February 2018

Olympic pin trading nurtures gospel conversations

February 19 2018 by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press

Visitors to the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Center at Olympic Park walk in and peer at the hundreds of small pins spread in front of the traders standing behind the counter.

Photo by Tim Ellsworth
Two Olympic veterans – Baptists Marty Youngblood, left, and Sid Hopkins from Georgia – use the popular pin trading tradition at the Winter Games to tell the gospel story.

The colors and designs are enough to catch anyone’s eye, encompassing pins from past Olympics in places like Sochi, Rio de Janeiro and Atlanta. And there are sport-specific pins depicting soccer, figure skating and gymnastics, along with corporate pins bearing the logos of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and NBC.
Two Baptists are in the middle of the popular Olympics pastime, seeking to nurture subsequent conversations about Jesus.
“People from all around the world come through, and we trade pins, but we also build relationships,” said Marty Youngblood, a missionary in church and ministry relations with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “So as we see them later on in the park, we can go up and have other conversations. Because our primary role in coming over here as Christians is to share our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Youngblood and Sid Hopkins, a retired director of missions and pastor of Horizon Baptist Church in Suwanee, Ga., are pin ambassadors for Coca-Cola International. They’ll spend a couple of hours a day interacting with visitors at the trading center. One of the pins they offer for trade is a pin that Hopkins produced with colors that represent the gospel story.
“You picked a special pin,” they’ll tell someone who asks for that pin. “That pin has a story behind it. I can’t tell it to you now, but I’ll be happy to share it with you sometime later.”
They don’t share the story behind the pin at the trading center, since they are there representing Coca-Cola. But the relationships they build allow them to approach people later in the Olympic park wearing the “story pin” and tell them what it means.
The black in the pin represents the sin that separates people from God. Red stands for the blood of Christ, green for eternal life, blue for heaven and gold for the value of a relationship with Jesus Christ that is more valuable than a gold medal.

The pin designed by Sid Hopkins uses colors that represent the gospel story.

“The spirit at the Olympics is like no other,” Hopkins said. “When we’re not working here, we’re out sharing with people and telling them about how to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
“There’s an openness at the Olympics that you don’t find anywhere else,” he continued. “People will have discussions that they would not have anywhere else. So it’s a great opportunity.”
This is Youngblood’s 12th Olympics. Hopkins, likewise, is an Olympic veteran. Hopkins produced the pin they’re using this year, and Youngblood said a lot of thought goes into its design.
“Every Olympics kind of has its own personality, so we really pray and try to seek the Lord’s wisdom on what kind of pin may best appeal to the culture that we’re going into,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood said it’s easy to get caught up in controversies that inevitably surround the Olympics, such as political wrangling and disputes over scoring. But the pin trading experience – and the experience of engaging people with the gospel –- gives him hope.
“You get back here and you start seeing people being people, in their culture,” Youngblood said. “They’re excited and proud for their country.”
For Hopkins, the Olympic experience of meeting people from all over the world and sharing the gospel with them is always a welcome boost.
“It rejuvenates me,” he said. “It fires me up again to see what God does.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is a sports correspondent for Baptist Press and associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is covering the Winter Olympics in South Korea for Baptist Press, previously having covered four Olympics – 2008 in Beijing, 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.)

2/19/2018 10:12:58 AM by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

SEBTS launches partnership with Acts 29 training program

February 16 2018 by Lauren Pratt, SEBTS

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) has announced a partnership with Crosslands, a theological training program under Acts 29 Europe, to prepare potential church planters and leaders. Acts 29 is a global network of churches focused on church planting, theological training and cultural engagement.
The partnership, which launched Feb. 13, developed out of the seminary’s EQUIP Network, a church-based, theological training initiative. Students may earn a master of arts in Christian Ministry from SEBTS.

“We’re excited about Crosslands’ vision to provide theological education across Europe and the 10/40 window to those that, for various reasons, are unable to train through more traditional ways,” said SEBTS President Danny Akin.
Crosslands provides flexible study options that serve students who are currently working, living and ministering. Currently, 56 students are enrolled in seminary-level courses, 500 students are enrolled in foundation-level courses and entry-level courses for new Christians will launch later this year.
It emerged as a collaborative effort between the church planter training initiative of Acts 29 Europe, which contains churches in 51 countries, and Oak Hill Theological College, an institution that provides residential and accredited theological education to Anglican and independent churches and ministries throughout the United Kingdom.
Crosslands currently has hubs in major cities across England, Ireland, France and Italy, and is registered as a charity within the United Kingdom.
“For us, this is a great way we can seek to make God’s kingdom vision of people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping Christ together a reality,” said Akin.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lauren Pratt is the news and information specialist for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.)

