Month: May 2019

REVIEW: Is “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” OK for kids?

Dr. Emma Russell is a caring mother, a brilliant scientist and a lover of animals.

Her favorite animals, though, aren’t the ones you’d find at your local zoo. Instead, they’re buried miles underground, waiting to be discovered and unleashed.

These “titans” are taller than skyscrapers. They breathe out radioactive fire. They can destroy a city within seconds. 

Some, like Godzilla, are mostly benevolent. Others, though, are so vicious that cities are evacuating. 

Russell’s organization, Monarch, wants to study these mythical creatures and determine which ones aren’t harmful. The government, though, wants them destroyed—all of them.

It’s an ideological battle that could determine the future of humanity.

The movie Godzilla: King of Monsters(PG-13) opens this weekend, telling the story of the famous fire-breathing dinosaur as it clashes with other monsters from the depths. It stars Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) as Russell, Kyle Chandler (Manchester by the Sea) as her ex-husband, Mark, and Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as their daughter, Madison.

The film is a sequel to 2014’s Godzilla and is part of the “MonsterVerse” franchise by Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Kong: Skull Island (2017) and the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong(2020) are the other MonsterVerse films.

The creatures (according to the plot) were hidden for millennia within the earth but were awakened and/or brought to the surface by atomic bomb testing and mining.

In King of Monsters, an evil villain wants to release all of the earth’s titans in order to restore balance to the planet. Why? Because we’ve destroyed it. The titans are the planet’s “original and rightful rulers.”

We could live together in peace! Of course, that will occur only after millions of us die. 

King of Monsters is similar to other CGI-dominated peril movies: light on plot and heavy on (impressive) visual effects. For lovers of monster movies, it’s fun. But it has several problems that may give parents pause.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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

Violence/Disturbing

Moderate/extreme. The movie begins with a scene of a titan causing destruction and ends with a similar, but more destructive, scene. In between, titans fight one another, destroy cities and even eat people. The movie is visually dark, which only adds to the suspense. Mothra, a giant larva, hatches and then spark havoc; men with machine guns try to kill her. Godzilla spooks an underwater vessel. We see a mother, father and daughter on opposite sides of a hostage situation. We see bodies on the ground following a gunfight. A three-headed creature, Ghidorah, rises from the earth and shoots fire-lightning from its mouths. A volcano erupts, revealing another titan, the winged creature Rodan. It threatens the island’s population. A creature swallows a pilot who had parachuted from a plane. Nuclear bombs are used but for the good. Major cities are destroyed, including Washington, D.C. A character sacrifices his life to try and save the population. Later, another character does the same. If my first-grade son watched this film, he’d have nightmares for a week.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal. We hear a reference to animal “genitals”

Coarse Language

Moderate/Extreme. S–t (8); h-ll (8); misuse of “Jesus” (6); GD (3); misuse of “God” (3); misuse of “Christ” (1); d–n (1); b–ch (1); f-word (1); a– (1); SOB (1).

Other Positive Elements

For a monster movie, the newest Godzillafilm has a solid family angle. Mark Russell regrets not saving his son during Godzilla’s 2004 rampage in San Francisco. He is remorseful over his past drinking habits and his behavior that broke apart the family. We see him sitting alone in his house, watching old family videos. He wants a second chance. 

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Madison, the daughter of Dr. Russell, gives the middle finger to a bad guy. When someone says “Mother of God” in exclamation, the evil Jonah Alan responds, “She had nothing to do with this.” Madison and her mom clash often.

The film includes minor Christian images. When Rodan destroys an island village and stands atop a volcano, we see a large cross in the foreground, still standing. We also see a soldier perform the sign of the cross. 

Life Lessons

King of Monstersprovides lessons on courage (several characters), self-sacrifice (two characters die for the greater good) and parental love and second chances (Mark).

Worldview

The film flirts with the idea that Godzilla and the other titans are more than just monsters. Dr. Ilene Chen, a member of Monarch, discusses her ancestors’ belief that dragons are “sacred, divine creatures” that provide “strength” and “redemption.”

“They really were the first gods,” she says. 

We see the creatures bow down to Godzilla.

Meanwhile, the film’s villains tell us that people are bad for the earth. They pollute and overpopulate. They start wars.

“Humans have been the dominant species for thousands of years and look what’s happened.”

Partners

Johnny Rockets, Old Spice, Visa, XBox and HyperX.

What Works

The special effects.

What Doesn’t

The thin plot. The excessive profanity — especially the taking of God’s name in vain.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe people are a danger to Earth?
  2. How should a Christian view environmentalism? (See Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:6-8, Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7.)
  3. Are some animals “divine”? Why or why not?
  4. Are all curse words equal in God’s eyes?

Entertainment rating:2.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating:2 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language.

“We were looking for a place to hang our hat”

Editor’s note: This continues a year-long series profiling SBTC founders.

HOUSTON  In the late 1990s, Ed Ethridge, with other conservative Texas pastors, was looking for “a place to hang our hat and see God work in church planting and missions.” 

