Month: November 2018

REVIEW: “Creed II” is about fatherhood, not boxing

Adonis Creed is a boxer in his prime who just won the heavyweight championship. He also just got engaged.

Creed, though, isn’t happy. For 30 years he’s heard how his father—Apollo Creed—climbed to the top of the heavyweight mountain before being killed in the ring by a Russian boxer, Ivan Drago. That tragedy left Adonis fatherless and placed an emotional scar on him that’s he’s carried for life.

And now Ivan Drago’s son—the undefeated Viktor Drago—is No. 1 on the list of competitors for Creed’s championship belt.

Creed’s trainer, the legendary Rocky Balboa, doesn’t want him to fight Drago. Others share that sentiment, believing he will get killed while boxing, just like his father was.

But Adonis Creed is determined to avenge his father’s loss and to heal his emotional scars. The only question is: Will he live to tell about it?

The film Creed II (PG-13), now in theaters, continues the story that Rocky I, II, III and IV began and that the movie Creed picked up in 2015: of former champion Rocky Balboa—now older and wiser—training the son of his former friend, Apollo Creed. Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan) wins the heavyweight title early in the movie but is then faced with a choice: defend his belt against a lesser opponent or fight Viktor Drago—the stone-faced boxer who is every bit as tough as his dad. It was Ivan Drago who famously told Balboa before a fight in Rocky IV: “I must break you.”

The good news for Rocky fans is that the veteran actors and actresses are back. Sylvester Stallone plays Rocky Balboa, Dolph Lundgren returns as Ivan Drago, and Brigitte Nielsen—Ivan’s romantic interest and wife in Rocky IV—is back as Ludmilla Drago.

The best news, though, is that Creed II is more than a movie about boxing. It’s a film about fatherhood, with great messages every dad should hear.

Of course, Creed II includes quite a bit of violence and some language, too. Let’s examine the details.    

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Moderate/extreme. The movie gives us an up-close and somewhat lengthy view of three boxing matches. For the squeamish, it can be difficult to watch. Punches land squarely on jaws. Blood flies out of mouths … in slow motion. Boxers fall to the ground and struggle to get up. One boxer goes to the hospital following a match and is told he has a ruptured kidney, cracked ribs and a concussion. Later, he urinates blood.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Moderate. Adonis proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), in a touching and sweet moment. They then begin kissing and hop onto the bed. The scene lasts but a few seconds—and very little is seen—but sex is implied. It ruins an otherwise positive moment in the film.  

Coarse Language

Minimal/Moderate. About 13 coarse words: s–t (11), h–l (1), b–ch (1).

Other Positive Elements

Rocky and Adonis are decades apart, but their friendship and bond is genuine. Rocky teaches Adonis the skill of boxing, and Adonis reciprocates it by taking care of an aging Rocky, who is a widower. It is implied that Adonis has given Rocky a major financial boost—almost like a wealthy NFL star buying his parents a new home.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Adonis and Bianca discover they are pregnant before they are married. At first they are terrified—Bianca wonders how it will impact her singing career—but Adonis does the right thing in pledging his love and support for Bianca and their baby.

Life Lessons

Creed II provides several lessons. Among them: Championships and success don’t bring joy. Happiness is found in the simpler things of life. Family is preeminent. We also learn it’s never too late to be reconciled to someone.

Worldview/Application

The best movies remind us what life should be like. They celebrate the beauty in life. They inspire us. Despite its violent backdrop, Creed II does that. It is among the most pro-fatherhood films I’ve seen, with three father-centric angles: Rocky and his estranged son, Adonis and his deceased father, and Ivan Drago and his son. (Ivan is living vicariously through him, pushing him beyond his limits.) Not surprisingly, we see resolution before the credits roll. Creed II is a feel-good movie that makes you want to be a better father (Ephesians 6:4) or grandfather—perhaps even to be a father figure for the fatherless. .

“I don’t want you making the same mistakes I made,” Rocky tells Adonis, referencing the son he hasn’t spoken to in years.

Then there is the subject of boxing, a sport that divides Christians. Many sports have an element of violence, but only boxing (and its MMA and UFC cousins) make violence the sole purpose. The goal, after all, is to knock out the opponent. There is no ball, no hoop, no helmet, no goal line. But you don’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy the Rocky and Creed films. That’s because—at their core—they’re not about boxing. They’re about family and life. On those subjects, we can find agreement.

What Works

The father-centric story. The crowd and arena shots. It looks real.

What Doesn’t

Most proposals don’t end in the bedroom. It was a disappointing addition to the film.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Creed II teach us about fatherhood?
  2. What led Rocky to want to reunite with his son? Why had they become estranged?
  3. Are fathers essential in the rearing of children? What unique qualities do they provide?
  4. Is boxing ethical?

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

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.

Endure Faithfully!

Our annual meeting is now behind us. We celebrated 20 years of God’s faithfulness to us as a convention of churches. Now, what? We pray that until Jesus returns, we will continue to endure faithfully—as Christians, as church leaders, as churches, as a convention. But there will be lots of challenges, many pressures and various temptations. How will we endure faithfully?

