Month: August 2019

REVIEW: “Blinded by the Light” is a feel-good film about the power of music

Javed is a timid and insecure teenage boy living in 1980s Luton, England — a place where British-Pakistanis like him face obstacles wherever they go.

In restaurants, he’s bullied. Along the road, he’s chased. At home, he encounters racist messages painted on the garage door.

Javed, though, has a way to escape the taunting: He writes, a lot. It also helps him flee the frustration of his life at home, where his traditional-minded father opposes his dreams of becoming an author or journalist.

“Writing isn’t a job,” his father says. “… Writing is for English people.”

And when the local newspaper turns Javed away — refusing to consider him for a position — Javed’s future seems bleak.

“We were born in the wrong time, in the wrong town, in the wrong family,” he tells his sister.

But then Javed’s friend introduces him to the music of a man named Bruce Springsteen. Immediately, Javed feels a connection to this New Jersey rocker’s blue-collar emphasis on hard work and never giving up. It’s as if Springsteen wrote these lyricsjust for Javed.

“It’s like Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt,” Javed tells his friend. “… I didn’t know music could be like that.”

The feel-good film Blinded by the Light(PG-13) is now in theaters, telling the story of a high school-aged boy who finds hope, encouragement and even counsel in the words of Springsteen songs. Those tunes help him overcome racism, persevere through his father’s job loss and stay positive when his writing career seems hopeless.

The film stars Viveik Kalra as Javed, Kulvinder Ghir as his father, and Hayley Atwell (Captain Americanand Avengersseries) as the high school teacher who encourages him.

The movie was inspired by true events and recounts the racism journalist Sarfraz Manzoor encountered while growing up in Great Britain and the happiness he found in Bruce Springsteen music.

Fans of Springsteen will love Blinded by the Light, but even non-fans will enjoy its plot — and its thought-provoking topics.

Still, it has some PG-13 content that may give some moviegoers pause. 

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. Javed and a friend are forced by bullies to move to another table in a restaurant; no punches are thrown. But later, we see men punching one another during a racist National Front parade. 

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal/moderate. Teens kiss. We see a girl show up at the door when someone knocks, wearing only a long shirt. Javed and his girlfriend kiss while alone in his house. The camera cuts away, but it’s implied more happened.

Coarse Language

Minimal: S–t (3), OMG (2), misuse of “God” (1), misuse of “Jesus” (1).

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Javed and his family are Muslim. Javed’s father tells him to do what the Jews do because they’re “successful.” (Javed is embarrassed by his dad’s comments.) Javed and his father have one or two shouting confrontations that might make parents uncomfortable if children are present.

Life Lessons

Music is powerful: The music of a white rocker from New Jersey changed the life of a Pakistani man across the pond. (See Worldview/Application, below.)    

Don’t waste your talents: God grants each one of us certain talents. They aren’t to be wasted. Javed’s teacher even argued he had a “responsibility” to use his gifts for the world.

Support your children: At its core, Blinded by the Lightis a clash of worldviews: the traditional culture of Javed’s father vs. the western focus on liberty and freedom. Javed’s father belittles his dreams and wants him to get a well-paying job to support the family. It’s painful to watch. Perhaps there was a way to please both sides. (Don’t worry: The film has a redemptive ending.)     

Worldview/Application

A well-known Christian musician once told me that music is “supernatural.”

Perhaps this singer was onto something. It seems we are hard-wired to enjoy it.

Music stirs emotions. It changes attitudes. It can make you laugh … or cry. It even can help you remember. Have you ever heard a song that brought back memories — years after the event?

This isn’t news to God. He invented music. Music’s power is why he commanded the Israelites in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament to sing to him.

Music’s power, though, means the modern-day musician has a responsibility to write songs for the good of society. Javed developed his worldview from rock music. In the end, the results were mixed. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is music so powerful? What are your favorite songs? Your least favorite songs? Why?
  2. What is the role of music within the church? How can music help convey the gospel?
  3. What should Javed’s father have done differently? What should Javed have done differently?
  4. Is music too important in our society? How can families find the right balance?

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

Blinded by the Light is rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs.

Reach El Paso vision tour inspires awareness on heels of tragedy

EL PASO  Two days. Eight churches. Two bilingual guides. The Aug. 19-20 Reach El Paso vision tour, planned by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention months earlier, saw a city rebounding from the kind of tragedy that magnifies spiritual needs.

“El Paso Strong” adorned t-shirts and marquees throughout the area, testifying to the community’s unity in the wake of the Aug. 3 shootings at a local Walmart.

