A California Pastor on Engaging Community, Culture, and Political Discord

The “Bethel effect” is a term used to describe the community impact of Bethel Church in Redding, California. The congregation has gained national and international attention for its hands-on approach to serving the city.

Pastor Kris Vallotton joins The Daily Signal Podcast today to explain how and why Bethel Church has chosen to love its community through action. He also explains how Americans can have real political impact and engage in dialogue with those who hold different views. Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below. 

Virginia Allen: I am joined by Pastor Kris Vallotton of Bethel Church in Redding, California. He’s also a bestselling author, international speaker, and cultural leader. Pastor Kris, thank you so much for joining me.

Kris Vallotton: Thanks for having me on.

Allen: You’re the senior associate leader of Bethel Church and co-founder of Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.

Bethel has been gaining the attention of not just the church community, but people all over the world for quite some time. But recently, a lot of that attention has been focused around Bethel’s community impact, which we’re going to discuss a bit today. In fact, there’s been a phrase coined in Redding for this impact, and people have been calling it the “Bethel effect.”

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote a great article about Bethel just a few months ago, saying that “no institution in our state is better at engaging with its hometown.” It went on to say that “the lack of structure and Bethel’s assistance to its hometown suggests a broader lesson for community building. Stop overthinking things and just throw yourself, heart and soul, into addressing people’s needs.”

I mean, wow. It’s incredible to see the news media realizing the amazing impact this culture of service [at] Bethel is having in Redding and in Shasta County, where you are located. How have you all created this culture of service?

Vallotton: Well, I don’t know that we’ve created it, actually, but let’s say we’ve influenced it. There’s a lot of participants, there’s a lot of heroes in the Redding culture that aren’t related to Bethel, of course, so I can only speak to the part that we play.

And that is, some years ago, we asked ourselves the question: If it’s supposed to be, if Jesus taught us to pray that it would be on earth as it is in heaven—and our city at that time, about 17 years ago, was listed as one of the worst cities under a hundred thousand people to live in—how are we supposed to affect that? …

Our church attendance is around 11,000 people on a weekend, our city is 90,000. If a church of 11,000—not including a whole bunch of other wonderful churches in our community—are living in a community and the commentary of that community and the social statistics of that community are [saying] “This is the one of the worst cities in America to live in,” what does that say about our actual ministry?

So we started asking ourselves the question, “Is this our problem?” As a church, as a leadership team, is this our problem? Are these bad statistics our problem? Or is the fact that they’re not our problem the problem?

If we’re supposed to make disciples of nations, and we’re supposed to pray that it’d be on earth as it is in heaven, and we’re supposed to pray that God prospers and blesses our city, and the commentary on our city is completely opposite of that, what do we do about that?

So that’s where it started. And we started realizing that the truth is that large churches don’t necessarily mean healthy communities.

I wrote a book that you might know about, it’s called “Heavy Rain.” And in that book I was doing a statistical study. We did a statistical study on American cities, and we learned that the cities that had the greatest Christian churchgoing population had the worst social statistics in our nation.

You know, Jesus said, “You’re the light of the world.” And the problem is that most of the church thinks that the world needs to get darker and darker and the church gets brighter and brighter until Jesus gets back.

But Jesus didn’t say, “You’re the light of the church.” He said, “You’re the light of the world.” So if the world’s getting darker and darker, it feels like it might be our responsibility to bring some light and hope. … Jesus is called the hope of the nations, so maybe we’re supposed to play a different role in our city.

It began with, if you will, a theological, philosophical change. Like, this is our responsibility. It’s our responsibility to actually bring heaven to earth. It’s our responsibility to bring the full impact of a good God and a prosperous kingdom to bear on a broken city.

Allen: You all have taken that responsibility on in really, really practical ways. I want to ask you about the Carr fires in the summer of 2018. Obviously, devastating across Redding and Shasta County.

Vallotton: Totally.

Allen: You all were in the center of some of the worst destruction. What was your community’s response to that tragedy?

Vallotton: Well, our City Council did a wonderful job. Several believers on the City Council went to Santa Rosa, where they’d had a very similar fire two or three years before, and counseled with them and said, “What did you learn from your tragedy?” And they brought back some great information there.

We said, “What can we do to help relieve the pain that’s happening in our community?” Of course, we opened up our church building, we partnered with the Salvation Army. We became the distribution center for food for several weeks, I think it was two or three weeks. And then we called out to our friends and said, “Can you help us? We’ve got 1,100 homes that have burnt down.” And we raised $1.7 million in two weeks from our friends around the world who just gave us money to help distribute.

So we distributed a thousand dollars to every person who had lost their home, Christian or not. It didn’t matter if they went to church or didn’t go to a church.