Remember Jesus Christ | 2 Timothy 2:8

In the face of pressure from false teachers (3:1-9), while tempted by the preferences of the congregation in Ephesus (4:3-4), Paul encourages Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ”! By stating first his humanly given name (Jesus) before his title (Christ)—unusual for Paul—and by emphasizing his human lineage from David, Paul emphasizes Jesus’ humanity.

When life and ministry are hard and we’re tempted to despair, to quit, even to abandon the faith, remember that Jesus, who identified with us by taking on our flesh, also suffered, was murdered, and was buried. But he did not remain dead. He is “risen from the dead.” And because he is “the offspring of David,” he is also the promised anointed king who is now seated at the right hand of God. When Jesus suffered, he left us an example so that we may literally trace his steps
(1 Peter 2:21). But we not only “trace” Jesus’ steps into suffering and death, we also “trace” his steps into resurrection and glory. When tempted to quit, remember Jesus Christ, and endure faithfully!

Remember Paul’s Ministry | 2 Timothy 2:9-10

In the face of doubt about whether the gospel is sufficient for ministry and worth it enough to suffer for it, Paul encourages Timothy to remember his (Paul’s) ministry. Paul may be “bound in chains” in prison as a criminal for preaching the gospel, but “the word of God is not bound.” In fact, Paul wrote the Colossians while in prison, asking them to pray that the Lord would “open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). Scholars believe that Paul wrote the Philippians a few months after writing Colossians. To the Philippians, Paul reports that the Lord has answered that prayer, for “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Philippians 1:13).

When life and ministry are hard and we’re tempted to question the sufficiency of God’s Word, remember Paul’s ministry; God’s Word is not bound. It may not appear that much is happening in your church right now, but endure faithfully, preaching, teaching and hearing the Word of God! We may draw a crowd through other strategies, but the gospel is the only foundation on which Jesus is building his church.

Remember Your Union with Christ | 2 Timothy 2:11-12a

Likely feeling alone and isolated in ministry, Paul reminds Timothy that he and all Christians, are united with Christ. When we believed, our old self was crucified with Christ, and we were raised with Christ (a new self) to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-11). Already, we share in all the spiritual blessings that God has given to us “in Christ”—adoption as sons and daughters, forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ and sealing with the Holy Spirit as a downpayment of the promise of God’s eternal presence (Ephesians 1:1-14). No matter what we may face, no one can separate us from the love God has for us in Jesus Christ. And while the world may try to strip our earthly privileges and status, no one can take away our identity in Christ. In fact, all who endure faithfully will reign with Christ (2:12a).

Remember God’s Coming Judgment | 2 Timothy 2:12b-13

But, if Timothy’s faith is too weak to believe all these promises, Paul also offers a warning—“if we deny him, he will also deny us” (2:12b). The Lord Jesus uses both promises and warnings to preserve our faith. Sometimes our faith is too weak to believe all God has for us, and we’re still tempted to despair, to quit, to even abandon the faith. In those times, remember that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all who have denied him, he will deny before his Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).

However, even if we are faithless, God is faithful (2:13). He cannot deny himself. He will accomplish all his holy will and he will bring about all he has planned. Brothers and sisters, endure faithfully! God is faithful. He will sustain us. He has given us Christ; he has given us his Spirit; he has given us his Word; he has given us one another—his church. So endure faithfully and finish the race. 

Southern Baptist leaders, politicians respond to election

Texas voters showed up in record numbers for the 2018 midterms, sending mixed messages as Democrats flipped at least two Republican congressional districts—on top of the 12 seats they picked up in the Texas House—while Republicans maintained control in major statewide races.

Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz defeated challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke by less than 3 percent in one of the nation’s most hotly contested and closely watched races. When first elected to the Senate in 2012, Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Paul Sadler by a 16 percent margin. 

A member of Second Baptist Church in Houston, Cruz was outspent by O’Rourke, who set record fundraising numbers and drew national attention thanks to celebrity endorsements and his commitment to not receive donations from political action committees.

In his victory speech, Cruz thanked O’Rourke for a well-run campaign.

“I want to take a moment to congratulate Beto O’Rourke. He poured his heart into this campaign. He worked tirelessly. He’s a dad, and he took time away from his kids. Millions across this state were inspired by his campaign,” Cruz said. “But let me say to all of those who worked on his campaign, all of those who were inspired, that I am your senator as well.”

Cruz also took time to thank his wife and “best friend in the world,” Heidi, as well as his two daughters.

“In the course of this campaign [she] shouldered responsibilities at work, at home, juggling a thousand balls backward on a unicycle,” he said. “And I want to thank our girls, Caroline and Catherine. It is hard having Dad on the road all the time,” he said, “and I could not possibly be prouder of the two of you.

“It is my hope that, with the bitterness and division that we see nationally, Texas can be a model for how we can come together—disagree, yes—but with civility, respecting each other’s decency, respecting each other’s humanity, treating each other the way each of us would like to be treated,” Cruz said in conclusion. “My hope is that Texas can help lead the way to bring this country together.”

