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Dying Midwest church regains passion, spiritual vitality

April 1 2014 by Tobin Perry, Baptist Press

Dying churches used to haunt John Mark Clifton. They seemed to be everywhere.

Churches that once experienced 200 to 300 people in weekly worship when Clifton was a teenager, eventually struggled with fewer than 30 people attending each Sunday. Often the churches had large but empty buildings and could barely pay their facility costs.

“I had been in denominational missions a long time,” Clifton, a veteran Southern Baptist church planter and former associate director of missions at the Blue River-Kansas City Association, said. “I had always been taught – and experience had shown me – that you never touch a dying church. If you did, you’d lose all of your money, all your energy. You just stay away from them. You let them die.”

Unsettled by this option, Clifton wondered how God gets any glory when a church closes. He concluded that God gets the glory when a church dies so another can be born.

A group of older ladies from the city’s once large and prominent Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., approached Clifton in 2004 about their dying church. Relying on his 25 years of church planting experience, Clifton decided to help turn the once-thriving church around.

Beginning with 18 people, the church now averages about 140 in attendance most weekends. The community also has taken more ownership of the church, Clifton said.


NAMB photo by John Swain
Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, Ga., leads a Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conference, a one-day event intended to help churches infuse new life into their congregations.

“They’d realize that we can’t let this church close,” said Clifton, lead pastor of Wornall Road. “It’s an important part of our neighborhood. It feeds the kids on the football team. It feeds the kids in the elementary school. It serves our neighbors in an important way. We’re sort of the go-to church if there’s any need in the community.”

Wornall Road’s story is an example of what the North American Mission Board (NAMB) hopes will be a growing movement within the Southern Baptist Convention. Clifton is now working with NAMB to develop a strategy to help Southern Baptists breathe new life into dying churches, much like he did at Wornall Road.

More than 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are either plateaued or declining, according to the Levell Center for Evangelism and Church Growth. There’s a growing continuum for how to help struggling churches, Chris Emery, who coordinates church revitalization for NAMB, said. Many, he added, need to address leadership issues that can hinder their growth. State Baptist conventions are particularly well-placed to help many of the churches in this category.

NAMB also sponsors Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization conferences led by former SBC president Johnny Hunt and held throughout the United States. The conferences are designed to equip leaders with the necessary tools to bring life back to struggling churches.

But NAMB also encourages churches that are on the verge of closing to not let their church building be lost to the work of ministry. NAMB calls this “legacy church planting.”

“As God leads, we want to encourage these churches to consider ‘passing the baton’ – to let their legacy of ministry and missions continue through a legacy church plant,” Emery said. “Passing the baton may include a new name and a legacy church planter being called to lead the church.”

Because churches are the primary centers through which gospel proclamation occurs, NAMB has placed its church revitalization efforts within its Evangelism Group. The goal for every revitalized church is that it would again be a place where people are coming into a relationship with Christ.

Clifton says the transformation of Wornall Road had three parts. First, Clifton “loved on” the remaining elderly congregation and warmed the people’s hearts to the gospel.

“I didn’t make them the change agent,” Clifton said. “I didn’t blame them for what went wrong. I didn’t blame them for all the failures of the past. I didn’t marginalize them. I just loved them immensely as the bride of Christ. I just really tried to get them to warm up to the gospel and love Jesus again.”

As he was caring for the remaining Wornall Road members, Clifton started doing the work of a church planter. He built relationships with people in the community, shared Jesus with them and discipled them. He specifically focused on discipling a core group of future leaders, young men between the ages of 18 and 30.

Clifton and the others at Wornall Road also “served the community with abandon.” The church leveraged its relationship with the association, state convention and the broader SBC family to bring in volunteer teams to help them with LoveLoud service projects throughout the community.

Wornall Road also provided its building for a variety of community organizations and new church plants in an effort to use the large amount of space it has. In the past six to seven years, Clifton said, nine church plants have launched and held services in the building.

“Years ago when you’d say Wornall Road Baptist Church, the people in the neighborhood would think of a dying church that would fuss and fire their pastors all the time,” Clifton said. “Now when you say Wornall Road Baptist Church, they think of a church full of young families – where the nursery is overflowing, that serves the community every week, feeds the high school football team. It’s synonymous with service. God has gotten glory from Wornall Road coming back.”

For more information about NAMB’s church revitalization ministry, visit http://www.namb.net/revitalization.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.)
4/1/2014 11:51:04 AM by Tobin Perry, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Former atheist: ‘Life is better serving God’

April 1 2014 by Rudy Gray/The Baptist Courier

Mike Rushton, the youngest of three boys, grew up tough. His dad borrowed boxing gloves and taught his sons how to fight. “We were always told not to ever start a fight, but if we were involved in a fight we better not lose,” he said. “We did not lose many fights.”

His father did not attend church, but Rushton’s mother was a faithful Christian who made sure her sons went with her to worship on Sundays. When Rushton turned 13, he got a job working the late shift at a local café. His dad, who considered money to be more important, allowed his son to stop going to church.

Rushton went to work at a cotton mill when he was 16. “During those years I believed there was a God,” he said, “but I didn’t have any place in my life for Him.”

The teenager became disillusioned about Christianity when he had a heated exchange with his former fourth-grade Sunday school teacher, who worked at the cotton mill.

“I have been cussed out before, but I don’t believe any worse than she did,” he recalled. “That had an impact on my life, and I remember it like it happened yesterday.”


Vickie and Mike Rushton

Rushton began to believe there wasn’t any difference in his life and that of someone who claimed to be a Christian.

