May 2014

Ministry transforms women’s lives, honored by White House

May 14 2014 by Susie Rain, Baptist Press

A tear slid down Nicki Benz’s cheek as she stared at the television screen. She struggled to watch the news report that focused on imprisoned women. She figured that most of them had probably been physically and verbally abused at some point in their lives. A guard yelled at one of the women, asking why she couldn’t get her life on track.

“They are not trash,” Benz said back to the television. “Those women are treasures.”

Someone had to take action, Benz thought. This wasn’t a report from a distant location. It was happening in her hometown of Jackson, Miss. She bowed her head and prayed for God to send someone. She hadn’t yet realized that God would choose to use her, a “senior citizen,” to show hundreds of women and children that they are treasures in His eyes.

Now 15 years later, Benz’s prison and after-care ministry, Buried Treasures Home, continues to impact lives. Last October, the White House presented her with a Point of Light Award. The award honors individuals who strive to improve their community by responding to a need through volunteer service.

“I just stand here and weep,” said the 71-year-old Benz, a member of First Baptist Church of Jackson, as she spoke about the award. “I’ve done nothing great. I just did what God called me to do … visit the prison to tell the women that they are treasured by God.”

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Nicki Benz (left) reads the Bible during a study group at Buried Treasures Home in Jackson, Miss. Nicki began going to the prison 15 years ago. What started out as reaching out to women in prison developed into an after-care ministry on a 65-acre plot with cottages and a pond. Hundreds of women have gone through the one-year program in an effort to break the cycle of recidivism.

What started out as a one-time visit to the local correctional facility in 1999 turned into a daily routine of doling out hugs, lending a listening ear and teaching about God’s forgiveness and love. Benz’s passion for the women was so contagious that it didn’t take long for her husband Dick to join in on the visits.

Soon, an officer asked the couple if they’d consider taking in one of the girls. The woman had been in and out of 40 rehab centers and didn’t have anywhere to turn. The Benzes had heard this type of story over and over. When the women left prison, they most often returned to the broken lifestyle that landed them there in the first place. The couple knew this cycle had to be broken, so they offered their four empty bedrooms to God and began an after-care ministry.

“That first woman didn’t stay long, just two weeks. Then she was back on the street and landed in jail again,” Dick remembered, adding that she returned five years later and completed their ministry program.

“We learned right off the bat that this ministry is hard and doesn’t always work. We try to remember that it is up to the women to change their lives. God just called us to be here.”

The after-care ministry focuses on discipleship and learning what it means to be treasured. Because so many women have no place to go after being released, Buried Treasures Home gives women and their children a place to live for up to a year. During that time, women receive opportunities to earn their GEDs, enroll at nearby community college, study the Bible and reintegrate into society.

As more and more women wanted to be a part of Buried Treasures Home, the ministry expanded from one house to multiple cottages sitting on a 65-acre plot of land. Benz explained that the women don’t just have a “bed but a family of God” when they come to the home. The women learn to be women of God and what it means to be part of a healthy family.

The Benzes estimated that only 20 percent of the women who register for the yearlong after-care ministry actually complete the program. Some stay for lunch and then return to the streets. But they never leave Benz’s heart. The names of every woman who walks through the doorway are meticulously recorded in her Bible and prayed for each day.

Others, like Shelly, graduated from the program and integrated back into the community. She now volunteers her time to help others break out of the prison cycle and create their own success stories. Shelly said she believes the time that the Benzes invested in her while she was incarcerated made a difference in her life. They never gave up on her.

“Buried Treasures and God’s faithful servants have nurtured me over the years, and have helped me to put my feet on the path that the Lord desired for me,” Shelly said. “Buried Treasures has given so much to the incarcerated world these past 15 years…. They are making a difference by showing God’s love.”

Sherry Stegall, chairman of the board for the Buried Treasures ministry, estimated more than 500 people volunteer annually through time or providing resources for the home.

“Folks seem drawn to the property, dubbed over and over again as ‘God’s country.’ It’s said by many that you feel God’s presence just as soon as you step foot on the grounds,” Stegall, a member of First Baptist Church, said. “As a church, we are passionate about God’s ability to transform lives through the Buried Treasures ministry, whether on the serving or receiving end of the ministry.”

As the community gives to Buried Treasures Home, the women make a point of giving back. Benz explained the women are “missionaries” to the community. More than 300 children of incarcerated parents are helped each year with school supplies, clothing and Christmas gifts. There’s even a community food pantry located at the home. The women help give out the food and keep the pantry filled.

“These women know what it’s like to be hungry and in need,” Benz said, noting that the women at the home normally have a deep sense of compassion. “They take food out to the cars and sit and talk with people about God’s love. Because they understand, there is an openness that isn’t there for me.

“We are in the business of bringing people to Christ and showing how they are treasured,” she said. “We cry out in joy when that message takes off and grows in the heart of others. That’s the real success.”

