Month: February 2017

REVIEW: Is “The Space Between Us” OK for kids?

Gardner Elliot is a smart and inquisitive 16-year-old teenager who has but one goal in life: to be normal. He’s never ridden in a car, gone to school, or even talked to a girl. In fact, only a few people on Earth know he exists.

Gardner is the universe’s first true Martian, having been born on the red planet shortly after his unmarried astronaut mom—who died during delivery—landed there. All total, he’s met about a dozen people during his life.

But Gardner doesn’t want to stay on Mars. He wants to travel to Earth, begin an ordinary life, and meet the girl he’s been chatting with online.   

It’s all part of the new movie The Space Between Us (PG-13), a science fiction romance that opens this weekend and—depending on your perspective—is either one of the most creative storylines of the young year or one of the goofiest.

Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo) plays Gardner while Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, The Longest Ride) stars as his girlfriend, Tulsa.

Gardner’s trip to Earth is complicated by two factors. First, the American public doesn’t know he exists. That’s because NASA and its private partner, Genesis, covered up his birth so as not to jeopardize the mission. (His mom didn’t know she was pregnant when she left Earth.) Second, doctors are unsure Gardner can survive on our planet due to its heavier gravity. (His bones and organs would be at risk.)

Eventually, Gardner does convince everyone to let him board a rocket to Earth, sparking a romance and then a search for his father that has elements of E.T. mixed in for laughs. But is The Space Between Us family-friendly? Let’s take a look.   

The Good

Gardner has an innocent, kid-like love of our planet that all of us, particularly Christians, should have. Tears swell in his eyes as he approaches Earth and witnesses, for the first time, oceans, clouds, lightning and the Northern Lights. When he lands on Earth he says in amazement, “There’s water everywhere!” Upon seeing blue skies and green trees he adds, “There’s so many colors!” He asks anyone who will listen to him, “What’s your favorite thing about Earth?” And when it rains, he excitedly plays in it.

Gardner’s passion for the planet even impacts Tulsa, who has hopped from foster home to foster home and acknowledges she hates most people in her life.

The Space Between Us also has a pro-life message, and it’s not subtle. Gardner’s mom chose to give birth despite the problems a baby would create, and we even see a sonogram image and hear a heartbeat. No, abortion isn’t mentioned, but she could have terminated the pregnancy at some point, and the public never would have known. The head of Genesis even delivers a pro-life message, post-birth, when a scientist suggests the baby be sent back to Earth to learn if it could survive space travel. “This isn’t a mouse! This isn’t a monkey!” the Genesis official shouts.

Finally, The Space Between Us delivers some amazing scenic beauty—fall in Colorado, anyone?—that nicely accompanies its Earth-is-beautiful message.

The Bad

The central storyline in The Space Between Us is solid, and it’s not hard to imagine an Oscar-quality film being made about a kid, born on Mars, traveling to Earth. But this film is light years away from the Academy Awards. During its best moments, it’s sort of funny and borderline OK. At its worst moments, it’s dull. Picture an average Nickelodeon movie, and you’ve got The Space Between Us.        

Of course, movies don’t have to be high quality for kids to enjoy them, but this one sadly falls short of full family-friendly status due to content problems.

The romance between Gardner and Tulsa begins innocently enough with a hand on a knee and a kiss, but then dives into PG-13 status when they sleep together, nude, in a sleeping bag under the New Mexico sky. We only see shoulders and another kiss on the lips, but sex is strongly implied. It spoils what otherwise would be a somewhat clean high school romance flick.

Tulsa also steals at least three vehicles during the movie with no repercussions.

There is no violence, although it does include nine coarse words of varying offense: a– (3), suck (3), crap (1), OMG (1) and di– (1).

The Worldview

Although God isn’t mentioned in The Space Between Us, Gardner’s perspective on Earth is worth copying. How many times have we had a ho-hum attitude about a beautiful sunset or a gorgeous rainbow? Our view should be that of the Psalmist in Psalm 104:24: “How countless are Your works, Lord!”

The Verdict: Family-Friendly?

