Thursday, February 3, 2011

When Christians Attack

Every now and then, a really important ideas comes about and provides us with a brand new way of looking at things. In the last year I have been exposed to one such idea. In January 2010, my wife and I started attending the Greater Boston Vineyard church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve become involved in helping plant another Vineyard church on the south shore of Boston. But my point here is that through the Greater Boston Vineyard, we were introduced to Pastor Dave Schmelzer. Appreciating his take on things as expressed through his sermons, my wife and I opted to pick up a little book he wrote by the title, Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist (Illinois: Saltriver, 2008), in order to learn a little more about where he’s coming from. Both through his preaching, and through the chapter in his book titled, “How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,” I was exposed to what may be referred to as “Stage 4 Theology.” And this idea has rather intriguing and far reaching affects, I suspect. So, I would like to take a moment to explore this a little more here as it related to the stated objective of CeaseFireStrategies to encourage positive Christian interaction with media and culture. Please note that all page references are to the above mentioned book by Schmelzer.

As Schmelzer explains in his book, M. Scott Peck is known as an eighties pop psychologist most famous for his book, The Road Less Traveled. But it wasn’t until a followup book by Peck, that he formulated this idea of the four stage theory to explain human emotional and spiritual development (pgs 17-18). The first three stages, as explained by Schmelzer, are as follows (pg 21):

1. Criminal.
2. Rules-based.
3. Rebellion.

In short, Schmelzer explains that we’re born into the first stage. As infants, we have only one concern in the world, ourselves. This stage lasts for a while, as we gain more communication skills and mobility. Yet we remain primarily focused on our own desires and needs. For the stage one toddler, if she wants a toy another toddler is playing with, she just takes it. The thought never occurs to her that she might be upsetting the other toddler.

The reason for calling this stage “criminal” is that in essence, isn’t selfishness the inception of all crime? I want more money, so I go and rob a bank. Never mind that this money is not mine, that by doing so I am harming other people, and the very act of performing the theft is likely quite traumatic to others present--potentially even deadly should a shoot-out with the police ensue. Schmelzer points out that “stage 1 folks can often be quite effective businesspeople (or politicians or, God forbid, pastors), because they’re relentlessly focused on winning, on getting what they want, whatever it takes (pg 19).”

State 2 is all about the rules. Schmelzer draws from his own experiences as a father observing his boys grow up. As his oldest son entered stage 2, his other boys remained strongly in stage 1. The result? His oldest son, as anyone in stage 2, became obsessed with the rules and correcting his younger brothers. Even when assured by his parents that this was not his responsibility but theirs, he remained determined to set his brothers straight (pgs 19-20). Peck notes that the military and the church seem to be natural places where stage 2 people can thrive. After all, these are places most often displaying clear boundaries and rules that must be followed. Schmelzer makes the following observation about Peck’s affirmation that the church seems to be an easy fit for stage 2:

He [Peck] takes great pains not to judge this. He emphasizes that whatever spiritual things happen at these churches are undoubtedly completely real and that, to his mind, the teachings there are effectively true. The heart and soul of America and most countries are right here in stage 2. These are the good people who get things done and raise strong families. The larger point rests, rather, in how this and other stages interact with each other (pg 20).
Stage 3 seems to correspond to those rebellious teenage years. Its as if growing tired of stage 2, we move into a period of life were we need to wholly and thoroughly rid ourselves of all the rules that have held us back. So we question everything. Why do the rules exists? What’s the point of following them? And it seems too often the answers presented to us for such questions are not satisfactory. So the more frustrated stage 2 becomes, the more stage 2 tries to just force the rules on stage 3. But the more the rules are forced onto stage 3, the more stage 3 rebels!

Schmelzer goes on to write:

The institution that seem to best support stage 3 is the university. Periodically we hear cries of alarm from conservative circles that universities are monolithically liberal. And according to Peck’s theory, of course that’s true and always will be true. Universities are filled with eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, who--as a group--are transitioning into stage 3.

Whole societies, at the broadest level, can also reflect these stages. So, stereotypically at least, the Bible Belt might reflect stage 2. And, meaningfully to me, Cambridge, Massachusetts--dominated by universities--would be stage 3 central (pgs 20-21).
Schmelzer then goes on to explain what it is, specifically for Christians, that is so important to grasp about the interaction of these first three stages. For the stage 2 church going Christian, it can appear as if anyone outside of the church is in fact in stage 1. In other words, if you’re not part of the church, you’re a criminal, in this view. In fact, it can be hard for people in this position to even see that there is a third stage (pg 21). For a die-hard stage 2 person, the world can appear to be divided between those who obey the rules, and those who break the rules. It’s as simple--as black and white--as that.

