News and trends (March-April 2014)

When persecution isn't persecution

PersecutionIn America, a reality TV star gets suspended for controversial remarks on race and homosexuality, and conservative Christians claim victim and martyr status in the media. In Egypt, churches are torched by Islamic mobs and those Christians respond with humility and prayers for their persecutors.

It’s the kind of irony that drives Gavin Rogers a little crazy sometimes.

“I have to challenge myself not to get angry about it,” said Rogers of San Antonio, Texas, a former Baptist youth minister who traveled to strife-torn Egypt twice in 2013.

The controversy involving Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson has exposed the disconnect between the way some American Christians view persecution and the experience of disciples around the world, where it can be difficult to know when violence can be classified as religious persecution.

“The violence that sometimes happens to Christians is not so much that they are Christians as that they [the Christians] are in risky places,” said Nell Green, a veteran Baptist 9 missionary who has witnessed and suffered attacks in the Middle East and Africa.

It’s one reason why organizations that raise awareness and support for persecuted Christians worldwide often shy away from attempting to keep exact statistics on persecution, said Todd Nettleton, director of media development for Voice of the Martyrs.

“We avoid a number because we don’t have a way to accurately state ‘this many people were killed for their faith in Jesus Christ,’” Nettleton said. “Sometimes it’s more [ethnic or national] identity than a Christian witness, and in some cases it’s not known at all.”

The Duck Dynasty controversy would not rise to the level of religious persecution, he added. “I don’t identify what happened here as an issue of Christian persecution.”

But intentional, anti-Christian persecution clearly does exist.

“The reality is that Christians are imprisoned for their faith every day of the year, so we would love to see the American church make it more of a part of their everyday prayer life,” said Nettleton.

In fact, Rogers said, prayer was the number one request of the Christians he met in Egypt — especially of those whose churches were burned in 2013.

Green said she’ll be hosting a webinar this spring featuring Americans, Egyptians, Christians and Muslims discussing the violence that occurred in Egypt last year and examining its deeper sources.

“It’s to help our Christian brothers and sisters, and others, hear another voice and to understand it’s more complex than Muslims coming up against Christians.” 


Religious hostilities: A six-year high

43 — percentage of countries where restrictions on religion are high or very high

76 — percentage of world’s population living where restrictions on religion is high or very high

47 — percentage of countries where abuse of religious minorities occurs

39 — percentage of countries where violence or threat of violence is used to enforce religious norms

32 — percentage of countries where women are harassed over religious dress

25 — percentage of countries where mob violence related to religion occurs

48 — percentage of countries in which government restrictions on religion increased over previous years

110 — number of countries in which Christians are harassed

109 — number of countries in which Muslims are harassed

Source: Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life Project Based on 2012 figures, the latest available


Owning up

RickshawA Vacation Bible School curriculum which critics say promoted racial stereotypes prompted an apology in from LifeWay Christian Resources, which developed the curriculum a decade ago. The Asian culture-themed “Far Out Rickshaw Rally: Racing To the Son” was a lesson in cross-cultural miscommunication, said LifeWay leaders.

“Ten years ago LifeWay’s Vacation Bible School material used racial stereotypes that offended many in the Asian-American community,” LifeWay chief Thom Ranier told multi- ethnic leaders at a conference in Long Beach, Calif. “I wasn’t part of LifeWay then, but I am now. And I’ve recently learned that decades-old offense is still a point of hurt for some.

“I want to apologize. I am sincerely sorry stereotypes were used in our materials, and I apologize for the pain they caused.”

An Evangelicals for Social Action blog at the time said that teaching “children about Jesus Christ while exposing them to different cultures” was “admirable,” but that the result was a “racially insensitive, inaccurate curriculum based on racist popular Western stereotypes and images of Asian cultures.”

Asian-American Christian leaders at the conference said the apology was “a step toward healing” and announced plans to meet with LifeWay leadership to discuss next steps. 


What’s in a name?

tinyjesus“Jay” is a popular name for baby boys in the United States but apparently not as popular as “Messiah.”

That’s the word from the Social Security Administration, which reports that in 2012 “Messiah” was the 387th most popular boy’s name, right after “Scott” and just before “Jay.” It’s up from 904th place in 2004.