Then several of them were able to go back and give some more money too. And then we developed a team of people that went through and sifted through the ashes. It’s pretty traumatic, you know? You had to wear a hazmat suit, it was 105 degrees out. And we just went from house to house sifting through the ashes to find valuables. It sounds crazy, but that was really profound.

And then when it was all over, and we developed a team—and Joyce Meyer’s ministry partnered with us, which was beautiful—we were able to take almost $800,000 and buy equipment, because you can’t rebuild a house until you clear the property.

We were able to buy tractors and chippers, and hire two full-time teams that just went from house to house and took down all the burnt trees and chipped them and got their property ready to rebuild. And we’re still in that process. We have two full-time teams right now that’ll probably spend another year and a half finishing just those properties.

Allen: Wow, that’s amazing. … Obviously, Bethel got a lot of attention around the Carr fires, but it wasn’t a new thing to start reaching out and influencing. When the Redding Police Department was about to lay off four officers due to tight budgets, you all raised the money to keep them on the force. You volunteered your time and resources to clean the large, iconic Sundial Bridge in Redding when it was in need of repair.

We all know that, yes, we’re supposed to care for the poor and care for those in need, but you all have taken this holistic approach to community-building and to caring for the community. Why did you feel like that was so important?

Vallotton: Well, it’s our city. One of the things that we are learning together is that until you take ownership of your land, you’ll never be part of the solution. When you think about how important land was to the promises of God, you remember the children of Israel were in bondage for 400 years and God wanted him to lead them into a promised land.

Think about 1st Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves to pray, seek my face … ” and so on and so forth, “I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.” And it just goes on and on and on.

What we learned is that you just won’t solve the problem of your city without taking ownership of it. And we began to say, “This isn’t just a city, this is our city. This isn’t just a people, this is our people.”

I think that you’ll see that that strategy is throughout the book of Nehemiah, in the resolution of the broken walls. You know, the walls of Israel were broken down for 114 years. They had tried to rebuild them for 72 years. And what they couldn’t do in 72 years, Nehemiah did in 52 days. One of the secrets of the restoration of the walls and gates of Israel is that he made everyone an owner, and even families worked on the wall together. …

So we say, “This is our city…” And so we began to take ownership of it.

As you know, we put 2,500 students to work in our city every week. Every single student has to work in our city as part of their education. When students graduate from our school and they go back to their homes, we want them not just to think about, “How do I lead someone to Christ?” We want them to think, “What can I do to make my city a better place to live in?”

Allen: What are some of those practical tools that you give your students or church members who move on to other communities? Because it’s easy to hear all the amazing work that Bethel’s doing and think, “I want to do that here in my own city.” But honestly, it’s a little overwhelming when you don’t have a lot of resources. And maybe you’re the only one in your community that’s really gung-ho about this.

So what would you say to someone that maybe is in a church of 100 or 300, or has a community group of 15, and wants to start doing this?

Vallotton: First of all, I want to say, don’t despise the day of small beginnings, because if I explained to you where we started 17 years ago, you would be like, “Oh, how is that going to help?” It’s like, well, you have to start somewhere, you know?

In those days we had no money, and we had a much smaller sphere of influence, and my congregation was much smaller. So we just began to reach out. You can’t do everything, but you can do something. You can’t help everyone, but you can help someone. So we just began to evaluate, like, “How can we help?”

The first thing that we did, personally, is we went to see our city manager, and we said: “This is what we’re kind of good at, and we’d love to help, and we don’t know what is your vision, and is there any place where we can help?”

And you can imagine it takes a long time to build trust. I’d say it took three to five years to build trust.

But we didn’t come in and say, “Hey, here’s our vision. We’d sure like the City Council to vote in this way.” And, “Why aren’t our roads being fixed?” And, “How come you’re not … ” We didn’t do that.

We went to our city manager and later to our City Council, and we said, “[These are] the resources we have, and these are the people we have. Is there any way we can help?”

Our city manager was very gracious, and he said, “Well, we have a very reduced park and rec budget. We’re not able to clean adequately our parks and our recreation areas, and if you have any desire to do that … ”

We’re like, “Yeah, we’ll do that.” …

The first year was terrible; we did a terrible job. We’d put 50 students on a team with five rakes. We’d have 45 people standing around. [We] just didn’t think through it well. But eventually, we hired a person to be in charge of that. I would say in a smaller church, obviously, you’d have a volunteer.

And little by little, we bought $1 million worth of equipment. We didn’t do that right away, we did it little by little. We bought tractors and trailers and chainsaws, and we started a certification program for landscape.

But you know, what we did is we just did ordinary things in a way no one had ever seen before. We did simple things like clean a park, but when we were done cleaning that park, no one had ever seen a park cleaned like that. When they gave us streets to sweep, we swept streets like no one had ever seen before.