Ethridge played a key role on the transition committee that shaped the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, serving on the SBTC’s Executive Board from 1999-2007 and as the convention’s vice president from 2004-06.

The Seminole, Texas, native was in his 13th year pastoring Woodlake Baptist in Carrollton when he began attending meetings of the Southern Baptists of Texas fellowship, which preceded the convention’s formation. “We were not from large churches. It was just us guys pastoring average-size and small churches,” Ethridge recalled of the conservative group’s constituency. 

He was dismayed when, at its 1994 meeting in Amarillo, the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted to redefine the Cooperative Program missions funding plan. Ethridge called this moment “the straw for me” urging separation.

He returned to Carrollton from Amarillo with five fellow church members, including his missions committee chair. Travel discussion about the “major changes” prompted Ethridge to conclude that yes, there would be changes, but not in his church’s CP giving.

“We were very open with our church about what was going on,” Ethridge said as the movement to start a separate convention escalated and sympathetic conservatives began meeting across the state.

“Guys came on board who made a big difference and catapulted us to where we needed to be,” Ethridge said. Camaraderie developed; relationships grew.

“We were all conservative, all committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. It was not political at all. None of us were looking for a job or a position. We just wanted like fellowship and mindset,” Ethridge said.

Ethridge described the November 1998 Houston inaugural meeting of the SBTC as a “great day” and a “high time.”

He complimented David Fannin for providing direction and a constitution and praised the other founders as well.

“We knew what we wanted to do. How it would flesh out, we didn’t know. We had different thoughts and ideas, but we finally settled on the fact that the Lord was leading us to Jim Richards as the executive director. We moved forward from there.”

Recalling the early days when the SBTC owned no facilities and when Richards and Ronnie Yarber shared office space, Ethridge marveled at the new convention’s initial acquisition of property in Grapevine. Ethridge chaired the properties committee during that transaction, praising the debt-free clause of the constitution that required the convention to raise the money to pay cash for the “perfect location.” At Richards’ request, Ethridge also served as chair of the building committee.

Referencing Ephesians 3:20, Ethridge mused that a debt-free clause can be a blessing and a curse. “The curse was lifted the day we moved into it debt free,” he said with a chuckle.

“The bottom line is, as much as some of us were involved, without the Lord’s wisdom and direction none of this would have happened,” Ethridge said. “Many, many have gone on, but it’s a great time when we get together and ask, ‘Do you remember this?’”

Ethridge admitted he lost some relationships over the convention split.

“I have never chosen not to be a friend to someone because of this. If they chose not to be a friend, it was their doing, not mine. I still have a couple of good friends at the BGCT. We weren’t wanting to create a battle,” he said.

“We just did what we thought was right and the Lord blessed it,” Ethridge added.

“We didn’t do this out of malice. We didn’t do this because some of us were looking for position. All I ever wanted to do was pastor a church. God worked it to his glory. We still add churches,” he said.

“When you begin to question the authenticity of the Word of God, you are in trouble,” Ethridge said, adding that it is a “rarity for a denomination to start down a slippery slope and recover,” which the Southern Baptist Convention did during the Conservative Resurgence. “We did recover. We went through a storm. You can’t say enough about guys like Adrian Rogers.” 

As for the man who only wanted to be a pastor, Ethridge went on to lead the North Texas Baptist Association with around 80 congregations from across Texas, becoming its full-time director of missions in 2002, a position from which he retired in 2016 and moved with his wife, Judy, to Houston to be closer to children and grandchildren.

He didn’t stay retired long.

Champion Forest Baptist in Houston asked him to become the associate pastor of pastoral care, capping a career that saw him serve several churches in Montana and the DFW Metroplex in addition to the NTBA. 

“I am still surrendering to God,” Ethridge said, admitting he fled from the idea of ministry as a young man and adding that he plans to keep pastoring in Houston as long as he is able.  

REVIEW: “Aladdin” is a fun ride with a solid message for kids

Aladdin is an orphaned street urchin who only steals when necessary. Unfortunately for the people of Agrabah, that’s all the time.

“Gotta steal to eat,” he says.

He steals food from the vendors. He steals jewelry from the shoppers. It seems he’ll be stealing every day until he dies.

But one person sees past his swindling ways. Her name is Jasmine, a woman from the palace who claims to be a servant yet who actually is the princess. Her father is the Sultan, Agrabah’s leader. Their accidental street encounter turns into love at first sight.

Sadly, though, marriage is out of the question in Agrabah’s class system. Aladdin is a worthless peasant. Jasmine is royalty.

Then again, maybe there isa chance.

Aladdin is kidnapped by a nefarious man named Jafar and tricked into entering a cave to retrieve a magical lamp that houses a genie. Although Jafar is the intended recipient, the lamp ends up in the hands of Aladdin, who is granted three wishes and wide latitude. Jasmine wastes little time in making his first wish.

“I wish to become a prince,” he says, hoping to impress Jasmine’s family. Will his plan work?  

