A recent National Public Radio story says that President-elect Obama will stop allowing Christian organizations that receive federal money for benevolent work to hire only Christians. The Bush administration allowed participants in the faith-based initiatives program an exemption from federal hiring practices so they can maintain the integrity of their own faith. The story went on to center the upcoming controversy on “intensively religious organizations,” an obvious reference to organizations that not only hand out a cup of cool water but also do it in Jesus’ name. I wonder if anyone would really own the term “casually religious” to distinguish himself from the rest of us.
The idea prompts a couple of responses. First, and I confess I’ve said this before on this page, our culture is truly confused about the concepts of faith and religion. Some will base their agreement with the possible Obama administration policy on the principle of separation of church and state. Remember what the First Amendment actually says, though. If the government gives a ministry based in a Baptist church money for food that will be distributed to the poor, and if volunteers also share the gospel as they have opportunity, how does that become the establishment of religion in the eyes of some? The church has done something very much in the public interest and they have also lived out the faith portion of their own values. Under the new proposal, we’d have churches choosing between help with hunger initiatives or their commission?no choice at all.
Why would our constitution even worry about government establishment of religion if the founders saw “religion” as a term divorced from any spiritual truth? Without the gospel, we’re the Red Cross or some other benevolent organization. The constitution nowhere forbids government establishment of benevolent organizations. In our day, the difference between acceptable religion and spooky fundamentalism is often simply the gospel. To us, it’s the difference between our faith and not our faith.
Secondly, I’d respond that the change in government policy would be hypocritical. If a Christian church or organization does exactly what it promises with federal money and also preaches the gospel, they’ve done something offensive to those unafraid to legislate their biases. What if another organization does something legal but even more morally questionable than evangelism, and takes federal money to cover the operational costs that enable this legal and reprehensible activity? What if my tax money is being used to support such a godless and anti-family group? Could there be something even worse than feeding, clothing, and teaching people in Jesus’ name?
Of course I’m talking about Planned Parenthood. This not-for-profit organization, conceived in insidious racism and dedicated to the proposition that all behaviors are created equal, raked in a billion dollars during the last year reported, nearly a third of it ($305 million) came from government funds?that’s an 11% surplus (since we can’t call it profit) for fiscal 2005-2006. If the breathless expectations of abortion profiteers and lobbyists come to reality, even the inadequate rules against abortion businesses using federal money to perform abortions will be removed during the next administration.
Theoretically, the federal money is for the support of non-lethal birth control and sex education provided by Planned Parenthood. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that buildings, utilities, employees, marketing, and other things are not so easily split in reality. Public money in one part of their work enables other parts. The nation’s largest abortion provider is not a big fan of abstinence-based sex education, by the way. The Bush administration funded abstinence-based sex education done by other groups; the Obama administration will likely remove this funding. That would be another win for Planned Parenthood.
Given the choice between hiring those who don’t share their mission (or are even hostile to it) and losing federal money, intensively religious organizations will look elsewhere for money. People who would have otherwise received food, clothing, tutoring, and selfless love will have to seek help elsewhere.
Given the choice between an annual federal abortion bailout and?wait a minute, Planned Parenthood doesn’t have to make a choice at all. They get to have it both ways. 2009 might even be a better year for this business (sorry, I mean “not for profit”) than 2008. I wonder how many other organizations, even truly benevolent ones, will be able to say that.
As Baptists, we should be very suspicious of the phrase “we’re from the government; we’re here to help.” Federal help for those who meet physical needs in Jesus name sounds like a fine idea but no government can long resist the urge to meddle and control. When administrations or margins in the Congress turn over, so do definitions of “help,” “meddle,” and “control.” Many Baptists say this every time someone offers to help us do what God has given us to do. This next year will prove us right in any number of ways. Having said that, it shouldn’t be that way. If a genuinely Christian group is doing something in the public interest because they believe that God loves people, no government body should be interested in their motive or theology. Bureaucracy can only judge actions. Help us, don’t help us, but don’t tell us what or if we can preach unless we are advocating violent or illegal activity.
Going to what the CIA states as the “poorest country in the world” was both a challenging and a rewarding experience. But more than anything else, this mission trip was a learning experience.
On Oct. 1, nine members of Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler left for Malawi, Africa, on a 12-day trip in which the round-trip travel time alone would take 74 hours. The team was led by Tyler businessman and church member Bill Langley, who had been to the country on two previous mission trips.
