Southern Baptist Convention

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

During her years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April C. Armstrong kept a journal of her experiences as one of the few women earning a Master of Arts in Theology.

There were scary moments with a Master of Divinity student who was preparing for ordination as a youth minister. When she rebuffed his advances, he claimed that, as part of the security team, he had keys to all doors on the Fort Worth campus. He added, "I know where you live."

Armstrong was at Southwestern from 2004-2007 and, during that time, saw the last female professor exit the School of Theology. In one class, a male student quipped that "sophia" -- Greek for "wisdom" -- shouldn't be a feminine word because "no woman is wise." Then there was the chapel service in which a young woman sang a solo, inspiring President Paige Patterson to note that it was good that her skirt went to her ankles, since that would help men avoid the temptation of staring at her body.

"I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed NO ONE was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career," she wrote, at her #SBCToo website.

Armstrong, who later earned a Princeton University doctorate, added: "The best thing SWBTS did for me ... was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger."

Anger is timely, along with grief, as waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo messages about sexual abuse and domestic violence have triggered a series of stunning headlines. Most have been linked to the work of Patterson, a hero on the right because of his leadership in the conservative blitz that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Now, Patterson has been pushed into retirement, and beyond, after news about sermons in which he critiqued a teen-aged girl's body and, on another occasion, knocked female seminary students who weren't striving hard enough to be attractive. An old recording from 2000 -- when Patterson led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary -- led to renewed debate about his advice to an abused wife to stay with her husband, offering prayer and submission rather than seeking legal help.

Finally, The Washington Post reported that a Southeastern student claimed she had been raped by a seminarian, but Patterson advised her not to report this to police.

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."

Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.

Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.

"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.

"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."

There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.

"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.

But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.

"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.

Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.

"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.

"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."

There's nowhere to turn? When hurting people believe they have to flee the pews

In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.

"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."

The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.

For Southern Baptists, Mayberry is now officially dead

When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.

Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public and men didn't chew at church or in funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.

So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady and propped his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.

Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."

In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.

"For a long time … in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."

Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.

Crash course in how to offend visitors to your church

For generations this greeting was included in the announcements during Sunday services in the typical American church.

The pastor or another leader would cheerfully say how glad the homefolks were to have visitors in their midst and ask newcomers to stand and be recognized. Members might even point at guests, to make sure they were spotted. Visitors would then be asked to share their names, where they were from and perhaps even why they were visiting.

A friendly gesture to help guests feel welcome or a sure-fire way to freak out introverted people who may have struggled with the decision to visit a pew?

"This is one of those things that truly divides people into two groups, depending on their personalities," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville. Before that, he was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"Some see this as a sincere gesture of fellowship," he said. But for others "anything this overt may make them feel uncomfortable or even pressured."

At some point, some churches tweaked this rite and, rather than asking visitors to stand, asked members to rise -- while guests remained seated.

Rainer laughed, and added: "Now the poor visitor is surrounded and singled out even more. It's like they're in a spotlight. … They don't even get to mingle with others on their own terms, like normal people."

Dark (porn) secrets in modern sanctuaries

At some point before 35-year-old Jesse Ryan Loskarn hanged himself in his parents' home outside Baltimore, he wrote a painful letter soaked in shame and self-loathing in which he attempted to explain the unexplainable. The former chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) had lived a secret life, hiding memories of child abuse and his addiction to child pornography. Even as U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents used a battering ram to enter his house, it appeared that he was trying to hide an external hard drive -- containing hundreds of videos -- on a ledge outside a window.

"Everyone wants to know why," he wrote, in a Jan. 23 letter posted online by Gay Loskarn, his mother.

"I've asked God. I've asked myself. I've talked with clergy and counselors and psychiatrists. I spent five days on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward at the D.C. jail, fixated on the 'why' and 'how' questions: why did I do this and how can I kill myself? ... There seem to be many answers and none at all."

Shock waves from these tragic events were still rippling through closed-door gatherings of Beltway insiders this week when the Rev. Jay Dennis came to Washington, D.C., for meetings linked to the Join One Million Men anti-pornography initiative approved last summer by the nearly 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. Associates who thought they knew Loskarn were, of course, shocked by the details of his terrible secrets.

"Secrets always have power. ... Here was a secret that literally put this man in chains," said Dennis, the veteran pastor at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla. "People are still grieving, of course. They are shocked and in a state of disbelief. ...

"When I read that letter, there were many words and phrases that sounded familiar. There are so many men in our churches that are having some of those same feelings of shame and guilt and hopelessness. They are suffering in silence and they're afraid to talk about what they are doing."

Obviously, he stressed, Loskarn's involvement with child pornography raised criminal issues that are far more serious than the lusts and lies that threaten relationships at the heart of many Christian marriages and homes. Any pastor who sees evidence of abuse and child pornography must immediately appeal to professional counselors and to legal authorities, he said.

In some cases, legal pornography can lead to sexual addictions that require professional intervention. Also, he said, clergy now work in an age in which many children are exposed to online pornography by the age of 10 or 11. Often the initial exposures occur accidentally, a form of digital abuse that can leave children shocked and ashamed and terrified to turn to anyone for help.

"What ties all of this together is silence," said Dennis. "We have resources to help people with these issues and those resources will only get better. .... But nothing really matters if our pastors and our people remain silent and refuse to take this issue seriously. At some point, we have to talk about pornography in our pulpits and pews."

Three years ago, a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 American pastors about the impact of pornography yielded one very disturbing statistic, he noted. While 69 percent of the pastors agreed that pornography has "adversely affected the lives of our church members," a solid majority -- 62 percent -- thought that 10 percent or less of the men in their flocks were exposed to pornography on a weekly basis.

"To be blunt, that number is too low to be real," said Dennis. "I'm convinced that some of our pastors are not facing the facts about the dark side of life in this day and age. ... There are men and women out there who are hiding dark secrets and they feel alone and afraid. "

Many, he said, would identify with key passages in the Loskarn letter.

Consider these words, for example: "Today the memories fly at me whenever they choose. They're the first thing I see when I wake and the last thing I think about before falling asleep. I am not in control of anything anymore, not even my own memories. It's terrifying. ... To those who choose to sever all ties with me, I don't blame you. No one wants to think or talk about this."