December 2013

Christmas is commercial, not a sacred holiday, for many

December 17 2013 by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON – Nine in 10 Americans will celebrate Christmas this year, but a new poll shows that increasing numbers see the holiday as more tinsel than gospel truth.
This year more than ever, Americans prefer that stores and businesses welcome them with the more generic “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” than “Merry Christmas,” according to a survey released Tuesday (Dec. 17) by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.
And for one in four American adults (26 percent), Dec. 25 is simply a cultural holiday, not a religious holy day.
“The trend is that direction, for sure,” said Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI. The percentage of people who say the Bible’s Christmas story is historically accurate has fallen more than 17 percentage points since a 2004 survey reported by “Newsweek.”
Even so, almost half (49 percent) of those who do celebrate Christmas (including 80 percent of white evangelicals) believe that the Virgin birth is historically accurate, that shepherds really saw a star over Bethlehem and that Three Wise Men truly visited baby Jesus in a manger.

SXG photo
While nine out of 10 people will celebrate Christmas this year it is a growing trend to celebrate the tinsel more than the story of Jesus' birth.

Why the shift toward a more secular Christmas? One reason, Jones said, is that a decade ago, many more people identified as evangelicals, who (according to the poll) take the holiday most seriously. Today, they are 18 percent of Americans – outnumbered by the 20 percent who say they have no religious identity, Jones said.
The new survey finds a preference for the “Merry Christmas” greeting – perhaps the most contested cultural turf in the so-called “War on Christmas” – is a marker of someone’s religion, politics, and age:
  • Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) say they choose the general December greeting “out of respect for people of all faiths,” up from 44 percent in a 2010 survey by PRRI.
  • Nearly two in three evangelicals (62 percent) prefer a “Merry Christmas” greeting, while most people with no religious identity (58 percent) like a non-religious greeting. Most other Christians are nearly evenly divided.
  • Republicans prefer the religious greeting by 61 percent, while 58 percent of Democrats say the opposite.
  • Selling to the under 30 crowd? Skip the religious greeting, say 66 percent of young adults. “They didn’t grow up with a stigma attached to being unreligious,” said Jones.
The survey of 1,056 adults, conducted December 4-12, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Even though 73 percent of adults say Christmas is either strongly or somewhat religious for them, among Americans overall:
  • Most (79 percent) will watch Christmas movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or A Christmas Story,” but only a smaller number (59 percent) expect to attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
  • People are equally likely (36 percent) to read the Christmas story from the Bible, as they are to read “‘Twas the night before Christmas.”
  • Those who read the Christmas story from the Bible are twice as likely to be white evangelical Protestants (68 percent) and minority Protestants (57 percent) than other Christians. Fewer than one in three white mainline Protestants (27 percent) or Catholics (28 percent) say they do so.
  • Just four in 10 adults says the biblical Christmas narrative is a “theological story to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.”
  • Most adults are about as religious about Christmas as their families were in their childhood: 70 percent celebrated it then as a strongly or somewhat religious day, but 26 percent had a cultural celebration.
Evangelicals are the exception, again, said Jones. While 97 percent say their celebrations today are primarily religious, 87 percent say it was so in their childhood. They also say they expect to spend more this holiday than any other group that celebrates Christmas.
Evangelicals “take the holiday more seriously than others,” both religiously and materially, said Jones.
PRRI found the overall average amount people say they would spend was $914. The thrifty (12 percent say they’ll spend under $100) are balanced by the extravagant (10 percent expect to spend more than $2,000). However, 26 percent of the top spenders are white evangelical Protestants, higher than their share of the U.S. population.
Jones also pointed out that the biggest spenders are also the most generous with time and funds for the less fortunate. Among the 77 percent of Americans who say they will give charity or volunteer during the Christmas holiday season, that includes nearly all (93 percent) of the $2000-and-over spenders.  Most of those who plan to spend the least this month – budgeting $100 or less – also look to others’ welfare. Nearly two-thirds of the thrifty (61 percent) will give to charity or volunteer.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics, and manager for social media.)
12/17/2013 12:44:39 PM by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Saeed Abedini's wife testifies before Congress

December 16 2013 by Benjamin Hawkins, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – Less than two weeks before Christmas, Naghmeh Abedini testified before Congress on behalf of her husband, U.S. citizen and pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been imprisoned in Iran since last June because of his Christian faith.
"My husband is suffering because he is a Christian," Abedini said when she addressed a subcommittee hearing of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday (Dec. 12). "He is suffering because he is an American. Yet, his own government ... has abandoned him. Don't we owe it to him as a nation to stand up for his human rights, for his freedom?
"Not all Americans are Christians, but every American – regardless of their belief –needs to be reassured and know that our government will take decisive action to protect us if our fundamental rights are violated," Abedini added.
Although this was Naghmeh Abedini's first time officially to testify before a panel of the House of Representatives, she already has described her husband's plight internationally through news agencies and while addressing the United Nations in Geneva earlier this year. As a special guest at the Missouri Baptist Convention in October, she recalled telling world leaders at the U.N. meeting that "the solution they're all looking for to the world's problems is Jesus Christ."

