Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.

What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th Century.

"I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was," said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. "I couldn't understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. … I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3."

Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women's Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board's 2017 goal is $160 million.

Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.

The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: "I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done," and "I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!"

Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives. 

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn't need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church's parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

"It's just a simple little building," said Meeks, who is part of a "Sheepdog Seminars" team, training church leaders how to protect biblical "sheep" from "wolves."

"There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don't have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don't see the danger coming."

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

After the stunning news from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the online chorus of Americans offering support.

"Reports out of Texas are devastating," said Ryan, on Twitter. "The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now."

A star in the Star Trek galaxy, and frequent guest on "The Big Bang Theory," was furious with Ryan.

"The murdered victims were in a church," tweeted Wil Wheaton. "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive, you worthless sack of [expletive]."

Wheaton later added: "Hey, real and actual people of faith: I hear you. I apologize for insulting you, in my rage at Paul Ryan's refusal to address gun violence."

This was, of course, yet another round of warfare about the Second Amendment, faith, bloodshed, media bias and the political powers that be. The fighting hadn't even ended after the secular vs. sacred Twitter wars following the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

At this point, it's clear that the fighting over "thoughts and prayers" tweets is yet another sign that America is dividing into warring camps in which language and symbolic actions are causing pain and confusion, rather than unity, said Tim Stewart, a professional wordsmith who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website.

It doesn't help that the vocabulary of many Christians, especially evangelicals, is packed with "insider jargon they use all the time, whether they know it or not. … This language is like a liturgy for them, but they don't understand that other people don't get it," said Stewart, who was raised Catholic, but attends a Southern Baptist church in Austin, Texas.

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone (#DUH) after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teen suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched OfflineOctober.com and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. … We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread this slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level -- the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."

Survey of clergy spouses shows that privacy, isolation are issues in their glass houses

Survey of clergy spouses shows that privacy, isolation are issues in their glass houses

Study the weekly calendars of most American churches and somewhere there will be a reference to a "prayer group," or words to that effect.

These gatherings may take place at church, in homes or at a coffee shop. The format will usually be informal, but -- after snacks and a devotion of some kind -- people are offered time to share what is happening in their lives so others can pray for them.

What is a pastor's spouse supposed to do?

Consider these numbers from a recent LifeWay Research survey of 720 spouses randomly selected from a multi-denominational list of Protestant pastors. Nearly 50 percent of clergy spouses said their candid prayer requests "would just become gossip," with 11 percent "strongly" agreeing. Half said they no longer confide with church members because they have been "betrayed too many times."

"For these spouses, the walls around them are pretty high," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. "If you ask them to open up with people in a new church community, they're already going to be pretty cautious about doing that."

While this survey found high levels of satisfaction among clergy spouses, concerns about privacy and isolation are the "kind of thing that seminaries may need to warn people about when their spouses go into the ministry," he said.

There's more. Nearly 70 percent of these clergy spouses said they had few friends with whom they could be candid. Just over half said they had experienced "personal attacks" in their current church.

Are they are living in a "fishbowl"? Half agreed.

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

It's impossible to win the GOP presidential nomination without making peace with millions of evangelical Protestants.

Thus, Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University in 2012. If he ever got serious about winning the White House, team Trump knew he would need a solid faith story.

The New York billionaire told students to "work hard" and "love what they do," but raised eyebrows by urging them to "get even" when wronged, and to "get a prenuptial" before marriage. He joked about saying naughty things at Liberty.

"That remarkable speech showed what he did and didn't know" about evangelicals, said Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book "Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Conservative Christians Supported Him."

"Trump basically told Liberty students, 'Follow Jesus' and 'Shoot your enemies between the eyes.' ... He sees no conflict between those two messages."

That 2012 presentation also showed an image of young Donald on the day of his baptism, then a picture of his baptism certificate. Trump seemed to think this flash of faith would buy evangelical credibility, canceling out his Playboy appearances and interviews in which, as Mansfield wrote, his sexual conquests were "tallied like wild game bagged on safari."

The candidate who kept returning to Liberty was, of course, a grown-up edition of the boy who punched his second-grade teacher in the face, the lad whose real-estate magnate father nicknamed "killer." As a teen-ager, Trump was shaped by "The Power of Positive Thinking" sermons of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the cultural tastes of Hugh Hefner and the strict disciplines of a military academy.

But Mansfield noted Trump was also the man who couldn't bear to throw away stacks of Bibles given to him by fans, creating a Trump Tower storage room for them.

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

In Jerusalem's ancient temple of King Herod, there was an outer courtyard in which Greeks, Romans and non-Jews could gather to pray, pose questions and debate with any religious authorities willing to do so.

Whether modern clergy want to admit it or not, Facebook has turned into a "Court of the Gentiles" for two billion-plus users, said Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaking recently at Facebook headquarters near San Jose, Calif. Social media is where people air their doubts and convictions, hatreds and hopes.

Religion is often a bone of contention on Facebook, said Baron, an auxiliary bishop known for years of work online and in mass media. However, these digital faith fights rarely offer constructive arguments that produce clarity and understanding, as opposed to anger and confusion.

What the Internet needs is better arguments about religion, he said, in a talk that featured numerous lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas, but only one allusion to President Donald Trump.

"Some people say, 'Why are you encouraging people to have arguments?' By 'argument,' I mean something very positive," he said, in a talk that, logically enough, has been posted on Facebook. "If you go on much of social media -- I've been doing this now for much of the past 10 years, doing evangelization through the Internet -- you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There'll be a lot of words exchanged, often very angry ones -- a lot of energy, but very little real argument about matters religious. …

"That's a serious problem, because if we don't know how to argue about religion, all we're going to do is fight about religion."

Many Facebook combatants act like they can force other people into agreement, he said. Others "throw up their hands" and assume it's impossible to make progress when dealing with religion. True arguments take place in the middle, among people who believe faith and reason can work together.