Christianity thrives in Iran despite severe persecution

April 4 2016 by Julia A. Seymour, World News Service

Although Iran is one of the most difficult places in the world to be a Christian, the underground house church movement there is exploding.
“Thousands upon thousands” of people in Iran are becoming Christians annually, according to Open Doors USA spokeswoman Emily Fuentes.
“The house churches are causing such rapid growth in conversions it is unmatched by any other country in the Middle East,” she said.
According to Mohabat News, estimates suggest the underground church network could include as many as 1 million people, but Fuentes said it is difficult to accurately quantify its size. Operation World recently ranked Iran as the country with the fastest growing evangelical population in the world.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shi’a Muslim theocracy, is ranked ninth on the 2016 World Watch List of most severe persecutors of Christians. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has urged the designation “country of particular concern” for Iran since 1999 because of the regime’s persecution and discrimination against its citizens on the basis of belief.
“The government continues to use its religious laws to silence reformers, including human rights defenders and journalists, for exercising their internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and religion or belief,” USCIRF reported.
Iran’s Christian house churches are illegal and participants can face jail time, especially if they are not an ethnic minority, Fuentes said. Because they are considered Muslim, Farsi-speaking Persians are not allowed to go to Christian churches at all. They face reprisals, including violence, from authorities, the community, and even family members if they convert to Christianity.
“One of my biggest fears is that the secret police would come one day and they would rape me,” a female house church planter in Iran told The Voice of the Martyrs Radio. A former Muslim, she said she is high on the secret police’s wanted list. But after years of being a Christian, God gave her peace and took her fear away, she said.
Fuentes and Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs both said the severity of persecution in Iran is part of the reason for the church’s dramatic growth.
“I have talked to an Iranian Christian who called Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, the greatest Christian missionary in the history of Iran because he established the Islamic Republic which is now pushing people to Christ,” Nettleton said.
Dissatisfaction with the Islamic regime also is bringing people to Christianity.
Iran Alive Ministries broadcasts into Iran and ministers to unbelievers and the underground church. According to Iran Alive’s founder, more than 32,000 people have prayed with them to become Christians since 2001.
“[I]nto that void in the hearts of Iranians, the gospel message of a Savior who loves them enough to die for them is like sweet music,” Nettleton said. “And it is coming on radio waves, over satellite television, online, and even in supernatural means like dreams and visions.”

4/4/2016 1:12:51 PM by Julia A. Seymour, World News Service | with 0 comments

Canada scraps religious freedom office

April 4 2016 by Evan Wilt, World News Service

Canada’s new Liberal government decided the country no longer needs an office dedicated to religious freedom, allowing it to expire on March 31.
“We now have one less strong partner and one less voice for religious freedom,” Katrina Lantos Swett, commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told me. “This is a very unfortunate message to send out to the rest of the world at this time.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper advocated for an office dedicated to international religious freedom, finally opening it in February 2013. But newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quickly shut the door on the operation. Trudeau’s administration vows to take a broader approach to global issues of human rights – devaluing a focus specifically on religious freedom.
With a budget of $5 million and only a handful of employees, Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom was able to have a hand in various efforts in countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan. It focused on promoting religious tolerance through education and helping religious minorities under threat in hostile areas.
“That office was punching above its weight,” said Phil Horgan, president of Canada’s Catholic Civil Rights League. “The decision by the Liberals to effectively shut it down in favor of, well, nothing, is rather disappointing.”
Trudeau’s foreign affairs minister, Stephane Dion, said that closing the office does not mean Canada doesn’t care about religious freedom. He said the Liberals will continue to defend all human rights, including the freedom of religion and belief, “tooth and nail,” but did not mention any new initiatives.
Harper originally dedicated the office to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani politician who stood up to Muslims on behalf of Christians and Hindus in his country. In 2011, militants assassinated Bhatti in Pakistan shortly after returning from a visit to Canada.
On March 21, Canadian Conservatives brought a motion in the House of Commons to renew Harper’s mandate for the Office of Religious Freedom. The Liberals easily quashed the motion, winning the vote 225 to 90.
Conservative Member of Parliament Garrett Genius wrote on his Facebook page the new government had it out for the office, regardless of its good work: “They are planning on running a deficit approaching $30 billion, yet religious freedom wasn’t important enough to keep open an office that costs $5 million.”
Both Swett and Horgan praised the work of Andrew Bennett, who served as the office’s first and only ambassador. Without Bennett and the Office of Religious Freedom, Canada will no longer have a focal point for international religious issues or someone to send to engage in foreign talks.
“Religious freedom deserves unique focus, particularly in this time in history,” said Bruce Clemenger, president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He said the office was a go-to place for many organizations concerned about international religious freedom: “We lost an important capacity today.”
 Swett said she is hopeful the Trudeau administration will make good on its promises to keep religious freedom a priority going forward. But until a new plan arises, she fears Canada is taking a step backward, much to the consternation of those persecuted for their faith.
“Both the enemies and the friends of religious freedom will view this decision as an effort to downgrade the importance of this fundamental human right,” Swett told me. “The world is kind of on fire, as it relates to religious freedom. So the timing, in my humble opinion, couldn’t be much worse.”

