October 2009

Urban curriculum aids church in transition

October 28 2009 by David Winfrey, Baptist Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Five white, older adult Sunday School teachers aren’t the first images that come to mind in looking at the “YOU” curriculum for urban, multicultural churches developed by LifeWay Christian Resources.

Photo by Kent Harville

Michael Bingham teaches one of the five adult Sunday School classes at the newly formed St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights in Louisville, Ky. Each class is led by a team of three teachers from the two congregations that merged to form St. Paul.

But the teachers and their recently merged, mixed-race congregation are proving that YOU has fans even in the suburbs.

The teachers are members of St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights, a church in Louisville, Ky., that launched in August when the mostly white Shively Heights Baptist Church merged with the mostly African American St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.

The new congregation averages about 350 in worship and 160 for Sunday School, said Mark Payton, who was pastor at the Shively Heights congregation. “This has been the smoothest transition that I’ve been a part of.”

When combining the adult Sunday Schools, Orlando Allen, director of adult Sunday School for the new congregation, sought both a structure and literature that would serve all members. “We don’t want to end up with white classes and black classes,” Allen said.

For the new structure, Allen created five adult classes, each led by a team of three teachers from both prior congregations. Teachers will rotate monthly through the end of 2009 to promote variety and prevent burnout. “If we mix the teachers, you can typically mix the students,” Allen said. “At least that was my hypothesis, and it’s so far proven to be true.”

Allen proposed the YOU curriculum, which the St. Paul congregation started using shortly before the merger. “YOU is not about the African American congregation nor is it about the Caucasian congregation,” he said. “It is a culturally diverse curriculum.”

Allen said St. Paul chose YOU for three reasons: “One is it has excellent content. The second is it has excellent object lessons. And the third is it has good practical applications.”

It also helps classes to be “growth-oriented” instead of “teaching-oriented,” Allen said, voicing a desire for lessons to provoke members to be proactive and excited about sharing their faith.

“Basically we’re trying to get our classes out of the church building and into the breakrooms and the boardrooms,” Allen said. “We want the participants leaving the classroom thinking, ‘Now, what do I need to do?’”

Photo by Kent Harville

Larry Mucker teaches one of the five adult Sunday School classes at St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights. Teachers rotate monthly to promote variety and prevent burnout.

The initial test came the first month of the merger when former members of the mostly white Shively Heights church taught YOU to all five adult classes.

Payton said he was initially concerned how teachers from his former church would accept the new Sunday School literature. “It’s unusual that all your teachers would be on board with it, but they loved it,” he said. “The main thing they’re saying to me is there’s almost too much information.”

Payton said he’s impressed with the formatting, which includes word studies and other resources all in one book. “It was easy to navigate,” he said. “All the information you needed was in that book, but you didn’t have to go hunting for it. They told you where to go.”

Teacher Jim Hornback said Shively Heights members have taken to the new curriculum as well as they had to previous LifeWay literature.

“It seems to have worked really well,” Hornback said. “The lesson itself does not make any difference if you were teaching it to an all-black (class) or all-white or a mixture. I’ve gotten a lot of good responses back from the class....

“Typically, the previous material we used was pretty much dissecting the Scripture from theological standpoints,” Hornback reflected. “This one seems to offer a whole lot more built-in illustrations and examples, so that a teacher who may not have a lot of resources available otherwise would not have to go outside the material to fully round out the lesson.”

Lincoln Bingham, pastor of the former St. Paul church, said he is delighted to be using YOU. “The main quality of the material is the content. But the recognition of various ethnic groups is also very important to us.

“I’ve always preferred LifeWay in terms of biblical content, but it had no positive images of African Americans to show that we are strong Christians, we are advancing the Kingdom of God,” Bingham said. “But now this material reflects muliticultural images.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Winfrey is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky. For more information about LifeWay’s “YOU” curriculum, visit LifeWay.com/you. For the initial story about the merger of Shively Heights Baptist Church and St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, click here.)

Related story

Sunday School in black culture examined

10/28/2009 9:42:00 AM by David Winfrey, Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Bev Shea gives prison 100th birthday gift

October 27 2009 by Marilyn Stewart, Baptist Press

ANGOLA — The familiar voice of George Beverly Shea, still rich at 100 years of age, filled the prison chapel with the old redemption story that radically changes lives. Every eye in the 800-seat room at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola was on him.

Shea, the musical face of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for six decades, was at the maximum security prison to pass along a Rodgers 3 manual draw knob organ he had received in honor of his 100th birthday Feb. 1.

BP photo by Marilyn Stewart

George Beverly Shea, at 100, packed Angola Prison’s 800-seat Tudy Chapel.

The organ was from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin Graham presented it to Shea at his 100th birthday party and told him the organ one day would be given to the prison.

“Franklin said the organ would be mine as long as I’m alive,” Shea told the crowd. “But every night, on my pillow, I would think about it.”

Shea told the crowd he decided to go ahead and give the organ to the prison chapel because he didn’t want to miss out on the joy of giving it away.

The Graham organization’s relationship with Angola began when Franklin Graham preached a one-day evangelistic event there three years ago. Graham subsequently raised money to build chapels at Camp F, not far from the death row cellblock, and at B-Line, the community for prison staff members and their families.

Inmates who are trained musicians will play the instrument during worship services at Tudy Chapel, the largest of five chapels in the different units making up the penitentiary.