Whatever they gave us to do, no matter how menial the task, we did it like Michelangelo, who said, “I saw the angel in the stone and I carved to set it free.”

I’d say, “We aren’t raking lawns, we are freeing angels.”

And we just began to have a vision to prove to our city that we as a people of God have a spirit of excellence on us, and whether you give us a little project or a big project, we were going to handle it with responsibility and excellence and a great attitude.

Allen: I love that, that’s so good. I want to take a moment and dive a little bit deeper into this idea of impacting culture, and discuss it from a political perspective.

You know, today, if I say the words “America’s political culture,” a lot of thoughts and opinions will instantly jump into someone’s mind. But Bethel uses the word “culture” quite a lot. And you specifically talk about creating a culture of honor.

Can you explain what you mean by that, and what you think it looks like to bring a culture of honor into our political conversations?

Vallotton: First of all, I think it means that every individual deserves honor no matter their opinion, whether it be political opinion or other opinions of life. Whether it’s around the subject of the gay community, or whether it’s the Republicans, the Democrats, the Independents, whatever. I think no matter your stance, because you are created by God, you are a child of God, you’re a son or daughter of God. So I think that we have to realize that we can have very different opinions and still value somebody.

And I think when President [Barack] Obama was president, he didn’t carry a lot of my moral values in his presidency, at least publicly, I never have met him personally, but [he was] my president. And he’s a son of God. And I would post on my Facebook pages and social pages, and from the podium I would say, “I love President Obama. He’s my president. I pray for him.”

Some of our people in our movement, which tend to be quite on the Republican side, they’d write me some really strong statements, and I’m like, “I never said I agree with President Obama. I said I love him and I’m praying for him.”

And now President [Donald] Trump is president, and I do the same thing with President Trump. I love him and I pray for him. Whether I agree with him on issues or on every issue, that’s not the point.

What’s going to happen if we stop praying for people? What happens when Christians pull out of culture? And when we vacate culture, we’re leaving that culture to the demonic realm, to lead that culture. And that’s just dumb.

So if you want to actually have influence with the king or the queen, you don’t want to throw rocks at the palace. So I think that you have to decide if you want to be a Daniel, Joseph, or Esther. If you want to actually have influence in our country, in the White House, or with your mayor, or with your governor, throwing rocks at them—especially on a public platform—just doesn’t make any sense.

So I understand the frustration that people have, and I’ve had it myself and I haven’t always gone about it right. But if I’m going to have any influence with someone I don’t agree with, I’m going to have to treat them honorably. Because you only have as much influence in people’s life as they have value for you. If they don’t have any value for you, you’re not going to be influencial with them. So that’s kind of our stance.

Allen: That’s great. And Kris, you have built relationships with a number of national and international political leaders who span across the political spectrum. So how do you go about honoring those leaders in your interactions with them?

Vallotton: Yes, absolutely. Well, I met with political leaders for the last 14 years in several countries and on both sides of the aisle. And when I meet with a Democrat or a Republican, I’m not there to talk through their view on abortion. If they want my opinion, I gladly bring it. But I’m there with this one agenda: “How do I make your life better? How can I help you fulfill the call that God has put on your life?”

And if you’re a Democrat, if you’re a Republican, my job isn’t to question your political values as much as it is to bring wisdom to the decisions that you have to make every day.

Some people are like, “I don’t see how you could sit with that person who’s pro-abortion.” I’m like, “Well, did you see how Daniel related to Nebuchadnezzar and four worldly kings?”

I truly do not understand how people cannot have grace in America for politicians that they don’t agree with when we see so much grace demonstrated, even in the Old Covenant, by Joseph, Daniel, and Esther.

I ask myself every day, “How could you be so critical of our president?”— whether it’s a Democrat or Republican president. And, “How do you expect to influence that president if you post horrible stuff about them?”

And especially the kind of stuff where you judge their motives: “Oh, you’re trying to kill babies,” or, “You’re trying to destroy our country.” It’s like, “Oh, gosh.” Stuff that’s just not wise, you know? And it’s also not true.

Allen: Thank you so much for sharing that. And I want to ask you, you have so many great resources on this topic and a host of others, so how can our listeners learn more, follow your work, and find out more about what Bethel is up to?

Vallotton: They can get on my website, kvministries.com … I am on all the social pages. Or you can get on bethel.com and find out everything you want to know about Bethel. And there’s all kinds of free resources on both those sites if you like what you see there.

Also we have, obviously, webcasts and podcasts and Bethel TV. You can get on Bethel TV and watch what we preach in the morning for free, and it’s quite extensive.

Allen: Awesome. Pastor Kris, thank you so much for your time and for joining me today.

Vallotton: Virginia, thank you so much for having me on. I hope I helped some people.

Allen: Absolutely. Really appreciate it.

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