February 2013

South home to most "Bible-minded" cities

February 15 2013 by Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – The South is home to the top 10 most “Bible-minded” cities in the United States, according to new Barna Group research.

Defining Bible-minded as a person who reads the Bible in a typical week and strongly asserts the accuracy of its teaching, researchers determined that Knoxville, Tenn., is the most Bible-minded city in the United States, with 52 percent of the city’s population fitting that category.

Other cities in the top five are Shreveport, La., with 52 percent of its population deemed Bible-minded; Chattanooga, Tenn., 52 percent; Birmingham, Ala., 50 percent; and Jackson, Miss., 50 percent.

At the bottom of the scale are Providence R.I./Bedford, Mass., 9 percent; Albany/Schenectady/Troy, N.Y., 10 percent; Burlington, Vt./Plattsburgh, N.Y., 16 percent; Portland/Auburn, Maine, 16 percent; Hartford/New Haven, Conn., 16 percent; and Boston, Mass./Manchester, N.H., 16 percent.

Where does North Carolina rank?
Charlotte comes in at No. 7 with Asheville tying with three S.C. cities for No. 11. Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem ranks No. 19 with Raleigh/Durham/Fayetteville at No. 22. Greenville/New Bern/Washington rank No. 31.

Researchers advised Christian leaders to view the news optimistically.

“In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20 percent of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded,” Barna Group President David Kinnaman said. “Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.”

Study results indicate a diversity of Bible-minded scores among population markets across the United States, ranging from the high of 52 percent and the low of 9 percent, Barna reported.

“As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension,” Kinnaman said. “Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance.

“The key is to not merely preach to those insiders,” Kinnaman said, “but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence.”

Researchers drew results from telephone and online interviews with random samples of 42,855 adults nationwide. Interviews were conducted over seven years, ending last May, according to Barna. Full results are available at barna.org.

Barna markets itself as a private, nonpartisan organization that has been conducting and analyzing primary research since 1984 to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
2/15/2013 2:24:36 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Is God the missing character in ‘Downton Abbey’?

February 15 2013 by David Gibson, Religion News Service

The third season of the megahit PBS series “Downton Abbey” wraps up Sunday (Feb. 17), capping another must-see run of ruin and redemption at Lord Grantham’s stately English manor. Yet some are still left puzzled over the absence of what should be a leading Upstairs player in this colorful cast: God.
Writing last month in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, Todd Dorman wondered why – despite the heart-rending melodrama and all the “divine trappings” that gild the 1920s scenery – “God is a peripheral presence at best.”
“There are numerous fascinating blog posts ... that search for implicit Catholic and Christian themes in the show – good and evil, suffering for cause, various types and grades of love and devotion,” Dorman wrote. “At some point, though, especially with a vicar in the family’s employ, it seems odd for such connections to remain unnamed, unspoken, and, for all we can see, unperceived.”

RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Shown left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Violet.

Ian Markham, president of (Episcopal) Virginia Theological Seminary and a big “Downton” fan, also discerns serious spiritual themes beneath the surface of the narrative. Yet as Markham told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, faith itself is “relatively invisible. But you would expect religion to be more present in their lives.”
“It’s “a bizarre omission,” Telegraph columnist Robert Colvile wrote after the second season wound up. “Perhaps it’s this godlessness, rather than any malice on the part of writer Julian Fellowes, that explains why Downton’s residents appear to have such a peculiarly cursed existence?”
There are, to be sure, a few glimpses of spiritual pathos, as in Season Two when Lady Mary – eldest daughter of Lord Crawley, the Earl of Grantham – beseeches God to keep her beloved Matthew safe in the trenches of World War I. “Dear Lord, I don’t pretend to have much credit with you,” she says. “I’m not even sure that you’re there. But if you are, and if I’ve ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe.”
Still, that doesn’t really rise to the level of what American viewers, in particular, might consider an appropriate religious response to the circumstances. What about a dark night of the soul that leads to enlightenment and conversion? A personal relationship with Jesus, perhaps? Sharing that faith with others?
“They wouldn’t do that, good Lord, no,” said Michael Walsh, a British author and church historian who has been following the series. “And they certainly wouldn’t do it in public.”
As Walsh said, that’s just not the way the English – namely high-church Anglicans like the Crawleys – did religion then. (Or now, for that matter). And if the Brits of the age were devout, he added, they “tended to turn to Catholicism.” In fact, English Catholicism at this time was enjoying something of a countercultural revival.
Catholic chaplains had distinguished themselves with their battlefield ministry during the Great War, and major writers like G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh converted in the 1920s and ’30s along with a number of other well-known figures.
Waugh’s most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited, was set in this era and also focused on the travails of English aristocrats, though chiefly on their struggles with Catholicism and “the operation of grace,” as Waugh put it. That formula proved to have an enduring appeal when the 1981 BBC adaptation became a trans-Atlantic phenomenon that prefigured the success of “Downton Abbey.”
Indeed, doubt plays at least as big a role as belief, which reflects the real disillusionment of the post-war era, at least for some. The jailed valet and veteran John Bates seems to dismiss faith at one point, and Lady Sybil does as well, which is especially poignant given her fate.
“It became, in short, fashionable to lose faith,” said Callum Brown, a religion professor in Scotland who specializes in secularism in Great Britain.
But above all, “Downton Abbey” has been a melodrama about tradition and change and family, and that’s largely how religion fits in – not as faith per se, but as a marker of class and status, of social and personal boundaries that are all coming under pressure to adapt to modern ways.
In this context, religion is about doing what is right and proper – for king and country and the status quo – rather than divining what one personally believes. The rituals of the evening meal are on par with the rites of the Anglican religion (and maybe more scrupulously observed). When the endlessly quotable dowager countess, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), counsels Matthew on choosing a wife, her concern is about appearances as much as the sanctity of the nuptial vows: “Marriage is a long business. There’s no getting out of it for our kind of people,” she says.
Doctrine and theology barely register, and when they do, it is usually through the filter of the anti-Catholicism that was a given in upper-class Anglicanism, and throughout England as the Irish independence struggle was in full swing.
“But isn’t there something rather un-English about the Roman Church?” the local vicar harrumphs as he baits Sybil’s Irish-Catholic husband at dinner. “I cannot feel bells and incense and all the rest of that pagan folderol is pleasing to God.”
In this third season, Lord Grantham himself, furious that his first grandchild will be baptized a Catholic (“There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!”), introduces American viewers to anti-Catholic epithets like “left-footers.”
“I don’t want the thumbscrews or the rack,” as he tells a visiting Anglican bishop, “but there always seems to be something of Johnny foreigner about the Catholics.”
This isn’t the sort of spiritual reckoning that some may want to see, but it does reflect the times – and even our times. Anglican leaders are currently lobbying against a bill that would lift the centuries-old ban on members of the royal family marrying Catholics, and the influx of Muslim immigrants is testing Britain’s culturally Christian identity.
On the other hand, for those looking for Fellowes to channel some of the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, a fourth season is in production. If the shockers of Season 3 and its grand finale Sunday night haven’t planted the seeds for a spiritual conversion – or crisis – in this cast, perhaps maybe nothing can. Stay tuned.
2/15/2013 2:13:41 PM by David Gibson, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

