September 2010

Dedicated group keeps shape-note singing alive

September 30 2010 by Greg Garrison, Religion News Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The archaic sounds that fill the historic former church sanctuary echo, hauntingly, like a whispering ghost from the past.

Inside the 1902 building that once housed the Second Presbyterian Church, the elaborate archways bounce back the sound of sacred harp singing.

It’s a style of music that once dominated rural evangelical religion, in the days before the Civil War and church organs, when a capella singing was the norm. It’s never entirely died out, in part because of people like Tim Cook.

“It was once common throughout the South,” said Cook, a shape-note singing aficionado who brought his lessons to the former church that’s now part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus.

Cook’s group of more than a dozen interested singers sat facing Cook as the song leader, holding wide-page hymnbooks filled with notes in the shapes of open and solid squares, diamonds, triangles and ovals.

RNS photo by Mark Almond/The Birmingham News

Tim Cook leads a class for shape-note, or Sacred Harp, singing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The ancient music is based on different shaped notes and is sung a cappella.

Throughout the 1800s, the mournful harmonious sounds of a capella shape-note singing reverberated in churches throughout the South. It’s now experiencing a renaissance of sorts in Sacred Harp songbooks and conventions. But while Sacred Harp singing has surged, the slightly more complicated seven-shape-note Alabama Christian Harmony singing still struggles to stay alive.

“We certainly don’t want it to die out,” said Emily Creel Burleson, Ala., who carries on her family’s generations-long love affair with the music. “We do it to promote the heritage and tradition of the music.”

The Internet has helped create a revival for shape-note singing, connecting singers and bringing them together for events across the country.

Cook says having the notes in different shapes makes it easier to read and sing the music in four-part harmony.  

Participants sing the actual note sounds first: “fa” for triangle shape notes, “sol” for oval, “la” for square and “mi” for diamond-shape notes, instead of the lyrics. That’s just a tradition. Then they sing it with the lyrics.

The combination of archaic harmonies and old-style lyrics can be jolting to outsiders. To others, it’s addictive. Many of the shape-note songs were written by English composers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, set to old English dance tunes and carried from churches in rural England by colonial settlers.

The tradition was carried to the South, where many churches continued the shape-note a capella singing of the hymns with complex harmonies. The songs may have archaic, cryptic names such as “Old Hundred,” better known in many hymnbooks as the doxology; “Amazing Grace” appears in shape-note books as “New Britain.”

When pianos and organs became common in churches, a capella singing began to disappear, along with the complicated harmonies in the old hymnbooks.

Cook took up shape-note singing after moving from Michigan to Atlanta in 1995, and now teaches it and leads singings.  

“I’ve always like to sing a capella, four-part harmony,” Cook said. “When I heard this the first time, I said,  That is the voice of heaven.’”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)
9/30/2010 10:04:00 AM by Greg Garrison, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Board creates committee to find N.C. way

September 29 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

After the Baptist State Convention (BSC) board of directors determined it was not feasible to alter the North Carolina Missions Offering (NCMO), members approved a special vision fulfillment committee to discern and affirm a North Carolina Baptist approach to fulfilling Great Commission mandates.

Meeting Sept. 28 at Fort Caswell Assembly the board also approved a BSC health insurance plan to control costs for employees and retirees; approved a new missions partnership with Moldova; approved the $32,685,480 budget recommended earlier by the Executive Committee; recommended several amendments to articles of incorporation and bylaws; approved a 2011 North Carolina Missions Offering goal of $2.1 million, the same goal as 2010, and permitted Caraway Conference Center to solicit churches in February for its capital campaign.

BR photo by Norman Jameson

Baptist State Convention leadership evaluates essential agenda items during Sept. 28 board meeting at Fort Caswell as bad weather approaches. From left, Brian Davis, Milton Hollifield, Bobby Blanton, John Butler, and Convention attorney John Small.

Board members crammed a day and a half meeting into one long day, ending at 10 p.m., to be able to leave Fort Caswell early the next morning ahead of another swell of rain that dropped 10 inches on Wilmington the day before and had closed roads around the coastal city.  

NCMO findings
North Carolina Baptist churches will keep receiving a statewide North Carolina Missions Offering that supports N.C. Baptist Men and church planting after a study showed it “simply not feasible, nor in our best interests” to eliminate the offering, according to Board President Bobby Blanton.

Blanton had appointed a study committee in response to a May motion from board member Austin Rammell to “examine the feasibility” of moving Baptist Men and church planting into the Cooperative Program budget to reflect the priorities Baptists claim. In exchange, Rammell’s motion suggested moving “non-priority” items out of the budget and into a new special offering.

Blanton named to the committee officers of the Convention and of the board, several executive committee members and one member at large.

The committee held an invitation-only listening session Sept. 2 at the Summit Church in Durham, inviting a group designated by Rammell. Seven attended.

Although the committee determined “it was not feasible” to affirm Rammell’s motion “without doing harm to the ministries the NCMO was intended to support,” the committee also felt the exercise was valuable and “we need to continue to listen to all voices across this state,” Blanton said.

So at the board meeting, Blanton proposed a committee that would gather input from Baptists of “partner churches” across the state.

Blanton, pastor of Lake Norman Baptist Church in Mooresville, repeatedly maintained North Carolina Baptists are a diverse group and said, “the time is right” to invite the input of all North Carolina Baptists to determine with Executive Director-treasurer Milton A. Hollifield Jr. how best to discern, affirm and fund North Carolina Baptist efforts to fulfill the Great Commission.

The Executive Committee endorsed the idea fairly easily but it nearly ran aground later that evening when the full board considered it.  It almost disintegrated into generational tensions when Alan Smith of Lake Wylie Baptist Church implied that such an effort gives too much influence to young pastors.

