Summer youth camps and internships are making a comeback this year

Church summer camps and in-person internship programs are making a comeback in 2021 with an array of new procedures designed to minimize exposure to COVID-19.

But getting there after a year of virtual or zero gatherings has posed challenges to organizers who have spent recent months trying to gauge interest in their programs.

“The suspense here was wondering if churches were going to call and were students going to show up,” said Devita Parnell, who manages the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Student.Church internship program.

Devita Parnell

“The other suspenseful piece was wondering if students were ready for in-person and were they going to be ready and comfortable enough to pick up and move somewhere this summer,” said Parnell, also the director of CBF’s young Baptist ecosystem program.

Likewise, it wasn’t until late March that PASSPORT knew who, and roughly how many, churches planned to send youth to its camps this June and July, said David Burroughs, founder and president of the Birmingham, Ala.-based ecumenical summer camp ministry.

“Until then, all our numbers were theoretical. So, when churches started saying, ‘OK, we’re coming,’ it was a huge relief,” he said.

That’s an experience being shared by an increasing number of youth and young adult programs bolstered by declining COVID-19 infection rates, rising vaccinations rates and new CDC protocols for in-person youth and young adult activities.

“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies — including masking, cohorting, physical distancing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, proper handwashing, and respiratory etiquette — have been able to safely operate in person,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of American Camp Association.

“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies … have been able to safely operate in person.”

A recent study by the organization reported that 30 of the 90,000 youth who participated in face-to-face summer camps in 2020 had confirmed cases of COVID-19, an achievement it credited to the safety measures employed by organizers, he said. “When camps follow the rigorous scientific approach outlined in the Field Guide for Camps on Implementation of CDC Guidance, camps can operate safely and successfully.”

Lifeway Christian Resources has announced it is gearing up for the 2021 summer camp season with expanded health and safety measures for its various children and youth programs.

“Last year, Lifeway provided digital worship experiences after cancelling all camps due to the pandemic,” Lifeway said. “This summer, Lifeway plans to return to normal as they host more than 92,000 registered camp participants across 78 locations in the U.S.”

Participants and staff will be required to wear masks and socially distance, and a small-group approach will be employed during meal times and all other gatherings.

Ben Trueblood

“A spirit of unity and a willingness to look after the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what will allow us to reach our shared goal of seeing a successful summer of camp happen,” said Ben Trueblood, director of Lifeway students. “The reality is that camp will look different, but we want to make it as normal of a camp experience as possible. The things that are the most foundational to camp will still be there.”

The same concern has led PASSPORT to adopt a similar approach at its North Carolina and South Carolina camps this summer, Burroughs said.

The organization will divide campers into cohorts of 50 to 75 members who will spend the entire week together. The small groups will stay in the same dorms and dine, play, worship and attend Bible study as a group.

“The idea is to minimize the number of kids who can be exposed to each other,” he said.

David Burroughs

The ministry also is following the CDC suggestion to hold activities outdoors as much as possible. “So, all our parties and worship and other activities will be held outside. The small-group Bible studies will probably be held indoors,” Burroughs said.

And campers who are not vaccinated will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test one to three days before arrival.

Despite the protocols, however, many congregations that typically send kids to PASSPORT camps passed on the opportunity to do so this year, meaning about 2,300 campers are expected as registration continues. “A bunch of our churches said they just weren’t ready and that they would be back next year,” Burroughs said.

But the organization is grateful for all those attending because the alternative was concerning for PASSPORT’s viability. “I think we would have found a way to survive if in-person camps didn’t happen this year. But the question would have been, ‘What’s our purpose?’ If we don’t get to do camp, why are we here?’”

Church and ministry internship programs for college-age adults are overcoming many of the same challenges presented by the pandemic, Parnell said.

Currently, 19 churches have committed to hosting students through Student.Church, with 17 still seeking candidates. “We’re hoping that we will get 38 to 40 students placed in 35 churches.”

Those numbers are about the same as 2020, when the program was virtual, and still nowhere close to the 50 students placed in 2019, she added.

Student.Go, which places interns with CBF field personnel-run ministries, will remain fully virtual this year because their functions can be adequately performed remotely, Parnell said. “Those are project-based positions, like doing social media for Touching Miami with Love or having someone create curriculums for after-school programs.”

Even two of the congregations involved in Student.Church are remaining fully virtual with their internships, while the rest are either in-person or hybrid, Parnell said.

Getting through and beyond COVID-19, she said, takes hard work and faith. “I have felt that this whole program is an exercise in trusting God, and I pray that students emerge from this pandemic and want to have these experiences.”


Related articles:

Coronavirus summer highlights the best and worst in Christian camps

Pandemic summer makes the finances of running a camp even harder

Baptist camps tally their losses as COVID-19 summer comes to a close

Faced with coronavirus challenge, this Christian camp found a new way

With vaccinations on board, CBF disaster relief looks toward unfinished work in Bahamas

A Category 5 hurricane in September 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that followed delivered a one-two punch to the Bahamas that destroyed lives, homes, businesses and churches, then prevented outside relief organizations from rendering aid, said Rick Burnette, the outgoing coordinator of domestic disaster response for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

But neither Hurricane Dorian nor the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 could dent the ingenuity and resilience of CBF Bahamas, which consists of six congregations on the islands of Grand Bahama, Abaco and Acklins, said Burnette, who will be succeeded in the disaster response role by North Carolina pastor and disaster recovery specialist Daynette Snead Perez.

Rick Burnette

“It’s been though. It was hard. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to lean into our response to Dorian. The teams we had lined up couldn’t go,” said Burnette, who also serves as CBF field personnel. “Yet, we were able to continue to work with the local response contractors in the Bahamas, people who know the communities and who know the affected areas and who were able to coordinate the response.”