The El Paso-Juarez (Mexico)-Las Cruces (N.M) Borderplex is home to 2.7 million mostly Spanish speaking and bilingual residents. Only 30 percent of El Paso residents speak just English. SBTC research indicates the vast majority do not attend church regularly, although a popular website claims nearly 60 percent are “religious,” and 3.5 percent describe themselves as “Baptist.”

Joining SBTC church planting strategists Chuy Avila and Jorge Diaz were pastors Kevin Barke, Fellowship Baptist, Saginaw; Robert Murphy, Alamo Heights Baptist, Midland; and R.J. Nanny, Ridgecrest Baptist, Commerce. Nanny was joined by church member Daniel Smith.

To convey the pulse of the city, Avila drove the group along the Cesar Chavez border highway and through dusty neighborhoods of flat-roofed stucco houses. They visited a hastily erected memorial for the recent shooting victims, saw suburban xeriscaping, and viewed El Paso and Juarez from a scenic overlook on Mt. Franklin.

On the first day of the tour, the group visited Iglesia Bautists Genesis, a 50-member church led by Gamalier Luna that has planted three other churches.

The participants also met with Sergio Lopez, pastor of La Verdad Community Church and Spanish associate director of the El Paso International School of Faith, where many planters have benefited from the low-cost Spanish and English college-level theological courses.

Before touring downtown El Paso, the group enjoyed Mexican cuisine with Tommy Rhode, a third-generation “preacher’s kid” who recently started Gateway City Church.

Day two began in the Triangulo del Diablo, the Devil’s Triangle, a neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs. Alvaro Castorena, an EPISF graduate, started El Triangulo de Cristo, a church in a converted building beside his home. He bought the property 35 years ago—back in the day when the streets were quiet.

“This was the worst part of El Paso,” Castorena told the group, adding that crime in the 20-street triangular area has decreased “little by little,” and even more since the church began five years ago.

Still, the transient population throughout the Triangle presents challenges.

“People come. They trust Christ,” Castorena said. “They move out and on, out of the neighborhood, on to new churches.”

“In many ways, this is a sending church,” Avila added.

Castorena’s church provides Sunday meals. A small room off the cobbled-together worship space is used for children’s ministries and VBS. Its needs include financial support, prayer, and assistance with an occasional festival outreach. An abandoned church building nearby would allow for growth, if the owners would consider selling or leasing.

The SBTC group prayer-walked the property.

Parks grace the neighborhoods of El Paso, and festivals are possible for churches like Castorena’s because of Tears of Joy (Lagrimas de Gozo), a ministry directed by another EPISF graduate, Juan Vasquez, pastor of the Agua de Vida (Water of Life) Baptist Church, the tour’s next stop.

Agua de Vida recently moved into a small building provided at nominal cost by the adjacent First Korean Baptist Church. Cleared of debris, repainted and rewired, the church plant that previously met in homes is poised to grow.

Vazquez, a mechanic who like the other planters is bi-vocational, started Tears of Joy with donations, including Cooperative Program (CP) funds from the SBTC. The ministry provides training and equipment like games and bounce houses for block party outreaches.

Vazquez is known as the block party expert, with Bible, bike and toy giveaways, free food, short sermons and motivation for guests to memorize John 3:16. Each festival costs about $500 to host; financial support is an ongoing need.

“When Spanish or Anglo churches want to do a festival, they contact him,” Avila said.

Tears of Joy holds monthly festivals in Juarez and has scheduled seven in El Paso this year, including a block party at El Angel, a park known as the “Evil Angel.”

After lunch, the vision tour continued in Northeast El Paso, at Iglesia Bautista Internacional, where associate pastor Carlos Mejia spoke in a sanctuary with rafters full of international flags.

An active and influential church in the community, Internacional, with about 70 members, conducts weekly outreaches to children in Juarez and a ministry to seniors every other Wednesday.

The church desires to host mission teams coming to work on projects for other churches, and while there is sufficient housing, Mejia said the addition of shower stalls in two restrooms would make it more practical for teams.

On the road again, the group headed outside El Paso, past cotton fields and pecan orchards, to Fabens to visit the family of Marco Antonio Orozco at Iglesia Bautista Jesucristo Redentor, a church started in their garage five years ago. Two elderly ladies who owned the former First Christian Church of Fabens offered the abandoned building once they learned of the Orozcos’ need.

The church features beautifully crafted wooden ceilings but lacks signage, air conditioning, suitable flooring, and money to pay for Sunday meals to serve the hungry.

Santa Muerte cultic worship and witchcraft pervade the community, Avila explained.

“It is a spiritual battle in Fabens,” Avila said, “and also in San Elizario,” the location of planter Marcos Jacinto’s Iglesia Bautista Dios Con Nuestros church, the tour’s next stop.

Once housed in a former bar (see http://texanonline.net/archives/5548/), Dios Con Nuestros meets in a trailer on property purchased after they were given two weeks to move.