Smith said avenues for input already are in place and, “It’s a sign of weakness to cater to a generation that always wants its way immediately.”

“It’s a selfish generation,” Smith said. The “more mature, older” leaders “need to hold the standard” and not “allow a few people to dictate to us how the structure should function.”

Blanton said it is “no secret” that the seven persons in the listening session related to the NCMO discussion were “next generation pastors.” He said Baptist seminaries are training the next generation that “like it or not” will be leading the Convention.

BR photo by Norman Jameson

Bobby Blanton, left, explains the board's response to earlier motion by Austin Rammell that would have moved North Carolina Mission Offering priorities into the Cooperative Program budget.

“But there are other voices in the Convention that would disagree with those voices,” Blanton said. The listening sessions and study committee will be an effort to be sure all voices have input.

In discussion the new committee’s focus was clearly directed toward the vision Hollifield has published in his “Seven Pillars for Ministry,” which outlines the areas of emphasis he feels will help North Carolina Baptists “become the strongest force in the history of this convention for reaching people with the message of the gospel.”

Aaron Wallace, pastor of Hephzibah Baptist Church, said the purpose of a vision fulfillment committee would not be to present a blank slate and ask, “What do you think we should be doing?”

Instead, he said, “We believe Milton has given us a great vision in the seven pillars” and input from N.C. Baptists would be to “hear if we’re carrying these out in the most effective way.”

The “Seven Pillars” are: practice fervent prayer; promote evangelism and church growth; strengthen existing churches; plant new multiplication churches; increase work with the international community; escalate technology improvements and upgrade the web site; and  reclaim the younger generation of church leaders.

Bill Gay felt too many questions remained and asked for a decision to be tabled until the January board meeting. His request required a two-thirds majority and it barely failed 38-20.

Blanton will appoint seven members of the vision fulfillment committee in consultation with the Baptist State Convention president to be elected in November. Current President Ed Yount, pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church in Conover, is the only announced candidate.

Five other members will be officers of the Baptist State Convention and the president and vice president of the board. The committee will begin work in January 2011 to study “partner churches” perceptions of the North Carolina Convention’s effectiveness in funding and implementing our vision, namely the seven pillars for ministry,” Blanton said in his proposal.

The vision committee is to report its findings to the BSC Executive Committee in August 2011 and to the full board in September 2011.  

Not GCR task force
“This is not a Great Commission Resurgence task force, but a study of how North Carolina Baptists can craft a model that suits us,” said Blanton.

Three other state conventions — Kentucky, Florida and Nevada — will consider their own GCR task force recommendations in November that will dramatically alter state convention ministries if approved.

Seven Pillars for Ministry is available through the Baptist State Convention and here (pdf).

“It is extremely important to reach under reached peoples of the world, and it is equally important to reach those in the area where God has placed us to serve,” Hollifield said.

“The heart of the issue is let’s measure our effectiveness,” said Wallace, also a member of the Rammell motion study committee. 

Rather than be reactive to “all the things floating out there” Wallace said the board should be proactive and tie the Convention’s priorities to Hollifield’s seven pillars.

Hollifield said the vision fulfillment committee’s work would “help answer questions” about whether N.C. Baptist church leaders are satisfied with how the Convention is using mission gifts from churches.

“It’s an opportunity to hear more voices and to consider the effectiveness of what we’re doing,” said Hollifield, who declared his support for the committee. He said he’s been evaluating that very thing “for years” and “great things are happening.”

“But this is an opportunity for us to again give North Carolina Baptists’ input for vision and direction on where we’re moving as a Convention,” he said.

In the Executive Committee meeting David Richardson of First Creedmoor Baptist Church thought the committee is a “wise move” because his church is typical of many, he said, that feel “very detached from what the Convention is doing.”

“Churches have felt out of the loop forever,” said Joe Denson. “Anything we can do to bring people on board is a perfect excuse for doing it.”

“The purpose of all this is to settle on what we feel are the unique opportunities of this state,” Blanton said. “We want as much as possible to be inclusive to all those voices … because this is a very diverse state.”  

Moldova partnership
The board approved initiating a partnership with Moldova Baptists through the new BSC office of Great Commission partnerships.

Executive Leader for Church Planting and Missions Development Chuck Register, Boone optometrist Jeff Sutton and Sutton’s pastor Allan Blume conducted a vision trip to Moldova where they met with pastors of the Baptist unions there and with International Mission Board representatives.

Blume is pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone, which already is traveling to Moldova and Sutton has been going there about 10 years.

Moldova borders Ukraine and has little evangelical witness, although it is not “unreached” by IMB definitions.

Moldovan Baptists send missionaries, too, primarily to Eastern Europe where they minister among Muslims, a group they can gain access to more easily than can Americans.

“Moldova is one of the most open countries in the world,” said Blume, who has traveled extensively. He said no special visas are required and “the people are open and hungry for leadership.”

“This is the best opportunity I’ve seen in my life to capitalize on hunger and openness to share Christ,” he said.

Several immediate moves for North Carolina Baptists will be to host in Moldova a nationwide pastors’ conference; to conduct an evangelistic outreach in each of the 33 districts, utilizing at least one North Carolina church in each; to host a discipleship conference and to conduct a spiritual retreat for Moldovan missionaries.  

Other actions
When Blue Cross Blue Shield announced a 20 percent increase for BSC health insurance premiums, BSC Executive Leader for Business Services John Butler proposed an alternate plan which the Executive Committee approved. It will hold down costs both for the Convention and employees.

Butler asked the Recorder to refrain from carrying the details of the plan until it could be shared with employees Oct. 12. Look for details later.

Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws amendments consist primarily of cleaning up the massive changes of the past two years for consistency and punctuation. Two amendments add flexibility for the Convention to notify churches about issues messengers will deal with at annual meetings by allowing notification to churches by mail, through the Biblical Recorder print edition, the Biblical Recorder website and the Convention’s website.