2/16/2018 12:06:39 PM by Lauren Pratt, SEBTS | with 0 comments

Churches weep & minister after Florida school shooting

February 16 2018 by Nicole Kalil, Florida Baptist Convention

Florida Baptists are reeling along with all of Florida and the nation after a gunman opened fire at a Parkland high school Feb. 14, leaving 17 dead and 14 injured.
While law enforcement and state officials issue calls to prayer at press conferences, Florida Baptist churches in the area of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are mourning their own losses while offering words of hope and help to those hurting in their community.

Photo by Keila Diaz
A cross-denominational prayer vigil was hosted by Parkridge Church after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 were killed and 14 injured.

The main campus of Church by the Glades is located less than 10 minutes from the school; lead pastor David Hughes said many of the students in the church attend Douglas High.
Hughes held back sobs as he explained that a few families in his church had suffered a fatality and one family has a son who is “gravely injured.” They are still in the process of accounting for all their members connected to the school.
At times like this, Hughes said, people often wrestle with the reasons for the tragedy but that’s not the most important question to be answering.
“What now?” he said is the better question. And “Who wins?”
“Do we let fear and cruelty, violence and hatred win,” Hughes asked, “or do we continue to fight against the darkness and continue to bring the message of hope and light that comes through Jesus Christ?”

‘We care’

Eddie Bevill is pastor of Parkridge Church in Coral Springs, just blocks from where the suspected 19-year-old gunman was taken into custody. He said many Douglas High School employees and students are members of his church family and are still grappling with yesterday’s tragedy. As far as he knew at press time, Bevill said all the members of his church have been accounted for.
“From within our church there is great sadness and a sense of loss,” he said.
Bevill recounted a conversation with a leader in his church who was friends with Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who is said to have lost his life while shielding students from the bullets with his body and was the first victim to be publicly identified. The man said when they were students themselves, he and Feis had watched together as the events at Columbine High School unfolded on TV in 1999, both of them weeping over the senselessness of it.
Parkridge Church met at Douglas High School for the first seven years of its existence and Bevill said the church has enjoyed a good relationship with the school ever since. They stand ready to help the school and the community through the grieving process, the pastor said.
Part of that was a prayer vigil the church hosted on its property earlier today organized by Church United, a cross-denominational evangelical group. Thousands, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, turned out to pray for healing and protection and to seek solace and support with grieving neighbors. Many on the platform read scripture to the crowd in English, Spanish and French and pointed toward “the God of angel armies” as our ultimate source of strength.
“What we’re trying to say to our county is that Christians care because Christ cares,” Bevill said. “We want to be a present help in times of trouble.”
Sal Cavarretta, pastor of the Boca Raton campus of Family Church who attended the vigil, said it was a great showing of how the community of Parkland and neighboring communities are able to come together and support one another.
A brother and sister in his church who attend Douglas High School lost friends and a teacher in the attack. On his way to meet with the students’ family, Cavarretta said, “It is my privilege to be able to go and be a comfort to anyone going through this kind of thing and that, even through this, the gospel would shine even brighter.”

Being the church

Billy Young, Next Generation Ministries catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention, said while we don’t have all the answers, we have the ability to point people to the one who does.
And just be there for them.
“Sometimes working with students the most important ministry you can have is the ministry of presence,” he said. “There’s no perfect way to minister here.”
“We find ourselves here once again, sadly,” said Al Fernandez, Florida Baptist Convention catalyst for Southeast Florida. “But this is an opportunity for the church to be the church. My prayer is that churches around the school can demonstrate the love of Jesus and the gospel.”
Parkridge’s Bevill said it’s also a time for prayer.
“Once you’re off the front page. it goes out of people’s minds unless you live in that community,” he said, “but we will need to continue to be lifted up in the weeks and months to come.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nicole Kalil writes for the Florida Baptist Convention.)

2/16/2018 9:33:39 AM by Nicole Kalil, Florida Baptist Convention | with 0 comments

Baptists weigh in on Senate immigration/DACA debate

February 16 2018 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Southern Baptist voices are addressing the U.S. Senate’s current effort to resolve the fate of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
Senators began Feb. 14 moving toward votes on legislation to address the category of undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, as well as other parts of the tangled web of immigration that Congress has failed to address in recent decades. The Senate failed to pass a series of amendments on a bill that needs the support of 60 senators.

Screen capture from video released by Sen. Lankford’s office
U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla, sets forth key immigration reform elements in addressing Senate deliberations Feb. 12.