From there, his life began to spiral out of control. He was in jail several times, and “every time, alcohol was involved,” he said. “I have seen men shot, cut, beat and killed.”

Rushton was in the Army when he and Vickie, whom he had dated for several years, decided to get married. After his discharge from the military, they moved to Newberry, S.C., where he again worked in a mill.

Vickie had been raised in church but had stopped going. When the couple’s twin daughters were born she started going again, but Rushton would not go with her. When their daughter Misty, then 4, was not healed of a skin condition, psoriasis, Rushton decided to become an atheist.

“When I heard people talk about Jesus Christ,” he said, “I would tell them they were crazy, that people who believe in God are weak.”

Vickie would sometimes invite her pastor to the house on Sunday afternoons to visit Rushton. But this only angered her husband.

“I finally had enough and told the preacher that if he ever came to my house again, I would whip him,” Rushton said. He told his wife not to take the children to church if they did not want to go. Eventually, Vickie stopped attending services.

Meanwhile, Rushton began doing landscaping work – and business was booming. One evening, he covered the couple’s bed with $100 bills.

“I told Vickie that she used to talk to me about God and Jesus, but this was what was important to me,” he said.

The following week, Rushton was working in a Baptist preacher’s yard when a tree rolled onto him and broke his back. The night before his surgery, Rushton prayed, “God, if You are real, I want You to come through this window and take me out of my misery. I don’t want to live like this.”

At that moment, “Jesus Christ came into my heart, and I had a feeling of peace I had never had before,” he said. “I went from being a man who could do anything I wanted to someone who could not even take care of his basic needs. God had broken me, and He started rebuilding me into the person He wanted me to be.”

The next morning, Rushton shared with his wife what had happened, and they prayed together. The preacher whom Rushton had threatened to whip visited him in the hospital and later started teaching him how to study the Bible and to pray.

After recovering from surgery, Rushton went back to work. “I knew God did not want to handicap me,” he says. “He just wanted to get my attention and change my heart.”

Since then, Rushton has led an active lifestyle, going skydiving even running a marathon. He ran for city council in 1990 and won and later was appointed magistrate.

“Imagine that,” he said with a laugh, “someone who went from being put into jail to being able to put people in jail.”

In 2007 the couple retired and moved to Pickens, where they are faithful members of Pickens First Baptist Church.

“Some people tell me that God did not break my back, that He would never do anything like that,” Rushton said. “I know God broke my back to save me from going to hell.

“I am carrying a lot of scars from my former way of life. I have served Satan, and I have served God. Believe me, life is a lot better serving God.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rudy Gray is editor of The Baptist Courier, newsjournal of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, where this article first appeared.)
4/1/2014 11:34:51 AM by Rudy Gray/The Baptist Courier | with 0 comments

End-of-life ethics examined by panel

April 1 2014 by Marilyn Stewart, Baptist Press

A Baptist seminary leader joined a special panel at Loyola University New Orleans to discuss end-of-life cases that have sparked national debate.

Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and bioethicist, was among the panelists for the discussion titled “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?”

The group covered the cases of Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl placed on a ventilator following complications from tonsil and nasal surgery, and Marlise Munoz, a young mother declared brain dead but kept on life support for two months for the sake of her 14-week-old fetus.

The Center for Medical Ethics of the Louisiana Right to Life Federation sponsored the event. Other panelists included: Jennifer Popik, with National Right to Life; Jeff White, cardiologist and hospital system ethics director and Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University.

Popik cited a study by the American Academy of Neurology that indicated, while the protocol for declaring brain death varies widely from state to state and hospital to hospital, an average hospital determines brain death as many as 50 times a year.


Steve Lemke (second from left), provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and bioethicist, was among panelists to address end-of-life cases that have sparked national debate. The panel discussion was titled “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?”

“[Cases like these] may push hospitals to develop a criteria,” Popik said during the March 19 panel discussion.

Defining brain death

Brain death is the total and irreversible cessation of the entire brain, including the brain stem, and is determined by a complete examination using a set of diagnostic criteria and not by a single test, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) or an electroencephalogram (EEG), White explained.

“The science of brain death is very good. The concept of brain death is well-founded scientifically,” he said.

Jahi McMath was declared brain dead on Dec. 12, 2013, after three neurologists confirmed she was unable to breathe on her own, had no blood flow to her brain, and showed no sign of electrical activity in the brain.

When McMath’s family refused to remove the ventilator, a legal agreement was eventually forced requiring that a death certificate be issued by the Alameda County, Calif., coroner’s office before the patient was moved to an undisclosed facility where life support continues.

White said families sometimes have trouble accepting a doctor’s verdict because a patient on life support has a heartbeat, breathes and feels warm to the touch.

Wilde added that the issue is compounded in today’s society because death is often not discussed. Families also rarely witness the stages of death with a loved one, as in the past.

Lemke agreed, saying families used to care for patients in their final days at home and watched their loved ones struggle for longer periods of time. Because medical personnel today provide end-of-life care, the family is often removed from that struggle.

“We’re isolated and insulated from the reality of death, so when death comes it is all-the-more shocking and we are all-the-more ill-prepared for it,” Lemke said.

And with medical advances and prolonged life, Lemke said, “All these things together may make death a much more difficult experience in our day than perhaps in the past.”

Pregnancy and brain death

Marlise Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed in the middle of the night at her Ft. Worth, Texas, home in November 2013. Shortly after admission to the hospital, Munoz was pronounced brain dead.

Texas law prohibits the removal of life support from a pregnant patient until fetus viability at 23 weeks. The hospital continued support and a month later, Munoz’ husband sued to remove support. A judge ruled in his favor on Jan. 24, 2014, stating that the fetus was abnormal and not viable, and that women had a right to end pregnancies if they wished.