Caraway Conference Center is preparing for a multi-million dollar campaign for upgrades at the mid-state site. A campaign committee is at work and it received permission to solicit church contributions in a one-time effort in February.

The board approved the 2011 budget of $32,685,480 to present to messengers in November. It is a $2.1 million below the 2010 budget and $6.6 million below the 2009 budget. Gifts through Sept. 17 are $1.9 million or 8 percent below 2009 income.

The 2011 budget includes the sixth straight one-half percentage point increase to ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention, bringing the Cooperative Program division to 65/35 between the BSC and SBC.

Dennis Harrell, retired pastor from Lumberton, was named to fulfill the unexpired term of JoAnn Sanderson on the Biblical Recorder board. Sanderson resigned to devote time to national and international mission trips.
9/29/2010 8:58:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 5 comments

Largest, fastest-growing churches tallied

September 29 2010 by Brooklyn Lowery, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southeast led the way, but churches from coast to coast are on the 2010 list of America’s largest and fastest-growing churches, according to Outreach Magazine based on research from LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

LifeWay Research solicited information regarding average weekend attendance, not membership, in March and February 2010, and 8,000 churches from across the nation responded. LifeWay Research then generated the Largest and Fastest-Growing lists for Outreach Magazine’s “100 Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches in America” annual report.

This is the third year LifeWay Research has worked with Outreach to gather and publish the data.

This year’s Largest list features churches from 31 states across the nation. The highest concentration of Largest churches is in the Southeast, with 33 of the top 100 spots. Rounding out the regional representation: Churches in the West captured 22 of the top spots; churches in the Midwest and Southwest each earned 21 spots; and churches in the Northeast garnered three placements.

Lakewood Church in Houston tops the Largest list with an average attendance of 43,500. The data demonstrates that “the Bible Belt hasn’t cornered the market on attracting attendees,” said Ed Stetzer, vice president for research and ministry development at LifeWay. “In reality, churches in all regions of the country are reaching people. The fact that two churches in the Northeast placed in the top 50 on the Largest churches list is evidence of that.”

Churches in the Northeast also earned representation on the Fastest-Growing list, with four placing in the top 100. Inclusion on the Fastest-Growing list requires churches to have an attendance greater than 1,000 and report a numerical gain of 250 or more, and a percentage gain of at least 3 percent since last year.

Again, churches in the Southeast earned the most representation with 33 on the Fastest-Growing list. Churches in the Midwest garnered 25 spots; in the Southwest, 20; and in the West, 18.

Topping the Fastest-Growing list is 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., which grew by 2,226 weekly attendees, representing a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

Forty-five churches, including ones in Nevada, Illinois and Georgia, among other states, made both lists, with North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., coming in as the largest dual-list member (No. 2 on the Largest and No. 68 on the Fastest-Growing).

North Point, like several of the churches on the lists, has multiple worship sites. For this research, a multi-site church included those with multiple “physical sites and venues in the U.S.” In all, there are 384 sites represented by the 100 churches on the Largest list and 373 sites represented on the Fastest-Growing list.

Stetzer pointed out that nearly all of the churches on the Largest list and more than half on the Fastest-Growing list operate more than one site. “While the multi-site model may not be the best strategy for every church,” he noted, “these lists suggest that communities respond with attendance when churches come to them via multiple campuses rather than staying in one location.”

Additionally, the churches included on the lists report a wide array of denominational affiliations as well as many that identify themselves as nondenominational. In fact, self-identified nondenominational churches earned the most spots on both lists, 49 on the Largest and 58 on the Fastest-Growing.

“Churches in America face huge challenges — I don’t want to underemphasize this — but churches on these lists give us examples of churches that are reaching their communities,” Stetzer said. “That can be an encouragement to all different kinds of churches.”

The lists “are about more than simply seeking out mega-churches and patting them on the back for their popular appeal,” Stetzer said. “The report is intended to encourage church leaders and members with the news that churches all over this country are making an impact in their communities for God’s Kingdom. They are a snapshot of what God is doing through churches.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Lowery is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. View the Outreach Magazine/LifeWay Research report.)
9/29/2010 8:54:00 AM by Brooklyn Lowery, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Churches find empty pews Sunday evening

September 29 2010 by Matt Vande Bunte, Religion News Service

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Doug De Vries describes Sunday evening worship as “a lot less formal” than the morning service at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

It’s also a lot less crowded.

Plymouth Heights is in step with a larger trend of declining evening attendance in evangelical denominations that long have cherished a heritage of worshiping twice on Sunday. Some evening services are more intimate; others have been cancelled or replaced by an alternative.

“It’s a business question that has been asked,” said De Vries, the church’s minister of music. “People are spending time with their family (on Sunday nights) or using that time to get together in small groups. We were concerned that we were squandering resources to put the evening service together.”

Plymouth Heights’ 5 p.m. worship service continues, with about 25 percent of the people who attend the weekly Sunday morning service.

That mirrors data from across the CRC, based on survey results presented this summer to the church’s annual Synod. The survey found evening worship attendance is “plummeting,” down from 56 percent of members in 1992 to 24 percent in 2007.

Researchers wrote that the data “seems to suggest evening service attendance has become optional.”

It’s not just the CRC. Officials at the Assemblies of God reported a 6 percent drop in Sunday evening attendance, to 416,751, in 2009 even as the overall size of the denomination grew by 1.2 percent, to 2.86 million.

There are different ways to interpret the trend: Some see it as harmless, while others see worrisome deviation away from doctrine. For others, the decline is a natural outcome of the historically Dutch church’s aspirations to evangelize a broader demographic.

RNS photo by Emily Zoladz/The Grand Rapids Press

The Christian Reformed Church and other denominations have seen “plunging” attendance at Sunday evening services.