For more information about the Buried Treasures Home, go to http://www.buriedtreasureshome.com/index.htm

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Susie Rain is a writer/editor living in Asia.)
5/14/2014 9:55:41 AM by Susie Rain, Baptist Press | with 1 comments



National Day of Prayer observed in events across state

May 13 2014 by Mike Creswell, BSC Communications

More than 80 groups across North Carolina gathered for prayer as they observed the National Day of Prayer on May 1. 

The 2014 theme, “So that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” was based on Romans 15:6, with the theme of “One Voice, United in Prayer.”

North Carolina Baptists led or took part in many of these services, held both inside church buildings and in public places. The staff of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina gathered for a time of prayer and Bible reading at the Baptist Building in Cary. 

In Jefferson, David Blackburn, director of missions for Ashe Baptist Association, led a service at the Ashe County Courthouse which included patriotic music by a local high school chorus and band, plus prayer led by several local pastors and political leaders. Veterans also were honored and a wreath was placed before a memorial honoring those who have served in the U.S. military.
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BSC Photo
Daniel Akin speaks during the National Day of Prayer observance in Wake Forest, NC.


A prayer walk was held through downtown Charlotte from the Metrolina Baptist Association office.

In Wake Forest a service including multiple prayers and music was held in front of the town hall before a giant American flag suspended from a fire truck ladder. The keynote message was given by Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose campus is a few blocks from the gathering.
 
Scott Graham with the Wake Forest Police Department led the event and gave a clear gospel witness. He also read a prayer written by North Carolinian Anne Graham Lotz for the day: “We choose to stop pointing our finger at the sins of others, and examine our own hearts and lives. We choose to acknowledge our own sin – our neglect and defiance and ignorance and even rejection of You. This day we choose to repent.”
 
Her prayer cited 2 Chronicles 7. Lotz is a popular speaker, conference leader, author and daughter of evangelist Billy Graham. She served as the honorary chairman of the 2014 National Day of Prayer.

A national day of prayer was declared by President Harry S. Truman in 1952, but in 1988 the day was set as an annual observance the first Thursday of May by President Ronald Reagan. Proclamations by presidents and all 50 state governors have encouraged Americans to pray on this day.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory issued a proclamation which noted that the Continental Congress declared a national day of prayer in 1775 as the nation was being founded: “Leaders of our state and nation throughout our history have relied on prayer during times of thanksgiving,” and “during times of uncertainty in our nation and beyond, prayer helps to express our sorrow as a people.”
 
McCrory urged North Carolinians to join the nation in prayer, calling on them to gather in their homes and places of worship to pray.

At the Wake Forest service Akin advocated biblical marriage. Citing Ephesians 5, he said, “There’s something magnificent which gives the world a picture of God’s relationship to His church and to His people that He bought with His blood, when a man and a woman rightly relate to one another in that wonderful gift of covenant marriage.”

Akin said the United States has been blessed, “but I fear we have forgotten the Lord. We need to pray for our nation, but our nation will only be as strong as its families.”

Mike Lawson, Southeastern's director of security who serves as chaplain with Wake Forest police, led a prayer for safety of the town’s police, fire and EMS first-responders.        
5/13/2014 4:57:59 PM by Mike Creswell, BSC Communications | with 0 comments



SBC Annual Meeting App

May 13 2014 by SBC LIFE

Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting can stay up to date with a smartphone app, which will include more than a dozen features, including schedules, maps, alerts, speakers, newsfeeds, the Book of Reports, the Daily Bulletin, and much more.
 
The free app is available for iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry users and can be downloaded by typing in "SBC Annual Meeting 2014" in the smartphone's app store.
 
Developed by Core-Apps, the app will include:
  • Push alerts that give users up-to-date news, such as changes in the meeting schedule should the posted schedule change.
  • The programs for the SBC Pastors' Conference and the SBC annual meeting.
  • An alphabetized list of Pastors' Conference and SBC annual meeting speakers, including their scheduled speaking times.
  • A newsfeed of Baptist Press news stories and photos covering Crossover, the SBC annual meeting, and related meetings that take place during the week.
  • PDF versions of the Book of Reports, the Daily Bulletin, and SBC LIFE.
  • Scheduled times for seminary luncheons and other affinity groups meeting in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting.
  • Twitter stream discussions about the SBC annual meeting. Use the hashtag #sbc14 to join the conversation.
  • An interactive map of the exhibit hall and messenger-friendly local restaurants.
  • A list of exhibitors, including contact information for each exhibitor and the exhibitor's floor location.
  • A list of Baltimore Baptist Association churches and church-type missions, with a map showing where each congregation is located.
  • A "friends" icon where users can keep up to date with their friends and send them notes (users are required to fill out a brief profile).
  • Downloadable copies of Meet Southern Baptists and The Southern Baptist Convention: A Closer Look, two brochures produced by the SBC Executive Committee for use in church member training classes.
5/13/2014 10:29:18 AM by SBC LIFE | with 0 comments



Nigerian Christians find hope amid persecution

May 13 2014 by William Bagsby, IMB/Baptist Press

The Nigerian church leader was secretly housing new followers of Jesus, former Muslims. When the time came for his second child to be born, he left his house to carry his wife to a clinic.