Naghmeh Abedini, testifying before a congressional subcommittee Dec. 12, tells of her family's anguish since her husband, U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini, was imprisoned in Iran in June 2012.

During the Dec. 12 House hearing, Naghmeh Abedini and attorney Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law Justice (ACLJ), thanked members of Congress for showing nonpartisan interest in her husband's release. Yet they expressed dismay that the U.S. administration had failed to use unprecedented negotiations between the United States and Iran to demand his release.
"At such a critical juncture," Sekulow said, "with the U.S. government sitting literally across the table with Iran ... for the first time in 34 years, we need to be sure that Pastor Saeed and the other Americans mentioned here today, wrongfully detained, are seen not as a marginal issue, but as essential to those ongoing diplomatic talks.
"Pastor Saeed has exhausted all legal remedies in Iran," Sekulow added. "His freedom now rests solely on the success of diplomatic efforts."
Sekulow expressed concern that, during a House hearing two days earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that he had not mentioned Saeed Abedini during nuclear talks with Iranian officials.
According to a transcript released from the ACLJ Dec. 11, Kerry said, "I personally raised the issue with the Foreign Minister Zarif when I met him the very first time, and we have not linked it directly to the nuclear issue because we believe that prejudices them and it also prejudices the negotiation." In response, Sekulow tried, during the Dec. 12 hearing, "to impress upon Congress the desperate need for great urgency, as Pastor Saeed is in a dire predicament."
Abedini, who was arrested last June while working with government approval to establish an orphanage, was sentenced without due process to eight years in the political prisoner ward at Iran's notorious Evin Prison, Sekulow explained. Then, as the U.S. administration pursued diplomatic discussions with Iran in November, he was transferred to the criminal ward of Rajai Shahr Prison.
"This is Rajai Shahr Prison," Sekulow said, "built for 5,000 violent criminals, real criminals – murderers, rapists, drug dealers, people convicted and sentenced to death or life in prison. Built for 5,000 inmates, it is currently housing approximately 22,000. It is a prison out of control with violence. To define the situation as inhumane would be a gross understatement."
According to recent reports, Abedini has been robbed numerous times, as well as threatened at knifepoint. He is covered in lice and malnourished. Increasingly he suffers from stomach pain because the Iranian government refuses to give him access to needed medication.
"In addition to the horrific abuse and torture Pastor Saeed has faced at the hands of his own brutal Iranian captors, Pastor Saeed has not always had the full backing of his own government," Sekulow said. "And I want to be clear here. I mean the Executive Branch. Members of Congress have been with us ­– on both sides, Republican and Democrat – since the beginning."
In her testimony, Naghmeh Abedini told U.S. representatives that, after a "radical encounter with Jesus" in 2000, her husband "found true joy, love and peace that he could not find in his former religion." She added, "He will not deny the faith that has saved him and given him life."
Holding up a picture of her children, Abedini also expressed the pain of living without a husband and father. She then read a letter written by Abedini to his daughter on her seventh birthday.
"It is so hard and so heartbreaking for me to see these pictures and to know that I am not there beside you as you grow," Abedinni wrote. "I came here to help the kids that did not have mommies and daddies, but my own kids lost their daddy. This breaks my heart so much. I want you to know that I did not want to put so much pressure on your little shoulders, my precious children."
"It has been hard," Naghmeh Abedini said. "It has been a struggle as a mom watching my 7-year-old and my 5-year-old cry themselves to sleep every single night for the last 444 days, and knowing that unless we get Saeed out quickly, he might serve the eight years or even more – or he might not even survive that prison sentence.
"As we approach Christmas, which is a joyful time of the year but is a painful time for our family ... I want to end with this," Abedini said before reading a passage of scripture that summarized the belief for which her husband was imprisoned: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).
"And in this season," Abedini added, "I not only pray for the release of my husband, but I hope and pray that our government would realize where we have fallen from and how far we have fallen, and that we would return to the source of blessing. May God bless America, the land that I love.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ben Hawkins is associate editor of The Pathway (, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Naghmeh Abediniís full statement to Congress can be accessed at
12/16/2013 12:14:38 PM by Benjamin Hawkins, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Utah polygamy law upended by federal judge

December 16 2013 by Art Toalston, Baptist Press

SALT LAKE CITY – U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups declared key parts of Utah's polygamy law unconstitutional on Friday (Dec. 13) in a case involving the Brown family from TLC's reality show, "Sister Wives."