“Many churches are substituting evening worship and putting their energies into other things,” said Jeff Meyer, pastor of Crosswinds Community Church, a 4-year-old CRC congregation in Holland, Mich., that, like many new churches, does not conduct evening worship. “The people who are exploring Christianity are not typically accustomed even to weekly worship a single time. So to put forward some kind of a community-based expectation that you do this twice a Sunday would be extraordinary.”

At Roosevelt Park Community Church in Grand Rapids, attendance at Sunday evening services fell from as many as 175 people in the mid-1990s to about 40 when the service was discontinued five years ago, said Reginald Smith.

Ending the service has enabled the church to put more energy into the morning service, children’s programs and ministry during the week. The result has been a bigger focus on evangelism and relational ministries, Smith said.

“We just saw incremental diminishing returns (in attendance),” Smith said. “Younger families were much busier with all the humming and bumming of life and they found other ways to refresh themselves.

“The evening service was a wonderful thing back in its heyday, but it cannot continue to function in the same form that it has historically. For a lot of churches, that’s really a harsh reality.”

The harsh reality, in David Engelsma’s view, is that churches that drop evening worship are ignoring their spiritual inheritance. The retired seminary professor calls the trend “plain evidence of the great apostasy that Christ has predicted.”

Engelsma said evening worship in the Dutch Reformed tradition dates to the 16th century, when ministers taught from the Heidelberg Catechism. Engelsma’s Protestant Reformed Church, which split from the CRC in 1925, still turns out en masse for Sunday night services, he said.

“Basically, it’s the same today with us as it was back in The Netherlands in the 1500s,” said Engelsma. “When a parishioner sits year after year under the regular instruction of the Heidelberg Catechism, he is going to be knowledgeable of and grounded in the truths, the doctrines and the teachings of the Christian faith.”

Others, including Ron Rienstra, a professor at the Reformed Church in America-affiliated Western Theological Seminary, are concerned that Christians may be chipping away on the one day a week that God commanded to be set aside and kept holy.

“The two services is a way to frame the whole day as belonging to Lord,” Rienstra said. “The decline of Sunday evening worship is a marker alongside many that our culture is becoming more popularly secular. We’ve lost a sense of sacred time that is being offered back to God.”

Some churches have dropped the evening worship but offered an alternative. Grand Rapids’ Eastern Avenue CRC now meets every other Sunday night for a half-hour of worship, a half-hour of eating and an hour of small-sized “covenant groups.”

More than 200 people took part in the groups last year, a significant increase from evening attendance that “literally became a bit embarrassing,” said Fred Sterenberg, church administrator.     

“The decision (to end the service) almost made itself because very few people were coming,” he said. “If we’re talking tradeoff, (the covenant group alternative) is a pretty good tradeoff.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Bunte writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. Whitney Jones contributed to this report.)
9/29/2010 8:51:00 AM by Matt Vande Bunte, Religion News Service | with 2 comments

Poll: Unbelievers know the most about belief

September 29 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Who can best answer questions about religion in America?

Based on a new survey released Tuesday (Sept. 28) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, it’s your atheist or agnostic neighbor, followed by the Jew or Mormon down the street.

A significant percentage — four in 10 — of Roman Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used at Communion become the body and blood of Jesus during Mass.

The survey also found that graduates of private schools did better than students in public schools, but religious school graduates didn’t fare any better in their ability to answer questions about the Bible, world religions or the role of religion in public life.

“Our survey certainly shows that there are lots of things that Americans do know about religion — most Americans have a certain familiarity with the Bible for instance,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum. “But, at the same time, there are important things that people don’t know as well.”

Overall, agnostics and atheists, Jews and Mormons scored the best on a quiz of 32 questions — from citing the first book of the Bible (Genesis) to naming a preacher from the First Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards).

David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists, said he wasn’t surprised that atheists answered more questions correctly than others, and hopes the findings will help people realize that atheists understand the religious beliefs that they reject.

“It certainly underscores the fact that atheists are not atheists due to ignorance,” he said.

In fact, Smith said, eight in 10 of the atheists and agnostics polled in the survey were raised in a faith, including three-quarters who were reared as Christians.

Mormons’ high levels of religious knowledge can be credited to four years of early-morning classes in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Mormon church history during high school, said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond.  

Likewise, Jews have a strong emphasis on education, he said.

“I think probably as with Mormons, Jews have learned that in order to operate ... effectively within a larger dominant culture, one has to be bilingual ... in their own and the host culture,” said Givens, author of several books about Mormons.

Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the Bible, Smith said, but responses to the poll’s nonbiblical questions reveal a lack of knowledge on certain traditional beliefs. For example, just 16 percent correctly said that Protestants — not Catholics — have taught that salvation comes through faith alone.

The poll results were based on telephone interviews with 3,412 adults nationwide between May 19 and June 6, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

That total includes an oversample of Mormons, Jews and nonbelievers. Smith said the high number of correct responses from those groups was not due to the oversample.

Those additional interviews helped ensure a reliable analysis of groups that account for a small share of the overall population.

Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t, said the findings reflect Americans’ tenuous grasp on the world’s religions, preventing them from having significant interfaith conversations.

“Yes, there is a kind of 'Jeopardy’ quality to this,” said Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University who consulted on the survey.

“But I think these kinds of simple questions indicate the deficit that we have as a country in understanding the religions of the world and our own religions.”

Although the average respondent answered just half of the answers correctly, researchers opted not to give anyone an “F” or an “A.”

“It’s not as if the American public has taken a semester-long religion course and are now being tested on topics with which they should be familiar,” Smith said. “That’s why we don’t assign grades.”  

