December 2009

Program helps the grieving survive the holidays

December 3 2009 by George Henson, Associated Baptist Press

GEORGETOWN, Texas — Loss of a loved one through death creates trauma, but emotions surrounding that loss can be particularly close to the surface during the holidays. One church has decided to reach out to its community by doing something about it. 

In preparation for this stressful time, First Baptist Church in Georgetown, Texas, recently offered a “Surviving the Holidays” workshop as part of its grief-counseling ministry, called GriefShare

“Your grief is different; it’s individualistic,” facilitator Sharon Kelley told participants. “Someone can understand your grief, but they can’t know where you are in your grief.” Participants viewed a video with insights about why the holidays are especially tough times for those who have suffered a major loss. It cautioned them not to avoid holiday pain, provided instructions on how to plan for the holiday season and offered the hope of healing through relationships — especially a relationship with God. The presentation also highlighted warning signs, such as thoughts of suicide.

“Anytime there is a pattern of suicidal thinking, talk to someone, because right now the only one you’re talking to is yourself, and you’re not giving very good advice,” participants heard.

The holidays will just hurt
To fend off such thoughts, face the fact that the holidays will be hard and will hurt. That way, when the bad days arrive, they won’t inspire panic — because they’re expected.

Grieving people should not fake it, acting as if everything is fine, participants learned. “Some Christians treat Christmas like Halloween. They put on a mask,” Kelley said. The facade robs the person of the care and prayer that friends and family would otherwise offer, because they are under the impression that everything is fine.

In planning for Christmas, prioritize what “you need for it to really be Christmas,” participants were instructed. Cut back on social engagements if desired, and also farm out some holiday jobs if the schedule becomes overwhelming.

Some may find a visit with family more tolerable when scheduled before or after the holiday rather than on the special day. That way, the grieving person does not feel the burden of performing for others on the holiday, participants were counseled.

Healing takes time.

“It might not be a good holiday the first year. That’s OK,” participants learned.

The GriefShare ministry at the Texas church had its genesis more than a dozen years ago when JoAnn Goldston’s husband died. She looked around for support, but found no biblically based help. She began her own group at the church, calling it “Coming Alongside,” that met twice a year.

A few years later, the Christian small-group-resources organization Church Initiative came out with the GriefShare program. Goldston immediately was interested in it, because its video format made it accessible for many to help in the ministry.  

This year, 44 people participated in the three meetings. In addition to the meetings, participants also have daily devotionals to help them between meetings. When they meet, participants share how God has been working with them. Then they watch a video and discuss it in small groups.

More people from outside the church are beginning to join the group, Goldston said.

“There are four tasks we enable the members with,” she explained. “One of them, and this is huge, is to acknowledge the person has indeed died and will not come back.”

Living with ghosts
Many people relate how they hear a door open and expect the person to come walking down the hall, or when they go on a trip sit down to write the deceased a note.

“Another thing is to recognize the emotions they are having, learn some ways to deal with them and that they all go back to God. So many people, especially Christians, will deny anger. And anger is very much a part of it. There has been a great loss. There has been a great pain. There’s going to be anger,” Goldston explained. “We work with them on adjusting to different losses.”

For example, she said, if someone’s child dies, that child might have been the one in the household who always set the table. Without the surviving parent recognizing it, mealtime can become a time of great stress.

“Spouses have to learn to deal with there is no one to sew a button on, no one to do the grocery shopping, no one to bring the garbage can in,” Goldston continued.

“And the last step is being able to move forward, to recognize they will have a new identity. They will not be the same person they were before the loss,” she said. “Chances are very good they will be even better — that God will make them stronger and more compassionate and more sensitive and more of just anything you can think of. He just improves on the model.”

Nonetheless, the holidays are especially trying on those who have lost loved ones, Goldston admitted.

“For the holidays, expect that it’s going to hurt. It’s really going to hurt because there is so much emotion connected with holidays. And it’s not just Christmas and Thanksgiving — it’s birthdays, it’s anniversaries, and it’s the date of the loss,” she pointed out. “There are lots of dates that are different because of the emotions connected with them.”

But as the participants learned, God is there for solace.

“If you already have a relationship with God, the holidays are an opportunity to grow closer to him. Tell him what you are feeling,” said Paul David Tripp, a minister from Philadelphia. “The person in pain and the person who is not presently in pain are exactly the same person —both are completely dependent on God for their life. One is just much more aware of the fact.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Henson is a staff writer for the Texas Baptist Standard.)
12/3/2009 3:30:00 AM by George Henson, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

10 Chinese house church leaders sentenced

December 3 2009 by Art Toalston, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON — Ten leaders of a Chinese house church have received years-long criminal detention and “re-education” labor camp sentences for their attempts to protest an attack against their facilities in mid-September, according to reports by the ChinaAid human rights organization.

The harshest punishments — criminal detention sentences handed down Nov. 25 — entail incarceration in a high-security prison where inmates often are mentally abused, starved and beaten, according to a spokeswoman for ChinaAid. Yang Rongli, wife of pastor Wang Xiaoguang of the Linfen House Church in the northeastern Chinese city of Linfen with more than 4 million people, received a seven-year sentence while her husband, Wang Xiaoquang, received three years. Three others also received criminal detentions.