LIfeWay Research discovered that 53 percent of Americans strongly agree parents should be able to name their child “Messiah” or “Christ,” and another 21 percent somewhat agree.

An East Tennessee judge ran afoul of legal opinion last summer when she ordered a plaintiff to change her son’s name from “Messiah” to “Martin.”

“Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” said Judge Lu Ann Ballew. Her ruling was overturned and she faces a citation from a state judicial board.


Virginia’s cultural shift isn’t just blue-ish

McAuliffe dancingVirginia launched 2014 with the inauguration of its third consecutive Catholic governor — this in a state where historically a Protestant hegemony prevailed.

Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, was elected last fall to succeed Republican Bob McDonnell, who followed Democrat Tim Kaine. All three are Catholics.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and himself Catholic, said anti-Catholic sentiment in the state is “gone completely,” though he recalls a time when it remained high.

“I grew up in Norfolk, where Catholicism is fairly common, but my mother’s relatives were all in Southwest Virginia, which is overwhelmingly Protestant and primarily Baptist …. We travelled to the Southwest every summer, and I recall a mixed reception on the subject of religion — and a great deal of prejudice in the 1960 presidential contest, when I was called ‘a papist’ while handing out JFK literature.”

Bill Leonard, a church historian at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an expert on Southern religion, said Catholics have become so accepted in the South that their religious commitments are less an issue or even known by segments of the electorate.

“That is still not true of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and, of course, Muslims, but Kennedy’s election changed everything. The fact that the four candidates for U.S. president and vice president in 2012 were a Mormon, two Catholics and an African-American Protestant (whom 40 percent of Americans think is Muslim) says loud and clear that religion is less an issue.”


Not just for wonks

Virginia Baptists joined a growing number of other restructuring denominations when it adopted a far-reaching governance proposal last fall which leaders said would position the network of 1,400 churches to more effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century while maintaining broad representation from its diverse constituency.

The shift, if finalized as expected in 2015, is the most significant governance change in the 190-year-old Baptist General Association of Virginia since the 1920s. It reflects a growing trend among Baptist organizations to explore new governing structures. Proposals have been aired in the Tennessee and approved in the District of Columbia Baptist conventions, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is implementing a structural overhaul adopted in 2012. Four years ago the Southern Baptist Convention modified its unified giving mechanism — a key part of its governance structure — to accommodate changing patterns in church contributions.

Governance issues aren’t just for policy wonks, suggested Falls Church, Va., pastor Jim Baucom, who chaired a committee which developed the BGAV proposal. “We’re staking the same values Virginia Baptists have attempted to embody in their governing structures in the past. This proposal takes those values and suggests how that should look in the 21st century.”


Shattering the ceiling

Racial and ethnic barriers have been broken by Baptists in Virginia and Texas.

Carter ValerieValerie Carter, a longtime Baptist minister and social worker, was elected to be the ninth executive of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia — the first African-American to hold the post in the organization’s 140-year existence.

Carter had been associate pastor for glocal ministries at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond for 10 years.

Reyes GusGus Reyes, director of affinity ministries and the Hispanic Education Initiative for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has been named director of the state convention’s influential Christian Life Commission.

Reyes has been on staff at the BGCT since 2002. He succeeds Suzii Paynter, who stepped down last year to become executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.


Faith on the wall

Convergence MuralArt and faith joined hands at a church in the Washington suburbs when it unveiled a mural depicting the “experiences, hopes, dreams and values” the congregation aims to achieve.

The Church at Convergence, a Baptist congregation in Alexandria, Va., which explores the “intersection of art, faith and the human experience,” partnered with Washington-based non-profit Albus Cavus to create the mural on a highly visible wall in the church’s entrance hall.

“We shared with one another and with the artists about our experiences, hopes, dreams and values as a community for what might happen in this space,” said pastor Lisa Cole Smith. “The artists from Albus Cavus then took our ideas and translated them into a design which they have painted on our wall with help from Convergence participants.

“We hope it will continue to be a chance to build relationships through conversation and connection around what is deeply meaningful to each person.”