However, that’s not at all the case. According to Peck, there’s a natural progression out of stage 2, as if just obeying the rules eventually doesn’t satisfy us like it used to. There has to be more to this life, right? Out of this questioning comes stage 3. And contrary to what stage 2 might have to say about those stage 3 people, I would argue that this questioning is only a natural part of life. In fact, in order for any of us to actually be able to think for ourselves, to formulate a worldview, to discover true ethics and morality, we need to question everything handed to us by our society. It’s just part of being human and growing.

The problems really arise as stage 2 and stage 3 fail to get along. They can engage in hateful rhetoric against each other, frustrated at how the other seems to undermine what they hold dear. This is a two-way-street. The insults go both ways. But Schmelzer goes on to note that central to Peck’s whole theory of these stages is that in fact stage 3 is an improvement, spiritually speaking, over stage 2 (pg 22). Here are people in stage 3 that might be rejecting a rules-based Christian faith that they were brought up in. In this sense, they are actually echoing the exact thing that frustrated Jesus so often during his earthly ministry. Pharisees had effectively made the whole idea of connecting with God a game of complex and idiosyncratic rules. This still happens today in some profoundly stage 2 circles, effectively reducing Christian faith to some sort of Fantasy Deity League one takes part in and agrees to play by the rules for the sake of ... well ... playing by the rules. Meanwhile, God, a very real person, seeking a very real relationship with each of us, is shoved aside as if the rules are more important than him. In effect, deep stage 2 people end up picking system over relationship. In this sense, yes, stage 3 is spiritually more mature in its recognition that its not about blind obedience to rules. However, Schmelzer cautions us with this:

Stage 3 folks are indeed spiritually advanced in one limited sense, but not in all senses. Let’s say a godly, faith-filled, stage 2 seventy-year-old, someone who has given her life to loving God and loving others, was walking through one of Cambridge’s many town squares and ended up in a conversation with some snarky, stage 3, nineteen-year-old. Who is more spiritually advanced? Obviously, in any meaningful sense, its the older, godly woman. But Peck’s point is that there is, nonetheless, a sense in which it’s the cocky kid. Hold that thought (pgs 22-23).
He goes on to point out that what stage 3 can forget, or never become aware of the fact that there is a fourth stage. Merely questioning and rejecting rules is not the end of the line in spiritual development. So what is next? What is this fourth stage?

Schmelzer says we can call stage 4 the “mystical” stage. He writes, “Here, one suddenly realizes that most of the things we were taught in stage 2 are, in fact, true, but in a much richer and more mysterious sense than we would have, or could have, imagined (pg 23).” So stage 4 sees life differently than stage 2, but in many ways chooses to abide by the same rules as stage 2. The rules have new significance. But it is important to note that one does not arrive at stage 4 directly from stage 2. This is why stage 3 is in fact a step in the right direction, a step towards a more complete and healthy spirituality.

But arriving at stage 4 doesn’t mean all conflict is resolved. From the perspective of stage 3, stage 4 can look like stage 2. Was that confusing enough? What I mean is that from the perspective of someone rejecting Christian faith as nothing but a bunch of mindless rules that doesn’t do any good for anyone, someone who is a Christian and in stage 4 may look a lot like those rule-obsessed stage 2 Christians. But the fundamental difference between those two types of Christians is that one holds on to the rules for dear life as a burden they must endure to earn passage to heaven, the other sees those rules freeing and helpful guidance for the good life God longs to give them both now and for eternity.

Schmelzer and others use the analogy of God as a doctor to help explain this. A nutritionist may indicate to me that I need to exorcize more and eat significantly less ice-cream. If I have a disease, a doctor will likely prescribe medicine for me. Taking the medicine may, at face value, seem unpleasant. And of course, who wants to cut back on eating ice-cream? But my doctor, if she’s an honest doctor, is not prescribing me some drug for no reason. Just as my nutritionist is not trying to deny me something delicious, ice-cream. In the case of both the good nutritionist and the good doctor, these are principles that will lead me to a better, healthier, happier life. It’s actually all for my own good!

God is like this good nutritionist or good doctor! He actually wants what’s best for us. He only wants good things for us! And stage 4 is about grasping this truth. With this in mind, many of the “rules” ascribed to Christian faith take on a new level of significance. But it also means that breaking these rules also takes on a different significance. Now, the stage 4 Christian understands that while its not God’s ideal for their life that they break such rules, God is also keenly aware we’re all human and prone to sin. Here is where God’s grace is so important. So in this way, stage 4 Christians do all they can to live out a life devoted to God, out of love, because the guidelines God has provided are for our own good and his deepest desire is to give us good things, the best of which is a relationship with him! But this can still appear from the outside-looking-in (from stage 3) like it’s based on rules. But, as the stage’s title would suggest, it’s much more mysterious than that.