In addition, five others received two-year sentences of re-education through labor Nov. 30. Re-education through labor is comparatively milder than criminal detention but involves despicable working conditions and other forms of abuse as well, the spokeswoman said. ChinaAid President Bob Fu, after the Nov. 25 court proceedings, said, “To punish an innocent house church leader for seven years’ imprisonment is the most serious sentence since 2004 when the senior Henan house church leader pastor Zhang Rongliang received a (sentence of) similar length.

“We strongly condemn these unjust sentences, which are based on trumpeted charges,” Fu said. “This case clearly shows the serious deteriorating situation of religious persecution in China. We call upon the Obama administration and international community to speak up unequivocally its concern about this case,” Fu said via a news release.

In a Dec. 1 news release after the Nov. 30 proceedings, Fu said, “To arbitrarily send five innocent citizens to labor camps is in direct violation against the international human rights covenants and norms the Chinese government has signed and even ratified.

“This case shows the Chinese government is determined to be on the wrong side of history by clenching its power with suppressing the basic freedom of religion and conscience for Chinese citizens. We call upon the international community to hold these rights abusers accountable.”

Yang Rongli and Wang Xiaoquang and three others were convicted during a trial in Linfen, in China’s Shanxi province, that commenced at 9 a.m. on Nov. 25 and concluded 13 hours later, at 10 p.m. Beijing time.

The couple has led the Linfen House Church for more than 30 years, fostering a 50,000-member network in Linfen and in house churches in surrounding villages.

Yang Rongli, the pastor’s wife, was convicted on two charges: “illegally occupying farming land” and “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses,” according to ChinaAid. A second woman from the church, Zhang Huamei, was sentenced to four years for the latter charge.

Wang Xiaoquang, the pastor, was convicted of the first charge, “illegally occupying farming land,” as were two other men from the church, Cui Jiaxing, who received a four-and-a-half-year sentence, and Yang Xuan, who received a three-and-a-half-year sentence.

The five church members had been detained since Sept. 25 when they were traveling to Beijing to petition for justice after a Sept. 13 attack by local authorities against their church-owned facilities, according to ChinaAid.

The other five church members who were sentenced Nov. 30 were convicted in an administrative proceeding, not a court trial, on charges of “gathering people to disturb the public order” for their part in organizing a prayer rally the day after the attack, drawing a crowd estimated at 1,000, according ChinaAid.

Receiving two-year sentences were four women — Yang Caizhen, wife of Yang Xuan who was sentenced Nov. 25, Yang Hongzhen, Gao Qin (also known as Gao Fuqin) and Zhao Guoai — and one man, Li Shuangping.

All 10 church leaders intend to appeal the sentences, ChinaAid stated.

Describing the Sept. 13 attack and its aftermath in Linfen, ChinaAid recounted that “the church was attacked by over 400 military police. 17 church buildings were destroyed and over 30 believers were seriously wounded during the unprecedented mob attack in the early morning of Sunday, September 13. Linfen House Church Christians continue to be monitored by Chinese military police, including neighboring Golden Lampstand Church (Jin Dongtai) in Linfen City.”

Concerning the Nov. 25 court proceedings against the first five church members who received criminal detention sentences, ChinaAid stated, “The court’s conduct throughout the trial clearly indicated the government had decided upon the verdict and prepared it in advance. There were only two 20-minute breaks for recess, and only four family members of the convicted prisoners were allowed to be present during the trial.

“Government prosecutors showed over 1,000 pages of so-called ‘evidence materials’ related to this case, but the defense lawyers were only allowed to review about 50 pages before the trial to prepare their defense,” ChinaAid said.

“The six Christian rights defense lawyers, including renowned attorneys Li Fangping (Simon) and Zhang Kai (Kevin), presented a very clear and satisfactory defense of the innocence of the five church leaders. Three of the accused church leaders were seen in excellent spirit with clear mind, when the lawyers were presenting their case. Sister Yang Rongli and Pastor Wang Xiaoguang’s son was able to briefly chat with his parents during one recess time near the bathroom outside the courtroom. Sister Yang and Pastor Wang encouraged their son to stand firm in his faith in Christ.”

“I was shocked at the seriousness of the punishment,” one of the lawyers, Li Fanping, told AFP news (Agence France-Presse).

“This shows that the government is intent on using the law as a tool to attack the church,” the attorney said.

Reports of the Linfen sentences also have been carried by the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

ChinaAid has called for concerned Christians to protest the sentences of the 10 church leaders by contacting the country’s ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, by telephone at (202) 495-2000; fax, (202) 588-9760; or mail, 3505 International Place, NW, Washington, DC 20008.

For citizens of other countries, contact information for Chinese embassies can be located at

In Linfen, ChinaAid listed the telephone number for the mayor’s office as (357) 209-1044 and the Public Security Bureau as (357) 218-8317.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.)
12/3/2009 3:26:00 AM by Art Toalston, Baptist Press | with 2 comments

Floyd claims ‘enormous progress’ for GCRTF

December 2 2009 by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press

ATLANTA — The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) made “enormous” progress in its Nov. 30-Dec. 1 meeting in Atlanta and plans to present a substantial report during the February meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, task force chairman Ronnie Floyd said.

“We made great, enormous progress today,” Floyd told Baptist Press after adjourning the meeting, which was held in the Renaissance Hotel near Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.