The decision by Waddoups, as described by the Salt Lake Tribune, holds that "key parts of Utah’s polygamy laws are unconstitutional." The 91-page ruling "sets a new legal precedent in Utah, effectively decriminalizing polygamy," the newspaper stated.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, reacted to the ruling in an email distribution to the media Dec. 14.


DCL photo from TLC
Kody Brown and his four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. Together, they have a combined number of 17 children. Follow the Brown family and see how they attempt to navigate life as a "normal" family in a society that shuns their polygamist lifestyle. A Dec. 13 ruling struck down some of Utah's polygamy law as unconstitutional.

"This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life," Moore said. "Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children. Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing.

"The loss of a marriage consensus is about more than just social policy," Moore noted. "Marriage is an embedded picture of the gospel, the union between Christ and His church. That's why Jesus pointed back to the beginning, to God's creational purposes. We must talk about these issues not simply from the point of view of nature, but from the point of view of the gospel.

"When reality TV scenarios drive our judicial decisions, we've truly reached a strange time in American life," Moore said. "But the gospel was given in strange times, and remains the power of God to salvation, calling us to repent of our self-made attempts at autonomy and back to God's purposes."

State officials, as of midday Saturday, had not indicated whether Utah will appeal Waddoups' ruling.

Waddoups, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, was a nominee of President George W. Bush in 2008. Waddoups holds a law degree from the University of Utah's law school and an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.)
12/16/2013 12:01:53 PM by Art Toalston, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Making disciples through power of the gospel

December 16 2013 by C. Walter Overman, BSC Communications

For 16 years D.A. Horton has used rap music as a platform to proclaim the gospel in the heart language of a distinct and growing American subculture. 
“In God’s grace, He has given me the opportunity to be used by Him to use a means of gospel proclamation known as hip-hop music,” said Horton, executive director of ReachLife Ministries, a non-profit ministry that seeks to reach urban youth and young adults for Christ.
“God has given me a snapshot of grace to leverage the culture of hip-hop to present the gospel.”
Horton spoke Nov. 12 during the Heavenly Banquet, held in conjunction with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s annual meeting in Greensboro.

BSC photo by C. Walter Overman
D.A. Horton speaks about using music as a platform during the Heavenly Banquet, a multicultural luncheon held during the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina annual meeting.

He said hip-hop’s success in reaching urban youth and young adults for Christ is indicative of the power of the gospel, rather than the method.  
“I challenge us to understand that the methods we use don’t save people – it’s the message we proclaim that saves people,” Horton said. “Hip-hop might be gone 30 years from now, and that’s fine. The gospel is where I put my roots.”
Speaking from Revelation 19:6-10, Horton reminded believers of their duty to proclaim the gospel to their lost family and friends, so they might also participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb.
“We can look at this passage and have warm thoughts about our heavenly reality,” he said. “But eventually we have to snap out of it because our friends and loved ones are perishing without Christ. They don’t know our God.”
The heavenly banquet of Revelation 19 depicts believers wearing bright and pure linen, which Horton said is the clothing believers receive upon hearing and responding to the gospel. “In that moment our filthiness is taken off and the complete and perfect righteousness of Christ is put on,” he said.
God’s gracious act of salvation pictured in the marriage supper of the Lamb should fuel the believer’s desire to witness to their lost friends and family.
“We are clothed in His righteousness, a righteousness that we can never work to earn or deserve. That is the beauty of grace,” Horton said.
This should give us a fuel, a drive, a passion for proclaiming the gospel.”
Horton called believers to obey Christ’s command to make disciples and to trust in the gospel during an age when people are searching for miracles. 
“So many people want to see miracles. They want to see heaven and earth move,” he said.
“Believers must fight for the greatest miracle ever seen, and that is the proclamation of the gospel message according to the scriptures and the supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit that then brings life to a dead sinner.”
When believers walk in the power of the gospel to make disciples, they can look to the marriage supper in anticipation of who they will meet there.
I pray that at the marriage supper we would have the privilege to see those, that in God’s grace, He allowed us to reach with the gospel,” Horton said.
“I pray that in eternity we would be able to enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb together.”
12/16/2013 11:52:59 AM by C. Walter Overman, BSC Communications | with 0 comments

