christians at Vanderbilt, a private university. The vice chancellor recently told Christian groups that they have to allow non-Christians to be members and even leaders of their organizations if they want official recognition. He said in a public meeting, “We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus.”
A rare moment of candor from a PC mandarin, and a glimpse of what life will be like if tweed totalitarianism gains even more power. There’s religious decision making, and then there’s good decision making. We just want you to make good decisions. That’s all.
There are examples of this pushiness elsewhere. New York City recently expelled churches from using public schools on Sundays. (The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge.) The Obama administration decided to force all organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception, even Catholic institutions. Though the administration has wavered in recent days, it has shown what it really thinks about religious liberties. Catholic adoption agencies in Illinois are closing rather than comply with the state’s new non-discrimination policy. A New York Times article about the controversy makes clear that religious liberty claims are insensitive and tiresome.
Some progressives clearly have an appetite to purge religion from civic, legal, and academic life. Not all progressives. There are those who agree that churches should not be forced to allow gay marriages, or to support any of a host of other choices sanctified by the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt. Such honest progressives recognize the importance of conscience.
So there is some ballast against those who want a purge.
In addition, recent infringements on religious liberty have to be balanced against the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision last month that anti-discrimination employment laws must respect a ministerial exemption. The decision is sweeping, and may be a game-changer for churches.
3. The practical threat to religious liberty will not come from the suave bigotry of vice chancellors, or from gay marriage laws like the one Governor Christine Gregoire signed in Washington State this week. The threat will not come from homosexuals as a group, or from progressives.
The most practical threat is from lawyered-up thugs. In their mania for a religion-free society, radical activists will use lawsuits as a shakedown tactic. They will not need friendly Supreme Court decisions. All they will need is money enough to sue — and they have plenty. They will move from suing cities over crosses and nativities and public prayers to suing churches for “discrimination.”
I have spent years in ministry opposing the attempts of the religious right to turn churches into centers of political activism. Demagoguery and money do not impress me. And if I have not countenanced toxic activism from the right, even though I’m a political conservative, I certainly will not roll over for the cultural left, with which I have no sympathy whatsoever.
I fear we are headed for a new low in American discourse, in which public debate is abandoned in favor of lawsuits. If so, the civil society that has made America strong will splinter, and the conscience of every person will be at the mercy of the best financed pressure group.
December 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
Since June, I have nearly abandoned this blog. Apologies to my faithful readers. I am finally able to resume posting.
You may know that this year has been full of personal changes, not least of which are a new ministry in Chico, CA, and a Ph.D. program at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.
I just finished my first semester of coursework at Southern, and the experience is invigorating. I spent the autumn reading and researching extensively for a seminar on Christianity and film, and then spent eleven days at Southern with my fellow students and professors. The other students are sharp in discussion and debate. The professors are both challenging and supportive. Some of the fruit of this program will find its way into posts here soon.
A Ph.D. program is all-consuming, so I won’t be writing any books for some years. Re-starting a church is all-consuming too, and I find myself doing the two large projects at once.
I moved from the Orland Evangelical Free Church to Grace Brethren Church in April. At the time, the move was seen by many believers in Chico as incomprehensible. The gardeners of gossip around town had pronounced GBC closed. It was in desperate financial shape, with a predominantly elderly congregation of 60-80, a worn-out facility in a poor location, and a record of splits over the last five years.
The situation now is quite different, due to the resilience and tenacity of the original members, who refused to give up even when their situation seemed impossible.
- Attendance is running between 160 and 180 each Sunday.
- Our largest growth consists of young families.
- The junior high ministry is reaching those who haven’t attended church in the past, with 12-15 at each mid-week meeting.
- Children’s ministry is fully staffed, both in Sunday school and children’s church.
- The exterior of our facility has been repainted and the audio-visual system improved.
- Small groups launched in September, and were immediately full. I believe a new group will begin in January.
- The greeting and ushering teams have been reorganized.
- A comprehensive adult discipleship course was designed during the summer. It launched in October.
- The membership has increased substantially, and has made several important decisions quickly, including adding my brother Chris to the staff as director of operations. The tone and quality of the congregational meetings has been excellent.
- The music team has learned new songs and created new arrangements for corporate singing.
- The elders actively lead in key areas, and are forging great working relationships.
- We met our entire 2011 budget by the end of October. Our cash reserves are therefore well supplied, and we are ready for 2012.