The Senate is deliberating as a critical deadline for Dreamers nears. On March 5, a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – which has given about 800,000 people relief from deportation – will expire. If no legislative resolution is achieved by that date, an estimated 1,000 people a day will lose their protection from deportation. Two federal judges – one in New York and another in San Francisco – have temporarily blocked the Donald Trump administration from ending DACA, however.
Other issues that may be addressed include border security and family based immigration.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore told Baptist Press (BP) in written comments, “The overwhelming majority of American people agree on both the problem and solution when it comes to Dreamers. I urge Congress not to kick this down the road or ignore those in jeopardy.
“Personal ambition or political calculation should never pave over the lives of people created in the image of God,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “My prayer is that elected officials will have a conscience shaped by care for people and will do the right thing.”
The ERLC said Feb. 13 in a policy document its priorities heading into the Senate debate remain “a permanent solution for eligible Dreamers, ensuring America’s border is secure, and maintaining the integrity of families.”
While it is neutral on some issues, the ERLC said, “Central to our vision for reform is a rejection of the idea that our commitment to both Christian compassion and respect for the rule of law are irreconcilable. As a country, we advocate for a fair and just solution for the undocumented young men and women, not just because it is the ‘right thing to do,’ but because it accords with biblical principles.”
Among its priorities, the ERLC supports:
– A path to permanent legal status or citizenship for Dreamers.
Since Dreamers did not break the law when brought to this country, “Subjecting them to deportation or lives of perpetual insecurity in the shadows of our communities is an offense to both the rule of law and a biblical pattern of justice,” according to the ERLC.
– A secure border.
“The federal government bears a God-given responsibility to ensure the security of our nation,” the ERLC document said. “Border security is a critical component to reform our immigration system so that our country is less vulnerable to illegal immigration moving forward.”
– A pro-family immigration policy.
The ERLC said it is concerned “about calls to end so-called ‘chain migration,’ which is a misleading way to characterize our nation’s family reunification system.” The document voiced “serious concerns about removing parents and adult children from eligible family preference categories. The biblical command for children to honor their father and mother is a lifelong familial responsibility.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a Southern Baptist, explained on the Senate floor Feb. 12 one of the proposals offered, the Secure and Succeed Act. The Republican measure fundamentally follows the four-pillar framework offered by President Trump in January. That White House proposal consists of:

  • Securing the border through, among other proposals, a $25 billion trust fund for a southern border wall system and improvements on the northern border, as well as increased removal of some in the country illegally.
  • A 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for Dreamers who meet work, education and character requirements.
  • Restricting family sponsorships to spouses and minor children.
  • Eliminating the visa lottery for countries with low rates of immigration to this country.

Lankford, a co-sponsor of the Secure and Succeed Act, told his colleagues the president gave the country “a great gift ... a deadline.”
“Immigration for two decades has been well known to be a problem, but there has been no deadline,” Lankford said. “The president set the deadline of March 5th to have this resolved. We’re nearing that now. It’s time to move from just debating this in the hallways and in our offices to debating it on the floor of this chamber and trying to get this resolved.”
Other proposals that have been presented had the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
Southern Baptists have spoken out in recent months on the need to provide a permanent remedy for Dreamers and continue to do so.
In early October, ERLC President Russell Moore brought together 51 evangelical leaders – including four former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidents – in a statement endorsing “the underlying policy aim” of DACA “because we believe this is a special category of immigrants who are not legally culpable, who in most cases have no home other than the United States, and who are a blessing to their communities and to their churches.”
James Merritt, one of the former SBC presidents to sign the statement, wrote in an op-ed that justice in the Bible “not only enforces the law but also considers the plight of the victim and seeks to make things right. We don’t make things right by punishing Dreamers who were brought here as children. We make things right by considering those affected and imperiled by our broken system, and by making a legal pathway for them to earn citizenship and to live productive lives that contribute to our economy and communities.”
Moore and some Southern Baptist pastors urged the Senate to provide relief for Dreamers at a Feb. 7 news conference on Capitol Hill.
Alan Cross – a Southern Baptist minister who serves as a missional strategist with the Montgomery (Ala.) Baptist Association and as a consultant with the Evangelical Immigration Table in the Southeast U.S. – told BP Feb. 14, “I hope we come to an agreement in Washington where Dreamers can be granted an earned pathway to citizenship, where our borders are secure, and where immigrant families can be reunified and thrive together.
“I’d have to say that my greatest hope in all of this is to see the church in the South pivot toward the sojourner in our midst with the gospel, love and good deeds and to speak on their behalf,” Cross said.
Rod D. Martin – a technology entrepreneur, a member of the Florida Baptist Convention’s State Board of Missions and the 2016-2017 chairman of the SBC’s Committee on Order of Business – expressed some concern to BP about the effort on Dreamers.
“DACA is a hard case, because many of the people involved were brought to America as children,” Martin said in written comments. “But it’s important to remember that many [who would be covered by Trump’s proposal] came deliberately and alone as older teenagers, and that most are now in their late 20s or 30s. While their circumstances are certainly sympathetic, these are people old enough to realize they’re breaking the law and to have done something about it for years now.”
Martin, who said he strongly supports legal immigration, said he “was happy with the president’s compromise proposal to offer a path to citizenship for three times as many of these young people as the Democrats have demanded. [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer has rejected that compromise because his party is counting on a flood of illegal immigrants to become voters, replacing the millions of likely Democrat voters they’ve aborted since Roe v. Wade. The only way they can avoid the long-term electoral consequences of that sin is to flood the system.”
Cross said in a Feb. 5 piece for the Biblical Recorder, the news journal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, many of the Dreamers he knows are Christians. “They do not want to be lawbreakers but rather, they want to be right with the law and go on to live a productive life in the only country they know,” he wrote.
Messengers to the 2011 SBC meeting in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and hold businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested that public officials establish after securing the borders “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
The resolution acknowledged immigration reform “has prompted often-rancorous debate in the American public square.” Action on the resolution demonstrated the different views Southern Baptists hold on how to address the immigration problem. During consideration of the resolution, an amendment to remove the paragraph regarding establishment of a “path to legal status” failed in a ballot vote of 51-48 percent.
An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are in the United States, but efforts to enact a comprehensive measure have failed repeatedly.
In 2001, members of Congress proposed for the first time the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act – hence the name Dreamers for those in this category of undocumented immigrants. The measure gained reintroduction several times thereafter without passing before President Obama established DACA by executive order in 2012 to protect undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country before their 16th birthday.
The Trump administration announced Sept. 5 it would end DACA but also instituted a six-month delay for Congress to act.
The House of Representatives is working on its own version of legislation to address Dreamers and other immigration issues.
The ERLC document on its priorities for the Senate debate is available at erlc.com/resource-library/articles/erlc-priorities-for-the-senate-dreamer-debate.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. This story has been updated by BR staff.)