“It is an honor to sit behind the Rodgers organ,” inmate Gary Landry said. “It is like sitting in the seat of a Mercedes car. It is the top of the line.”

“The fact that the organ was given by the legendary George Beverly Shea whom I loved and followed as a youth is very surreal,” inmate Wayne Guidry said. “It is an honor to play an instrument that is one of the most well-made and most expensive instruments that I will ever lay my hands on.”

Shea sang such favorites as “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked” and “In Times Like These,” but when he sang his signature song, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” hands went up in praise and amens echoed around the room.

Shea told the crowd of writing the tune to “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at age 23 at his mother’s request. The son of a Methodist minister, Shea was born in 1909 in Ontario, Canada.

BP photo by Marilyn Stewart

George Beverly Shea acknowledges the warm welcome from inmates at Angola Prison, where he donated his 100th birthday gift from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — a Rodgers organ — to the prison’s Tudy Chapel. 

John Innes, organist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for 40 years, accompanied Shea on the Rodgers organ and played an interlude of hymns.

Between songs, Shea told anecdotes from his long career, such as the time he placed second to a yodeler in a singing contest. Shea quipped about his feminine-sounding first name, saying he received an invitation once to join a beauty contest, with the instructions to “be sure and bring your bathing suit.”

Shea challenged the inmates with a favorite quote, “What I know about God is little, but what I do know has changed my life.”

At the end, as Shea was helped from the stage to a waiting wheelchair, the crowd stood to their feet in applause. His daughter and grandson were present for the event.

Warden Burl Cain introduced Shea to the crowd and said his life and ministry was a testimony to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Cain thanked New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and other donors and friends for being faithful to prison ministry.

The Angola prison once was called the “bloodiest prison in the nation.” When Cain came as warden more than a dozen years ago, he began a campaign to introduce the Gospel to inmates.

A July 2009 state correction systems press release reported that some 2,500 inmates participate in “moral rehabilitation programs” at the prison and that violence is at an all-time low.

Shea began his career in radio during the Great Depression and joined the Billy Graham evangelistic team in 1947. He has 58 RCA recordings, 10 Grammy nominations and a 1965 Grammy for the album “Southland Favorites.” Shea has sung in front of more than 210 million people at Billy Graham crusades.

A tribute to Shea is on display at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte through the end of October.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Stewart is a correspondent for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications team.)

Related story
Chaplain walks alongside Angola inmates
10/27/2009 4:37:00 AM by Marilyn Stewart, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Chaplain walks alongside Angola inmates

October 27 2009 by Mickey Noah, Baptist Press

ANGOLA, La. — Angola Prison is home to the worst of the worst — murderers, rapists, armed robbers and habitual felons. It’s also home to godly men like North American Mission Board chaplain Robert Toney and prison warden Burl Cain.

NAMB photo

For 10 years, North American Mission Board-commissioned chaplain Robert Toney has served at Angola Prison in Louisiana, the largest maximum state penitentiary in the United States.

The average prison sentence at Angola is a whopping 93 years. That is, for those who don’t have life sentences. Some 3,700 of the prison’s 5,000 prisoners are in for life, so most will die there. If their families don’t claim their bodies, they’ll be buried there.

Officially the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Some 60 percent of the inmates are African American; 40 percent are white and Hispanic.

Staffed by 1,800, it’s also called “The Farm” — located on 18,000 acres in West Feliciana Parish near Mississippi. Angola is guarded on three sides by the Mississippi River. Escape attempts are rare.

Angola is so large it is the only prison in the United States to run its own radio station. Tom Hanks’ movie, “The Green Mile,” was based on life on death row at Angola in the 1930s, while films such as “Dead Man Walking” and “Monster’s Ball” also were partially filmed there.

But Toney, the chaplain, calls Angola “the land of new beginnings.” Toney, 39, is a Gloster, Miss., native who answered a call to the ministry as a high school senior. He came to Angola in 1999 after graduating from Mississippi College and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Angola doesn’t have to be the end of the road,” Toney said of the prison, where an estimated 2,000 inmates are born-again Christians.

Toney loves his job. In late September, for instance, he spent time escorting 101-year-old George Beverly Shea — who donated an organ to the prison chapel — around Angola. But like any job, some days for Toney are better than others.

“Most of what I do here is simply one-on-one contact with the guys, getting to know them as real people,” Toney said. “I like to walk out of my office, go down the hall and just be a normal everyday person — ministering, listening and caring for these guys. If people would just listen to the inmates and take some time with them, it would hold down a lot of violence.”

The more gut-wrenching part of Toney’s job is getting to know an inmate, forming a bond with him, seeing him accept Christ and become a man profoundly changed by the gospel, only to later have to accompany him as he walks to Angola’s execution room.

Toney recalled “Feltus,” one of the prisoners he’s known who, shackled in chains, took that final walk down death row, the so-called “green mile.”

“Warden Cain asked me to pray and minister to him. But what was amazing was that Feltus told me he wanted to pray for me and for the officers who were charged with carrying out his execution. He prayed for me and I for him.

“He showed me his hand, which had John 3:16 written on it,” Toney said. “Feltus walked into the execution room and moments later, came out in a body bag. That’s hard to take, and the next day, I had to go back to his unit and realized he wasn’t there. I always have to struggle with that.”

In addition to his daily ministry to inmates, Toney and Cain were key players in the establishment of an accredited extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola.

Photo by Joe Westbury

Stone crosses mark the graves of prisoners who never left Angola. Some 3,700 of the prison’s 5,000 inmates are in for life, so most will die here.