While stage 2 can be consumed with checking items off a list or saying “the sinner’s prayer,” stage 4 is focused on drawing closer to God, hearing him speak, and continuously being transformed by the lordship of Jesus in one’s life. For the stage 4 Christian, salvation and becoming part of the Kingdom of God is a life-long journey, and not something that happens in a moment by uttering certain words or walking forward during an alter call. Again, faith is much more mysterious to them. Not mysterious in that it can never be grasped, but mysterious in that grasping it is a life-time endeavor. For the stage 4 Christian, faith is about relationship over system.

Now the other conundrum I see here is that for the stage 2 Christian, stage 4 Christianity can look like stages 1 or 3. I know, confusing again, right? What I mean is that to the rules-based stage 2 Christian, someone who says things like I just did above that Christian faith isn’t about techniques like saying “the sinner’s prayer” (which in fact can’t be found in the Bible) or walking forward during an alter call at church, is just a rebellious liberal or a spiritual criminal.

In fact, such people can be seen as rebellious liberals or spiritual criminals for other reasons well. As stage 4 Christians examine Scripture, they’re bound to see things in a very different light from a stage 2 Christian approaching life as a careful game of Operation, where should they even touch the boudoirs where what is “holy” and what is “secular” meet, they will be instantly zapped by a disapproving God. So when a stage 4 Christian poses a legitimate question, or does something outside the norm of what is accepted as “good Christian behavior” according to stage 2, it can be easy for the stage 2 Christian to label stage 4 as rebels (stage 3), or worse yet, criminals (stage 1). Clear as mud?

What does this mean for the culturally relevant Christian?

Well, first of all, I hope it means we’re all working our way to stage 4. Schmelzer indicates that this is a longer process than just deciding one is stage 4. I hope we’re all longing for a true relationship with God and recognize that he really longs to bless us. And not in a Gospel of Prosperity way, either. I mean that he wants to fulfill us in more profound and mysterious ways that reach right down to what it means to exist, to be alive, to be human, to be you!

I also believe God is actively interested in redeeming everything about this world. So for the stage 4 Christian, going to work takes on a new significance not just as a witness of the Gospel, but as a means to see God’s redemptive work in the task at hand as we take on our work as worship, rather than a burden. Much as Brother Lawrence practiced the presence of God, so too the stage 4 Christian seeks to exist at all times in close relationship and open communication with God.

For those of us connected through media, addressing the issues of media, and even finding God’s whispers in media, it means God wants good things for media. He wants good things for everyone. And should we ask him, he will gladly give us wisdom and discernment (James 1:5).

But all of this also means something else. It means that while we are busy seeking to speak God’s love to the broader culture through media, we may find ourselves attacked from within the Christian subculture. Stage 2 may, and often does, look at what Christians in secular media are doing and dismiss it as wasted time, or far worse, publicly denounce it and call those Christians terrible things. It happens all the time. And I’m sure it will continue to happen. Sadly. The point is, now that I have this four-stage theory in mind thanks to Peck and Schmelzer, I also have a much better perspective and appreciation as to where those attacks come from. In this way, I am learning (by no means will I claim I’ve mastered this!) to differentiate the “stage-two-ness” of such attacks from the person I am called to love as my sister or brother in Christ.

If we are to cease fire, as this blog’s name suggests, than we are not only to cease fire against the secular world and seek to engage it in dialogue, we’re going to need to do the same thing with fellow Christians who might be stage 2. That’s no easy task! It requires much love and much patience. And sometimes we’ll need to quietly lose the argument so as not to lose our heads, for the bull-headed stage 2 combatant is often not interested in true dialogue, but merely informing us of what we’ve done wrong in their view. In such cases, I find it best to simply understand where the attack is coming from and letting it go at that. But it doesn’t end there. When such attacks happen, it means we pray for those who attack us, be they stage 2 or stage 3. And we love them regardless of what they say. It means that while we might be hurt by such attacks, we do not give up. Instead, we turn to God, asking for his strength, his peace, his love, his joy, and his forgiveness to fill our hearts, and his wisdom to flood our minds as we persevere down the road he’s called us to walk.


