Month: January 2020

REVIEW: “Dolittle” is a charming animal-themed film with a good message

John Dolittle is a quirky-but-brilliant doctor who doesn’t like people — and who hides in his manor hoping never to see two-legged creatures again.

He prefers fury, four-legged friends. Like elephants. And giraffes. And bears. They never let him down. They talk to him. And — get this — he has the ability to understand them and talk back. 

Still, Dr. Dolittle wasn’t always a recluse. Years ago, he was married to a famous explorer named Lily, who traveled the globe with him to save animals from mankind’s exploits.

They were a great team. Tragically, though, she died at sea during an expedition, and he was left a depressed widower, wondering what might have been.

He seems destined to die a hermit.

But then the queen of England summons him to her castle. She has fallen ill, and needs his medical expertise to find out what’s wrong. 

Dolittle talks to her pet octopus, who tells him the queen has been poisoned.

Can Dr. Dolittle find a cure before she dies?

The family film Dolittle (PG) opens in theaters this weekend, starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man in the Marvel films) as Dolittle and a host of well-known talent as the animals: Emma Thompson, John Cena, Tom Holland, Selena Gomez and Octavia Spencer.

The movie is based on the character by author Hugh John Lofting, but it’s an entirely different story from the 1998 film starring Eddie Murphy. The newest film follows Dolittle as he journeys across the ocean in search of a mysterious island that is home to a plant (the Eden Tree) that can cure the queen.

Dolittle is a mostly family-friendly film that children will enjoy, even if most mainstream critics are bashing it. It even has a few good messages.  

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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


Minimal. The film opens with a scene of duck hunters; a squirrel is accidentally shot. (It survives.) A ship fires a cannon at another ship; it explodes but no one is hurt. Dolittle battles a tiger that wants to kill him. A member of the queen’s court wants her killed. The movie’s most disturbing moment involves a fire-breathing dragon. (It’s implied the dragon eats/kills a bad guy, although we don’t see it.) Eventually, though, Dolittle tames the dragon.


None. A girl kisses a boy on the cheek.

Coarse Language

Minimal. A bad guy, toward the end of the film, says “d–n” and then “G-d” in quick succession. Another character says OMG (or oh my gosh). We also hear “doo doo,” “butt” and “lucky.” 

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

A whale plays in the water, flipping his fin up and down. Another whale jokes that he’s “flipping” off the bad guy. 

Life Lessons

There is life after a tragedy: Dolittle became a recluse after his wife’s death, but then — thanks to friends and a few strangers — re-discovers purpose in life.

Helping others brings joy: Dolittle is given a task (saving the queen) and finds joy in the job. It’s the movie’s primary theme.


Dolittle is a movie about a lot of things.

On the one hand, it encourages us to take care of God’s creation — an idea that should be commended.

On the other hand, Dolittle himself implies that humans are the same as animals — an idea antithetical to Scripture. (“We’re all animals. … We just belong together,” he says.)

But if you can look past that one caveat — and it’s not hard when we’re laughing at his antics — then Dolittle has a few good messages.

“It’s only by helping others that we can truly help ourselves,” the narrator tells us.

I would place “glorifying God” at the top of the list, but helping others does, indeed, give us a sense or purpose in life. It’s as if God hard-wired us to put others first. Of course, he did (Philippians 2:3.)

Final Verdict

Dolittle is a film that must be viewed through the eyes of a child. When the credits rolled, I asked my oldest children (ages 11 and 8) what they thought. They loved it. I enjoyed it, too.

Discussion Questions

1. How are we “helped” by helping others? Why does helping others bring joy?

2. Are we just “animals”? What did God say in Genesis about this subject?

3. Does God want us to protect animals, such as ones that might be going extinct? 

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

Dolittle is rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language. 

Law addresses church members who carry firearms to church

In the wake of a tragic shooting at a church in East Fort Worth on Dec. 29, the TEXAN spoke with Mike Gurley of Teamworks Security who also serves as a consultant in the area of church security for the SBTC. 

TEXAN: What are the laws and the rights of church relative to church members who carry firearms to church meetings?

Mike Gurley: In 1997, when conceal and carry first became law in Texas, churches, hospitals and nursing facilities were prohibited places. In 1999, the legislature modified churches, hospitals and nursing facilities to require notice to prohibit carry concealed. Churches were still on the list [of prohibited places], but in reality, minus a prohibition, anyone could carry. That rocked along until in the 86th legislature, Donna Campbell introduced a bill that didn’t change the law but clarified the law. The law took them [hospitals, churches and nursing homes] off the prohibited places list. It clarified the law. To say there’s a new law, well, there is a new law because it’s completely written differently. A church is no longer a prohibited place.