4/4/2016 1:01:07 PM by Evan Wilt, World News Service | with 0 comments

Disaster relief worker dies of heart attack on flood recovery

April 1 2016 by Lisa Sergent, Illinois Baptist State Association

A volunteer with a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) team from Illinois died of a heart attack March 29 while serving flood victims in Leesville, La.
Don Fulkerson, 77, was a member of First Baptist Church of Galatia, Ill. He was serving with a group of trained relief workers from the church and others from churches around Illinois.
“The callout to Louisiana was Don’s 15th response over a period of only four years and his wife Margie was almost always by his side serving whenever the opportunity arose,” said Rex Alexander, disaster relief coordinator for the Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA).


Submitted photo
Disaster Relief volunteers Bob Fulkerson and his wife Margie (left) and Butch and Debbie Porter (right) rest for a moment during a call out a few years ago in New York. Fulkerson passed away Tuesday, March 29 while serving on a call out in Leesville, La. Both couples are members of First Baptist Church of Galatia, Ill.

“Their faithful service,” he noted, “to Christ brought great joy to both of them as they served side by side in the ministry of disaster relief.”
The disaster relief team members from First Baptist Church of Galatia were first responders in what is expected to be a series of assignments to aid victims of spring floods in Louisiana. Illinois teams will serve alongside teams from around the country.
“Our Illinois Baptist family certainly grieves with and is in prayer for the Fulkerson family, and the entire church family at First Baptist in Galatia,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams. “We appreciate so much Don’s and Margie’s service, along with so many other devoted disaster relief volunteers, and we are confident that Don’s life and sacrifice will bring eternal rewards, both to him and to the lives he touched.”
The North American Mission Board (NAMB) coordinates SBDR on the national level.
NAMB president and former Illinois Baptist pastor Kevin Ezell extended his condolences to the family of Don Fulkerson as they mourn his passing.
“Don is a great example of someone who chose to stay active into his later years and to contribute in a way that truly made a difference in the lives of others,” Ezell said. “I pray that his wife Margie and his entire family will feel God’s love and comfort during these days and that they will also be aware of the gratitude and appreciation for them from their entire Southern Baptist family.”
Visitation for Fulkerson will take place Friday, April 1 from 6-9 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Galatia, 108 E. Church St., Galatia, IL 62935. His funeral will be Saturday, April 2 at 11 a.m. also at First Baptist Church of Galatia.
Alexander suggested disaster relief volunteers attending the funeral “wear your yellow shirts in honor of Don’s faithful service to the Lord through Disaster Relief Ministry.”
Cards of condolence may be mailed to his widow Margie Fulkerson, P.O. Box 5, Galatia, IL 62935.
IBSA has 1,600 trained volunteers who serve as part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief ministry, the third largest relief agency in the United States. Disaster Relief often responds to natural disasters by providing feeding stations, mobile kitchens, child care and chaplains. In the case of flooding, volunteers in their signature yellow shirts help homeowners with “mudout,” clearing flooded properties of debris and contaminated building materials, so they can begin rebuilding and recovery.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lisa Sergent is director of communications for the Illinois Baptist State Association.)

4/1/2016 11:56:20 AM by Lisa Sergent, Illinois Baptist State Association | with 0 comments