  1. You bring up some good points, Mikel.

    The complication of actually being stage 4 is so much more of a process than we even realize. Often we go through the rebellion stage only to find ourselves right back in the rules stage, unwilling to sit next to so-and-so because they are too different from me.

    I recently had a friend decline to work with me on a project because my friend disagreed with another friend's work. I was so frustrated. Both of my friends would agree that they love Jesus with everything in them and that they are following Jesus as best they can tell.

    But we put up these nasty dividing lines, often for fear that we might get corrupted somehow. We might get dirty. Some sort of slime might get on us.

    As if God's protection can't cover that far as I'm concerned, it can.

    But both of my friends would also be aspiring to stage 4, too, so you see it is hard to define.

    Also, it's hard to find the lines. Presumably we do have some lines that we need to hold. Standing in the tension of not judging while you hold your own line because you think that God has called you to that line is no easy task. Often if we feel that God has called us to a line that God means to call all of us to that same line. Maybe. But maybe not always. Your sins are different than my sins. We may need different lines.

    I could go on... (Kristina Kaiser)

  2. Very nice, Mikel!

    Thinking that the majority of the intended CFS audience would be Stage 2 and/or Stage 3, how would CFS communicate with those in the stages that would likely oppose the mission of CFS? Having a mission statement of "Encouraging positive Christian involvement with media & culure", how could we help Stage 2 Christians embrace this challenge?

    Also, how could each stage seek to communicate with those in different stages -- a sort of diplomacy internally as well as externally?

  3. My first thought on Eric's question is that they have to want to be communicated with. If you spend some time with Dave, which I have, he adds another layer to Stages. He refers to some people as Hard Stage 2 or Soft Stage 2 and then, of course, Hard Stage 3 and Soft Stage 3.

    In Dave's estimation, if a person is hard anything, they aren't going to talk. They have to be soft or they are going to - forgive the expression - hate you.

    But beyond that, my next thought is: education. For a person who is already soft, you will end up giving them words to something they've suspected all along but haven't been able to pinpoint.

    So how do we educate people? Well, we start doing what we're doing now. We present and we discuss. You get people in the same room or on the same webpage and you say, "What if...?"

    If you're really ambitious and capable, you host seminars & workshops.

    You have book discussions, film forums.

    As far as how they communicate, well, the ground rules have to be that everyone listens and tries to learn from everyone, even if you don't agree on everything. No matter what stage someone is, it's likely that they can teach you something.

    So a Stage 2 will have to let it go and not judge the Stage 3 for swearing (for example) and the Stage 3 will have to understand that the Stage 2 is living where they are because they are petrified that not following the rules will have eternal consequences for them. Everyone needs to give everyone a break.

    As for Stage 1s, in my experience, you are going to have to clearly communicate the rules and parameters so that they know how to operate.

    And when someone becomes hostile, mean, etc, you let them go. We have a phrase: It sounds like this might not be the place for you.

    I've had to learn that it's okay if someone just can't take this sort of philosophy. I want to educate as many people as are willing because there is freedom! But if they don't want what you are offering, I've had to learn that it's okay for them to leave mad and decide that we're a bunch of heretics. I just have to learn how to not take that personally.

  4. Very well put and thought provoking. I see parallels with Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development that I studied in Dr. Joy's CE class at Asbury Seminary in 1972-73. (note, I confess I did not remember his name, but through the wonder of internet search I easily found it and a brief review of his stages at:

    It seems to me that the value of these models is, first of all, to understand myself better. Where am I in terms of these ways of understanding moral and/or spiritual development? And, how can I make progress toward the place God wants me to reach?

    Another value is how it may help to better understand where others are coming from and why they think and react as they do. As I understand this I will not look down on others because they are behind in development. Instead, I should have more compassion and perhaps even sometimes insight to help them make a breakthrough.

    These were my first thoughts upon reading your article.

  5. Excellent observations by the man who first taught me to examine life! These kinds of modals all suffer from limitations for sure. But they can bring us some level of understanding and perspective. But we have to start with ourselves and figure out where we are, then we can help each other. I couldn't agree more.

    Thank you, Dad!

  6. Thank you for your suggestions Kristina! I've actually got many of those ideas in waiting, like the seminars, workshops, book and film discussions, etc.

    Right now, I'm concentrating on getting our podcast, "Cultural Diplomacy", back up and running; and developing a program idea with Mikel... I love the suggestions and appreciate any ideas you wish to share.

  7. I do like Kristina's comments above about the sort of nuances, or layers, to each stage. The stages over all help us better understand where we might find ourselves as well as people we're talking to. But there is more complexity to this too in that not everyone who is stage 3 is perfectly alike, for example. So the various stages are no monolithic either.