Any facility in the state of Texas has the right to prohibit conceal and now, since 2016, open carry. So, a church has the option now of posting on their entrances, handing out a written material, if they choose not to post, or they can do it orally, to either prohibit concealed carry, open carry, or both. So the question that came up in 2016 was to clarify that unless there’s a notice to prohibit it, any member/visitor can come to any church, and carry concealed or open carry.

TEXAN: If they’re legally licensed, right?

Gurley: Yes, that’s a good footnote. So, the question has come up prior to these recent events is, “Should we prohibit?” And we highly recommend that they prohibit open carry. Open carry causes a big distraction and the last thing we want to do is to distract from that worship experience. So, if we’re asked, we recommend that. The part about concealed carry is, first of all, if a person is properly concealing you’re never going to know that they’re carrying. The second thing is the legal ramification or the liability ramification if you prohibit, because you know lawsuits come out of almost every critical event that happens. If there were to be some kind of aggressive act and somebody who could have defended themselves based on their license to carry was prohibited, then the liability could shift to the church. Most of the churches we’ve dealt with do not prohibit concealed carry.

TEXAN: What about church security teams? 

Two and a half years ago the 85th legislature deregulated church security. That was a landmark decision. Prior to that any security service in the state of Texas fell under the Private Security Bureau (PSB), which is a subset of the DPS (Department of Public Safety), so the PSB had regulatory oversight, but when that bill went into effect churches could do whatever they want as far as their security teams. They don’t have to call them anything different—they can call them security. The only prohibition is they can’t be in uniform. They can’t have anything that says security. But, other than that, they can arm their people, they can train them, they can choose not to train them. It pretty much opened the door for a church to decide what security is and if they wanted to arm them or if they did not.  

TEXAN: You said they couldn’t be in uniform, so they can’t have a shirt on that says “Security,” but they could have a shirt on that says “First Baptist Church.”

Gurley: Sure, definitely, yes.

TEXAN: So uniform dress as long as it’s not an implied security service uniform?

Gurley: The issue is, and that’s a good point, what the aim of “they can’t be in uniform” is—meaning they don’t want them to look like a security guard. It can say “Staff,” it can say “Event Staff.” The whole idea of people naming it something other than security was some misinformation that came out a number of years ago where a consultant said, as long as you don’t call it that, they don’t regulate it. That’s not true. When they were regulating church security, they were regulating the service of security, not what you called them.

TEXAN: The function?

Gurley: Yes. So again, that clarified it. We highly recommend that every church have somebody whose responsibility is the health and safety of the guests and members of their church. Pastors have bigger things to prioritize, [as do] the worship pastor, the youth pastor—it’s good to have a person, whether it’s a volunteer or a staff person, whose priority is the safety of anyone that walks in that door. As a specialist for the SBTC, that’s what we try to assist a church in developing and then going forward in training. 

Would you like a consultation in church security? Contact Mark Yoakum

REVIEW: “Just Mercy” raises troubling questions about death row convictions

Walter McMillian is a middle-aged black man in Alabama who is sitting on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. 

Years earlier, an 18-year-old white woman was brutally murdered, and McMillian—despite having multiple alibis who said he was at a church fish fry—was convicted and sentenced in a trial that lasted but a day and a half.

With his appeals having been exhausted, McMillian needs a miracle before he dies for something he didn’t do.

Enter Bryan Stevenson, a young black attorney who shares McMillian’s belief that the legal system is biased against poor people who aren’t white. Just out of law school, Stevenson wants to move from Delaware to the Deep South and fight for people who have been wrongly accused — and who need an advocate who understands their plight. 

His first client: McMillian.

“It could have been me, mama,” Stevenson tells his mother, explaining why he’s willing to risk his safety to defend convicted criminals. “.. You always taught me to fight for the people who need the help the most”    

But can Stevenson find new evidence to free McMillian before it’s too late?

The movie Just Mercy (PG-13) expands to theaters nationwide this weekend, telling the true story of an attorney, Stevenson, who defended McMillian and who founded an organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, that fights for the wrongly accused and also works to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment. It stars Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) as Stevenson, Jamie Foxx (Ray) as McMillian, and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) as Stevenson’s assistant. 

It’s a gripping film that raises troubling questions about the legal system and the application of the death penalty. 

McMillian faced racism within the legal system when he was convicted in the 1980s, and Stevenson received death threats and pressure for wanting to free a supposedly guilty murderer. 

Just Mercy, based on Stevenson’s book, makes a strong case for criminal justice reform. 

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

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


Moderate. The film includes discussion of various crimes, although we never see the murders committed. We twice see a black man pulled from a car and a gun pointed at him. We see an arrest in the courtroom. The movie’s most troubling scene involves a man being placed in an electric chair. (We don’t see the actual death, but we hear the loud jolt.)  