2/16/2018 9:29:12 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Gaines reflects on IMB search, SBC presidency

February 16 2018 by Lonnie Wilkey, Baptist and Reflector

The next president of the International Mission Board (IMB) needs to be someone who is in love with and in tune with Jesus and “has a love for the world,” said Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Gaines, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Tennessee, addressed editors of Baptist state publications during their Feb. 12-15 annual meeting in Galveston, Texas.

Photo by David Dawson
SBC President Steve Gaines speaks to editors of Baptist state publications during their annual meeting held Feb. 12-15 in Galveston, Texas.

IMB President David Platt announced plans Feb. 12 to vacate his position to be the full-time teaching pastor at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.
Platt addressed editors in the morning session before Gaines spoke, noted that the IMB is “financially healthy, physically strong and practically ready.”
His decision to leave the IMB, he said, is “because I believe this is what God is leading me to do.”
Platt said he is committed to leading the IMB until a successor is found. “The IMB leadership has expressed full support in me. They don’t want there to be a pause in our work. ... The last thing the unreached people groups of our world need is a pause.”
Gaines praised Platt for his passion, saying, “You can’t have anyone more passionate than Dr. Platt.”
The IMB has a history in recent years of strong leadership, Gaines said, with each president having “a different primary emphasis but shared the same love for lost people.”
Gaines said he hopes “we get someone who prays and hears from the Lord” and can “bring as much harmony as possible” to the position. He encouraged Southern Baptists to pray that God will lead the search committee to the person He has in mind to lead the IMB.
Gaines addressed a variety of topics during his address and a question-and-answer session with the editors. Among them:

  • His presidency. Gaines will step down after two years as SBC president following the 2018 annual meeting in Dallas in June. “I never intended to be president,” he said. The experience served as a reminder that “you don’t tell God what you’re going to do or not do.” The last two years have left him “more impressed with the SBC than ever before,” he said, citing Kingdom work being accomplished at all levels of Southern Baptist life.
  • State conventions. Gaines said he has spent considerable time visiting state conventions during the past two years, speaking at annual meetings and evangelism conferences. “State conventions are the backbone of the convention,” he stated. “I love the men who lead these state conventions.” Gaines praised his own state convention executive director Randy C. Davis. “He’s done a fantastic job in Tennessee.”
  • Evangelism. Gaines said he is praying that Southern Baptists will be more evangelistic, in light of baptisms having “nosedived” over the past two decades. “I don’t know all the reasons,” he acknowledged. He exhorted Southern Baptists “to work on personal soul winning. You pray for lost people by name that they will repent and call on the Lord to be saved.” Gaines underscored the need to issue an invitation to accept Christ. “It’s not a real gospel conversation if it doesn’t end with a gospel invitation,” he said.
  • Upcoming SBC presidential election. Gaines was asked if he was prepared for what could be a “contentious” presidential election in June. Currently two men have been nominated to serve as SBC president: former nominee J.D. Greear, a pastor from North Carolina, and Ken Hemphill, an educator from North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C., and a former SBC seminary president. Gaines said he would handle the election as “fairly and neutral” as possible. “I pray it won’t be contentious. I believe God will give us good leadership in the days to come.”
  • His personal walk. Gaines was asked how he has changed and evolved over the years in his ministry. He cited an experience while serving as a pastor in Alabama when he developed an autoimmune disease that left him extremely weak. “I could not even comb my hair.” Acknowledging that he was a bit “aggressive” in his early ministry, Gaines said God used the illness to make him more kind. He added that a friend has told him that he even preaches differently than 20 years ago. “I am not as hard as I used to be,” Gaines said, adding that it depends on how you see the people you are preaching to. “I see people who are hurting, who need to be helped and people who are in prison who need to be set free.”
  • Praying for the president. Asked about praying for the president, Gaines said he prays for President Donald Trump and his family every day and did the same when President Barack Obama was in office. He said he prays Psalm 21:1 for the president and all elected officials. If people would “do more praying and less criticizing,” Gaines said, “we would have a better nation and better churches.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector, baptistandreflector.org, news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.)