I am very pleased with GBC’s new start. What pleases me most is that there has been no division between the original attenders and the new ones. They have decided to work together, in spite of how fast and, at times, confusing all these changes have been. This period has not been easy for anyone, and the joy we’re experiencing now is hard-earned.
This kind of renewal happens when we realize that the Lord Jesus Christ has poured his vast wealth into his people–talent, experience, and the wisdom that comes from suffering. Recognizing this wealth is hard. Christ has stored in it people who don’t always look right, and who seem to have no advantages. If we are to recognize his wealth, we have to associate with the lowly.
No surprise, then, that the glory for every good thing in every church belongs to the Lord alone.
May 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
by Matthew Raley
In a New York Times op-ed piece, “Your So-Called Education,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa expose key failings in undergraduate institutions. The B.A. does not mean what it used to, they report, and there are structural reasons for its decline. Their sharp criticism raises questions about our cultural foundations for learning, not just in colleges but in another educational enterprise, the local church.
Arum and Roksa followed several thousand students in more than two dozen undergraduate institutions over four years. They found that in “a typical semester . . . 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.” The average student spent 12-13 hours per week studying, half the time a student would have spent in the 1960s.
With such minimal work, tests show that a large proportion of students make no significant progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing.
And for this students and their families pay the equivalent of a home mortgage?
The causes Arum and Roksa identify are all institutional, but raise cultural questions that are beyond the scope of their study.
The investments of colleges and universities are one cause: fewer tenured faculty, more counselors who attend to social and personal issues. “At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.”
The empowerment of students is another cause. Federal Pell grants are dispersed to students, not institutions, which means a student takes dollars wherever he or she decides. The evaluation of faculty emphasizes student assessments, making it difficult for a professor to advance unless he or she is popular. All of this tends to make students think like consumers who insist on being satisfied with the school’s “service.”
Unfortunately, undergraduate schools could adopt all of Arum’s and Roksa’s sensible reform proposals and never revitalize learning.
Consider the significance of schools’ spending on counselors. Social dysfunctions are driving that expenditure: drinking, drugs, cutting, sexual crime, STDs and other public health dangers, and mental health issues like depression. Undergraduate culture is often a degraded underworld. Where does learning fit in such a context?
A key cultural foundation for learning has always been strong family life, and we’re seeing the consequences of family decay.
Consider also the spending on gyms and sports programs. This too expresses a larger cultural reality: we are obsessed with entertainment and activities. How could learning be anything but a sideline where leisure activities are so exalted.
And the empowerment of students as consumers of education? This is quite simply an abdication of authority, a capitulation to our culture’s relentless leveling of all points of view below the only one that ultimately matters: that of the divine Self.
Which brings me to the other educational enterprise I mentioned, the local church, which should be a prime mover in rebuilding a culture of learning — and in the past was exactly that.
Churches today are so enslaved by the same culture of dysfunction, leisure, and consumerism as colleges that one struggles to envision churches as centers of learning. In fact, the idea that a church might be an educational institution is only dimly remembered, when it is not violently rejected. American evangelicals are likely to see this priority as snooty.
But how exactly are Christians to restore a degraded culture if they can’t think critically, or reason about complex issues? And how are they supposed to gain those skills if they know little about the history that made us who we are? And how — really, how exactly is this supposed to happen? — how are they going to apply the gospel to their lives if they won’t read?
Evangelicals seem to think bumper stickers, petition drives, and fun music are enough to “take back the culture.” They have forgotten that our duty in Christ is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
May 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn’s language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.
The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.
Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: “There’s a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members.” The characterization is fair.
Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor’s assertion that “there are bigger issues” than homosexuality, “such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ’s mission.” Olenyn asks, “But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?”
Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.
Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a “really bad” thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.
To understand the Bible’s definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.
According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves — either God or the things we put in place of God.
Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul’s teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin’s slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.
The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes — more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine — that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.
Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of “choices,” “addictions,” “values,” or “lifestyles,” as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.
But in addressing homosexuals — without a social consensus on sexual morality — evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can’t confront homosexuality without asserting God’s right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can’t assert God’s right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who’ve been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.
Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn’s article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I’m grateful that Olenyn showed this.
But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?
March 3, 2011 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
It has been several weeks since I’ve made any significant posts, for which I apologize. I have been preoccupied with some personal changes. I am excited that the Lord is leading me to take a church one-third the size of my current ministry.