While the law seeks to balance the rights of individuals, Popik argued the mother’s rights were extinguished when she was pronounced brain dead.

“So what’s going on here that the rights of the [unborn] child were so lost in the dialogue?” Popik asked.

White noted that the Texas law was meant to protect the fetus when the mother was in a vegetative state and did not apply to a patient declared brain dead.

According to a Jan. 28, 2014 NPR article reporting on the case, the authors of the bill “intended to keep a pregnant woman who was in a persistent vegetative state on a ventilator until she could deliver, but not a dead pregnant woman,” and insisted the hospital had misinterpreted the law.

While the Munoz case was in the news earlier this year, a similar story previously unfolded in Canada.

Robyn Benson of British Columbia was declared brain dead at 22 weeks into her pregnancy. Life support continued and her healthy but premature son was delivered at 27 weeks. Benson died the next day.

Analysts of the Munoz and Benson cases point out that the hospital had declared the Munoz fetus not viable, while the Benson fetus was determined to be normal.

Lemke told the audience that in his ethics classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary he presents another case study similar to the Munoz and Benson cases. In that case, the judge allowed life support to continue, ruling that the state has an interest in the next generation of its citizens, and asking poignantly, “Who speaks for the fetus?”

Preparing for the unexpected

While it can be difficult to craft an advance directive for medical needs that covers a wide range of scenarios and circumstances, certain guidelines are helpful, Lemke said:
  • Put an advanced directive in writing that expresses the general guidelines. This is very helpful guidance for family and medical staff.
  • Ask a hospital official or attorney the language of a standard “boiler plate” advanced directive, then personalize it.
  • Prepare for unanticipated circumstances by appointing a surrogate decision maker with the medical power of attorney who can make decisions that follow general guidelines.
  • Allowing organ donation is a separate issue but should be expressed in an advanced directive.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marilyn Steward is a writer based in New Orleans. She is a frequent contributor to the Louisiana Baptist Message and The Times-Picayune.)
4/1/2014 11:21:06 AM by Marilyn Stewart, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

President’s apology adds to college’s saga

April 1 2014 by Baptist Press

A Baptist college president has apologized for comments about a state convention executive director made in conversations secretly recorded by one of the college’s former vice presidents.

Joe Aguillard, president of Louisiana College, issued the apology to David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Baptist Message state newspaper reported March 28.

Aguillard had said that he suspected Hankins was fomenting an anti-Calvinism controversy at Louisiana College and that he had heard a rumor that Hankins wanted his son, Eric Hankins, currently a pastor in Mississippi, to replace Augillard as the college’s president.

Hankins had publicly supported Aguillard during extended controversy over Aguillard’s leadership of the college involving various issues, from its accreditation to alleged financial irregularities. Aguillard survived a close no confidence vote by trustees in April of last year.

Several secret recordings were made in 2012 by Charles “Chuck” Quarles, former LC vice president for the integration of faith and learning and dean of the college’s Caskey School of Divinity. Quarles now is professor of New Testament & biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

In the recordings, Aguillard was speaking with Quarles and, at other times, other members of the Louisiana College administration at the Pineville campus. A local newspaper, The Town Talk in nearby Alexandria, first reported in early March on recordings it said Quarles had provided.

The secret recordings are among a number of issues that have festered at the college in recent weeks, including:
  • A potential investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
  • A lawsuit filed by a former executive vice president of the college. Timothy “Tim” Johnson, the VP, and Quarles had filed separate whistle-blower complaints against the college in December 2012 over alleged misappropriation of funds for the divinity school.
  • A Town Talk report citing “multiple” anonymous sources March 26 that Aguillard has been asked to resign as college president.
Hankins, in releasing the apology by Aguillard, told the Baptist Message, “When Dr. Aguillard was confronted with these disappointing revelations, he sent the following letter of apology to me”:

“Dear Dr. Hankins,

“I want to deeply apologize for things that I said about you and Eric on a recording by Chuck Quarles. I haven’t heard the tape, but I’ve seen typed quotes from the recording and I am so remorseful in having said those things. What I said does not reflect in any way my true heartfelt feelings for both you and Eric.

“In addition, I will share with anyone that you did not use undue influence in any way and never pushed your way onto the Academic Affairs committee. Your leadership on that committee is invaluable.

“My position is one of full support for you and Eric in every way. I fully admire your leadership and Godly statesmanship and consider you a mentor and friend. I pray that you will forgive me and we can continue to work closely together for Christ.

“Again, I am so sorry for what I said.”

The Baptist Message asked Aguillard for a statement but did not receive one by its March 28 deadline.

SACS investigation

An official with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told the Baptist Message it is “standard policy for us to look into unsolicited information we receive about member institutions.” The comment by Michael Johnson, SACS senior vice president and chief of staff, was in reference to a Town Talk report about “authenticity” questions over several signatures on Louisiana College’s SACS reports.

A committee appointed in 2012 by then-trustee chairman Marc Taylor consisting of three LC trustees and two college employees, however, reported that it could find no evidence of wrongdoing in LC’s SACS reports, according to the Baptist Message’s March 18 story on the pending SACS inquiry.

SACS reaffirmed Louisiana College’s accreditation in December after two years on warning status.

Former executive VP’s lawsuit

Timothy “Tim” Johnson, LC’s former executive vice president, filed a lawsuit in Louisiana District Court in Alexandria alleging that Aguillard retaliated over Johnson’s whistle-blower complaint filed under LC policies, the Baptist Message reported in a March 18 story. Johnson’s suit seeks damages for loss of past and future income, mental anguish, pain and suffering but does not specify an amount.