Abortion pill guidelines: FDA eases chemical regimen

April 1 2016 by David Roach, Baptist Press

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has updated its guidelines concerning the abortion drug mifepristone, allowing women to take it later in pregnancy and with reduced medical supervision.
The New York Times called the update “an unequivocal victory for abortion rights advocates.”
Previously, women were permitted to take mifepristone (formerly known as RU-486) up to the seventh week of pregnancy, but that has been extended to 10 weeks. Recommended dosage has been lowered from 600 milligrams to 200 milligrams to reflect “standard medical practice,” according to The Times, and the number of visits to a health care provider required in conjunction with the drug’s administration has been reduced from three to two.
C. Ben Mitchell, an evangelical bioethicist, wrote, “The FDA regulates drugs based on safety and effectiveness, not other ethical factors. Unfortunately, mifepristone (RU-486) is not safe for unborn human beings though it is relatively effective in ending their lives.
“One might wish there were a drug that could heal our national conscience, but that can only come about through a spiritual and moral awakening,” said Mitchell, provost and Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.
The FDA approved the updated mifepristone guidelines March 29 in response to a request submitted by New York-based Danco Laboratories, the company that markets the drug under the label Mifeprex, according to the FDA website.
At least six states – Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arizona – had passed laws mandating that abortion providers stick to the previous FDA protocol, the Associated Press reported. The Arkansas and Oklahoma laws were stayed pending legal challenges, and a court struck down Arizona’s.
The Times said the new guidelines’ implications for existing state laws were “not immediately clear.”
Ohio’s law restricting “off-label” use of mifepristone corresponded to a decrease in the percentage of abortions performed via drugs rather than surgery from 10-15 percent to less than 2 percent, AP reported.
LifeSiteNews claimed prescribing a lower dose of mifepristone than the previous FDA recommendation saved approximately $200 per abortion for providers, though there is no evidence abortionists passed that savings along to patients.
Mifepristone works by blocking the hormone progesterone, which “is needed for a pregnancy to continue,” according to the FDA. The lack of progesterone “causes the newly implanted child to detach from the mother’s uterine wall,” LifeSiteNews noted. A follow-up drug known as misoprostol, taken 24-48 hours later, works with mifepristone to cause uterine contractions and expel the baby.
The later mifepristone is administered during pregnancy, the greater its likelihood of failure, according to video posted on featuring obstetrician Anthony Levatino. At nine weeks, one in 10 attempts to induce abortion using mifepristone fails, he said.
With mifepristone-induced abortions, deceased babies “often” are expelled in toilets and flushed, Levatino said.
The FDA website states mifepristone “is only available to be dispensed in certain healthcare settings” and “is not available in retail pharmacies” or “over the Internet.” Authorized dispensers must ensure provision of “any necessary surgical intervention” and access to “medical facilities for emergency care.”
The newly-approved FDA label requires a follow-up visit to a woman’s health care provider 7-14 days following administration of the drug “to be sure you are well” and “the pregnancy has passed from your uterus.” The label continues, “If you are still pregnant, your healthcare provider will talk with you about a surgical procedure to end your pregnancy.”
National Right to Life’s Randall O’Bannon argued in an online commentary that even with the new guidelines’ reduced dosage, chemical abortions remain dangerous for women – not to mention the babies whose lives are taken.
“For women, the mifepristone/misoprostol combination comes with significant cramping, bleeding, and other gastrointestinal side effects (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) that are expected parts of the chemical abortion process,” wrote O’Bannon, NRL’s director of education and research.
“While it may be claimed that these side effects are supposed to be reduced with the new protocol, chemical abortions simply do not occur without significant bleeding, cramping, etc. That these side effects are similar to signs of ruptured ectopic pregnancy, serious infection, or may be the prelude to significant hemorrhage that could be missed by patients or even doctors expecting these as part of any chemical abortion would still appear to be a problem under any protocol,” O’Bannon wrote.
The FDA label confirms “cramping and bleeding are an expected part of ending a pregnancy.” It adds a warning that more serious side effects may occur, including death, but notes such “problems” can also occur during surgical abortions or childbirth.
O’Bannon concluded, “In the end, it is obvious that the FDA’s new protocol serves only the interests of the abortion industry by expanding their base of potential customers, increasing their profit margin, and reducing the level of staff and amount of resources they have to devote to the patient.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

4/1/2016 11:48:34 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

IMB’s ‘quiet force’ Holli Fish Lancaster, 51, dies

April 1 2016 by Caroline Anderson, IMB

Described as a “quiet force,” former International Mission Board (IMB) worker Holli Fish Lancaster died in Tennessee March 29, following a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 51.
Lancaster, a native Texan, and her husband Dan served in Southeast Asia for more than 12 years. Before moving overseas, the couple planted churches in the U.S.
Prior to her death, Lancaster’s family and close friends gathered in her room and sang songs, prayed and shared memories.
“The last few days, there was mourning and dancing, and they very much blended into one another, and although there was sadness, there was an appreciation of our lives being interwoven with hers,” Kara Garrison said. The Garrisons and Lancasters are close friends.