Disney’s live-action musical Aladdin (PG) opens this weekend, 27 years after the animated version that won two Oscars was released. It stars Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Genie, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) as Aladdin, and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers, The 33) as Jasmine.

The film is 30 minutes longer than the G-rated original (roughly two hours compared to 90 minutes), has music updated to today’s sound (Will Smith’s Friend Like Mesounds more hip hop than Robin Williams’ version), and changes a few elements of the story (for example, Jasmine talks often about her desire to be sultan).

Thankfully, the movie stays in mostly family-friendly territory, too. (That is, assuming you’re OK with a romance that includes brief kissing.)

The movie follows Aladdin as he chases after Jasmine’s heart and Jafar as he seeks the magical lamp.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. The cave is a spooky-looking hole in the mountain. It even talks. It also nearly collapses on Aladdin and his monkey friend Abu in a near-death scene that may frighten sensitive children. (Aladdin and Abu almost fall into lava.) Jafar pushes someone into a well. Later, in another near-death scene, Aladdin is shoved into the ocean and sinks to the bottom. He nearly drowns but is rescued. Jafar practices what he describes as sorcery and uses a snake-shaped staff.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal. Unlike the animated film, Jasmine doesn’t wear belly-revealing outfits (minus one or two brief scenes). Some of her dresses, though, are low-cut.

Genie is shirtless for most of the film.

Aladdin and Jasmine kiss twice.

Coarse Language

None.

Other Positive Elements

We see Aladdin give some of his stolen goods to other people. Genie tells Aladdin there isn’t enough money and power in the world “for you to be satisfied.” Aladdin, after lying to Jasmine, decides to tell her the truth. Aladdin follows through with his promise to Genie.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

We learn Aladdin lost his parents when he was young. The lamp and flying carpet are called “magical.” Genie says he’s the most powerful being in the universe. 

Life Lessons

The movie provides lessons on the power of sin and temptation (various characters), overcoming your past (Aladdin), the need for courage (Jasmine), and the importance of a person’s character, beliefs and heart (or as the movie calls it, “what on the inside”).

The plot’s inclusion of stealing will make some parents uncomfortable. (It’s in the 1992 film, too.) “I steal only what I can … and that’s everything,” Aladdin sings. Some children may walk away thinking stealing is permissible. Be prepared for a post-movie discussion.  

Worldview/Application

It’s a fictional world where God isn’t the most powerful being in the universe. Genie is.

Still, Aladdincan teach us a lot about temptation and sin. Two characters in the film are granted three wishes, but only one of them passes the test. It seems most people ask for money and power.

“Do not drink from that cup,” Genie says.

It’s a theme borrowed from the pages of Scripture.

The lust for power was at the heart of Satan’s fall. Adam and Eve, too, fell because they wanted to be like God.

But if we were granted three “wishes,” what would we request? A better job? A bigger house? Money? Power? Hopefully, our answers would have an eternal focus.

Perhaps we also should ask: What are the topics of our prayers? 

Such a hypothetical exercise can reveal a lot about our heart. 

Partners

Subway, Zales and MAC Cosmetics.

What Works

The choreography. The magic carpet rides. The music (at least, most of it).

What Doesn’t

At two hours, the length may see long to families with small, restless children.

Discussion Questions

1. If you were granted three wishes, what would you request?

2. Is it ever OK to steal? Does it matter if the person is poor?

3. What does Aladdinteach us about the importance of a person’s heart (that is, what’s on the inside)?

4. Aladdinis called “worthless.” Why did he do to overcome that label? Did that label bother him? Does it hurt you when people call you names?

5. Does our modern-day society have classes of people?

Entertainment rating:3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating:4 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG for some action/peril.

First Baptist Sutherland Springs dedicates new worship center with “a sound of joy and gladness”

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS  Sherri Pomeroy quoted from Jeremiah 33 to the standing-room-only crowd at First Baptist Sutherland Springs on Sun., May 19: “In this place which you say is a ruin…there will be heard again a sound of joy and gladness” (33:10-11a).

It was a fitting passage, for 18 months after the Nov. 5, 2017, shootings that claimed 26 lives and injured 20, the congregation dedicated its new worship facility with a celebration featuring state and national dignitaries, Southern Baptist leaders, a thousand doughnuts, 600 hamburgers, prayer, praise and remembrance.

The steamy, overcast morning started with a private service before the 11 am dedication. Overflow crowds watched livestreams from both services in the new fellowship hall adjacent to the auditorium. The hall was part of a design addition made two months into the 14-month process, Scott Gurosky of MG&A, the Birmingham, Alabama firm overseeing the construction, later told reporters.

As doors opened for the dedication, Pastor Frank Pomeroy greeted crowds filtering in to the bright auditorium, its white shiplap walls, gabled ceiling and high windows evoking the building it replaced.

Pomeroy assumed the pulpit, only to find his notecards missing.

“That means that the Lord is going to take over and you are going to get preached to instead,” Pomeroy said with a chuckle, expressing hope that the church would be that full every Sunday, drawing the first of many “amens” and bursts of applause.