“We’re wrestling; we’re going through it. But the group has been great. Yesterday and today we ended with tremendous oneness, tremendous togetherness.”

The 23-member task force heard reports from North American Mission Board (NAMB) leadership; Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research; and Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, Floyd said. The NAMB updates came from trustee chairman Tim Patterson; interim president Richard Harris; and Ted Traylor, chairman of the board’s presidential search committee and GCRTF member.

That report was followed later in the day by Stetzer’s presentation, which focused on church planting in North America. Stetzer had been co-chairman of a 24-member task force appointed by NAMB’s then-president, Geoff Hammond, to “take a fresh look at how Southern Baptists should look at the Great Commission in times such as these” but that group dissolved after Hammond’s resignation Aug. 11. After Stetzer completed the report, task force members discussed issues related to NAMB until they adjourned just before 11 p.m. Monday.

The Tuesday morning session opened with an address from the Executive Committee’s Chapman, Floyd said.

“Dr. Chapman spoke to us about the status of the Executive Committee, what was on his heart, and then talked to us about some future thoughts about the SBC,” Floyd explained. “Then we had a question and answer time with him. The rest of our day was talking about how to reach North America, the role of some of our denominational entities in that. We talked some, obviously, about the Executive Committee because Dr. Chapman had given us a report about the Executive Committee.”

Floyd said the task force has notified Chapman’s office that they intend to present a substantial report to the Feb. 22-23 Executive Committee meeting in Nashville.

“We’re pretty committed that’s when we’re going to have our coming-out party,” Floyd said. “Will we be bringing a once and for all final report? ... No, I don’t think we’re going to be able to get there at that point. Our goal would be to get what I would call the body of the report — the things that would require cooperation and understanding of why we are doing what we want to do and this is what we want to do and how do we get there.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press.)  
12/2/2009 7:03:00 AM by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press | with 6 comments

AIDS just another way to die in Lesotho

December 2 2009 by Jace A. Williams, Baptist Press

KATSE, Lesotho — Death and funerals. Prayer for the dying and their families. More death. It’s a way of life for the Basotho people.

“They think HIV/AIDS is just one more way to die,” says John Younker, a short-term missionary serving in Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa. “When you meet a person in Lesotho, or you meet a person in my village, chances are they have AIDS, or chances are they’re HIV positive.”

The nurse at the local clinic estimates more than 400 people out of roughly 750 in the village are HIV positive, says Younker, who serves in Lesotho through the Georgia Baptist Convention’s collegiate ministries in partnership with the International Mission Board (IMB).

“They live such a hard life that if you test positive for HIV, it’s not a life-shattering, a life-shaking event because (you think), ‘Well, I’m going to die in the mines,’ or, ‘I’m going to die falling off a horse,’ or ‘I’m going to get in a car accident,’ or you’re going to die of something else,” he says. 

“Why not AIDS?” asks Drew Hooks, Younker’s teammate, also from Georgia.

In this area, someone dies of AIDS every week.

Younker says some of his Basotho friends purposely contract HIV/AIDS because they know their families will get help from the government or an aid organization. Sometimes this sacrifice is all that will keep family members alive for one more year.

In the surrounding villages, more than 65 percent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS, says IMB missionary Alan Dial. Most will be dead within the next 18 months. That knowledge brings a sense of urgency.

“I know a person sitting there might not be here next week,” says Alan’s wife, Babs. Along with her husband, she works to spread the stories of Jesus as quickly as she can before there is another death. “I gather them; he tells them about Jesus,” she says.

When people are too sick to walk any farther to hear Alan tell stories of Jesus, Babs gently shoulders their weight to help them the rest of the way.

IMB photo

Babs Dial plays with a boy in a mountain village in Lesotho. She and her husband Alan are Southern Baptist missionaries in a country where 25 percent of children are HIV/AIDS orphans.

“There is always someone sick,” she says. “All I can do is pray for them and share about Christ.” She tells of numerous friends who have died from tuberculosis and pneumonia, complications brought on by AIDS.

“Twenty-five percent of the Basotho children are HIV/AIDS orphans,” Alan says. Even though most families have very little, they try to absorb these children into their homes, sharing food and clothes.

But life is hard, and it’s not uncommon to see a child in a blizzard wrapped in nothing more than a towel.

Roughly 12,000 of these children have HIV themselves.

Alan believes the Basotho people are dying off. A people of more than 2 million, approximately 270,000 Basotho have the virus and about 50 people die every day.

The first known case of AIDS in Lesotho was in 1986. By the early 2000s, the government had declared it a national pandemic.

“The hardest thing for me is to watch the Basotho die day in and day out without being able to get to them (with the gospel),” Alan says. ”Statistically, if nothing changes in Lesotho, the Basotho will cease to exist as a people in less than 26 years.”

Some of the Basotho villages are tucked into the mountain ranges, hidden by deep valleys and ravines. The Dials hire guides and rent mountain ponies, sometimes traveling entire days to get to the villages. Pitching tents to sleep in, they spend as many days as they can telling Bible stories.

The Basotho want to know about Jesus, the Dials say. Often some will run after them as they leave the village, asking for one more story.

With tears in her eyes and a loving smile, “Mema Khotso” (“mother of peace”), as Babs is known, leans over a dying man. She prays with him, knowing he doesn’t have long to live. Thin, with skin just hanging on his bones, he is in the final stages of HIV/AIDS. Lying on a tarp in the warmth of the sun, he asks Jesus into his heart. 