The average number of questions answered correctly by different groups (out of 32 total) was:
  • Atheist/agnostic: 20.9
  • Jewish: 20.5
  • Mormon: 20.3
  • White evangelical Protestant: 17.6
  • White Catholic: 16.0
  • White mainline Protestant: 15.8
  • “Nothing in particular”: 15.2
  • Black Protestant: 13.4
  • Hispanic Catholic: 11.6  
9/29/2010 8:47:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Chaplain: Executed woman true to faith until end

September 28 2010 by Jim White, Associated Baptist Press

JARRATT, Va. — For Lynn Litchfield, the former chaplain at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, the past few weeks have been a heartbreaking build-up to the execution of Teresa Lewis. On Sept. 23, Lewis became the first woman put to death by the Commonwealth of Virginia in nearly a century.

Seven years ago, when Teresa Lewis was sentenced, the Baptist chaplain began praying for her and for the families of the victims even before Lewis arrived at the prison. “Choosing to love someone condemned to death was never a comfortable idea,” Litchfield wrote in a Sept. 21 opinion piece for the British newspaper The Guardian. “I knew I would be exposing myself to a relationship in which, the more I gave to it, the deeper my hurt would be should her sentence be carried out. Yet, as a person of faith, I believe I am called to live out mercy, grace and love for ‘the least of these’ and Teresa Lewis was certainly among the least.”

Litchfield didn’t write Lewis off as a hopeless cause, although many others had. Years ago, in an unhappy marriage, Lewis began an adulterous relationship with a young man, Matthew Shallenberger. Later, Shallenberger and a friend of his — seeking money for a drug enterprise and with Lewis’ cooperation — killed Lewis’ husband, Julian, and adult stepson, C.J., in their beds while they slept. The two men who actually pulled the triggers were sent to prison for life, but Lewis, whom the judge believed to have masterminded the scheme, received a death sentence.

Because she entered a guilty plea, no real defense was mounted on Lewis’ behalf. After her sentencing, and too late to be entered into evidence, information questioning her mental capacity to have formulated such plans surfaced, as did statements from Shallenberger and others saying he had actually been the one to plan the murders. They were disregarded.

During her six years of ministry to the women at Fluvanna, Litchfield spent many hours talking with Lewis, though physical contact was limited. “My hands were the only ones to hold hers in comfort or in prayer on the occasions when guards would open the food-tray slot for me. I regularly visited her and heard her hopes, her fears, her grief and her faith. I was her chaplain.”

The visits paid off as Lewis began to respond to the idea that no one is beyond God’s love and the hope of redemption. Lewis committed her life to Christ and was baptized.

Some discount Lewis’ commitment as just another jailhouse conversion, Litchfield acknowledged. She estimated that between 15,000 and 21,000 women cycled through Fluvanna in her 11-plus years as chaplain there. “Seeing that God wasn’t a genie in a lamp, some gave up when the going got tough,” she recalled. “But, Teresa never did. Her Bible was worn out from use.”

The chaplain also cited Lewis’ ministry to other prisoners as evidence of her new life in Christ. Even though she was segregated from other prisoners, Litchfield said, Lewis would attempt to comfort, pray for and share her faith with prisoners in nearby cells by communicating through air and plumbing connections.

“As strange as it may seem, she really was a loving and nurturing presence. Teresa grew into a woman who inspired others to reach for their Bibles, to actively seek a spiritual relationship and to try and be better than they were before,” Litchfield said. “Countless women who had the chance to meet Teresa while serving time in ‘seg,’ or cleaning the wing, or who cut her hair, passionately shared how ‘Ms Teresa’ changed them.”

During their final meeting the day before Lewis was executed, Litchfield recalled her own anxiety as she wondered what to say in offering comfort. Instead, the prisoner comforted her.

Litchfield recalled Lewis’ response when she asked her how she was doing: “Can’t you see the peace? The best way I know to describe it is like the way a little child feels when they go to bed at night knowing Mommy and Daddy are in the next room. That is how I feel. Jesus has me.”

They shared songs. “When she sang ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow,’ I lost it,” the chaplain said, her voice shaky with emotion. “Standing in a prison cell, facing execution, she radiated, ‘I sing because I’m happy.’ Then, raising her arms, face lifted toward heaven, she continued, ‘I sing because he set me free!’ At this point, I’m sobbing, so deeply moved by her faith. Tears are streaming down my face and she reached through the bars, cupped my face in her hand and wiped away my tears. I had gone to comfort her, but she comforted me. She ministered to the minister. The person who participated in those heinous crimes in 2002 — she was dead long ago. The person who stood before me was a new creation in Christ.”

She recalled Lewis’ final words to her: “Fierce love!” Litchfield said the two had often used that expression. “It means the kind of love that God has for us — strong, powerful and lasting,” the chaplain explained.

Litchfield, and her successor at Fluvanna, Julie Perry, grieve the loss of their sister in Christ who ministered to her fellow prisoners. But Litchfield grieves for other reasons as well.

“What surprised me about this process,” she said, “was the hatred that people spewed at me and at my family for advocating for Teresa. Others were just silent, withdrawing their friendship and support. Those of us who knew and loved Teresa on the inside and have tried to advocate for her on the outside, all of us lost friends over this.”

Litchfield said she’s disappointed that some seem to believe that to advocate for Lewis’s sentence to be commuted meant becoming an adversary of the victims’ families.

“As a member of the clergy, my faith was shaken — not my faith in God, but my faith in people over this,” she lamented. “Through this experience, I have seen intimately the unfair application of the death penalty. How can a man who tomahawks four people to death get a life sentence while my Teresa got death? I have also observed the hatefulness of those sitting in distant seats of self-righteous judgment against those who become entangled in the legal system’s grasp. I see clearly that capital punishment is far more about a political agenda than it is about justice.”