VBS a bridge to gospel for ‘spiritual orphans’

February 15 2013 by Polly House, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – When Shane Garrison was a little boy, the chasm between his non-Christian home and the local Baptist church was just too wide to cross. But, one summer, Vacation Bible School (VBS) became his bridge.

“I grew up in a home where no one had any association with God or Jesus or a church,” Garrison said. “It was just never talked about at all. I knew there was a church in town, but I didn’t think it was someplace I could go. It was for other people. But one summer, VBS became a bridge ... a way for me to get from my house to the church.”

Garrison, assistant professor of educational ministries at Campbellsville University, was the keynote speaker at LifeWay’s 2013 VBS Preview events this winter. LifeWay hosted more than 3,500 VBS leaders at events in Fort Worth, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Kissimmee, Fla.; and at LifeWay’s Ridgecrest Conference Center. VBS leaders attending the preview events will return to their states and associations to train thousands of local church leaders.

Photo by Kent Harville

Donna Whitworth, left, and Kerri Gordon, right, refer to themselves as the “Vacation Bible School crafters,” and are in charge of crafts for their VBS at Clement Baptist Church in Athens, Ala. Here they make “Ferris Wheel” puzzles, based on 2 Timothy 1:7.

Every year more than 25,000 churches host VBS, enrolling nearly 3 million children and adults, resulting in an average of more than 80,000 professions of faith in Christ.

Leaders learned about the Colossal Coaster World-themed VBS taken from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” The curriculum will challenge kids to face their fears and trust God on the roller coaster of life.

Breakout sessions at the preview events emphasized decorations, music, crafts, age-group teaching, outreach and follow-up. Participants were encouraged to make VBS an evangelistic event to reach unchurched children in their communities.

Garrison told attendees there are three categories of kids in their towns:
  1. Children of believing parents. These kids are growing up in a home where both parents know about Christ, have accepted Him as their Savior and are interested in the children learning about Him. The parents attend church at least semi-regularly, he said, and they probably say a blessing before meals. They teach their children about faith and expose them to the gospel.
  2. “50-50” kids. These kids grow up in a home where one parent is a believer, but the other isn’t. They probably attend church or church events occasionally, Garrison said, and they likely have been exposed to the gospel in some way.
  3. Spiritual orphans. These kids have no spiritual influence in their homes. Neither parent is a Believer. Their home life may be stable or completely dysfunctional. There is no gospel presence for them, and they don’t attend church. They don’t know anything about the Bible or what it means to be a Christian.
Garrison said he was a spiritual orphan. His grandmother decided he needed to go to VBS one summer, so she made sure he was up and ready each day.

“I don’t know that she was so intent on me learning what VBS offered as much as she was just determined that I wasn’t going to stay in bed all morning every day that summer,” he said. “So I went.”

Photo by Kent Harville

Colossal Coaster World Musical featuring the Hilldale Baptist Church children’s choir, Clarksville, Tenn.