Holli Lancaster

After the Lancasters’ daughter graduated from high school in Asia, the family returned to the U.S. to help her move to Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and then took a leave of absence from IMB to work in the missions department at Union. The family learned of Lancaster’s cancer in October.
“Holli embraced the beauty of life. She loved deeply and generously,” Marci Fish, Lancaster’s sister-in-law, wrote. “From her beloved Texas to remote villages and refugee camps in her beloved Asia, Holli lived and loved with her whole heart.... She is forever my hero.”
Steve Fish, Lancaster’s brother and Marci’s husband, wrote in memory of his sister, “Holli, you ran your race so well. You truly lived your 51 years to the fullest. You had a wonderful marriage and raised amazing kids in some of the most challenging environments,” he wrote. “From Texas churches to gatherings in remote villages of [Southeast Asia,] when God said, ‘Go,’ you went no matter what the cost, no matter how difficult the assignment. In the midst of earthquakes, bombings and unstable governments you went and brought the Light. You brought life, peace and freedom to so many.”
The Lancasters traveled and led trainings with Southeast Asian believers. The missionary couple frequently traveled with Garrison to training events designed for displaced women from a variety of ethnic groups. At one point, the Lancasters and Garrisons lived in a Southeast Asian country where living conditions were difficult, and Garrison said, “We needed each other to survive.”
“One thing that I will always remember is her commitment to me. ... She was so supportive of traveling with me, and filling in, in a flash,” she noted.
On one trip, Lancaster had said she felt the Holy Spirit convicting her that they needed to train the women to use biblical storying. Garrison initially disagreed.
“I prayed about it, thinking God was going to agree [with me],” Garrison said. However, Garrison felt the Lord telling her to give Lancaster the whole afternoon. The women soaked up the Bible stories Lancaster told. The women were believers, but they had very limited knowledge of the Bible. Lancaster trained the women in the country’s main language, and the women were so excited by the material that they wanted to take it a step further and practice telling the stories in their individual people groups’ languages so they could share them with their families and friends.
Lancaster and Garrison felt they soon wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the area where these women were staying. Many of the women were hoping to be granted permission to move to other countries. But Lancaster and Garrison thought God had something else planned for them.
“Many of you aren’t going to be going to a third country. We sense you are going to go back to [your country],” Lancaster and Garrison told the women.
Garrison said the women started weeping and they sensed the Lord had told them the same thing. Most of the women did return to their country – to a place Westerners cannot travel – and they returned equipped to simply and effectively share the gospel.
Sarah Garrison, Kara Garrison’s daughter, called Lancaster “aunt,” and she said Lancaster “has been as dear to me as my own mother the past 12 years.... Her kindness, wisdom and love live on through the wonderful memories she has left with us.”
Tess Rivers,* a friend of Lancaster’s, said the missionary family supported her as she developed a strategy for reaching exploited women and children in Southeast Asia.
“It became obvious that Holli was the quiet force that sustained them all. She was very quiet ... but she was always quick with a smile and a kind or encouraging word,” Rivers said. “She was a source of quiet strength, fun and immense spiritual depth, especially to her family but also to her many friends.”
Bethany White,* a close friend of Lancaster’s, said they regularly spent time praying in the red-light district.
“It is sometimes difficult to raise children overseas, and we both had four children,” White said. “We spent much time crying out to the Lord over our children and the needs of those around us. We went shopping and trying to find the goods our families needed, we celebrated holidays together, shared meals together – we were family. When we traveled, our children stayed in each other’s homes.
“One of those times, my youngest had croup, and [Lancaster] held him in the shower so he could breathe. She was often ready to love and encourage others with a smile and encouraging hug. Her home was open to so many people,” White remembered.
Lancaster was known for her hospitality, and the family was known for their Friday pizza nights, when they would invite friends over for food, games and stories.
Friends of Lancaster said she was musically gifted; she was a musician and a singer and could harmonize with anyone. The Lancasters led worship and used music to minister in the community. Friends say she tirelessly ministered to her family. Lancaster served as a substitute teacher in biology and anatomy classes at her children’s international school.
She devoted time to editing materials written by her husband Dan and her father, the late Roy Fish, former professor emeritus of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Lancaster and her husband met at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of science degree in biology and later graduated from Texas Christian University with a master of science degree in biology.
Holli is survived by Dan; children, Jeff (Linnea), Zach, Karis, Zane; mother, Jean Holley Fish; and siblings, Steve Fish, Jeff Fish and Jennifer Pastoor.
Visitation is from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, April 1, at Northbrook Church in West Humboldt, Tenn. The funeral service will immediately follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Holli Lancaster Memorial GO Trip Scholarship be sent to Union University, 1050 Union University Drive, Jackson, TN 38305, or given online at Click “I’d like to designate my gift.” Donations can also be made in memory of Holli Lancaster on an online ministry site for a memorial ministerial scholarship at Union University or to help cover hospital and burial expenses. Select which designation preferred on the donate page.
*Names changed
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Caroline Anderson writes for the International Mission Board.)

4/1/2016 11:42:23 AM by Caroline Anderson, IMB | with 0 comments

Replant brings children back to dying church

April 1 2016 by Meredith Yackel, NAMB

Nancy Elliott found herself crying alone in the nursery. She had attended Calvary Church in Englewood, Colo., since she was 14. Now, for the first time, they had no children at church on a Sunday morning.
“Not one child,” Elliot said. “I went into the nursery and started crying and praying to God to bring children.”


Photo courtesy Calvary Church
Members of Calvary Church, a church replant in La Junta, Colo., gather for corporate prayer following a worship service. The church is a replant of Calvary Church in Englewood, Colo., itself a church replant. The Englewood church has helped replant six churches in the metro Denver area. The North American Mission Board will host a national church replant gathering prior to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis in June.

Little did she know her prayers were about to be answered in ways she didn’t expect.
After serving in youth ministry for several years in the Denver area, Mark Hallock felt God leading him toward inter-generational ministry.
“A lot of youth ministries are completely separated from the larger church,” Hallock said. “As I began to see kids graduate from youth group they eventually graduated from church because they were never connected with the rest of the body. I started to think about what it would be like to truly have an inter-generational ministry.”
Hallock and his wife Jenna began to pray and felt God calling them to a dying church they had heard of in Englewood, Colo., in metro Denver.
“I had been seeing church plants pop up, and I started to think about who was going to the declining churches, because God is glorified when dying churches come back to life.”
Calvary Church was established in 1952, in what was once suburbia. As the demographics of Englewood changed, like many churches, Calvary did not change along with the community. Over time attendance dwindled.
“I don’t think churches realize how quickly you can go from 150 to 30 people,” said Jeff DeClue, a longtime member and now associate pastor and elder at Calvary. “There was nothing different about Calvary from any other Southern Baptist church. It wasn’t that we weren’t passionate about the community – the community around us had changed and we didn’t know how to reach them.
“Sadly, I was tired,” he noted. “There was a big church down the road and I wanted to take my family and go where no one knew me. But Dave Elliot [Nancy Elliott’s husband] was really influential and said to me, ‘God is not done with this church. He put it here in 1952 for a reason.’”


Photo courtesy Calvary Church
Nancy Elliott leads a craft project during Sunday School at Calvary Church in Englewood, Colo., a church replant. Elliott was heartbroken when the former declining church saw children stop coming to their services. Through the replant process, the church has revitalized and is growing, including the addition of new families with children.