But nurturing existing cordial relationships between CBF in the U.S. and the Bahamas also suffered during the outbreak, said Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida.

“The pandemic has not eroded those relationships, but it has definitely hindered the depth of them,” Johnson said. “We compensated by using social media, but that is no substitute for worshiping together.”

Ray Johnson

CBF Florida and CBF Bahamas have a special working and worshiping connection that goes back before the latter was created in 2011. “They are constantly visiting us, and we are constantly visiting them. People in both countries are eager to renew those gatherings once things open back up,” Johnson said.

In fact, finding opportunities to fellowship with the Bahamian churches will be one of the top orders of business going forward.

Another immediate focus will be sending volunteer teams to help continue the recovery from Hurricane Dorian, he said. “We haven’t been able to put eyes on the ground since the pandemic. A lot of work has been done but there is a lot more to do.”

Burnette said a large amount of the credit for work that has been completed so far goes to CBF Bahamas for helping coordinate the activities of disaster response contractors. “As a community they have been resilient.”

But significant contributions also were made by U.S.-based donors and volunteers before the pandemic began, helping set the stage for progress made throughout last year by local churches and workers, he added.

That included a $5,000 grant from the Fellowship to CBF Florida to meet immediate needs in the Bahamas and the dispatching of volunteers immediately after the storm to repair roofs and assess properties slated for rehabilitation or rebuilding. Spiritual care volunteers were deployed from the U.S. by the end of 2019 to help Bahamians reeling from the death of family and friends as well as from job and property losses, Burnette said.

Materials also were sent before the pandemic, including tents, water filters, generators and solar phone chargers. CBF Florida Disaster Response Coordinator Kenny Phillips made an exploratory visit.

No one knew at the time just how important those initial volunteer visits would be.

In February 2020, volunteers from Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., and Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., deployed to the Bahamas to repair churches, homes and other properties and to conduct assessments of other needs.

No one knew at the time just how important those initial volunteer visits would be, Burnette said. “In hindsight, I am really pleased with the fact that we were able to get a handful of teams that performed a lot of work and were also exploratory. They helped lay the groundwork moving forward.”

While the pandemic blocked volunteer teams and materials from scheduled visits, CBF Bahamas helped coordinate work being completed on more than 20 properties by December 2020, Burnette said.

Many others made the work possible, as well. “A lot of entities stepped up. CBF and Canadian Baptists helped get the materials and other resources needed from Florida to the Bahamas. Everyone just stepped up.”

But turning the volunteer spicket back on will take time. As of early May there were no groups signed up for Bahamas work.

“We are hoping as more teams are vaccinated, they will start lining up. It’s the same in Lake Charles,” Burnette said of the Louisiana coastal community hit by two hurricanes in 2020. “I am confident that CBF churches and other partners will step in.”


Related articles:

COVID-19 expected to complicate disaster relief efforts in busy 2020 hurricane season

Disaster volunteers face ‘primitive’ conditions in Dorian-ravaged Bahamas

Another week, another hurricane — welcome to 2020

Book traces the complex story of women’s influence within Southern Baptist Convention

The role of women in the Southern Baptist Convention historically has been much more complex than narratives about female submission to a male-controlled denomination.

“There were spaces in Southern Baptist life in which women sought and found agency, supported one another, cultivated a sense of call, did some remarkable things and pushed against boundaries,” said Elizabeth Flowers, a Baylor University associate religion professor and co-editor of the 2020 book, A Marginal Majority: Women, Gender, and a Reimagining of Southern Baptists.

Flowers and co-editor Karen Seat, director of religion and classics at the University of Arizona, also contributed to the collection of essays, which trace the roles and challenges of women from the 19th century onward. The integral role women played in fundraising and missions, their push to attend SBC seminaries and the development of women’s and teaching ministries also are some of the subjects covered. The interplay of gender, class, race and politics are treated throughout.

The all-female team of writer-scholars, many of whom have some personal connection to Baptist life, “applies a women’s studies lens to SBC history” that makes the text especially relevant in the age of third-wave feminism and the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, said Flowers, who grew up Southern Baptist, taught Sunday school at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and now attends a Disciples of Christ church.

Another major context for the writing and publication of A Marginal Majority was the SBC’s all-out support of Donald Trump, a development that created and widened divisions in the denomination along gender lines and set the stage for the high-profile departure of teacher and evangelist Beth Moore earlier this year.

Karen Seat

“For Beth Moore, certainly the Trump era was a turning point” as it was for many other SBC women who previously supported the doctrine of complementarianism, said Seat, who was raised by Baptist missionary parents in Japan. “The idea behind complementarianism is that women should have something to gain from patriarchy, and when men start supporting something like Trump or turn a blind eye to sexual harassment, for Beth Moore that was a breach of the agreement.”

As a whole, the essays reveal the central and complex life of Southern Baptist women, she said. “The book shows that you can’t fully understand SBC history without women.”

Flowers added that the history is “a very mixed and complicated bag.”

The founding of Woman’s Missionary Union in 1888 illustrates how complicated women’s status could be in the convention. Its auxiliary status gave its members a measure of independence but also required they support SBC missions boards, all controlled by men.

But the WMU did find other ways to wield influence through the requirement that it raise its own funds and keep its own budget, according the forward of A Marginal Majority.

Elizabeth Flowers

“The SBC’s male leadership later came to regret this decision, as women found avenues for autonomy in this structure, especially in the years before World War II. For example, social progressivism … most often found expression in the SBC through the national leadership of the WMU, which succeeded in raising and managing its own funds along with selecting its own officers and publishing its own literature.”