“While he was away with her, his home was attacked and the group scattered throughout the area,” said Aaron Bryson,* an International Mission Board (IMB) worker in Nigeria, recalling the situation in 2010.

One man was killed at the scene and the group leader’s son, who was about 7, had his leg broken during the fight. The child was left lying unattended in the home while the attackers waited to ambush the father once he to returned.

“We were able to get a friendly Muslim to go to the home and carry the boy to a clinic for treatment,” Bryson said. 

Pain, suffering and loss have left scars on the church in Nigeria, yet hope sustains them. Many appear to be standing strong.

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IMB Stock Photo
The 2012 Baptist Convention Meeting in Nigeria. During its most recent meeting, more than 10,000 Nigerians prayed for their country and the girls that have been abducted by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

“Parts of Nigeria are in crisis due to the violence of Boko Haram and their attacks on churches and schools. They also kill other Muslims who do not agree with them. However, the work of the gospel goes on and goes forward,” Bryson said.

Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, is responsible for the most recent abduction of more than 200 girls, aged 16–18, from a Nigerian school.

The girls were a matter of prayer during the recent 100th anniversary of Baptist Convention Meetings in Nigeria. Charlotte Cearley, IMB prayer strategist for sub-Saharan Africa, along with more than 10,000 participants, gathered together to worship and pray for Nigeria.

“The persecution of believers and the abduction of the school girls from the north highlighted several times in prayer reminded participants of places in Nigeria where celebration of belief in Christ is not celebrated, but cursed,” Cearley said.

Though persecution remains, God is using it to bring Nigerians to Himself, Bryson said.

“[Persecution] is making the church stronger,” he said. “We are hearing reports of large numbers of Muslims coming to Christ in spite of these persecutions.” 

Following Jesus in Nigeria can result in a variety of consequences, Bryson said.

“Some of the persecution is ‘low level,’ such as families excluding someone who has accepted Christ,” he said. “It can also be very violent … homes being burned and converts being killed.

“Sometimes a new convert will have his wife taken away from him and his children also. Usually the wife will be taken back by her family and then given as a wife to another man.”

In a country with such harsh religious and tribal strife, Cearley said it was inspiring to see believers working together to follow Christ in the face of difficulty.

“To sit on the stage (with 100 or so others), and look at that sea of believers brought me hope and inspiration,” she said of the Baptist meeting. “These people live and worship in a country divided by religious beliefs and tribal differences, yet together they met to hear the challenges and celebrate the work accomplished in Africa’s most populous nation, and beyond its borders.

“Well-educated, prosperous and affluent Nigerians met alongside herders and market sellers, their dividing walls broken down because of Christ,” she said. “As we sang ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ and ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’ we celebrated God’s purposes and plans for Nigeria in the past and into the future.”

Bryson praises God’s works among Nigerians. He also noted the great need for many more to hear the Good News.

“Muslims are coming to Christ and we are grateful for the way God is working here,” he said. “We need serious help [in northwest Nigeria] due to the large numbers of UUPGs (unengaged, unreached people groups) yet remaining to be engaged with the gospel.” 

Bryson and the IMB team in Nigeria encourage U.S. churches to adopt UUPGs to consistently pray for them and engage with the gospel and to receive training provided by the team. 

“God is calling out committed churches to do this work [and] we need help on this team to facilitate those churches,” Bryson said.

To learn more about how a church can become involved, contact affinity connections strategist Greg Queen at ssapconnecting@imb.org.

*Name changed.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – William Bagsby is an IMB writer based in London.) 
5/13/2014 10:20:54 AM by William Bagsby, IMB/Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Blind seminary student overcomes limitations

May 13 2014 by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS/Baptist Press

The very thought of door-to-door evangelism can stir fear in the hearts of even the most committed believers, including seminary students – fear of what to say, fear of rejection and fear of the unknown.

Add something like physical blindness to the mix and the task can become even more daunting. That was the situation facing Andy West – blind from birth – when he enrolled in the personal evangelism practicum course required for every student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

West, a master of arts in worship ministries student, was not excited about the class. He was anxious and, perhaps, a bit skeptical that this type of evangelism would be effective, particularly because door-to-door witnessing was not his preferred method of sharing.

“I generally do evangelism relationally, for obvious reasons,” West said. “Walking up to somebody and just talking to them is really intimidating when you can’t see what is going on. I was extremely nervous.”

West was struggling to find a group of students that he could join with, so he asked if he could join with a group of professors. For many years, Preston Nix, professor of evangelism and evangelistic preaching, and Blake Newsom, assistant professor of expository preaching, along with several students, have gone out in the community to share their faith on Thursday afternoons. Nix agreed to team up with West.