“It can be discouraging when so many die,” she says. “But it’s also an opportunity to give the gospel.”  

“What they really need is a saving relationship with Jesus Christ so they can know what it means to live and not what it means to die,” Younker says, “because everyone is on the path to death here.”   

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Williams writes for the Baptist Press international bureau. To read more about the Dials and their love for the Basotho, visit
12/2/2009 6:58:00 AM by Jace A. Williams, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Leigh Anne Tuohy: More Michael Ohers out there

December 2 2009 by Lilly Fowler, Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES — In the new movie “The Blind Side,” Sandra Bullock plays real-life Memphis mother Leigh Anne Tuohy, a woman whose family is turned upside down when she spots Michael Oher — a young boy who has left the projects and has nowhere to turn.

The Tuohys decide to provide a home for Michael and as a result, he reaches heights — both as a student and as a football player — that few could have imagined. In the process, he not only transforms himself, but those around him.

Oher, 23, now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Tuohy spoke about the movie that depicts her family’s life and in particular, the role faith played. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

RNS photo courtesy Grace Hill Media

Leigh Anne Tuohy and her adopted son, Michael Oher, are the real-life family behind Sandra Bullock’s new film, “The Blind Side.”

Q: Religion is definitely hinted at in “The Blind Side.” Can you tell me more about your family’s religious background?

My husband and I met at Ole Miss. Sean was Catholic, and I went to a nondenominational evangelical church. We did all different churches. And after we moved to Memphis, we started our own church called “Grace Evangelical.” We started with less than 50 people. It really has grown, and we have a great core of people.

Michael, I don’t think, had ever attended church, probably very little. The children are all born-again Christians, and we’re just a very blessed family.

Q: How did faith influence your decision to take in Michael?

You know, there never was a decision to take in Michael. Michael was there, he had a need, and we were able to fill it. Do I think that our faith played a part in that?

Absolutely. We looked over and we said, “Wow, that young man needs some clothes.”

Q: Your children attended Briarcrest Christian School. Did you find that people at the school were more open to what you were doing because of its religious nature?

By the time we encountered Michael, he was already attending Briarcrest. We just came along after the fact. There were some other people at Briarcrest who saw the need. There were already teachers stepping up, who saw that Michael was an extremely intelligent young man. Like Michael always says, “I could never repay them for what they did.” I think they would do it for the next kid, which is a great thing because there are certainly more Michael Ohers out there.

Q: Was there anything you felt the movie got particularly right or wrong?

By the time they decided to take on this project, they were the ones who wanted to get it right. Sandra Bullock put herself into this. It does portray us more accurately than most Hollywood projects would. These people cared about getting it right, and I think it shows. Maybe I wouldn’t use those drapes, and maybe I don’t wear my skirts that tight, but what does it matter?

Q: What do you want people to take away from the movie?

The most impactful message that people could take from the movie is that society had deemed Michael worthless. There were very few people who cared where Michael Oher was any minute of the day. He is now a contributing member of the society. He is intelligent. He made the dean’s list in college. If it can happen to Michael Oher, it could happen to anyone.  

We need to figure out what we can do. Our system is flawed when it comes to kids. And I just really hope people will walk out of this movie better than they walked in. Do something little. But whatever it is, do it well.
12/2/2009 6:54:00 AM by Lilly Fowler, Religion News Service | with 1 comments

Christian colleges get into the swing

December 2 2009 by Angela Abbamonte, Religion News Service

Classes are done for the day. Meetings and work are winding down, and Facebook can provide a study break for only so long. So what’s a restless Christian college student to do?

For undergrads at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., a walk down to the campus theater provides one solution: dancing to the tunes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Inside, young men offer their hand to available girls and take them to the middle of the hopping dance floor. Beginners practice basic steps while more advanced dancers take on the more complicated moves, flipping their partners over their heads and through their legs.

At Union, like a growing number of Christian campuses, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Dance fever hit the Southern Baptist campus when two freshmen, Grant Kelly and Brandon Walker, started recruiting students to dance for fun last fall. The group has grown from just a few friends meeting in a small classroom to about 50 dancers who now take over the theater.

Fans say the swing thing has now taken root in at least 10 Christian colleges in the U.S., and the fever is spreading.

RNS photo by Angela Abbamonte

Students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., swing dance at an unofficial student-led dance party because the Southern Baptist campus officially prohibits dancing.

But like a scene out of the 1984 classic “Footloose,” some campuses have had to overcome religious or moral qualms about dancing. Union’s student handbook, for example, says the university “prohibits dancing at any Union University-sponsored event held on campus.” Students simply host the dance-offs as unofficial events either on or off campus.

“It’s fun and innocent,” said Dean of Students Kimberly Thornbury, who said she was given a heads-up by the students.

“The university is not going to hunt people down. That’s not the spirit of the policy.”

While swing is downright innocent compared to the bump-and-grind moves found on many secular campuses, at Christian schools it often falls under the category of “social dancing” that some believe could lead to temptation, and therefore comes with guidelines attached.

To be sure, many conservative schools like Bob Jones University continue to prohibit all forms of dancing, yet some Christian schools have lifted the dancing ban in recent years.