2/16/2018 9:22:33 AM by Lonnie Wilkey, Baptist and Reflector | with 0 comments

Ken Ham re-invited to university despite protest

February 16 2018 by David Roach, Baptist Press

Christian apologist Ken Ham has been re-invited to speak at an Oklahoma university by the school’s president after the student government rescinded its speaking invitation, allegedly under pressure from a campus LGBT group.

“I’m thrilled my talk at [the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO)] is back on again,” Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis (AiG) apologetics ministry, said in a news release. “UCO officials have definitely heard from many concerned state legislators, several local residents and alumni about the denial of our right to free speech.”
UCO President Don Betz announced Feb. 15 in an email to the university community that he has invited Ham to deliver a lecture March 5 as part of a two-day event focusing on freedom of expression. The March 5-6 event also will include a presentation on the First Amendment, a panel discussion on freedom of speech at UCO and a discussion of “scientific inquiry and evolution,” Betz wrote.
Ham’s lecture will be titled “Genesis and the State of the Culture,” according to his news release.
Betz noted UCO “has been at the nexus of an extensive external and internal debate” about Ham’s invitation. “The misrepresentations about the social commitment of UCO to free inquiry has demonstrated that we are presented with the opportunity for a ‘teachable moment’ on the principles of civil discourse and the pursuit of knowledge.”
The UCO Student Association had invited Ham to speak March 5 about the ideas of Charles Darwin, Baptist Press (BP) reported previously, but the Student Association canceled Ham’s appearance Jan. 27. Student body president Stockton Duvall said members of an LGBT campus group had “personally attacked” him and “tried to bully” him into rescinding Ham’s invitation, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.
Ham, whose AiG organization built the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky, wrote in a Feb. 8 blog post that the UCO Student Association “reluctantly” rescinded his original invitation under “intense pressure” from an unnamed LGBT campus advocacy group.
Following the cancellation, UCO’s Student Alliance for Equality, an LGBT advocacy group, said in a statement it is “fully committed to upholding and safeguarding free speech,” including “the right of speakers to express opinions that may differ from others in the community, as well as the right of the community members to challenge those positions” and ask questions about “the allocation of our student body’s shared resources.”
The UCO administration had told student leaders it would support any decision they made regarding Ham’s invitation, The Oklahoman reported.
Ham’s lecture, rescheduled for 3 p.m., will be followed by a lecture by AiG molecular geneticist Georgia Purdom. Both AiG apologists then will participate in a question-and-answer session, AiG stated.
“By moving my talk from [its originally scheduled time in] the evening to the afternoon,” Ham said, “we now have the opportunity to reach even more UCO students during the school day. UCO is a commuter campus, and many of its students might not have been able to attend in the evening.”
Ham added, “I’m thankful for the many Oklahomans who stood up for our constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

2/16/2018 9:18:28 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

U.S. pastor among ChinaAid top 10 persecution cases

February 16 2018 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

A Virginia pastor interrogated and evicted from China during a discipleship seminar he led in the nation is among ChinaAid’s top 10 cases of Christian persecution there in 2017.

