Month: November 2021

China asserting more control over clergy through new rules

WASHINGTON (BP) – Regulations issued this year by China have intensified the communist government’s control of clergy among the five state-authorized religious groups and have effectively prohibited the work of pastors and leaders of unregistered churches and other entities, according to a new report.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders, released a fact sheet Oct. 29 on Chinese rules that have increased the government’s suppression of faith groups and their leaders since they took effect in May. The “Measures on the Management of Religious Clergy” serve as additions to 2018 regulations that already administered “an invasive and comprehensive system of control and surveillance on clergy,” USCIRF’s report said.

The new regulations include requirements that clergy back the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the socialist system, as well as refrain from ambiguous categories such as participating in “illegal religious activities” and adopting “religious extremist ideology,” USCIRF reported. The rules establish penalties for violations of a “complex web of state rules and policies” by clergy of the government-approved religious groups, according to the report. Those groups are the Protestant Three-self Patriotic Movement, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association and Islamic Association of China.

“This latest report confirms what many of us suspect about Communist China: Ministry is incredibly challenging because of the country’s animosity towards religion,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Citing USCIRF’s report of “even tighter state control and surveillance,” Leatherwood said in written comments, “Given what we know about the Chinese Communist Party’s use of these technologies to conduct a genocide against the Uyghur people, this is not surprising. The reality is China is a dangerous and hostile environment for people of faith, and this should be deeply alarming for Christians who are concerned about standing up for human dignity and religious freedom wherever they are threatened.”

Leatherwood wrote an op-ed published Tuesday (Nov. 2) in The Tennessean regarding the approval by Southern Baptist messengers at this year’s annual meeting of a resolution that condemned what it described as China’s “genocide” of the Uyghur people, primarily Muslims in northwest China.

Isaac Six, senior director of advocacy for Open Doors USA, said in a written statement, “China is no friend to faith. USCIRF’s report reveals just how suffocating the Chinese Communist Party’s control over faith has become. Every aspect of a church’s leadership is subject to intense scrutiny. The slightest perceived violation of an almost endless list of restrictions could lead to fines, arrest and imprisonment.

“When you couple these regulations with a judicial system entirely dominated by the Party, it means in effect no pastor, priest or minister is allowed to say or do anything out of line with the Chinese government’s political ideology,” Six said. “This is why millions of Christians in China bravely worship in unsanctioned house churches, choosing to follow Jesus and worship freely, even though it comes at great risk to them and their families.”

Open Doors USA is a leading advocate for persecuted Christians overseas.

The U.S. government has consistently recognized China as a major persecutor of Christians and other faith groups since the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. In every report since then, the State Department has named China as one of its “countries of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious liberty.

The Trump administration, before it left office, and the Biden administration both declared early this year that China’s repression of the Uyghurs is genocide. More than 1 million Uyghurs, and maybe as many as 3 million, have been detained in “re-education” camps. Coerced labor and forced sterilizations and abortions also have been widely reported.

Southern Baptists also have spoken out on China’s religious repression. The SBC resolution in June reportedly made it the first Christian group to denounce China’s campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide. In 2019, messengers to the SBC meeting passed a resolution condemning the CCP, as well as North Korea’s regime, for “extreme religious persecution and flagrant human rights violations.”

Chinese officials have apprehended and arrested scores of unregistered Protestant house church leaders and Catholic priests since the new rules were announced, USCIRF reported. According to the report, these included Zhang Chunlei of Ren’ai Reformed Church and Yang Hua of Living Stone Church of Guiyang city in Guizhou province, as well as Catholic Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xixiang in Hebei province.

According to USCIRF, the new rules enable China to use the state-sanctioned religious groups and its religious affairs bureaus (RABs) in extending its authority over clergy who serve in those groups. The groups “vet, recognize, and ordain” clergy candidates, then provide their information to the RABs at multiple levels of government. The regulations also require a “clergy database” that is updated by the RABs.

Under the rules, government-authorized religious groups, partnering with RABs, may punish clergy for transgressing state regulations, and criminal prosecution may await more serious violations, USCIRF reported.

Tibetan Buddhist and Catholic clergy are particular targets of the rules because of the state’s “heightened political sensitivity toward these two religions with perceived foreign connections,” according to USCIRF.

The nine-member USCIRF tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department. Mingzhi Chen, a USCIRF policy analyst, wrote the report on China’s new regulations.

The Good, the Bad & the Gospel

Ministering in a hurricane zone is an exhausting – but rewarding – calling

As hurricane season nears each year, many pastors—especially those in the storm-prone Golden Triangle of Texas—watch weather reports with a mix of angst and awe: will their churches and communities be spared, or will the next hurricane deliver yet another gut punch from the Gulf of Mexico, leaving their congregations and neighborhoods reeling?

It takes a special person to be a disaster pastor.

Theological training isn’t enough. One must know how to mobilize volunteers, marshal resources … and sometimes man a chainsaw, mud out a flooded home or operate a ham radio.

Daniel White of First Baptist Church Kountze and Terry Wright of First Baptist Church Vidor are just two of hundreds of Southeast Texas pastors who know firsthand about the human and spiritual challenges of living—and ministering—in a hurricane zone.