I will be leaving the Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) in one month and will become pastor of Grace Brethren Church (GBC) in Chico. (For readers not from California, Chico is 20 miles west of Orland.)
Chico is my hometown, and my parents and grandparents still live there. Bridget and I look forward to our boys Dylan (10) and Malcolm (5) being closer to Pops and Grandma. I’m also eager to be closer to my musical work, which centers on Chico State.
I have a personal connection to GBC, too. My grandpa Vere was an elder there in the final years of his life. I was encouraged to see him productive and busy with ministry among people he loved. This is a spirited group with a sense of calling and a strong desire to serve.
Our personal satisfactions, however, do not mask the challenge we face. The people at GBC have experienced many difficulties and are asking for a new direction. I will be the sole pastor, financial resources are low, and I hear many around town are skeptical.
Here’s the story.
OEFC has grown significantly over the years. Part of the growth has come from other towns, Corning and Chico in particular. A sizable number of people have felt a strong enough kinship with the OEFC’s focus on expository preaching and its philosophy of ministry to keep driving to Orland each Sunday. But our Chico and Corning attenders have always felt a strong desire to minister actively in their own towns. We have all felt that our worship together would be temporary.
So, two years ago, OEFC began exploring how to help our Corning attenders start a church there. They have done just that, holding the first service of Christ Community Church on February 13th at a school in Richfield under the leadership of Jeff Tollison.
When the opportunity with GBC came to my attention, I felt it might be a chance to do something similar in Chico. Perhaps OEFC might send the Chico attenders to join and refresh GBC. When the leadership GBC welcomed the idea, I knew I had to do something dangerous. I told the OEFC elder board of my strong desire to lead this effort myself.
That was a difficult thing to say in some ways. I knew my revelation would hit them hard, and I did not want to hurt the men I’ve served with closely for so many years. But, in another way, telling them about my desire was easy. I know these men. In spite of their sadness, I was certain they would see a new opportunity to help believers from another town.
And that’s exactly how they responded. One of them said what the rest were thinking: “The Kingdom has to get bigger.”
Together, we agreed to take another dangerous step: Tell the OEFC congregation about my desire. Again, this was difficult emotionally. I have served the Lord at OEFC for 12 years. I didn’t want to hurt my congregation. But, again, telling them what was stirring in my heart-and-mind was the obvious step to take. I have always trusted them to receive hard things graciously. They are my colleagues.
Three weeks ago, the elders and I announced at OEFC the possibility that I would move to GBC. That evening, I told the congregation the story, took their questions, and asked them to pray for the Lord’s leading the following Sunday when I candidated. There were many tears.
But since that meeting, person after person has spoken or written to Bridget and me, many after deep wrestling. They have variations of the same thought: we’re sad, but we see the Lord leading you. One said, “I’m sad, but I’m full of hope.” Another said, “We are planting you over there!”
These blessings are powerful to me because I know they come at a price.
GBC extended a call to me on February 20th, and I accepted. The two churches, OEFC and GBC, will worship together in a special service of dedication on April 3rd in Orland, colleagues now in something new.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.
The list of problems in churches is familiar.
For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that’s when the preaching is comprehensible at all.
Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people’s lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can’t deal honestly with our failings and that church isn’t safe.
Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to “values” without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises — joy and thankfulness.
Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today’s evangelicals.
The book’s strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God’s grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals’ guilty consciences.
But I found the book unreadable.
I think the authors’ decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.
And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what’s wrong with “preaching.” The fact that most preachers couldn’t give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.
If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.
October 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
The term awakening is important to American evangelicals — and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.
So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment’s websites announces that it is “awakening the Christian community.” Another is more specific: “The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal, and educational systems.”
The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. “Awakening” gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.
Here is one pastor about the “evening of prayer and spiritual renewal” Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: “I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . .” The pastor concludes, “Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America.”
The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.
“Great awakening” is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.
Here’s the problem: Beck’s regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.
Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), “With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention.”
Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came “leanness of soul” (p 76).
This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.
Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment — falling, stumbling, slumbering.
The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it “induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come.”
At this moment in our nation’s life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.
I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.
September 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
We are individually designed to express God’s glory, and we are also designed to link with other believers to show a larger picture of his grace. In my first sermon back after a summer sabbatical, I discuss God’s call to ministry upon each one of us from Ephesians 2.1-10.