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Photo by Boyd Guy
Andy West, left, and Preston Nix.

“I realized right away that this was going to be a challenge ... getting in and out of cars, the sidewalks, the streets, the holes and the elevated houses,” Nix said.

But the two quickly discovered a way to navigate the broken sidewalks and stairs in the neighborhood along Paris Avenue, just a few miles from campus.

“I put my hand on his shoulder and we just started walking,” West said. “I used my cane as well.”

When they arrived in the neighborhood the first time, Nix and West slowly made their way from door to door. Nix alerted West as they approached cracks and holes in the sidewalks and helped him up each step. They knocked on several doors and didn’t find anyone home. After a while they were able to strike up a conversation with a man sitting on his porch. Before long, the man prayed to receive Christ.

Nix said West was astonished that in just a few short minutes, they had led a stranger to the Lord.

West’s confidence began to grow. He started sharing his faith on his own when he was out in the city with his family. West recalled two occasions when someone offered to help him and his family. In turn, West shared the gospel.

One of the funniest things that happened during the 10-week personal evangelism experience, West said, was the time he helped Nix find the way to Children’s Hospital.

That day, instead of going out in the community, Nix planned to go talk with a 16-year-old boy at the hospital. Nix asked West to join him. 

Nix had printed directions, but the two men wound up lost. After a while West offered to help. West punched the address into his iPhone and helped Nix navigate turn-by-turn to the hospital.

“We got there and sat down and talked with the guy and he gave his life to Christ,” West said.

The challenges of seminary

West grew up in the small town of Pitkin, La. He accepted the call to preach during his senior year at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.

A history major in college, West wanted to attend a prestigious graduate school to seek a master’s degree and a doctorate so he could teach history at a college. As he prayed about the decision, West sensed God’s call to become a pastor. The call to ministry confused West, but he surrendered to God. West and his wife Joanna moved to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus in 2013 to train for pastoral ministry. The Wests have two daughters.

The evangelism practicum course is hardly the first challenge West has faced since moving to NOBTS. Seminary courses often require a great deal of reading and that is a difficult task for a blind student. West relies heavily on both electronic and audio books.

Much of his work is accomplished using equipment that includes built-in accessibility features for blind users. West said his iPhone and Mac computer have been great help with his studies. 

West has also discovered a free resource called Optasia Ministry. The organization offers blind users a CD filled with blind-accessible documents including more than 20 Bible translations, commentaries (modern and classic), foreign language materials, and multiple versions of the Hebrew Old Testament text.

“The challenge is that half of the publishers of Christian books don’t put their books on an e-book format of any kind,” West said.

Braille books are rarely available or are too costly for a seminary student. West said a Braille version of the Bible costs around $600 and, with nearly 20-volumes, can fill up a small bookshelf.

West often finds that a required textbook or supplemental resource is not available in a format he can use. When that happens, West asks classmates to meet with him to read the text aloud or for the students to make audio recordings that West can listen to on his computer.

“That’s the struggle,” West said. “You hate to ask people to take their time and read slower than they normally would. But they all seem to like doing it.”

Two of the men who have read for West have also become some of his best friends at seminary, he said.

A willingness to go

The experience that West had in personal evangelism practicum changed his life. Though he had many excuses not to go out, God still rewarded his willingness. And eventually, West’s hesitance and skepticism melted away, and he began to look forward to those afternoons.

West said he believes the fact that he was blind yet still willing to go out and witness was as big of a testimony to the people as his words. And people responded.

“For whatever reason, God used what we did and how we did it,” West said.

Nix, an experienced evangelist, was amazed by the response. During the first four weeks the group went out, at least one person came to Christ each week.

“It has never happened like that before ... four in a row,” Nix said.

“I think God honored Andy’s obedience,” he said. “I think God was using [Andy’s blindness] to soften hearts to hear the gospel and soften hearts toward his Savior.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)
5/13/2014 10:11:09 AM by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS/Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Task force addresses declining baptism rates

May 12 2014 by Joe Conway, NAMB/Baptist Press

A task force designed to address declining baptisms among Southern Baptist churches plans to release its full report later May 12.

An urgent, immediate call for spiritual renewal and personal commitment to evangelism and discipleship are the common threads among five recommendations made by the Pastors’ Task Force on Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms. The national task force, aimed at addressing the continued decrease in baptisms among Southern Baptist churches, was convened last year by the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Most task force members are pastors.

“Southern Baptists’ downward spiral in baptisms is the fruit of our spiritual lukewarmness,” task force member Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., said. “I am greatly encouraged by the stirring I see among us toward spiritual awakening and the need for the resurgence of the Great Commission. This task force work and report gives me hope.”

The group was formed, in part, because the 2012 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reported a drop of 5.52 percent in the number of baptisms in Southern Baptist churches, confirming a two-decade downward trend.