Wang Zhiyong, senior pastor of Grace Christian Church in Herndon, Va., was interrogated for four hours and ordered to immediately leave China after police interrupted his “Religious Reformation and Life Transition” seminar in Guangdong in April 2017, the religious freedom watchdog group ChinaAid said in its report.
Police registered the identifications of all in attendance, more than 140 Chinese house church pastors and confiscated several hundred copies of printed materials used in the seminar.
Each case on the top 10 list represents either an individual person or an amalgam of several cases grouped into a specific category of persecution, ChinaAid said. In the case of Wang, ChinaAid grouped his case with two other foreign Christians who were persecuted in Henan, Guangdong and Fujian provinces for their religious, academic and church-related activities. The case of the foreign Christians ranked 10th on the list, representing the least oppressive instance of persecution.
“I have no basic right to freedom of religion,” Wang said on Facebook of the incident after he arrived safely in Malaysia. He has returned to his pastorate, which is in the Presbyterian Church in America.
In January, ChinaAid President Bob Fu said religious freedom in communist China is at its harshest in 50 years and is “increasingly deteriorating” under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Lengthy imprisonments with torture stemming from false charges; denial of medical aid to prisoners; house imprisonment of pastors, their families and civil rights attorneys defending them; government destruction of churches and church property; denial of legal representation; and government monitoring and church surveillance are included in the persecution cases ChinaAid deemed most egregious in the list released Feb. 1.
“Each case has been thoughtfully investigated in collaboration with local house churches, corroborated through direct interviews with victims and family members and verified by secondary sources,” the Midland, Texas-based group said in releasing its report. “These cases are considered representative due to the severity, impact and significance of persecution involved, and they occurred across mainland China in both the rural and urban areas, and included both house churches and ‘Three Self’ (government sanctioned) churches.”
Topping the list is the Yunnan Religious Case, in which hundreds of church leaders and members were accused of “utilizing cults to undermine law enforcement,” with the Holy Bible, hymns and many prayer and discipleship books including Streams in the Desert labeled as “cult materials.” At least three pastors have been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on charges stemming from the case, and other trials are pending or ongoing, ChinaAid said.
Ranking second on the persecution list, more than 50 Christians worshipping in Xinjiang were charged with “the crime of gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” In April, five of those arrested were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three years to five years for disturbing social order, ChinaAid said, when the Christians were only hosting religious activities at their homes.
Among other persecution cases on the list, famous Christian political dissident Yang Tianshui died of cancer in November while serving a 12-year prison term for “subverting state power.” Prison authorities delayed Yang’s treatment until it was too late for him to receive medical care that might have saved his life, according to ChinaAid. His body was cremated hastily and the government confiscated his ashes, spreading them in the East China Sea.
In other cases on the list, pastors were prosecuted for conducting disaster relief ministry to earthquake survivors; the government confiscated millions of dollars in tithes, offerings and building fund contributions; and lawyers representing persecuted pastors were interrogated and placed under house arrest, as were their families.
The full report is available at ChinaAid.org.

2/16/2018 9:02:57 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Olympic sledder: Loved by God, no matter the results

February 15 2018 by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press

Elisabeth Vathje, readying for her sledding event in the Winter Olympics, isn’t bashful about the most important thing in her life.

Photo by David McIntyre, Genesis Photos
Elisabeth Vathje, a Canadian skeleton racer in the Winter Olympics, says her worth comes from being a child of God, not from the results in her sledding event.

The Canadian skeleton racer clearly proclaims on her Twitter page: “Christ follower.”
“First and foremost, I’m a child of God,” Vathje told Baptist Press. “I’m not a skeleton athlete or any of that. It doesn’t matter my profession, but Jesus is still my Lord, and that’s what’s first in everything I do.”
Vathje will compete Friday and Saturday in the Olympics skeleton event, racing down a track of ice headfirst on a sled. She first began racing when she was 14 upon the suggestion of her father. For Vathje, it was love at first slide.
“I’ve always been amazed at the Olympic Games, and I always wanted to be a part of it, and skeleton ended up being the sport that wooed me. ... I love going fast, that’s for sure.”
Vathje was raised in a Christian home and attended a Christian school as a child. As she got into high school, she said her beliefs began to morph more into her own relationship with Jesus rather than just what her parents taught her.
She says her faith in Christ has a strong connection with her work as an athlete at the highest level of her sport.

Photo by David McIntyre, Genesis Photos
Elisabeth Vathje of Canada begins a run at the ladies skeleton training during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

“I know that regardless of what I do on the track, that I’m still loved by God and that it takes every single pressure away – because I know God is giving me success,” Vathje said. “But I know that even if the success doesn’t come, it doesn’t change the way God sees me and the way I should see Him.
“So, it gives me peace in that I don’t have to fight for results for my worth.”
Because of her training and competition schedule, Vathje often is away from home and from her home church – McKenzie Towne Church (a North American Baptist Conference church) in Calgary – for weeks and months at a time. Her mother travels with her, however, and is often the link for Vathje to stay connected to the congregation.
“She’s the one who’s sending out the prayer requests to ladies or men who need to be praying for me, and the men in the church are the reason I have my sponsors,” Vathje said. “The church family, and my family, are the only reason I’m in this sport, because I can’t afford to do it without them.”
Vathje isn’t the lone Christian in the skeleton competition.
Simidele Adeagbo, the first Nigerian, the first African female and the first black female to compete in the skeleton event, has been part of the sport for just a few months.
Adeagbo, a track and field athlete at the University of Kentucky, had dreams of being an Olympian that never materialized.
“In December of 2015 I read an article about the Nigerian women’s bobsled team,” she told Baptist Press. “And when I read that article, I felt like ... God was almost telling me, ‘This is your chance.’”
Click here for her story.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is a sports correspondent for Baptist Press and associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is covering the Winter Olympics in South Korea for Baptist Press, previously having covered four Olympics – 2008 in Beijing, 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.)