The church, which calls itself “more than a family,” squeezes 50 adults into the renovated space, with children’s ministries outside.

Its greatest need is for a multifunctional building for its ministries to young families, teens, the displaced, and those lacking extended family.

The tour’s final stop was at Semilla de Mostaza (Mustard Seed) Centro Familiar Internacional, a church pastored by Diaz and housed in the chapel of Immanuel Baptist, minutes from the Cielo Vista Walmart, where the recent shooting took place.

Diaz, with church administrator Graciela Acosta, said the Spanish language church migrated to Immanuel after a series of temporary locations. At the request of Immanuel’s pastor, J.C. Rico, the churches meet simultaneously to offer services in Spanish and English. Children who go to Semilla de Mostaza attend Sunday School at Immanuel.

As the two-day tour drew to a close, Diaz, a veteran church planter and pastor, asked participants for advice on reaching nearby apartment dwellers.

The lively dialogue as younger pastors shared ideas with an attentive Diaz epitomized the two-day experience of cooperation and mutual respect.

Participants praised Avila, Diaz and the planters.

“This is one of the best vision trips I have been on,” Nanny said. “Our motive was to figure out what the local guys really need,” he added, noting his church, with Avila’s counsel, would be exploring how to help.

Barke said networking among the churches to coordinate efforts in El Paso would be helpful, while Murphy said the tour provided “perspective” on the men’s own ministries.

For the SBTC, the vision for El Paso, La visión para El Paso, will continue long after the pain wrought by the recent tragedy subsides.

SBTC staff, El Paso pastors reflect on prayer rally

EL PASO – “God truly showed up,” at a prayer rally in a banquet setting Aug. 22 at Immanuel Baptist Church in El Paso, said Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. He and other convention staff and El Paso pastors reflected on the event SBTC sponsored event:

Jim Richards, SBTC executive director: The SBTC staff was privileged to minister to those who are serving a hurting community. Through prayer and fellowship, all were encouraged. God truly showed up!”

Chuy Avila, SBTC church planting specialist: “I think the event covered a real need raised up in the last few weeks … for unity and to prove we can do something together: to reach El Paso with the power of the gospel. The rally helped us to [move out] of our comfort zones into team-working.”

Ted Elmore, SBTC prayer strategist: “I think it was a very blessed night in which we encouraged ourselves in the Lord.”

J.C. Rico, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church: “I believe the pastors were very appreciative [about] coming together, hearing from Dr. Richards, praying together, and knowing we are on the same page when it comes to ministering to those in grief and need. It was a good night.”

Sergio Lopez, pastor of La Verdad Community Church: “It was refreshing that so many pastors came together to pray and to see many staff from the SBTC and our director Dr. Richards bringing such an uplifting message.”

Jorge Diaz, pastor of Semilla de Mostaza Baptist Church and SBTC Reach El Paso strategist: Complimenting the bilingual structure of the evening: “It was a good meeting. Very encouraging. It went well.”

Prayer rally in El Paso supports pastors, wives

EL PASO – Fifty Baptist leaders—including El Paso pastors, their wives and Southern Baptists of Texas representatives—gathered Aug. 22 at Immanuel Baptist Church for an evening of worship, prayer, food and fellowship in preparation to serve together following the Aug. 3 shootings at the Cielo Vista Walmart.

Immanuel Baptist is only blocks from the Walmart where 22 people were slain by a lone gunman.

The ripple effect of the recent violence was remarkable for a city the size of El Paso. While not every pastor knew victims or their immediate families, most at the rally knew friends or distant relatives of victims, or first responders or employees of the Walmart.

“El Paso has long been a peaceful loving city. Then this kind of tragedy happens. It brings fear to the hearts of the people,” Sergio Lopez, pastor of La Verdad Community Church, told the TEXAN earlier.

People know one another in El Paso. Or they know someone who knows someone.

Preaching from the Old Testament biblical passage of Nahum 1:7, SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards told those gathered the acts that day were evil and reminded them of the spiritual warfare taking place in our world. 

“When people are being killed because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity or even their religion, it is nothing but evil. Human help and power fail us,” Richards said. “We must realize the evil we face is not flesh and blood. We are in a spiritual warfare. It’s only God who can help us get through these evil days.”

Only moments before Richards had enjoyed a light moment with Chuy Avila, an SBTC church planting specialist. Grinning at Avila, who was translating his sermon into Spanish, Richards said: “Well, I hope I have some friends out here who can tell me whether or not Chuy is saying what I am saying.”

Laughter erupted as Richards continued, “You pastors, help me. Be sure he is preaching my sermon.”