Thinking theologically, Litchfield offered, “In my faith, Christ teaches that God can bring good out of even the worst of circumstances. I hold to that. I am forever changed by my experience with Teresa Lewis. I grew to love her. She taught me about the resilience of the human spirit, about making the best out of a horrible and tragic situation and about light in the darkest of places. Teresa showed me a peace that surpasses understanding and love in the midst of hate.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — White is editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)
9/28/2010 9:15:00 AM by Jim White, Associated Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Church plant reaches Sao Paulo students

September 28 2010 by Maria Elena Baseler, Baptist Press

SAO PAULO — Scriptures, prayers and random thoughts — scrawled in white ink — cover the prayer room’s black walls.

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

“Whatever it takes.”



“Show us your glory.”

“Give us the nations.”

“Use me.”

The words reflect something big God is doing in Sao Paulo, Brazil — population 23 million. The Christian students who wrote them share a vision for reaching Sao Paulo’s 1 million university students for Christ.

Nearly three years ago, in the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Marajoara, International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries Chris and Melody Julian started “Igrega Zoe Marajoara” (Zoe Marajoara Church). Its members simply call it “Zoe,” Greek for “abundant life.”

“I never saw myself as a church planter, but God did,” says Chris, whose background is in student and youth ministry. “We just took a leap of faith and said, ‘Let’s start this thing.’” The Julians, from Memphis, Tenn., had tried to reach students through Bible studies on several Sao Paulo campuses. “But we never really saw any fruit,” Melody says.

But at a conference in Moscow, God showed Chris how to reach people where they are.

Afterward, the Julians and three Brazilian students began studying the Book of Acts. As they prayed about how to reach Sao Paulo’s students, “God put it on our hearts to start a church in our home,” Melody recounts. “So, with much fear and trembling — because we didn’t have a clue what we were doing — we began Zoe. God has blessed beyond our wildest dreams.”

As the team’s work got underway, they invited some Southern Baptist young people to help them build relationships with Brazilian students.

“The Lord never said, ‘Invite (lost people) to come and then make disciples of all nations.’ He told us to go,” says Chris Black, 24, who began serving with Zoe in 2009. Black recently completed his service in Brazil through the International Mission Board’s Journeyman program, a two-year overseas missions opportunity for single college graduates, 21 to 26 years old. “Jesus didn’t ... sit on the temple steps and wait for people to come to Him. He went and hung out with people,” says Black, from Toccoa, Ga.

Hands On missionary Colby Sledge, far left, and IMB journeyman Chris Black, far right, hang out with graphic arts students Daniel Ferreira Gonçalves and Luciana Tazinazzo on the campus of Senac University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. By going where students are and building relationships with them, these workers are trying to reach Sao Paulo’s 1 million university students for Christ.

On any given day, you’ll find Black and Zoe colleagues “hanging out” with Brazilian students on university campuses, in coffee shops, cafés and bakeries, on buses or in the subway.

“Wherever students are, that’s where we’re going to go. And we’re just ourselves. We’re just real,” Chris Julian says.

“It’s about people. It’s about relationships. It’s about us letting God do whatever He wants to do,” adds Sean Nestor, also from Toccoa, who served several months with Zoe through the IMB’s Hands On program. Hands On is an intensive short-term missions program for college students and young adults.

“Sao Paulo is a very large city, but it can also be a very lonely city,” adds Colby Sledge of Nashville, Tenn., another Hands On volunteer whose term ended in 2009. “I think a lot of students look for some sort of relationship wherever they can find it, because it’s hard to ... maintain relationships in this city.”

Part of that difficulty relates to the logistics of living in a megacity. Because of the traffic and sheer numbers of people, students often travel two or three hours just to get to school and work in Sao Paulo. Most students work — many of them full-time — besides taking classes.

“They work, they go to school, they sleep, they study — that’s their life,” Chris Julian says. “And so they are searching. They’re empty. They’re lonely. They want purpose. They’re searching for purpose in their studies but after that ... what’s after that?”

Students who have answered that question — and others still searching — gather for worship in the Julians’ backyard for Zoe’s monthly theme night. Tonight is a Hawaiian luau. Tiki lights decorate the lawn and white plastic chairs surround an inflatable kids’ swimming pool. Brazilian university students — some wearing leis and tropical shirts — mingle near the food table.

Soon everyone takes a seat and starts singing. There’s much to praise God about on this Saturday night; seven students will be baptized.

But before the baptisms, Orlando Soares Jr. — one of Zoe’s five founding members — shares the story of Jesus’ own baptism.

“Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation,” says Soares, 27, who works full-time at a Sao Paulo investment bank, “so we can’t be baptized and say, ‘Woo-hoo! I’m free! Thank you, God!’ and then it’s over. Baptism is a symbol that you’ve turned your life over to Jesus. From today on, you’re trying to follow His will.”

Among the baptismal candidates is Roberto Campos, a 21-year-old information technology student. “I considered myself an agnostic.... I felt that my life was kind of empty, without purpose, like I was just living,” he recalls.

But three months after Campos began attending Zoe fellowships, he became a Christian. “I started to cry,” Campos says. “I had a real touch of God on my life.... Now I can honestly say that God exists. I’m being baptized tonight to show He’s a part of my life.”

Reflecting on the evening’s baptisms, Soares expresses awe at what God has done.

“The baptisms (12 in all since the church began) are a gift from God, showing us that we are doing His work, according to His will,” Soares says.

Another sign: Church members are giving 100 percent of their offerings to missions. New Zoe leaders are receiving in-depth discipleship training. And in other parts of Sao Paulo, members of Zoe Marajoara have started three new groups at student hangouts.

