She’s Gen-Z, became leery of the church but practices faith with fitness

Tia Howell didn’t invent the idea that mind, body and spirit are intimately connected, but the 24-year-old personal fitness coach in Mount Holly, N.C., lives it as she would a calling.

She’s also among one of the fastest-growing groups in modern American religion. She is a “spiritual but not religious” person.

Researchers for the past decade have noted the rise in this demographic — especially among younger generations — of people who don’t claim affiliation with any particular church or denomination.

It took Howell several years of deep seeking and personal pain to develop a faith that has become inspiring to herself and others in her career as a fitness coach.

The journey began in the Southern Baptist church she attended as a child with her grandmother in Waco, N.C.

Tia Howell

She was grateful for the experience but also came to be unsettled by the hierarchy and controlling behaviors of some, she said. “I saw the power plays as members fought over their positions in church. And I would ask myself if people in church were really living out what the Scriptures teach.”

She was beginning to have her own interpretations of the Bible: “I started to ask myself, what does all this mean to me?”

The death of a close friend led to a season of grief that included reservations about religious belief and practices, she said. “I was angry at God and I would scream at him and demand answers to questions about life and death. I also asked, ‘If I don’t go to church, does it matter?’”

While Howell no longer participates in organized Christianity, she said her faith has grown stronger: “It’s about a very personal relationship with God and trying to understand things for myself. I do this through meditation, prayer and always keeping a written journal.”

That relationship provided the courage to launch Life with Tia and a new career as a fitness entrepreneur, she said. “My previous job situation was difficult, and I felt that was God pushing me to step out of my comfort zone and start my own business.”

That faith-based confidence was vital in helping Howell when the pandemic occurred two months after the start of her business. In response, she created and launched a virtual platform through which to train her clients using her mind-body-soul approach.

“I say I am always being divinely guided, divinely supported and God always knows the bigger picture.”

“All of this has positively impacted me as a businesswoman by forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone to find ways to be innovative and supportive without being face-to-face,” she said.

Howell has a mantra she says every day. “I say I am always being divinely guided, divinely supported and God always knows the bigger picture.”

“Being able to help other people improve their health, their mental wellness and spirituality is something God directly placed on me,” said Howell, a 2019 graduate of Gardner-Webb University who majored in exercise science.

“I believe one of the biggest ways we can be an example of the image of God is to be of service to other people, to love and help and encourage each other and to embody that sense of community and service in everything we do,” she explained.

Howell launched Lift with Tia in January 2020 to help clients achieve emotional and physical balance through a combination of strength training, healthy eating, goal setting and daily life management. The spiritualty underlying these practices can be openly or subtly incorporated, depending on individual preferences.

“But you can’t have one without the other,” she said. “Being fit spiritually ties into your confidence and self-image and self-worth, and it’s from there where our daily behaviors come from.”

Marsha Perry

Belmont, N.C., resident and mom Marsha Perry said she can testify that Howell’s integrated approach to physical and spiritual fitness has transformed her outlook on life.

“I’ve had personal training before, but with Tia I’m not just looking good, I’m feeling good,” said Perry, who has trained with Howell for more than a year.

“She’s not your average trainer. Mentally, she gets you to where you need to be. She checks in with me to make sure I am in the right head space, that I’m meal prepping and doing healthy things outside of training,” Perry said.

And because Perry is open to it, Howell brings God into the workout experience. “We pray about the things I have to do, about the where I need to be mentally in order to start training. She is consistently making sure I’m in the right space spiritually and in my heart.”

Perry added that the process has helped her through the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve been able to stay focused and be accountable and have courage because I know God is there and I know he’s got me.”

Religion Notes: Pastors oppose sports gambling; Gardner-Webb featured in March Madness broadcast

Most Protestant pastors oppose sports gambling and its legalization, a position placing them at odds with much of society and even with their own congregations.

“The large majority of pastors oppose sports betting,” Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in comments published with results of a new survey on the subject. “And pastors are willing to put their ministry where their mouth is by being ready to help those hurt by gambling and to discourage people from participating.”

Of the 1,000 pastors surveyed, 59 percent said it is “morally wrong to bet on sports,” while 32 percent disagreed with that statement.

Plenty of people other than ministers also disagree. According to LifeWay Research, almost two-thirds of Americans disagree that sports gambling is wrong. Only 31 percent of Americans are in line with pastors’ opposition to it.

“Twice as many Americans than pastors see no moral dilemma with sports betting,” McConnell said. “There is even a gap within the church as less than half of weekly churchgoers say sports gambling is morally wrong.”

The disparity continues with younger pastors who have less of a problem with sports betting than their older peers, the survey found.