But even that history is layered, Flowers said, because just as Southern Baptist women struggled to gain agency, they often took it from others.

“When you look at the development of personal service programs and the social gospel and the way WMU women were progressive in their social reforms, you see that in their reforms they often perpetuated racial hierarchies,” she said. “And you see how they wielded power over the women to whom they were ministering and that they were less apt to help them find agency.”

Whatever weight women carried during that era began to diminish in the latter half of the 20th century, Seat said. “The story is that as the Southern Baptist Convention became more powerful after World War II, women got less and less powerful.”

The advent of feminism added more downward trajectory to the status of women in the denomination.

The advent of feminism added more downward trajectory to the status of women in the denomination, the editors explain in their foreword: “Experiencing a backlash against feminism’s gains, Southern Baptist women were increasingly marginalized in a denomination that resisted their entrance into arenas of power and authority other than missions, particularly those that involved ordained ministerial status.”

The dominance of ultraconservatives during the last two decades of the 20th century further marginalized women, in part by more explicitly demanding obedience to husbands in revised versions of the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement, the forward continues.

“Conservatives then drew on the revised document to determine those who did not tow the party line, thereby purging the SBC’s seminaries, agencies and mission fields of dissenters who supported women’s ordination and other forms of women’s leadership.”

The female-led teaching ministries that developed in the 20th century created “a parallel universe” of personalities and groups that gave agency and voice to women, Flowers said. “You see this with Beth Moore, and for these women church might not be the sanctuary or the pulpit at 11 o’clock but it’s these teaching spaces that became quite powerful for women.”

And although the Trump era has hardened SBC doctrines against women’s leadership, it also has revealed the difficulty of painting all women in the denomination with one brush, Flowers said.

“Conservatives don’t speak with one voice. There are complementarians but now there are soft complementarians. It’s a mixed and very complicated bag,” she said. “And I think the whole Beth Moore controversy indicates there are a lot of internal tensions in the SBC that the resurgence didn’t settle.”


Related articles:

How the male-centered image of God marginalizes women and disabled persons | Opinion by Mallory Challis

I knew the truth about women in the Bible, and I stayed silent | Opinion by Beth Allison Barr

Now Beth Moore is taking on patriarchy in the church

Why Beth Moore’s departure from the SBC really matters

Beth Moore and a lost Southern Baptist Convention | Opinion by David Gushee

Is the Beth Moore Effect a feminist awakening? | Analysis by Courtney Pace

Debate over women in Southern Baptist pulpits flares on social media

Jesus and John Wayne exposes militant masculinity in the age of Trump | Analysis by Alan Bean

Barna: Racism a reality even in multiracial churches

Multiracial churches are growing in the U.S., which may seem like a good thing. Unless you are Black.

“Almost three in 10 Black practicing Christians in a multiracial church (29%) say they have experienced racial prejudice on some level,” the Barna Group reported in a release titled “Do Multiracial Churches Offer Healthy Community for Non-White Attendees?”

The article presents the results of focus group and survey research conducted by Barna in cooperation with the Racial Justice and Unity Center and sociologist Michael O. Emerson, co-author of Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, published in 2001.

The researchers noted that the goal of racial diversity shared by a growing number of U.S. churches may offer little in the way of a solution to the rising tide of racial injustice under way in American society.

And that’s especially the case given the treatment African Americans and other ethnic groups said they have encountered in those “multicultural” sanctuaries almost always led by whites. “Christians of color often face barriers to sharing their opinions, whether as a congregant or leader,” Barna said.

“Christians of color often face barriers to sharing their opinions, whether as a congregant or leader.”

This is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly widespread as churches actively seek diversity in their pews.

A 2020 study by Baylor University sociologist Kevin Dougherty and other scholars focused on churches in which no one racial or ethnic group makes up more than 80% of the congregation.

“We do see this slow-but-steady rise in the percentage of congregations in the United States characterized by racial diversity — about one in four Americans attend a multiracial congregation,” Dougherty said in a Baptist News Global article published in December.

A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found the trend is particularly noticeable among megachurches.

“We’ve known for some time that the larger the church, the more likely it is to be racially diverse, but the growth in racial diversity in megachurches is now of headline-making character,” authors Warren Bird and Scott Thumma said in “Megachurch 2020: The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches.”

“Two decades ago, only 21% of megachurches were multiracial, but that it not true any longer. More than half of them (58%) report being multiracial today, defined as having 20% or more minority presence in their congregation.”

But Dougherty said he and his colleagues did not determine if racial diversity translates into multiracial relationships within diverse churches: “Just because people are worshiping in multiracial spaces does not mean they are on the forefront of racial justice.”

“More than one-quarter of Black practicing Christians feels pressured to give up part of their racial or ethnic identity in a multiracial church.”

That is a point confirmed in the Barna study, which found that authentic relationships in multiracial church settings are difficult to establish: “More than one-quarter of Black practicing Christians feels pressured to give up part of their racial or ethnic identity in a multiracial church (27%) and finds it difficult to build relationships here (28%).”

Barna noted that the original racial makeup of  congregations may influence those experiences. “Multiracial churches are often previously predominantly white churches that have made an intentional effort to become more diverse. Some of these churches have mostly white leadership.”

The survey found that a quarter of multiracial church leadership teams is no less than 75% white, while 12% are totally white.

“As a result, the existing norms, traditions, preferences and structures of the church have not significantly changed — except people of color are invited to join,” Barna said. “This invitation often comes with an expectation, explicit or implicit, that people of color also assimilate, or fit in, by embracing songs, styles, messages, structures and communities which may be very different from those in their own racial and ethnic culture or previous church tradition.”

“The existing norms, traditions, preferences and structures of the church have not significantly changed — except people of color are invited to join.”