DeClue decided that day to trust God for a greater plan. It was the same day that Hallock was meeting with the search committee of Calvary, and feeling God’s call to come and help revitalize the dying church. Although they could only pay Hallock a fraction of what he had been making as a youth minister, Hallock’s previous church committed to cover what Calvary could not afford for one year. The remaining 30 members at Calvary noticed change almost immediately after Hallock became lead pastor.
“Within the first month we seemed to go from 30 to 60, and then to 90, and we were over 100 in just a few months,” DeClue said.
“I am truly grateful that I have stayed and endured the hard times because now we have so many children we barely have room for them,” he said. “To see children run up and down the sidewalk on Sunday is just amazing.”
Hallock has now been at Calvary for seven years and they have continued to see growth. So much so, that they have planted six other churches in the Denver area.
“What is cool is that church planting was in the DNA of Calvary from the start,” Hallock said. “They actually planted three churches back in their heyday, and we were really just tapping into our history. We get to continue the story of that narrative.
“I love church planting, but my personal goal has always been to see churches replanted also,” Hallock said. “I want to see God bring dead things back to life.”
This year, Calvary has had their first experience in replanting a church not far from their Englewood campus.


Photo courtesy Calvary Church
Englewood, Colo., Calvary Church associate pastor Jeff DeClue (center) preaches during a worship service at a church replant in La Junta, Colo. The church, also named Calvary Church, is one of six church replants the Englewood church has helped in re-establishing themselves as relevant in their communities. The North American Mission Board will host a national church replant gathering prior to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis in June.

“This church was just like we were,” Hallock said. “They knew they needed radical change. We met with them and reassured them that God wasn’t done with their church. We see them starting to grow now, which is really exciting.
“It is exciting to see what the Lord is doing through the North American Mission Board (NAMB) to replant,” he noted. “What a statement it is to a community when they see a dead, irrelevant church come back to life. God loves the underdog and when we surrender everything over to Him, He steps into our weakness. That is when He does some of the most amazing things.”
NAMB will host the National Replant Conference June 11-12 in St. Louis before this year’s Southern Baptist Convention.
“This gathering will connect those who are replanting with other replanters as we learn from each other how God is replanting dying churches across North America,” said Mark Clifton, NAMB’s senior director of Replant. “It is also to help declining churches explore next steps to finding new life and new hope.”
The event will feature practitioners who are successfully replanting dying churches, and offer resources and tools that have proven effective in reclaiming dying churches.
Learn more about the conference here and register for free.
Want to learn more about church replanting? Visit the Church Replanters Blog at
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Meredith Yackel writes for the North American Mission Board.)

4/1/2016 11:33:24 AM by Meredith Yackel, NAMB | with 0 comments

Montana Baptists seek new executive director

April 1 2016 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

The Montana Southern Baptist Convention is seeking a new executive director to lead the group of about 135 churches in a state where more than a third of the people reportedly don’t attend church worship services regularly – or at all.
The new executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention (MTSBC) will need to be a successful pastor, an exceptional leader committed to evangelism and must love pastors and local churches, said search team chairman Bruce Speer, who pastors Crosspoint Community Church in Missoula.
“Montana is a unique state. It is made up of a lot of rural churches in small communities and yet it also has some larger cities where pastors are trying to reach white collar workers,” Speer said. “It is a unique mission field because there are very few churches that are more than 40 years old and it is still a state where the average person ... would tell you they have never been to church.”
Less than one percent of the state’s adults are Southern Baptists, and 38 percent of adults never or seldom attend church, according to the Pew Research 2015 Religious Landscape Study.
Fred Hewett, retiring in October as the current executive director, describes geography as a major challenge in the state where the nearest Southern Baptist pastor might be as many as 200 miles away. The state is the nation’s fourth largest in size, but only 48th in population, about 1 million people.
“From the southeast corner of Montana, it’s closer to Texas than it is to the northwestern corner of Montana,” Hewett said. “In this state convention, the executive director will have to have the ability to relate well to the rancher and farmer, as well as the white collar professional because we run a very diverse population.”
Hewett is only the third person to hold the post of executive director since the convention was formed in 2002 from the Montana Southern Baptist Fellowship. Southern Baptist work only began in Montana in 1952, he said.
“We are still very much a new work state, a frontier state convention,” Hewett said. “Our churches are first generation Christians” who require much pastoral care.
Southern Baptist church planting is a major MTSBC focus, with 23 churches planted in the past four years, according to MTSBC statistics.
MTSBC President Darren Hales, pastor of Big Sky Fellowship in Helena, said an effective executive director would need “a strong sense of calling to come and serve in Montana, first and foremost,” and would need to be able to connect with pastors and people in several different demographic categories. American Indians comprise four percent of the state’s population and live on seven reservations. The state is home to Glacier National Park and a small part of Yellowstone.
“We have a vision to reach our state for the gospel, and we have a heart for the people who live here,” Hales said. “Our executive director would need to be somebody who has a heart and a call for pastors, [and a calling] to serve in a variety of settings, from the small church that only has 10 to 12 people – because they’re a little outpost in the middle of Montana in a ranching community – to churches of 1,000 in some of our bigger cities.”
The MTSBC will conduct a thorough search with the confidence that God has prepared a person for the job, Hales said.
“I believe there is a qualified candidate who maybe has had a tugging or a longing to move out west and be a part of something new that God’s doing out in the West,” he said. “We want it to be a spiritual decision based on a clear calling from God.”
Montana Southern Baptist leaders describe the MTSBC as in excellent condition financially and spiritually, with a strong foundation and vision.
“The candidate we’re looking for will come and embrace all of the positive things that Montana is doing, while giving us, inspiring us to look ahead to the next steps,” Hales said. “We’re looking for someone who’s going to look ahead for the next 10 years. We feel very good where we are as a denomination, the growth and desire to grow, to touch people and sacrifice for the gospel, but a new leader is going to have to look to the next 10 years.”
Chad Scarborough came to Montana in 2013 to lead First Baptist Church in Shelby, the second oldest church in the state. The fulltime pastor is the only staff member of the church that averages 45 in Sunday attendance.
“Probably only 10 churches in our state, maybe a little bit more, ... average over 100 people on Sunday. For the most part, all of our churches are small congregations,” Scarborough said. “An executive director ... is going to have to have an understanding of how small congregations function and operate, and also the accessibility to training and resources. Many of our small churches don’t have the opportunity to have resources for their pastors to have continued training.”
Shelby is a transient community of 3,000 residents, not counting the 500 who live in the Crossroads Correctional Center, and is located just 26 miles from the Canadian border. Many residents have never heard the gospel, Scarborough said. Thirty miles away is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where First Baptist of Shelby planted Glacier View Baptist mission before Scarborough’s pastorate. He characterized American Indians that the church encounters as quick to accept the gospel but prone to dualism, placing Jesus among many other spiritual beliefs.
“Montana is still the mission field,” he said. “There’s really no way else to say it. This is a really unchurched area.... As far as Evangelical Christians go, the work is still very new here in Montana.”
Among top responsibilities, the executive director will serve as the chief operating officer, the treasurer and chief financial officer, the official director of MTSBC work and ministries, the director and supervisor of MTSBC staff and North American Mission Board missionaries in the state, and the editor of the Montana Baptist electronic newsletter. A full job description and list of qualifications is available from Speer at, where the search team will receive applications through May.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)