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NAMB photo
North American Mission Board church planter Patrick Coats (right) baptizes Andrew Fellas, a new member of Miami’s Kingdom Covenant Baptist Church, where Coats pastors. A task force of mostly pastors convened to address the issue of declining baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Al Gilbert, vice president for evangelism at NAMB facilitated the group’s meetings. LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer assisted the task force with research support.

“Recognition and ownership of the issue are keys to reversing the decline,” Gilbert said.

The task force identified five key areas, described as problems, that pastors and churches must address to reverse the baptism decline:

Spiritual – “With urgency, we must join together in fervent and effective prayer for spiritual awakening in our churches and our nation.”

Leadership – “As pastors we must intentionally model and prioritize personal evangelism while providing clear pathways for our congregations to follow.”

Disciple-making – “As pastors we must create a disciple-making culture – focusing on multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ.”

Next generation – “As pastors we must leverage our influence, activity and resources to reach and make disciples of the Next Generation.”

Celebration – “As pastors we must celebrate new life in Christ as people publicly profess their faith through baptism. We must establish an ethos of joy that celebrates the practice of personal evangelism and its fruit.”

Task force member Manpoong “Dennis” Kim, pastor of Global Mission Church in Silver Spring, Md., said, “I am grateful for this endeavor’s commitment to renew the passion for evangelism that ultimately begs the question, ‘How then should we proceed?’”

Task force member Roger Spradlin, pastor of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif., summed up the conviction of the group.

“I think all Southern Baptists were aware that our baptisms were declining, but seeing the actual stats was both shocking and heartbreaking. Continuing as we are yet expecting a different result is not an option. We must address this issue now,” Spradlin said.

From 1950-2011 Southern Baptists baptized an average of 379,711 people annually. Only twice during that time did the numbers dip more than 10 percent below that average. But in 2012 the decline was 13 percent off the average – the worst drop in 62 years.

The report itself takes an even more sobering view of the issue. The report states: “SBC baptisms reached a plateau in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s, and have stayed fairly constant since that time ... The problem is even greater than these numbers indicate. Considering how the North American population has increased substantially between the 1950s’ baptism peak and today, these figures indicate how much ground we have lost and are losing.”

Gilbert said, “The recommendations are unanimous, but more than that, these men have made this a personal statement of action and they are hopeful that every pastor will review the list and see if they can identify with it. Our hope is that pastors will join us to make these recommendations personal and take action to affect change.”

Task force members include: Ted Traylor, pastor, Olive Baptist Church, Pensacola, Fla.; Jay Wolf, pastor, First Baptist Church, Montgomery, Ala.; K. Marshall Williams, Sr., pastor, Nazarene Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Penn., and president of the African American Fellowship; Manpoong “Dennis” Kim, pastor, Global Mission Church, Silver Spring, Md.; David Galván, pastor, New Life Hispanic Baptist Church, Dallas; Carlos Navarro, pastor, Iglesia Bautista de West Brownsville, Brownsville, Texas; Andy Addis, pastor, CrossPoint Church, Kansas; Roger Spradlin, pastor, Valley Baptist Church, Bakersfield, Calif.; Jeff Lovingood, Next Generation pastor, Longhollow Baptist Church, Hendersonville, Tenn.; Benny Wong, pastor, First Chinese Baptist Church, Los Angeles; Keith Wieser, pastor, Resonate Baptist Church, Pullman, Wash.; Doug Melton, pastor, Southern Hills Baptist Church, Oklahoma City; Alvin Reid, Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Wayne Jenkins, Evangelism Church Growth Director, Louisiana Baptist Convention; Milton Hollifield, Executive Director-Treasurer, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board.)
5/12/2014 2:31:58 PM by Joe Conway, NAMB/Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Massachusetts Court: participation in pledge is ‘voluntary’

May 12 2014 by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service

The highest court in Massachusetts upheld the legality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance on May 9, dealing a blow to atheist groups who challenged the pledge on anti-discrimination grounds.
 
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said the daily, teacher-led recitation of the pledge in state public schools does not violate the state’s equal rights amendment and is not discriminatory against the children of atheists, humanists and other nontheists.
 
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G. Jeffrey MacDonald photo
David Niose, president of the American Humanists Association, greets supporters on Sept. 4, 2013 after arguing against the Pledge of Allegiance at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

“Participation is entirely voluntary,” the court wrote as a whole in the decision of Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, brought by an anonymous humanist family. “(A)ll students are presented with the same options; and one student’s choice not to participate because of a religiously held belief is, as both a practical and a legal matter, indistinguishable from another’s choice to abstain for a wholly different, more mundane, and constitutionally insignificant reason.”
 
The ruling marks the second legal loss for atheists this week. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayers given before government meetings were not a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state.
 
Secular activists were quick to condemn the ruling.
 