LifeWay Research found that 52 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds say it is morally wrong to bet on sports, while 61 percent of those 45 and older agree.

Mainline pastors are more accepting of the practice, at 35 percent, compared to 28 percent among evangelicals.

Significant majorities of Baptist (71 percent), Pentecostal (69 percent) and Methodist (63 percent) pastors oppose betting on sports.

The LifeWay Research study follows a 2018 decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a 1992 law prohibiting state-authorized sports gambling outside of Nevada.


Network documents Gardner-Webb hoops

Gardner-Webb University and its men’s basketball team will be featured in a sports television special at 3 p.m. April 7 — the weekend of the NCAA Final Four — on CBS.

The university announced the broadcast this week, explaining that a network film crew had captured “the excitement, energy and mayhem of Gardner-Webb’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.”

On March 22, the team lost 71-56 in the first round of the ongoing tournament to the Virginia Cavaliers.

The crew captured the March Madness atmosphere on campus from the perspective of students Jada Robbs and Will Marvel.

Their stories, the university said, will be included in CBS’s documentary series “Four Sides of the Story,” in an episode titled “March Madness Begins.”

The segment delves into the NCAA Tournament’s first week through four viewpoints – including student engagement at Gardner-Webb.

“I wanted to speak on the opportunities the University has given me and how it has impacted my life over the last four years,” Marvel said in the university news release.

Religion Notes: New CBF leader headed for Texas; GWU elects new president

The new executive director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will tour parts of Texas during his first week on the job.

Paul Baxley is to address meetings in Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Houston March 20-22, Fellowship Southwest announced in an email to supporters.

Paul Baxley

Baxley was unanimously elected by CBF’s Governing Board last month. The senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, he replaces Suzii Paynter at the CBF helm.

During his visit to the Lone Star state, Baxley will discuss his vision for CBF, his commitment to the church and his background.

“At each of his stops in the Southwest, Baxley will enable participants to get to know him.”

Baxley will be accompanied by Rick McClatchy, coordinator of CBF Texas, and Marv Knox, field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest.

“We’re delighted Paul has made coming to see us a priority during his first week on the job,” Knox said in the email announcement. “It’s not coincidental Paul is visiting our region as he takes the helm of CBF.”

Baxley’s itinerary includes Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas; Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth; Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco; Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin; Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio; and South Main Baptist Church in Houston.

Registration information for each event is available online.


GWU taps experienced dean and professor to lead university

College administrator and professor William M. Downs has been named the next president of Gardner-Webb University, the school has announced. His term begins July 1.

Downs has more than 20 years’ experience in higher education, including the past five years at East Carolina University as a political science professor and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

William M. Downs

He previously served as a professor and dean at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The university’s Baptist heritage and values will be celebrated, Downs said, adding he was also inspired by GWU’s traditions and people.

“Together, we will have the chance to write a new chapter in the history of one of North Carolina’s great universities,” he said in the announcement.

At ECU, Downs oversees 16 academic departments and 17 interdisciplinary degree programs.

A one-year search process culminated in Downs’ unanimous board confirmation, making him the 13th president in GWU’s history, the university said.

“He brings academic depth, significant leadership experience and vision to the position,” board chair Jennifer Marion Mills said. “We expect great things ahead.”

Churches must ‘count the cost’ of pursuing youth on social media

Youth have abandoned Facebook in favor of other social media platforms.

Data recently released by the Pew Research Center shows Facebook rates fourth behind YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat among young people.

So, should churches with strong Facebook presences follow younger Millennials and the up-and-coming Gen Z into virtual spaces a lot of ministers have barely heard of?

Experts say yes – if they are willing to commit time, money and staff resources to the effort. Leadership must also recognize they may be venturing into territory where hoped-for results, like boosts in attendance, may be elusive.

Simply opening an Instagram or Snapchat account isn’t enough. Ministers must study the platforms and how they work, said Bob Carey, chairman of the department of communication and new media at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.

If Instagram is the chosen platform for connecting with youth, churches and ministries should understand how hashtags work and seek to post relevant photos and videos, Carey said.

Bob Carey

And they must remain faithful to the audience being targeted by staying on message, he said. That means not using the account to post photos of delicious meals or beautiful sunsets.

“If a youth minister wants to reach people, he has to keep things aimed at youth with things that are ministry oriented,” Carey said. “But if he all of a sudden posts images about his family, that may not work.”

There seems to be little question that faith groups know they need to have some kind of an online presence. Many know that existing and potential Christians are populating those virtual spaces.

A 2017 Barna study showed increases in internet and computer use among Christians. Online and computer-based Bible reading increased 37 percent to 55 percent from 2011 to 2017. The survey also found a big jump – from 18 percent to 53 percent – in those who searched for biblical content on a smart or cell phone in that time period.