“The Bible college here is a miracle story,” Toney said. “It has brought tremendous hope to the prison population. Inmates can graduate with a B.A. degree in religion, a legitimate degree. They can go to LSU or anywhere they want to go and build on that degree.

“But it wouldn’t have happened without Southern Baptists and the vision that Baptists had,” Toney said, referring to the late Landrum Leavell, then-president of New Orleans Seminary, and T.W. Terrell, director of missions in Louisiana’s Judson Baptist Association.

Cain, 67, has been Angola’s warden the last 15 years. He and Toney also have been instrumental in establishing similar Bible colleges at prisons in Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Kentucky and Alabama prison Bible colleges are in the works.

Inmate Ron Hicks, serving a life sentence for murder, is just one Bible college graduate Toney is proud of.

In a prison of many smaller churches, “Ron Hicks is a young man who pastors the fastest-growing church in Angola,” Toney said. “At Angola, we don’t have gangs doing bad things. Our gangs are churches and our gang leaders are preachers who are preaching the gospel.

“Ron Hicks is a special young man, the same age as me. But even in his situation, God has brought us together, and I’ve been blessed to encourage him as a pastor, husband and father. Ron encourages me just to see what God has done in his life and how God uses him.”

Sentenced at 19, Hicks says from the day he entered Angola Prison in 1989, “I repented and asked God to forgive me for what I did. From that day forward, I just sold out for Christ. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been living for Jesus to the best of my ability with the help of the Holy Spirit.

“Chaplain Toney’s doing a wonderful job and is a great inspiration,” Hicks said. “He’s got a big heart of compassion for the men here.”

Cain agrees with Hicks that Toney — although physically intimidating at 6’2” and 260 lbs. — has a tender heart.

“He’s a big old guy who’s tall and strong but he’s got a heart for the Lord,” Cain said. “He struggles like all of us to be in God’s will, but the inmates love him and he was a driving force for the Bible college.

“With 3,700 men serving life sentences, this is as hardcore a prison as there is,” the warden said. “But because of men like Robert Toney and Ron Hicks, this prison is safer than most cities. It’s amazing what God can do with people like them.”

Toney is just one of more than 300 North American Mission Board prison chaplains serving across the United States. In all, 3,200 SBC-commissioned and endorsed chaplains are ministering in institutions, the military, corporations, healthcare and public safety.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Robert Toney and other chaplain ministries, visit www.namb.net and click on the “Missionary Focus” gallery.)

Related story
Bev Shea gives prison 100th birthday gift
10/27/2009 4:31:00 AM by Mickey Noah, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Former Okla. pastor sentenced for molestation

October 27 2009 by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

JAY, Okla. — A former Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after confessing to sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl who attended his church.

Joshua Spires, 28, now of Odessa, Texas, pleaded guilty Oct. 13 to 10 counts of lewd molestation that occurred while he was senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jay, Okla.

Delaware County Judge Alicia Littlefield sentenced Spires to a 20-year prison sentence with 10 years suspended on each count to be served concurrently, meaning he would be eligible for parole in 8 1/2 years. If convicted by a jury, he could have been sentenced to up to 200 years in prison — the full 20 years for each count.

Josh Spires, 28, confessed to an “inappropriate, unlawful sexual relationship” with a 15-year-old girl who was formerly a member of his youth group.

Spires was also fined $10,000 for victim’s compensation under a 2005 law providing financial assistance to victims who suffer physical or psychological injury as a result of a criminal act. Media reports said the victim’s family was consulted about the plea agreement.

Court documents said Spires sexually assaulted the girl, once a member of his youth group, every Sunday for a year at the church. The acts took place about an hour before services began, either on his desk or a couch in the church office.

Both Spires, who was married, and the girl said their relationship was consensual, but Oklahoma law states that a 15-year-old cannot consent to a sexual relationship.

The girl reportedly told police that Spires began to tell her that he loved her when she was in seventh grade and he was her youth pastor. After she broke off the relationship last November to date a high-school student, Spires began calling and sending her text messages threatening to commit suicide if she did not take him back. The victim said Spires’ obsession escalated into threats of harm against her and her boyfriend.

Spires, a native Texan who moved to Oklahoma in 2002, told the Tulsa World in August that he was pastor at First Baptist Church for four years until he was asked to leave July 31 after his conduct came to light.

“My goal is not to disgrace the church and not cause my family or the other family any harm,” Spires told the newspaper. “I don’t know how the church found out. I wish it had never happened.”

Spires added that he was deeply remorseful for hurting his wife and two small children.

The victim and her mother reportedly called police Aug. 3, and Spires was arrested Aug. 25. Spires confessed at the time that he had an “inappropriate, unlawful sexual relationship.”

A Southern Baptist Convention database still lists Spires as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jay, a 140-member congregation founded in 1917.

A church web site also still listed him as pastor as of Oct. 26.
10/27/2009 4:27:00 AM by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Most churches holding steady financially

October 27 2009 by Religion Press Release Service

INDIANAPOLIS — More than two-thirds of congregations in a new study on congregational finances in the current recession reported that their fundraising receipts increased or remained the same in the first half of 2009 compared to 2008, even as the recession was worsening.

The findings are part of the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, a joint project of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Alban Institute, based in the Washington, DC area. The study was based on more than 1,500 responses, nearly all from the membership of the Alban Institute.