A DR whirlwind

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is just about over—it begins June 1 and lasts through the end of November. Its arrival each year sets into motion a train of thinking and a posture of preparation for pastors that can leave their minds swirling. 

“Your mind just starts going through what you need to do,” White said. “What preparations do we need to make? Who is evacuating from among the congregation? Whose home will need to be checked on? Which church members have generators?”

It can be overwhelming, said White, a long-time Southern Baptists of Texas Disaster Relief volunteer who also became a part-time SBTC DR associate in 2015.

Involvement in disaster relief has characterized White’s pastoral career for the last 15 years. While pastoring First Baptist Eagle Pass in 2006, he was recruited by Scottie Stice, then director of missions of the Del Rio-Uvalde Baptist Association, to use his ham radio skills to run communications for SBTC DR.

White quickly trained to become a credentialed SBTC DR volunteer.

“There are other groups out there doing DR, but very few can minister in the way that we do,” White said. “Very few are sharing the gospel.” 

He got a chance to employ his DR skills sooner than expected when a tornado hit Eagle Pass within a month of his training. Immediately, he phoned Stice and then SBTC DR Director Jim Richardson, both attending the National SBDR Roundtable in Alabama. Stice and Richardson hopped a plane back to Texas to arrange for help for Eagle Pass and Mexico, also hit hard by the twister.

“It’s been a whirlwind ever since,” White said. 

First Baptist Eagle Pass opened its doors to hundreds of SBDR volunteers following the tornado: mass feeding crews and recovery teams, all of whom ministered on both sides of the Rio Grande.

“There were cots and sleeping bags everywhere. One volunteer even slept in the baptistry,” White recalled.

“Daniel’s churches always serve as ministry centers for us,” Stice, SBTC DR director, said. “They open their doors whenever we need a staging area or facilities.”

First Baptist Kountze: above the storm

Tornadoes may be rare in Eagle Pass, but hurricanes and floods are common in Southeast Texas, as White found out soon after assuming the pulpit at First Baptist Kountze in November 2015. A major storm system dumped record rainfall, causing flooding in Lumberton and Deweyville. FBC Kountze, located 25 miles north of Beaumont, opened its doors as a staging ground for relief efforts.

Then came Harvey in 2016, which pummeled Aransas Pass and the Gulf Coast with damaging winds and days of torrential rain which stalled over Houston before moving to the Golden Triangle.

Although out of Harvey’s path, FBC Kountze became, at the county’s request, “a shelter of last resort,” a respite stop for evacuees awaiting transport to larger shelters.

They came. And they stayed, as many as 60-70 at the height of the crisis.

So what does a small church do when faced with such a daunting task?

Said White: “The best we could.”

They wrangled cots and accepted donated food from grocery stores and restaurants. Volunteers from the church and other congregations came to cook. “We made it happen,” White said. The fact that FBC Kountze had established SBTC DR teams in place helped. 

When most evacuees cleared out after a week, White and the congregation still fixed meals for those remaining and for first responders.

“When disaster happens, the community can rely on us. Our involvement gives us a good image in the community. We have a witness and a testimony. Sometimes people get involved in our church who might not otherwise.”

Daniel White of First Baptist Church Kountze Tweet

“When disaster happens, the community can rely on us,” White said. “Our involvement gives us a good image in the community. We have a witness and a testimony. Sometimes people get involved in our church who might not otherwise.”

First Baptist Vidor: a tale of four storms and a pandemic

A mixture of involvement with SBTC DR and Texas Relief/Rebuild is a hallmark of Pastor Terry Wright’s DR ministry at First Baptist Vidor. With four hurricanes in 14 years directly impacting his church, Wright understands the challenges of living through
disaster.

“Rita, Ike, Harvey, Imelda—four major hurricanes and seven smaller storms that caused some kind of response,” Wright said, summarizing the weather events affecting the church from 2005-2019.

Wright said Harvey was the worst by far. The Category 4 storm stretched resources thin across the region and damaged half the church’s property.

The buildings at FBC Vidor that did not flood were used to shelter families who had lost their homes and relief groups who came to help.

Then Imelda struck in 2019 with a vengeance.

“Everything we owned was flooded during Imelda except for the office building,” Wright said. Suddenly there was “no place to go” for services.

A recent merger with the former Northwest Baptist Church on the north side of Interstate 10 eased the situation as FBC Vidor focused efforts on repurposing that property while dealing with insurance and other issues in rebuilding the main campus.

FBC Vidor moved into the old Northwest Baptist Church property. Then the pandemic hit, complicating things because the facilities were not large enough to allow for COVID protocols and social distancing.

“Imelda made the pandemic very, very hard on the church,” Wright admitted.

Yet these days the waters are smoother.

“We are back into our regular facilities,” Wright said, noting that both sanctuary and educational spaces damaged during Harvey and Imelda have been remodeled.

The process has been lengthy, involving insurance challenges resulting from the settlements of multiple claims, but the church emerged without having to take on additional debt, Wright noted with gratitude.