“It all goes back to what Zoe is all about,” Black says. “It’s just going out ... showing Christ, loving people wherever you are. If we’re believers, our lives aren’t our own. We’re commanded to go and make disciples. And this redemption story is too incredible of a story for us not to go out and tell.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Baseler is an International Mission Board writer based in the Americas. The ministry of IMB missionaries Chris and Melody Julian is made possible by the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Cooperative Program. To watch an “Abundant Life” video on the Zoe church’s outreach to its community, go to the Student Videos section of To learn more about Hands On short-term missions service, go to
9/28/2010 9:07:00 AM by Maria Elena Baseler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Young Christians seek intentional community

September 28 2010 by Steve Beaven, Religion News Service

GRESHAM, Ore. — In the two years since David Knepprath and Josh Guisinger moved into the rough-and-tumble Barberry Village complex, roughly a dozen young Christian men and women have made Barberry Village their home.

Their goal: Create a sense of community in a chaotic neighborhood overrun with drugs, prostitution and gangs.

Their work mirrors, in some ways, the “new monasticism” movement, in which Christians move into urban or rural areas to work with the poor.

It’s not an easy way to live. Some neighbors have been suspicious.

Safety is an ongoing concern. And some of these urban missionaries have burned out on a project that can be a 24-hour-a-day burden.

Yet they’ve been so successful that other complex owners have asked them to replicate their efforts. Congregations have volunteered their services. A woman from Virginia is moving to the Portland area so she can do similar work in another neighborhood.

Now, at least once a month, churches cook meals for the residents at Barberry Village. In early August, children were invited to a three-day Bible camp. 

Guisinger and Knepprath and their friends have also helped people move. They’ve thrown birthday parties for neighbors. And they cleaned up one woman’s flooded apartment.

Police officers are still dispatched to Barberry Village on a regular basis, sometimes more than once a day. But many neighbors say the complex is safer, friendlier and better for children. A former manager called the young men and women a “godsend.”

“I hope they continue to do this,” said Eugenia Swartout, who lives at the complex with her family. “It gives us some safety and security knowing there are kind people out here and not just bad guys.”

In the beginning, it was just a group of guys sitting around and talking about their faith.

Knepprath and Guisinger were buddies in their early 20s, looking to create a ministry that went beyond church walls.

They didn’t want to dabble, though. They wanted to dive in, 24/7.

With guidance from a nonprofit called Compassion Connect, they moved with friends into an apartment, putting two sets of bunk beds in one room and using the other two bedrooms as an office and a closet.

Still, they remained outsiders who could live in almost any neighborhood they chose. They had to strike a delicate balance; they didn’t want to come on too strong and alienate their neighbors.

So while they were open about their Christianity, they didn’t plunge into conversations about their faith. Nor did they move in acting as if they could solve the social ills at Barberry Village.

“We were very conscious of that,” said Knepprath, who has since moved out but remains active in the ministry. “Our perspective from the start was that we’re not here with all the solutions, or even thinking we know all the problems.”

So they walked door to door, handing out chocolate-chip cookies. A letter explained their purpose and faith. They invited residents to the first community meal.

A few people shut the door in their faces. One guy answered with a Taser gun. But others accepted the cookies in the spirit they were offered, and the first seeds of friendship were sown.

It’s not unusual for Christians to move into impoverished areas to work with the poor. But movements like new monasticism have gained momentum in recent years.

Dan Brunner, who teaches Christian history at George Fox University, is part of a new monastic community in Portland. Members tend to be young and left-leaning, Brunner said. Some don’t work with churches at all.

“Most of the ones I know are pretty active in their communities,” Brunner said. “They want to cooperate with local churches.”

Dan Johnson moved into Barberry Village with his wife, Jenn, and their infant son. They needed an inexpensive apartment because Dan works for himself, and were intrigued by the work that Knepprath and Guisinger had started.

The couple now have two children. But Barberry Village is not an easy place to raise a family. There’s no playground equipment, and Jenn doesn’t always feel safe.

“Sometimes,” Dan said, “my wife doesn’t want to walk by the main entrance when there’s a dozen scruffy-looking guys out there.”

Guisinger hasn’t been bothered by the crime. He previously worked in street ministry and, when he was a kid, his parents invited in strangers who needed help. Living among the poor, however, was something he’d never experienced.

“I wondered if I would be able to relate,” he said. “I grew up in a wealthy family; I never lacked a meal or insurance or anything like that.”

Knepprath lived at the complex after he got married but moved recently to be closer to his job. Guisinger and his friend Jared Simons now have two new roommates. Even after nearly two years, Guisinger has no plans to move.

Instead of staying holed up in their apartments, neighbors now go outside and get to know one another. They invite each other over for dinner. It’s more like a neighborhood than an anonymous apartment complex.

Jesse Danner, a former heroin and cocaine addict who’s been clean for three years, arrived in April 2009 with his wife and their children.

He was worried about moving into the complex, given its reputation.

But he met Knepprath and Guisinger when they invited his family for a community meal. Later, Danner’s wife started going to church and was baptized on a camping trip. Now Danner goes to church, too.

One day last October, Knepprath came over and asked Danner for some help with a computer.

They walked across the parking lot to a friend’s place. But Knepprath didn’t really need help.

“They actually threw a birthday party for me,” Danner said. “It’s the only one I’ve ever had.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Beaven writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)
9/28/2010 9:02:00 AM by Steve Beaven, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Puryear ‘disappointed’ with SBC EC decision

September 24 2010 by Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee (EC) unanimously declined Sept. 21 to recommend that Baptist Press be made a separate entity, and instead affirmed a 1982 study on the matter that reached the same conclusion.

In its fall meeting the Executive Committee also declined to advance motions referred to it by action of the SBC meeting in annual session in June.

It declined to recommend a proposed amendment to Article VI of the Convention’s constitution which would have required that each committee and board’s membership meet a quota based on church size. The motion was brought by Les Puryear, pastor of Lewisville Baptist Church and an advocate for more small church representation on SBC boards and agencies.