He reminded VBS leaders these spiritual orphans don’t know “the church rules.”

“To me, VBS looked a lot like school,” Garrison said. The morning celebration, he said, was like a school assembly; snacks were like lunch; the preacher was like the principal; recreation was like recess and craft time was like art, he explained.

The similarities ended on Wednesday of that week, though, when he heard the preacher explain the gospel.

“I’d never heard that Jesus loved me,” Garrison said. “I didn’t know my life could be any different. I didn’t know I was supposed to close my eyes and bow my head when we prayed,” he said. “So I was watching him pray and listening to every word. As I thought about what he was saying, God reached down and spoke to me – directly to me – and I couldn’t believe it!”

When the pastor asked if anyone had prayed that prayer with him and wanted to talk, Garrison said he didn’t know any better than to yell out, “Me, me!”

“You may be unwittingly erecting a barrier to the spiritual orphans if you are planning your VBS around your own church kids,” he said. 

Garrison, who serves as transitional pastor of Living Grace Church in Campbellsville, Ky., said he understood that church parents want their kids to have a great time at VBS, but he implored leaders not to forget about using it as an evangelistic bridge.

“VBS might be the only time during the entire year you have the opportunity to reach these spiritual orphans,” Garrison said. “It may be the only time they get to come to your church.”

He urged leaders to turn their hearts away from the priority of decorations, the music, the crafts and snacks.

“This year, make the spiritual orphans your priority,” he said.

VBS leaders can find more planning tips and tools on LifeWay’s VBS blog at www.lifeway.com/vbs.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Polly House is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Go to www.lifeway.com/vbs for more information.) 
2/15/2013 2:00:20 PM by Polly House, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Global marketplace becoming a mission field

February 15 2013 by Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. – In the mountains of Ecuador, Scott Tye’s small office serves as more than just a satellite for his business, which is based in Allen, Texas. And it does more than provide an income for eight of his employees.

Tye recently hired a young Ecuadorian couple to manage the office. Their goal is to eventually serve as missionaries in another country.

“They were looking for several businesses that they could use to provide a part of their support,” Tye said.

By hiring them, he is helping to do just that, as well as expanding his business in other countries – all for the sake of Kingdom work.

International Mission Board (IMB) President Tom Elliff sees Tye’s efforts as recapturing the first-century model that led to the expansion of the early church throughout their known world.

Photo by Matt Miller

Scott Tye’s small office in the mountains of Ecuador is more than just an extension of his Texas-based business. It is a way of using his expertise in the global marketplace to advance the gospel throughout the world, much the same way the first-century church spread it into their known world.

“Traveling along sea-lanes and roads, on the back of commerce,” Elliff said, “followers of Christ began to carry the message far and wide.”

A new office at the International Mission Board called Global Strategic Mobilization (GSM) is assisting Tye and others like him who work in the global marketplace. GSM focuses on identifying, connecting and equipping Southern Baptists for greater involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission through their work across the globe.

“We want to do all we can to get the gospel to the nations through whatever doors God opens,” said Scott Holste, IMB vice president in charge of initiative, so that “marketplace professionals in our churches are poised to join with IMB missionaries and others to help finish the task.”

Elliff sees GSM as a way of advancing IMB’s purpose of helping Southern Baptist churches fulfill their mission of reaching the world for Christ.

“GSM will become IMB’s means of challenging corporate leaders and employees, as well as other marketplace professionals, to place their lives, businesses, resources, international connections and their energies on the altar for the fulfillment of the Great Commission,” Elliff said.

“[It will also seek] ... effective ways [for them] to complement the incredible knowledge, training, skill and passion of our IMB personnel who are already in place around the world.”

For more information, go to imbgsm.com, a website to help Southern Baptists learn how to connect their vocations more deeply with God’s global purposes. Resources will be posted regularly on the website. More immediate information is available on Twitter: @imbgsm.

Training materials currently are in development to help SBC churches equip their members as Kingdom workers around the world.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Provided by the communications staff of the International Mission Board.)
2/15/2013 1:52:24 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

SBC president urges more African Americans to mission field

February 14 2013 by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. – This is not your father’s Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

That’s a message SBC President Fred Luter wants an increasingly diverse generation of young evangelicals to hear.

“Our challenge as Southern Baptists is to let young believers know that you are welcome at the table,” said Luter, who met recently with International Mission Board (IMB) leadership and staff at the home office in Richmond, Va. “We want you to come, sit at the table and tell us what we can do to help you fit in more with this convention.”

Photo by Chris Carter

Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter, left, and IMB President Tom Elliff greet each other at IMB offices in Richmond, Va. Luter, who will be going on his first overseas mission trip this year, hopes to encourage African-American congregations to take a more active role in international missions.

The SBC’s first African-American president, Luter also is encouraging ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans, to look to international missions as a means of expanding God’s kingdom. Of IMB’s 4,900 missionaries, 27 are African American, 79 are Hispanic and 317 are Asian. 

For African Americans, that’s one-half of 1 percent of the total IMB missionary count, explains Keith Jefferson, IMB’s African American church missional strategist. 