Johnson, in the suit, alleges that Aguillard gave him a poor mid-year evaluation, versus previous perfect scores, after the whistle-blower complaint that Aguillard had misled trustees in December 2012 by stating that Cason Foundation funding had been committed for a building for the Caskey School of Divinity and a proposed law school when he knew the foundation had declined to fund the project. Johnson also alleged that funds designated for the divinity school had been improperly used for a overseas college initiative called LC Tanzania.

Trustees, however, after a daylong meeting on April 30 of last year, announced through a statement, “After a long, thorough investigation, the board has exonerated Dr. Aguillard of all allegations that were brought forward in the whistle-blower complaints. Concluding the vote, the board, led by Chairman Gene Lee, circled the president, laying hands on him in prayer, asking God for love and unity amongst the board and the administration.”

Baptist Message reports on recent developments at Louisiana College can be read by subscription to the state newspaper at www.baptistmessage.com.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston from reports in the Baptist Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and from The Town Talk in Alexandria, La.)
4/1/2014 11:05:28 AM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Scriptural error abounds, but Christians promote, blast ‘Noah’

March 31 2014 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

No one seems to be arguing whether Paramount Studios’ “Noah” is a factual representation of scripture, as the filmmaker has admitted it is not, but Christians disagree whether the movie will advance the Lord’s Kingdom.
Christian academia, pastors and movie critics laud the production as a tool to encourage dialogue about the Bible, while some caution that viewing the film might birth doubt and inaccuracies in the hearts of believers. The $130 million production, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe in the title role, opened March 28 in theatres.

Under an agreement with National Religious Broadcasters, Paramount has added to the opening credits the message, “The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

Paramount did not stop there, but has released an 8-minute video encouraging Christians to see the film. Such leaders as Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, Mosaic Church pastor Erwin McManus and The King’s College president Greg Thornbury encourage Christians to attend the production.

“‘Noah’ is nothing short of astonishing,” Thornbury says in the video. “I am confident that it will be remembered as a film that helped re-enchant a new generation with the biblical narrative. Honestly, it is path-breaking.”

Thornbury, who has taught philosophy of film courses in a variety of settings, also critiqued the movie in a blog on “The Gospel Coalition” evangelical website. He acknowledged the movie has a “ton” of “extra-biblical material,” and pointed out two major theological objections. The movie does not present God as an actual character, as does the biblical account, and the movie totally misses God’s grace, even as it seeks to portray justice and mercy, Thornbury blogged.

“Because Noah is seized by the Lord through dreams in the film, we never really develop an imaginative sympathy with the Creator,” Thornbury wrote. “Second, the film entirely misses the covenantal structure of the Noah story. In the text, God clearly sets his love upon Noah as an expression of grace. Through Noah, a righteous man, the entire family is saved. ... Exploring the theme of God’s justice and mercy, if pursued apart from the notion of covenant, is a risky proposition with unreliable theological results.”

The movie can only be enjoyed if we realize it’s not true to Scripture, Thornbury indicated.

“If you go into it saying, ‘That stuff is not in the Bible!’ you are going to be a very grumpy camper when you leave the theater,” Thornbury wrote. “But of course we all realize that Genesis 6-10 actually underdetermines much granularity in terms of the precise details of a story.”

Phil Boatwright, whose movie reviews appear in Baptist Press and on previewonline.org, points out one such extra-biblical feature of Noah.

“When Noah tells an angry biblical figure that he’s not alone, he doesn’t just mean God is with him! Noah is also backed by ... fallen angels known as the watchers (Nephilim, spoken of in Genesis 6:14), here portrayed as giant rock creatures who seek forgiveness from their Creator by aiding Noah,” Boatwright said. “The rock people (the watchers) must be discussed because for this reviewer, they were the one ingredient that made the $130-million production seem a little like a Sci-Fi Channel refugee.”

At a press conference, Boatwright garnered Aronofsky’s explanation of the watchers.

“We thought for a long time about how to bring the Nephilim to life,” Aronofsky said of himself and co-writer Ari Handel. “Lots of sources talk about the Nephilim, including the book of Enoch. Of course, we had to use imagination to bring them to the screen.

“I was inspired metaphorically when I conceptualized these ethereal beings as falling in love with Earth and humans, and attempting to start another race. And because of doing this, their Creator imprisoned them by the earth,” Boatwright quoted Aronofsky. “I wanted this sense of crippled creatures, weighted down with their own punishment. I think there’s a sense that they are in pain with every step they take. It’s their punishment.”

Boatwright recommends the production.

“Noah is an epic movie experience that engages not only the cerebral but the emotional. On the way to the car, people discuss it,” Boatwright said. “That’s when you know you’ve experienced true art. It’s not just a time-filler before going to some other time-filler. It’s a film that demands debate.”

Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham is among those who are critical of – and do not recommend – the film, urging Christians to ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit before buying a ticket. AiG launched on March 25 the website www.TheTruthAboutNoah.com, and scheduled Ham’s webcast review of the film on the site March 28. Ham has called the movie “anti-biblical” and a “major corruption of the Bible’s account of the global Flood.”

Christians “may be able to embrace this movie, but I sincerely ask you to consider if a Christian who trusts in the inspired, infallible, inerrant, and sufficient Word of God can embrace it,” Ham writes in his latest Noah review on his website.

“Many professing Christians don’t believe that Noah was a real person from whom we all descended. Many believe that the Flood was simply a regional event,” Ham said. “Others believe the Flood is simply allegory that communicates a certain theme that we are to embrace. I pray that we will all stand for the authority of God’s Word and seek to defend His honor at all costs, even at the expense of our own entertainment.”