Referencing Genesis 17, where Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses during battle, Pomeroy commended the special help of two area pastors, asking Kevin Cornelius of FBC Karnes City—his “Hur”—to open in prayer.

Following a rendition of “It Is Well with My Soul” by the church praise team led by survivor Kris Workman, Pomeroy exclaimed, “God brings roses out of the ashes.”

Reminding the audience that they were both celebrating and “remembering those who have paid a price for this incredible facility,” Pomeroy introduced his “Aaron,” Mark Collins, pastor of FBC Yorktown, formerly on staff at Sutherland Springs.

Clad in his trademark George Washington attire, Collins, who frequently portrays the first president, recalled those who “had crossed the veil,” reading aloud the names and ages of the 26 victims, as the refurbished church bell, relocated to its new tower, tolled following each name while the hushed congregation listened.

Karla’s corner

After the Pomeroys returned to the stage, Sherri clarified Collins’ description of the pulpit area as “Karla’s corner,” a reference to the countless times victim Karla Holcombe had prayed that the two-acre weed-filled lot, the site of the new facility, would be given to the church.

“Maybe the very last day [Karla] prayed for this land was on Nov. 5 because her car was parked very close to where I am standing now. Maybe she came early that day and walked the perimeter of this land for the very last time,” Sherri suggested.

“On Karla’s corner now stands a beautiful facility,” Frank said, adding, “The church is not the building. The church is all who have the blood of Jesus Christ within their heart and upon their soul.”

Cooperative Program made it possible

Pomeroy praised the support of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the North American Mission Board, which provided funds for the construction through the SBC’s Cooperative Program giving mechanism.

NAMB President Kevin Ezell, who attended the dedication but did not speak, told the TEXAN in separate comments that the Sutherland Springs project was “an incredible example of how we are stronger together,” adding that NAMB’s part was made possible through the CP thanks to “thousands and thousands of sacrificially-giving Southern Baptists.”

JD Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh/Durham, North Car. and current SBC president, affirmed the CP’s importance.

“When the worst evil and the worst darkness intruded on this small congregation, I am glad but not surprised to say that the best of who Southern Baptists are stepped forward to help,” Greear said, applauding NAMB, the SBC and the SBTC.

“Our world is broken” Greear said, arguing that tragedies such as that of Sutherland Springs will not be prevented by legislation, education or prosperity, but only through Jesus: “Better laws may certainly help us contain the damage, but only the gospel can heal the soul.”

MG&A’s Gurosky spoke next, recalling Pomeroy’s insistence that the new church be a beacon to the community and incorporate the bell. The result: twin towers containing light and bell, respectively, dominate the campus and loom above the town at its highest point.

Gurosky introduced architect Mike O’Kelley, project manager Gary Nazaruk, who came out of retirement in nearby Boerne to oversee the construction, CFO Paul Head and general supervisor Tom Durham.

The project involved “hard work and commitment from people all over the country, from Oregon to Ohio to Alabama,” Gurosky said, mentioning many of the 100 companies that donated materials or services.

Especially rewarding was the construction of the memorial room just off the main entryway, which designer Ivy Schuster opted to keep simple with photographs capturing the victims’ personalities.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a man Pomeroy introduced as “with us from the very first day,” spoke next. Citing several Psalms, Abbott, a paraplegic, expressed empathy with the victims.

“Only God can help a community transcend the type of tragedy that struck Sutherland Springs. Only with God can you as individuals chart a path out of the maze that you have been placed into. There is only one pathway forward. It’s not our path. It is his path,” Abbott said.

“I like it when our governors and senators start preaching at us, don’t you?” Pomeroy asked the congregation following a videotaped message from Sen. Ted Cruz, before introducing Sen. John Cornyn, praising the senator’s help and support of the Fix NICS Act.

Cornyn compared the dedication to the Nov. 12, 2017 FBC Sutherland Springs church service which met in a tent on a nearby ballfield.

“The church is not four walls and a roof. It’s the people. In a stunning building like this or in a tent on a baseball field, this church refuses to quit and let evil win,” Cornyn said.

After victims and dignitaries gathered onstage, Paul Buford, pastor of River Oaks Baptist, whose church served as a command center in the weeks after the shootings, closed in prayer.

Bells, Towers and Beacons

As attendees ventured outside to enjoy hamburgers served by the Texas Farm Bureau, the Pomeroys, Gurosky, and survivors Julie Workman and David Colbath fielded questions from reporters.

Pomeroy confirmed that security measures had been implemented in the new facility. He stressed the significance of the bell, long a hallmark at the church as children surrounded him, hoping to ring the bell each Sunday.

“Many of the children who would ring that bell are no longer with us. Our shooter had the propensity to seek out children. And for that reason, the bell means more now to me than it did previously,” Pomeroy said.

For Workman, who directed the children’s ministry, the bell also evoked poignant memories. “We are survivors. We are left here to tell the story of God’s grace and mercy,” she said.

As for the church as a beacon, attendance has doubled since the shootings, Pomeroy said, estimating that 180-200 now come weekly and more are expected with the additional room. The new church seats 250, Gurosky said.