A LifeWay Research study published in January found that 68 percent of Protestant congregations offer Wi-Fi for guests and staff. Most churches have a website and a Facebook page – 84 percent for both.

But LifeWay Research also found relatively few of those groups venturing into other social platforms: 13 percent use Instagram and 16 percent use Twitter.

It’s a different story with larger congregations. Some of the most digitally innovative institutions out there are megachurches, said Erik Qualman, an author and speaker on digital and social media trends.

Companies often look to these churches for ideas on online storytelling, he said.

Being active in social media “is hugely important if they want to grow their congregations,” Qualman said.

It may be harder for smaller congregations to see immediate benefits from social media involvement, he added.

Erik Qualman

But even in those settings, platforms like YouTube and Instagram can help keep pastors up to date on the mood of the congregations and communities, he said. Social media can also help existing members feel connected to their churches.

Qualman warned against becoming attached to certain platforms because their popularity continually shifts. Instead, invest in social media trends.

“The trend now is being heavy on video,” he said. “Whether it’s YouTube or Instagram, I don’t know. But I know it’s video.”

Another must is to be consistent in message and in frequency of posts, said Carey.

“You may have the coolest posting, but if they are few and far between, they get lost,” he said.

Church leaders must understand that creating a social media presence and following requires a lot of time and patience. Photos and videos should be stockpiled in advance. Commitments must be long term.

“I encourage you to count the cost,” Carey said. “It’s going to take time and effort to do this.”

Churches and ministries also must focus on storytelling to foster relationships between viewers and churches.

Next: keep expectations low.

Building a following takes time and may not result in much or any numeric growth. It may instead create virtual congregation memberships, with some living out of state or around the globe.

“You may have to take the attitude that you are sowing seeds and others are going to do the harvesting,” Carey said.

Religion Notes: Spelling bee champ clinches with word most evangelicals already know

An occasional compilation of events from around the religious world. To suggest items for inclusion, email assistant editor Jeff Brumley at [email protected]

Koinonia, one of the most popular Greek words in the English-speaking evangelical world, made a splashy return to the limelight during the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The biblical word denoting fellowship or community has been used by intentional communities, Christian rock bands and all sorts of ministries.

Karthik Nemmani, 14, of McKinney, Texas, won the contest by spelling the word correctly. He won more than $42,000 in prize money, plus a trophy and reference library.

It’s likely a lot of Christians in the U.S. know how to spell that word, too.

“I’m just really happy,” Nemmani said in a story by The Washington Post. “This has just been a dream come true.”


Gardner-Webb University launches search for next president

Gardner-Webb University has announced an ongoing search for its next president.

The school located in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, issued a statement June 4 saying a presidential search committee had been formed and has already begun its work.

The school’s next president will replace Frank Bonner, who has been GWU president almost 14 years.

Bonner, 70, is scheduled to retire in early 2019, the university said. He has served the university in other capacities for more than three decades.

His replacement will be the 13th president in the school’s 113-year history.

Highlights in Bonner’s GWU tenure include leading the university’s largest capital campaign, which raised $46 million. He also was instrumental in developing academic enhancement programs and building state-of-the-art athletic facilities, the university said.

The university will keep the public informed as the search process unfolds, David Royster III, search committee chairman and a member of the GWU board, said in the university announcement.

The committee includes board, faculty, staff and student members.


MACBF event to raise funds, awareness for Ugandan refugees

Raising awareness about the plight of refugees entering Uganda is the focus of the Mid-Atlantic Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s third Great Obstacle Race, which will be held 8 a.m. to noon Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia.

The event is a fundraiser for Refuge and Hope International, a faith-based organization that serves refugees in Kampala, Uganda. The group provides educational, professional and personal development services to rebuild the lives of displaced persons. The organization serves refugees who remain in Uganda and those who have been resettled in other countries.

The race will be held at Calvary Hill Baptist Church, 9301 Little River Turnpike. Visit the MACBF website for registration information.

Shots fired at Baptist school

Baptist-affiliated Gardner-Webb University went into lockdown Sept. 27 after gunshots were fired on the campus in Boiling Springs, N.C.

No injuries were reported, and university officials told local media the campus returned to its normal schedule on Thursday.

As of Thursday night, police had arrested three suspects on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and were looking at another person of interest. Authorities say they don’t have ties to the school but may have been shooting at a former student in a dispute over a girl one of the suspects is dating.

Originally founded as a high school by two Baptist associations in North Carolina in 1903, Gardner-Webb remains affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Gardner-Webb’s M. Christopher White School of Divinity, opened in 1993, is a theological education partner of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Pope invokes MLK, a Baptist, as a Christian life to emulate

By Jeff Brumley

Baptist scholar Steven Harmon was struck by something in Pope Francis’ address to Congress today that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention: its ecumenical message.