Minimal. The phrase “sexually abused” is mentioned. Stevenson is forced to strip down naked before entering the prison, although we see only his upper body.

Coarse Language

Moderate. S–t (14), h-ll (7), d–n (6), n-word (4), a– (4), b–ch (1), GD (1) SOB (1).

Other Positive Elements

Family is a major theme. We see Stevenson’s father and mother tell him goodbye before he travels to Alabama. We see McMillian, in prison, looking at photos of his family. 

Brian prays with an inmate on death row. We see Brian in McMillian’s church alongside McMillian’s family, who are singing and clapping. 

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Characters drink and smoke.

Life Lessons

Do what’s right, even if it’s difficult: Stevenson faced bomb threats and death threats for representing McMillian.  

Live a life of service: Stevenson could have used his law degree for more popular ventures. Instead, he chose to represent those that society views as outcasts.  

Truth and justice matter: The legal system tossed McMillian in prison and forgot about him. Stevenson, though, wanted to right a wrong. He knew an innocent man was set to die. 


Just Mercy soars when it’s promoting justice and opposing wrongful convictions. It’s an idea grounded in Scripture and specifically the Mosaic Law, which says the death penalty should only be applied upon the evidence or two or more witnesses. A single witness isn’t sufficient (Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:5). 

For the modern world, this means the death penalty should only be applied when the evidence is clear-cut — and not, as was the case of Walter McMillian, when the physical evidence is non-existent and the lone witness cannot be trusted. (In the film, that lone witness was pressured by police into lying. Racism also apparently played a role)

God is a God of justice and truth who hates false accusations. The Ten Commandments, after all, say, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). The government is to bring “punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4) — not the innocent. 

Although McMillian’s case forms the core of the story, the film nevertheless takes a position on the death penalty itself.

“A girl is dead because of me,” a guilty man on death row says.

“That don’t give nobody the right to kill you back,” McMillian tells him.

Later, we watch the excruciating moments leading up to an execution via the electric chair — minus only the death itself. The film’s message is clear: This shouldn’t happen in America.  

The Equal Justice Institute claims that for every nine people who are executed, one person on death row has been exonerated. It’s a horrifying stat that should cause every attorney within the system to tremble, knowing that an innocent person may have been executed. (The Institute points to errors, inadequate counsel and racial bias as problems.)

The death penalty itself is supported in Scripture (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1-7), but society must ensure it is being applied properly. 

Stevenson, in the film, asserts that truth—and not a tally of wins and loses from each side in the legal system—should be the driving force for both the prosecution and defense. It’s wise advice. 

“Your job isn’t to defend a conviction. … It’s to achieve justice,” he tells the district attorney.

Final Verdict

Just Mercy is as inspiring as it is gripping and troubling. Thumbs up.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you support the death penalty? Why or why not?

2. What are the answers to fixing America’s troubled criminal system?

3. Has America changed since the 1980s? Explain your answer. 

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

Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets.  

Luter, Brunson, Reavis headline first afternoon of Empower Conference 

IRVING—Next month’s Empower Conference will kick off on the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 24, with one of the most diverse slates of plenary speakers and workshop sessions of any Christian leadership conference in the country in 2020.  

“There’s literally something for everyone,” said Shane Pruitt, who is the next-gen evangelism director at the North American Mission Board and is coordinating the conference on behalf of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “During that time, you have the Classics session going on with the music of Charles Billingsley. You have the preaching of Mac Brunson, Herb Reavis, and Fred Luter. That alone is a whole conference, those four guys.”

As Brunson, Reavis and Luter preach at the Classics session, author Jen Wilkin will lead the women’s session. Eleven different breakout sessions will take place at that time as well. All of the training during the two-day conference is designed to help Texas Southern Baptist church leaders be more effective in evangelism, missions and missional living.

The conference is supported through Cooperative Program gifts and costs nothing for attendees, who only need to pay for their meals. 

Fred Luter has served as the senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans since 1986. The New Orleans native became the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012. 

“He’s been so faithful through the years,” Pruitt said. “He’s a great preacher of the Word, a great illustrator, and he’s incredibly passionate and excitable. He will have you on your feet saying ‘amen’ without even realizing it.” 

Mac Brunson became the senior pastor of Valleydale Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2018 after more than a decade as the lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida.  He also has served as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. In 2003, he was the president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference.

“Mac Brunson is an incredible expositor of Scripture and an incredible illustrator with stories,” Pruitt said. “He’s a guy that has ‘done it,’ so it’s not theory for him. The Lord has used him for a long time.”

Pruitt calls Herb Reavis a passionate, funny and inspiring preacher who makes listeners “want to run through a brick wall.” Reavis has been the pastor of North Jax Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, since 1991.