Asked about plans for the former auditorium, still a memorial filled with white chairs marked by victims’ names and red roses, Pomeroy said plans have not been decided, although the ground will remain hallowed. The church will choose.

“Those people’s lives are the reason we have this church today. They are martyrs,” Colbath told reporters, admitting that he had “accepted the new norm” of pain and physical limitations.

The new normal is what the Pomeroys and their church, in their new home, are ready for as well.

Trustees approve Christopher Graham as vice president of academic affairs

DALLAS  The Criswell College board of trustees gathered on campus for their biannual meeting April 25 to conduct college business and hear a report from president Barry Creamer on the status of the school.

Creamer updated the board regarding the college’s Home is Here 2020 initiative, an expansive plan to create a Distinctive Program Model that will utilize high-impact educational practices, along with a common student experience, to engage students in a unique learning community.

Along with the presentation of the Home is Here 2020 initiative, Creamer gave the trustees an expansive presentation regarding the college’s core values, academic preparations and admissions strategy, as well as plans from the steering committee regarding distinctives of Criswell graduates.

“One of the first steps in the process for us was to refine our core values,” Creamer said. “What that means is, we want to be crystal clear when we’re speaking to ourselves and other people about the things that make Criswell College what it is. They were true of us historically, and they are true of us today.”

As Creamer explained, the core values identified by the college are comprised of doctrinal integrity, service experience, academic engagement and cultural influence.

Pursuit of the Distinctive Program Model has progressed alongside plans for the college’s first on-campus residence hall, scheduled to break ground this summer and open in time for students who will begin in the fall of 2020.

During lunch the trustees were joined by the Criswell Ambassadors, a group of students chosen to represent the college on behalf of the president’s office and advancement division.

Southern Baptists of Texas Executive Director Jim Richards addressed the trustees as a representative of the SBTC, one of Criswell’s two affiliate organizations. Richards shared with the group the history of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence and mentioned the role played by both the college as well as its founder, W.A. Criswell, in helping to steer the convention toward a more conservative commitment to Scripture.

The trustees unanimously approved the appointment of Christopher A. Graham as the new vice president of academic affairs.

Prior to accepting this position, Graham served at Criswell as associate professor of theology and program director for both the Master of Divinity and the Master of Arts in biblical and theological studies.

“Based on my discussions with Dr. Creamer and the thoughtful prayer and counsel with my wife and close advisors, I am happy to accept the position,” Graham said in an email.

“[My wife] Jill and I are looking forward to our continued service to the college’s community,” Graham continued. “I look forward to serving as the interface between the executive cabinet and the faculty and staff within academic affairs as we all strive to effectively and worthily fulfill our calling in the lives of individuals who God directs here.”

Graham brings an interesting and unique background to the role. He holds the Bachelor of Science in marine engineering from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy as well as the Master of Theology and Doctor of Philosophy from Dallas Theological Seminary.

“I could not be more excited at the trustees’ approval of Christopher Graham to lead our academic affairs division,” Creamer said. “We undertook an extensive search process and spoke to two dozen potential candidates. At the end of that lengthy endeavor, we are glad to announce that the candidate God had for us was already here and will take his knowledge of and love for Criswell College into this new role.”

Earlier this year, Creamer tapped Joseph D. Wooddell to fill the vacant vice president of advancement position. Wooddell, who had served as vice president of academic affairs since 2014, has been in the new position since January.

In other board business, the trustees unanimously approved the promotion of Brandon Seitzler to associate professor of politics and economics and they also recognized and approved proposed graduates for commencement May 18. 

Going to Birmingham on the Way to Odessa Who”s Your One?

I plan to be in Birmingham for the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June. Our president, J.D. Greear, has issued a call to place the “Gospel Above All.” Our convention theme calls us both to unity around the gospel in our relationships with one another and to priority with the gospel in our evangelism of the world. For me, though, the stop in Birmingham is just another stop on the way to Odessa for our 2019 SBTC annual meeting, Oct. 29-30. In Odessa, we will come together to celebrate another emphasis that J.D. Greear has announced—“Who’s Your One?”

Whether in Birmingham or Odessa, we live in a religiously pluralistic culture where many people believe that “all roads lead to heaven.” Consider all the unbelieving people in our lives who are misled by such empty hope and sentimental feelings. Each of us has at least one non-Christian whom we can pray for, plan to share the gospel with and call for a response to Christ. Who’s your one? That’s the question we want every member of every SBTC church to be asking themselves from now until Odessa. I understand that it’s intimidating to share the gospel in a religiously pluralistic culture. So, how may we go about it?

In a religiously pluralistic culture, no matter the response, keep sharing the gospel (Acts 17:16-17). No matter where the apostle Paul found himself, he kept sharing the gospel. His custom? To go to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. In Acts 17, Paul arrives in Athens, and after seeing so many idols, he was “provoked within him” because he was jealous for the glory of God (Acts 17:16). But rather than giving up and moving on, Paul shared the gospel as was his custom (Acts 17:17). This too is our mission. Our mission does not change based on the audience. Our mission is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ—his life, death, burial, resurrection and exaltation—to all peoples everywhere, regardless of their response. 