Ham admits he himself will see the movie with colleagues, but not for entertainment purposes.

“Paramount Pictures wants your money,” Ham said. “Before you buy that ticket, for this or any movie, read Ephesians 4:17–5:21 and ask for wisdom from the Holy Spirit that you may walk in obedience to your Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission and director of its Movieguide of family movies and entertainment, advises caution for some violence and intense moments in the film.

“Noah is a spectacular epic with a hopeful, inspiring ending,” he wrote in a review. “Although it stumbles along the way, it delivers enough modern spectacle and dramatic conflict to please most moviegoers.”

Among the movie’s faults are an environmentalist spin and the fact that the movie never mentions the name God, Baehr said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press general assignment writer/ editor.)
3/31/2014 12:09:59 PM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Moore, Lynn debate Hobby Lobby's liberty

March 31 2014 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore defended America's long-standing religious liberty in a debate with church-state separationist Barry Lynn on C-SPAN March 28.

Appearing on the network's “Washington Journal,” Moore, the leading religious liberty advocate for the Southern Baptist Convention, and Lynn, executive director of a strict church-state separationist organization, expressed disagreements on the free exercise of religion and on a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court only three days earlier.

The disparity between their views seemed to become most evident when they began discussing the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide drugs and devices that have the potential to cause abortions. The Supreme Court heard arguments March 25 from the federal government in support of the requirement, as well as two family owned businesses – nationwide retail chain Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties – that contend the federal rule violates their owners' free exercise of religion rights and a 1993 law protecting religious liberty.

Asked by C-SPAN host Peter Slen about the Hobby Lobby case, Moore said the Green family, which owns the arts and crafts stores, “is simply asking to be able to live out their religious convictions without this burdensome and unnecessary government mandate.... The Green family says, 'We don't object to contraception, but we do object to contraceptive technologies or devices that we believe can possibly have an abortion effect. We don't want to be forced to participate in something that we believe could arguably be the taking of a human life.'

“And so that's the question – whether or not the religious liberty rights that we have are simply at the level of what we believe in our hearts and what we sing from our hymn books,” the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said, “or whether that religious liberty is the freedom to be able to live out one's life according to one's religious convictions.”

Slen asked Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, if the Green family shouldn't be able to operate its company as it desires.

“No, within limits frankly they can't do that,” Lynn responded. “We cannot allow the boss who happens to have one particular religious viewpoint to set up a corporation” in which he decides the company's interests “override the religious convictions of the women employees who choose to obtain contraceptive coverage, which the Green family says should not be available under their plan.”

Lynn said, “I don't believe that the free exercise of religion can be practiced by a for-profit company that's in the business of making do-it-yourself crafts.... Their purpose is not to practice religion. That's what you do if you form yourself as a religious charity or as a church or other place of worship. A company like this or a company that makes wood cabinets [as Conestoga Wood does] does not and cannot seriously claim a free exercise of religion right protected by [the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) “is about: Can Muslim firefighters grow a beard? That's about things that do not have an adverse effect on a third party like the Green family has a serious adverse effect” on Hobby Lobby's female workers, Lynn said.

The Constitution, Moore said, does “not mandate that we give up our free exercise and conscience rights when we enter into the workplace. Simply to say that because people are incorporated together and working in the marketplace this means that somehow their free-exercise rights are placed in a blind trust, I think that's a serious distortion of a great American principle.”

The Greens have “been for years and years and years seeking to put into practice their religious convictions,” Moore said. “It's the reason why they don't open on Sunday. It's the reason why they pay their employees at a higher rate than some of their competitors. They've tried to do everything they can to incentivize family time.... And so I don't think that we can say that simply because someone is in the marketplace this means that free exercise is gone.”

Moore also said, “No one is arguing that a sincerely held religious belief trumps everything. Instead, what [RFRA] entails is to say that the government must have a compelling interest in overriding religious free exercise and must find the least restrictive means to do that. And so simply because someone holds a sincerely held religious belief, that doesn't mean that the religious belief argument is over. It means that has to be weighed and that has to be balanced. And what we're arguing is that this government mandate is not necessary to achieve these goals and it isn't consistent with what we've always agreed to do as a country.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the rule in question in the Hobby Lobby case to implement the 2010 health care law. It requires employer coverage of federally approved contraceptives, including the intrauterine device (IUD), the Plan B “morning-after” pill and “ella.” Both the IUD and morning-after pill are described as possessing secondary, post-fertilization mechanisms that could potentially cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. In a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486, “ella” can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

Lynn rejected the abortion concerns of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, which object only to coverage of the drugs and devices with abortion-inducing qualities and not other contraceptives.

“It is true in America you can have a sincerely held belief about anything,” Lynn said. “You can believe in Bigfoot. You can believe that all the Sesame Street animals, including Snuffleupagus, are going to move into your neighborhood. You can have all kinds of beliefs, but you can't put those beliefs into practice if they're claimed to be scientific beliefs if they're inconsistent with science.

“[T]he use of these medications prevents an egg or delays an egg from being released,” Lynn said. “It is never fertilized. Therefore, it is impossible for you to call it an abortion. We have to make public policy based on sound science, not on someone's religious view with this kind of overlay of pseudo-science.”

Moore replied, “The idea that 'ella' or an IUD can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb is not the equivalent of believing that Snuffleupagus is in one's neighborhood. This is a serious argument between people, and one will notice that in the oral arguments in the Supreme Court the government never argued that this isn't the case. They argued that these drugs aren't classified in this way.”