Other Southern Baptists won key elections across the state last week as well. Embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, edged out opponent Justin Nelson by just under 4 percent, the closest margin of any statewide candidate other than Cruz. 

Scott Sanford of Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen, who succeeded Paxton in the Texas House District 70 seat in 2012, and Ed Thompson of District 29, a member of Sagemont Church in Houston, were both reelected to the Texas House. Kelly Hancock, a member of The Village Church, was reelected as Texas State Senator for District 9.

In addition to the significant elections in Texas, other ballot measures in neighboring states have the potential to make an impact in the state, such as Arkansas’ passage of a proposal legalizing casino gambling in four counties. Though Paxton issued an opinion letter in 2016 declaring fantasy sports illegal, the measure has been attempted before and will most likely be brought up again in the 2019 legislative session.

According to Cindy Asmussen, ethics and religious liberty advisor to the SBTC, any legalized gambling in Texas, particularly the more likely possibility of legalizing fantasy sports, could bring with it inherent dangers.

“This bill is an expansion of gambling and is targeted to the young millennials who are constantly on an electronic device,” Asmussen said. “It will bring the casino to the home, work station, college dorm and smart phone.

“Proponents are deceitfully blurring the difference between traditional, season-long fantasy sports—which started as a hobby, form of community, and social activity—to Daily Fantasy Sports, which incorporate the three elements of gambling: consideration, chance, and prize,” she said.

Sanford expressed similar sentiments.

“Legislators often hear the appeal of those who support legalized gambling with phrases such as, ‘Let’s keep Texas money in Texas.’ Of course, we already know that legalized gambling brings more government, more crime, and more social maladies,” Sanford said. “I believe a good response to the argument is to simply ask, with all due respect to our neighboring states, ‘Do we really want to be like Louisiana and Oklahoma?’”

Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore said that, while last week’s election resulted in a divided Congress, “Our commitments as Christians remain unchanged. 

“We look forward to working with every elected official sent to D.C. as we carry out our mission bearing witness to the gospel and its implications for the public square,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press.

Sanford said that, in the wake of the election and in the lead-up to the Texas legislative session, the most important thing Southern Baptists can do is pray.

“The next legislative session will provide new opportunities and challenges for representatives across the state. One new opportunity that all Texans have today is to begin to pray for the session, and to pray for the likely new Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen. We should ask God to give Rep. Bonnen great wisdom and a smooth transition,” he said. “I would encourage Texans to pray for new opportunities to protect unborn babies, the freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, and to push aside state-sponsored secularism.” 

Texas churches prepare 11 new IMB missionaries

RICHMOND, Va. The call to serve God came at a young age for Ethan Dupree*. He answered it through military service and fell in love with a people group while on deployment. Not long after leaving the military, this same people group popped into the Texan’s life again.

Ethan and his wife, Kris*, discovered that all around them were people from Central Asia. Friendships ensued along with a desire to see unbelievers read the Word of God for the first time.

“We were able to do life in the states and learn to love them and their culture,” Ethan said. “We were sent to Central Asia as journeymen in 2015 … we rejoice to be sent back.”

The Duprees, along with nine other Texans, took part in the IMB’s Sending Celebration Nov. 14, in Richmond, Virginia. The mission board honored 42 new missionaries. The 11 missionaries from Texas could not share their real identities due to security concerns in their appointed regions. For many in this group, the passion to take the gospel to the nations was fostered by their churches.

A local church opened the eyes of Rebecca Waters* to a world much bigger than Texas as a child in Girls in Action (GAs). An “Experiencing God” class taught her how to see God at work and pray boldly, all the while learning about the world of missionaries and people groups. Then, short-term mission trips with her church opened Waters to serving in a long-term capacity.

“Years ago my pastor challenged our church to dream about where God might be calling us,” Waters said about her sending church, High Point Fellowship. “I have been living that dream for the last 14 years in the bush of Africa in search of peoples and places who have no gospel.”

Rickie and Isabell Forrest* worked closely with their church, Grace Bible Church, to pursue a calling to missions. Isabell grew up overseas where the Lord burdened her heart for the nations. Her husband, Rickie, had a passion for “all peoples to hear” about the King of kings. The church prayed them through the process and will continue as the Forrests head to the North Africa and Middle Eastern peoples.

When Robert and Mary Fields* look back at their upbringing, it’s clear to them that all of their experiences led to serving South Asian peoples. In college, Mary met people from different nations and cultures. It was on a short-term mission trip with their church when Robert felt the same nudging for the nations. Their church, Calvary Baptist Church, McAllen, and a perspectives class, fostered this to fruition.

“I discovered that the heart of poverty is often spiritual,” said Robert, adding that spiritual redemption is always God-centered and transformative.

Watching this process firsthand is what moved Casey and Layne Tucker* to work among the people of Southeast Asia. It was through participating in refugee ministries with their church, Southcliff Baptist in Fort Worth, that God fostered a burden for the lost.

