News and trends (July-August 2014)
Baptists bucked America’s postdenominational trend this summer as they made their annual pilgrimages to denominational meetings. A survey of the diverse landscape.
At its general assembly in Atlanta, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship began work in earnest on the final piece — funding — of a massive revisioning adopted in 2012, as its executive coordinator coined a word to describe the CBF’s “different way of being a Christian network.”
“My elevator word for CBF is ‘denominetwork,’” Suzii Paynter told about 1,500 attendees in her second report since taking the helm of the Fellowship in 2013. “We’re not a denomination. We are interconnected.”
An ad hoc group of the CBF’s Governing Council will develop a new funding strategy “that fosters missional collaboration rather than competition for resources” for the network of more than 1,800 partner congregations.
“This funding plan must be fair to all, and it has to recognize where strengths lie within the Fellowship,” said outgoing CBF moderator Bill McConnell in a report to the assembly.
Typically during the final session of the assembly, the outgoing moderator symbolically hands over leadership to the moderator-elect. But Kasey Jones, McConnell’s successor, could not attend this year’s assembly due to a family medical emergency which required her to travel out of the country. Several times during the meeting Fellowship leaders requested prayer for Jones, pastor of National Baptist Memorial Church in Washington, and her brother, Andre, who became ill while on a mission trip to South Africa and was in the process of returning home for medical treatment.
Further north, in Baltimore, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention outlined an ambitious agenda during a press conference following his election during the denomination’s annual meeting.
“I believe the greatest need in the Southern Baptist Convention, and quite honestly, the greatest need in the United States of America, is a Great Awakening,” said Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas. “It’s been over a hundred years since the United States has experienced the last great, great movement of the Lord. We’re overdue. It’s past time.”
Floyd’s comments follow a sobering report in May from the convention’s publishing arm that in 2013 the SBC baptized the fewest converts since 1948 and has lost more than 570,000 members since 2006.
At its meeting, the SBC adopted language defining what it means to be a Southern Baptist church and updated a formula for determining representation at the annual meeting. But it didn’t rebuke a California church for challenging the denomination’s policy against gay-affirming congregations, though leaders said they in no way condone homosexuality.
The convention did resolve that, while condemning acts of abuse or bullying against people who identify as a gender different than the one assigned at birth, the transgender experience is not supported by Scripture.
Meanwhile, the National Baptist Convention of America International Inc. elected a Louisiana pastor to a five-year term as president during its annual meeting in Memphis, Tenn.
Samuel Tolbert, pastor of the Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church of Lake Charles, La., and a former general secretary of the convention, defeated incumbent president Stephen Thurston of Chicago and George Brooks of Nashville, Tenn., in a three-way race.
Tolbert said he will pursue an agenda of renewal, reconciliation and revitalization among active, inactive and former members. “The Lord has put it on my heart and given me the ability to organize our convention for effectiveness and efficiency as we move forward to serve this present age with purpose and power.”
Later this summer the Progressive National Baptist Convention was expected to elect a successor to Carroll Baltimore, president for the past four years, at its annual session in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Also on the agenda: a forum to examine “stand your ground” laws; a youth night featuring Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta; and resolutions addressing voting rights and women’s health rights.
At its Annual Gathering in Izmir, Turkey, the Baptist World Alliance tapped a South African as president of the global organization. Ngwedla Paul Msiza, a Pretoria pastor, will take office at the end of the next Baptist World Congress in July 2015 in Durban, South Africa. Msiza will succeed John Upton, executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, who has held the five-year position since 2010.
The BWA also presented its Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award to Ilie Coada, a Baptist pastor in Moldova who has battled human trafficking and the sex trade in his country, and weighed in on the recent surge of unaccompanied minors and other immigrants from Central America to the United States border, calling it “a humanitarian crisis.” Other resolutions expressed concern over unrest in Ukraine, a proposed religious conversion law in Myanmar and the kidnapping by Islamist terrorists of female students in Nigeria.
The American Baptist Churches USA will hold its next biennial meeting in Kansas City in 2015. But this summer the ABC’s International Ministries marked its 200th year with a series of events in Green Lake, Wis., aimed at “discerning God’s direction for a third century of mission.” About 1,000 people attended what IM executive director Reid Trulson called “an incredible opportunity to seek guidance for priorities for the future through this expression of the body of Christ.”
Representatives of more than 100 mission partners gathered in Green Lake, joined by all of IM’s international and U.S. mission personnel — an unusual event which has occurred only once before. The insights of the series of gatherings will form the basis of an “articulation of vision, priorities and goals” which a Discernment Team is to present to IM’s board of directors in 2015.
“This is a watershed moment for International Ministries — a moment that will not be repeated in our lifetimes,” said Karen Smith, an IM staff member and missionary.
West African Baptists respond as Ebola outbreak takes on international dimensions
As the Ebola crisis in West Africa was on a trajectory to sicken more people than all other previous outbreaks of the disease combined and at least one country — Liberia — declared a national state of emergency, Baptists in the region grappled with their own responses.