Focus group interviews revealed that people of color often alter their dress, speech and other behaviors to “code switch,” or mask, their ethnic identity in predominantly white settings. That’s a situation that does little for their spiritual and emotional health.

“Interviewees’ accounts show that such compartmentalization of behavior on an ongoing basis can be demoralizing or exhausting for individuals in the racial minority; in trying to fit in this way, they cannot authentically belong,” Barna reported.

Nor can they lead. Barna added that a third of practicing Black Christians, or 33%, said they have encountered difficulty moving into church leadership positions in multiracial congregations. By comparison, 16% of those who attend “monoracial” churches reported similar experiences.

And in cases where a person of color attains a leadership role, it is usually in a limited capacity. “Even if a multiracial organization brings in leaders of color, these individuals are not usually given real authority or ability to make change,” researchers found.

Barna said these issues raise a challenging question about how multiracial churches, especially as they relate to African American Christians.

“If they don’t work well for Black individuals, for whom injustices in the U.S. have been deeply felt and particularly injurious, how well do they really work?”


Related articles:

Five reasons churches should not embrace reaching a multiethnic culture | Opinion by Maina Mwaura

Contrary to what you’ve heard, study finds churches thrive with racial diversity

More churches defined as racially diverse but that doesn’t lead to racial justice work

Study: church diversity does not guarantee diverse thinking, beliefs

Pastors say worship makes difference in multiethnic congregations

Through 14 months of pandemic, hospital chaplains have carried others’ burdens

The emotional trauma suffered by health care workers in the battle against COVID-19 also is being felt by the chaplains who ministered to the sick and dying during the pandemic.

“I think chaplains may have a little PTSD when this is all over,” said Grace Powell Freeman, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed senior chaplain at Emory St. Joseph Hospital in Atlanta. “I’ve been saying that if I can go through this, I can go through anything. This has been a real test of who I am.”

The virus that generated 32 million cases nationwide and to date has killed nearly 525,000 people pushed doctors and nurses to the limits of physical and emotional endurance, especially when the disease spiked during the closing months of 2020 and early 2021. That has been well documented.

Much of the emotional and spiritual support health care workers received during those traumatic periods derived from chaplains.

But much of the emotional and spiritual support health care workers received during those traumatic periods derived from chaplains who at the same time were tasked with ministering to families and their dying loved ones.

While the pandemic has ebbed and improvements in health care and chaplaincy procedures are emerging from the experience, going through the ordeal has been likened by some to serving in combat conditions.

“I find it helpful to see myself as a military chaplain rather than a hospital chaplain in the COVID-19 context,” Paul Yoon wrote in “Chaplains in the Midst of the COVID-19 Crisis,” an article published by the Association of Professional Chaplains.

“My role is a military chaplain in the health care context where all medical staff often express themselves to be soldiers fighting for their patients against COVID-19. My goals are to help these medical soldiers recharge, undo their anxiety and fear, and send them back to their battlefield,” Yoon wrote, but added: “I find the task of helping staff recharge to send them back to their patients or battlefield emotionally challenging.”

Chad Mustain

There was no aspect of caring for staff and families that wasn’t emotionally challenging, said Chad Mustain, a CBF-endorsed chaplain who serves in a large suburban hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Part of his responsibility during the height of the outbreak was to provide care for the doctors, nurses and patient care technicians who worked directly with COVID-19 patients. In many cases he felt their anxiety.

“I can’t tell you the number of conversations where a nurse would come out of a patient’s room on the verge of tears or angry, just trying to hold it together,” he said.

Those encounters often followed a moment when the nurse had to hold an iPad in front of a dying patient while the family said goodbye on the screen. “They were just so frustrated or emotional, and they would say things like, ‘That’s the worst thing I ever had to do.’”

Mustain said he and his fellow chaplains experienced such scenes multiple times a day during the apex of the pandemic and had to keep it together until they could debrief with one another later in the day.

“Most COVID cases are horrendous and difficult because you’re dealing with such a hard death and the family is heartbroken and the staff are hurt and angry and upset,” he said. “And I go back to my office and just cry or just fume with anger at things that were said or done.”

One of the low points for Mustain occurred in December after helping a health care team reeling from the deaths of a husband and wife whose adult children also were hospitalized. Leaving the facility that night, he witnessed a protester outside berating staff and claiming the disease had been made up by liberals.

Leaving the facility that night, he witnessed a protester outside berating staff and claiming the disease had been made up by liberals.

“I was so angry as I was getting in my car that I shut my finger in the door. I still have a fingernail that’s healing and is a constant reminder of what was my lowest day, for sure.”

Freeman recalled the agony of standing outside dying patients’ rooms while assuring family by phone that their loved ones were receiving care. Equally painful was not being able to enter those rooms to comfort patients.

Grace Powell Freeman

“Some of my most significant moments came when I stood outside a glass door and put my hand on the door to offer a prayer, or when I would pray with that family on the phone and tell them I had prayed for their mother or father,” she said.

She vividly recalled speaking into intubated patients’ rooms through baby monitors donated for that purpose.

“I would say, ‘I don’t know if you can hear me, I am here to pray with you.’ And they would respond by holding up a hand to let you know they could hear you.”

Freeman said she endured the pandemic in part with the skills she and other chaplains learn to leave their stress at the office when they go home from work. “You learn how to just walk away from it and enjoy life and do the things you like to do.”

But that often was difficult during the worst parts of the outbreak, Freeman said, because the pool at her gym was closed. “When I could not use swimming to wash off the day, I quickly changed to sitting on my back porch and connecting with friends and family through Zoom.”