Political watch

North Carolina Baptist pastor Mark Harris may have gotten a boost in his campaign for the U.S. Senate when former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee endorsed him.

“Mark is the right choice for conservatives and Republicans in North Carolina,” Huckabee said of Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and immediate past president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Huckabee, a Fox News personality who ran for president in 2008, was a pastor who served as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention before trading the pulpit for politics in the 1990s. He was elected Arkansas’ lieutenant governor in 1993 and was elected to full four-year terms as governor in 1998 and 2002.

Harris, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has led the 3,000-member First Baptist Church for nine years. He recently completed two years of service as president of the 4,300-church North Carolina affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s competing with seven other candidates for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary scheduled May 6.


Pursuing a passion

New Baptist Covenant: Action, Reconciliation, Transformation

By Hannah McMahan

The New Baptist Covenant was born out of a dream. In an era when Baptists are divided by race, theology and geography and churches are taking the name “Baptist” off their marquees, President Jimmy Carter and other prominent Baptists dreamed of a time when we could overcome these divisions and unite to be agents of God’s love in a world desperately in need.

At the 2008 inaugural New Baptist Covenant gathering we caught a glimpse of this dream becoming reality. Baptists from various traditions and backgrounds gathered together to testify to the fact that there is more that unites us than divides us. Here we came together to honor God with our unity and to learn about the good works our fellow Baptists had been undertaking.

Over the subsequent years, we have continued to nurture this dream. We have enjoyed our new friendships and been inspired by powerful words.

But now it is time to take the next step.

The New Baptist Covenant movement is poised to turn inspiration into action. We are calling Baptist churches from different traditions to partner together to make “Covenants of Action.” In these covenants, churches will create collaborative ministries in their communities to advance Jesus’ Luke 4:18-19 vision. All across the nation, local Baptist churches are coming together to deepen friendships, create fresh ministries and to love the world that God loves. Over the next four years NBC plans to nurture over 100 Covenants of Action. Through these efforts, we will act to reconcile our Baptist family and to transform our communities to reflect the Luke 4:18-19 vision.

Together we can turn the New Baptist Covenant dream into reality and bring a new day for Baptists full of purpose and promise.

– Hannah McMahan is national coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant.


The spiritual power of … college football

While plans have yet to be made by two pastors who bet a mission trip on the BCS championship game, the leaders of the two Baptist congregations say the wager’s impact is already producing spiritual fruits.

It all started in late December when good-natured ribbing broke out on Twitter between the pastors of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and First Baptist in Auburn, Ala. The topic: whether Florida State or Auburn universities would win the big game.

The jibes based on Bible passages continued escalating until a challenge was issued: the church in the losing city would have to travel to the winner’s hometown for a joint mission project.

The churches are still developing plans, but the congregations have developed closer ties, inspired by the game and the wager. 


Baptists and culture agree on smoking — stop it

Camel AdUnder a prevailing Premillennialist theology that holds things on Earth will keep getting worse and worse for believers until Christ returns, it is not unusual to hear in Baptist sermons examples of increasing moral laxity cited as evidence that American culture is sliding toward doom.

This year, however, marks the 50th anniversary of a rare instance where Baptist and cultural views dovetailed in a way that pretty much everyone agrees is for the common good.

Since the Jan. 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General’s Report linking tobacco use to illnesses like lung cancer and chronic bronchitis, the rate of smoking among U.S. adults has dropped from 42 percent in years preceding the report to about 18 percent today. Doctors say anti-smoking measures over the last 50 years have saved roughly 8 million U.S. lives.

While traditional Baptist morality has lost ground in terms of social acceptance on issues like sexuality, drugs, alcohol and gambling, America is becoming increasingly smoke-free.

The Southern Baptist Convention passed its first anti-tobacco resolution in 1933, followed by additional statements in 1937, 1964 and 1984.

Media described the 1984 resolution, backed by Christian Life Commission head Foy Valentine, as a “war on smoking” that divided Baptists in tobacco country like North Carolina, home to more than 1 million Baptists at the time.

With the possible exception of believer’s baptism, it may be the only stance the liberal Valentine shared with his eventual successor, Richard Land, a leader in the Religious Right, who in 2009 supported legislation giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

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