He also said, “[It] is not really up to Barry Lynn to dictate to the consciences of people who say, 'We believe the science shows that arguably this could cause an abortion. This could cause the womb to become inhospitable to an already fertilized embryo.'“

Moore defined religious freedom in response to Slen's first question as “the freedom to be able to live out one's religious convictions without coercion or pressure from the state.”

When Slen asked about the state of religious freedom in the country, Moore said he is “very concerned.”

“We have one court case after another dealing with very basic constitutional questions of religious liberty as well as a cultural climate that concerns me,” Moore told Slen, “when religious liberty is often presented in headlines in scare quotes, as though this were a political invention of recent times rather than what it really is – one of the bedrocks of this country, a natural right that the founders of this country believed was given to the people not by the government but by God.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)
3/31/2014 11:39:12 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Unity found amid conflict in Ukraine

March 31 2014 by Marc Ira Hooks, IMB/Baptist Press

As Russian tanks rolled through Crimea and thousands of people staged demonstrations both for and against the governments of Russia and Ukraine, there was one group united by something other than nationalism or a common language.

More than 80 Russian-speaking Baptist church planters, pastors and Russian ministry workers from across Europe gathered in Germany this month for their annual summit of the Network of Russian Speaking Churches of the European Baptist Federation. Little did they know when the conference was planned that their theme of unity and peace would be particularly timely.


Photo courtesy of Igor Gricyk, www.spasenie.eu.
Pastor Lev Shultz, left, from Prague, Czech Republic, leads church planters, pastors and Russian ministry workers from across Europe in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. More than 80 Russian-language church workers gathered together in Germany for the fourth annual summit of the Network of Russian Speaking Churches of the European Baptist Federation.

“We prayed for Ukraine numerous times together,” International Mission Board (IMB) representative Russell Kyzar, who attends a Russian-speaking immigrant church in Prague, Czech Republic, said. “You genuinely sensed that regardless of where they were from, people were pained by the situation. The truth is, we all have a much higher allegiance – and that is to the Kingdom of God. And we must use this opportunity, as people’s hearts are open, to come to Him.”

Millions of Russian-speaking immigrants and refugees are spread across Europe. This presents church-planting opportunities for immigrant church pastors who gather together annually during the summit.

Usually this conference is a time for these leaders and workers to share about their ministries and church-planting strategies. But this year’s conference theme – “A Spirit of Unity in the Bond of Peace” – was particularly appropriate as the group spent much of their meeting praying for the current situation in Ukraine and Crimea.

The meeting was both unique and heartwarming, Kyzar said, as Baptist leaders from the different countries lifted each other up in prayer.

“There were leaders from Russia praying for representatives from Crimea,” he said. “And there were Ukrainian leaders praying for the leaders and people of Russia.

“There was a sense of Christian brotherhood that was overriding any tension caused by nationalism or patriotism.”

Those who attended the conference said the meetings were uplifting, and there was a sense that even though different nations were represented, they were there to demonstrate something bigger than a collection of people from different Russian-speaking countries.

“Right now the hearts of people are tender,” Kyzar said. “And we were talking about how to maximize this as an opportunity to talk with people about spiritual things. The structures of men do not provide the security that you need ... and definitely not for eternity.”

Igor Gricyk, pastor of a Russian-speaking church in Kladno, Czech Republic, and one of the organizers of the conference, said the recent unrest in Crimea and Ukraine will most likely cause many new immigrants and refugees to flee from post-Soviet countries into the rest of Europe.

Churches across Europe are willing to cooperate and support ministry among Russian-speakers in Europe, he said.

Gricyk said, “Meeting together and praying for one another gives us courage to be ready to accept those people and help them find God, church, home and family.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marc Ira Hooks is an IMB correspondent based in Europe.)
3/31/2014 11:28:28 AM by Marc Ira Hooks, IMB/Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Sweet 16: Stokes’ big footprint carries Tenn.

March 31 2014 by Victor Lee, Baptist Press

A successful team has to be built on a solid foundation. None gets much more solid than 6-feet-8, 260-pound Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, whose size 23 shoe, basketball skill and steady off-court influence are leaving a big footprint.

Stokes is the rock of the Tennessee Volunteer basketball team, the 11th seed that faced the 2nd seed Michigan Wolverines Friday, March 28 in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. While the Michigan team had a tough time ending Tennessee’s Elite Eight dreams, the Wolverines did just that with a 73-71 victory. But Michigan was defeated March 30 by a talented Kentucky team (75-72).

Stokes has been the quiet, steady type all along – just like quiet, steady head coach Cuonzo Martin likes.

“Both of them are intense competitors with calm exteriors,” Vols chaplain Roger Woods noted.

Stokes is tied for first in the nation in double doubles (22 games with double-digit rebounds and points), averaging 10.7 rebounds and 15.2 points, and he and fellow post player Jeronne Maymon (also 6-8, 260) are a double-wide mismatch inside. (These numbers were calculated before the game against Michigan.)

Jarnell Stokes was a valuable member of the Tennessee Volunteers during the season and throughout the NCAA tournament. He’s known not only for his double-digit rebounds but for also leading the team with a calm demeanor and faith in God.

A senior-laden team (starters Jordan McRae, Maymon and Antonio Barton), the tone is nevertheless set by the junior Stokes.

“He is quiet and respectful but everybody knows where Jarnell stands with his faith,” Woods said. “I believe it impacts the entire team. All those guys are growing and striving.”

None more than Jarnell. Former Vol post player Rob Murphy mixed it up with Stokes in practice every day during Stokes’ first two years at UT. Off the court, he saw a young man (17 when he played his first game for Tennessee) clearly working to honor God.