When compared to an estimated 1 million African Americans included in the SBC’s 16 million members, “that’s a disproportionately low number of African Americans serving overseas,” he said. 

Although African Americans have served in spurts with the IMB (formerly the Foreign Mission Board) since shortly after the SBC began in 1845, the low number serving overseas today doesn’t surprise Luter. 

“A lot of our African American churches are in the ’hood,” said Luter, who pastors Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La. “It’s a daily fight every day. [People ask me], ‘Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.’”

Luter aims to change that mindset. Jefferson hopes to help him.

“It’s a both/and approach,” Luter said. “We need to reach the people in our neighborhoods and get African Americans out on the foreign field.” 

Jefferson agreed. “Charity begins at home, but it doesn’t end there. The command begins in Jerusalem, but we don’t stop at the beginning.”

A renewed commitment

As SBC president, Luter has three specific goals to promote the importance of international missions: model a personal commitment, educate churches about needs and instill a vision for the world in the hearts of young people. 

To accomplish goal No. 1, Luter is excited about going on an international mission trip – his first – to Ethiopia and Uganda later this year. 

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said, laughing. “I’m going to enjoy the time and learn as much as I can.”

However, the vivacious pastor hopes to do more than simply model and learn. He also plans to leverage his international experience to educate his church and others about overseas needs. 

“I’m going to bring it back to my people and light a fire in them,” Luter said. “Next time, I want to bring a group from Franklin Avenue. Let’s keep this thing going!”

Photo by Chris Carter

IMB missionary Troy Lewis, left, and other workers head out to visit a man with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Lewis’ primary focus involves ministering to those impacted by the AIDS virus. He is one of 27 African-American missionaries serving overseas through IMB.

A third goal is to encourage and challenge young people – particularly African Americans – to consider international missions as a career choice. Both Luter and Jefferson agree that the missionary challenge is under-communicated in many black churches. It’s one Luter is now taking personally. 

“Granted, some (young people) want to be nurses, doctors or attorneys. Some want to be football players or basketball players, but a lot ... can be missionaries,” Luter said. “I never heard that all my life in the church I grew up in ... I don’t hear it being said in the church I pastor now.”

“As SBC president, I will let African American churches know that we desperately need more African Americans on the mission field,” Luter continued. “I want to challenge pastor[s] to start with your young people.” 

A rich history

It isn’t that African Americans haven’t been open to serving overseas, Jefferson said. In fact, as early as 1783, freed South Carolina slave and preacher George Leile moved his family to the Caribbean. By 1784, he had founded the First Baptist Church of Kingston, Jamaica, and grown it to more than 400 members.

“We have a rich history in missions,” Jefferson said. 

The historical record bears that out. While Leile and others like him were early pioneers, most church historians – including David Cornelius, a former IMB missionary who now serves as an IMB consultant for African American mobilization – credit Lott Carey, a former slave and Virginia native, as the “first” African American missionary because mission societies of the day sent and supported him.

Writing in the fourth edition of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, published in 2009, Cornelius describes how Carey sailed for West Africa with his family on Jan. 16, 1821, six years after organizing the African Baptist Foreign Mission Society, the first such organization founded by African Americans in the United States. This group, along with the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States (known simply as the Triennial Convention because it met every three years), helped support Carey as he shared the gospel and planted churches in Liberia. 

Carey died in an explosion in 1828, but African Americans continued to participate in international missions over the next two decades. Then, after the issue of slavery reached a critical stage in the 1840s, Southerners formed the Southern Baptist Convention, which included establishing the Foreign Mission Board in 1845. 

Although pro-slavery in its sentiments, the SBC was committed to the “spiritual welfare of blacks and slaves,” Cornelius writes, and within a year the Foreign Mission Board (FMB) appointed its first black missionaries – John Day and A. L. Jones. Both men were already serving in Liberia with other organizations but came under the auspices of the FMB in 1846. An 1855 article from the The Home and Foreign Journal notes that Jones died before news of the appointment reached Africa. 

African Americans continued to go overseas as missionaries through the 1870s, Jefferson explained. Then, as Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation began to take root, many opportunities for blacks and whites to work together ended. Segregation also shut down sending black missionaries.

It wasn’t until the 1967 appointment of Sue Thompson – the first black female missionary – that opportunities for blacks to serve internationally through the FMB resumed. Since then, a small but steady stream of African Americans – both men and women – have followed the examples of Leile, Carey and Day.

“Our ancestors didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to take care of Jerusalem before we go,’” Jefferson, who served 16 years with the IMB in Brazil, said. “No, some of them had the call and they went.” 

While Jefferson reminds blacks of these early models of commitment, IMB President Tom Elliff acknowledges that the FMB’s history was “monolithic” during the years of segregation. He isn’t proud of it, he said, but he’s pleased that today the IMB looks more like the family of God than ever before. 

“We should look like God’s people, rather than what some people thought God’s people should look like,” Elliff said. “That’s why every orientation for new IMB personnel includes some from ethnic churches.” 

A sleeping giant

Revolutions in transportation and communication, increased affluence of African Americans and a growing number of black congregations in the SBC reveal that African American evangelicals are a “sleeping giant,” Jefferson said. A recent North American Mission Board study supports this – reporting that since 1998, the number of African American congregations within the SBC has increased by 82.7 percent.