Almost 37 percent of congregations reported an increase in fundraising for the first half of 2009 over 2008. Another 34 percent reported that fundraising receipts stayed the same between 2008 and the first half of 2009.

Nevertheless, nearly 30 percent of congregations experienced a decrease in giving in 2009. This is 8.1 percentage points more than reported a decline in 2008.

“The recession has affected many congregations throughout the United States,” said Una Osili, research director at the Center on Philanthropy. “One-third of responding congregations reported making budget cuts in 2009 and another quarter kept their operational budget the same, not allowing for any increases in the cost of living.”

Just 6.8 percent of congregations reduced the number of full-time staff in response to the recession. Slightly more, 10.7 percent, laid off part-time staff. Nearly 16 percent did not increase staff salaries, while almost 15 percent cut utility costs and 13.6 percent reduced program costs.

“While many congregations have been hit hard by the recession, this study underscores the remarkable resilience of congregations, as evidenced in the extraordinary and imaginative ways they are reaching out to meet the needs of their parishioners and people in their community,” said William Enright, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center. “We frequently hear about the experiences of larger congregations and how they are coping with economic challenges, while the story of average and smaller congregations often has been wrapped in silence. This study breaks that silence.”

Congregations responded to the recession in a wide variety of ways, from feeding the homeless and providing emergency cash assistance to those in need to hosting community gardens, offering support groups and networking events for the unemployed, helping with financial planning, and increasing partnerships with other community groups.

Some congregations fared better than others. “Growth congregations,” those where attendance and finances have been growing over the past five years, were more likely to report positive fundraising results. Congregations with $600,000 to $999,999 in revenue, weekly attendance of more than 300 people, younger congregants (average age under 50), and those reporting a higher average income of congregants (greater than $60,000) were more likely to report an increase in fundraising receipts.

“Survival congregations,” those where attendance and finances have dropped by more than 10 percent over the past five years, were more likely to report a decline in fundraising. Other congregations that were more likely to report a decrease included those with annual revenue of less than $150,000, weekly attendance of less than 100 people, older congregants (average age 61 or older), and those where the average income of congregants was less than $40,000.

“This is one of the first looks we have had into the economic realities faced by American congregations during a time of global financial crisis,” said Dr. James Wind, president of the Alban Institute. “We are pleased to have partnered in opening up a fascinating and complex story of national significance. The survey results demonstrate that local congregations, which we often take for granted and treat with misleading conventional wisdom, are much more dynamic, creative, and strong than many people think. Clearly, not all congregations are alike — that is one of the major discoveries of the survey. Some are clearly struggling to make ends meet. But many more - and this will be a surprise to many — are holding their own and growing during one of the toughest seasons in our national history. More than that, the survey reveals the great variety of ways they are ministering to an overextended nation.”

The 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, with 1,540 respondents, is not a nationally representative study of all congregations in the U.S., but rather is drawn primarily from the Alban Institute’s membership. More than three-fourths of respondents were from Protestant denominations.

10/27/2009 4:25:00 AM by Religion Press Release Service | with 0 comments

What do Internet rumors say about our faith?

October 26 2009 by Robert Marus & Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press

WASHINGTON — Thanks to the Internet, some gullible American Christians can engage in one of their favorite hobbies — digging up the metaphorical corpse of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and rhetorically flogging it — more easily than ever before.

Even though the famous atheist’s body was discovered in 1998 and positively identified in Texas — and even though she apparently has been dead since she disappeared in 1995 — patently false rumors about her alleged anti-Christian campaigns continue to spread. Credulous Christians who once forwarded these kinds of rumors in mimeographed chain letters or spread them on talk radio now can broadcast them around the world with the mere click of a mouse.

Like creatures out of a Grade B horror movie, some urban myths and folk legends refuse to die. And for some reason, they seem to haunt the e-mail in-boxes of Christians more often than not.

And, of course, O’Hair is not alone in the annals of perceived enemies of Christ about whom some Christians will spread the most ridiculous stories, not bothering to do the merest hint of fact-checking on them.

From the old Procter & Gamble Satanism libel to tales of more recent vintage about President Obama’s faith and citizenship, Internet-fueled rumors seem to run rampant. And, frighteningly, Christians seem at the very least to be as susceptible as the population at large to spread false stories.

So, why are Christians so willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors? And more troubling, why are Christians, who should hold the highest standards of truth-telling, so eager to spread rumors — and even downright libels?

Christians are not necessarily any more gullible than the population at large — and there’s the rub, said Bill Tillman, a Christian-ethics professor at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary, a Texas Baptist school.

“Their gullibility seems to follow the culture’s levels and channels of gullibility,” Tillman said. “That similarity should give Christians pause to think: If I am no different than the surrounding culture on the treatment of e-mails and communication they carry, with what else am I no different?

“I do think that, like the larger culture, some Christians do follow certain patterns that reflect where their theological ideas parallel their political ideologies.”

The atheist who just won’t die
Historically, O’Hair is the hands-down favorite target of the Christian rumor mill. Some tales tied to her name have been in circulation for more than a quarter century — before fax machines and e-mail made rumor-spreading infinitely easier.

The most pervasive and indestructible O’Hair rumor credits her for a campaign to ban religious broadcasting. It links her to a petition to the Federal Communications Commission the e-mails claim would remove all Sunday worship services from radio and television. O’Hair typically is identified in the e-mail as the atheist “whose effort successfully eliminated the use of the Bible reading and prayer from public schools 15 years ago.”

