October 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.
If there were a prospect that the nation’s course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It’s incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan’s signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.
President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor — the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush’s, but not different in principle.
A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama’s options. It might pass Paul Ryan’s budgets as written, and they still won’t become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.
So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.
Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?
Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there’s no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece’s all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?
We can rage against Wall Street’s greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.
Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It’s time to dig up the planted axiom.
None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great — great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.
If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:
Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.
And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: “You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God.” (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)
If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ’s grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.
September 9, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
The generic Congressional polls now predict a Republican thumper in November, recalling the sweep of 1994. When the Republicans took the House and Senate that year, the spread in similar polls had reached 5 points. Today, the RCP average shows a Republican lead of 6.7 points. Last week, the Gallup poll found a record 10-point spread.
Even granting the prudent equivocations — that two months is a long time in an election cycle, that Republicans have not articulated a clear policy agenda, that the public still does not like them — it is hard to see how Democrats avoid disaster. Conservative ambitions for radical action are about to balloon.
So I blew the dust off the 40th anniversary issue of National Review, published December 11, 1995, a year into the Republican Congress. Has reality matched conservatives’ raised expectations from that time?
What I first noticed thumbing its pages was who had died since publication. William F. Buckley, still going strong then, and Ronald Reagan, who had announced his Alzheimer’s disease only a year before. Jack Kemp had not yet been nominated for vice president.
Even long careers are strangely short.
Then I noticed how many debates are still raging: health care, global warming, the federal debt. Next, how drastically media have changed: in one article, Neal Freeman wrote that “Young Media” were talk radio, cable television, and newsletters.
Then, I recalled the subject that had seized conservatives’ ambition in the flush of victory: reversing cultural decline.
David Gelernter wrote an essay called, “After Liberalism,” the very title of which captures what conservatives dreamed, namely that they were on the verge of delivering a fatal blow to the opposing ideology. But Gelernter was not triumphalist. He ended his essay describing the deteriorating lives of middle class children. Then he observed:
When it comes to family values, Republicans talk a good game and check their children at the door. Values Republicans are eager to show that they are Female-Friendly. Growth Republicans understand clearly that economic disaster would be the consequence were American mothers to walk off the job. We’d all be poorer. Standards of living would drop to what they were in (perhaps) 1965. And so the idea that rearing children and not generating wealth might conceivably be society’s first responsibility is orphaned, without a friend anywhere on the mainstream political spectrum.
In another essay, Digby Anderson wrote of recovering the moral strength of Victorian society, a goal that became a preoccupation of many conservatives in the 1990s. Anderson wrote,
In the mid nineteenth century [the Victorians] inherited a society with significant crime, illegitimacy, and low moral standards. By the end of the century they had substantially reduced crime, halved illegitimacy, and produced a complex, powerful, and sophisticated moral order. . . . Virtue and been lost. Virtue was recovered.
This narrative, backed up by historical and social scientific research from thinkers like Gertrude Himmelfarb and Charles Murray, and amplified among evangelicals by Chuck Colson and others, drove such policies as welfare reform, enacted with Bill Clinton’s triangulating signature in 1996. Grabbing congressional majorities fueled a sense that conservatives could restore virtue to the culture by handing power back to ordinary Americans.
Problematic group, those ordinary Americans.
On the one hand, Richard Brookhiser wrote about promising trends among baby-boomers. There was a “revival of religious enthusiasm, amounting to a Fourth Awakening.” There was an increase in those who “teach their children around the kitchen table out of McGuffey’s Readers.” There was also a new interest in virtue itself, signaled by the success of Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. Those were indeed striking trends then.
But by the end of the 1990s, pornography and gambling had been culturally mainstreamed, household debt was spiraling, rates of divorce had not significantly changed, and cohabitation outside of marriage was increasing. In 2006, Republican domination of Congress came to an end amid scandals that featured every kind of financial corruption and sexual perversion.
A thumping Republican victory this November will be a significant event. But politicians and their hangers-on are always too quick to believe their press. Political change does not so much alter as reflect culture. The 1994 victory reflected American culture quite accurately, in all its grim corruption.
I turn a page in this old National Review issue and see an ad for Newt Gingrich’s book, To Renew America. A fellow pastor loaned me a copy of it in 1997, telling me how much he admired Gingrich’s stands, how crucial it was for the moral stamina of the nation to follow his prescriptions. A few weeks later, that pastor was in prison for molesting a minor.
Political power is not enough to renew America. Not even close.
February 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
The religious right asserts that America must be turned back to biblical values through legislation and judicial decisions. It assumes that correcting the laws will free a godly citizenry to restore American culture. Thus, today’s social conservatism tends to be defined by what politicians will do.
Over a series of posts (starting here), I have rejected all three points.
Start with the assumption that evangelical Americans are godly, and therefore have the capacity to restore the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evangelicals have shown little capacity even to restore their own churches, much less America.
If the assumption about a godly citizenry is mistaken, then the religious right’s whole strategy is flawed. Without citizens who actually follow Christ, the legislative and judicial changes sought by the religious right will not restore our culture.