The goal was to have teams go to more than 100 locations in and around Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, distributing Bibles and soccer balls to schools by day and showing the Jesus film in villages by night.
The country, most famous recently due to rock star Madonna’s frequent visits and documentary film, is located just east of Zambia and was one of the countries visited by famed Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone in the mid 1800s. Slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, this land-locked country has over 14 million people, more than half of whom are younger than 16 years of age. The life expectancy at birth is only 43 years.
Public schools were just as inviting and open as the private Christian schools to hear Americans share the gospel and give AIDS awareness presentations. In all, the teams distributed approximately 3,500 Bibles and 180 soccer balls at 60 schools.
At night, the Jesus film was shown at 33 locations with a peak attendance of more
than 4,000 people at one location. That site was where a new church was formed the following Sunday. A conservative estimate was that more than 25,000 indicated they had prayed to receive Christ during the week’s worth of evangelistic efforts.
Local pastor Emmanuel Chinkwita-Phiri and his wife Lydia helped coordinate the mission trip including getting translators who were mostly seminary students from the Baptist Seminary of Malawi. The seminary is staffed in part with missionaries from the International Mission Board, which also assists with a portion of the administration of the school. Local pastors went with the Americans, allowing the people who came to make immediate connections with local churches.
“Abusa Emmanuel” also made arrangements for schools, contracting the Jesus film and equipment, and purchased the Bibles with funds provided prior to the team’s arrival. The men of the team also preached Sunday morning worship services and the women gave presentations during the week at schools.
Many of the seminary students who are seeking to become pastors do so at great financial peril. The average income per person in Malawi is just over $600 a year.
AIDS prevalence among the adults is moderate compared with other African countries, but still is a staggering 14 percent of the population. Newspaper obituaries are predominated by those in their 20s and early 30s and also children, while rarely do the obituaries describe someone over 50.
Until recently, Malawi had severe food shortages due to prolonged droughts, interspersed with mammoth amounts of rains, which would be almost as devastating to the crops as the lack of rain. A recent program by the government to distribute fertilizer to the people, along with more cooperative weather, has reversed the food shortage and actually allowed Malawi to be an exporter of grain last year.
With such dismal news, the people are amazingly joyful, especially the children. The people generally have a high regard for Americans. One interpreter credited Christian missionaries, who have helped the struggling country over the past decades, for forming a positive attitude towards Americans. And as the results indicate, they are extremely receptive to the gospel.
The trip did not come without a major setback. Team leader Bill Langley tripped and fell early on a Sunday morning, breaking his hip. He and his wife and another team member had to be air-flighted to South Africa, where he had a full hip replacement before he could return to the United States, nearly two weeks later.
Because the trip was not officially coordinated with the International Mission Board, the team did not get travel insurance, which is required in all IMB-related mission trips. That lesson learned the hard way is a very important one for all short-term mission groups to know, Langley said.
The insurance offered by the official carrier for the IMB provides medical, accidental death, medical evacuation, disability and many other benefits. The cost is only dollars per day, but is absolutely vital should the need arise.
HOUSTON–Landon Hays, son of SBTC church planters Ben and Kelli Hays, was born with a rare liver disease. And the place where the family found a remedy for Landon and experienced a call to plant a church is one and the same–Houston’s Medical Center.
Officially known as The Medical Center, the city within a city is the world’s largest concentration of medical providers, employing some 75,000 people.
“We spent the first year of Landon’s life in and out of hospitals, and we were sort of immersed in this really busy community. We were focused on our child surviving,” Ben Hays told the TEXAN.
As God called the Hays into planting a church, the couple wondered, “How does the traditional church connect with the lives of people like this?”
Noting that the thousands of medical employees work long, hard hours, Ben remarked, “These young professionals need for the body of Christ to be a part of their lives, but they don’t have the time and energy to search in the suburbs for a church.”
Digging deeper into resources at the Union Baptist Association of Houston, Ben discovered that people in The Medical Center area are largely unreached with the gospel, and also comprise the lowest percentage of born-again believers in Houston.
“The bottom line is a whole lot of people who aren’t connected with the body of Christ. Many of them do great humanitarian things with their lives, but haven’t had the opportunity to connect to a community of faith,” Ben said. “I started feeling that call two years ago.”