Some versions of the e-mail link the petition to an effort to remove religiously themed television shows, specifically mentioning Touched by an Angel.

There indeed once was a petition about religious broadcasting filed with the FCC, but that’s the extent of the truth in this rumor. The petition, called RM 2493, was filed nearly 35 years ago — but not by O’Hair, and not to eliminate religious broadcasting.

According to Snopes.com, a web site that debunks urban legends, e-mail rumors and other myths, Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam asked the FCC to prevent religious organizations from obtaining licenses to operate radio and TV channels reserved for education.

The petition was not intended to ban all religious broadcasting, but rather to prevent religious organizations that operate universities and schools from receiving FCC licenses for broadcast frequencies reserved for educational use. The FCC turned down the petition in August 1975. And O’Hair never had anything to do with such a petition.

There are other problems with the latest rumor. O’Hair’s infamous court case — in 1964, not 15 years ago — didn’t eliminate Bible reading and prayer from public schools but rather led to the Supreme Court decision that said government-sanctioned school prayer and school-led devotional Bible study are unconstitutional.

Moreover, the FCC would not have the authority to ban religious broadcasting, since such a rule would blatantly violate the First Amendment’s religion clauses and would be overturned by the Supreme Court.

But the rumor just won’t die. According to Snopes.com, the FCC has received at least 30 million letters, faxes or e-mails expressing opposition to this petition since 1974. The only new element in this later incarnation is the mention of Touched by an Angel. Laying aside any curiosity about why anyone would be bothered by the cancellation of a TV show that’s been off the air six years, there remains the problem of how someone who’s been dead for nearly 15 years could testify before the FCC.

But O’Hair’s posthumous powers really shouldn’t surprise us. Labeled by Life magazine in 1964 as “the most hated woman in America,” O’Hair is considered enough of an enemy by many Christians that they are willing to believe just about anything about her. The advent of the Internet only made the rumors easier to spread and harder to correct.

Rumors about what people love to hate
Rumors like the ones tied to O’Hair become more powerful when they tap into the hostility and distrust toward government that is widespread among conservative Christians. It’s easy for the average evangelical to believe any rumor that fits this larger political paradigm.

Factor in a contentious presidential election and the stakes go even higher. During the 2000 campaign—the first in the age of widespread Internet access — dutiful Christian culture-warriors worked overtime.

One popular e-mail rumor claimed then-Attorney General Janet Reno had described evangelical Christians as “cultists” in a 1994 60 Minutes interview. The fabricated story received such wide distribution that Religious Right leaders James Dobson and Jerry Falwell had to warn their followers publicly against believing it.

Another e-mail rumor prevalent that year credited then-Vice President Al Gore with a campaign-speech gaffe. To quote the e-mail: “In his typically stiff, condescending and insincere manner, he said his favorite Bible verse is John 16:3. Of course, the speech writer meant (John) 3:16, but wasn’t even familiar enough with this often-quoted and, of course, often-taken-for-granted Scripture to catch the error. Neither was Gore, and how incredibly appropriate it is.”

John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But John 16:3 reads, “They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.” The implication was obvious: Gore’s misquote was some sort of Freudian slip that revealed his true un-Christian nature.

Like the others, this story is untrue, according to Urban Legends, another web site that investigates e-mail rumors and other folklore — www.urbanlegends.com. The irony of the rumor is its original source.

According to conservative columnist Cal Thomas, the quote is real but Al Gore did not say it — then-President George H.W. Bush did, 20 years ago.

“Bush said it in my presence at a religious broadcasters convention about 1990,” Thomas told Urban Legends. “And I wrote about it in my book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? But somehow it got twisted around and stuck on the Internet and put in Al Gore’s mouth. He (Gore) has got a lot of stuff that he has to defend, but that’s not one of them.’”

Things only got worse in the 2008 election. With one candidate deeply distrusted by the Religious Right having a background unlike any presidential contender before him — a nominally Muslim father from Kenya, a freethinking American mother who raised him in the United States and, for a time, in Indonesia — the rumor mills worked overtime.

Many of those e-mails seemed marketed directly to fearful Christians. One frequently forwarded message — also debunked by Snopes — identifies Barack Obama as the son of a black Muslim from Kenya and a white atheist from Kansas.

“When Obama was two years old, his parents divorced. His father returned to Kenya. His mother then married Lolo Soetoro, a radical Muslim from Indonesia,” the erroneous e-mail reports. “When Obama was 6 years old, the family relocated to Indonesia. Obama attended a Muslim school in Jakarta. He also spent two years in a Catholic school. ...

“Lolo Soetoro, the second husband of Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, introduced his stepson to Islam. Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the radical teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world. ...

“Since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when seeking major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background. ... Also, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he did not use the Holy Bible, but instead the Koran.”

First of all, while his father was raised a Muslim, he did not practice the faith by the time the younger Obama was born. Obama has described his mother as a religious seeker who was raised a Christian but never has described her as an atheist. His stepfather was an oil executive, and no credible accounts ever said he was a radical Islamist — the “fact” that he married an alleged “atheist” would sort of mitigate against that.

Obama attended a Catholic school and a predominantly Muslim public school in Indonesia in which religion classes were offered. There is no evidence radical Saudi Wahabism was ever taught in that school — although the accusation that Obama attended such an Islamic “madrassah” was so pervasive it made its way into the mainstream media — via Fox News — in 2008.