Bible study teacher Jen Wilkin will lead the women’s session at Empower. Wilkin, who serves on the staff of The Village Church in Flower Mound, is the author of None Like Him, Women of the Word and In His Image, along with numerous Bible studies.

“She has the unique ability where all ages enjoy her, from the twenties on up,” Pruitt said. “I think it’s because she sticks so closely to the Word and explains the Scriptures really, really well.”

Pruitt also notes that a diverse slate of workshops will take place at the same time as well. 

“Some of those breakout teachers will also be teaching on the main stage,” Pruitt said. “I think it’s a unique opportunity. Twenty or 30 years ago, if you wanted to hear someone, you had to do it live. But now you can pull them up on YouTube. But what’s intriguing is that in a breakout you can sit in a small room with dozens of other people and be able to ask that speaker questions.”

The breakout sessions will be held in rooms that hold between 30 to 75 people. Some of the Monday afternoon breakout sessions include:

  • The High Impact Team: How to Attract and Motivate Young Leaders in this Changing World (Carey Nieuwhof) 
  • Pray Big Things: The Surprising Life God Has for You When You’re Bold Enough to Ask (Julia Sadler)
  • How to Reach Men with the Gospel (Ronnie Gaines)
  • Preaching and Teaching to the Next Generation (Grant Skeldon)
  • Reaching People Through Worship/Creative Arts (Logan Walter)

To register for the Empower Conference visit and to see a full schedule of the event, visit

Hong Kong church stands firm amid chaos

HONG KONG — Months of unrest and protests have transformed Hong Kong from a hub of global finance to an unpredictable place of upheaval. Butch Tanner, pastor of Kowloon International Baptist Church, sees the wear and tear from the last six months in the faces of his congregation. 

Three years ago, Tanner and his wife, Carole, arrived from Longview, Texas, where he had served at Oakland Heights Baptist Church. There’s no doubt Hong Kong life has changed since they arrived. The pastor sees his friends and neighbors struggling financially. He sees the strain between family members who pick different sides of the protested issues. Most importantly, though, he sees people searching for hope in the midst of uncertainty and crisis.

“We’ve been praying for years that Hong Kong would see its brokenness and boy do they ever now,” Tanner says, noting that an overwhelming sense of defeatism envelopes the city with every new protest. 

When the protests began in June the issues were about the government’s plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement from 1997, Hong Kong maintains some autonomy from China and its people enjoy certain rights. The extradition bill was eventually withdrawn in September yet protests continued. Now, protestors demand full democracy and an inquiry into actions taken by the police.

Thousands marched on New Year’s Day in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest authorized by the police. It ended in violent clashes with vandalism, tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray. It’s unclear how long the city itself can endure a movement that has resulted in 6,000 arrests and an economic recession. Tanner explains that most people doubt anything will change.

“People have lost faith in the government and even the movement. In the middle of this crisis, some people are looking for answers that they’ve never looked for before,” Tanner says. In the mostly Buddhist and Taoist city, more people have asked questions about his faith recently than the last few years combined. “If we, in the midst of chaos, can show how you stand firm in your faith, then it helps people see Jesus.”

KIBC chose not to take a side—of the protesters, the government or the police—but to minister, encourage and love. The church, though located near a university where several protests have taken place, has become a refuge from the chaos. It hosts special prayer nights for the congregation’s beloved city. In the pews each week sit people from all three sides, worshipping together.

Many in the congregation are first-generation Christians and the only ones in their families. They are growing in how they pray, Tanner says, especially during the crisis.

“They spent a lifetime offering fruit or incense to a series of gods, pleading for something they wanted. As a follower of Christ, we go to God and say, ‘God, make me like you. Help me to understand and give me wisdom,’” Tanner explains. “That’s a totally different approach. Praying like this puts our focus on God and not our own demands.”

One man says the church is the only thing that gets him centered for the chaos of the week. There, he remembers that what’s going on around him is beyond his control but not beyond God.

Tanner says there is a great desire for people to be free. He’s not talking about free of the government, the new financial woes or even free of the protests. 

“The desire is to be truly free. We’ve got the answer. We just have to be real clear with it,” Tanner explains. “The only way that can truly happen is through Jesus.”

KIBC reports there has been an unusually high number of baptisms in the last six months since the protests started. Several are waiting to be baptized, with even more interested in talking about a relationship with Christ.

“That seems to be a huge plus in the middle of all this,” Tanner adds.

No one knows how long the protests will last but one thing is certain: the effects are far from over. KIBC plans continue to minister, encourage and pray for their city. The need is great. The place to start is in prayer.