In Waco, Texas, Baylor University students were able to boogie in 1996. Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., whirled in its new dancing policy in 2003. In 2006, John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., expanded its dancing policy to allow students to jive at more campus-sponsored dances with gentler genres such as ballroom and swing.

Randall Balmer, an expert on American evangelicals, said he was a little shocked to learn students on Christian campuses were picking up swing dancing, but sees it as an indicator of shifts within the evangelical subculture.

“What clearly has happened ... is that after 1980, evangelicalism was still a subculture — but it was no longer a counter-culture,” Balmer said. “With that decreased attention to ‘worldliness,’ some of the taboos have fallen.”

Balmer, who teaches American religious history at New York’s Barnard College and is the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, says the suspicion of the “outside world” beyond evangelicalism has faded.

“There has been a general loosening of the (fundamentalist) structure of the 1920s and 1930s,” he said. “The dancing is just another evidence of that loosening.”

Still, some schools have reservations. In Kirkland, Wash., Northwest University’s dancing policy states the school “recognizes the temptations inherent in the sensuous and erotic nature of some social dancing,” and then sets guidelines to keep dancing off campus.

Those rules haven’t dissuaded Michael Weber, a Northwest student, from dancing for four years. He and his friends go off campus to community centers and dance halls in order stay within the guidelines and still swing.

Weber organizes dance events a couple times a month to encourage students to learn basic moves. He likes swing because, in his opinion, it’s easier to master than ballroom dancing.

“Swing dancing is easy to learn,” he said. “It’s not as proper.”

Kristen Henley of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio said her mostly Catholic campus is “a little obsessed with swing.”

Every Sunday night, as many as 75 Steubenville students turn out for swing dancing and dance competitions. Henley connected with the group her freshman year when they hosted a welcome-to-campus dance. She had so much fun she vowed never to miss a Sunday night dance session.

Now, as a junior, she can say she has kept the vow almost religiously and rarely misses a week.

“As long as you can follow,” she said, “you can (swing dance) instantly.”
12/2/2009 6:49:00 AM by Angela Abbamonte, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Baptist state conventions feel effects of economy

December 1 2009 by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Feeling the effects of a bad economy, several Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated state and regional conventions reduced budgets in annual meetings, held in recent weeks across the nation.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, which includes 4,500 churches with 2.3 million members, approved a reduced budget for the second straight year. A 2010 budget of $44 million represents a nearly 10 percent decrease from 2009. Last year the Texas convention cut spending by 8 percent. Jill Larsen, treasurer and chief financial officer for the BGCT, described the spending plan as “a realistic, pretty conservative budget.”

The Georgia Baptist Convention also approved its second-consecutive reduced budget. Next year’s $45.5 million spending plan is $4.1 million, or 8.2 percent, below the previous year. Last year Georgia Baptists cut spending by 5 percent. The state convention has reduced staff twice in the last year, eliminating a total of 27 jobs.

“This has been the most challenging economy in my memory and has significantly impacted all of us,” Robert White, executive director of the convention, told the Georgia Baptist Christian Index.

Stock.xchng photo by ColinBroug

The 4,000-church Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, meanwhile, approved its smallest budget since 2000. At $34.8 million, next year’s budget is $4.8 million leaner than the one in 2009. Next year’s budget is also the first since 1991 that does not include an option for funding national entities outside the Southern Baptist Convention, like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist World Alliance and Associated Baptist Press. Last year’s convention voted to collapse North Carolina’s four giving plans into one.

A few state conventions managed to buck the trend. The 2,200-church Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, formed in 1998 as an alternative to the BGCT, adopted a budget of $24.8 million, up 1 percent from a current budget of $24.5 million.

The State Convention of Baptists in Indiana approved a record Cooperative Program budget of $4.8 million, up 2.8 percent from the current year. Convention leaders followed standard policy of projecting income for 2010 equal to actual receipts in 2008, the last complete year on the books at the beginning of the budget-planning process, even though gifts from 370 affiliated churches are running 4 percent behind last year.

“We will closely monitor our 2010 receipts and make adjustments as necessary,” Executive Director Stephen Davis wrote in the Indiana Baptist Magazine. “One thing I know: God will provide for our needs.”

The 1,600-church Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma approved a record 2010 Cooperative Program budget of $26 million, up 3.2 percent from the current $25.2 million budget. Most of the increase is driven by increased operating costs. “For example, we have budgeted for a 12 percent increase in medical insurance next year, but hope it comes in under that,” Kerry Russell, leader of the BGCO finance team, told the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger.

With 1,400 churches, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention adopted a budget just under $21.5 million for 2010. That represents a 2.5 increase over this year’s budget goal. Baptist groups in Alaska, the Dakotas, Iowa, Louisiana and Pennsylvania-South Jersey also managed to increase budgets by small amounts despite the economy.

But those conventions were few and far between among the 42 state and regional bodies made up of the 44,848 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The 3,200-church Alabama Baptist Convention passed a budget of $46 million for 2010, the same bottom line as in 2009, providing no salary increases for staff but avoiding any job cuts.

The Tennessee Baptist Convention adopted a reduced budget of $36 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. That is 7.7 percent less than the 2008-2009 budget of $39 million. Tennessee Baptists in 3,000 churches gave just under $35.5 million in the fiscal year ending Oct. 31.