Obama made a profession of faith in Christ and joined Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the late 1980s, long before he sought public office. And the Koran swearing-in rumor is patently false. Its originator apparently has Obama confused with Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who became the first Muslim ever elected to Congress in 2006 and raised some controversy when he was sworn in on a historic copy of the Koran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Rumors about the living
Political rumors like these are more damaging even than the O’Hair rumors because Obama, Reno and Gore are real, living public figures with careers and reputations on the line.

Of course, rumors can be used to enhance a reputation as well. One e-mail hoax in recent years that received wide circulation was that President George W. Bush, at a thank-you dinner for campaign workers after the 2000 election, took time out of his duties to share the gospel with the son of a volunteer. As the story goes, the boy prayed to receive Christ on the spot, with Bush leading the prayer.

It is, unfortunately, untrue. Bush’s campaign never held any such dinner, and campaign officials said the pressing time commitments of the ongoing Florida recount would not have allowed Bush to deviate so dramatically from his schedule even if he had wanted to.

Those minor details didn’t stop many church newsletters and web sites — even the webite of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication — from reporting it as fact.

The Bush rumor fits a pattern that folklorists call “cult of personality” myths. They often spring up around new presidents and are most prominent among the president’s core supporters.

Some Christians are so willing to believe rumors that reflect well on their heroes and poorly on their opponents that they abandon even a modest concern for the veracity of the rumors. Yet the Bible clearly prohibits “bearing false witness” and spreading rumors and gossip. Perhaps Christians who spread such rumors think they serve a greater purpose, as if the end justifies the means, some ethicists speculate.

The real truth
Ethicist Tillman called on Christians to examine their biases and prejudices, which he described as “tough exercise,” because it forces Christians to explore the influences that shaped them.

Gullibility may grow out of fear and anxiety, he added. And that directly relates to what people believe.

“I suggest to my students, ‘Tell me something about your fears, and I will tell you something of your theology,’” Tillman said. “Dealing with our fears — an action usually dismissed or ignored — may be one of the keys to understanding just which e-mails we forward and those we don’t.”

David Gushee, a Baptist ethicist at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, agreed Christians who spread tall tales by e-mail reflect a significant slice of American culture and act out of deep emotion.

“Certainly, many Christians seem attracted to conspiracy theories and urban myths and these mass e-mails that propagate them,” he said. “But I am not sure if that is because they are Christian or because they are just Americans of a certain type — people who feel angry about the way the world is, who feel alienated from ‘elite culture,’ who feel embattled by cultural trends that they cannot control and do not at all like, and who often feel looked down upon by those with more education or higher social status.”

The key to confronting such bad habits among Christians is proper spiritual formation on the ethics of truth-telling, gossip and rumor-spreading, experts said.

“Congregations should nourish true spiritual friendships — relationships in which others will love us enough to instruct and correct us,” said Robert Kruschwitz, director of Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics .

“If we are gullible, we need some help to sort out the nonsense we should question from the truth that we should spread… If we are fearful and envious, just too quick to gossip or criticize, we need that deep love that calms our fears and removes the need to impress others. That love comes from God through Christ, but the Holy Spirit often communicates it to us through our good spiritual friends.”

Tillman said Christians should learn the “put off” and “put on” pattern of behavior the Apostle Paul taught in the New Testament.

“He exhorted the early Christians to ‘put on’ virtues — good character traits. … My thought is that Paul intended to educate people to fill their minds with positive things and living the gospel out of those frameworks than if they were loaded down with ungodly traits,” he said.

“With the ‘put off’ side of his guidelines, he told the early Christians to put away vices, one of the primary ones being gossip. … That term, by the way, is understood off the pages of the New Testament as tale-bearing, tattling, slandering — the acts which should not be attached to any Christian.”

Gushee pointed to multiple New Testament principles pertinent to the matter of spreading urban myths — loving one’s neighbor and one’s perceived enemy, not participating in gossip, not judging others and observing the Golden Rule.

“In general, we need to help Christians act like Christians in public life and not just in private life, and not to get sucked into the polarization, partisan idolatry and demonization so common now in media and government,” Gushee said.

Related story
Ethicists share guidelines for forwarding
10/26/2009 9:44:00 AM by Robert Marus & Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Ethicists share guidelines for forwarding

October 26 2009 by Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press

DALLAS — Blessed are they who hit the “delete” key instead of “forward” when it comes to mean-spirited e-mails of questionable veracity, several Christian ethicists suggested.

Christians have a responsibility to tell the truth and to tell it in love, they agreed. They suggested several guides:
  • Administer the “smell test.” Christians should ask if any e-mail passes the “smell test” before passing it along, said Bill Tillman, holder of the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary, a Texas Baptist school. If “something just doesn’t smell right about this,” delete the message, he suggested.
Passing along stinky e-mails that fail the test can damage a Christian’s witness. David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta (and an Associated Baptist Press columnist), suggested a couple of pointed questions to ask: “Is this one of those mass-e-mail forwards so often shown to be filled with innuendo and half-truths? Do I really want to be one of those people who fills up other people’s in-boxes with forwarded e-mails?”

Obvious warning signs that signal questionable content include inadequate or invisible sources, use of obviously partisan or ideologically agenda-driven sources or readily apparent defamatory speech, he added.
  • Don’t just trust. Verify. Christians have a responsibility to ensure the truthfulness of any information they communicate, the ethicists agreed.
Tillman recommended using trusted fact-checking websites such as snopes.com, truthorfiction.com and hoax-slayer.com.