Related Story:

Montana executive Fred Hewett announces retirement

4/1/2016 11:19:30 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

N.C. bathroom restrictions challenged by activists

March 31 2016 by David Roach, Baptist Press

Despite a federal court challenge, social conservatives in North Carolina are defending a state law upholding religious liberty and requiring individuals in state government buildings to use restrooms based on the gender indicated on their birth certificates.
“North Carolinians are pretty fed up with their voices being clamped down and tossed out” regarding the defense of traditional marriage and religious liberty, said Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor running for U.S. Congress as a Republican. “... The citizens of North Carolina are determined their voices are going to be heard.”
A lawsuit filed in federal court March 28 by pro-transgender activists alleges North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972. According to the lawsuit, the bill’s “requirement that transgender people be shunted into single-sex spaces that do not match their gender identity invades their privacy and exposes this vulnerable population to harassment and potential violence by others.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, has defended the law, including in a document titled “Myths vs. Facts: What New York Times, Huffington Post and other media outlets aren’t saying about common-sense privacy law.”
Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said McCrory’s classification of the mainstream media is an accurate reflection of a “mammoth misinformation campaign” afoot among the cultural left.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, the governor’s Democratic opponent in his bid for re-election this year, has refused to defend the measure in court, calling it a “national embarrassment” that “puts discrimination into the law,” the Associated Press reported.
The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act was passed March 23 during a special session of the state legislature convened in response to a Charlotte city ordinance that would have taken effect April 1 barring discrimination in public accommodations based on “gender identity, gender expression” and “sexual orientation.” The ordinance deleted a section of the city code stipulating sex discrimination laws did not apply to “restrooms, shower rooms, bathhouses and similar facilities which are in their nature distinctly private.”
State lawmakers overturned the ordinance by establishing a state nondiscrimination law that preempts all local government laws. The new state law prohibits discrimination in employment and public accommodation of individuals based on, among other factors, their “biological sex,” identified as “the physical condition of being male or female, which is defined on a person’s birth certificate.”
The law does not include an explicit ban of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
McCrory’s “Myths vs. Facts” document argues the law permits private businesses to allow anyone to use any restroom. It also permits transgender persons to use the restroom of their choice in state facilities as long as they have changed the sex indicated on their birth certificates – a change allowed in North Carolina only for those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery.
Republican state Rep. Paul Stam, speaker pro tempore of the House of Representatives, said the lawsuit filed against the bill “reads like a novel.”
“If the courts follow the law, the lawsuit will be thrown out,” said Stam, a former member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and a former trustee at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “... This is a wild lawsuit.”
Among the suit’s claims:

  • One plaintiff’s “sex assigned at birth was female, as his birth certificate reflects, but that designation does not accurately reflect his gender identity, which is male.”

  • “Medical treatment such as the surgery required to update a person’s North Carolina birth certificate does not alter a person’s gender ... but rather merely brings a person’s body into alignment with the gender they have always been.”

Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, said the new state legislation is necessary to preserve the rule of law, safeguard religious liberty and protect public safety.
“We just did not need the risk of men in women’s restrooms,” Harris said. The Charlotte ordinance “said that transgender individuals simply could choose to go to whatever restroom they felt most comfortable with. It was based on what they felt. It didn’t even say they had to be presenting as a woman.”
Harris continued, “No one ever said that a transgender individual was more likely to be a predator on innocent children or women. However, the way this ordinance was written ... it certainly left the door wide open for people with less than positive motives to use this to be in a women’s restroom.”
Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, said that restricting restroom use based on biological sex “is not just a safety issue, it’s also a modesty issue.”
Supporters of open access to restrooms should “talk to more women about this,” said Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “There are some innate gender differences, and one of them is modesty ... My wife was just horrified [before the state legislature acted] at the prospect this [Charlotte] law was going to go into effect.”
Land added that religious liberty protection for wedding service providers who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds is an underreported aspect of the new state law.
“Religious freedom is a right that is not granted by the Constitution,” Land said, referencing its divine origin. “It is recognized. It is guaranteed by the Constitution. The idea of discrimination goes both ways. These laws are meant to protect citizens’ religious freedom. It’s to protect the faithful and their beliefs.”
State Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a co-sponsor of the measure, told BP pro-transgender activists in North Carolina should present their case directly to state and federal legislators rather than acting via local ordinances – which he classified as violations of the state’s constitutional principle that governing power is vested in the legislature unless the legislature delegates specific powers to local governments.
Adding to the list of groups legally protected against discrimination “is an argument you need to take to either Congress or to the state ... instead of trying to overreach and kind of go behind with a local municipality, which didn’t have the authority to do that,” said Jordan, a Republican and a Southern Baptist.
He added, “I would not want to add more federally protected classes. I’m not sure where that’s going to stop.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)
Related Stories:
N.C. lawmakers convene early over LGBT ordinance
Christian political advocates target 2016 legislative sessions

3/31/2016 12:54:41 PM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Proposed S.C. refugee registry draws criticism

March 31 2016 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Evangelical advocates for religious liberty and refugee resettlement are dismayed by proposed legislation in South Carolina that could penalize churches that aid exiles from other countries.
The South Carolina Senate passed legislation March 23 to require a sponsoring organization to register a refugee with the state’s Department of Social Services within 30 days after he or she enters the state. In addition, the sponsor would be “strictly liable” in civil court if the refugee commits an act of terrorism or another violent crime.
Senators approved the proposal in a 39-6 vote, with six of the chamber’s 18 Democrats in opposition. The House of Representatives is expected to consider the measure when it returns April 12 from its Easter recess.
While the bill would affect all refugee sponsors, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and others expressed special concern for its potential impact on churches and religious adherents.
ERLC President Russell Moore called the bill “deeply misguided,” particularly in its threat of civil liability for those who serve refugees.
“The legislators are right that the government has a mandate to keep citizens safe,” Moore said. “The government does not have a mandate, though, to intimidate churches and religious citizens from freely exercising their religion” by ministering to people regardless of their country of origin.
“Whatever one thinks about refugee policy,” Moore said, “this bill is a step backward on religious freedom.”
Jenny Yang, World Relief’s vice president of advocacy and policy, expressed a similar sentiment. The legislation “creates a climate of fear” for people who help refugees, she said. World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
“The language is so broad it could mean someone who teaches a refugee English or picks up a refugee for [a] church service acts as a ‘refugee sponsor’ who is then liable for any harmful actions that refugee commits later on,” Yang said in a March 29 email interview. “It’s punishing the Good Samaritan for acting out of good faith to help a neighbor in need for a harmful action that neighbor commits that is completely outside their control.”
Church volunteers might be “driven to not help at all for fear of being held liable for such actions,” Yang said.
Refugees already receive stringent vetting in the federal Refugee Resettlement Program, Yang said at a Capitol Hill discussion on refugees sponsored by the ERLC in December, noting that before placing a refugee with an agency, the U.S. government follows a 12-step process and takes 18 months to two years.
“Compassion does not have to conflict with national security.” Yang said. “The U.S. refugee resettlement program has embodied both values and continues to be a valuable humanitarian tool that should be supported.”
Under the legislation, the sponsor of a person in the federal Refugee Resettlement Program will be liable to an injured party if the refugee “acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism ... or committed [a violent crime] that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property.”
After a refugee is enrolled by a sponsor, the Department of Social Services must provide the information to the state’s Law Enforcement Division, which is required to confirm the refugee does not “pose a public safety risk.”
While some of the bill’s Senate sponsors are members of Southern Baptist churches, at least two-thirds of the South Carolina churches that partner with World Relief are Southern Baptist congregations, said Jason Lee, state director of the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Lee became director of World Relief’s South Carolina office in Spartanburg a year ago after nearly six years as pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in the same city. He previously served as a missionary with the International Mission Board (IMB) and North American Mission Board.
The Senate-endorsed legislation is designed to severely limit refugee resettlement in South Carolina, one Senate sponsor said of the bill’s stated goal to protect the state’s citizens.
“We have de-incentivized the sponsoring of refugees in South Carolina,” said Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican representing Anderson. “We’re going to have very few refugees coming to South Carolina.
“I think we need to remember the refugees are not United States citizens,” Bryant said in an online video posted by The Charleston Post and Courier. “With the danger today of a terrorist infiltrating the refugee program, we have no other option than to enroll this information” in a registry.
World Relief, which has received approval to resettle 120 refugees in South Carolina this year, is concerned about the bill, Lee said. Lutheran Services, the only other resettlement agency in the state, has approval to resettle 220 refugees in 2016.
All of the refugee-sponsoring organizations that have worked with World Relief in South Carolina are either churches or Christian groups. Last year, 84 percent of the refugees who were settled in South Carolina through World Relief identified as Christians.
So far, however, no South Carolina churches partnering with World Relief or waiting to help refugees have expressed concern about continuing in the resettlement efforts, Lee said. “There’s been more dismay that [the state is] trying to create another level of government.”
World Relief hopes the House “will look to guard the religious liberty of our churches and try to help continue South Carolina being a welcoming place,” he said.
The legislation “has been debated as a way of keeping South Carolinians safe, but it’s real effect would be to make refugees unwelcome,” Yang said. “There is no due cause to believe that refugees are more criminal than any other individual.
“Putting refugee info in a database to be potentially tracked, for no other reason than one’s having arrived legally through the U.S. refugee program, stigmatizes refugees and runs counter to our most basic humanitarian commitments and priorities to treat war victims, who want nothing more than to start a new life in safe and welcoming communities, as criminals,” she said.
The South Carolina Senate action came barely a week after the ERLC promoted a March 15 prayer for refugees campaign. The ERLC joined with IMB, World Relief and other organizations in urging prayer for the more than 13.5 million Syrians who need humanitarian assistance as a result of the civil war in the Middle Eastern country. The refugee crisis, described as the worst since World War II, has resulted in more than 4.8 million Syrians being registered as refugees by the United Nations.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)