2/15/2018 8:11:54 AM by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

T-shirts now in religious liberty battle’s spotlight

February 15 2018 by Art Toalston & Kentucky Today staff

And now it’s T-shirts.
Blaine Adamson, owner of Hands On Originals apparel company, has become another figure in the battle over religious liberty for refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival because of his Christian beliefs.

Screen capture from YouTube
For Blaine Adamson, “the darkest hour was right after everything hit the media” over his company’s refusal to print T-Shirts for a gay pride featival. “And I went home, and my wife and I basically told the Lord, ‘Whatever the cost, we’re willing to serve. We’re willing to stand.’”

In 2014, Adamson’s small business in Lexington, Ky., was charged by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission with violating the city’s fairness ordinance for refusing to print T-shirts in 2012 ordered by Lexington’s Gay and Lesbian Services Organization.
Both the Fayette Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals subsequently ruled in favor of Hands On Originals before an appeal was filed with the Kentucky Supreme Court in January.
The case, which is still in the briefing stages with the state’s high court, has drawn more than a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs for Hands On Originals, including a Feb. 7 filing by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
Also filing friend-of-the court briefings Feb. 7 were the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Adamson is being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a key legal organization advocating for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
Bevin’s amicus brief argues that “Kentucky is, and always has been, a land of freedom of conscience, where citizens can live without fear that the government will prescribe what beliefs and speech are orthodox and require conformity therewith.”
The drafters of Kentucky’s constitution specifically rejected any limitation of freedom of conscience, Bevin’s brief argues, and that requiring Hands On to print T-shirts promoting homosexuality violates the freedom-of-conscience guarantees enshrined in the commonwealth’s constitution.
Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, said, “For over two centuries, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has protected its citizens’ right to act according to their conscience,” the Kentucky Today news website of the state Baptist convention reported.
“This important case, which has attracted national attention, tests whether Kentucky’s history of safeguarding freedom of conscience will continue or be curtailed,” Pitt said. “Requiring Hands On’s owners to engage in speech with which they disagree is a violation of their freedom of conscience, and we are hopeful that the Kentucky Supreme Court will reaffirm this bedrock of Kentucky’s constitutional charter.”

Screen capture from YouTube
Blaine Adamson

The U.S. Supreme Court has a case in front of it involving a baker who refused to make a cake for the wedding of a gay couple in Colorado. A ruling is expected before the court’s term ends in late June or early July; the case is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Numerous other religious liberty cases across the country involve other bakers and wedding photographers and florists.
Adamson, in a 2017 video posted by ADF at YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=Tod9HQis65o), recounted:
“Hands On Originals is a promotional printing company. We’ll work with anybody, regardless of who they are or what belief system they have. It’s just all based on the message. And if the message is something that conflicts with my conscience, it’s just not something I can print.
“Five years ago, we were approached by a customer who asked us to print a message that conflicted with my conscience, so we respectfully declined the order, and I had another print shop who would print the same job at the same price. But they ended up going to our local government, and they filed a lawsuit against us to try to get us, in the future, to print shirts that had a message that would conflict with my faith.
“For me, the darkest hour was right after everything hit the media. And I went home, and my wife and I basically told the Lord, ‘Whatever the cost, we’re willing to serve. We’re willing to stand.’”
Adamson said ADF made contact with him “and they just basically said, ‘Look, we’ll take care of everything.’
“Since then, it has been a legal battle for our company. We’ve had to deal with customer backlash, media, the mayor coming out against us. I’ve definitely wrestled with the idea that we could lose our business. … because if the government forces me to print messages that go against my conscience, then I’ve gotta leave the industry.”
In a commentary posted at the Daily Signal, a website of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Adamson wrote last September, “For all the years that I’ve been running my business, Hands on Originals, I’ve happily served and employed people of all backgrounds, of all walks of life.... I have gay customers and employ gay people. For example, we have printed materials for a local band called Mother Jane whose lead singer is a lesbian. That was never a problem for us because ... we’ll work with everyone, but we can’t print all messages.”
While Adamson’s small business has printed orders for such organizations as The Gospel Coalition, he wrote in the Daily Signal that he has declined other orders such as “a simple black shirt with white text that read, ‘Homosexuality is a sin.’ ... I don’t think that’s how Jesus would have handled the issue; Jesus would have balanced grace and truth.”
“All we are asking for is that the government not force us to promote messages against our convictions. Everyone should have that freedom.,” Adamson wrote.
Also submitting friend-of-the-court briefs for Hands On Originals, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, are 10 states, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, American Center for Law and Justice, Tyndale House Publishers, Cato Institute, Jews for Religious Liberty and CatholicVote.org.
The case is Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals, case number 2017-SC-000278.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. Kentucky Today, kentuckytoday.com, is a news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. BP operations coordinator Laura Erlanson contributed to this story.)