With 1 billion people of color around the world, Jefferson also understands the urgency of taking the gospel to the people of the world who do not know Christ. 

Whether they serve in East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Africa, “today is the day for African Americans,” Jefferson said. “Yesterday was the day for African Americans, but today is the day for African Americans to become more involved in world missions.” 

To learn more about how African Americans can get involved in international missions, contact Keith Jefferson, African-American Missional Church Strategist, at (800) 999-3113, ext. 1422, or email kjefferson@imb.org. 

Visit commissionstories.com to view a multi-media package about “Celebrating African Americans on Mission.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tess Rivers is an IMB writer.)

Related story

Guest column: A new generation of black missionaries
2/14/2013 3:50:04 PM by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

House passes bill to give disaster relief to religious groups

February 14 2013 by Caleb K. Bell, Religion News Service

The House Wednesday (Feb. 13) overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow places of worship to receive federal aid to repair their buildings damaged during Hurricane Sandy.
The bill, which garnered strong bipartisan support, is also expected to pass the Senate, and would address what its sponsors consider a discriminatory practice that keeps federal disaster money from religious groups.
Currently the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) excludes religious organizations but assists privately owned nonprofits. If the bill becomes law, it will make houses of worship eligible for relief on the same terms as other nonprofits.
“Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind,” Christopher Smith, R-N.J., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told his House colleagues.
“It’s about those who helped feed, comfort, clothe and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant.”
The bill passed 354-72, and will cover houses of worship affected not only by Hurricane Sandy, which struck Mid-Atlantic states in October, but also by future natural disasters.
However, some see the bill as a violation of the First Amendment – because it would send taxpayer money to houses of worship.
The Secular Coalition for America, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and like-minded groups urged the House not to pass the bill.
“Although it may not seem easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid that they are ineligible for government grants,” wrote Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United, “the bar on the government rebuilding of houses of worship is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all.”
The bill, however, is backed by many national religious organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, said he hopes the bill will pass the Senate as quickly as it did the House.
“We’re committed to seeing this project through for the benefit of the houses of worship in our communities, not only for Hurricane Sandy, but future disasters as well,” Diament said.
2/14/2013 3:46:05 PM by Caleb K. Bell, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Obama backs litany of initiatives for progress

February 14 2013 by Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – The United States has made “much progress” because of the “grit and determination” of its citizens, President Obama said Tuesday (Feb. 12) in a State of the Union speech in which he promoted a litany of initiatives at the start of his second term.

In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama quickly addressed the economy in a 61-minute speech filled with proposals for government programs. He steered clear, however, of such moral and religious liberty issues as his administration’s abortion/contraception mandate that was implemented following passage of the health care law. He delivered only a nod to same-sex marriage, which he supports.

Pro-family and Republican leaders criticized the president’s recommendations for what they described as his over-reliance on government instead of the American people and the family. 

Speaking before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, Obama said it is this generation’s “unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.”

President Obama gives his fifth State of the Union address.

He called for compromise between the parties, saying, “The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”

During his speech, Obama:
  • Called for votes in Congress on tougher background checks for purchasing guns and restrictions on assault weapons and large ammunition magazines – in what was likely the emotional high point of the address.
  • Urged an increase in the minimum wage to $9 from $7.25, with a tie to the cost of living afterward.
  • Announced 34,000 troops would return home from Afghanistan this year.
  • Promised executive action to combat climate change if Congress does not pass cap-and-trade legislation, even though the issue has lost much of its credibility and momentum in recent years.
  • Pushed for adoption of comprehensive immigration reform, including border security and a path to citizenship that requires “passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
  • Promoted a solution to sequestration, which involves sizable, automatic cuts to defense and non-defense spending, without adopting proposals to reduce only domestic expenditures.
He also reiterated his administration’s controversial changes to the military that permitted inclusion of open homosexuals and expanded roles for women in combat. 

“We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight,” Obama said. “We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters and moms, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.”

In addition, he called for dropping “financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples” and doing more “to encourage fatherhood.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida delivered the Republican response, saying the president’s government-heavy solutions would not solve America’s problems.

“[T]he truth is every problem can’t be solved by the government,” said Rubio, who also pre-recorded his reply in Spanish. “Many are caused by the moral breakdown in our society. And the answer[s] to those challenges lie primarily in our families and our faiths, not our politicians.”

Rubio said Obama’s proposed tax increases and deficit spending would damage the middle class and seniors. “I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” he said in a reply to the president. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said his organization’s research shows “an intact married family who worships regularly is the antidote for almost every social ill addressed in this speech. Those growing up in an intact married family have greater educational attainment, are less likely to be involved in crime, and less likely to be poor.”

“The President’s speech included a call for ‘stronger families’ and ‘removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples,’” Perkins said in a written statement, “yet his own policies undermine family formation.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)
2/14/2013 3:29:25 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

True Love Waits returns to where it began 20 years ago

February 14 2013 by Sharayah Colter, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – True Love Waits morphed from a nameless concept in coffee break conversations into a movement that, beginning in February 1993, steadily spread to teenagers across the country.