Related Stories:

Refugees, churches & fear spotlighted in study
10 refugee realities that may surprise you
Syrian refugees: balancing compassion & security

3/31/2016 12:41:44 PM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Religious liberty focus of new study

March 31 2016 by Bob Smietana, LifeWay Research

A growing number of Americans believe religious liberty is on the decline and that the nation’s Christians face growing intolerance, according to a survey by LifeWay Research.
Those surveyed also noted American Christians complain too much.


Those are among the findings of a new study of views about religious liberty from LifeWay Research. Researchers surveyed 1,000 Americans in September 2013 and September 2015 and then compared the results.
Two-thirds (63 percent) say Christians face increasing intolerance, up from half (50 percent) in 2013.
A similar number (60 percent) say religious liberty is on the decline, up from just over half (54 percent) in 2013.
Forty-three percent say American Christians complain too much about how they are treated, up from 34 percent in 2013.
“More Americans worry the U.S. has a hostile environment for religious liberty,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “As this perception grows, some approve of it while others speak up against it.”
Religious liberty has become an increasingly contentious issue in American culture – with disputes over birth control, same-sex wedding cakes, headscarves at work and prisoners’ beards.
The more recent LifeWay Research survey found faith plays a key role in how Americans view the state of religious liberty.
Two-thirds of Christians (64 percent) and those of other faiths (65 percent) say religious liberty is on the decline. Self-identified evangelicals (71 percent) and those who attend worship at least once a week (70 percent) are most likely to agree.
Catholics (56 percent) and non-evangelicals (55 percent) are more skeptical. So are Nones (46 percent).


“Christians are particularly sensitive to what they see as intolerance towards their faith,” Stetzer said. “But they share a common concern with people of other faiths – that religious liberty in general is declining. And this perception is growing rapidly.”
Age also played a role in how Americans view the state of religious liberty.
Less than half (42 percent) of those 18 to 24 say religious liberty is on the decline. By contrast, 6 in 10 (62 percent) of those over 25 see a decline.
LifeWay Research also found non-Christians are less convinced that Christians face intolerance. Less than half of those from other faiths (43 percent) and Nones (48 percent) agree when asked if intolerance toward Christians has increased.
By contrast, most Christians (70 percent), self-identified evangelicals (82 percent) and Protestants (74 percent) see more intolerance. So do three-fourths (76 percent) of those who attend services once a week or more.
Researchers found some signs that Americans are tired of arguments over religious liberty. A sizable number of Americans believe Christians’ complaints about how they are treated are excessive.
Among them:

  • 38 percent of Christians

  • 39 percent of Americans of other faiths

  • 59 percent of Nones

  • 53 percent of those who rarely or never attend worship

American Christians face a challenge, as the nation becomes more secular, Stetzer said. Calls for religious liberty may fall on increasingly deaf ears in the future.
“Most people now believe Christians are facing intolerance, however, a surprisingly large minority perceives Christians to be complainers,” Stetzer said. “Both of those facts will matter as Christians profess and contend for their beliefs without sounding false alarms around faux controversies. It won’t be easy to strike that balance.”
Methodology: The phone survey of Americans was conducted Sept. 14-28, 2015. The calling utilized random digit dialing. Fifty percent of completes were among landlines and 50 percent among cell phones. Maximum quotas and slight weights were used for gender, region, age, ethnicity and education to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.6 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. Comparisons are also made to a LifeWay Research telephone survey conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013.
LifeWay Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect the church.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.)

3/31/2016 12:31:43 PM by Bob Smietana, LifeWay Research | with 0 comments

 |<  <  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 >  >|
Displaying results 91-100 (of 100)