N.C. Baptist Men teams working in the Philippines

December 13 2013 by Michael McEwen, BR Content Editor

On Dec. 11, the third team from North Carolina Baptist Men and Women on Mission (NCBM) departed to relieve team two who has been in Tacloban City since Dec. 4.
Super Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, was the tropical cyclone that devastated portions of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines on Nov. 8.
Haiyan brought heavy rains and winds that caused landslides and other problems that forced thousands of residents to evacuate to safer grounds.
Other provinces hit were Iloilo, Cebu, Oriental and Occidental Mindoro, Davao Oriental, Surigao del Norte and Palawan.
One month after the typhoon made its path through six Philippine islands, the death toll stands (as of Dec. 11) at 5,924 and 1,779 people are still missing.

IMB photo
Susan Stokeld and Dottie Smith, International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries and Pam Wolf, a Baptist Global Response partner, pray over a load of relief supplies destined for 450 needy families in northern Cebu. For a story on how one missionary survived the typhoon, visit here.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said Haiyan has affected 12.2 million people and displaced 3.98 million, with 103,604 still in evacuation centers.
“Each missions trip contributes and prepares you for the next one you’ll go on,” said John Adams of Salemburg Baptist Church in Salemburg. Adams was leader of team one. “If someone is presented with an opportunity to do relief or missions work, I always tell them to pray and seek God’s direction, but we’re all called to support in some way.”
The medical team (of team one) was serving approximately 80 people per day at an evacuation center at a local school in Tacloban City. At one point in their ministry to the Philippine people, more than 150 families were living in the evacuation center.
Support and relief work has not been limited to Baptists from the United States. Baptists in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Italy have responded to the crisis or are pledging their support as have numerous Filipino Baptist churches in the U.S.
Some are coordinating efforts through relief organizations such as Baptist Global Response, a key International Mission Board partner in disaster relief ministries, while others are channeling aid through Philippine churches. Team two – consisting of nine members – has been providing supplies, mosquito nets and various medications. They also have been assisting the sick and providing clean water for Bethany Hospital and the general public.
The eight members of team three will continue the work established by the first two NCBM teams. Currently more than 8,800 gallons of water have been purified and more than 980 patients have been helped since the NCBM arrived in the Philippines.
Ways to help:
  • Staying informed via
  • The Burnt Swamp Baptist Association is receiving funds that will be deposited to the Philippine convention’s Typhoon Relief Funds. Write checks payable to: Burnt Swamp Baptist Association and send checks to: Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, Philippine Relief, P.O. Box 1207, Pembroke, NC 28372.
  • Churches and individuals interested in going or donating:  (800) 395-5102, ext. 5599, or visit

Related story

Missionary certain of decision to ride out storm
12/13/2013 11:41:18 AM by Michael McEwen, BR Content Editor | with 0 comments

Missionary certain of decision to ride out storm

December 13 2013 by International Mission Board

As Suzie Miller floated on her mattress on the second level of her home in Tacloban, Philippines, she wasn’t sure she and her husband, Carl, would survive. But she never doubted their decision to return home from Cebu City, where they had been visiting and had the choice to ride out Typhoon Haiyan. 
The Millers’ home was in the path of one of the worst storms in history.
They live on the island hardest hit by the Nov. 8 typhoon.
Suzie said it was important to go through the tragedy with the people they love and serve, rather than leaving and letting their neighbors go through it alone. If they did that, Miller said, “You come back as an outsider to minister.”

IMB photo
International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries Carl and Suzie Miller rode through Typhoon Haiyan on a mattress floating in their bedroom. Suzie Miller said the entire experience was a testament to God’s provision and the power of prayer.

Afterward they learned the true meaning of community as neighbors shared tools, gasoline, food and other supplies. The Millers gave their Thanksgiving turkey, sealed in a freezer that floated through their home, to neighbors struggling to feed their family.
The Millers are among missionaries living and serving in the Philippines who, because of your support of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program, were already on the ground to immediately begin ministering and planning relief efforts.  
While Southern Baptists have responded generously to typhoon relief, sacrificial giving to the Lottie Moon offering will continue to assure that missionaries like the Millers will be among the first to bring aid and comfort when tragedy hits.
And, unlike relief organizations that respond and leave, your missionaries are there for the long haul, assuring that Jesus is known.
This year, consider a churchwide or individual gift based on the average cost of supporting a missionary:
  • $51,000 a year (average)
  • $4,250 a month
  • $981 a week
  • $140 a day
This year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions goal is $175 million. The theme is “Totally His.” Visit for more details about the offering.