“This would have been a groundbreaking case for atheists and humanists, but the Court’s decision today simply reaffirms the status quo,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella organization of atheist, humanist and other secular groups. “Today’s decision tells our children that love for our country must be linked to a god belief, and that in and of itself is discriminatory.”
 
The loss is also a setback for a new legal strategy that secular groups employed after a string of challenges to the “under God” phrase. Here, they argued that “under God” violated the state constitution’s guarantee against discrimination rather than the U.S. Constitution’s promise of separation of church and state.
 
Since the addition of the phrase “under God” in 1954, the pledge has faced repeated challenges. In 2004, one case reached the Supreme Court, but ultimately failed, as have all previous challenges.
 
“We are very disappointed by the court’s ruling,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “No child should go to public school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, and be faced with an exercise that portrays his or her religious group as less patriotic.”
 
The American Humanist Association has a similar case pending in New Jersey. In a statement issued after the ruling, officials there said they would continue to wage discrimination cases under other state constitutions.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
5/12/2014 11:16:48 AM by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service | with 3 comments



Lives transformed by Christ through Crossover

May 12 2014 by Rebecca Wolford, Baptist Press

For the past 25 years, Southern Baptists have begun each annual meeting by celebrating hundreds – sometimes thousands – of new souls won for Christ.

This celebration is the result of Crossover, the evangelistic outreach initiative preceding the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Each year, North American Mission Board partners with state conventions, associations and local churches to saturate the host city of the Convention with evangelistic events. Volunteers from across the country arrive in the city a few days prior to the annual convention to participate alongside local church members. Last year, Crossover Houston marked the 25th year of outreach.

In 1983, when messengers approved Las Vegas as the 1989 SBC annual meeting site, they adopted a recommendation to add “a strong evangelistic emphasis in connection with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1989.”

The week prior to the Convention’s annual meeting in Las Vegas, more than two thousand volunteers participated in door-to-door witnessing campaigns and revival services. They visited more than 100,000 homes and led approximately 470 people to Christ.

The following year, the SBC Home Mission Board – now North American Mission Board (NAMB) – planned a second evangelistic event to coincide with the SBC annual meeting. The annual saturation evangelism initiative became known as Crossover in 1991, when then-SBC president Morris H. Chapman worked with the HMB to expand the one-day outreach into a full week. Crossover Atlanta that year involved door-to-door witnessing, serving meals to the homeless, street evangelism, and prayer throughout the city. The event saw 333 decisions for Christ.

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Brittany Schultze photo
A new believer is baptized during Crossover Indianapolis in 2004.

The name “Crossover” was inspired by an evangelism conference in Australia where Chapman spoke in 1987. The theme of the conference was “Crossover Australia.” In an interview with SBC LIFE, Chapman recalled being struck by the dual meaning of the name.

First, he said, picturing the cross over Australia reminded him of Jesus’ words in John 12:32: “As for Me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to Myself” (HCSB). Second, “Crossover Australia” inspired images of believers traveling across the country to spread the gospel.

Chapman’s original vision for “Crossover America” focused on church planting, but the name ultimately found its home with the pre-convention evangelistic thrust that Southern Baptists know today.

Throughout its 25-year history, Crossover has continued to impact lives and souls long after the volunteers returned home.

Leaders Equipped

Participating in Crossover equips believers to share their faith more effectively, including the next generation of pastors and ministers who are going through seminary training.

Preston Nix, director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has seen Crossover transform the lives of his students, some of whom were already serving as pastors. “It changes students’ lives, and it affects and impacts their ministry,” he said.

Since Crossover Louisville in 2009, seminaries have offered personal evangelism training courses that coincide with Crossover outreach. Students partner with Intentional Community Evangelism teams or local church members to participate in door-to-door and street evangelism the week before the SBC annual meeting. “We’re intentional about verbally communicating our faith to the lost so they can come to faith in Jesus Christ,” Nix said. Crossover Louisville resulted in 1,035 recorded salvations.

It may be hard to believe, but some seminary students – including those who are active ministers – have never shared their faith outside a church setting, according to Nix. Crossover allows the students to lead people to Christ one on one rather than from behind a pulpit. Nix has had many students who were skeptical about spending a week practicing intentional evangelism, but their lives and ministries were ultimately changed by the experience.

Especially from a student standpoint, Nix said, participants “gain experience, and they’re equipped to more effectively share their faith.”

Churches Planted

Crossover efforts, in partnership with local associational initiatives, have also made an impact on communities through church plants.

Larry Doyle, director of missions for Piedmont Baptist Association in Greensboro, N.C., said his community was hugely impacted by Crossover and church planting efforts in 2006. Fifteen new churches were started that year, due in part to Crossover and a church planting initiative called Operation Reach. Twelve of those churches are still active today, he said.

“As a result of both Crossover and Operation Reach, church planting became a passionate priority for the Baptist family,” Doyle said. “I believe it was the intentional focus on our community that did it. It helped us turn our focus outward and enabled us to see people and needs we had not seen before.”