He also suggested checking the original source of information.

“The integrity of the sender — the original sender — can verify the authenticity of the information,” he said.

“So much copy/paste work can be done now that even verification processes won’t always reveal some of the real sources of an e-mail. Notice the amount or lack of details. Embellished e-mails’ content gets deleted last and forwarded more quickly. But check the modifiers, language (and) formatting. Do they scream off the screen? If they do, the e-mail is probably questionable.”
  • Consider the “seven deadlies.” Before forwarding an e-mail, Robert Kruschwitz, director of the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, suggested asking whether the desire to spread the message relates to any of the seven deadly sins — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.
“Is this titillation, preoccupied with our pleasures or financial profit, vain or envious, misguided striking back at our enemies or a time-wasting distraction?” he recommends asking.
  • Check motives. First, consider why someone wrote the e-mail in the first place. Gushee suggested asking: “What are the likely motives of those who sent me this e-mail?”
Next, Christians should examine their own motives. Before passing along information — or a juicy story by e-mail — Christians should ask themselves what prompts their desire, Tillman said. Ask: “Just what is it about me that I have to pass along something that may make someone else appear smaller, weaker or dumber?”

Self-examination may reveal “our fear that we are not appreciated and our views are not taken seriously, and thus our desire to make ourselves and our perspective look better by making someone else, or their views, look worse,” Kruschwitz added.
  • Measure gossip against the Golden Rule. “If the e-mail is about someone’s character, is the content something I would be willing to say to another’s face? If one passes the content on, will there be any advancement of the values of the kingdom of God?” Tillman suggested asking.
Gushee advised Christians to ask if they have checked the information with the person being attacked or those who represent that person.

When it comes to digitally transmitted gossip, Gushee recommended applying the Golden Rule in terms of “pass on accusations about others as you would want others to pass on accusations about you.”

Related story
What do Internet rumors say about our faith?

10/26/2009 9:40:00 AM by Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Conscience clauses not just about abortion

October 26 2009 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Faced with a request to give an unmarried female patient a prescription for birth control pills, Dr. Michele Phillips looked to her conscience for the answer.

“I’m not going to give any kind of medication I see as harmful,” said Phillips of San Antonio. The drugs would not protect her patient from “emotional trauma from multiple partners,” Phillips reasoned, or sexually transmitted diseases. “I could not ethically give that type of medication to a single woman.”

After the evangelical Christian refused to write the prescription, she resigned her position. She now does contract work at a faith-based practice that permits her to “prescribe according to my ethical values.”

Stock.xchng photo by Paul Barker

Medical technology has surged forward in recent years, leading to many life-saving and life-giving procedures. At the same time, legal and ethical remedies haven’t kept pace, and officials at the state and federal level are still working out how to address the sometimes competing needs and values of doctors and patients.

For example, the Obama administration announced last February that it plans to rescind regulations enacted at the end of President Bush’s term that permit health care workers to abstain from performing procedures they oppose for moral or religious reasons. Eight months later, the administration has still not announced new rules.

Often, experts say, the debate boils down to a question of convenience versus conscience, of personal choices affected by medical personnel.

“Do we really want co-workers deciding if our religious motivations and reasons are correct?” asked Joan Henriksen Hellyer, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

For example, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities here this month, a panel including Hellyer discussed the disparate dilemmas facing health care workers today, such as:
  • A housekeeper who refuses to clean an embryonic stem cell lab.
  • An ultrasound technologist who doesn’t want to work on Saturday.
  • A respiratory tech who refuses to turn off a ventilator.
Bioethicist Holly Fernandez Lynch said consistency is crucial to prevent patients from facing discrimination based on race, religion or sexual orientation.

“A consistent objection to a service, I think, is totally appropriate as long as there is someone available to provide that service at a reasonable distance,” said Lynch, author of Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise.

But, she acknowledged, “the phrase `reasonable distance’ is really a difficult one to figure out.”

While larger communities and hospitals have the luxury of a range of practitioners, conscience quandaries are trickier in smaller communities, said Leslie LeBlanc, managing editor of The Journal of Clinical Ethics.

“It’s a very difficult question because you can’t compel someone to do something they think is morally wrong and, by the same token, clinicians make a promise to help people in need,” said LeBlanc, who attended the bioethicists’ meeting.

State legislatures have passed a plethora of legislation on the issue, with most permitting health care providers to shun abortion services, the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute reports. Some states, including Louisiana, have passed broader laws that protect health care workers who object to procedures such as cloning, stem cell research, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Rob Vischer, associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, argues for letting the free market determine access to all health care services.

“I think people want to have a space to live what they believe,” said Vischer, author of the forthcoming Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State. “I think that’s more consistent with the common good than everybody grabbing for the reins of state power.”

Luke Vander Bleek, a Morrison, Ill., pharmacist is fighting in court against an Illinois regulation that requires him to dispense Plan B and other emergency contraception.

“I wanted to be able to practice pharmacy in this small town that I live in where I raised my family and I wanted to be able to do it with a good, clear conscience and sleep well at night,” said Vander Bleek, a Roman Catholic.

He said other pharmacies within 12 miles could provide those services instead.

Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, counters that patients should be able to access drugs if they are legal.

“Putting barriers in their way to access those medications only hurts public health,” she said.

As the arguments continue, Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, said physicians like Phillips are “a growing reality” and he worries that other physicians might quit permanently. In an April poll, his organization found that an overwhelming percentage of faith-based physicians preferred ending their medical practice to violating their conscience.