Related story

N.C. Baptist Men teams working in the Philippines
12/13/2013 11:33:37 AM by International Mission Board | with 0 comments

Jesus, Elvis and Aristotle: Who’s bigger?

December 13 2013 by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service

He’s a man with a ton of titles – Prince of Peace, Son of God, Shepherd of Souls – but now Jesus has one more: the biggest name in human history. Ever.
So say the authors of a startling new book, “Who’s Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank,” which tries to settle, once and for all, the question of who’s who.
It’s a work of “culturometrics,” a fancy term to describe quantitative data analysis applied to individuals in society the same way Sabermetrics tracks performance in baseball, pundits aggregate polls in elections, and algorithms rule computer search engines.
“Bigger” is a complex collection of lists and rankings, but none is more provocative than its Top 100:  Jesus is No. 1, Adolf Hitler is No. 7, everyone is overwhelmingly white and 97 are male.
But keep your blood pressure in check. “Bigger does not mean better,” said co-author Steven Skiena, a computer science professor at Stony Brook University where he heads the Data Science Laboratory.

Jesus was ranked as the biggest name in human history by co-authors Steven Skiena and Charles Ward in their book, “Who’s Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank”

To research “Bigger,” Skiena and Charles Ward, an engineer on the ranking team at Google, created a complex amalgam of measures. To establish their “significance” ranking, they assessed more than 800,000 names, calculated scores of celebrity and achievement or gravitas and then factored in how long, and how long ago, someone lived.

Hence the Top 10 names need no introduction:
  1. Jesus
  2. Napoleon
  3. Muhammad
  4. William Shakespeare
  5. Abraham Lincoln
  6. George Washington
  7. Adolf Hitler
  8. Aristotle
  9. Alexander the Great
  10. Thomas Jefferson
Where things get really curious is moving down the list:
  • Protestant reformer Martin Luther (No. 17) is just above Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
  • Elvis Presley (No. 69) is notched between Socrates and William the Conqueror.
  • King Arthur (No. 85), who may be a myth, tops Michelangelo.
  • Only Queen Elizabeth I (No. 13), Queen Victoria (No. 16), and St. Joan of Arc (No. 95) make the Top 100; whether the list includes anyone who is black depends on how you classify St. Augustine of Hippo (No. 72), the North African/Roman theologian of the early Christian church.
  • President Obama barely missed the top 100, coming in at No. 111, but ahead of the Virgin Mary (No. 127).
Researchers say there was no nefarious plot to exclude women and blacks. But in centuries past, those two groups were barred from historically significant roles, their social contributions unrecorded by others.
Today, to get a high ranking in Wikipedia, with long entries, frequent edits and numerous links to other important people and events, a woman has to be so much stronger than a man, “it’s like they have to be four IQ points higher,” said Skiena.
Wikipedia and Google ngrams (a searchable collection of words in scanned English language books) are the basis of the “Bigger” research – and also the source of its bias toward the Anglo-American, English-language version of history in books and online. Relying on Wikipedia, where only 15 percent of editors are women and user-generated data can be riddled with errors, is also a risky choice, critics have noted.

This methodology also crimped the authors’ ability, for example, to rank the Dalai Lama. The current leader of Tibetan Buddhism was often listed by his official title, the 14th Dalai Lama, which is a status, not an individual, in the data. That meant his ranking couldn’t be calculated.
For the researchers, significance is not a value judgment. The authors examined people’s reputations as memes that evolve across time, said Skiena. They traced the evolution of the term “meme” to famed evolutionary zoologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins (No. 1,630 in their top 2,000).
“We measured how successfully they are propagating their meme through the course of history,” said Skiena.
Jesus is the indisputable leader, with his name appearing once in every 10,000 words in the ngrams.
Likewise, founders of religions are highly significant people. Skiena noted that could decrease across time as the proportion of writing in English is no longer focused primarily on faith or philosophy, as it was in ancient days.
But there may yet be more popes in the Top 100 one day than just the two listed currently – St. Peter (No. 65) and Pope John Paul II (No. 91) – because contemporary popes are living longer than their predecessors.
Other religious figures in the top 100:
  • Paul the Apostle (New Testament author, missionary) - 34
  • Gautama Buddha (central figure of Buddhism) - 52
  • Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism) - 57
  • Ali (son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad) - 89
  • St. Thomas Aquinas (Catholic theologian) - 90
  • John Calvin (Protestant theologian) - 99
Wish the list were different? Their “Who’s Bigger” app for Apple iPhone and iPad allows people to compare their own choices with those of Skiena and Ward.
But neither Pope Francis, Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, nor Miley Cyrus, a Time finalist, will top the charts. His election and her twerking episode both grabbed headlines after the authors had finished their research.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics, and manager for social media.)
12/13/2013 11:11:44 AM by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