The Baptist Convention of Sierra Leone has created a Baptist Ebola Task Force “to coordinate the sensitization of Ebola outbreak in its various churches and other public places.”
Samuel Conteh, coordinator of social ministries for the Sierra Leone convention, told Baptist World Alliance officials that “churches are being gradually provided with sanitization plastic buckets with chlorine tablets.”
The education efforts have borne fruit, Conteh said. “The response is good. People have become better enlightened on the basic preventive measures against the disease.”
But he added: “Church attendances are dwindling. Baptist activities are being slowed down, particularly in [the] epicenters. The traditional embracing and handshake among members after church service have disappeared.”
The Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention called “on our brothers and sisters with great urgency to pray for West Africa, especially Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.”
“We have encouraged our local Baptist churches, pastors and its leadership around Liberia through a massive electronic text messaging to commit to all the preventive practices that have been advanced by the health experts as well as the Government of Liberia on this deadly disease.”
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency and ordered all schools to close indefinitely, including Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary and two Baptist-affiliated secondary schools — Ricks Institute and the Lott Carey Mission School.
“We are gravely concerned over the outbreak of this lethal disease and the protection of persons in our West Africa region,” the Liberian convention statement said. They expressed concern that “hospitals and medical clinics around Liberia have been abandoned because of the alarming death of health care providers and the lack of adequate protective gears and hygienic items. The abandonment of hospitals and medical clinics is critical since it is suspected now that many people are dying from other curable illnesses in addition to Ebola causes.”
At least one Liberian Baptist, a nurse, has died after she attended to an infected patient who succumbed to the disease.
Supo Ayokunle, president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, told the BWA that a delegation of women who were to attend a West African Baptist Women Congress in Togo cancelled their trip out of an abundance of caution.
The Nigerian convention has taken preventive and other measures in Africa’s most populous country, which has reported four cases and one death — a traveler to the country from Liberia.
“I have declared three days of prayer and fasting to seek God’s face to remove the plague and save all countries under the Ebola siege,” Ayokunle said. “We are also sensitizing people on how to avoid infection.”
Two American medical missionaries — Kent Brantly, with Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, with Service in Mission — were infected with Ebola while working with patients in Liberia. They are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter faced serious pushback — much of it from conservative evangelicals — when she criticized a decision to rush to the United States two medical missionaries who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia.
Kent Brantly, with Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, with Service in Mission, are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
But why were they working in the “disease-ridden cesspools” of Africa anyway, Coulter asked in her column.
Response was swift on social media.
“@AnnCoulter continues to outdo herself in concocting absolutely reprehensible, Christ-denying vitriol,” tweeted Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Southern Seminary’s Boyce College, also used Twitter to pan her comments. “Theological pro-tip: Don’t look to Ann Coulter for sound missiology. This is pagan foolishness.”
ERLC president Russell Moore, posted on Instagram: “I have no words for this. Actually I think I do but the Holy Spirit won’t let me say them.”
Still at it
Though overshadowed by the Ebola crisis, anti-malaria efforts in Africa continue — and there are signs of progress, say Baptist groups.
Christian groups battling malaria by distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets are seeing indications their efforts are paying off, says the leader of one organization engaged in West Africa, where the disease is a leading cause of death.
A recent assessment by More Than Nets, a malaria prevention and church planting project coordinated by the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Ghana Baptist Convention, suggests a significant reduction in a region of the nation now completely “netted.”
Records show that the number of malaria cases in the Adibo sub-district has declined by 42 percent in the last year.
“As far as we can see at this time, there has been no other change to the Adibo sub-district over the previous 12 months other than the distribution of nets to the entire district,” says Dean Miller, team leader of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board’s glocal missions team.
More Than Nets was launched in 2012 to distribute 100,000 mosquito nets and provide education about malaria prevention, while also starting 300 new churches in northeastern Ghana. So far the initiative has distributed more than 30,000 nets and organized 112 congregations.
“We have potentially saved 969 lives through our efforts. When we add over 400 baptisms to that number, we feel blessed to make such a Kingdom difference through this partnership.”
One key participant in the project has been tapped to take the helm of His Nets, a similar organization which has collaborated closely with More Than Nets.
Steve Nethery, pastor of Horizon Community Church in Chesapeake, Va., will serve as executive director of His Nets, created by Baptist missionaries 10 years ago. Nethery will remain pastor of the Baptist congregation in Chesapeake.
He succeeds Andi Sullivan, a founder of His Nets, who stepped down to concentrate on her role as senior program officer on Partners of Ameri-ca’s agriculture and food security team. She continues to serve on the organization’s board of directors and in an advisory capacity to the staff.
Getting out of town
For 100 summers a Baptist camp in the Alleghenies has been helping at-risk children do just that.
America’s suburban children are returning from summer camps, preparing for school and reanimating their parents’ quiet weeks. But one Baptist camp in the Allegheny Mountains has just completed its 100th summer aimed at a very different demographic — inner city children with few opportunities for activities like rock climbing or ropes courses.