Even further, what the religious right proposes is not conservatism.
Anglo-American traditionalism of the Burkean variety does not put up with abstract principles. Genuine social conservatism says, “The state must deal with the culture it actually governs, not the theoretical culture it desires.” The ethics and ways of the people rule the nation. This is not only the view of conservatives from Burke to Eliot, it is the basic view of the state taught in the Bible.
Conservatives know that healthy cultures change through strong mediatorial institutions, especially families and churches. Conservatives call them mediatorial because they stand between the individual and the government. These institutions pass on and enforce ethics. They nurture relationships that mold people through influence rather than punishment. If the state tries to change a culture by force — and the law is force — it will only twist people’s ways.
In this analysis, the ruinous effect of political liberalism has not been to impose sinful patterns on a citizenry that would never otherwise choose them, but to weaken the mediatorial institutions that, for evangelicals, pass on the Gospel. The pastor has been replaced by the therapist, the church by the welfare agency, and the family by the social worker.
I agree that our nation needs to return to the biblical worldview. But it will never do so until those who profess the name of Christ actually follow him, and follow him institutionally. If evangelicals want a political impact, they need to do what the founders of America envisioned: they need to govern themselves.
Therefore, I see two political goals for churches in American society.
1. Churches and families must campaign and vote for the preservation of their liberties. Aggressively, they should make the case that freedom of association is foundational to a healthy, peaceful society. No faction should be allowed to impose its principles on the consciences of others. The approach has complications. But if we base our arguments about specific issues on this principle, we will find broader agreement, and we will preserve our local spheres of influence.
2. Churches must not only grow, they must govern themselves with the Gospel. They should stop trying to be malls, and return to their natural mandate, both from the New Testament and from Western culture at large, of being strong mediatorial institutions. If churches return to the calling Christ has given them, a cultural and political impact will follow.
The religious right’s populist tactic of blaming elites for our cultural problems is tempting, but it is not conservatism. Conservative Christians must come to grips with the fact that the departure of the nation from a biblical worldview is not a failure of the federal government, but of self-government. If we govern ourselves once again, there can be a return of our culture to Christianity.
February 4, 2010 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
I believe churches need to have a business plan to reverse their decline, a plan that directs resources toward the New Testament goal of moving people to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1.28-29).
The reason local churches are in decline is that they have confused goals, and incoherent business plans. They direct resources toward activities and programs that contribute nothing to a person’s spiritual maturity — even detract from it. Consequently they get zero New Testament return on investment.
Last post, I gave three outcomes that a church business plan needs to produce. I think we either “toil” to produce this kind of maturity in Christ, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works” within us, or else admit that our church life is nothing but words.
1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible. Evangelical churches say they want this outcome, but mere pep talks will never produce it. Significant resources have to go to preaching. A pastor has to labor in scholarship, and in honing his rhetorical craft.
2. An individual, daily practice of worship. Again, churches say they want this. But ask leaders what operations they have put in place to produce it and the response tends to be vague.
3. Obedience to the fifth commandment. Many evangelicals don’t want to honor older people. There is little emphasis on it, much less any clear operational thinking on how to teach it, much less any resources devoted to it. Indeed, I’ve never heard an evangelical leader say that honoring parents is a decisive part of nurturing healthy congregational life.
I also promised additional outcomes. And here are two:
4. Daily faith in God financially.
The people I know who are gaining Christ-like maturity are trusting God economically. I have found that people who want godliness without growing in their practice of work, giving, and spending restraint are deluded.
People must be apprenticed in trusting God with money, and this can’t be done solely in a classroom. Trusting God economically is learned through counseling, or through a trusted friendship, or through that great but neglected teacher, an employer. I am convinced that churches need to become junctions of faith, work, and entrepreneurship.
Much of our discipleship in Orland actually happens on the job. Our leaders invest their personal time and finances heavily in job creation. Many of our people, some profoundly weak in crucial skills, have been trained by our employers spiritually. These employers do not put up with excuses. The process takes hard, daily, purposeful, prayerful work. It can only be done by employers who believe Christ transforms people.
A promising young guy named Matt moved to Orland without a job several years ago to attend our church with his new wife. We were just starting WestHaven Assisted Living, and our hard-nosed-employer-in-chief, Wade, offered Matt a job. After a few short years, Matt is a skilled manager, churchman, husband, and father. He is a self-controlled director his time and money, and a multi-generational asset to this community. He will tell you that God’s power working through his boss is a major factor in his growth.
Building a community to provide this kind of organic discipleship costs money, hundreds of hours of paid and volunteer time, expertise, and requires a willingness to say no to many decent but ultimately frivolous activities that dissipate energy. It is also slow going. But …
Return on investment: By apprenticing people economically, the church gains disciplined volunteer workers and generous financial givers. Capacity for ministry expands here.
5. Gospel-focused spirituality within the trials of divorce.
Divorce is today what slavery was in the 1st century: a common form of servitude for Christians. But if a church uses its resources wisely, it can toil in the power of the Spirit and succeed at producing godly people even amid the emotional, sexual, and financial losses of divorce.