Unable to ignore the call of God to plant a church, or the spiritual needs of the community that brought physical healing to their son, Ben and Kelli moved to Houston from the East Texas town of Henderson last June and began meeting each week with a core of 12 people. Now numbering 40 and meeting in rented facilities, The Church in the Center is on its way.
“We want to put the church in the footpath of those living and working in this community. That’s why our worship space is walking distance from the rail line. And it’s also why we started our Lunch Break Fellowship.”
Every Tuesday, the church provides lunch for medical workers and Ben offers devotional thoughts.
Early on, Ben asked founding members to jot down their answers to a question he posed–“What do we dream of becoming?”
The partial, random list below reveals they wanted to be a church:
>that saturates the community with the gospel;
>where great missionaries are born;
>where people come because they truly want to follow Christ;
>committed to serving the city for the sake of God’s glory;
>that sends missions teams around the world;
>that reaches the intellectual through apologetics, and marries the mind and faith;
>known for their love of God and for his people;
>that prays fervently and has the power of God resting upon them;
>that puts feet to the gospel by feeding the hungry and poor;
>that represents people from all nations of the world.
Ethnic diversity is topmost on Ben’s heart. He knows that internationals who work and live in or visit the Medical Center area have strong ties to their homelands, and he sees them as potential missionaries.
“This is one of the most diverse places I have ever seen anywhere,” he noted. “Literally, you can pick a country, and workers are here from virtually every nation under heaven,” Ben said, drawing a comparison to Jerusalem as described in Acts 2:5: “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.”
“We see that exact same opportunity here,” he said, “So far, we’ve met and invited people to church from Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Greece, China, Korea, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Libya, Kazakhstan, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Colombia and the Philippines.
“These are the people we’ve met, seen their faces and said, ‘You’re welcome at The Church in the Center.’”
At a church-sponsored fall festival, one woman from the church gave a Bible to another from India who’d never heard the name Jesus. At a similar event, two men from the church taught a man from China how, for the first time, to pronounce the name Jesus.
“The opportunity to share with those who’ve never heard is not rare in this area, and it’s very close to our hearts to share with those who’ve never heard the gospel,” Ben said.
Describing the church as “people-centric, not building-centric,” Ben noted that church ministry doesn’t require asking locals to come to a church building.
“Instead, we call on our people to go out of our assembly into the community to do ministry on the street level. All the ministry we’ve done has been on public property.”
It didn’t take long for the new church’s list of dreams to put them in line of duty as Hurricane Ike arrived just days before the church’s proposed, and subsequently postponed, launch date: Sept. 21.
Rescheduling the launch date to Oct. 5, Ben led the congregation in disaster relief by volunteering at the Houston Food Bank. The young church also gave the entirety of its first offering to the SBTC Disaster Relief efforts toward Hurricane Ike.
“We wanted our first offering to be a response to the community, and to define our missional DNA in an outward way,” Ben said.
With regard to subsequent ministry in the community, Ben said, “Not only do we meet felt needs, we invite unchurched people to experience first-hand what the body of Christ really is about in terms of sharing the love of God in practical ways.” After every community service ministry, “we have new people visit, some of whom did not go to church anywhere,” he added.
Ben cited gratitude for the SBTC, “an incredible partner, supporting us well financially, and through accountability, encouragement, and networking. We would not feel adequately equipped without them,” he said.
“Ben is the perfect church planter for planting such an unusual church,” said Barry Calhoun, SBTC church planting team leader. “He has the passion, the vision, and the missionary mindset necessary to meet the challenges of planting a multi-venue, multi-ethic, urban church, and an uncommon work ethic. He is willing to do whatever it takes to reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Ben also cites as a major contributor to his missions vision his father, Steve, who started Fellowship Baptist Church, Nederland, with 13 people and was pastor there 42 years.
“I grew up in the home of a missions-minded pastor who traveled the world on missions. Dad was a visionary leader.”
“I also want to credit my sending church, Emmanuel Baptist Church of Henderson, and Pastor Mike Simpson. EBC believed in my vision to plant a church in Houston from early on and were an exemplary sending church in every way. Not only have they sent us out with their blessing and prayers, much like the Antioch church, they are supporting us financially as well,” Ben said. “But the most powerful testimony of all was that they allowed me a four-month window of time to work in Houston—half of the week every week—on networking and developing my core group, while staying on staff and full salary back there at EBC.”