You can be sure that in a religiously pluralistic culture we will be labeled as intolerant and hate-filled. Still, the only loving thing we can do is tell all peoples about Jesus and call them to repent and believe. This is our mission, regardless of how our hearers respond.

But realize that when you share the gospel in a religiously pluralistic culture, it will sound strange (Acts 17:18-21). As Paul shared the gospel, others heard about this “strange teaching” and wanted to hear more about it. We forget that our gospel sounds strange to this world (Acts 17:19-21). It sounds strange because only in Christianity does God himself act to save humanity. It sounds strange because Christianity argues for an exclusive path to God—Jesus is the only way, the only truth and the only life. Only those who come to the Father through Jesus have eternal life. 

So, to make the gospel understandable in a religiously pluralistic culture we must do the hard work of both tearing down and building up (Acts 17:22-29). Paul used the Athenians’ own religious pluralism as a connecting point to share the gospel. They had an altar to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23). So he presented Christ by tearing down the Athenians’ worldview, while at the same time building a Christian worldview from the ground up. Paul began with the doctrine of God (Acts 17:24-25), then moved to the doctrine of humanity (Acts 17:26-28). But he lands on the doctrine of final judgment (Acts 17:30-31).

You see, when sharing the gospel in a religiously pluralistic culture, you must get to Christ and call for a response (Acts 17:30-34). After the hard, slow work of tearing down their mistaken worldview and building up the Christian worldview, Paul proclaimed Jesus and called them to repent (Acts 17:30) because a day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the world, including them (Acts 17:31). How did they respond?

Some remained skeptical and likely rejected the gospel, but other remained curious and wanted to hear more (Acts 17:32). Some, though, believed (Acts 17:33-34). So, be encouraged! When sharing the gospel, whether in Birmingham or Odessa or anywhere in between, some will believe. Until Christ returns, then, let us keep praying for the lost, let us keep looking for opportunities, and let us keep sharing the gospel. Where shall we being? Well, the answer is a  question we’ve been asking as a state convention: Who’s Your One?  

Rise up, O men of God

This Father’s Day is a little more special. Our son is now a father. It happened on April 12th. The fifth generation “James” came into the Richards family. He will go by his middle name, Graham. His great-great grandmother was a Graham who was born in Wood County, Texas, in 1898. This new addition to our other three grandchildren is a blessed time. 

Father’s Day conjures up precious memories. I was blessed to have a godly, loving dad. He loved me without reservation. Dad was a firefighter, funeral director, chief civil deputy sheriff, director of security and a bi-vocational minister of music. With all of the hats he wore the one he wore best was “Dad.”  He’s been with the Lord 25 years this year. He never grew tired of supporting me. He set the example for me to follow. He loved mother. He never forgot a birthday or anniversary. I never saw him get angry at her, speak to her unkindly or touch her in a harmful way. 

Mother worked outside the home. She was a registered nurse and worked over 30 years delivering babies. But her first priority was being a homemaker. She loved Dad. She sacrificed for me. When she had to work evening shifts Dad and I would eat at a restaurant. In the 1950s and 60s not a lot of people ate out. With all of Dad’s good qualities he couldn’t boil an egg and would not eat leftovers. 

We ate a couple of nights a week at the Capitol Steakhouse in Monroe, Louisiana. One night when I was about eight or nine we were eating at the restaurant and a man who was sitting at a table near us began using vulgar language. My dad calmly asked the man to not use those words because I could hear them. The large imposing man immediately stood up, challenging my dad. I thought I was going to see my dad die before my eyes. Instead the man froze and then walked out of the restaurant. I was so proud of my dad.

I used this event as an illustration in a sermon once when my dad was present. After church, Dad told me the rest of the story. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. George Camporis, kept a handgun under the counter. When he saw the potential danger of what was taking place he placed the gun on the counter. The disruptive man saw it and decided to leave. Although this altered the story it didn’t diminish the stand he took to protect me. In this day with all the talk of “toxic masculinity” he was a gentle soul who was strong, courageous and kind. He was a man’s man.

Debate is raging about women’s roles. Let me say that with an incredible wife, two loving daughters, a precious daughter-in-law and two awesome grandgirls—I’m all for women. I want to see all of the women in my life excel to the highest potential God has for them. I say this for all women. The problem we are having in our churches and the culture in general is not with women. It is with men. 

We need men who will follow the biblical order of being the “heads” of their homes. Ephesians 5 is about Christ’s relationship with the church. The analogy used is about the husband and wife relationship. Jesus is Lord of the church but men are not “lords” over their wives. In almost 46 years I have been unable to get June to call me “Lord Jim.” Headship is not about my rights. It is about responsibility. While Jesus is Lord of the church, men are to be leaders in the home. Leaders provide direction. Leaders set examples. Leaders love and care for those they lead. Men, be the one who leads in family worship. Set aside time to pray and read Scripture daily with your loved ones. It is time for men to step up and fulfil God’s calling on their lives. 