KIBC invites you to join them in praying for Hong Kong:

  • Pray for wisdom as KIBC walks through how they can help people focus on Christ in this crisis.
  • Pray that people who have realized the hopelessness would be open to the gospel.
  • Pray that new Christians would understand that they can trust Christ fully in everything.

Ronnie Floyd highlights Cooperative Program lunch during Empower Conference

IRVING—Ronnie Floyd will be the special guest speaker at the annual Cooperative Program lunch during the upcoming Empower Conference at the Irving Convention Center at Los Colinas on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 11:45 a.m.

The lunch will highlight ways Texas Southern Baptist churches are engaging the state, North America, and the world with the gospel through their gifts to the Cooperative Program. 

“We want to celebrate what God did last year [through the Cooperative Program] and prepare to praise God for the prospects of what he is going to do through us this year,” said Kenneth Priest, the director of convention strategies at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. 

Floyd became the president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee in 2018 after serving for more than three decades as the senior pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas. He also served as SBC president from 2014-2016. He has authored more than 20 books on prayer and discipleship. In addition, he was the president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force for two years.

Joseph Crider, who is the dean of the school of music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, will lead music during the lunch. Passionate about training the next generation of worship leaders, Crider has three decades of ministry experience and is a frequent speaker and clinician at worship conferences and churches throughout the country.

“We’ll be hearing from entity leaders during the lunch who benefit from the Cooperative Program, therefore they have a passion for this as much as we do,” Priest said. 

During the lunch, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention will recognize the top 10 Cooperative Program givers within the convention, both in terms of actual dollars and per capita giving. The convention will also recognize its top giving ethnic churches with “Looks Like Heaven” awards.

The Grand Ballroom of the convention center, where the lunch will be held, has a capacity of 450 to 500 people, which will limit the number of tickets available. Tickets are typically sold out by the time the conference begins but are available now at

Arlington church prepares future ministers for full-time vocational ministry

ARLINGTON Connor Torrealba didn’t have a bad job. The pay was good. The work environment was healthy. Torrealba figured he could stick with his career as a database analyst and live a happy life. 

But that job wasn’t what God had called him to do. God was leading him into vocational ministry. 

“In order to flesh out that calling, it takes time,” Torrealba said. “It’s not just a matter of I feel a sense of calling, now I know it and I’m just going to go do it. Maybe for some people it is. For me, it was a process of putting myself out there, trying this thing out, and then seeing what I really felt compelled toward on a really deep spiritual, emotional and a mental level. And I think ministry checks all of those boxes while the other stuff doesn’t quite make the cut.”

Torrealba recently quit his job to study full time at Criswell College in preparation for a life of ministry. He is one of a growing number of young people who have surrendered to a call to vocational ministry at Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington this year. The church’s staff recently presented to the church body seven students who had committed their lives to ministry. Torrealba is one of several other church members who had previously expressed a calling into full-time ministry.

Jared Wellman, pastor of Tate Springs, says he has been encouraged by the church’s recent wave of ministry callings. He noted that just down the street is Sagamore Baptist Church, which has a history of seeing people called into ministry. The church’s former pastor, Fred Swank, had been instrumental in the ministry calling of O.S. Hawkins and Jack Graham, among dozens of other ministers in Texas and beyond. And the church is currently pastored by Denny Gorena, the man under whom Wellman was called into ministry many years ago in East Texas.

“But as a pastor, for whatever reason, it seems like you don’t see or hear that much anymore,” Wellman said. “It seems like the whole conversation about ministry tends to be that everyone’s called into it. You just do your ministry where you’re at. There’s less of a focus on those set aside specifically for [vocational] ministry. I think both are true. I think everyone is called to minister, but I also think there has to be a focus from the church on identifying people who are called [to full-time ministry].”

It’s no accident that Tate Springs has seen a surge in vocational ministry callings. The church has long been focused on giving people an opportunity to serve. For example, as Torrealba began wrestling with his call into full-time ministry three years ago, the church asked him to help start a young adults ministry in the church. During the past three years, the ministry, called The Spring, has grown from just a handful to around 30 people on a typical week. Last year, the ministry took its first mission trip, where they served in the city of Boston.

“It has been really cool to have that experience to try things out and learn and get your hands into the engine of how ministry works and to get a chance to be creative,” Torrealba said. “That opportunity with The Spring has been monumental for me in crystalizing the vision and the calling in my heart.”

Corban Redman also grew up at Tate Springs and has surrendered to ministry. Like Torrealba, he points to the helpful opportunities the church has given him to explore ministry—both while he was still in high school and currently as a worship intern at the church. Redman also appreciates regular opportunities to sit down with Tate Springs pastors to talk through what his calling means. 