The Executive Committee is “satisfied that the Committee on Committees and Committee on Nominations are sensitive to and seek to attain the balance sought by the maker of the motion.” The difficulty of administrating the quota system, EC members said, would outweigh the benefit and might defeat the goal of seeking the best possible person for each position.

Puryear “was disappointed in the ruling.”

“It was obvious to me the decision had been made before the meeting ever took place,” he said after the meeting.

He said the Executive Committee rationale included two objections: that quotas would limit the number of “good people” available for trustees positions, and that small church leaders would have neither time nor money to attend the required meetings.

“To say that getting more people from the majority of our churches would reduce the number of ‘good people’ available is an insult to the majority of our churches,” Puryear said.

As to the time and money issue, Puryear said, “We have more than 30,000 (small) churches. I think we could find a couple hundred people who would have time and money to attend.” He promised to “continue my quest to get more equitable representation for small churches” in the SBC.

The Executive Committee also:
  • declined to amend the SBC constitution to expand the definition of friendly cooperation to include “racial discrimination” as a disqualifier for churches wishing to cooperate with the convention.
  • declined to adopt the U.S. Christian flag known as Beauty and Band as the banner flag of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Executive Committee said “a Christian flag already exists that is widely recognized and used by Christians in the United States and around the world.”
  • received as information a Cooperative Program Budget report for the 2009-10 fiscal year showing $145,520,420 has been received through the third quarter, representing a decrease of $5,063,463 or 3.36 percent when compared to the same period last year.
  • approved a 2010-11 SBC Operating Budget in the amount of $8,643,951. The budget includes a $70,000 reduction in the amount budgeted for Global Evangelical Relations and a $208,750 reduction in funds for Empowering Kingdom Growth.
The rationale is that the Executive Committee wanted Frank Page, president-elect of the Executive Committee, to have freedom in deciding whether to continue GER and EKG. Reserve funds are available to supplement the budgets of those two ministries, the Executive Committee said, if Page decides to continue them.
  • recommended that the convention planning process of the Executive Committee “continue the concentrated effort to obtain the option for messengers to purchase multi-day parking passes through the convention center or parking facility” related to SBC annual meetings.
  • declined due to printing logistics to recommend a change to the format of the SBC Book of Reports that would list trustee and committee members’ churches and what percentage the churches give through the Cooperative Program.
The Book of Reports goes to the printer in mid-May and work of the Committee on Nominations continues through the first week of June, so it is “impossible to include the requested information.” The Executive Committee did, though, encourage the SBC Committee on Nominations “to consider the level of Cooperative Program support for each nominee.”

Baptist Press
The Executive Committee again considered the motion that Baptist Press, the SBC’s news service, be formed as a separate entity. Baptist Press currently is part of the Executive Committee.

Members decided “the conclusions derived from a study of the structure of Baptist Press in 1982” that were affirmed in 1987 “are still considered valid, and therefore the Executive Committee desires that Baptist Press continue to operate as an integral part of the ministry assignment of the Executive Committee.”

Executive Committee member Martin Davis said his research showed that setting up Baptist Press as a separate entity like the Southern Baptist Foundation would cost an additional $3 million per year.

The Executive Committee also adopted resolutions of appreciation for David Baldwin and Michael Collins, who are retiring as executive directors of the Alaska Baptist Convention and the Baptist State Convention of Michigan, respectively.      
9/24/2010 5:44:00 AM by Baptist Press | with 8 comments

Youth workers urged to ‘aim higher’

September 24 2010 by Kelly Shrout, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “God wants us to aim higher,” Derwin Gray, a former NFL player for the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, told 400-plus youth workers at a national conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources.

“The living God, the Great I Am, wants to energize our lives and our students’ lives so that we will echo His story through all eternity,” said Gray, founder and lead pastor of Transformation Church in Fort Mill, S.C.

The three-day National Youth Worker’s Conference in mid-September, geared to help leaders develop the spiritual lives of students in their ministries, included a number of featured speakers and 22 breakout sessions relevant to various church settings.

Gray shared insights on how his multigenerational, multiethnic church integrates students into the life of the congregation. 

“Our students are not the leaders of tomorrow,” Gray said. “Our students are the leaders of the church now. Our youth are involved in most aspects of our worship service from helping with production to serving in the worship band.”

Immerse students in the life of the church, Gray counseled, noting, “Students are not in a separate game. Include them in the whole game.”

Ben Arment, a church planter from Virginia who taught on Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed from Matthew 13:3-9, encouraged the youth workers to cultivate relationships through their ministry.

“We are not just evangelists,” Arment said. “We are cultivators. We don’t just take one shot at someone whose heart is not prepared to receive the gospel.”

Alvin Reed, professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, encouraged youth workers to integrate the gospel into every aspect of life. “We must give (students) the epic of the gospel and let them know that everything in life is about the mission of God,” Reid said. “More than anything, your student ministry needs a movement of God.”

Paul Kelly, associate professor of educational leadership at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California, taught a breakout session geared for student ministers with less than five years of experience.

“Student ministry is not about building a youth group, it’s about building disciples of Christ,” Kelly said, noting that discipleship is relational.

“We, as youth workers, need to understand the power of presence,” he said. “As you invite them into your life, learn to nudge them toward deeper spiritual growth.” Kelly also provided practical tips to new ministers.

“Be available,” he said. “Yet, set boundaries with students. Use technology to your advantage and learn to refer youth to specialists if they are dealing with issues beyond your knowledge.”

Kelly also encouraged student workers to be champions for the families of the youth.

“The most important influence in a student’s life is his or her parents,” he said, encouraging workers to remember they are partners with parents.

Kelly further encouraged student workers to communicate clearly with parents, build a ministry team and include students in the life of the church.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Shrout writes for LifeWay Christian Resources.)
9/24/2010 5:40:00 AM by Kelly Shrout, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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