The pontiff cited Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr. as primary examples of Christians who upheld social justice, liberty, plurality and non-exclusion. He also invoked the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. 

They were woven into a larger appeal by Francis that the United States embrace undocumented immigrants, work against income equality and protect the environment.

Harmon Steven cropped

But for Harmon, author of Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision, it was Francis’ inclusion of King, a Baptist, that sent a strong message.

“Pope Francis chose to weave the examples of three exemplary American Christian into his address…” Harmon told Baptist News Global via Facebook Messenger. “I think this is ecumenically significant.”

Day was a Catholic social activist who championed labor and anti-war causes in the 20th century. Merton was a Catholic monk known in part for his interfaith work, especially between Christianity and Eastern religions. And King was a Baptist pastor and leader of the American civil rights movement.

Harmon said their mention by Francis is a powerful moment in the movement to create harmony among Christian traditions.

“All three, including King, are commemorated in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church and some other churches,” said Harmon, visiting associate professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity.

The pope did not invoke their names as canonically recognized saints, but still as models for other Christians to emulate, Harmon said.

“The pope is commending a Baptist as an example of the lived Christian life,” Harmon said. “Baptists can learn from this and recognize non-Baptist Christians as saintly models for our living of the Christian life, too — as indeed many Baptists have already been doing.”

Curtis Freeman said the four figures presented by Francis were saints in profound ways.

Freeman Curtis cropped

Lincoln was the saint of American civil religion. King was the saint of civil rights. Day and Merton were saints of service to the poor and a spirituality of peace, said Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University.

“His stories show us what inclusion of the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the outsider might look like,” Freeman said. “We need the stories of saints like these, because they illumine our lives and show us concretely what goodness looks like in flesh and blood.”

Francis also avoided partisan stances, though some of his address appealed to both sides of the aisle at different times.

Freeman said “he makes it clear that to follow Jesus isn’t necessarily the same as the political right or left. He shows us that the Church of Jesus Christ stands as an alternative to both.”

Common story, community and Christian higher education

(The following are my prepared remarks delivered as a devotion for the President’s Prayer Breakfast at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina on September 2, 2015.) The one unalterable date on our family’s summer calendar is the third week in July. That’s when Duraleigh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh hosts Camp Moo Gung Hwa each year.

Back to school with a free haircut, thanks to Gardner-Webb staffer

By Matthew Tessnear

Keith Rhodes knows the importance of a good children’s haircut and the struggle with its cost for families who have limited resources. When Rhodes was 10 years old, his single mother, Janade, couldn’t afford a haircut for her son’s picture day at school. Embarrassed at the thought of going to school to take a picture without a sharp style, Rhodes retreated to his home’s bathroom with the tools to carefully prepare his own hair to face his classmates and the camera.

“Having that haircut gives a child an extra boost of confidence in class,” says Rhodes, a staff member at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. “I’ve been there and can relate to students and parents in families who struggle financially. That’s why I decided on the Saturday before school starts back that I’m going to cut hair, for free, for as many kids as possible.”

Keith Rhodes 2In August, for the fifth straight year, Rhodes provided free back-to-school basic haircuts at Maple Springs Baptist Church between the North Carolina towns of Shelby and Boiling Springs. The service was available for all girls and boys up to high school age who attend classes in Cleveland County.

Rhodes says his pastor, Robert Dover, and local barbershops have helped support and advertise the haircut program, which started with about 20 kids the first year and has since more than doubled in the number of children served each summer. He said people come from across the county for haircuts, including one father who drove his son on a moped to the church to get a haircut the first year and now comes every year.

“When I went to school with the haircut I gave myself, nobody knew the difference, and from that time on I cut my own hair,” Rhodes says. “The first time I cut my hair it took me six hours. I got faster and faster to where I could cut it in 20 minutes.”

After people noticed his hair and started asking him who was cutting it, Rhodes admitted his skills and started cutting his brothers’ hair, then his cousins’ hair, followed by his teammates and then members of the community. Eventually, he went to school and became a barber in Spartanburg, S.C. He has since switched occupations several times, serving as a high school and elementary basketball coach and now as associate director of admissions in Gardner-Webb’s Degree Completion Program. Through his nonprofit organization, Camp Coach Rhodes, he continues to serve the community through coaching at a summer basketball camp and through programs such as the back-to-school haircuts.

“God gave me these talents, and he tells us in the Bible to share our talents,” Rhodes explains. “Kids need to have a positive attitude and outlook when they go to class, and a haircut can help do that.”