Jeffrey and Susan Cartwright* took a class at Rock Creek Baptist Church, Crowley, designed to expose people to God’s heart for the nations. The class ended with a short-term trip and the couple feeling that God had called them to full-time cross-cultural ministry to the people of South Asia.

“We praise God for our church that has equipped us to serve the nations through teaching, discipling and displaying for us biblical hospitality,” Jeffrey said.

For information on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, visit imb.org/lmco

*name changed for security reasons

REVIEW: “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has heart ¦ and great messages

Ralph is a big guy with a big heart. Oh, sure, he has massive arms and a chest the size of a small car, but deep inside he’s a tender guy who only wants love – specifically from his best friend Vanellope.    

Ralph and Vanellope are video game characters who live behind the wall of Litwak’s Family Fun Center, an arcade that boasts video games from the past and present. Ralph’s day job is within the video game “Tapper,” while Vanellope works inside the game “Sugar Rush” as a racecar driver.

When a customer inserts a quarter, Ralph and Vanellope get to work, making sure the game goes as expected. Most of the time, the game goes as planned, but sometimes – as happened recently — things can go haywire.

The problem started when a wild-driving Vanellope veered off the racetrack. The customer then accidentally broke the steering wheel, rendering the Sugar Rush unit useless. To make matters worse, the Litwak’s Family Fun Center owner decided to junk the game instead of fixing it.

That’s OK, though, because Ralph has a solution. He and Vanellope will search the Internet, find a replacement steering wheel, and give the unit new life. And they’ll remain friends forever. Right?

The Disney movie Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG) opens this week, telling the story of two people who literally travel the information superhighway – through the modem and the phone line – to try and salvage a friendship and career. It is a sequel to the 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph and stars John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph, Guardians of the Galaxy) as Ralph, Sarah Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) as Vanellope, Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) as an algorithm character named Yesss, and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as the video game character Shank.

The movie is fun, funny and family-friendly, as it gives children a lesson not only on the ins and outs of the Internet but also its many perils. When Ralph and Vanellope enter the Internet – which looks like a megacity — they experience the same emotions we all felt when we first logged on. They’re amazed and a little intimated. They see big bright skyscrapers (that’s Amazon, Facebook and YouTube), annoying, chatty people (those are pop-up ads), and a smart, fast-talking man who knows everything (he’s the search engine – a man named KnowsMore).

Their goal is to find eBay, which supposedly has the steering wheel they need.

Many of our favorite Disney/Star Wars/Marvel characters also make an appearance, including R2-D2, C-3PO, baby Groot, and nearly every princess in the Disney realm.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. For sensitive children, the most disturbing part of the movie takes place within a video game known as Slaughter Race, which has a dystopian city landscape; cars race down abandoned streets that are ruled by a woman named Shank and her friends. Questionable-looking characters live here. Later, Ralph and Vanellope enter a dark, underground region where a grotesque Jabba the Hut-looking creature lives. (He has a brother who “lives” in his chest – sort of like a conjoined twin.) The film concludes with Ralph and Vanellope battling a giant (mostly friendly) monster.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal. A male body building character wears speedos. Vanellope sees the word “lingerie” in the Internet world and mispronounces it. A pop-up ad man promotes a website with “sassy housewives.” Yess wears a belly-revealing outfit. If you’re curious, Ralph and Vanellope are not boyfriend/girlfriend; they’re just good friends.

Coarse Language

None. We hear butt (4), gosh (3), heck (1) and “good L-rd” (1).

Other Positive Elements

After her video game breaks, Vanellope rebuffs Ralph’s suggestion to be lazy and not work. Ralph and Vanellope truly care for one another as friends. The film has a touching finale.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

We hear burping at a (root beer) bar, which is treated like a real-world bar (without the drunkenness.) A character jokes about “serious duty.” Ralph and Vanellope twice lie to get their way; they get caught once. They steal a car and are caught. Ralph enters the comments section of a website and reads comments from Internet bullies (such as: “what a useless loser.”).

Life Lessons

The film gives us lessons on working hard (Vanellope), friendship and dedication (Ralph and Vanellope), the perils of the Internet, and forgiveness and reconciliation (Ralph and Vanellope).

Worldview

Adults spend an average of 11 hours each day interacting with media, according to a Nielsen report released this year. That number includes television, smartphones, tablets and computers. Nearly two hours of that is spent on social media, according to a separate study by the marketing agency Mediakix.

Ralph Breaks the Internet ridicules our addiction. We see Ralph record silly videos (eating hot peppers, for example) in hopes of going viral and earning money for the steering wheel. We then see adults in the real world – including at their work cubicles — watching them.

This Internet addiction, of course, has a cost. It takes time away from the more important things of life, including our time with God (Psalm 46:10).

But the primary theme of Ralph Breaks the Internet involves friendship and trust. Vanellope wants to move away from Ralph and work at Sugar Rush. Ralph, though, believes she’s abandoning him and ending the friendship. The central question becomes: Can Ralph and Vanellope remain friends but have different interests? How can they remain friends when their lives change? Those are questions that can spark a discussion with children on the ride home.