That month, 53 youth at Tulip Grove Baptist Church committed themselves to sexual abstinence before marriage.

In the 20 years since, millions of teenagers have followed suit, bringing abstinence to the national conversation and strengthening innumerable marriages before they ever began.

The grassroots movement calling teenagers to make commitments of purity celebrated its local-church anniversary with a True Love Waits-themed Disciple Now weekend Feb. 1-3 at the Nashville-area church where the first group of Tulip Grove students made a True Love Waits pledge.

The pledge states, “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”

Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, cofounded the movement with then fellow-LifeWay employee Jimmy Hester while also serving as youth minister at Tulip Grove. During the 20th anniversary weekend at Tulip Grove, Ross watched as a second generation pledged their purity before God.

“In several cases, I was speaking to teenagers who are the teenage children of those who made the first promises,” Ross said, marveling at the wonder of leading those he knew as babies in the same commitment as their parents to wait for their future mate.

Susan (Fitzgerald) Bohannon was among that first group of students making True Love Waits commitments at Tulip Grove. Now married and a mother of three, Bohannon noted that the movement that began when she was a teenager has reached beyond her Tennessee church to impact the lives of people across the world as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood with their purity intact.

“True Love Waits was not just for one generation of teens but every generation of teens,” Bohannon said. “The children who are being born now will be teens one day, and it will be for them. It is not a movement that is relevant to only our culture or our ways, but [it is] an international, intergenerational and timeless movement.”

Since its formation, True Love Waits has spread to more than 100 countries – something for which Ross said only God can receive the credit.

“For a Supreme Being, this was no problem at all,” Ross said. “The fact that the movement continues in its 20th year is a clear indication that it is empowered by the Spirit of God and not by some human ingenuity.”

Ross said it was the Lord’s hand that allowed the movement to spread beyond the walls of Tulip Grove.

“We had virtually no funds for advertising to let people know about the movement,” Ross said, recalling the fledgling days of True Love Waits. “So God simply harnessed the entire news industry at zero cost.

“As I explained True Love Waits to Katie Couric on the ‘Today Show,’ or as Oprah interviewed the teenagers on her show, that was more powerful than millions of dollars of advertising,” Ross said. “Virtually every national news [outlet] or local news coverage carried stories about True Love Waits. You cannot explain that other than the Spirit of God.”

Next year (2014) will mark True Love Waits’ 20th year as an outreach of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). More than 100,000 teens’ commitment cards were displayed at the 1994 SBC annual meeting in Orlando followed by a display of 200,000-plus commitments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in July of that year.

Photo by Baptist & Reflector

Richard Ross, a professor at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, prays with about 65 teenagers and their parents during a True Love Waits ceremony at the Nashville-area Tulip Grove Baptist Church on Feb. 3.

Though a tally has never been kept of those who have made the True Love Waits pledge, a U.S. government study conducted three years after True Love Waits began found that 3 million teenagers had made a promise of purity. As the movement grew and expanded into other denominations and countries, Ross believes the number of commitments made to date reaches into the multimillions.

In the 20 years of True Love Waits’ existence, the United States has seen a decrease in teenage sexual activity. Before then, there had been 20 years of steady increases. In countries where the movement has spread, AIDS infection rates also have declined, while they continue to rise in other nations.

Part of the longevity of the movement can be traced to its leadership, which understands that effective teenage decisions must be heart-based and not fear-based.

“Teenagers live with a developmental characteristic called the myth of invulnerability,” Ross said. “They really do not believe that bad things can happen to them, which means calling young people to abstinence and purity only to avoid negative consequences will never be effective.

“We have to give them much stronger and a much higher motivation,” he said. “They really need to believe that they’re committing the most intimate part of who they are for the glory of the King.”

Ross explained that while True Love Waits’ focus always has transcended preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, it stretches beyond simply being an obedient Christian. The focus, Ross explained, is the glorification and magnification of Christ.

“In the past, True Love Waits young people have often made promises thinking, ‘Jesus wants me to do this because it will make my life better, so bad things will not happen to me, so I will not be a disobedient Christian,’“ Ross said. “There is an element of truth in each of those statements, but I detect a shift [toward] ‘Not that I do this so that my life will be better, but I choose purity for Christ’s glory. I am doing this for His sake, not my sake. I am doing this because He deserves adoration, and the purity of my life is a way to show Him that adoration.’

“The focus comes off of ‘me,’ and the focus goes to ‘Him.’ There is no moralism,” Ross said. “If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship.”

Ross said he has seen that act of worship transfer into worship through marriage.

“In scores of weddings over the past 20 years, brides and grooms have made slight changes to the wedding ceremony in order to celebrate promises they made as teenagers,” Ross said. “For example, we know of True Love Waits rings that have been melted down and have become part of wedding rings.

“We know of tattered True Love Waits cards that have been exchanged by brides and grooms after riding in a billfold or purse for many years. I have loved this for the joy it brought to the couple but also for the witness it is to the younger youth watching from the audience,” he said. “They got to see the power of promises kept.”