Even without the content concerns, most young children, likely mine included, would be bored watching The Space Between Us. But those content problems can’t be ignored. It is sad that Hollywood has, once again, implied that all teens have sex. They don’t. We just need more movies affirming that.

Discussion Questions

Do you agree with the scientists’ decision to cover up Gardner’s birth? Why did Gardner have a different perspective on Earth than everyone else? Should our perspective about Earth and creation be more like his? (Why or why not?) Why was Tulsa so bitter about life? What would you have told her? Was Tulsa’s stealing of cars morally OK? Why was it wrong for Gardner and Tulsa to sleep together? Is sex a good or bad thing? What does Scripture say?  

The Space Between Us is rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language.

Entertainment rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Seminary program deploys inmate ministers across Texas

HUNTSVILLE—“I’ve been in prison before,” Michael Rios humbly reflects. “I came in when I was very young. I had the right ideas, I had the right intents: get out, get married, have a life.”

Dressed in a white prison uniform, Rios speaks slowly but directly, his tattooed hands gesturing to accentuate his points. He has been in prison longer than some of his fellow inmates have even been alive. Though Rios had the “right intents,” bad choices have kept him locked up, and he is currently serving a life sentence.

A sense of weariness can be detected in his voice, but curiously, it is overshadowed by a much stronger sentiment: hope. His years behind bars afford him unique insight into prison life, which opens doors for him to provide other inmates exhortations of eternal value.

“I see a lot of myself in these guys,” Rios says. “They want to go home, but if they have no foundation in God, they’re going to fail. … God gave me a chance and I failed, so I try to reach out to others so they won’t fail.”

Rios serves as one of four “field ministers” at Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Deployed from Darrington Unit in Rosharon, these ministers are graduates of Southwestern Seminary’s undergraduate prison program, which equips life-sentence inmates with a theological education and sends them to other prisons across the state so that they may invest their lives in the inmates in those locations. They go forth as prophets of hope, preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins through the blood of the Savior who loved them, died in their place and is now alive and highly exalted, offering eternal life to all who put their faith in him. In short, these ministers know that what those inside the prison walls need more than anything else is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We weren’t born to live in this box. We were born to be fathers, husbands, leaders and servants in our community.” 

Michael Rios, Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas

“We weren’t born to live in this box,” Rios declares in his common counsel to fellow inmates. “We were born to be fathers, husbands, leaders and servants in our community.

“You’ve made maybe 3,000 decisions to get you over here. All you have to do is make that one decision to help you get out, which is [to follow] Christ.”

Southwestern launched its Darrington extension program in 2011, and Rios, along with fellow Estelle field ministers Raymond Ramirez and Michael Ryan, was part of the inaugural class. This first class of 33 inmates graduated in May 2015 with Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies degrees. An additional 33 inmates—among them Billy Jones, Estelle’s fourth minister—graduated the following year. These 66 men have since been deployed to various units, which they view as mission fields.

All four of Estelle’s ministers surrendered their lives to the Lord while in prison and attest that Southwestern impacted them greatly. “It really has taken me out of my shell,” Rios says. “It’s molded me and shaped me to be what God wants me to be.”

Ramirez adds, “A lot of my questions were answered. And that has impacted me so much that it has given me a desire to teach, to pass on what I’ve received. So now, that’s actually what I’m doing. I’m doing a lot of mentoring, a lot of discipling, a lot of teaching.”

Since arriving at Estelle, the four ministers have each set about passing on what God has entrusted to them. Ramirez learned sign language in four months in order to minister to the prison’s deaf community. (He is often asked how he managed to accomplish such a feat, and his response is simply, “Man, I don’t know. I’m freaking out about it myself.”)

Ramirez also works with the unit’s Spanish community and runs a “mini-seminary” within the English-speaking community, walking his students through a theological curriculum he himself wrote based on his seminary education. The experience is complete with exams, quizzes, book reviews and presentations.

Rios, meanwhile, has become the guards’ go-to counselor for inmates in need, even gaining access to the high-security wing of the prison; Ryan leads Bible studies and does room visitations in the medical facility; and Jones “tier walks” the north end of the prison, walking from cell to cell and engaging inmates in conversation. He also counsels and teaches a discipleship class, covering such topics as biblical history, text criticism and evangelism.