Mustain said daily debriefs of 5 to 30 minutes did a lot to help him through the trauma of COVID-19. The pandemic has done much to confirm the importance of therapy, getting exercise, eating right and other aspects of self-care, he added.

“If your theology doesn’t work at the bedside, you probably need to get a better theology.”

Another is being able to recommend steps to families, friends, patients and their families to make their hospital stays less difficult, a topic he covered in a Baptist News Global opinion piece in March. Those include bringing phone chargers, learning how to operate tablets and having do-not-resuscitate orders in place ahead of time.

And people should inspect their theology before health crises occur, he said.

“We have an old saying in chaplaincy: If your theology doesn’t work at the bedside, you probably need to get a better theology,” Mustain said. “‘Everything happens for a reason’ may sound good on a Sunday morning at your megachurch, but that will just fall apart when your loved one is in a room alone and the staff rolls in with an iPad so you can say goodbye.”

BWA urges: Remember the people of Myanmar this weekend

The goal of this week’sMyanmar Red Ribbon Solidarity Weekend” is to combine prayer with activism to tangibly support the oppressed people of the Asian nation formerly known as Burma, a Baptist World Alliance official said.

“It’s important as Baptists that we exercise our faith within our community, which in this instance is the global Baptist family,” said Marsha Scipio, director of Baptist World Aid, BWA’s worldwide relief agency. “We want the people of Myanmar to know they are not forgotten and to continue to live in hope.”

But being forgotten is just what the people of Myanmar, including refugees in the U.S., say is happening since the country’s military staged a coup Feb. 1 and began a brutal crackdown on ethnic minorities and pro-democracy supporters. At least 750 civilians have been killed during the past three months, and that violence is now spreading to border areas with other nations.

Chan Hnin Thui

“The situation is actually getting worse,” said Chan Hnin Thui, pastor of Agape Baptist Church, a Burmese congregation in Dallas. “We don’t hear from our contacts back home anymore because the government has cut off the internet. If a person posts on Facebook, they can get arrested. If they are part of the civil disobedience movement, they get arrested.”

That information crackdown, which includes a ban on foreign media coverage, keeps most of the world in the dark about what is happening in the country, and that is why the BWA solidarity effort is so important, he said.

“Whatever we can do to help is important because it lets the world know what is going on. This is definitely a big step,” Thui said.

The first steps of the April 28-May 2 solidarity emphasis include days devoted to study, advocacy and prayer. The weekend themes focus on social media advocacy and showing unity in worship. The BWA has provided online resources for each day, including fact sheets about Myanmar, petitions to legislators and Myanmar embassies, and prayers written by and for their people.

Marsha Scipio

Another of the campaign’s aims is to educate young people about their counterparts in Myanmar who are among the leaders of anti-military protests, Scipio said. “This is to encourage youth and young adults of the Baptist faith to stand in solidarity with those young people who are on the front lines fighting for democracy and paying for that with their very lives.”

Many of the 1.6 million Baptists in Myanmar also are among the victims of the repression, she said. BWA has received reports of Baptist leaders going underground after being targeted by military forces, while others have suffered violence or become displaced by fighting.

BWA continues to send financial assistance to the religion, but what the situation in Myanmar also needs is awareness, Scipio added. “They realize that money is not going to solve the issue. It is going to be the advocacy that puts pressure on the military junta. They need those of us in the international community to raise our voices on their behalf.”

The Red Ribbon Weekend is designed to do that by marshalling BWA’s practice of combining social justice with integral mission to meet the needs of those it serves.

“That’s why we are calling people not only to pray, but to act,” Scipio said. “And it’s important that we act because a lot of people still don’t know what’s going on in Myanmar. This is a way we can touch people’s lives.”


Related article:

Pay attention to what’s happening in Myanmar, Baptist pastors plead

In BNG webinar, Ryan Burge details the double threat to denominational churches in America

Clergy and congregational leaders worried about losing members to the swelling ranks of the religiously unaffiliated need to widen their focus of concern to include the rise of the non-denominational church movement, Ryan Burge said during “Understanding the ‘Nones,’” an April 26 webinar hosted by Baptist News Global.

“Non-denominationals were 4% of the population in 1996, and they are 12% of the population today. Nearly a quarter of all Protestants in America today are non-denominational, up from 3% 30 years ago,” said Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and author of the new book The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.

As a result, denominational Christianity faces a challenge from two separate forces: Americans seeking less-structured church experiences, or none at all.

Ryan Burge

“There’s been a drop off in churchgoing, but I think the question is actually kind of double barreled: it’s the nones on one side and non-denominationalism on the other side,” said Burge, also the pastor of an American Baptist congregation in Illinois.

During the webinar moderated by BNG Executive Director Mark Wingfield, Burge covered topics ranging from the identity and growth of the “nones” and the cultural forces that gave rise to them. The event also ventured into discussions on membership, how churches can be more relevant in a post-COVID environment and why ministers needn’t feel responsible for the existence and impact of the nones.

Who are the ‘nones’?

One reason pastoral guilt is pointless is that the trend is just too massive, and has too much momentum, to be stopped, Burge said. “Nones” currently comprise 34% of the U.S. population. They made up just 5% of Americans in the 1970s and reached 22% by 2008.

“They’ve grown 50% in the last 12 years,” he said. “They are, without a shadow of a doubt, the fastest growing religious group in America.”

And there are significant subgroupings of nones including atheists and agnostics, who each represent 6% of the population, while 21% of Americans identify on surveys as the more common type of “none” — people whose religion is “nothing in particular.”

“If you add those three groups together, we call them the ‘nones,’” Burge explained.