My Hope has lasting appeal, Billy Graham's pastor says

December 13 2013 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – My Hope America with Billy Graham is promoted as the 95-year-old evangelist's final sermon, but Graham's pastor Don Wilton is keeping the message alive.
Wilton worked with Graham a year in developing My Hope and is incorporating it into the many ministries and missions of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., where Wilton serves as pastor and Graham is a member.
"[First Baptist Spartanburg is] designing and devising a multiple approach to continue sharing My Hope with Billy Graham with small and large groups as well as individuals," Wilton told Baptist Press, "and we see no end in sight. The reason we see no end in sight is because the message which he preached is a timeless message. It's about the Jesus who is the same yesterday and today and forever, and the cross is everlasting."
About 900 First Baptist Spartanburg members received training to host My Hope events in their homes and at other venues in preparation for My Hope's debut on Graham's birthday in November. Already, First Baptist has shown the My Hope DVD, "The Cross," in members' homes. The church has shown it to the homeless in public parks, at various church meetings and sporting events, in nursing homes, businesses and a detention center.
When First Baptist, in cooperation with other groups, delivered 8,600 meals to the needy at Thanksgiving, a copy of The Cross and the Bible were left with each of the 1,860 families fed. Church funds and special contributions covered costs.

Photo courtesy of First Baptist Spartanburg
First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, S.C., showed a DVD of The Cross, the culminating message of My Hope America with Billy Graham, at several venues. Here, families of the church's Upward Flag Football and Soccer team gather on a ball field to view The Cross.