Redman remembers one particular conversation he had with Wellman as he was preparing to graduate high school and trying to decide what to study in college. He says his pastor asked if he felt he could be satisfied doing anything other than serving in vocational ministry. 

“I just knew immediately that I could not have some kind of outside job and feel content with my level of service,” Redman said. “I feel like I would have needed to come to the church every night and do so mething, whether it was cleaning the floors or something else.”

Redman says he still isn’t sure exactly what kind of ministry God is calling him into. The college sophomore enjoys ministering to youth, but he particularly feels led to music ministry. 

When people experience a calling into ministry at Tate Springs, the church tries to connect them with a pastor who can walk them through their particular ministry direction. Earlier this year, David Stokes, who was relatively new to the church, told Wellman that God was calling him into ministry. According to Stokes, Wellman has helped to guide him through his next steps. 

“He’s just been great alongside that journey with me. He hasn’t held anything back as far as information and advice and just walking alongside of me,” Stokes said. 

Wellman looks forward to seeing how God will use the leaders he is calling out of Tate Springs today.

“We want our pastors intentionally pouring into people who are called into ministry,” Wellman said. “We’re seeing people called to ministry here, but we’re also looking for people who are called into ministry. It has been cool to see.”  

Gideon’s fleece goes high tech

PEARLAND Gideon had his fleece. Pastor Chris Clemons had his cell phone, Google maps, Facebook and a book recommendation. Both men had questions. Both had the ear of a patient and gracious God.

About 120 new straight-backed, black vinyl-covered chairs filled the sanctuary-in-the-making at The Way of Life Church in Pearland, Texas. Most still had the protective plastic sheeting wrapped around them. On Oct. 29, the 3-year-old, multi-racial church plant was months into a relocation and renovation gone awry and days from its first worship service in the new location. Clemons pulled up one of the few chairs freed from the plastic covering to the audio-visual table in the back of the room.

“This past summer was the most difficult. This. This,” he said, gesturing to the unfinished work in the room. “Obviously, it’s not the place of faith you’re supposed to be in but, humanly speaking, you just feel like, ‘O.K. God. Am I failing you?’”

What’s “This?”

Five days before celebrating their first worship service in the new location on Nov. 3, expensive renovation setbacks had left a hole in the church budget and a new construction crew scrambling to turn the former gym into a church.

Finding rental space in Pearland, at a price they could afford, was the result of prayer and a diligent search. But, despite the fact that Clemons and a team of church members scrutinized contract bids for renovation work, the church lost thousands of dollars when the builder did not complete the work.

“We got bit,” Clemons said. “And here we are.”

Getting “here” was a 16-year process. Clemons kept a good-humored sense of perspective as he recounted the journey.

In 2003 Clemons was the “main breadwinner” in the family when, with the backing of his wife Tracy, he quit his job as a chemist and lab manager to enroll at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Losing income and increasing expenses. That doesn’t sound wise,” Clemons told the TEXAN. He laughed recalling the audacity of the endeavor and the faith that sustained them.

By 2004 Clemons, who is African-American, was hired by Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, near downtown Houston. He called his job title the “etcetera pastor”—serving various roles, including as youth and executive pastor.

His time there provided the new pastor with experience he needed but could not have anticipated. In 2009, their daughter Kaylan was born with debilitating birth defects and died within two months. The church’s ministry to his family made Clemons a more empathetic pastor, he said. The couple has a teenage daughter and adult son.

As Clemons felt drawn to pastor a church of his own, Tracy suggested he consider planting a church. Their pastor agreed and quietly supported the endeavor as Clemons continued to serve at Good Hope and search for a location to start a new church.

Clemons had no doubt he was called to pastor. Where he should do that work took convincing by God.

What seems reasonable to man

Raised in Houston and with affiliations in the petrochemical industry, Clemons reasoned that the northeast side of town near the Houston Ship Channel would be an ideal location for a new church. But that was his idea, not God’s, Clemons confessed.

So in the summer of 2015, he fasted and prayed for 21 days seeking God’s will.

“And at the end of 21 days, nothing,” he said.

Frustrated, yet determined, Clemons recalled that some Good Hope members had told him they would join him if he ever decided to plant a church. He checked the church database and discovered they lived in “kind of a cone” southwest of Houston.

He then reasoned that a growing area would need a new church. A Google search for “fast-growing” regions around Houston gave him Pearland to the southwest; Katy to the west; and Kingwood, just north of New Hope’s downtown Houston location.

Was God directing him to Pearland? Clemons needed more confirmation. He posted a question on Facebook asking Good Hope members who could join a missional group if he started it in Pearland, Katy or Kingwood. He included northeast Houston because he was “still hanging on to that.”

“Thirty people responded,” he said. “And 27 of them said Pearland.”