Further reason to avoid despair is that many in the “nothing in particular group” are not hostile to religion, as are atheists and agnostics, Burge said. “Nothing in particulars are the people who I’m really the most concerned about as both a political scientist and a pastor because they are just on an island off by themselves and really don’t feel connected to their communities. They are the group that the church should reach out to more.”

“I hope pastors, especially, will stop making a boogeyman when they talk about the nones.”

And this is a group church leaders should stop being afraid of, he added. “I hope pastors, especially, will stop making a boogeyman when they talk about the nones. It’s not Richard Dawkins with the philosophy professor in God’s Not Dead. That is not the typical none.”

“The typical none is someone who does not have a college degree and who makes less than $50,000 a year. Many are struggling economically, socially and spiritually and are disconnected from society. More than 60% of all nones are nothing in particular, so we need to start thinking about the nones and a more inclusive way,” he advised.

“So, stop debating atheists. It’s a waste of time. They’re never going to convert.” But the nothing in particulars remain viable candidates for church outreach.

The nothing in particulars, like others who have dropped out of church for various reasons, will not be reachable forever, though, he added. The longer they are gone, the harder it becomes to bring them back into the fold.

A personal quest

Burge admitted that as both a social scientist and a pastor, he has a personal stake in the subject at hand.

“My church is also dying. We had 300 people when we moved into our building in 1968. Today we have 15 on a good Sunday, and we’re probably going to close in the next three or four years.”

A desire to understand the motivations of nones led Burge into years of research that culminated in his new book, he said. Hence, his research, writing and speaking are much more than academic exercises.

“Most pastors think, ‘Why is this happening?’ At least in my case, I feel like I have the tools and the training to start answering those ‘why’ questions in an empirically rigorous way and then share that journey with everyone else.”

Death of the social desirability bias

Another factor of why the religiously unaffiliated population is growing so rapidly is that the numbers, until recently, may not have fully reflected many Americans’ attitudes toward church, Burge said.

Social scientists attribute that to a polling concept known as social desirability bias, in which survey respondents lie when asked to identify religious identity and devotion.

“They would tell you the right answer, not the real answer,” he explained. “And the right answer was they were Christian or Protestant, typically Baptist or Methodist or something like that.”

As modern polling has moved from in-person and telephone surveys to online surveys, the social desirability bias has faded, Burge said, leading more Americans to be forthcoming about their disaffiliation from religion. “I think part of what we’re seeing is not a rise in the nones, but just them being more honest on these surveys and telling us what they really are.”

The rise of the non-denoms

Burge outlined a massive shift in religious identity as non-denominational churches have surpassed denominationally affiliated congregations across America — a phenomenon that is uniquely American, he said.

For example, a large portion of Americans raised as Baptists have joined non-denominational evangelical churches as adults, he said. “They’re not leaving the tradition, they’re leaving the denomination, which kind of tells you what’s going on with America as we’re seeing this huge transference.”

In turn, the prevalence of non-denominational Christianity reflects the fragmentation of American society because non-denominational churches are not connected, focus almost exclusively on their own participants and avoid controversy at all costs, Burge said.

“They are growing because they are anti-institutional. They reject labels,” he said. “They … strive to be generic and vanilla and noncontroversial because if your No. 1 job in life is to grow, then the one way to assure you you’re not going to grow is to be partisan, to be divisive and to talk about racial and political issues.”

The fragmentation of evangelicals also is evident in the absence of readily identifiable national leaders, Burge noted. “You could start ticking off a list of people in the ’90s who spoke for evangelicals,” but today it’s difficult to makes such a list. Even Franklin Graham, a longtime champion of fundamentalist causes, recently was chastised on social media for promoting the COVID-19 vaccine — further evidence of fragmentation.

“Denominations gave structure and order and communication,” he said. “Today is just a free for all amongst evangelicals.”

What’s lost and what’s gained

The non-denominational trend is so powerful that many churches no longer want to be associated with denominations – even when they are associated with them, Burge said. That’s why such affiliations usually are omitted from church names, signage or websites.

What’s lost in this trend is the power of denominations to effectively pull churches together on mission.

What’s lost in this trend is the power of denominations to effectively pull churches together on mission, he explained. “If there’s a tsunami in Indonesia, the Southern Baptists can put boots on the ground in 24 hours and put relief funds on the ground in 24 hours” while a non-denominational church “has no apparatus outside their local community.”

What draws people from traditional to non-denominational churches, though, is not missions but personal needs being met: multiple service times, convenient small-group and family ministries and never being asked to volunteer or to become members, he continued. “In these non-denominational churches that are growing very rapidly in America, many of them don’t even have membership as a concept.”

But easy in also means easy out, Burge said. “There is no attachment, no strong sense of community. A lot of those people will come for a while and then leave and go to another non-denominational church because they don’t create those strong ties.”

Coming out of the pandemic, traditional churches are well situated to offer the sense of community many Americans now crave, he advised.

“Set up barbecues or horseshoe tournaments but no preaching, no tracts, no praise and worship music, no service. Just come enjoy the grounds. Have your kids come. Everyone can sit around and hang out and just talk about whatever you want to talk about,” Burge said. “Most people who come to church come for the wrong reasons and stay for the right reasons. So, let’s give them more wrong reasons to come, give them more opportunities for entry, and then if they want to keep coming for the gospel and the theology, great.”

The outlook for denominations

Overall, the outlook for denominational churches is neutral, at best, Burge said. “Everything is either holding steady or declining.”

At the moment, 10% of the U.S. population is made up of mainline Christians, a segment expected to diminish to 5% in a decade.

Burge described the decline as “radical” given that mainline Christians represented 30% of Americans in 1976. “They were literally the largest religious tradition in America in the 1970s.”

“People in the middle don’t have any place to go (to church) anymore.”

That leaves mostly conservative churches and the religiously unaffiliated as the two major options in the U.S.