Wilton has initiated the translation of My Hope into Chinese for distribution of at least 300,000 copies in Beijing, where he preached in November and has accepted an invitation to return.
"The cross is about the grace of God and about the love of God for all people and God's redemptive purpose," Wilton said. "So if we accept that, that has a timeless truth. We have noticed again the great respect with which Dr. Billy Graham is held by young and old. And of course My Hope in particular with the testimonies with Lecrae [Moore] and Lacey [Sturm] woven into Mr. Graham's powerful, timeless message on the cross, and his input from today's perspective, makes the presentation of My Hope ageless."
First Baptist Spartanburg members Darrell and Vicki Kendrick, with the help of about 30 volunteers from another church, showed The Cross at Camp White Pines juvenile detention center in Jonesville, S.C. Of the 38 boys in attendance, about 25 accepted Christ, Darrell Kendrick said.
"You don't have many days like that," said Kendrick, who has led a weekly Bible study at the center for nearly five years. "For the guys, I think they related to Lecrae's story about the drugs and alcohol, sex outside of marriage. When he gave his testimony, they connected with that and it moved their hearts. I think the Holy Spirit just got a hold of them."
Kendrick offered the invitation to Christian discipleship.
"I said we're going to have a prayer and I said if we get through with this prayer or during this prayer, if you feel the need that you want to come up and talk more about accepting Christ, if you feel the Holy Spirit drawing you, I said please raise your hand or come up and get me. Get somebody out of this group of people and we'll be glad to pray with you," Kendrick told Baptist Press. "We started praying and didn't actually get through with the prayer until we were covered up, and we just started taking them off in different sections of the place and praying with them.
My Hope America with Billy Graham was born out of the aging evangelist's passion to continue preaching, Wilton said, and involved a year of interviews with Graham at his home in Montreat, N.C.
"He's so used to me having lunch with him every week, which I have for over 20 years, and so he's used to conversations with me at length. At his age, [the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA)] asked me to engage Mr. Graham concerning The Cross and My Hope," Wilton said. "I was very deeply privileged to be the one who worked with Mr. Graham for over a year in putting it all together."
My Hope was designed to engage individual lay members in a relationship-based evangelism model, encouraging them to invite neighbors and friends into their homes to hear The Cross and give them an opportunity to accept Jesus as Savior.
My Hope is an excellent tool to encourage evangelism among lay members, said Eddie Robertson, First Baptist Spartanburg's minister of recreation and evangelism.
"Lay members are the ones doing it. And that's another beauty of this; it's lay driven," Robertson said. "Sometimes church members feel like it's just ... the pastor's job to share Christ. But it's every believer's responsibility and joy really to be able to share what God has done in their life and the My Hope video... it's just a wonderful tool ... that can be used."
Robertson is encouraging members who participated to expand their outreach and disciple new believers.
"On the DVD itself, under bonus material, you do have Lose to Gain and also Defining Moments, which are both excellent, excellent videos," Robertson said. "One of the things that we're trying to do now is encourage the people that had groups in their home or whatever, is to find a way to show Defining Moments to a group, whether it's the same group, or whether it's going out a little bit [farther] to invite their immediate neighbors or go on out a little bit [farther], to houses three and four away from them."
Members are also encouraged to share their personal testimonies of salvation.
"That's what I try to challenge my people with, just sharing what exactly God's done in your life and your heart," Robertson said. "And I do believe in our churches it helps do two things, not only... the joy of doing that and being obedient, but also it helps us examine ourselves to realize, do I really have a story. ... There are people in our churches that have been members for 30 or 40 years and they may realize they don't really have a story, a personal relationship with Christ."
The church of 7,500 believers, with 3,000 in attendance among four Sunday morning services, is committed to follow up with all who accept Jesus through the church's My Hope events.
"It's very important that churches don't drop the ball," Robertson said. "Don't just let this happen and [not] follow up with those that are making decisions, so that's why we're trying to get names and exactly what took place so that we can organize to be faithful to visit, call, to invite them to be a part of what's going on."
Wilton said Graham has always promoted follow-up efforts and engagement by the local church.
"We believe that the local New Testament church is God's design for all people as they grow personally in God's grace and in His knowledge and admonition and as I put it, as they grow from becoming just disciples to disciple makers," Wilton said. "That lies at the heart of Dr. Graham's whole approach to ministry."
"In my over 20 years of very close and personal conversations with him, therein lies the reason why at the end of every crusade message you would hear Dr. Graham say, 'Be sure to go to church on Sunday,'" Wilton said. "That's why he said that, because he believes so strongly in the local New Testament church and has told me many times that that's what Jesus was talking about when He said the gates of hell will not prevail against my church.
"He was talking about the local body of believers, not a building or even a denomination. As proud as we all are to be Southern Baptists, He wasn't referring to a denomination," he said. "Jesus was talking about the fact that it's within the context of the local New Testament church that Jesus made that powerful statement at Caesarea Philippi."
First Baptist Spartanburg's local, national and international outreaches will benefit from My Hope, Wilton said. These outreaches include: ministries to students, youth, the homeless, the addicted, the disabled, the handicapped, the hungry, mission churches and national and international missionaries.
"I think it has become interwoven into the fabric of our multiple presentation of the Gospel through many means in our church, through Christian social ministries," he said. "I think it's very important to say this. BGEA ... has really been the fountainhead and has been extremely helpful and most generous in every regard concerning My Hope.
"I must give tremendous credit to BGEA, because in typical BGEA fashion, they have allowed the local churches to develop ownership over My Hope in their own individual churches. And one of the great lessons that we have in the local church is the whole issue of dividing and multiplying, saying, 'Look, God has given this to us, but we're giving it to you.'"
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer.)
12/13/2013 10:48:51 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

'Flat Lottie’ relays her mission field encounters

December 12 2013 by Art Toalston, Baptist Press

SOUTHEAST ASIA – Ever heard of Flat Stanley? How about Flat Lottie?
With Flat Stanley, schoolchildren exchange paper cutouts or digital images of Stanley as a way of interacting with students in other locations, even other countries.
Flat Lottie, akin to missionary pioneer Lottie Moon 100-plus years ago in China, is intent on stirring Southern Baptists to the fullest of missions support though their prayers, finances and involvement.
Flat Lottie, as a 4-foot/3-inch poster (the same height as the real-life Lottie Moon), has accompanied IMB writers, photographers and videographers across Asia as they've reported on the work of Southern Baptist missionaries in 2013 and 2012. Flat Lottie also has been transported to various missions settings as a caricature via computer graphics and as a hand-held paper cutout.
To see Flat Lottie's travels in 2013 via an interactive map, click here. Each pin in the map connects to a brief story about the missionary or missions outreach there.

IMB photo
Flat Lottie," via computer graphics, joins the flow of urban bike riders in one of Asia's megacities in one of her treks to report of the work of Southern Baptist missionaries.

For Flat Lottie's 2012 ventures, also via an Internet-friendly map, click here.