Being a father is more than biologically producing an offspring. Being a father means giving time, resources and influence to those God has placed under your leadership. The feminization of our culture has caused some men to shirk their God-given role. It is time for men to live the old hymn, “Rise Up, O Men of God.”   

Rise up O men of God,

Have done with lesser things.

Give heart and soul and 

   mind and strength,

To serve the King of Kings.

Lift high the Cross of Christ,

Tread where His feet have trod,

As brothers of the Son of Man,

Rise up O men of God.

We need men to answer the call to preach! We need men to answer the call to serve the church! We need men who will lead their homes! As we observe a day in June recognizing fathers, my prayer is that all men will rise up to serve the King of Kings. And by the way, happy first Father’s Day, Nate! 

Surety for a stranger: Are you sure?

In one way or another, many of us will be asked to vouch for someone at some point in our lives. In my case, it’s been book blurbs/endorsements, serving as a reference on a professional resume and recommending various ministry resources to others. I’ve not always done these services as diligently as I should have, but I’ve become more sensitive to best practices with … well, practice. 

Here are some ways this well-intentioned assistance of an acquaintance can go wrong. I’ve been asked to recommend, through social media, books that I’ve not seen by those I’ve only met. On occasion I have been asked to serve as a reference for someone I barely know, or a pastoral reference for someone whose ministry or cause I have no way of knowing at all. More than once I’ve been asked to promote a movie or event about which I have nearly no information. The assumption is that I’ll be generous to assume the best about a friend, or even about someone who is not yet a friend. It’s tempting to do that. 

What’s made me more careful about these requests is that I’ve been on the receiving end of this well-intentioned folly. In employee or pastor searches I’ve found that sometimes a referring friend barely knows the referred, but means him well. I’ve found book endorsements puzzling, only to learn that the endorsement was not based on having read the book but on personal affection for the author. When I’m disappointed at the details of a particular ministry I have found on occasion that the person who passed along the referral considered any detailed examination over the top, picky or impolite. 

We’re too casual about this, brothers and sisters; I have been and others have been. Proverbs 6, 11 and 17 speak of financial wisdom as it relates to being the guarantor or “surety” for a loan, particularly for that of a stranger. Our reputations, the integrity of our ministries, are at least as important as money. I think we loan them out foolishly if we don’t know well the thing or person we’re endorsing. In the words of Proverbs 11:15, “He who is surety [“puts up security,” in the CSB] for a stranger will suffer.” Serving a pastor search committee a few years back, we avoided asking some we respected for recommendations because they had been too casual in the past. Those men, several I know well and love, “suffered” in terms of their reputation. There is a better way. 

Know your petitioner—If I don’t know a product or ministry, or if I’ve lost touch with a ministry friend, I’ll spend time catching up with him before agreeing to be a reference. If I don’t have time to read a book or watch a movie, I won’t recommend it. If it is not good, I will likewise decline. Understand that someone is asking you to loan him your reputation, or maybe the reputation of your ministry. It’s not too much to ask for more information. 

Ask pointed questions—As a potential reference, ask the questions you’d ask if you were looking for a pastor or a particular resource. Be convinced yourself before you suggest that someone else take your word for it. On the other end of the process, ask the reference pointed questions. I’ve weeded out pastoral recommendations by simply asking, “Have you heard him preach?” or “What ministries is his wife drawn to?” A reference who has neither heard him preach nor spent time with him personally doesn’t know him well enough to help you. You can ask similar questions about ministries or resources: “Does this ministry have a confession of faith?” or “How does this resource approach biblical authority?” and so on. 

Respect the ministries involved—Whether it is your own ministry that needs assistance or if it is the ministry of another person asking for your help, be serious about the search process. Don’t recommend something you don’t use, or wouldn’t use in your own ministry—or something you don’t know well enough to speak knowledgeably about. Don’t recommend a pastor because “this little church might be a good try out for him” or a place for him to rehabilitate. Recommend someone you’d love to have for your own pastor. There should be cases where you decline to recommend a person or resource because of what you know. If it’s your own ministry you’re trying to help, seek God’s best rather than settling for someone who’s willing to come. 

References and recommendations are essential to our ministries. We depend on the help of those who know people we don’t and who have broader experience than our own. Perhaps part of the answer is to say “yes” to fewer requests to endorse or recommend, saving that influence for those things about which we can speak most wholeheartedly. The people and things to which we lend our names can strengthen or diminish our reputations and that of our Lord. We should not lend them casually or to strangers.  

Athens church rebounded, now revitalizing with renewed vision

ATHENS The first time Pastor James Cox realized Virginia Hill Baptist Church was showing signs of revitalization was during a monthly game night when he witnessed cross-generational participation. 

A simple board game infused with friendly competition sparked laughter throughout the fellowship hall. They were listening, they understood, and they were living life together as disciples, the pastor recalled.