“This is the most urgent issue for our membership,” he said. “Because they realize that if they lose this battle, they will no longer be practicing medicine.”
10/26/2009 9:36:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

InVision vehicle for student summer service

October 23 2009 by Teresa Buckner, Mars Hill College

When Mars Hill College Chaplain Todd Boling asked sophomore Britney Acosta to be part of the summer InVision Ministry Team, he gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“The way Todd presented it was, I would be living out of a van with four other people, traveling around, and singing,” Acosta said

That might sound like a nightmare for some, but for a college student like Britney, it was an exciting chance to put her faith into action.

“That just sounded like a really awesome experience,” she said.

Acosta is one of five members of the InVision Creative Ministries Team that traveled this summer throughout North Carolina and even made one lengthy trip into Canada. The team taught Bible study at summer camps and led churches in creative worship through drama, interpretive movement and music.

Boling began InVision last year, with help from Rick Trexler, campus ministry team leader for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

As a Kentucky campus minister years ago, Trexler guided similar mission teams during Boling’s student years.

Contributed photo

InVision Creative Ministries Team traveled North Carolina over the summer helping with worship services and doing service projects.

“My experience serving on that team for two summers made a significant impact on me and what I understood my calling to be,” Boling said.

“When I accepted this position at Mars Hill College, Rick and I saw this as an opportunity to create a similar summer missions team here in North Carolina,” Boling said. “Our hope was that we would be able to offer the same life-changing experience we had in Kentucky for our students in North Carolina.”

InVision team members also did service projects for host churches, including leading worship in nursing homes, working at a summer camp for troubled youths, and even clearing brush.

Team member Andrew Blakely, a student at Appalachian State University (ASU) said he joined InVision because of his interest in using drama in ministry.  But traveling and meeting new people also made the summer “amazing.”

“I had the opportunity to spend the summer on a great team of people while sharing the message of Jesus Christ through drama, music, and interpretive movement,” Blakely said.  

“I was able to grow in my faith while using the talents God has given me. This summer was something I will never forget.”

According to Acosta, the most important thing about the summer was the effect the team had on young people.

“Time and time again, we would have a youth group leader come up to us at the end of the week and say, ‘Our youth have never been excited before about doing something like this,’” Acosta said.   

Youth from several churches continued to instigate creative ministry programs after the team left. “It was really exciting to see the effect we had on the youth groups,” she said.  “I think it really impacted them in a cool way.”

InVision team members for 2009 were:  Britney Acosta, Mars Hill College; Andrew Blakely, Appalachian State University (ASU); Kristen Johnson, ASU; Amanda Mitchell, ASU and Michael Tyndal, Campbell University.

InVision is part of the Baptist Campus Ministries-funded summer missions efforts. College students across the state raise money — typically about $85,000 — to send selected students on high impact summer mission ministries.

Applications for the 2010 teams are due by Dec. 1. Interviews will be January 22-24 at Caraway Conference Center. Contact Trexler at rtrexler@ncbaptist.org.

10/23/2009 8:17:00 AM by Teresa Buckner, Mars Hill College | with 1 comments

Injured riders get help

October 23 2009 by Mike McWilliams, Special to the Recorder

ASHEVILLE — When Monty Fuchs heard about a fatal motorcycle wreck on Town Mountain Road, he thought it was just another sport bike rider who took the curves a little too fast.

“I saw it on the news, and I kind of judged real quickly and thought, ‘They probably got what they deserved racing up that road,’” Fuchs said. “I felt really bad when I found out who it was.”

Fuchs learned that the victims of the July 24 crash were Nathan Jake Bucker and his wife, Felicia.

Fuchs, the technology director for Buncombe County Schools, works with Felicia Buckner.

She was riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by her husband when he lost control in a curve and it slid under an oncoming pickup, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol.

The crash killed Nathan Buckner and critically injured his wife.

“As soon as I found out it was Felicia, it just broke my heart,” Fuchs said. “So I started Biker Down.”

Biker Down WNC is a resource and ministry that supports motorcyclists injured in crashes and their families, through prayer, visits and fundraising, Fuchs said.

The group has a web site, bikerdownwnc.org, with an accident updates blog that lists news about victims of recent motorcycle accidents in Western North Carolina. The mountains and winding roads attract motorcyclists from far and wide. When one of them crashes, they might not have any support.

“It takes a while for their (out-of-town bikers’) family to get here and when their family gets here, they don’t know where to eat or where to stay,” Fuchs said.

“I put together Biker Down so that we could minister to them, support them in one way or another.”

Fuchs said there are about 35 people who help Biker Down. Several motorcycle groups, including Freedom Biker Church, Carolina Faith Riders, the Smoky Mountain Harley Owner’s Group and Concerned Bikers Association, have all helped support Biker Down.

The group supports all riders, regardless of what kind of motorcycle they ride or group they might belong to, Fuchs said.

Biker Down has ministered to several injured riders and continues to grow.

Fuchs said he received four e-mails and four phone calls from people on a recent weekday to tell him about a couple of crashes that injured three riders.

“That’s a success in my book,” Fuchs said. “If we had that response in every county west of Hickory, this would be a thriving ministry.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — McWilliams writes for the Asheville Citizen-Times where this article first appeared.)

10/23/2009 8:13:00 AM by Mike McWilliams, Special to the Recorder | with 0 comments

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