Richards asked the audience to use their phones to turn to Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of distress; he cares for those who take refuge in him.” He explained the historical context of Nahum, the prophet whose name means “comfort” and who predicted the destruction of Assyria—the “evil superpower” of its day—as the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem.

“[T]here is comfort in chaos,” Richards said, and believers can access God’s comfort by recognizing his “providence,” realizing nobody deserves God’s goodness.

“When we were unloving, unlovely, unlovable, God loved us,” Richards said, referencing Romans 2:4 before relating the story of Joseph, sold into slavery, falsely accused, imprisoned and later elevated to prominence.

“So God is good despite the evidence,” he said, quoting Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28.

Of God, Richards proclaimed, “He enables us to go through what he doesn’t deliver us from,” referencing Philippians 4:13, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Ephesians 5:18.

From Romans 8:35-39, he reminded the audience to be filled with God’s Spirit.

Likening God’s affection to “loving with intensive care,” Richards encouraged those in the room to trust, quoting 1 Peter 5:7. He and reassured listeners of the “intimate and eternal relationship” with God through Christ promised in John 10:27-28.

“God will bring evil to an end. He will reign supreme over all. He is our comfort,” Richards urged, before closing in prayer.

Immanuel Baptist worship leaders Olivia DeLeon and Daniel Rico led in music, while Ted Elmore, SBTC prayer mobilization strategist, invited local pastors to pray between hymns and praise songs.

Tim Thompson of Mountain View Baptist Church reminded the audience “the battle and the victory are won already.”

Lawrence Vanley, pastor of McCombs Baptist, followed Thompson, asking the Lord to increase the faith of those present, so that “mankind can know that here in El Paso, believers who trust in Jesus Christ are standing shoulder to shoulder against Satan.”

As Elmore introduced a time of prayer around the tables the lights dimmed and invocations in English and Spanish filled the room.

Following corporate prayer and music, Daniel Moreno, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Jezreel, prayed in Spanish and English for the police and first responders, city, state and federal authorities and their families: “Every day they are taking care of this city. Put on them the peace. Help them, Lord, to be trusting in you. El Paso is strong. Help us, Lord.”

La Verdad’s Lopez also prayed bilingually, asking the Lord to heal El Paso that the “love of Christ can conquer our hate, and faith and hope can dissipate all our fears.”

Elmore directed SBTC staff to move to different tables to pray before he closed the session in prayer, referencing the brightly lit star on a mountain overlooking El Paso.

The iconic symbol of hope originated as a Christmas decoration in 1940 and has long commemorated special events, blazing 444 consecutive days in 1979-80 during the Iranian hostage crisis. It is now lit nightly.

“Lord may our churches be shining lights just like the lights on the mountain. I pray that our churches would be the lights on the mountain, in the valley, and wherever we are,” Elmore prayed.

Richards ended the evening by inviting the area pastors and wives to attend the SBTC annual meeting in Odessa, Oct. 28-29 as guests of the convention. Transportation, hotel, Monday dinner, Tuesday breakfast and lunch will be provided, he said, and on Monday night of the annual meeting, El Paso pastors will be recognized with a special time of bilingual prayer.

Urging El Paso pastors to attend, Richards noted the convention’s Hispanic leadership in President Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist, Austin; and Jason Paredes, pastor of Fielder Church in Arlington and chairman of the SBTC committee on order of business.

Elmore planned and emceed the prayer event and was assisted by Avila who coordinated the location, food and music with Immanuel pastor J.C. Rico It was funded by the SBTC through the Cooperative Program.

Mike Gonzales, SBTC director of Hispanic ministries, offered those at the rally copies of the Fishers of Men Bible in English and Spanish (Biblia del Pescador) and Charles Swindoll’s Viviendo los Salmos (Living the Psalms). He also awarded gift baskets and restaurant gift cards to a few recipients.

REVIEW: “Overcomer” is inspiring, convicting and much-needed

John Harrison is a tenacious and determined high school boys’ basketball coach who has one goal in life: winning a state championship. 

Fortunately for Coach Harrison, all his best players are returning next season. Even better: the top players for the otherteam — you know, the one that eliminated his Brookshire Cougars in the postseason this year — are graduating.

“Next season, we take everything,” he tells his team.

Perhaps that elusive state championship trophy will finally be his.

But then the town’s largest employer closes. And then hundreds of employees transfer elsewhere, taking their families — and Harrison’s best players — with him. And then Harrison is forced to coach the cross country team, which has only one runner.

Overnight, Harrison goes from the coach of one of the state’s best basketball teams to a depressed man struggling for meaning and purpose. He’s searching for his identity in life — and so far, he hasn’t found it.