What I Liked

The Stars Wars characters. The Internet world, with its zany figures. The messages are great, too.  

What I Didn’t Like

A joke about lingerie doesn’t belong in a children’s film. Many kids will ask uncomfortable questions.    

Sponsors

McDonald’s is a sponsor. Get ready for Happy Meals with a Ralph Breaks the Internet theme.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did Ralph not trust Vanellope? What helped them heal their division?
  2. Can friends have different interests? Can they remain friends when life changes? Have either of those things ever happened to you?
  3. Is the Internet a good or a bad thing? Name 3 good things about the Internet. Name 3 bad things.
  4. How do we know if we’re addicted to the Internet and social media? Name 3 ways (such as a device-free dinner) that we can ensure we’re not spending too much time on the web.
  5. Why do people act differently on the Internet than they do in real life? Have you ever experienced Internet bullying?

Entertainment rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor.

Revived hearts precede revived churches

A few weeks ago I was privileged to preach at one of my former pastorates. It was surreal. The more things change the more they stay the same. I preached the same text that I preached my last Sunday there 30 years ago. It was received about like it was three decades ago. There wasn’t much visible response. Let me tell you about the church.

It was started at a Watchnight worship service on Dec. 31, 1951. Three men had a burden to plant a new church on the east side of town. One of the men was a godly preacher, L.L. Morris. He had a speech impediment but this did not stop him from heralding the gospel. He was an ardent soul-winner. Many of the people followed his example and were faithful witnesses. The church exploded in growth. They went from a core handful to a couple of hundred in a short period of time. After a few years Pastor Morris went to another church. The new church called another pastor. Although there was a dedicated nucleus, the church began to drift into complacency. A few years later the pastor moved on and the church called a man who had been trained in one of the liberal Southern Baptist seminaries. What followed was disheartening.

The church drifted into being more of a country club with a steeple on top. There were employees who did not believe in a literal hell. A deacon defending a practice of the church announced that “he didn’t care what the Bible said.” The spiritual direction of the church was the opposite of its founding. The hot heart for souls had died down to barely a flicker.

God sent me into that situation. During my almost five years as pastor, God allowed me to have my best ministry on paper. The church doubled in size. We had many people come to Christ. Records were set for attendance and baptisms. There was a remnant who wanted to experience the presence of God in a fresh way. I invited the founding pastor back several times to remind them of their heritage of honoring the Word of God. Yet there was a resistance to things of the Spirit of God. When I left to go to my final pastorate, I pled with them to obey God.

God continued to send good and godly men to pastor them and the facilities were kept immaculate, yet the church was set on a path of decline. Ministry continued, but the congregation dwindled down to less than a hundred. Just this year, God has sent them a passionate young pastor. He is hungry for the presence and power of God. He wants to see people saved. The same spiritual warfare continues. I lay part of the blame at the feet of theological liberalism. The status quo and elitist attitude has to be changed in order to reach their city.

What this church has gone through is somewhat symptomatic of a wider condition in the Southern Baptist Convention. This is why we have seen in the last decade a rise in the efforts to revitalize older congregations. Radical change in style and format is not necessarily the answer; it is a change of heart. Having a burning desire to see the Lord Jesus Christ exalted above personal preferences is the beginning of revival. Revitalization is not a systems problem. It is a spiritual problem. Churches must turn outward, not inward. It is not about us but about them and him!

I pray God will use the young pastor at my old church to be the catalyst for revival and revitalization. That was my desire 30 years ago. It still is today. 

Richards honors men & women who founded the SBTC

KINGWOOD How do you manage to get all the relatives back home on one occasion to remember their roots when they are strung out across 801 straight-line miles from the northwest corner of the panhandle to the Rio Grande River just below Brownsville and 762 miles from Orange to El Paso, measuring east to west?

One solution is to find a big place to meet like Second Baptist Church of Houston’s north campus in Kingwood, send out personal invitations as well as mass media and hope even the kids will enjoy their time together.

Over 1,300 people were on hand Nov. 12 as the annual meeting of the youngest state Baptist convention of Southern Baptists convened to conduct business, gather for worship,  preaching and prayer for God’s continued favor after two decades in Texas.

Kids as tiny as toddlers, and adults as old as 90-something, made their way to the reception in the host church’s gym, walking through a display of archives. Artifacts represented the state convention’s founding and scripture art emphasized the foundational fidelity to Scripture—a conviction that remains central to the 2,702 churches that are affiliated today.

The roomful of over 500 people in attendance listened to the jazz band of Second Baptist Houston as they visited around tables and snacked on sliders and cupcakes. Ronnie Yarber of Athens opened the program thanking God “for the occasion that brings us to this room tonight” and “the directing hand of God as we have moved through these 20 years.”