Through the course of their ministry, these men have found that simply being there for the inmates and assuring them that they are loved can reduce even the most hardened criminals to tears. The experience of having such people open up and share their deep, intimate thoughts has led Rios to conclude that “it has to be God doing these things.”

Ryan continues, “People over here really need somebody. So God didn’t just put me over here and give me this education for no reason; He gave it to me not just for the knowledge, but so I can go be available for somebody.”

Chris Carter, senior warden at Estelle, says the efforts of these ministers have transformed the culture of the prison. A basketball tournament this fall, for example, saw people of every race participate, and there were no fights or issues of any kind. Previously, the warden says, these inmates would have been unwilling to stay in the same room with one another, but because of the field ministers’ influence, they not only had fun together during the tournament, but in between periods of play, they all prayed together.

“When you introduce God into a culture, they stop fighting; the aggression goes away. They start looking for ways to build each other up as brothers. They don’t look at each other as enemies anymore.”

Chris Carter, senior warden at Estelle

“When you introduce God into a culture, they stop fighting; the aggression goes away,” Carter says. “They start looking for ways to build each other up as brothers. They don’t look at each other as enemies anymore.”

In line with this changing of culture, the ministers have begun to observe an eagerness in their disciples to make disciples of their own. After teaching his class an evangelism method called the “3 Circles Life Conversation Guide,” Jones witnessed one of his students approach a member of a gang known as “the Aryan Circle.”

The student asked if the gang member had ever heard of “the three circles.” Intrigued simply because of the word “circle,” which he assumed related to his gang in some way, the gang member said “no” and then inquired about them.

“And so the [student] was able to present the gospel using the three circles to him, and now the [gang member] comes to church every Sunday,” Jones says. He joyously reflects, “That [evangelism method] was something that I taught the guy.”

Similarly, Rios is often told, “I want to do what you do. You need to go ask the warden if I can get a [security pass] and just come walk with you.”

Although honoring such a request may not be possible, Rios nevertheless affirms the sentiment. “That’s one thing I try to do—encourage them to seek the gifts that God gave them,” he says. “And I try to help them grow and become good servants and good leaders and just stay humble.”

A key verse for all the ministers is 2 Timothy 2:2, which says, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In light of this exhortation, the ministers use their unique skills, backgrounds and interests in order to teach, counsel, evangelize, disciple and love those whom society has more or less written off. And the recipients of this ministry, in turn, set out to do the same.

“I believe that by helping them instill the [the values and principles from the Bible] in themselves, they can accomplish what I’ve accomplished, but even beyond me,” Ramirez says. “They can accomplish more than I even have because that’s what the Bible is able to do.” 

—This article first appeared in Southwestern News magazine.

Anxious Mom, Sovereign God

I was sitting on the conveyor belt in the baggage claim area of the airport in Jackson, Miss., when the tornadoes came through last fall. The airport staff had directed us to take shelter there until the storms passed. I had already heard of the casualties in Arkansas, children who lost parents, parents who lost babies.

My own mother, meanwhile, was on the road somewhere in the storm trying to get home. As I sat there in the darkness, the familiar emotions of fear and worry gripped me. Immediately, though, I also felt God’s presence and his reassurance that “I am with you and will never leave you. I love you and the people you love, and I have a perfect plan for each of your lives.”

This was not the first time these emotions have swept over me. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even the thousandth time. Amid times of anxiety, God’s sweet voice of reassurance is a tune I have come to know and claim as truth in my life. I struggled with fear and worry some as a child, much like other kids my age. I was scared of the house catching fire or snakes being in my bed.

However, it was not until I became a mother myself that I experienced unchained anxiety.

Once I saw the positive pregnancy test, I instantly felt responsible for a life other than my own. After our first daughter was born, fear would overwhelm me as I was giving her a bath or rocking her in my arms. Some days I knew that most of my fears were irrational.

However, other days I allowed myself to fully take in a diet of worry. On those days, my joy was lost. My thoughts of what “could” happen tumbled out of control if I was not careful. The Lord blessed us with more children, and with each one the feeling of fear and anxiety continued like old, worn jeans that you know you should throw out but keep around for comfort’s sake.