By the end of the Disciple Now weekend at Tulip Grove, 65 more teenagers made promises they pray to keep as well. Jeff Pratt, Tulip Grove’s youth pastor, told the Baptist & Reflector newspaper that the commitment service on Sunday was a great day for the church.

“It was awesome to see 65 teenagers kneeling before the altar, making commitments to purity and being led by Richard Ross,” Pratt said. “Richard has such a great legacy here at Tulip Grove and there could not have been a better person to lead us for our weekend.

Pratt added, “I am praying that this is the beginning of a new generation of students who will be committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and will demonstrate that through their commitment to purity.”

Parents, youth leaders and students who want to learn more about True Love Waits, such as how to hold a commitment service in a local church or how to sign a commitment card online, can visit truelovewaits.com.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sharayah Colter is a writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.)
2/14/2013 3:20:55 PM by Sharayah Colter, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Bus accident turns miraculous for missionaries

February 14 2013 by Emily Pearson, Baptist Press

LIMA, Peru – Missionaries Tommy and Beth Larner were out running errands on a typical summer day in Tijuana, Mexico. They decided to grab a quick lunch before preparing for an evening of prayerwalking with local believers.

Seconds later, Tommy lay sprawled on the pavement as he attempted to cross the busy street.

“All I remember is a blur,” he said. “I can’t remember pain. I just remember a blur and a bash. And then we’re on the ground, and the brilliant thing that I said to Beth was, ‘Baby, I think we’ve been hit.’”

Photo by Rebecca Springer

Tommy and Beth Larner, IMB missionaries in Lima, Peru, reflect on what God taught them after they were hit by a bus while serving in Mexico in 2007. “I never asked God ‘why,’“ Tommy said of the serious injuries he sustained. Instead, he asked, “What do You want me to do? What do You want to teach me?”

Everything changed that June afternoon in 2007 when the International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries were struck by a bus. The couple had been serving in Tijuana only a couple of months, yet their church-planting ministry was already off to a great start.

“In the past, we’d never had a ministry take off so fast,” Tommy said. “Things were going wonderfully.”

That is, until the accident knocked things off course.

The bus hit Tommy directly, crushing his right leg and throwing him across the street. The impact knocked Beth into a car stopped in traffic.

Tommy can remember only bits and pieces of that day.

“It was like my legs were on fire,” he said. “I knew that I’d been hurt pretty badly but I had no idea the extent.”

The Larners were rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Tommy received two units of blood and underwent emergency surgery to clean his leg. His ankle was crushed, his femur shattered and the muscle from his shin to his foot was torn from the bone. Beth had sustained a deep gash from her right elbow to her wrist; her left wrist also was badly cut.

In all the confusion, the Larners were faced with a big decision. The bus driver had fled the scene, but a witness had reported the bus’ number to authorities. The Larners were asked if they wanted to press charges.

“We didn’t know the man who had hit us,” Tommy said. “But I’m sure it was a guy with a family. What would we have gained by pressing charges? So we made a conscious decision to forgive him. I didn’t need to be in a situation where unforgiveness was welling up within me.”

During their convalescence, the Larners were encouraged by the support of Mexican believers.

“We had been [in Tijuana] only two months but there was an invasion of nationals at the hospital,” Tommy said. The number of visitors was so high it caught the attention of the hospital staff.

“At the receptionist’s desk there was this long list of people who had signed in to see ‘Tomás Larner,’“ Beth recalled. “One receptionist told another, ‘This Tomás Larner must have a large family!’ What she didn’t realize was that he truly did have a large family – it was just a spiritual one.”

Contributed photo

In a California hospital in 2007, IMB missionary Tommy Larner recuperates from surgery to reconstruct his femur bone that was crushed when he and his wife were struck by a bus in Tijuana, Mexico. While recovering from the injuries that nearly claimed his life, Larner asked God for miracles. “And we saw a lot of them,” he said.

Over the next few days Tommy continued to lose blood, but at such a slow rate that doctors in Mexico weren’t concerned. Three days after the accident Tommy was transferred to Sharp Memorial Hospital in nearby San Diego, Calif. By the time he arrived, he had lost over half his body’s blood supply and was within hours of dying.

Tommy remained in the San Diego hospital for a month, receiving 12 units of blood and undergoing five surgeries; during one, 30 pieces of bone were reassembled above his knee.

One of Tommy’s surgeons noticed that his leg injury was healing much faster than expected.

“He asked Tommy’s plastic surgeon, ‘What did you do to Tommy’s leg? How is it healing so fast?’“ Beth said. “And Dr. Jones, who we knew was a Christian, said, ‘I didn’t do anything to him. But he has half the U.S. praying for him, so why should we be surprised?’“

Tommy soon gained a reputation among hospital workers for being an outspoken Christian. One nurse told him about her unmarried friend from the Philippines who was pregnant and considering an abortion.

“I talked with her about God’s view of life, and how sacred and precious it is,” Tommy said. “Two days later, she came back and said she’d told her friend what I’d said, and her friend had decided to keep the baby and go back to the Philippines. So as far as we know, there is a child alive in the Philippines because I got hit by a bus and was laying in that hospital.”