2/15/2018 8:10:23 AM by Art Toalston & Kentucky Today staff | with 0 comments

Olympic hockey player gains faith, loses an idol

February 15 2018 by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press

Noah Welch had just signed a two-year deal with the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Florida Panthers, and the team was expecting their new defenseman to develop and be a key part of their team.

Photo by David McIntyre, Genesis Photos
Although defenseman Noah Welch on the U.S. Olympics hockey team once thought injuries might end his young career, the experience brought him to faith in Christ.

Then only five games into the season, Welch got into a fight with Montreal. His shoulder – dislocated. His labrum – torn. His season – over. His career – threatened.
“At that point in my life, hockey was one of many idols that I had, and probably my main one,” said Welch, a defenseman on the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team. “I didn’t realize it, but God was using this circumstance to draw me to Him. He took the biggest opportunity that I’ve ever had in my hockey career, and just took it right away from me. He pretty much smashed the idol of hockey.
“For this,” Welch said, “I am grateful.”
Though Welch thought the incident had derailed his career, in reality it proved to be the beginning of new life in Christ that has allowed Welch to see hockey in its perspective. As he takes the ice in South Korea during the Olympics, he does so simply with a desire to be faithful and to take advantage of any opportunity he gets to talk about the Lord.
Growing up in Boston, Welch took up hockey because his older brother Kethe played. Welch went to Kethe’s games and eventually began playing himself. His skills developed as he advanced through the youth hockey ranks and the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him as a high school senior.
Welch had already committed to Harvard, however, so he honored that pledge and spent four years playing collegiate hockey before signing with the Penguins after graduation.
But things in Pittsburgh didn’t turn out the way Welch had expected. He struggled to find playing time, and he remembers getting on his hands and knees one night and praying for God’s help. He wasn’t a Christian at the time.
“I always believed in God,” Welch said. “I think it was more of a God that I made up in my head, and a little theology here and there that I picked up along the way, but it wasn’t the God of the Bible.”
Nonetheless, Welch asked God that night for more time on the penalty kill. He thought that was the key to his happiness – more time on the penalty kill would mean a more successful NHL career, which would then lead to bigger contracts, women and other things he expected would provide joy.
But God had other plans for Welch. He was soon traded to Florida, where, after that season-ending injury, he accepted a friend’s invitation to attend church. Welch had some gospel influences in his life through an uncle who had witnessed to him and through attending various chapel services with Hockey Ministries International.
That day at church was a life-changing experience.
“That was the day that I realized there was no chance I could stand before a holy and righteous God on my own as a sinful man, and accepted Jesus as my Savior, and believed in who He claimed to be and what He did for me,” Welch said. “I would say that’s the day that I became Christian.”
Suddenly the pieces began to fit together for Welch. The struggles in Pittsburgh, though frustrating, became the reason for his trade to Florida, which put Welch in close proximity to his estranged father. That physical nearness led to forgiveness and reconciliation with his dad.
As for hockey, Welch’s conversion changed his outlook on the sport as well – and, Welch said, has only helped him as a player.
“I have the proper worldview now of what hockey is,” he said. “Hockey is just a game. It’s a great game. I love it. Before [surrendering to Christ], it was more of something that identified me. My identity as a human, as a man came from being a hockey player.”
Welch sees how unhealthy that was, because with all the ups and downs that come with being a hockey player, his attitude and how he saw the world was based on how his career was going.
With a gospel-centered outlook toward the sport, Welch now sees how God kept him in the game over the years to accomplish His purposes – whether through Welch meeting his wife or through the influence Welch has had on some of his teammates.
Looking back, Welch can see how God orchestrated so many seemingly unrelated pieces of his life to get him to where he is as a professional hockey player on the Olympic stage for the first time.
“I believe God is sovereign, and I don’t completely understand how He does it, but He does,” Welch said. “I still work hard and with joy, praying that His will be done. And there’s a peace in that.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is a sports correspondent for Baptist Press and associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is covering the Winter Olympics in South Korea for Baptist Press, previously having covered four Olympics – 2008 in Beijing, 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.)

2/15/2018 8:08:48 AM by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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