    I like the distinction of hard stage 2 and soft stage 2. So in response to Eric's questions, I would say that CFS is best served by trying to focus efforts and attention on reaching out and communicating with people who are essentially soft stage 2. These are people more often open to conversation and discussion, in my experience.

    I would also say the same of hard stage 3 or soft stage 3. Hard Stage 3 folks can easily be more interested in winning arguments and shaking things up and asserting their intellectual depth in questioning everything rather than engaging in thoughtful discussion that is mutually beneficial. Soft stage 3, on the other hand, might be more open to asking genuinely good questions and trying to find answers, even if their stated position is skepticism or rebellion.

    So I think CFS needs to go after the softies of the world. =P

    And as difficult as it can be, I think individual engagement really helps! People tend to act very differently when they're in their group of like-minded folks as opposed to when they interact one-on-one. For a perfect example of this, check out the documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers (specifically the game show section). So I think Kristina's suggestions are quite apt. And this is precisely a major reason I love running a film forum.

  8. I've been a christian for about 33 yrs and have been inching into stage 4 for quite a while. I remember going through the other stages and to be honest, at times, I'm not 100% secure about whether I'm doing the right thing. It's pretty scary and lonely when you start to step away from the herd.

    Anyway, the difficulty is in communicating with the other stages, in particular stage 2. I come away from such interactions doubting myself and my direction. For example, I've noticed that some stage 2's, especially the newly converted ones, are very dogmatic and black-and-white in thinking. I don't in any way mean to be degrading, but quite frankly, some tend to come across as real overzealous know-it-alls, assume if you are not just like they are you are not saved, and want to be your guru.

    I recently met a man who is a newly-converted Christian after a life spent in drugs and prison. I know that God has done a great thing in his life and has placed him in a postion to do great things. That being said, I have a hard time talking to him because he acts as if I'm not "saved." He asked me last week if I was "saved" and I told him yes. I said "Robert, I was first baptized when I was 7y/o and that salvation for me is both a one-time event and an ongoing daily conversion in that I am learning to die to myself and become more Christ-like everyday." He replied(more like butted in) and said, "Okay, okay, but I really need to know is when you were baptized, did your pastor say the 'x,y,z' formula for baptism." I asked why were my pastor's exact words so important at my baptism?" He said, "Well, if your pastor did not say such and such, then, you were not given remission for your sins and you are not saved." I finally said, "Robert, you know, God is really doing a wonderful thing in your life and he is going to use you to reach many people. Good luck with your ministry." Robert then replied, "Yeah, yeah I know, but you really need to consider going to my church and getting together for a bible-study because you need more and you can really learn a lot from me." He's already assumming guru-like status and he keeps calling and texting me. It's getting annoying.

    I guess I'm using my experience with Robert as an example of the difficulty of communication between the different stages. I know where he's coming from, but from his point-of-view, I am a lost sinner no matter what I do, say, or explain to him.

  9. I feel your pain here, my friend! Boy do I ever feel your pain. I'm right there with you and I have had many conversations along the lines of the one you had with your friend Robert. At the time, those conversations are so incredibly discouraging because we feel misunderstood, we questions the validity of what we're going through, or we at least feel frustrated that a friend like Robert who definitely means well and whose heart is in the right place at the the same time can so completely misunderstands the Kindgom of God.

    But let me encourage you that you are NOT ALONE! In fact, I believe the most fruitful and rewarding life for followers of Christ is a life that dares to live in tension, in between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." Think about it, that's exactly the life Jesus lived out on earth! He was liberal and relational for the religious people around him. And yet he called those who wished to follow him to rise to a standard of righteousness people who loved their money and power could not stand or comprehend.

    The Christians I look up to today do the same. To their non-believing friends they some times look too "churchy," while at the very same moment to their stage 2 Christian friends they look like rule-breaking back-sliders. I have had this experience myself.

    And yet the truth is, this is the best place to be. Because life is a journey (as you mentioned above) and not just about a moment of conversion. So we're all growing. And over time, our non-believing friends who think we're churchy might come to see us differently. And our Stage 2 Christian friends might come to understand what we who life this life of tension are doing.

    I think it is important to appreciate too that new Christians, people who recently have found Christ, tend to cling to rules. I know I sure did. It can be conforming initially. And in our excitement as new believers, we can be a tad overbearing, thinking we've got this figured out. Thank God that in fact this is really about relationship with him. And as we progress through life in that relationship, my hope is we all grow and shed our dependence of formulas and rely on close friendship with Christ.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!