Kentucky Baptists reduced their 2010-2011 Cooperative Program budget by 4 percent, to $23.5 million. The Kentucky Baptist Convention numbers 2,400 churches with 765,000 members.

The 2,300-church Florida Baptist Convention approved a 2010 Cooperative Program budget of $35.4 million, a less than 1 percent increase from a 2009 spending plan twice reduced from an original $39.2 million approved at the annual meeting last year.
The 2,000-church South Carolina Baptist Convention approved a budget of $32.1 million, a 6 percent reduction from a budget approved last year. Dennis Wilkins, chairman of the budget committee, said giving to the convention’s unified budget was down about 6 percent through August. “We do not foresee any turnaround in the economy,” Wilkins said, quoted in the South Carolina Baptist Courier.
The 2,000-church Mississippi Baptist Convention approved a budget of $34.9 million, 2.4 percent less than the 2009 spending plan.

The Missouri Baptist Convention approved a $15 million budget, down 9 percent from the current year but in line with receipts from churches so far this year. The 1,900-church convention also implemented two options for giving, one that includes funds for ongoing legal action and another that does not. The state convention has reportedly spent $5 million in legal costs since 2001 attempting to regain control of five former convention agencies that moved to self-perpetuating boards of trustees.
The 1,700-church California Southern Baptist Convention reduced its budget by 4.8 percent approving a 2010 bottom line of $11.6 million.

The Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, a convention of 500 churches formed in 1996, trimmed their 2010 budget by $300,000, to $9.2 million.

The 300-church Baptist Convention of New Mexico approved a budget of $4.7 million, $82,000 less than the current budget. The new budget includes no raises for convention employees. The Colorado Baptist Convention, with 263 churches, approved a 2010 budget of $3.8 million, cutting spending 5 percent from the current year.

The Nevada Baptist Convention adopted a 2010 budget of $2.3 million, down 15.5 percent from the current budget. Receipts from 144 Nevada Southern Baptist churches were reported down by nearly 29 percent from last year.

Baptist organizations in Illinois, Kansas-Nebraska and Montana also passed budgets below the current year.

Despite expecting a shortfall of perhaps $800,000 or more in its current $13.8 million budget, the 1,300-church Baptist General Association of Virginia nevertheless adopted a 2010 budget of $14 million, an increase of 1.4 percent over the 2009 spending plan.

“Either we could do what we did last year and make the budget meet our projected income, and our budget this year would be substantially lower,” Billy Burford, a member of the group’s budget committee, told Virginia Baptist messengers meeting Nov. 17-18 in Fredericksburg. “Or we could meet the challenge. And that’s what we did.”

State conventions aren’t alone in feeling the pain. They are the primary funding channel for the Southern Baptist Convention, which raises money through a unified budget that divides funds between state and national conventions. The state convention determines the formula for dividing funds contributed by local churches. While the standard is to divide funds evenly between the state convention and the SBC, the average percentage of funds that are forwarded to the national body is closer to 38 percent.

Last year Cooperative Program allocations through the SBC Executive Committee declined by more than 2 percent.  The SBC International Mission Board said recently that reduced revenues could force the agency to shrink its current 5,600-member missionary force by as many as 600.
12/1/2009 4:21:00 AM by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press | with 2 comments

IMB reports 500,000 baptisms in ’08

December 1 2009 by Don Graham, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. — “You could be killed for talking about Jesus around here.”

That’s what a Muslim named Bershi* told missionary Luke Jenkins* after Jenkins shared the gospel with him.

Bershi was an illegal immigrant looking for work when he came to the Central Asian nation where Jenkins serves as a church planter. But his warning didn’t stop Jenkins. He continued to discuss Jesus with Bershi, and as the young man’s interest grew, they began studying the Bible together. Eventually Bershi gave his life to Christ and was baptized.

Since that time Bershi has begun to actively share his faith and even baptized three others he led to Christ earlier this year. He also has returned to his own country, a place with severely limited access to the gospel and very few believers.

Bershi’s baptism is among the more than 506,000 recorded by the International Mission Board in 2008 — an average of one baptism per minute. Southern Baptist missionaries and their partners also reported starting more than 24,650 new churches last year. (Baptisms were 10.6 percent below the 2007 total; new churches, 8.6 percent below.) Meanwhile, the total number of overseas churches topped 204,000, up from 111,000 just five years ago.

The IMB also reported engaging 93 new people groups with the gospel for the first time.

The numbers are evidence of the way God is continuing to use Southern Baptists to complete the Great Commission task.

Esther’s story
Missionaries Karl and Anna Rickman* work with college students in East Asia, an area of the world that sometimes presents some unusual challenges when baptizing new believers.

The Rickmans led a Bible study group where five of the students accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. As the Rickmans began discipling the students, one of the first lessons focused on baptism. After reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, one of the students, Esther*, raised her hand.

“I want to be like that Ethiopian eunuch,” she said. “I want to be baptized now.”

“When she responded to the story so quickly my husband looked at me and said, smiling, ‘I think you should go prepare the bathtub,’” Anna remembers. “We knew that the Holy Spirit was leading her, and we were not about to quench it.”

But the typical Asian bathtub is a lot smaller than the tubs most Americans are used to — only about 3 feet long. Esther is 5’8”. She had to scrunch up her knees to sit down in the tub and leave enough room to be immersed. Karl proceeded with the baptism, but even with the tub filled to the brim, Esther’s knees remained dry.