Six months after the accident Tommy and Beth returned to Mexico where they continued to start churches and train national believers.

“It really encouraged the believers in Tijuana because we never entertained the thought of leaving [the mission field],” Tommy said. “We always knew we’d come back.”

Today, the Larners live in Lima, Peru, where they train Peruvian believers in global missions. Their work often takes them to rural towns and jungle villages where Tommy spends much of his time climbing in and out of boats and walking through swampy areas. He wears compression stockings to help keep fluids from building up in his legs and sometimes deals with residual pain from the accident.

“When I first got to San Diego, the doctor said in most circumstances he would have amputated the leg,” Larner said. “So the pain is nothing I can’t accept. I’m just thankful to be able to walk.

“I never asked God ‘why,’“ he continued. “What I tried to do was ask the Lord ‘what?’ What do You want me to do? What do You want to teach me? What do You want to do in my character? I saw ‘why’ as a no-end question, as wasted breath. So my philosophy was just to ask God for miracles. And we saw a lot of them.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Emily Pearson is an IMB writer living in the Americas. To learn how God is using the Larners in Peru, go to americanpeoples.imb.org/features/peru-doing-cross-cultural-missions-at-home and americanpeoples.imb.org/features/peruvian-believers-give-their-all-to-reach-amazon-for-christ.)
2/14/2013 3:02:09 PM by Emily Pearson, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Connection church planting roots, engaging community

February 13 2013 by Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications

Larry Mayberry and members of Connection Church met Nancy as she frantically tried using five-gallon buckets to remove water in her flooded basement. After Hurricane Sandy, Nancy’s home in the Rockaways area of Queens needed much repair and her car was destroyed.
Mayberry was there when Nancy got word that FEMA denied her car claim. A few minutes later, after just a few phone calls, Mayberry told Nancy that God had provided a car for her from a friend in Texas. One week later, Mayberry’s father drove the car from Texas to Nashville, and Mayberry drove it the rest of the way.
When Nancy asked how the church was so powerful that it could provide her a car, Mayberry told her it had nothing to do with him.
“I got to share the gospel and tell her that the power comes from God,” Mayberry said.
Mayberry, community pastor of Connection Church in Astoria, Queens, is serving alongside church members as they reach out to Hurricane Sandy victims in the Rockaways. Connection Church adopted a block in the Rockaways, which is about 15 miles from Astoria.
They have provided hot meals, gutted homes, cleaned up debris and are working to help re-open a daycare so that mothers can return to work. Most homes on this block are still without power.

Although only three or four Christians live on this block of about 75 homes, Connection Church is using every opportunity to share the gospel. 
“People on this block are recognizing that where the government was powerless to help them, God is overwhelmingly providing exactly what they need,” Mayberry said.
Adopting a block in the Rockaways was the natural thing to do for Connection Church, as the church is focused on engaging the community, building relationships and sharing the gospel.
From cleaning up parks and talking with people on the subway, to offering coffee and free coupons to local restaurants, Connection Church wants their community to know they care.

Unlike the stereotype that most New Yorkers resent the church, most people Mayberry meets just don’t know much about church and the gospel, or they don’t care about it. Connection Church seeks to help move people from apathy or ignorance to curiosity.
“Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. If we don’t have love for our neighbor, we don’t have love for Him,” Mayberry said. “Our focus is to engage lost people. We don’t just invite them to our church – we go to them. Christ should transform our communities through us.”
When Mayberry and his family moved to Astoria last November from Houston, Texas, they thought engaging lost people would be their biggest challenge. That hasn’t been so at all.
“People are lonely here; really lonely. If you engage them, they will tell you their life story,” Mayberry said. “We are trying to dig our roots deep. We want this to be our home.”
Mayberry came to Astoria with a prayer to reach the nations. National Geographic’s “Genographic Project” identified Astoria as one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world. At least 10 nations are represented on the block that Connection Church adopted in the Rockaways.
As people from all throughout the world hear the gospel in Astoria, Connection Church prays they will take the hope of Jesus Christ back home and the gospel will spread. 
Although the church plant is less than a year old, Connection Church is already thinking long-term, with a goal to plant a church every three years and to see those new churches also plant a church in three years. Mayberry and the Connection team envision that someday a church will be within walking distance of every New York City resident.
“We want to raise up leaders in the church and send them out,” Mayberry said. “We could plant 20,000 churches in New York and we wouldn’t be stepping on each other’s toes.”
Mayberry is praying that people in Astoria, and all throughout Queens and New York City, will come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and will live their lives for His glory.
“People want to make it big in New York City,” he said. “What if they came to New York and found out God was actually seeking them? What if we could tell people that they are here because God wanted them to meet Jesus through us?”
Through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Office of Great Commission Partnerships, North Carolina Baptist churches across the state are forming partnerships with churches and church planters in the metro New York area. To learn how your church can get involved visit www.ncbaptist.org/gcp or contact Michael Sowers at (800) 395-5102, ext. 5654, or msowers@ncbaptist.org.
2/13/2013 3:05:42 PM by Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications | with 0 comments

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