A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

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 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.

Toward a theology of barbecue and, thus, community outside the pews

The year was 1902 and the faithful at Denver's Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church decided to have a fundraiser serving up some this flock's famous barbecue.

"This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes," pitmaster Columbus B. Hill told the Denver Times during the feast. "They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices."

And all the people said? "Amen." In some pews, people would shout, "Preach it!"

For many Americans -- black and white -- it's impossible to discuss their heartfelt convictions about barbecue without using religious language. There's a reason one famous book about North Carolina barbecue, published by an academic press, is entitled "Holy Smoke."

It doesn't matter whether folks are arguing about doctrinal questions at the heart of the faith, such as, "Is barbecue a noun or a verb?" or "Pork, beef or both?" It doesn't matter if true believers are arguing about what wood to burn or the percentage of vinegar God wants them to use in the sauce. Mustard? Out of the question, except in certain South Carolina zip codes.

The bottom line: there's more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers.

Life in the Methodist Minefield

The Rev. Julian Rush watched the headlines as 13 United Methodist pastors in the Pacific Northwest judged the fate of one of their colleagues.

Few, if any, facts were in dispute. The Rev. Karen Dammann was living openly in a lesbian relationship and leveled with her superiors. And everyone knew, after a generation of bitter strife, that their Book of Discipline banned "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ministry, because gay sex is "incompatible with Christian teachings."

Rush wasn't surprised by the trial and he wasn't surprised by the verdict -- not guilty.

After all, he survived a similar ecclesiastical minefield two decades ago in Colorado.

"What surprised me was the way the news reports brought it all back," said Rush, 67, who rocked the whole United Methodist Church when he left the closet in 1981. "It was spooky, like a flashback. ... I remembered that whole feeling of powerlessness and total vulnerability.

"I think that's probably a good thing. No matter how much progress we've made, we need to be reminded that things aren't settled yet."

Rush eventually retired with his clergy credentials intact. In the mid-1980s, his peers in the Rocky Mountain region twice ruled that there was "insufficient evidence" to bring the AIDS activist and former youth pastor to trial. After all, church law focused on "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals and Rush simply declined to answer questions about his sex life.

"I remember my lawyer saying, 'Make them prove it,' " said Rush, whose easy-going manner still betrays his Mississippi roots. "What were they going to do, hire a private investigator? No one wanted to do such an unseemly thing."

The Dammann jury found a similar technicality. While the Discipline says "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings," the jury ruled that it never formally, legally, makes a "declaration" of this. But the jury did find this declarative statement: "Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.''

Based on decades of experience, Rush knows what will happen next. Furious conservatives will, on April 27, arrive at the two-week national United Methodist General Conference "with their nostrils flared and breathing fire," he said. At the same time, the confidence of the church's progressive establishment will "move up a notch or two" after a much-publicized victory. Both sides will go to Pittsburgh "with their guns loaded," he said.

The Internet is buzzing with drafts of resolutions to fix the Discipline and to force the bishops to get their flocks under control. Leaders on both sides acknowledge that the evangelical, growing churches of the heartland and Bible Belt hold a clear majority. Some of their leaders will call for repentance and reform in the Pacific Northwest.

"Fact is ... we don't need anything more in the Book of Discipline. We just need folks who are willing to abide by it or enforce it," said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of the Good News renewal movement. "We could tweak and tighten, but unless folks are willing to abide by the will of General Conference, they will always find some words to parse or interpret differently."

Strangely enough, Rush basically agrees with this legal opinion. Laws cannot hide the fact that the United Methodist Church contains two radically different approaches to the faith, he said.

Traditionalists believe there is an "established," "infallible" and "permanent core of doctrine that people have to believe if they are going to be Christians," said Rush. But the "liberal side of the church sees itself as open and expansive and its doctrine, quite frankly, is not as well defined. It sees faith as a kind of process and it is constantly changing. ...

"One side knows how to lay down the law and the other side knows how to emote."

But the infighting will continue, said Rush, because everyone is afraid to push the scary button labeled "schism." That would be financially devastating.

"Everyone dances around that button," he said. "They really aren't trying to be clear and specific. They have to keep the Discipline vague enough to keep everyone in the tent. You end up with a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, but it holds things together."