Keith Hall, pastor of The Journey Church in High Point, N.C., was already burdened to reach his community by early 2006. He and another pastor, along with their wives and eight other couples, began meeting as a church that summer.

Hall learned a lot from Crossover Greensboro and other related training events. He saw people from diverse backgrounds and various levels of training all working together to reach the community. Seeing all the volunteers on the “same missional page” was inspiring to Hall. “It inspired me to believe in the mission,” he said.

The Journey Church has grown from the initial 10 couples to around 250 today. Its focus remains the same – creating a diverse church community, serving locally and globally, and reaching people for Christ.


Communities Encouraged

When Crossover volunteers serve alongside local churches, those churches come out of the experience encouraged.

From a practical standpoint, Crossover teams can assist churches with projects or events that they may not have the manpower to complete on their own. The teams also advertise church events door-to-door, which increases the church’s visibility in the community and creates new opportunities for church members to develop relationships.

After Crossover, local church members are emboldened to go out sharing the gospel on their own. Church members and volunteers learn from each other during outreach events, and once the teams have left, the local church members continue that vision. As a result, churches often see increases in baptisms for years after Crossover.

Nix also sees an opportunity to encourage churches in SBC annual meeting host cities located outside the Bible Belt. Nix participated in the first outreach in Las Vegas, and remembers the effect the event had on the local churches there. “It was an emotional, spiritual boost to them that Southern Baptists were coming in and helping them in a very non-Southern Baptist, very secular, worldly setting,” he said. Much like in Las Vegas, he believes there is a unique opportunity to serve churches during Crossover Baltimore in 2014 and Crossover Columbus in 2015.

Souls Saved

Since 1989, NAMB has reported more than 30,000 professions of faith in Jesus Christ as a direct result of Crossover activities. Thousands more have been put in contact with local Southern Baptist churches.

When a person is saved, Chapman said, there is incredible joy both for the one who accepts Christ and for the ones who are able to witness their spiritual transformation. “Salvation is a miracle when it happens and Christ has given us the opportunity to experience the joy of a miracle taking place right in front of our eyes,” he said.

Crossover volunteers who experience that joy often participate in Crossover year after year. They return to their churches and spread the joy to their congregations.

“What a joy it is for the believer to return to his or her home church and testify that upon witnessing to an unsaved person, the person confessed his or her sin and trusted Jesus Christ as Savior,” Chapman said. “What a blessing it will be to the church not only to hear the testimony but to catch the spirit of one upon whom God has poured out His blessings due to that person’s faithfulness.”


Crossover Baltimore 2014

The Baltimore Baptist Association, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, and local churches continue to prepare and pray for Crossover Baltimore in 2014.

Reflecting on 25 years of Crossover, Chapman said: “Hallelujah, what a Savior! And what a way to begin a Convention!”

For more information, go to http://www.embracebaltimore.com/crossover/.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist with the SBC Executive Committee.)
5/12/2014 11:02:25 AM by Rebecca Wolford, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Couple’s focus: faith, family, music & baseball

May 12 2014 by Aaron Earls, Baptist Press

Ben and Julianna Zobrist know what it’s like to live under a microscope. Ben is a two-time Major League Baseball All-Star for the Tampa Bay Rays, while Julianna is a professional recording artist.

But they are accustomed to people watching their every move – they both grew up as pastors’ kids.

In their new book, Double Play (B&H Publishing), the Zobrists describe the real life of what many would see as a dream come true.

Julianna says both she and Ben realize their lives, having reached the pinnacle of two fields, may appear too good to be true from the outside, but they are ordinary people with an extraordinary Savior.

“At the end of the day, we are all human beings with the same needs and the same Savior,” she said.

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Their book focuses on some of the struggles they have experienced.

“Some of the stuff in the book, we didn’t necessarily want to share, but we felt the Lord could use us opening up our lives in that way,” Ben explained.

Julianna said her dad referred to those moments as “the black keys,” like the ones on a piano.

“He said, ‘Jules, you don’t have a great song without the black keys. You have to have all the keys,” she recalled. “The power lies in Christ’s ability to restore and take brokenness and make it something useful.”

For Ben, as a Major League Baseball player, his career struggles are visible to everyone. “You have to have a short memory,” he said. “You are going to fail, and people will see it on ‘SportsCenter’ and read about it in the newspaper. During those times it’s important to rest in the Lord.”

In learning to handle the opportunity he had been given, Ben said he found himself in a spiritual depression.

“I’ve realized over the years that I don’t have to feel that pressure,” he said. “We all have the same platform before the Lord – we have one life to live for him. He’s pleased with the heart more than the numbers.”

As pastors’ kids themselves, they want their book to speak especially to families in vocational ministry.

“It was so important for us to see our parents as real people,” Ben said. “I would encourage any church leader to be real and genuine with your family.”