About 200 at-risk children from low-income families in Richmond, Va., spent a week or more this summer at Camp Alkulana, in Bath County, Va., about 160 miles west of the state’s capital.
The camp was created in 1915 by Richmond’s Woman’s Missionary Union to provide an outlet — and ministry — to the children of factory workers. In 1951 the newly organized Richmond Baptist Association took on management of the facility and eventually its focus shifted. Today about 75 percent of campers live in some of the most concentrated neighborhoods of poverty in Richmond.
“Our aim is that campers might realize the intrinsic value in themselves and others through character building activities, service to one another and outdoor education,” says camp director Beth Reddish Wright.
In 2015 Alkulana’s centennial will be celebrated with a March 21 “homecoming reunion” and publication of a history.
“I felt protected by camp,” says Jack Dempsey, who attended Alkulana in 1965. “Camp was my haven. It was a haven for everything else that was bad back home in the city and in the streets. Camp Alkulana saved my life completely. It’s as simple as that.”
But what about that ‘no religious test’ clause?
Eight states still have laws prohibiting atheists from holding public office.
Although the laws are unenforceable, legal restrictions on people who don’t believe in God remain in the constitutions of eight states, according to a recent Washington Post study.
A 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision rendered the restrictions illegal under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But they may reflect Ameri-cans’ continued discomfort with atheists in public office. A Pew poll this year found 53 percent of the country thinks one must believe in God to be moral, and two years ago a Gallup poll reported 43 percent of voters said they wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate.
The eight states and their restrictions:
• Arkansas — Article 19, section 1: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”
• Maryland — Article 37: “That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.”
• Mississippi — Article 14, section 265: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.”
• North Carolina — Article VI, section 8: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
• Pennsylvania — Article 1, section 4: “No person who acknow-ledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth.” (Pennsylvania differs from the other states in that believers cannot be disqualified from holding office for his or her religious sentiments, but that guarantee is not extended to atheists.)
• South Carolina — Article XVII, section 4: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”
• Tennessee — Article IX, section 2: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
• Texas — Article 1, section 4: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknow-ledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
— Source: Washington Post
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse
And that means the virtual ones, too.
Religious institutions aren’t often early adopters of technology, but this summer an evangelical college in New York City became the first ac-credited higher education institution in the United States to accept tuition payments and donations with Bitcoin, a virtual currency which burst on the financial scene in 2008.
Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of The King’s College, says, “Allowing Bitcoin to be used to pay for a King’s education decreases our costs while simultaneously allowing our students to be a part of this exciting new technology.” A press release from the college — located in lower Manhattan a couple of blocks from Wall Street — compared its unconventional approach to universities’ adoption of email addresses in the early years of the Internet.
Bitcoin, which remains controversial among economists, is a currency backed not by a tangible commodity like gold but by software code and the confidence of its adherents. Bitcoins don’t exist in the physical world, but are created by computer algorithms and typically purchased on websites that serve as exchanges. Their value is based essentially on supply and demand, and can be volatile.
Currently each Bitcoin is worth about $560.
The currency, which has a whiff of mystery about it, may appeal to Christians with libertarian instincts. No one knows who created it and no one controls it, and it can be transferred more or less anonymously without bank fees.
But don’t look for Bitcoins in church offering plates any time soon — or ever, for that matter. There’s no physical object to drop in the plate as it passes by. If churches buy in, they’ll likely adopt the pattern of St. Martin’s Church, an Anglican congregation in London, which in February became the first church in the United Kingdom to accept Bitcoins. A QR code displayed above the parish’s traditional Victorian wall box for donations can be scanned to make electronic contributions.
What’s the second-largest religion in your state? The answer may surprise you.
Christianity represents the largest religious group in every state in the country. No surprise there — almost 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, according to a Gallup poll. But what’s the second largest religion in each state? The answer, recently documented by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, may surprise you.
Islam is the second largest in 20 states, mostly in the South and Midwest. In 14 states, especially in the Northeast, Judaism holds the second spot. Buddhism is second in 13 states, generally in the West. In two states — Arizona and Delaware — Hinduism is the second largest and, oddly, in South Carolina it’s the Baha’i faith.
Baha’i’s strength in South Carolina apparently dates to the 1970s, when the religion saw growth among African Americans.
Among Christians, Baptists dominate in the South, while Catholics are the majority in most other regions, reports the ASARB, which sponsors the U.S. Religious Census every 10 years. Mormons dominate Utah and Lutherans are the majority in much of the upper Midwest.
Some religion scholars say the significance of the findings can be exaggerated, since the number of adherents of the second-largest religions in each state is small.
Louis E. Venters, an assistant professor of history at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., told NPR, “To put the map in context, let’s acknowledge at the outset that it doesn’t take very much to be the second-largest religion in South Carolina. It is a solidly Christian, and particularly Protestant, state, and all the minority religions combined comprise only a tiny fraction of the population.” Read More