The faith-based film Overcomer(PG) opens this weekend, starring Alex Kendrick (Courageous, War Room) as Harrison; Shari Rigby (October Baby) as his wife, Amy; Priscilla Shirer (War Room) as principal Olivia Brooks; and newcomer Aryn Wright-Thompson as cross country runner Hannah Scott.

It is the first film for the director-producer tandem of Alex and Stephen Kendrick since their box office hit War Room, which shocked Hollywood by climbing to No. 1 on its second weekend in 2015. Prior to War Room, the Kendricks had a string of other hit films, including Courageous(2011) and Fireproof(2008) — each of which opened at No. 4 — and Facing the Giants(2006).

The Overcomerplot takes a turn when Harrison encounters a hospitalized man, Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett), who is filled with joy even though he is blind and in poor health.

Hill transforms Harrison’s outlook on life, and Harrison then impacts Hannah, a girl who grew up without a father and who is searching for direction in life, too.

Overcomer,like all Kendrick movies, has a biblical theme. Its promotional materials ask the question: What do you allow to define you? It’s similar to the question Thomas asks Coach Harrison: Who areyou? The Kendricks want moviegoers to consider whether their identity is found in the eternal Christ — as Ephesians 1-2 teaches — or in temporal, worldly things.

It’s the Kendricks’ sixth movie, and with each one, they further bury the “Christian films are cheesy” tired mantra.

Overcomer is entertaining. It’s engaging. It’s funny. It’s convicting. It’s inspiring. It has the right pace. It has a solid cast. Most importantly, it has a gospel-centric message that aims at your heart and soul. Two of my friends cried while screening it — from beginning to end. I shed a few tears, too.  

Overcomerhas the biggest budget ($5 million) yet of any Kendrick film, and it translates to the big screen from the get-go with an impressive drone shot of a basketball game.

LifeWay is offering OvercomerBible studies and books for every age that spotlight the identity theme. Unlike most Hollywood movies, this is a film that churches can get behind.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. A primary character dies at the end of the film.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

None.

Coarse Language

None.

Other Positive Elements

The film includes tight-nit, loving families — both black and white. It shows a husband and wife working through problems and parents loving their children. 

Life Lessons

Reconciliation is possible: The plot begins with one major character apparently hating another one, but by the film’s end, they come together.

Redemption is beautiful:We learn Thomas made a major mistake in life he regrets. He is given a chance to make things right.

Eternal things matter the most: What’s more important: a basketball title, or one’s relationship with Christ?    

Worldview/Application

Early in the film, Thomas poses a question to Coach Harrison that becomes the crux of the film: “If I asked you who are, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?”

Harrison offers a series of answers that fall short: Basketball coach? History teacher? Husband? Father? Each time, Thomas responds: If all of those were stripped away, what would your identity be then?

It’s a question each one of us should ask.

Of course, we may say we know the answer — our identity is found in Christ — but how many of use are living that truth out each day? Too often, we find our identity in our jobs. Or in our hobbies. Or in our possessions. Or in our family and friends. That, in turn, results in a life void of joy. It also adds stress and confusion when troubles arise.

Hannah hits the bullseye in the middle of the movie when she summarizes the opening verses of Ephesians:

“I am created by God. He designed me, so I’m not a mistake. His Son died for me, just so I could be forgiven. He picked me to be his own, so I’m chosen. He redeemed me, so I am wanted. He showed me grace, just so I could be saved. He has a future for me because He loves me. So I don’t wonder anymore, Coach Harrison. I am a child of God.”

Discussion Questions

1. How would you identify yourself? What do you find your identity in? How would God identify you?

2. What changes do you need to make in your life to affirm your identity in Christ?

3. Why is our identity in Christ so significant?

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

Overcomer is rated PG for some thematic elements.

We are one in the Spirit

This summer has been a busy time of events, planning and working. Several ministries have been highlighted in this issue of the TEXAN. Migrants have been served in Jesus name along the Rio Grande. There are seven SBTC churches that provided the gospel along with necessities to those who were released from shelters. The largest training event in Texas and perhaps in the Southern Baptist Convention took place at the EQUIP Conference. Champion Forest Baptist Church hosted over 2,500 laypersons and ministers. Student camps recorded record numbers as well. Many students came to Christ, and others answered the call to service. 

SBTC Director of Convention Strategies Kenneth Priest reported to the Executive Board about revitalization. The SBTC and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are working together by having Dr. Priest serve as the interim director of the Center for Church Revitalization until a permanent employee can be secured. This will enhance the convention’s ability to assist more churches in addition to the roughly 150 churches currently in the SBTC revitalization process.