“When we first arrived, the younger population of members weren’t really involved,” Cox told the TEXAN. “The church was really kind of segregated by generation. There wasn’t any cross-pollination between the age groups. At each event it seemed as if the younger members were cautious and timorous around the more experienced members. 

“I believe the turning point [toward revitalization] was understanding that discipleship meant more than teaching God’s Word; it meant living life together, encouraging one another and enjoying the blessings that each person brings to the body of Christ. That is what created the opportunity to laugh together over a game.”

The church was in a transitional state, Cox said. The former pastor had served faithfully for 18 years, but the church had withered to about 20 in attendance for Sunday morning worship. They realized change was necessary, but they weren’t sure where to start. They needed someone to lead that change.

Virginia Hill Baptist members knew they needed a spark when in late 2016, after a few months without a pastor, they called on Cox. He came to the church in November 2016 as a supply preacher. That month the congregation asked him to be interim and the next month, pastor. He started as the official pastor on Jan. 1, 2017 and within three months had connected with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for help.

To get started, he held a meeting with the church members. 

“I asked them what they were looking for in a pastor, their expectations of him and their dream of what would happen at the church,” Cox said. “After listening to them and hearing that they wanted the church to grow and thrive in the community the way that it once did, I told them the only way these things would happen would be if they would be willing to go into revitalization. I explained how the revitalization process works and how hard it can be to wipe off the old and put on the new. It was up to them to decide the fate of the church, I told them. Praise God they were ready.”

This included adopting a statement of faith (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000), writing bylaws and affiliating with the SBTC.

Cox connected with Mike Landry, an SBTC revitalization consultant. Landry talked with the pastor, visited the church two months later, preached and that evening talked with the members. Landry explained the revitalization process in detail to the congregation.

Events moved smoothly from that point, though not without an occasional monetary hiccup. 

“The church recognized the need,” Landry said. “They had a desire to do the work necessary and the willingness to change. These are the things we always look for in revitalization.

“With the work that is involved and the changes that may be necessary, it is important for the pastor and the church to be committed to the revitalization process. Many times, we have a ‘town hall’ meeting with the church to ensure the congregation understands the process and is committed to revitalization.”

Revitalization basically is a three-legged stool, Landry explained. The process includes preaching for heart change, a focus on evangelism and a commitment to discipleship.

“To sum it up,” Landry said, “a church needs to be impacted by the Word of God and become refocused on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20.”

Virginia Hill Baptist also began giving more than 8 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program. 

“We want to be a part of what SBTC is doing,” Cox said. “Going from a lethargic state to becoming an enthusiastic part of a convention you’re very active in was the difference between night and day.

“We started just rolling through,” the pastor continued. “Maybe I’m naïve enough to think that if we did the process that the SBTC created, things were going to work for us. I used every resource they offered, taking advantage of the wisdom of others instead of trying to recreate the wheel for Virginia Hill.” 

That was in 2017. The first year involved a 13-week message series both preached and taught in Sunday School to unite the church in working toward revitalization. The monthly game night that was in place helped to build fellowship and bridge the generational gap.

“After the first series I went into Acts,” Cox said. “I felt that what our church really needed was the full force that the book of Acts can bring. Acts reveals to us everything going on with the church as it is established, and that is essentially what revitalization is, re-creation of the church the way God planned for it to be.” 

In the second year came VBS for the first time in five years, a first-ever weekend women’s conference, led by the pastor’s wife, and a Fall Festival that drew some 90 people. These three events are planned again for 2019. 

“The church has moved out of its comfort zone,” Landry said. “We see evangelism becoming the culture of the church, and with the renewed vision and excitement, people are being saved and baptized.”

Even before Cox was called as pastor, the church had determined the building needed a facelift. By the time he was on site, a crew had come in and torn out old paneling, repainted walls, lowered the ceiling and purchased new pews.

“With all of the work they had done and the new pews coming, that gave us the opportunity to have a church cleaning day,” Cox said. “We purged all of the old stuff that hadn’t been used in forever, or that had run its course and wasn’t necessary or able to be used. Also, with the church being built in 1945, we even had the opportunity to return some of the items to the families that were original members of the church and that meant a lot to them. They were able to hold onto a piece of their history.”

Now, the worship center will seat 89 people. 

“When we get to the point where we overflow our capacity for two or three services, maybe then we’ll consider building,” Cox said.

In this, its third year of revitalizing, Virginia Hill Baptist continues its focus on becoming a healthy church that exhibits God’s love in its community, the pastor said. 

The multicultural congregation (he’s Native American; the congregation and visitors are typically black, Hispanic and white) is looking for volunteers to help with the youth and music ministries.

“I’m incredibly humbled and grateful for the help we’ve received from Kenneth Priest, Mike Landry and the team at SBTC, along with the resources and the help through the Cooperative Program,” the pastor said. “Without their help this would be an incredibly difficult journey that might not have been fruitful. 

“We are so appreciative and give all the glory to God,” Cox said. “He has more than doubled our average in attendance, created a children’s ministry, the ladies took an additional four women to their conference, and just this weekend we welcomed two new families to join us that will include three being baptized. God is so good.”