“She looked at Karl and pointed to her dry knees and said earnestly, ‘What about these? Can you please baptize my knees, too? I want to be completely clean,’” Anna said. “So Karl helped slide her legs back into the water so they would be covered.

“Oh, if we could only possess that kind of heart. With tears in our eyes we were reminded that it is God’s Holy Spirit that prompts us, and it is only by the blood of Jesus that any of us can become clean — even to our knees.”

Assan’s story
You might think missionaries would jump at the chance to baptize someone. But that wasn’t the case for Jack Kirk*, who works in a Central Asian nation known for violent encounters between Muslims and Christians. He met Assan*, a local believer, through a mutual friend and wanted to hear his testimony.

Assan explained that he gave his life to Christ in prison after a fellow inmate gave him a copy of the New Testament. He read through it dozens of times during his five-year incarceration, and though he had no one to disciple him, Assan knew he wanted to be baptized.

Soon after his release, Assan went to one of the few churches in town. He visited with a priest for three days, repeatedly asking to be baptized. But the priest refused because he suspected Assan was a government spy or an Islamic radical.

The experience left Assan discouraged, but the Holy Spirit didn’t allow that to squelch his passion to be baptized.

Four years had passed before Assan met Kirk. Almost immediately he asked Kirk to baptize him. Kirk was more than willing but felt it would be better if Assan was baptized by one of his own people. He set up an appointment for Assan with a local Baptist pastor, but before they could meet the pastor was thrown into prison for evangelizing.

Again, Assan asked Kirk to baptize him.

“I was still hesitant, so we read Scriptures concerning baptism,” Kirk said. “When we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, with tears in his eyes, Assan said, ‘Every time I read this I cry.’ At that point I knew that the Holy Spirit was giving me the OK to do this.”

So Kirk brought his children’s plastic swimming pool into the house, filled it with water and baptized Assan. After rising from the water, he sat still for a few moments, trying to regain his composure.

“I believe he was trying to not cry, which is very shameful in this culture,” Kirk says. “The joy that flooded the house was incredible.”

*Names changed.  

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.)
12/1/2009 4:16:00 AM by Don Graham, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Missionaries to Muslims see first fruits

December 1 2009 by Don Graham, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Charlie Brodie* was on a dry streak.

Charlie, from Colorado, and his wife Abby*, from South Carolina, had spent the past four years working among Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet they hadn’t started any churches or seen one person accept Christ. They felt like their time as Southern Baptist missionaries had been one big zero — at least on paper.

“Every month we’d have to fill out reports saying how many people had been baptized or believed. And typing a zero every month gets pretty old and frustrating,” Charlie says. “We were resigned to the possibility that we might be the ones planting seeds but never seeing the fruit.”

But that was about to change.

In August, the Brodies followed God’s call to a new city of more than 100,000 people with very few churches or Christians. Even worse, those who did believe were not sharing Jesus with their own people. After four years with no visible results, the Brodies were moving from a hard place to an even harder one. It was dry, rocky ground for the gospel.

“We are in the desert and it mirrors the spiritual condition of the heart here,” Charlie says. “The idea of the Son of God just does not jive with Islam.”

The Brodies moved to one of the 30 unreached urban centers newly engaged by IMB missionaries and their partners in 2008 (up from seven in 2007), including 27 with populations above 1 million. According to the IMB’s Annual Statistical Report covering 2008, missionaries and their ministry partners also engaged 93 new people groups with the gospel for the first time last year (down from 101 in 2007), more than 50 of which are larger than 100,000 people.

Ahmed Hejazi
While moving, the Brodies met Ahmed Hejazi*. Right away, he noticed Charlie wasn’t like other foreigners.

“What is it that is different about you?” Ahmed asked. “Why is it that I feel you have a white heart — that your heart is clean?”

IMB photo

Faithful Muslims offer prayers to Allah at least five times daily. Prayer rituals include washing hands, face and feet, turning toward Mecca and speaking as much of the prayer in Arabic as possible, even if it is not their native language.

Charlie noticed something different about Ahmed as well. He openly admitted that he was disillusioned with Islam. Charlie explained that Jesus was the one who had cleaned his heart, and He could do the same for Ahmed.

The two men became friends, and as they continued to talk about God, Charlie was amazed at Ahmed’s openness.

“The questions he was asking were making my jaw drop because I’ve never had an experience where I didn’t have to argue with a Muslim about whether Christ really died on the cross,” Charlie says. “Many people have been taught a lot of lies and misunderstandings” about Christianity — that the Bible is corrupt, that Judas was disguised as Jesus and took His place on the cross, that Jesus was not born of a virgin.

To further their relationship, Charlie asked Ahmed if he would help him improve his Arabic. During their first lesson, Charlie wanted to practice speaking so he decided to tell Ahmed the story of how Jesus changed his life.

Charlie explained there was a time when he “didn’t care about anything to do with God.” He drank, used drugs and lived only for himself. When his father lost a two-year battle with cancer, Charlie began searching for God, eventually gave his heart to Jesus, and through Christ’s redemptive power, cleaned up his life.

Tears filled Ahmed’s eyes as he listened to Charlie’s testimony.