With all of the wonderful works of God, there was also evil and heartbreak. A demonic young man opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso. His racist-inspired rampage took the lives of innocent people simply because of their skin color. In the face of evil, SBTC Disaster Relief chaplains trained in ministering to those grieving went to El Paso with the love of Jesus. Hundreds of prayers were offered, numerous contacts were made in the hospitals and public places along with sharing the gospel everywhere. Seeds were sown. One person professed faith in Christ. Our hearts are saddened by the unthinkable tragedy. I along with other SBTC staff will continue to minister in El Paso over the next months. We will not let hate and violence triumph.

This year prior to the SBTC Annual Meeting at FBC Odessa Oct. 28-29 there will be a “Look Like Heaven” Symposium. The pre-convention session begins at noon on Monday and will be a time to learn how churches can work in their communities to bring about peace through the Prince of Peace. 

The world is against us. The devil hates us. Our own flesh rebels against a holy God. In the power of the Holy Spirit we can overcome the world, overpower the devil and oversee the flesh. When we walk in the Spirit we are one.  

Financial stewardship matters

I didn’t learn to be a tither when I was growing up; my wife taught me that after she was my wife. In fact, most aspects of discipleship came to me from Tammi or from my professors and peers at Criswell College during my early 20s. The church that licensed me never asked about money and neither did the one that ordained me, though my ordination council was very thorough by today’s standards. I served on staff for several churches and none of them asked me about my giving habits that I remember. I only now consider that puzzling. It would be easy to get the idea that this aspect of following Christ is not very important, or is too private to speak of. 

Five of the churches I’ve been a member of, including the one that baptized me when I was 10, have closed their doors. Money was a big factor, one of the two most obvious factors, in these transitions. But we all know that giving and attendance are usually symptoms of some other malady. Frankly, most of those churches didn’t teach my generation to give because they just assumed we would intuit that the Bible teaches stewardship. Nope. Even my former churches that are still moving along struggle with very low participation in service and giving. 

I started thinking about this when I saw a newsletter from an old friend who consults with churches on capital campaigns. He was noting a Barna study that showed the different attitude toward giving that people under 40 demonstrate. This Millennial generation gives spontaneously, based on sentiment, I’m told. His point was that we are going to see a rapid drop off in giving over the next few years. In response to that, some ministries and churches encourage giving by text or even an app that allows them to capture the moment of inspiration the young person might be feeling. One app, called Millie, features a few causes at a time and enables a person to give to causes formerly unknown. The few rotate so that the spontaneous giver has other options when the app is opened next time. I don’t gainsay efforts to get ahead of trends, and I don’t deny that generations have different tendencies, but I do disagree with the attitude that a trend is fate. We are not marketers chasing the cultural curve; we are prophets, teachers, disciplers and preachers of revealed truth. There is an important “ought to” in this discussion rather than just an “is.” My Baby Boomer generation did not neglect giving or other expressions of commitment and devotion because we are anti-establishment; we turned away from these things because our role models didn’t seem to value them. Consider some “oughts” about Christian financial stewardship. 

Leaders ought to know what God says about money. My friend Bart McDonald recently reminded me that Malachi 3:10 (“tithe into the storehouse…”) and 2 Corinthians 9:7 (“…cheerful giver”) don’t exhaust what the Bible says about money, greed, treasure, gratitude and faith. I’ve heard a theology of evangelism preached in church as well as theologies of marriage, childrearing, rock music and television—but no theology of giving except during a capital campaign or budget slump. We should study it more diligently. 

Leaders ought to give generously to their church. I would say tithe at least, but I’m not going to argue with you about that number. That means deacons, teachers, music leaders and pastors should model what they teach and what they believe should happen. Tammi and I raised three Millennials who are not sentimental, occasional church members. They have decided to do generally what they heard us teach and saw us do. Church members will give if their leaders show giving to be important to them. The fact that a church will not consider a deacon or pastor who doesn’t come to church but commonly elevates men to these roles without asking them about other spiritual disciplines is a clear message to those who watch them lead.

Preach it brothers! If God says it and you believe it, say so. I’ve known evangelistic pastors who never taught their churches to witness, teetotaler pastors who never said what they believed to be the best way to handle beverage alcohol and prayer warriors who never challenged the church to join them. What do you think happened? 

Follow up. If I stop coming to church, somebody will eventually call or stop by to ask how we’re doing. If I stop showing up to teach my class, I’ll get an even quicker response. If I stop giving, who notices? Who has the nerve to ask me what is happening between me and God that causes me to neglect this aspect of devotion? Again, if it’s important people will know it’s important, and we as church leaders will expend ourselves to say so. 

There are books, experts, study guides and even not-for-profit ministries available to help churches design and implement a plan, just like there are for evangelism. My point is not to tell anyone what to do but to say that most churches should probably be more interested in this subject than is apparent to their members. Inaction has spiritual consequences that outlive the organizational ones that usually get our attention.  