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards paid tribute to the 26 men and women who risked their personal livelihoods and friendships while serving as the board of directors to launch the SBTC on Nov. 10, 1998, forming a new state convention in Texas with just 120 churches and a $900,000 budget. 

“Good and godly men and women paid the price to follow the guiding principle of being loyal to the inerrant Word of God,” he remembered.

Starting with John Brady and ending with Skeet Workman, each founder’s name was read. The handful of them able to attend included Ed Ethridge, David Fannin, Casey Perry, Gerald Smith, Danny Souder, Eral Sutton and Rocky Weatherford.

“Let’s praise the Lord for these folks,” Richards said as the crowd gave a standing ovation. While others could not attend due to health or other concerns, several were already in heaven, Richards observed.

Richards said that board of directors had “the foresight and the courage to commit themselves because of the cause of Christ to start this convention 20 years ago.” Many others gave of their time and energy “to help us reach Texas and touch the world,” Richards added, thanking those who served as officers, members of the Executive Board and convention committees.

Having employed consultants, facilitators, part- and full-time staff who minister to churches to help them carry out the Great Commission, Richards recognized current and former convention employees, praising their “Philippians 2 mindset.”

As the spotlight turned to those who served as state convention presidents, Richards described each man’s character and contribution, ranging from the late Stan Coffey of Amarillo to current president Juan Sanchez of Austin. “All these men of God have given of themselves, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that their wives were sacrificial, too.”

Since the SBTC was birthed in the fires of theological controversy, current Executive Board chairman Kie Bowman of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin read Jude 3. Gerald Smith of Mansfield offered a prayer of thanksgiving, having served as a volunteer CFO from 1998-1999 and later as a chairman of the Executive Board.

Reflecting on the constancy of the SBTC’s core values of remaining biblically based, kingdom focused and missionally driven, Richards said the SBTC has sought to keep a broad yet defined umbrella of fellowship through the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. 

“There is a lot of latitude on many issues but it is clearly definitive on some,” he insisted. “Don’t be fooled by other groups that tell you there is no difference between them and the SBTC,” he continued. “When another group wants legitimacy without adopting our faith statement, beware.”

Richards also alluded to church planting and evangelism remaining a top priority, with “a small numbered full-time staff that is supplemented by part-time staff and consultants so no church goes underserved.”

With an undesignated giving plan known as the Cooperative Program, 55 percent of what affiliated churches give through the SBTC goes to the Southern Baptist Convention. “This provides for over 3,500 international missionaries, a North American Mission effort impacting our mega cities, 15,000 seminary students getting a portion of their education paid and a voice for the unborn and marriage between one man and one woman through the ERLC,” Richards explained.

“We may not agree on everything everyone does but it is one sacred effort that enables every church to be a part of gospel advance,” he stated.

Closing out the celebration was the same couple who were present 20 years ago to open the first meeting in song. Richards described JimBob and Louverille Griffin as typifying the men and women “who don’t care who gets the credit as long as God gets the glory.” With that attitude in mind, guests and messengers filled the packed gym with the words of “To God Be the Glory,” accepting Richards’ challenge to “sing our way to the next year and beyond until Jesus comes for us.”

Settling for Utopia

My family can tell you that Christmas music and its poor imitations are a constant source of comments from me. They think I can’t see them roll their eyes. But I am an avid music lover—especially of Christmas music. To me, there are three types of things called “Christmas music.” The first is theologically sound and musically beautiful (“Joy to the World,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Mary, Did You Know?” and so on). The second group takes the occasion seriously and may even acknowledge its religious importance but trends toward a humanistic rather than biblical message (more on that later). The third group is beneath notice and takes nothing seriously except jolliness (“Santa Baby,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” etc.). 

Group one includes some contemporary examples that might one day join the exalted glory of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Come Immanuel.” These songs hit the sweet spot of theological teaching and emotional winsomeness that can bring a lump to your throat while reminding you of what Scripture says about our redemption. You’re more likely to hear only the instrumental versions of these songs playing when you go shopping. 

It’s group two that I’m listening to more closely. Somewhat sober Christmas songs have been released by acts as varied as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, the Eagles, Alan Jackson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Coldplay and The Killers, to grab just a handful. This doesn’t take into account the hundreds of singers who have covered hymns and popular Christmas songs (groups one and three) over the past 50 years. These “group-two” songs are wistful, desiring something that is in no way certain. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” speak to the sadness of being alone during the emotionally warm season in the writer’s memory. Something glorious is associated with the holiday that perhaps being home or just being with a sweetheart will reveal. This yearning is very forward in “Boots,” a song by the contemporary group, The Killers. The words recall days of joy with the family, Father watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the smell of candles, the comfort of those familiar things and wishing for some humanistic redemption—little things that speak of something better than now. John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” turn the strong wish for something more perfect into a sharp critique of the imperfect present. Lake’s biting “Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve” is a good representative of this message.