Laying out the fleece

Clemons insisted that was not a “definitive” answer and laid out his fleece.

“I said, ‘God, if you want me to plant your church in Pearland, just tell me. Give me anything from Pearland today: if I get a letter from Pearland, someone calls me from Pearland—we’re going to plant in Pearland,” he said.

That morning, Barry Calhoun, who then served as an SBTC church planting associate, arrived unannounced at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church asking if anyone on staff knew of someone interested in planting a church as part of the convention’s Reach Houston campaign.

“So, we went out to lunch and my ears are just waiting. ‘Ok. Just say Pearland. Just say Pearland,’” Clemons said. “He never said Pearland. So, again, my shoulders just kind of slumped.”

Clemons asked if Reach Houston included Pearland. Calhoun told him it did and recommended he read a book called Planting Fast-Growing Churches.

Back at the office Clemons checked Amazon’s used book selections for the title. And there, listed between Goodwill and Tree of Life Books, was Pearland Book Company. That was Oct. 7, 2015. Clemons saved the image of the search result on his phone as a reminder that God still dampens fleeces.

With the blessing, financial support and 34 of its own members, Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church released Clemons in 2016 to launch The Way of Life Church. The congregation soon outgrew its first location in a retirement center and moved to an elementary school in Manvel—not in Pearland, but nearby.

There, church growth stagnated. Set back in a neighborhood with no visible signs of its existence, the church also sat in the shadow of a megachurch only blocks away. Door-to-door outreach revealed many in the neighborhood attended that church.

Last year, with their 2-year lease due to expire, The Way of Life congregation scaled back on its outreach, assuming they would lose some members in the transition to their current location in Pearland.

“The interesting thing is, we started to grow by word of mouth. We started getting people from the neighborhood when we weren’t doing anything,” Clemons said.

But preparation of the new building stalled. Contracted work was not completed and the new contractor (whom Clemons praised) discovered damage that needed repairing before renovations could continue.

Support from local and far-flung churches, the regional association and the SBTC sustained the church during difficult transition. Through the renovation debacle, the 116-member congregation—that includes the original 34 members—has remained faithful. 

“The good thing about our church family,” Clemons said, “[is] let’s say we lost everything and we had to meet in a backyard. The majority of them would show up and meet in the backyard.”

That, he said, has been the best part of the journey.

“I’ve just been able to witness so much faith. It’s been almost overwhelming.” 

A Healthy Start

She first visited North Richland Hills Baptist Church’s 26 Wellness Center a few months after her husband died, just about the time her loneliness was becoming unbearable.

“I hesitate to use [her] name without her permission … but she tried us out for a couple of weeks and eventually joined,” said Jody Hayes, minister of wellness and sports ministries at NRHBC. “As we got to know her, she mentioned that she had lost her husband and had been struggling with depression. She was on a very limited income and our center’s price point and schedule fit her situation. To make a long story short, she attributed the positive turnaround in her mindset and depression to being able to have a place she could afford to come to each day.”

NRHBC is one of many Southern Baptist churches in Texas that are meeting the health and wellness needs among their congregations and in their communities.

From pick-up basketball, pickle ball and Jazzercise to martial arts, healthy cooking and reflexology, churches are striving to provide enjoyable and affordable self-care ministries for a variety of ages and interests.

For example, Hayes said The 26 Wellness Center (named for its location on Boulevard 26) includes commercially-rated treadmills, elliptical machines, upright and recumbent bikes, resistance machines, a walking track and a full-size basketball court.

“We have thousands of unique entries into the wellness center annually,” Hayes said. “But don’t get the wrong impression. We certainly are not the ‘churchy’ version of some of the big box fitness centers. We are much more limited in space and building footprint than those types of facilities. We are more like a fitness boutique.”

James Clark, senior pastor at First Baptist Church Tomball, said the topic of casual conversation at his church is often health and wellness related—among both old and young church members alike. They don’t see that trend going away any time soon so, over the next couple of years the church is planning to expand its health and wellness offerings beyond just its church walls.

“We try not to let our facility drive what we do, but instead we are about responding to the needs of people when they have them,” Clark said. “Right now we host a large soccer instructional clinic that meets almost nightly on our three fields. In our master planning we want to add bike trails and hiking trails and a larger recreational component with the intent that our park would provide recreational venues that will become an added resource for our community.”

Clark said allowing others to use FBC’s recreational facilities and not remaining the driving force behind everything that goes on has been a great way to serve their church’s vision to “invite people to have a life-changing experience with Jesus one conversation at a time.”

“In everything we do it’s all about creating more and more opportunities for people to have conversations,” Clark said. “It feels simplistic, and yet it really works for us. It helps us jettison the baggage and excess stuff and focus in on the main thing: we want our people inviting people and having those conversations. That’s it.”