“People in the middle don’t have any place to go anymore,” Burge said. “The churches that are left in America are almost always theologically and politically conservative, especially among white churches.”

Burge said this ties back into his concern for pastors who may be consumed with trying to counter these massive social trends.

“No matter how good I preach or how I minister, how much I love you or feed my sheep, at some point you can’t beat these forces going on in the world. You just need to understand that your job is to do the best you can with what you have, where you are and let everything else happen around you.”


Related articles:

Ryan Burge sifts the data to paint an evolving portrait of the ‘nones’

Gen Z and growth of the ‘nones’ might have swung presidential election

Faith leaders see ‘nones’ coming to church for community, spiritual direction

Tell the Jesus story and stop worrying about numerical growth, historian advises


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Alliance of Baptists updates its covenant and hears calls to action against injustice

The economic, racial and social injustices exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have called progressive Christians to bolder-than-ever action on behalf of the oppressed, pastor and writer Aurelia Dávila Pratt said during her opening keynote address to the Alliance of Baptists’ 2021 Annual Gathering, held virtually April 23-24.

“Please, no more resurrection talk. Words aren’t enough. Prayers aren’t enough. Theology isn’t enough. We need resurrection embodied in us and in our collective consciousness,” said Dávila Pratt, senior minister of Peace of Christ Church in Round Rock, Texas.

Aurelia Dávila Pratt

Referencing Isaiah 58, she said the description of fasting in Isaiah 58 as comforting the downtrodden must be embraced by people of faith to bring healing to a distressed culture and world.

“Ambitious people are not satisfied by the status quo. They are not interested in mediocrity. They are not content with apathy. Ambitious people see progress as possible,” she said. “Ambitious people roll up their sleeves head out into the thick of things and get s— done.”

The two-day Zoom event featured worship and workshops built around the title, “How Then Shall We Live? Covenantal Life in the Midst of Coronavirus and White Supremacy.”

Dávila Pratt’s sermon on April 23 was followed the next day by Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, and Naomi Washington-Leapheart, director of faith-based and interfaith affairs for the city of Philadelphia.

They, like Dávila Pratt, addressed both the challenge and the actions needed to counter discrimination.

‘As Baptists we confess …’

Michael-Ray Mathews, president of the Alliance of Baptist’s board of directors, described the online event as an opportunity to celebrate and live into the organization’s “New Covenant and Mission,” adopted April 10.

The document affirms the Alliance’s historic Baptist identity and tradition of dissent but goes on to confess where it has fallen short.

“We lament that over time many of us have contributed to systems of racial, social, economic and environmental injustice, privileging some while excluding others. As Baptists we confess that we have cherished independence from one another more than responsibility to one another and have allowed systemic injustices to flourish under the banner of individual freedom. We repent and seek transformation,” the document states.

“As Baptists we confess that we have cherished independence from one another more than responsibility to one another.”

The statement commits to follow “the radical ways of Jesus,” to maintain local church autonomy and to champion religious liberty. Other goals include practicing creation justice, pursuing ecumenical and interfaith partnerships, dismantling systems of white supremacy and working to eradicate poverty.

The new “Covenant and Mission” followed “a year of acute trauma and loss” and affirms the Alliance’s commitment to participate “in God’s work in the world and to equip one another with new skills that we can use in our ministry settings,” Mathews said.

‘The supremacy of whites’

The gathering sought to drill into that mission during a pre-recorded question-and-answer session between Mathews and Jones, who was initially asked to describe the white Christian role in propagating white supremacy.

He replied that, as he had written in White Too Long, the white Protestant church in particular has been the primary legitimizing force behind the public policies, laws and cultural practices undergirding racism.

Robert Jones

“We don’t get anything blessed as a cultural practice or as law — and morally legitimized as a cultural practice — without the stamp of approval of white Christian churches in this country,” Jones said. “That means that all the things we have blessed — from slavery to Jim Crow to convict leasing programs to criminal justice inequities, segregation in schools, all of that stuff — came with the blessing of white Christian churches.”

White evangelicals are not solely complicit in fostering and supporting the structures of white supremacy. Even many of the 19th century abolitionists who opposed slavery on humanitarian grounds also opposed granting social equality to Black Americans, he reported.

Those assumptions have survived into modern times, with majorities of white mainline Protestants and Catholics espousing white supremacist attitudes in recent polling, Jones said.

But such views are imperceptible to many of those white Christians who believe white supremacy was relegated to days of lynchings and cross burnings. They also tend to see racism as a purely historical problem, he said.

“The benefit of thinking about white supremacy that way, for contemporary white people, is that distances it from us.”

That’s why Jones said he advocates changing the terminology from “white supremacy” to the “supremacy of whites,” as the latter denotes “a kind of racial hierarchy and that we white people are intended to be on top of it.”

It’s a perspective through which churches have filtered theology, scriptural interpretation and spiritual formation “generation after generation,” he said. Consequently, “it impacted how we think about everything from who Jesus was to what salvation means. Our entire theological worldview is shot through with a pre-commitment to the idea that whites are intended to be at the top of the racial hierarchy.”

“Our entire theological worldview is shot through with a pre-commitment to the idea that whites are intended to be at the top of the racial hierarchy.”

Baptists in particular have had a role in perpetuating and shaping racist structures by promoting a “hyper-individualistic theology” that removes any notion of culpability and responsibility for discerning and combating white supremacy, Jones said.

“That hyper-individualistic theology has protected us from seeing the realities of racism in the country at the institutional and systemic level, and continued denial of that is probably the biggest manifestation of white supremacy in the country.”