Suffering adds power to pastoral ministry, Houston planter says

HOUSTON  A church planter in Houston has seen God implement what he calls a “ministry of suffering” in his local church after his 4-year-old son was born with a heart defect that has required three open heart surgeries.

Cameron Whitley and his wife Hannah had two sons and were expecting a third when they learned from a routine sonogram that the baby was missing a right ventricle, or essentially had half a heart. 

Whitley had grown up at Fielder Church in Arlington and was on staff in the youth department there while in college at Dallas Baptist University. He served six years on staff at The Woodlands Church near Houston before moving to the Atlanta area in 2014 to serve as a campus pastor at Mountain Lake Church in Cumming, Ga.

The Whitleys had been in Georgia about a year and a half when they learned their third son, Judson, would face such a difficult journey, and, as Cameron recounted to the TEXAN, “We thought our world was unraveling.”

“Unfortunately, there is a bad theology we can have as believers where we think, ‘If I walk in obedience, if I walk in faith, then everything is going to be great for me.’ Sometimes we believe that lie,” Whitley said. “For us, it was really disheartening. It challenged our faith. It challenged our calling. It challenged our ability to remain hopeful in the midst what seemed like tragedy. 

“We didn’t know what Day 1 would look like for Judson, much less what his life would look like. We were battling through the pregnancy with a lot of anxiety and fear.”

Judson was born in the spring of 2015, and when he was three days old he had his first open heart surgery, and in the aftermath he developed a wound infection that required more surgery. He was hospitalized for the first seven weeks of his life, and God used that time to work in his parents’ spiritual lives.

“Hannah and I would leave every morning around 5:30 or 6, we’d go to the hospital and stay until about 4 p.m. … My wife and I spent an hour on the drive there together, we spent all day at his bedside, talking and praying and reading while we were there with him, and then we would drive an hour and a half or more back home,” Whitley said.

“What that really did for us, that’s probably the most concentrated time that we had spent together in our entire relationship.” 

All the while, God was preparing them for a new church planting assignment. 

In the weeks that followed, Whitley was led to travel to Texas, where he sensed God calling him to plant a new church in a growing area of northeast Houston. Despite the upheaval in their family that accompanied bringing home a new baby with extra needs, the Whitleys followed God’s leading and moved to Houston to plant a church.

By then, Judson had endured a second open heart surgery at five months old and again had acquired an infection that meant weeks of hospitalization in Atlanta, but he was improving. The Whitleys hosted three vision nights for the new plant and—through inviting friends and spreading the word on social media—developed a core group that grew from 28 people in March 2016 to 65 people in August. 

“We baptized six people on our core team. A lot of our core team were believers. Some of them weren’t,” Whitley said. “Four of the six were our neighbors that we had grown in relationship with. We had an energizing start to what has been an amazing journey.”

In September 2016, West Lake Church was launched with 241 people in attendance. Sponsored by Fielder Church, they’ve been meeting at Summer Creek High School and are averaging 220 people as they approach their third anniversary, Whitley said. 

“Church planting is 10 times more overwhelming than a person could imagine, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a very redeemed ‘overwhelming.’”

Judson had his third and what doctors expect was his final open heart surgery last November, and despite many people praying that he wouldn’t get an infection, he did.

“It was a kick in the stomach for us,” Whitley said. Hannah was pregnant at the time with their fourth son, and “it was very deflating for us.” The infection meant a two-and-a-half-week hospital stay that coincided with Christmas and New Year’s.

“Planting has been the easiest part of the last four years,” Whitley said, comparing something that is hard enough on its own to something that no parent wants his or her child to have to face. 

After the first six months of Judson’s life, considering what the Whitleys had been through physically with their son and spiritually with the Lord in that season, “it was kind of like, ‘What could be harder than that? What would he ask us to do that would require more faith or more endurance or more hope than that?’” Whitley said.

“To a degree, the old cliché of refining took place for us, and … what ended up being a beautiful thing at West Lake Church is the ministry of suffering and how needed that is in a church body, in a church family.

“If there’s never a recognition, if there’s never a testimony, if there’s never a speaking of suffering, then you lose the power of grace, you lose the power of mercy, you lose the power of fellowship, you lose the power of hope,” Whitley said. “I think one thing that it’s done for us as shepherds is allowed other people, specifically at West Lake and even just friends we have who aren’t a part of church, to see an openness of suffering, which is a very specific ministry.”

Through social media in particular, Hannah has been able to shepherd other women who are walking through similar trials with their children, and she even has ministered to mothers whose children have died. 

“For my wife and I, there’s a very specific testimony that is interwoven into West Lake Church because of Judson,” Whitley said.  