O.S. Hawkins, president and CEO of GuideStone Financial Resources, said church-wide health and wellness ministries and initiatives are not only great for congregations and the community overall, they are also beneficial for pastors and church ministry staff.

“Pastors and others in ministry roles are wired to serve others and are more prone to ignore their own needs,” Hawkins said. “When you create an environment that encourages them to care for their own well-being, too, you can’t help but have happier, healthier people. The Bible identifies our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. When we take proper care of our temples, they are more useful in fulfilling the mission God has called us to complete.”

And while God’s mission is certainly more about meeting a person’s spiritual need for Jesus than meeting any physical or recreational needs, building relationships can take time and weekly sports, health and wellness ministries are a great way for God to use his church to help soften hearts toward him.

Terry Coffee, director of recreation for Parkside Baptist Church’s Recreational Outreach Center in Denison, typically works the evening shifts at the ROC and enjoys getting to know the young men who come in to play pick-up basketball. He remembers one particular night several years ago when one of the young men twisted his ankle and needed an ice pack.

“I gave him some ice and sat with him and he said, ‘Mr. Coffee, I’m worried about this election,’” he said. “It kind of came out of nowhere and I was like, ‘Oh, why’s that?’ He said, ‘There’s just a lot at stake, you know?’ I explained to him how I wasn’t worried at all and that the person God ordains is the person God ordains. I showed him Romans 8 and explained that nothing matters more than where we stand with God and how much we need Jesus. I shared the gospel with him on the sidelines that night and afterwards he said, ‘Why have I never heard this before?’ Those are the moments that make it all worth it.” 

Spiritual and physical fitness go together for 78-year-old Lewis

With her 78th birthday just around the corner, Carole Lewis is completely healed from the double knee replacement surgery she had just one year ago. She’s free from pain, free from medication and free to live each day to the fullest.

“I’ve done strength training, I eat right, exercise and, most importantly, I have learned how to balance my life physically, emotionally and spiritually,” said Lewis, director emeritus of First Place 4 Health, a national Christian weight-loss program that grew out of a ministry that began at Houston’s First Baptist Church.

“I’ve had my share of losses over the years,” she said. “My daughter was killed by a drunk driver on Thanksgiving 17 years ago, my husband passed away from stage four prostate cancer, and we lost everything in a hurricane in 2008. If it had not been for the total health and wellness ministry of First Place, I could be a wreck.”

She believes the church plays a vital role in the overall health and wellness of its church body because, ultimately, they know the truth about what the world should seek first for life fulfillment and peace.

“Matthew 6:33, which is also the First Place founding verse, says: ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’” That’s the premise of our program and of what living from Christ means; we give Christ first place and we don’t have to worry about all the other stuff.”

Lewis, who was a member of the original First Place group that started back in 1981, speaks at conferences and ministry events on the importance of personal and spiritual balance, fitness, encouragement, and personality and temperament. She has also written 15 books throughout her ministry.

She said churches should be intentional in their health and wellness ministry because anything less than a comprehensive biblical approach to health won’t last.

“If a person is just focused on weight loss and doesn’t deal with the real underlying reasons behind their poor health, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound,” Lewis said. “The Band-Aid doesn’t do you a lot of good because you didn’t clean it or dress it or do what’s necessary for true healing and restoration.”

Sadly, Lewis said, the body of Christ is missing the mark in many ways.

“At an expo I encountered a man I knew pretty well from the Christian publishing world who weighed I’d guess probably around 350 to 400 pounds,” she said. “I tried to get him to come into our First Place booth. I was able to tell him a little about First Place and he said, ‘Oh well, if I die young, I’ll go live with Jesus.’ The man had basically given up. But the sad reality of his life is that if he doesn’t do something different, death is his best-case scenario. What if he had a stroke and his wife had to take care of him? It’s the quality of their life and their witness that gets lost when Christians don’t take care of themselves.”

Unlike the overweight man, Lewis said she doesn’t want to just survive—she wants to thrive. At nearly 78, she wants to walk upright and stay up on her feet for hours at a time. She wants to haul books to and from speaking engagements because she can—because she’s strong.

“This is the only body we’re going to get,” she said. “And, by the way, it’s not our own—it was bought with a price. Believers should honor God with their bodies.”

And while weight loss is one probable side effect of health and wellness restoration, it’s not the ultimate goal.

“Losing weight is not the problem,” Lewis said. “The problem is that only 5 percent of people keep it off. They’re not willing to change their lifestyles and instead, just see their efforts as a diet or as something temporary. It’s not a diet, it’s a ‘live it.’ We can live this spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically strong the rest of our lives and glorify God every day.”