I’m tender toward these songs because these composers are, to varying degrees, taking the holy day seriously (if only for nostalgia). That melancholy longing is a small version of being poor in spirit, or can be. But they settle for so little. Some sentimental songs only want a loved one to share Christmas with, or even a houseful of loved ones. Others see the hyperbole of our celebrations and long to see more compassion for the poor; Tull’s “Christmas Song” asks, “How can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry?” Lennon sees war as the ultimate violation of the Christmas spirit: “War is over, if you want it,” his descant repeats. At their best, these songs long for Utopia, an imaginable place where everyone is tolerant and generous—where government is unnecessary because we treat one another with mercy and justice. If this were even possible, it would not make us happy. What we long for is something we dare not imagine or ask for. We want something perfect, Paradise rather than mere Utopia—something that can only be delivered to us rather than built by us. 

That’s why “Joy to the World” lifts my heart in a way that “Happy Xmas” never can. Lennon begins, “So this is Christmas and what have you done?” Isaac Watts trumps him with “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”  

The search for Utopia naturally leads to bitterness because people seek to please themselves. But the Lord of Paradise sought us, the stronger serving the weaker, the perfect serving the corrupt. We are a large pod of drowning swimmers who rage at our fellows because they do not rescue themselves and thus perfect our community. 

Christmas is so much better than that. We were rescued by the One who was not drowning. That’s why true Christmas songs tend to celebrate rather than complain or harangue. 

Things are not ideal in this age, and the image of God in us all makes that imperfection grievous to us. The hope of Christmas is not that people will be good and generous for a few weeks; we will not generally be either. The hope of Christmas is that we can be changed. So we watch in wonder with Charles Wesley and sing, “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth; hark, the herald angels sing; glory to the newborn king!” 

Happy Christmas. 

God is on the move at First Montgomery

MONTGOMERY – First Baptist Church of Montgomery was struggling. One of the oldest churches in Texas, what had been more than 500 in Sunday morning worship had dwindled to fewer than 80, and finances were dismal at best.

Some talked disbanding. Roger Yancey, associational missionary for the Tryon-Evergreen Baptist Association (TEBA), which consists of 140 congregations, suggested an alternative.

He called it a “reset.” Others called it “radical.”

But at least 90 percent of the congregation in May 2015 said yes to giving up the church’s autonomy for three years, and allowing a nine-person leadership team from the churches in the association to oversee all church matters.

“We went along with it because that’s what they told us we needed,” said Barbara Russell, a member for 54 years.

The options offered to First Montgomery were to stay as it was, to become part of a multi-site church or to enter the “Reset” process.

Russell and her husband hadn’t left when, after the 1960s and ‘70s, the church began to dwindle, she said, when people began to be unwilling to do “things” – ministry – together, and when pastors started not living up to her expectations, failing to visit, to help, to lead the church to work together.

“To me, it was very hard to stay, but this is my church,” Russell continued. “Then the weird music came in and they stopped playing hymns and people started leaving. We were told we could leave if we didn’t like the music. But I’m hardheaded, and we stuck it out.”

Issues as noted in Yancey’s reports included a student minister starting a church nearby, drawing young families away; a pastor’s forced termination; and an underlying, unrelenting conflict among the remaining members.

“A partnership of churches sought to assist [First Montgomery] in 2007/2008 but there was resistance to the suggested direction for the church and the profile of a future senior pastor,” Yancey wrote. “Too much energy was diverted to unneeded conflict and other distractions.”

A bivocational pastor was called but because of the underlying conflicts was able to do little more than love on the members. When he retired in April 2015, the demoralized First Montgomery turned to the association.

Leaders from six strong and healthy churches in the association came together to direct the struggling church. They also sent more than 30 members to support the effort which represented an essential $60,000 of resources to the effort.

“During the 3-year period the Partner Churches in all aspects of its ministry model will RESET the church,” Yancey wrote in a preliminary report, acknowledging the process was challenging. “Everything will be open to revision and refocus under the direction of the partner churches in consultation with the [associational missionary.]

“It is believed that this process will result in the future health of the church family, ensure there will be an opportunity to minister effectively, and provide an effective witness in the community it serves,” the area missionary continued. “This community is experiencing tremendous growth and the church property and facility is of high value with strong daily traffic count.”

In an overwhelmingly positive vote, Yancey reported, the church committed in May 2015 to the Reset Process as led by the TEBA.

“The willingness of the church to participate in the Health process is a significant indicator of its commitment to move forward together,” Yancey wrote in a follow-up report.

 

Some of the most critical changes the church made during the three years of the Reset Process included directed prayer, rebuilding trust in each other and in God, maintaining a positive attitude in the midst of a sea change, and calling a pastor.

 

“The church today is thriving and growing in its effectiveness in impacting its community,” Yancey wrote in the association’s October 2018 newsletter. “Growth has resulted in needing to plan to move to multiple worship services and Sunday Schools and on September 30th the autonomy was returned to the church.

“The story of First Montgomery would fill this newsletter, but the summary is simple,” Yancey wrote. “They trusted God and great things happened.”

Chris Gober came in December 2015 to pastor First Montgomery. It was his first pastorate. He and his family had moved to Montgomery from The Woodlands, north of Houston, in March, knowing nothing of First Montgomery or its struggles.