Texans debate how to “welcome the stranger”

AUSTIN—Representatives from religious, business and law enforcement gathered in Austin Aug. 15 to discuss the impact of immigration on the U.S. economy, culture and communities. Sponsored by the pro-immigration non-profit group National Immigration Forum, the speakers avoided political rhetoric, for the most part, and focused on the long-overdue need for immigration reform in our nation.

Most speakers failed to make a distinction between people residing in the U.S. legally or illegally and gave only a little practical guidance on how individuals and churches can seek to aid in the assimilation of newcomers into their communities regardless of their immigration status. But secular and Christian leaders agreed that recognizing the fundamental dignity of all people should be foundational to the immigration debate.

Austin Stone Community Church hosted the event which drew about 60 people.

Some Christians cite a moral tension between the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger” to abide by the law. So, people don’t do anything, said David Smith, director of the Austin Baptist Association.

“If you can’t figure that out, you still have a fundamental responsibility before God to love your neighbor. So, you’ve got to go and do that,” Smith reminded.

Christians stuck in that moral paradox “soften” their views on immigration once they begin living out that biblical mandate. The faith community needs to take the lead on the immigration debate despite division in the church over topic, Smith said.

Local law enforcement must work within that tension as well. Keeping the peace in their communities – which include illegal immigrant residents – doesn’t mean ignoring federal immigration law, but rather,  prioritizing local law and safety, said Andy Harvey, police chief of Palestine, Texas, and a member of the Immigration Forum.

Creating a safe environment for his East Texas town requires that all residents, regardless of their immigration status, feel safe, he explained. Fear of reprisals for being in the country illegally often prevents people from reporting crimes to the police which makes their neighborhoods less safe.

And there are many people who entered or have stayed in the country illegally who want to rectify the situation, but current policies give few options, he argued. Leaving the country and waiting years to apply legally for entry is not a viable option for people with children who are American citizens, according to the chief.

So, they stay.

Resistance to all forms of immigration has disturbing roots said Tim Moore, an SBC pastor and spokesman for the Evangelical Immigration Table. Population studies indicate the U.S. soon will be a minority-majority nation.

Whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the U.S. population by 2045, according to a March 2018 U.S. census report.  Hispanics will make up 24.6 percent of the population, while Blacks and Asians will represent 13.1 and 7.9, respectively.

Immigration and birth rates indicate Texas will be majority Hispanic by 2030, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

“Nativist” ideology among some white Americans who make their views known to their state and federal legislators poisons attempts to reconcile the two sides of the debate, according to Moore, in arguing for change. They claim that some conversations in churches and with legislators project a fear of cultural changes driven by immigration, he said.

“What’s our problem? Can America be America if the Anglos don’t rule? That’s the issue,” he insisted.

The EIT represents a collaboration of evangelicals seeking government reform of outdated immigration policies. Its six-point policy objective calls on Congress to end the decades-long stalemate.

“It’s illegal to break the law,” Moore said, referring to illegal immigration. “But it is equally immoral not to enforce the law for decades and then decide to retroactively begin to enforce the law. That’s unconscionable in America.”

Signatories to the EIT statement include some Southern Baptist entities and several prominent Southern Baptist pastors.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle were the objects of criticism from conference speakers. Both  Republicans and Democrats use it as a wedge issue, some speakers contended, adding that resolving the issue removes ammunition from their rhetorical arsenal.

The National Immigration Forum supports legislation allowing people to stay in the country legally while also expediting the means of entry for people of all skill levels. Some participants criticized the Trump administration’s emphasize on legal immigration for people with degrees and high-tech skill sets, claiming he is ignoring the need for workers in the labor industry.

But Moore expects the status quo will stand.

Travis Wussow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission countered with a strong reason for hope. His work on Capitol Hill advocating for policies SBC messengers have supported by way of resolutions in annual meetings has involved him in discussions with a bipartisan group of legislators determined to solve the problem.

Wussow, ERLC’s vice president for public policy and general counsel, recalled hearing one legislator who began a meeting saying, “‘Look, there’s 11 million people in this country illegally. We’re not going to deport all of them. So, what are we going to do about it?’”

The frankness of the question took Wussow by surprise. And the candor gave him hope. Because the talks are in the preliminary stage he did not want to name those involved. But, he said, the person leading the debate is a Southern Baptist who is letting Scripture determine “what is right and just.”

And Wussow knows Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin as well as the School of Law, he previously served on the staff of an SBTC church before joining the ERLC.

The proposals being considered address both sides of the moral paradigm, he said. It creates punitive civil penalties against those who entered and stayed in the country illegally while creating a means of legalization – not citizenship – for those same people.

For now, just gaining traction is an answer to prayer for the Texas crowd who made the trip to Austin for six hours of dialogue.