“Jarnell is a quiet guy, reserved, but he has definitely taken the steps to live a Christ-filled life,” said Murphy, who graduated in 2013 and is now athletic director and basketball coach at Concord Christian School in Knoxville. “He attends church consistently, and I can see his faith by how he lives his life day to day, how he deals with his girlfriend and the way he treats people around him. He has really invested in living a life that glorifies the Lord.”

Coach Martin is a big part of that effort. In Martin’s first phone call to Stokes, the coach spoke of his faith in God. “It was a very engaging conversation,” Stokes told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Mike Griffin in a video shortly after arriving at Tennessee in December 2011. “He said he worked hard but he said he worked hard because of God. I said to myself, ‘I need to check this situation out.’”

Stokes had been recruited from age 14 and had risen to the state’s top prospect. A shy young man, he said recruiting “was a long hard process. With prayer comes answers. In beginning, I was thinking ‘Cuonzo Martin? This guy from Missouri State? You serious?’ But I walk by faith, not by sight, and I thought Tennessee was the right fit.”

For Stokes, that meant mixing basketball and faith in God – and having a godly leader.

“Coach Martin makes it very clear that he is a Christian,” Murphy said. “He’s very up-front about his faith, and I think that has impacted Jarnell very much. Coach Martin is careful and smart about it – he has to be in a public institution. He gives players the option to leave before we have chapel, but we have them consistently. We have team prayer. The presence of the Lord is always around the program. Coach Martin brings glory to the Lord.”

Stokes’ faith has garnered attention of late as he openly – but briefly and with poise – voiced praise to God on nationally televised interviews after NCAA tournament games.

“He does it on his own,” Woods said. “He just wants to make sure before he says anything else that he honors the Lord. He is living Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God....’ So he just says that before anything else. It’s not rehearsed or stated, it’s from the heart.”

And it’s from conviction, which he spoke of in the video more than two years ago.

“I think there should be more guys out there trying to bring faith in Jesus and not so worried about what others think about them,” Stokes said. “Like Tim Tebow, who has the faith to say, ‘I work hard, but God gets me where I am now.’”

Stokes earns respect when he speaks because of his work ethic. He is much improved this season, a big reason Tennessee made the tournament and has won three games so far.

“You can really see a difference in the quality of his play,” Murphy said. “His fundamental base is much better. He has gotten away from some moves he used in high school that he figured out didn’t work in college. His passes, his moves – everything he does with the ball – are at a more advanced level.”

While every hard-working and successful athlete is not a Christian, Murphy said he believes Stokes’ faith stokes his effort.

“I think it is impossible to be a Christian and not have it affect your work ethic,” Murphy said. “He works like a man who is doing everything unto the Lord.”

The work ethic extends to academics and faith. His father Willie pushed him to honors classes in high school, and the discipline positioned Stokes to graduate early and begin his college career in what should have been his high school senior year. As for faith, he learns from some of the best in Woods and Sevier Heights Baptist Church’s Tim Miller. Miller leads “Inside the Walk” each Wednesday night at 9. Stokes is regularly there.

“He’s been classy,” Miller said. “He comes across as an extremely shy guy, but he’s always made himself available to students. He always stays afterward and mingles with the crowd. He’s always a gentleman in how he handles himself, even though a lot of people want to approach him.

“There is a quiet confidence about him. He has never wanted to be the center of attention. I’ve admired that from a distance.”

The quiet confidence and low-key demeanor came through long talks and discipline from his father and some humbling experiences as an early teen.

“I was the first one to read every article that came out about Jarnell Stokes,” Stokes said upon arriving at Tennessee. “I think I let it get to my head. My game started falling. I stopped doing what I was asked.

“I grew up as always the underdog. I was this big kid with the afro. I never made friends ... guys didn’t like me; they said I was garbage. That adversity has pushed me through a lot. My faith in God has helped me get to where I am right now. I want to thank my dad for the long nights we talked about basketball, and the discipline. Now I appreciate it.”

He has been molded by God, parents and coaches into a winner. He has influenced teammates to be winners. Stokes had a goal when he arrived. He said in December 2011:

“I’ve never been a loser. I know they [Tennessee basketball] are down right now. But I plan on winning.”

Mission accomplished. On and off the court.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Victor Lee is a writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.)
3/31/2014 11:08:55 AM by Victor Lee, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

NCMO provides for the Shelby Mission Camp

March 28 2014 by Marty Simpkins, BSC Communications

David and Janet Brown are the new camp leaders for the Shelby Mission Camp. David is very familiar with the ministry of the Shelby Mission Camp as he has been a missions leader for his church, Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby.
Through Elizabeth Baptist, Brown spent many years ministering to young men through Royal Ambassadors, and as the men’s ministry director, he was instrumental in organizing the church’s disaster relief and handyman ministries as well.
Professionally, he was an auto technician for 40 years and the owner of his own automotive service for 32 of those years.
As the new camp leader, Brown is excited and looking forward to the opportunity to further God’s Kingdom through the missions and ministries of Baptists on Mission or North Carolina Baptist Men (NCBM).

BSC photo
David and Janet Brown are the new camp leaders for Shelby Mission Camp.