“What if I wasn’t paying attention and something happened to them?”

“What if I didn’t feed them the right things?”

“What if I didn’t do the right things to protect them?”

“What if we didn’t have the right toys/equipment/safety devices for them?”

At various points in time, all of these questions haunted me. However, I began to realize that they had one common focus—me.

The more I focused on myself and my abilities, the more I saw my shortcomings and faults. However, when I took my eyes off myself and placed them on an almighty, powerful God, I began to see how the God who tends to the lilies can be trusted with all of my concerns. As my children grew, the Lord began to teach me magnificent truths that took me from a diet of anxiety and led me to the true Bread of Life where I can feast on his goodness.

God used 2 Timothy 1:7 many times to speak truth into my heart: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It is not God’s plan for us to consider ourselves crazy because we have irrational thoughts of worry. He has given us a sound mind. That means I can trust him as he leads me to make the right decisions throughout the day.

If I am in a close walk with him, he will guide my path and give me a sound mind, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation of his sovereignty.

For example, I cannot keep my children safe 100 percent of the time, but I know God loves them even more than I do and whatever he chooses to allow in their lives is for the purpose of his glory. In the same manner, I trust God for clarity of mind so that I can make the best possible decisions related to my family. I forget things. I accidentally overlook things, but by the grace of God, his sovereignty more than makes up for my faults.

I praise God that he has taught me to recognize fear, worry and anxiety in my life not as mental issues but as trust issues. The more I trust in the precious sovereignty of God, the more I am at peace with whatever he brings my way.

Melanie Lenow and her husband Evan, an ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, are parents to four children. This column first appeared at, a blog of Southwestern Seminary. 


Empower ladies session promises encouragement, challenge for gospel living

Thelma WellsLAS COLINAS—Even at age 75, Thelma Wells has a passion for seeing women of all generations take a stand for Christ. Wells, who is also known as “Mama T,” will be one of the featured speakers at the Ladies Session during this year’s Empower Conference.

Sheila Walsh

Joining Wells are Sheila Walsh and Donna Gaines. Walsh is a best-selling author and teacher from Scotland whose ministry has reached more than 5 million women internationally. In addition to writing inspirational books for women, she is an accomplished children’s book writer with her “God’s Little Princess” and “The Bible Is My Best Friend” series.

Donna Gaines

Gaines is an author, speaker and pastor’s wife. She serves as chairman of the board for the Pastors Wives’ Session of the SBC Pastors’ Conference, and her passion for the gospel has taken her on mission trips around the world. Her husband Steve serves as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis and president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Ladies Session, which takes place from 1:30-4:00 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27, at Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas, is free and open to the public. Music will be performed by Austin Stone Worship.

Comedian, songwriter Mark Lowry headlines Classics Luncheon honoring senior adults

LAS COLINAS—Well-known comedian, songwriter and vocalist Mark Lowry will be performing during the Classics Luncheon (formerly the Senior Adult Luncheon) of the Empower Conference on Monday, Feb. 27 from 11:45 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.

Lowry, who has spent more than 20 years as the baritone member of the Gaither Vocal Band, will sing Southern Gospel classics and bring his light-hearted humor to the luncheon, which kicks off this year’s evangelism conference at the Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas.

The event is open to all ages, and tickets can be purchased for $10 each at or at the door.

Following the lunch, Lowry will be joined by longtime Southern Baptist preachers Jimmy Draper, George Harris and Bailey Smith at the Classics Session, which will run from 1:30–4:00 p.m. Draper is president emeritus of LifeWay Christian Resources and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Harris served for more than 25 years as pastor of Castle Hills First Baptist Church in San Antonio and is a former president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Smith, also a former SBC president, has led evangelistic crusades around the world and is author of the best seller Real Evangelism.

Empower Conference meals to highlight Cooperative Program, marriage, senior adults, African-American and Asian fellowships

LAS COLINAS—Participants at this year’s Empower Conference will have opportunities to attend four meals designed to encourage and strengthen their love for the Lord and commitment to the gospel. Tickets can be purchased online in advance at All meals, with the exception of the Asian Ministry Fellowship, will be located at the Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas.