‘I’ve messed up my life’
“I’ve messed up my life, and I don’t know how to fix it,” Ahmed confessed. “I divorced my wife three years ago, and I haven’t seen my sons since. They’re (young) and they don’t know who I am. I drink to forget them because it hurts, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Tell me what I have to do to be like you and have a clean heart.”

“There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor — it’s a gift,” Charlie replied. As he explained Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, he knew the Holy Spirit was opening Ahmed’s heart to the gospel.

“All these barriers that are normally in place (for a Muslim) just weren’t there,” Charlie says. “God had been obviously working on this man’s heart for some time, and I explained to him that Jesus ... took on the sin of all mankind.”

Ahmed again began to cry and said, “What do I do?”

“All you have to do is ask God to come change your life,” Charlie said. “Show Him that you want a new heart.”

“Teach me how to do this — how do I pray?” Ahmed asked, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Do I need to wash off? ... Can I speak to God if I have beer on my breath?”

“Do you want to change?” Charlie asked. “You can pray anywhere — here, right now.”

He told Ahmed that he didn’t have to go to a mosque, face Mecca or wash his hands (a Muslim custom) to pray.

Ahmed immediately stretched out his hands in the Muslim prayer position as he had done so many times before. But this time, he was speaking to a God who listens and responds.

“I didn’t tell him what to pray for,” Charlie says. “He started asking God for forgiveness for all the things that he had done and asking for a new life. It was exactly what we always hope new believers will pray for.

“When he was done, he just took these big breaths and said, ‘I am just so comfortable in my spirit, in my conscience. I’ve never felt like this.’”

“I have to leave,” Ahmed said suddenly. “I have to go to the city where my wife is — I want to get my wife and kids back.”

A new man
Since that day Charlie says Ahmed is a new man. He stopped drinking and got a job. His wife has agreed to come back to him with their two sons so they can be a family again.

Charlie baptized Ahmed in the Red Sea during his lunch break on the first day of his new job. They drove down the coast, climbed over the guardrail and walked into the ocean. Ahmed called the experience “beautiful” and asked Charlie when they could do it again. He told Ahmed not to worry — it only needs to be done once.

Ahmed’s wife isn’t the only one who’s noticed the change.

“He was the black sheep of his family, but now they all see a difference in him, every single one of them,” Charlie says. “They know something’s up, and he’ll quote the New Testament to them.”

Ahmed’s father even called Charlie to thank him for what he did for his son. Ahmed hasn’t shared the full extent of his transformation with his family, but he’s slowly revealing the truth.

Because there’s no evangelical church to attend, Charlie has accepted the responsibility of discipling Ahmed. Together, they are reading through the New Testament.

“It made my four years. It’s always worth it to be obedient,” Charlie says of the day Ahmed accepted Jesus.

*Names changed.  

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.)
12/1/2009 4:08:00 AM by Don Graham, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Critics vow overturn of Swiss minarets ban

December 1 2009 by Elizabeth Bryant, Religion News Service

PARIS — A Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets at Muslim houses of worship sent ripples of surprise and dismay across Europe and Islamic countries Nov. 30, as opponents vowed to challenge the results.  

“We are really sad — for ourselves and for Switzerland’s place in the world,” said Geneva Muslim leader Hafid Ourardiri, after 57.5 percent of Swiss voted in favor of the ban. “This is not good for our country — and Switzerland is our country.”  

An estimated 400,000 Muslims call Switzerland home. Ourardiri, who heads the Muslim Council of Interknowing, a nonprofit aimed at promoting interfaith ties, said critics of the measure would file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.  

Sunday’s vote amounts to a major victory for the nationalist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., which had championed the ban on grounds minarets were unnecessary for worship and symbolized Islamic power.  

“We have nothing against the building of mosques — it’s a private affair and it’s part of religious freedom,” said Oskar Freisinger, a senior member of the S.V.P. “But we don’t want Islam to interfere in our political or legal system.”  

Critics fear the Swiss vote could trigger a furious backlash — even as far-right politicians in Europe say they are energized by the results.  

“We’re faced with a real anti-Muslim campaign that has begun in Switzerland and which might spread elsewhere in Europe,” Kamel Kebtane, director of the mosque in Lyon, France, told France-Info radio. “Today it’s minarets, tomorrow it may be banning Muslims from practicing their faith.”  

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was “scandalized” by the results, while The Times of London newspaper called it a “destructive and pernicious decision.”  

Prominent Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan urged Europeans to stand up against populist sentiments. “The Swiss majority are sending a clear message to their Muslim fellow citizens: we do not trust you, and the best Muslim for us is the Muslim we cannot see,” Ramadan wrote in a commentary in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.  

In practical terms, the minaret ban will make little difference — at least for now. Switzerland only has four mosque minarets, none of which will be affected by the measure.  

But far-right parties in Denmark and the Netherlands said they would push for similar legislation, while Marine Le Pen, a senior member of France’s anti-immigrant National Front party, said the Swiss vote reflected European fears of the region’s growing Muslim population.  

The minaret ban is only the latest example of opposition to Islamic symbols in Europe. Efforts to build mosques have stalled in a number of European countries. In France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, the government banned girls from wearing headscarves in 2005 and is now mulling calls to ban women from wearing the face-covering niqab veil in public.
12/1/2009 4:06:00 AM by Elizabeth Bryant, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

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