“Besides just maintaining this facility, we want to make sure that it is used to help minister to the needs of the people of Cleveland and surrounding counties,” Brown said.
“We host volunteer groups from our local communities, throughout the state and across the nation.”
Volunteers give anywhere from one hour to several weeks of their time as they participate in the camp’s various missionary and ministry efforts. Volunteers may be involved in organizing projects for future teams as well as completing projects begun by other teams. Some of the projects include home repair, Vacation Bible Schools, sports camps and evangelism.
More specifically, volunteers have worked with the Cleveland County Homeless Shelter and the Pregnancy Resource Center in remodeling their facilities. However, in order to participate in these ministries, the Shelby Mission Camp needs consistent financial support – that’s where the North Carolina Missions Offering comes in.
“The N.C. Mission Offering is our lifeline of support,” Brown said.
“While very grateful for what we have, we also have needs. Many of our tools are becoming worn out and need replacing. Initial plans called for more use of this wonderful property that we have been blessed with. I would like to see these plans carried out so this property can be fully utilized to glorify God.”
This special offering being received across North Carolina supports all of the missions and ministries of NCBM, as well as provide critical support for church planting efforts through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
The Shelby Mission Camp is just one of the 18 unique ministries of NCBM.
Through the ministries of NCBM, individuals like Brown come to recognize that God is calling them to missions and ministry. There are thousands of men, women and students who are involved in missions through the Missions Camps at Shelby and at Red Springs.
Generous support of the North Carolina Missions Offering may be used by the Lord to provide experiences for others through which God may call them to His service.
For more information about the Shelby Mission Camp, visit www.baptistsonmission.org/camps. To learn how you and your church can support the North Carolina Missions Offering, visit www.ncmissionsoffering.org or call (800) 395-5102, ext. 5515.
3/28/2014 11:35:40 AM by Marty Simpkins, BSC Communications | with 0 comments

Baylor hits Sweet 16 at 26-11 & 5 baptisms

March 28 2014 by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press

Nothing changed in how Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew went about his work this year.
Nothing, that is, except the results – especially the results off the court where five of his players, in professing faith in Christ, were baptized.
“I’ve been with [Drew] for 11 years, and the concentration has been the same every year to expose people to the gospel and be able to present the gospel,” said Mark Wible, one of the team’s two chaplains. “There have been a lot of seeds sown over the years, and we’re seeing it come to fruition this year.”
When the Bears face Wisconsin tonight in the NCAA’s Sweet 16, most fans will see only what happens on the court. They won’t see the efforts and energy that Drew regularly pours out in teaching his players not only the game of basketball, but the gospel of Jesus.
“Winning the game of life is a lot more rewarding than a 40-minute basketball game that’s so temporary,” Drew said in a Fox Sports Southwest story by Dave Ubben. “To have an opportunity to help be a part of an impact on a young person’s life is the best feeling.”
Although the preseason AP poll had Baylor ranked 25th, everything started off according to plan for the team this season and the wins came quick and often.

Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics
Scott Drew, Baylor men’s basketball coach, while leading the team to a Sweet 16 berth, says having “an impact on a young person’s life is the best feeling.”

Six straight wins to start the season. A loss to Syracuse. Six more wins, including a big one over Kentucky on Dec. 6. By early January, Baylor had climbed to seventh in the nation.
But as quickly as the Bears had ascended, they fell. Big 12 conference competition proved much tougher than the teams Baylor had been beating. The Bears dropped eight of their first 10 conference games, including five in a row at one point.
Drew’s frustration could have been excused after Baylor lost to Kansas on Feb. 4 in the midst of the disastrous slide. Before facing the media after the game, he approached Scott Brewer, the team’s other chaplain.
Drew didn’t ask Brewer to pray for composure as he addressed the media. He didn’t ask Brewer to pray for the team’s freefall to stop. He had something far more significant on his mind.
“We may not win another game this year, and I may be a horrible coach,” Drew told Brewer, as reported by Ubben, “but if any of these guys leave without knowing Christ, that will be the real loss.”
Though the team was struggling, the Lord was working, through Drew, Brewer, Wible and others. On Feb. 25, Wible baptized five of the players – Kenny Chery, Taurean Prince, Gary Franklin, Royce O’Neale and Ish Wainright – at Highland Baptist Church in Waco, where he is associate pastor.
Wible said it’s the first time in his 11 years the team has seen these kinds of spiritual results. He credits the testimony and witness of former player Jacob Neubert, who graduated last year and had a strong influence with several of the players. Neubert played a major role in bringing Baylor guard Brady Heslip to Christ in 2011.
“This year, it just kind of took off,” Wible said, “and Brady has been instrumental in bringing other guys to faith in Christ or just to have a deeper walk with the Lord and being more conscious of God in their everyday lives.”
Weslip’s guidance and counsel were significant factors in Chery coming to faith in Christ.
“I felt like I was a new person,” Chery said in the Fox Sports Southwest story about his conversion. “I felt like everything I’ve done bad in the past is gone. I’m starting new. I’ve accepted God into my life. The next morning I woke up, thanked God for waking me up, and I just had a whole new outlook.”
As chaplain, Wible gives pregame talks to the team, and this year’s theme was “One,” based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 that His people might be one as He was one with the Father. Wible talked about topics such as one faith, one attitude, one mindset and one promise.
That instruction proved valuable as the losses mounted.
“Through it all, those guys never once wavered,” Wible said. “Now there were questions – what’s going on? – but they never wavered in their faith.”
The players hung together, Wible said, not pointing fingers or accusing others. And eventually, the wins started coming again in mid-February. Baylor won 10 of 11 games before losing to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament title game. Seeded seventh in the NCAA tournament, Baylor defeated Nebraska and Creighton to advance to the Sweet 16.
Regardless of what the NCAA tournament holds for Baylor, Wible said this season has been an immense success.
“Scripture says one plants, one waters and God gives the increase,” he said. “This has been the year that God has given the increase, and we rejoice in that.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is editor of BP Sports, the sports affiliate of Baptist Press.)
3/28/2014 11:12:14 AM by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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