Asian Ministry Fellowship (FREE)
Sunday, Feb. 26, 5:30 p.m.
The Asian Ministry Fellowship will have their evangelism rally on Sunday evening at Semihan Baptist Church in Carrolton. Dinner will begin at 5:30 with worship afterwards. Craig Etheredge, pastor of FBC Colleyville will be the speaker.

Classics Luncheon (Tickets $10 each)
Monday, Feb. 27, 11:45 a.m.–1:15 p.m.
This lunch honoring senior adults is open to all ages and will feature music and entertainment by Mark Lowry.

Men and Ladies Dinner (Tickets $15 each)
Monday, Feb. 27, 4:30–6:00 p.m.
Steve and Debbie Wilson, founders of Marriage Matters Now, will share from God’s Word and their own experiences of how couples can build strong, Christ-honoring marriages.

Cooperative Program Luncheon (Tickets $15 each)
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 4:30–6:00 p.m.
The annual Cooperative Program Luncheon highlights the value of Southern Baptists’ shared funding strategy for ministry and missions and honors churches who have excelled in their generous giving. Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, will be the featured speaker at the lunch.

African-American Fellowship Dinner (Tickets $15 each)
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 4:45–6:15 p.m.
The SBTC African-American Fellowship Dinner will be a time of worship and fellowship as churches are recognized for their ministries. Johnnie Bradley, pastor of the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, will be the guest speaker.

Online meal and event registration will close Monday, Feb. 22, at noon. All remaining tickets will be sold at the conference on a first-come, first-served basis.

90.9 KCBI develops ‘Why’ statement, core values

DALLAS—North Texas radio station 90.9 KCBI has announced its “Why” statement and its core values. The process was open to the entire staff, and most staff members participated in developing the statement and in determining the ministry’s core values.

“The last few years have been nothing short of remarkable, as God has assembled a passionate, results-based team and guided us to a deep understanding of his work through this ministry,” said KCBI General Manager Matt Austin. “I believe that work is clearly defined by the ‘Why’ of KCBI and our newly-established core values.”

The “Why” statement reads, “We believe KCBI is a movement of God to communicate the Good News of Jesus’ love and transforming power.”

The Core Values are:

  • Bible-Minded (what we care most about): God’s Word is our guide as we communicate its truth in everything we do and say.
  • Local (where we work): We serve the people of North Texas through gospel-centered community assistance, outreach and conversation.
  • Authentic (the way we communicate): We express our personal faith and failures in heartfelt, connective and transparent ways.
  • Intentional (how we do our work): We are purposeful in every decision and action, with a commitment to excellence and results.


The “Why” statement and core values further refine the grid under which KCBI operates, keeping the ministry true to its commitment and mission.

“Encouraging Words for Difficult Days”: Richards creates 12-week study through 1-2 Peter, Jude

GRAPEVINE—Christians throughout time have been no strangers to hardship, suffering and persecution. The pressures of life amid a hostile, secular culture can often leave believers with a sense of hopelessness. But God’s Word offers encouragement and hope in our darkest days.

This is the premise behind a new Bible study through the books of 1-2 Peter and Jude written by Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Director Jim Richards. In exploring these three New Testament letters, Richards says he is reminded that, “Turbulent times require us to fix our attention on God’s unwavering truth.”

At just under 120 pages, Encouraging Words for Difficult Days offers introductions to each book and explains passages verse by verse, explaining their meaning and offering practical applications. The book, which can be used for personal or group study, is broken into 12 chapters and can easily be used over the course of a 13-week semester. Each chapter concludes with a verse or passage for further meditation or Scripture memory.

Jimmy Draper, president emeritus of LifeWay Christian Resources, praises the book in the foreword, saying, “You will be blessed as Jim Richards unpacks these truths in a way that is positive, practical and adequate to hear and understand God’s message to all of us.”

Two free Bible Study resources are available for churches online, including a leader guide at and a free Bible study by Josh Hunt at

Individuals and churches can purchase copies of Encouraging Words for Difficult Days through and bulk orders at

For questions or more information, contact Kenneth Priest, SBTC director of convention strategies, at