“Wondering what your mission dollars have done this year?” one of the IMB/Asia writers noted in describing the purpose of Flat Lottie's travels to communicate to Southern Baptists. “Flat Lottie Moon set out across Asia to find out how every dollar given to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering makes a difference. She visited your representatives who were hard at work sharing the gospel and helping communities.”
Flat Lottie also has been seen in a video featuring two young missions enthusiasts who tell about the famed missionary's labors in China preceding her death in 1912. (For an additional video about Lottie Moon, click here.)
The offering (officially the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions) is a key channel of support for nearly 5,000 IMB missionaries worldwide. It is an annual emphasis across the Southern Baptist Convention each December, working in tandem with gifts from churches through the Cooperative Program year-round for SBC missions.
“Our multimedia teams see your mission offering dollars at work in every story we do,” International Mission Board personnel in Asia wrote on their AsiaStories website last year in describing their initial Flat Lottie project. “It's a humbling experience to see how small and large gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering combine to make it possible to reach a lost world. This year [2012], the AsiaStories staff wanted to make a better visual connection between our stories and your mission dollars ... and while we were at it, we had a little a fun.”
Each media team, while traveling to gather missions stories, “took a life-sized poster of Lottie Moon, the woman our missions' offering is named after, with the goal of showing 'Lottie@Work' in places and doing ministries you'd never expect. You should have seen the crazy looks thrown our way when we pulled out a 4-foot 3-inch poster of a missionary from the early 1900s. Of course we got a lot of smiles and laughter when we asked people to pose with our Flat Lottie. But to our surprise, this poster (sitting in a dugout canoe, scuba diving or digging a well) provided an opening to share about this legacy missionary and the message she carried so many years ago.”
Other resources posted in tandem with the Flat Lottie initiative include:
  • a Facebook page here.
  • a multi-dimensional Pinterest page here.
  • 10 things that happen because of gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering: 10 things.
  • 7 ideas for boosting a church's Lottie Moon Offering: 7 ideas.
Among the suggestions: Find stories on missionaries to share at Lottie@Work or on people
Also see the Lottie Moon Offering idea gallery for various ways other churches have rallied to support Southern Baptists' missionaries and a webpage with examples of how Southern Baptists' gifts are utilized on the mission field.
  • a Flat Lottie who can visit your community. Just use this Lottie cutout, give her a few splashes of color and let her spark conversations about missions wherever you go.
  • various letters penned by Lottie Moon from China sounding her clarion call to missions here.
(EDITOR’S NOTE ­– Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. BP operations coordinator Laura Erlanson and IMB communications staff in Asia contributed to this article.)
12/12/2013 1:29:32 PM by Art Toalston, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Supreme Court rejects Liberty's Obamacare challenge

December 12 2013 by Andrew Branch, World News Service

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned away Liberty University's attempt to overturn a key part of Obamacare.
The case challenged both the employer and individual mandates on grounds of religious freedom, but it also disputed Congress’ power to compel employers to provide insurance. The decision, made Monday (Dec. 9) without comment, leaves in place the dismissal of Liberty’s claims by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
The Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate in June 2012 under Congress’ power to tax. The Liberty case asked the courts to consider whether Congress has the same such power over employers.
Representing Liberty University is Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, who challenged the law the day President Barack Obama signed it in 2010.
On Tuesday’s "The World and Everything in It," Staver said the issue of the employer mandate isn’t over. “If certainly there is a Court of Appeals that will strike down the employer mandate, that’s going to be a mandatory review by the high court,” Staver said. The employer mandate has survived two high court challenges. Several other cases against the employer mandate are making their ways through lower courts.
Other aspects of Liberty’s case included a challenge to the individual mandate on religious liberty grounds. The case alleged there are situations in which religious people may be forced to contribute to a risk pool that provides abortion.

Liberty’s commonwealth of Virginia is one of 23 states to bar insurers from covering elective abortion on the exchanges. The Virginia law exempts abortions for the life of the mother or cases of rape and incest.
In the other 27 states, though, the Obamacare creates a separate $1 monthly charge directly for elective abortions that is added to premiums of those with abortion in their health plans. As the Heritage Foundation outlines, Obamacare doesn’t provide an opt-out for individuals or families if a certain plan fits their needs in every other way.
Finally, Liberty’s case challenged the so-called contraceptive mandate, which forces for-profit business to cover abortifacient birth control drugs like Plan B regardless of owners’ religious objections.

The Supreme Court already accepted a case brought by Hobby Lobby on the issue. Arguments on that case will likely take place in March with a ruling as soon as June. The case could set the national precedent on cases of religious freedom for the foreseeable future.
12/12/2013 1:18:22 PM by Andrew Branch, World News Service | with 0 comments

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