Julianna feels a special burden for mothers facing the “daunting task of raising children when you feel like you are standing on stage.”

For her, “it was freeing to think about what the Lord said, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ He didn’t say famous or fruitful. He said faithful. Mothers, be faithful in that moment. Be faithful with your children.”

In their book, Ben and Julianna offer practical counsel to help husbands and wives pray together, create spiritual conversations, read and study Scripture as a couple and allow the Holy Spirit to guide their lives and families.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.)
5/12/2014 10:54:45 AM by Aaron Earls, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Middle East Christians need ‘advocacy’

May 12 2014 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The church and the government of the United States should act in behalf of beleaguered, often forgotten Christians in the Middle East, a broad coalition of religious and other leaders says.
 
Led by two members of Congress, representatives of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities united Wednesday (May 7) in Washington to release a statement in support of Christians and other religious minorities in three countries: Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

The “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action” urges American congregations to pray for, become educated about and engage the federal government regarding the plight of Christians in these countries. It also calls for the U.S. government to revise its foreign policy to help protect Christian communities from the continuing threat to their existence.

Extremist Islamic groups in Egypt, Iraq and Syria – the Middle Eastern countries with the largest Christian populations remaining – have produced “an existential threat” to the church in those lands, according to the document. “The current trajectory, marked by political violence and, in the cases of Iraq and Syria, a full-blown war, risks a Middle East largely emptied of the millennia-old presence of Christians,” the statement says.

The statement reports that Christians in those countries have suffered beheadings and other execution-style killings. They have been kidnapped. Christian girls have been abducted and coerced to convert to Islam and marry their Muslim captors. Church buildings have been destroyed.

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Barrett Duke

The result has been a widespread exodus of Christians from lands rich with church history. One estimate says the Christian population of Iraq has dwindled from 1.5 million to about 200,000.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., has met with many persecuted Christians in these countries, he said at a news conference announcing the solidarity statement.

“The resounding theme that emerges is quite simply a plea for solidarity, an appeal for help,” said Wolf, a leading congressional advocate for international religious liberty. “Where is the West, they wonder?

“Today, I am heartened to say that these cries have been heard,” he said in introducing the pledge.

The statement’s signers “have made clear that they are not waiting for Washington to take action,” Wolf told reporters. “They recognize that unless the American church begins to champion this cause, the foreign policy establishment will hardly lead the way. They are committing to be their ‘brother’s keeper,’ whether in Nineveh, Cairo or Homs.”

Southern Baptist policy specialist Barrett Duke told reporters that Christians “can no longer sit by while our brothers and sisters in Christ and other peace-loving people of faith are subjected to such barbarism. I don’t know what else to call it except sheer barbarism.

“The United States government, the faith community and all people of peace should begin immediately to run to the defense of these special people who choose not to retaliate against their attackers,” said Duke, vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s my hope and prayer that today will be known as the day their relief began,” he said. “We must join together in prayer, advocacy, acts of mercy and grace from this day and onward until Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, faithful and faithless live together in the Middle East in peaceful harmony. We can and should do no less.”

Andrew White, chaplain of St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad, shepherds a church that has experienced much suffering.

“I used to say, ‘I’m not leaving you. Don’t you leave me,’” White said at the news conference regarding his church’s parishioners. “I can’t say that anymore, because I know if my loved ones stay, they might be killed. I know if my loved ones remain, the chance of them surviving is very little.

“I have been shot at. I have been kidnapped ... I have had my church blown up and destroyed. I have had my [medical] clinic destroyed. And yet, we always come back. We always build it again immediately.

“Our biggest problem is we feel forgotten by the church [in the West] ... Our biggest problem is that the church is not with us,” he said.

The statement calls for a special envoy from the U.S. government to help protect religious minorities in the Middle East. Wolf and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif., who also spoke at the news conference, are lead sponsors for their parties of legislation to authorize the presidential appointment of such a diplomat. The House of Representatives passed their bill in both 2011 and 2013, most recently by a 402-22 vote in September. The Senate failed to vote on the measure either time.

ERLC President Russell D. Moore and Richard Pates of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) asked Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah in a March 4 letter to lift their hold on the bill. Their reported hold has prevented the opportunity for a floor vote on the Senate version – the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, S. 653 – under the chamber’s rules.

The “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action” also urges the Obama administration to institute a review to certify that U.S. foreign aid supports religious freedom and pluralism. In addition, the statement calls for the American government to provide assistance for refugees.

Among the nearly 190 signers so far to the pledge are Moore; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia; Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and Democratic presidential candidate in 1988; Robert George, professor at Princeton University and chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.; Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Tony Hall, former Democratic congressman and ambassador; Kirsten Powers, columnist for The Daily Beast and a Fox News analyst; Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; and Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Moore was scheduled to speak at the news conference but was unable to travel to Washington because of illness.

The document is available at http://is.gd/KAGpQl.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)
5/12/2014 10:44:31 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



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