Ben added: “God has been wonderful and shown himself strong. This area has great potential for God to do something special. It’s a community of great hope where families from all over the world from all walks of life look for help, healing and wholeness. It’s also a beautiful context in which a very caring church could emerge.”
The SBTC is offering a leadership development course to help pastors lead their congregations to minister within their church’s cultural context.
Called Z-Leader, the course includes a 12-week online study and a personal coach who will interact periodically with the pastor “to help him understand his ‘glocal’ context”?a blending of a missions focus that is local and global, explained SBTC Church Ministries Associate Kenneth Priest.
The 12-unit course uses the book “Breaking the Missional Code” by Ed Stetzer and David Putnam. Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research.
“Ultimately, the end goal is for the pastor to become his own specialist and for him to have a better understanding of the ministry context God has placed him in,” Priest said.
Noting that about 76 percent of Southern Baptist churches have one staff member?the pastor?Priest said these pastors “don’t have a minister of education helping them develop this strategy. And so this is them getting expert in the field of Christian education, so to speak, to develop the strategy that they might need.”
Begun as a part of the SBTC’s Ezekiel Project for plateaued or declining churches, Z-Leader has transitioned into a program for all pastors.
“The overarching summation of the book is helping a pastor-minister understand his community context, to get him to think critically about where they are as a church and what God has them doing as well as to think intentionally and strategically,” Priest said.
“For example, you can’t take a Purpose-Driven model from Rick Warren in the Los Angeles area and apply it to rural Texas,” Priest noted. “The book encourages the church leader to find churches that are being successful in similar cultural contexts. They may not be in the same state as you are, but understand who is being successful in a similar community context and see what they are doing and how it compares to where you are.”
“Ideally, the coach is coming in as they are beginning the online study and helping them through the process of the online study, if the pastor wants it,” Priest said.
“Some guys don’t want the coaching. They feel great about where they are, but they want the online study because it is helping them develop a ministry strategy.”
The course is free to SBTC pastors.
David Putnam, co-author of “Breaking the Missional Code,” will be a guest at the preconference breakout sessions of the SBTC Church Leadership Conference on Aug. 14 at First Baptist Church, Forney. The full conference is Aug. 15 at FBC Forney.
If interested in learning more about Z-Leader, e-mail Kenneth Priest at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in the Ezekiel Project church revitalization ministry may e-mail SBTC Church Ministries Director Jim Wolfe at email@example.com. Both men may also be reached at the SBTC office toll-free at 877-953-7282 (SBTC).
A relief effort funded partly by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in Burma (also called Myanmar) has resulted in the construction or repair of 15 Baptist churches, about 70 fishing boats and nets purchased for villagers, and discipleship training for dozens of pastors and laymen.
A Burmese citizen helping with relief efforts told the Southern Baptist TEXAN the work there following Cyclone Nargis, which killed nearly 150,000 people last May, was progressing.
The SBTC first sent aid to the Southeast Asian country last summer and again this fall. Baptist Global Relief has also done relief work in the country since the cyclone.
Some small coastal villages in the country were destroyed, while others have regrouped with help from relief agencies overseen by the military controlled, Buddhist-dominated government.
In addition to fishing boats and rebuilding churches, the $10,000 SBTC churches provided helped rebuild some straw huts and provided push tractors for farmers.
“Materially, physically, they are doing quite well,” the relief worker said. “The most important thing right now is spiritual needs.”
With help from a Burmese business owner who became a Christian eight months ago, Baptists working in Burma were able to offer evangelism and discipleship training in several cities, drawing interest even from pastors of liberal churches, some of whom were receptive to hearing the gospel for the first time.
In fact, the relief worker told the TEXAN that from Dec. 4-14, about 45 young people, mostly from liberal churches, went through a basic Bible doctrines class that covered sin, salvation, the doctrine of God, and other basic fundamentals of the faith at the urging of a pastor who gained assurance of his salvation after he was asked if he knew where he would spend eternity.
“We helped him understand assurance of salvation,” the Burmese worker said. Consequently, the man has set a new course in his ministry.
Bibles may be distributed legally only in churches, and 150 were given away to Burmese citizens. The business owner also purchased 50 of the 70 fishing boats and funded evangelistic work throughout the coastal areas, the worker said.
“We have planted two churches” with help from the business owner, who is very wealthy and wants to do more to spread the gospel, the relief worker said.
“God has so many people. We just don’t know how many he has. His provisions, protections?the power of God is incredible.”