But awareness of the power structure is only the beginning for white Christians, he added. “If there’s something we should repent of, it is that we have allowed ourselves to construct this highly individualistic theology that blinds us to the principalities and powers of systemic racism.”

‘Find the mold and rot’

Washington-Leapheart pushed the challenge even further in her keynote address by encouraging the progressive church to examine itself, too, and to walk the path of justice it publicly promotes.

Naomi Washington-Leapheart

“We have hung the right flags outside. We have installed the right lawn signs. But have we anticipated the presence of those we claim to include?” she said. “Have we failed to consistently and fully account for — and I mean invest in — the needs of those we claim to welcome? How would folks know that we’ve been waiting specifically for them?”

Progressive Christians and churches sometimes seek diversity not to find “kinfolk” and “comrades in the struggle for justice,” but for what they see as a cultural resource that bestows upon them an aura of holiness, Washington-Leapheart said.

“I know you said you’re not like those other churches. I know that you are countercultural. But will you make room for the ones who make you question everything you thought you believed about God, everything you thought you knew about yourself?”

She illustrated her challenge with the biblical account of Jesus healing a paralytic who had been lowered through the roof of a home in Capernaum.

Her sermon, titled “Property Damage,” described how architecture and public spaces are designed to enforce racist, sexist and other values of the dominant culture.

But the passage from the Gospel of Mark makes clear that Christ approves efforts to counter those systems of oppression when he blesses the efforts of the paralytic and his friends in damaging the roof, she noted.

“I need just a few folks who are willing to go to the roof with me and start disassembling brick by brick, tile by tile.”

“I need just a few folks who are willing to go to the roof with me and start disassembling brick by brick, tile by tile. I need some folks who aren’t afraid to be downwardly mobile … . I need some people who have the audacity to break space and time protocols to protect friends and strangers and neighbors.”

And in many cases the roof that needs dismantling includes the attitudes of churches, even progressive ones, she added.

“You’ve been working overtime to make intellectual room, and even spiritual room and theological room, for what is right and just, and that’s all well and good. But have you broken the bones of the building? Have you taken down your woke artwork and drilled into the marrow of your churches’ architecture to find the mold and the rot and the infestations there?”

The pandemic slowed down Mercer on Mission but a $10 million gift is powering the future

“Coddiwomple,” Craig McMahan says, pretty much describes Mercer on Mission as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a word that means to move purposely toward an unknown or vague destination, and we are certainly moving cautiously but confidently toward an unknown goal,” said McMahan, director of the Mercer University program that provides service learning and study abroad opportunities for students.

Only one of the 20 projects scheduled for 2020 actually occurred, cutting overall participation from 300 students to 30 last year.

While the program’s goal is to emerge from pandemic-imposed travel restrictions to a full slate of global missions, knowing which destinations will reopen, and when, remains unclear, he said.

But the moving-with-confidence component also is operative thanks to a $10 million donation announced this month and a year spent fine-tuning administrative and logistical practices and maintaining international relationships via video conferencing technology.

This is not altogether unlike plants during winter, McMahan said. “Their roots keep growing but not the leaves. Mercer on Mission did a lot of underground growing by making good use of the time when we weren’t traveling.”

But the growth came with a significant amount of pain, he said.

Mercer on Mission volunteers building a wall in the Dominican Republic.

“Probably the biggest challenge posed by the pandemic was having to tell students they could not travel. A lot of our students come to Mercer precisely because of Mercer on Mission, and for those who were seniors, not being able to travel was a big hurt.”

Only one of the 20 projects scheduled for 2020 actually occurred, cutting overall participation from 300 students to 30 last year.

While planning is under way for 15 projects in 2022, activity this year is still expected to be modest, with four missions involving 90 students slated for late summer — assuming that the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Georgia, Rwanda and Vietnam reopen in time, McMahan said. “The way forward isn’t clear, but we are trying to get everything in place for what we hope is the reality, the possibility, of travel this summer.”

Yet a major upside has been the $10 million donation from the Macon, Ga.-based Phil J. and Alice S. Sheridan Foundation to support the work of Mercer on Mission.

The gift will establish The Sheridan Center at Mercer University, which will benefit the entire Mercer on Mission program but also will expand the university’s unique prosthetics ministry beyond its current operation in Vietnam, McMahan said.

Mercer students fit a Vietnamese man with a prosthetic.

Since 2007, Mercer volunteers have fitted more than 16,000 Vietnamese with patented, highly durable and low-cost prosthetic legs that were designed and are manufactured by Mercer faculty, staff and students. Most of the patients fitted with the prosthetic legs have been victims of land mines left over from the Vietnam War. With the new gift, Mercer will be on track to become the largest supplier of high-quality prosthetics throughout the world to people who could not otherwise afford them.

Such a goal would have been impossible before the contribution orchestrated by local businessman and philanthropist Chris R. Sheridan, chairman of the Sheridan Foundation board, a Mercer trustee and longtime supporter of the Vietnam prosthetics project.

The impact of the gift is already being felt as the university is able to purchase more prosthetic components, hire staff and actively explore other ministry sites around the world.

Since 2007, Mercer volunteers have fitted more than 16,000 Vietnamese with patented, highly durable and low-cost prosthetic legs.

“We are seriously looking at going to Colombia, which has one of the highest concentrations of amputees in the world because of their civil war,” McMahan said. “We are looking at finding local partners and opening clinics.”

In Mercer’s announcement of the gift, Sheridan extolled the program’s impact on underprivileged people around the world. “This partnership extends our reach beyond our experience and our lifetimes; it is one that multiplies the effect of our financial donation with infrastructure, reach, vision and results.”

Mercer President William Underwood described the gift as transformative. “This endowment will serve to empower the lives of impoverished persons globally through research and innovation,” he said.