To accomplish this, a church must reject the lie that divorced people are hopeless, and believe that Christ will use them to build his Kingdom. A church must deploy staff both to offer intensive crisis counseling and to train people in the congregation to equip each other biblically. Orland began putting resources into this kind of equipping system years ago, even putting one of our women through a M.A. program in biblical counseling. The work is slow and costly, but …
Return on investment: we have a growing team of lay disciple-makers, a documented crisis intervention system that has successfully interacted with welfare and court systems, and a lengthening roster of saved marriages. And we are a small church.
More outcomes next week.
January 14, 2010 § Leave a Comment
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.”
January 6, 2010 § 2 Comments
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.
December 16, 2009 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
This week I got an email that epitomizes the alliance between evangelicals and political conservatives.
A megachurch pastor from southern California wrote that he can no longer be silent about the health care bill before Congress. What issue has driven him out of reticence? Married couples, he said, will pay more for health insurance than cohabiting couples, and as marriage goes, so goes yada yada. And why did he write me? Because there’s a webcast I need to watch involving U.S. senators and the Family Research Council. It’s going to be “saturated in prayer.” Would I please forward the email approvingly to my congregation?
This email is the fruit of a spinmeister power lunch.
The issue is exactly right to get my attention. The government’s imposition of financial burdens on married people ticks me off. I agree that this is the way morons do statecraft. Furthermore, given the anger many people have about the nation’s course these days, electrifying my church with unity and passion is easy as clicking “send.”
But how many hits of this drug can a congregation take before it’s hooked?
These days, I’m arguing that the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement will not last. The grass-roots base of the religious right is in churches, and churches are closing. Last week, I described the economic strains behind many closures. But I left one matter open: hasn’t the growth of megachurches enabled evangelicals to reach out to the larger culture? Shouldn’t smaller churches close so that resources can be used more efficiently in large ones?
To be sure, the number of megachurches has burgeoned. Warren Cole Smith notes the finding of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church, pp 17-18) that there were less than a dozen churches in America with attendance greater than 2,000 in 1970. In 2004 there were more than 1,200. But Smith finds a significant hole in this apparent success. Citing David Olson’s research, he reports (p 150) that from 1990 to 2000, a decade in which the number of megachurches more than doubled, average Sunday attendance at a Christian church fell from 20.4% of the population to 18.7%.
Larger church size is not compensating for fewer churches. But it is sucking pastors into the non-profit sector’s media point-scoring game.
Racing to be found among the churches that survive the slow liquidation, many pastors use issue- and media-oriented appeals to create a sense of momentum. They become vendors for “parachurch” ministries that have annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, organizations like Focus On the Family, Promise Keepers, and the Family Research Council.
Smith notes that the number of religious and charitable tax-exempt organizations nearly doubled in the 1990s, to around 750,000 (p 18). “A majority . . . were evangelical parachurch organizations.” Solicitations aimed at me, like this week’s email, are unending. I am invited to purchase all forms of media for curricula, to give financial support to these organizations from the church budget, and, in a practice Smith notes (p 37), to purchase blocks of tickets to mass rallies. (“If the church is not able to resell the tickets to its members, it either gives them away or the seats remain empty. It is not unusual for an event that is officially sold out to have 20 percent of the seats go unused.”)
A pastor has every incentive to buy congregational life off the parachurch shelf. I can get a curriculum for men’s groups that kicks off with a stadium conference nearby, that feeds weekly meetings with study guides, and that allows me to push play on a DVD rather than preparing a talk. The content will be okay, and I can ride the larger promotional efforts of a marketing team, guaranteeing at least decent involvement.
Whenever I can push play, I have another half-hour or so to manage a crisis.
The lure of achieving significant outreach through media attractions often proves impossible to resist.
In 2004, Pastor Rick Warren (not the author of this week’s email, by the way) led evangelicals to embrace Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. For the first time on this scale, evangelical pastors became movie promoters, advertising the film, walking through neighborhoods with door-hangers, buying blocks of tickets in local theaters, and preaching sermons timed for the film’s release. These efforts were not just aimed at outreach, but at showing demographic clout to Hollywood.
The pressure pastors were under to march in this parade was intense. One of my prominent local colleagues, in a fit of world-historical ecstacy, called the film “the biggest evangelistic opportunity in 2,000 years.” (Our church skipped the parade.)
Subsequent church attendance numbers in America didn’t budge.
In an attempt to build energy, then, churches large and small have become media vendors. They have wedded media cycles to the pulpit. Pastors devote time and money to marketing instead of the slow, hard-earned relational work of teaching the disciplines of the faith. Listening to many evangelical preachers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the road to heaven is paved with DVDs.
Megachurches have not reversed the decline in church attendance because they tend to produce media-driven church cultures. Such cultures are degraded, incapable of nurturing godliness.
Which is why I will neither promote nor watch tonight’s webcast.
December 10, 2009 § 4 Comments
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.
December 3, 2009 § 4 Comments
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.