Gober was a computer engineer running his own business and serving in Children’s Ministry at The Woodlands First Baptist Church when he went on a mission trip to El Salvador. On the third day of that trip, he sensed God calling him to be a pastor.

“After two years of wrestling with this new calling, I surrendered to the ministry in early 2015,” Gober said.

He talked with Yancey about his call, and Yancey sent him one Sunday in early September to preach at First Montgomery. Gober was drawn to the church, but the Leadership Team was looking for a pastor with experience in turning churches around. Weeks later, the final two candidates removed themselves from consideration the same day Gober called again, asking about the church.

With no other candidates remaining, the Leadership Team decided to interview Gober, and called him a couple weeks later for his first pastorate.

The first thing Gober did as pastor in December 2015 was, “Pray! And pray and pray and pray,” Gober said. “My very first prayer, I prayed God would bring leaders to this church to help me turn it around. I knew it would take a whole group of people. …

“We began looking at every ministry of the church and restarting everything,” Gober continued. “We began to evaluate everything the church was doing, [asking] what do we start or prune to get the church moving again?”

First Montgomery’s saying the first year was, “God is on the move!”

Entire rooms no longer used for classes had turned into storage. Most everything went into dumpsters. As people came to help, additional Sunday school classes were started in part to give the new members ways to serve. “They all came with a heart to serve,” Gober said.

The church’s reputation in the community needed to be restored, and to do so, the church started a week-long emphasis: Cross Montgomery. “We go out and visit every business on Hwy. 105, pray for the business and any other prayer requests they have, and give them a dozen homemade cookies,” Gober said. This summer, that totaled 450 dozen cookies. Church members would also buy meals, groceries and gas for Montgomery residents, help with home repair jobs and do yard maintenance for those who were unable.

“It’s been slow steady growth,” Gober said. “We’re running about 275 a week, have nine Sunday morning Bible study classes, and have growing children’s and youth ministries. It’s been amazing to see God resuscitate our church.”

Sept. 30 was First Montgomery’s Jubilee Sunday, the day the association gave back to the church its autonomy.

“The Reset is both drastic and innovative,” Gober told the TEXAN. “It was a bold step, bold and selfless, because it’s human nature to seize control and not human nature to give up control. But when we are willing to step aside, God steps in. He brought our church back to life, and He gets all the glory.”

SBTC Executive Board hears good reports, makes year-end allocations

KINGWOOD  The election of new officers, the celebration of the self-sufficiency of the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation, and an update on the Send City of New Orleans were some of the highlights of the executive board meeting held the day after the conclusion of the Southern Baptists of Texas annual meeting in Houston.

In the meeting on Nov. 14 the Board elected Danny Forshee chairman. Forshee is the pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin. Mark Hogan, a member of Castle Hills Church in San Antonio, was elected vice chairman. Damon Halliday, pastor of Keystone Fellowship Church in Fort Worth, was elected secretary. All three were elected by acclamation. 

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards recognized outgoing chairman Kie Bowman for his service. “What an incredible leader, no greater cheerleader for the SBTC than our dear brother Kie,” Richards said of Bowman, pastor at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin.

The board also approved sending half of the balance in a revocable endowment at the end of the year to the Southern Baptist of Texas Foundation for next year’s general operations, with the remainder returning to SBTC reserves. Foundation Executive Director Bart McDonald explained that the action is part of a strategy to reverse the custom of consuming Cooperative Program resources.

“For the first time in the 15 years of the foundation’s existence the foundation is financially and operationally now self-sufficient which means we generate enough revenue not only to fully absorb our cost but also, like the convention, to produce a surplus,” McDonald stated. “Our desire, our heart’s goal, is to be a provider of ministry service that produces surplus so we can go back to the (SBTC) and say ‘plant more churches, do more work.’”

The board also heard a report about the SBTC’s partnership with New Orleans, one of the cities listed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board as a “Send City.”

“We deal with a 37 percent child poverty, a 27 percent overall poverty rate, so there’s a lot of barriers in New Orleans, said Send City Missionary George Ross, “but there’s a great opportunity for church planting and evangelism in the city of New Orleans.”

Ross invited board members and their churches to come to New Orleans to do missions.

SBTC Missions Director Doug Hixson, reported that more than 25 churches in the convention are already working in New Orleans. 

The Board approved 17 churches for affiliation with the convention and removing four churches based on either a merger with another church or a request from the church for removal. The current number of affiliated churches is 2,702. 

Other action by the board included: 

  • Approving a constitution and bylaws review committee,
  • Allocating $250,000 to Criswell College to assist with the construction of a new student dormitory,
  • Allocating $200,000 to Jacksonville College for operating costs and
  • Sending disaster relief donor grants of $50,000 each to the North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia Baptist state conventions to assist recovery efforts following recent hurricanes.

The Board concluded its meeting with a special recognition of Jim Richards for 20 years of service as SBTC executive director.