Disasters demand a plan

In the Golden Triangle region, the only things certain are death, taxes and storms.

When a hurricane is brewing in the Gulf, Wright said “an immediate apprehension” sets in. He and his staff adopt a mindset of preparedness.

“You not only have your own property to prepare [for a storm], but you have to prepare for insurance issues. Do you have the right documents?” Wright said. “You have to prepare your people, too. There will always be folks who do not have a place to go. The church helps them in evacuation.”

“You not only have your own property to prepare [for a storm], ... You have to prepare your people, too. There will always be folks who do not have a place to go. The church helps them in evacuation.”

Terry Wright of First Baptist Church Vidor Tweet

Wright called the safety of his people the “first priority,” adding that every story is different. “Some you cannot really prepare for. You have to wait and see what happens and come back and deal with it.”

The staff has a procedure it executes when a hurricane warning or watch is announced. Church members are notified electronically of the threat. Staff members identify people’s needs. Others secure the buildings and property. They prepare for the aftermath, ensuring there is fuel on site and that the church’s generators are operational. The church’s “rolling stock”—trailers, vans, buses—must often be relocated to higher ground. Deacons and members help the staff with the process.

The preparation alone can exhaust a church days before a storm actually hits.

Rita’s evacuation was the largest in U.S. history, Wright said, occurring when the trauma of Katrina was still fresh. Houston was evacuated first and many headed eastward to the Golden Triangle. Then the storm changed course and came there.

Evacuation was a surreal event, Wright said, proving for many to be just as stressful as what they would encounter in terms of damage after the storm.

Harvey brought more than its share of flooding. “There was water in Orange County deeper than anyone living had ever seen,” Wright said. “Senior adults lost all the mementos of their lives. If you didn’t flood, your house became a dormitory for people whose houses had flooded.”

Month after month of people helping people took a toll, he added. The stresses on church staff, leadership, and members were constant.

“You have to be careful that it doesn’t take a toll on your relationships,” said Wright, who has pastored his home church for nearly three decades. “Heavy stress brings out the best and worst in people. It affects the family. It affects the church family.”

With crisis comes opportunity

Even so, there is a refining process that can happen for the churches that trust the Lord to work all things together for good in the midst of challenging seasons.

“Hurricane Rita changed our church for the better,” Wright said. “We saw spiritual maturity. We learned what really mattered and what didn’t. People and the Lord are what matter.”

“Hurricane Rita changed our church for the better. We saw spiritual maturity. We learned what really mattered and what didn’t. People and the Lord are what matter.”

His congregation experienced blessings in the crisis: enriched fellowship, renewed commitment, the chance to show younger generations the benefit of denominational cooperation. Wright also said he personally received the blessing of getting phone calls and texts from people across the nation who have previously assisted his church after a storm—including from SBTC executive director Jim Richards (who has since retired) and chief financial officer Joe Davis.

Like White, Wright affirmed that disasters also provide gospel opportunities. Recalling the old gospel song, “The Lighthouse,” which depicts Christ as a lighthouse in times of storm, Wright said the Lord also expects the church to “be a lighthouse.”

“In your community, people who have been hard-hearted toward the gospel—their hearts are softened,” he said. “When you minister in a tangible way, when a mud out unit pulls up and they stop and build a relationship, preconceived notions about the church vanish. Hearts melt.”

Though the physical and mental toll have been heavy, Wright admits that his story and the stories of other “disaster pastors” is one that mimics the biblical account of Jonah—who was “stretched beyond his comfortable comfort zone.”

“If you had told me 35 years ago—I was a church planter—that this is going to be what you do, [be] a disaster pastor, I wouldn’t have gotten in line,” Wright said. “Who wants to be in that group?”

Only those who are called to it.

In McAllen, pastor sees image of God in every person

MCALLEN—First Baptist Church in McAllen has a closeup look at the border crisis, and Steven Gaither, the church’s pastor, said despite the challenges, “we are still called to see the image of God in every person.

“How do you help hold the line for what is right and legal, and how do you also love your neighbor as yourself? How do you function as the Good Samaritan?” Gaither said. “I think that’s part of the unique challenge that’s here on the border.”

In some churches in the Rio Grande Valley, border patrol agents worship alongside first generation immigrants, Gaither said. Some immigrants in a congregation may have gone through the proper channels, he said, while others may not have. 

“It’s really heartbreaking because we know the rules of our country, and we are for them, and we want things to be done in an organized manner, but we also know there’s a face of desperation that is the immigration crisis and that many people are fleeing from horrific situations, and they’re looking for help,” Gaither told the TEXAN.

On a recent flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, Gaither estimated 60 percent of his plane was filled with people seeking asylum being flown to different locations. 

“What I noticed on that flight was a lot of young families with young children, and everyone looked scared—like they’d never been on a plane before, and they didn’t know where they were going,” Gaither said. 

The pastor felt compassion for the people on the plane and couldn’t imagine their stories. 

“It’s really easy to lump everybody into the same category and demonize people and their motives, but it’s different when you look into a child’s face, when you look into a scared mama’s face, when you look into a young man’s eyes and you realize this guy is desperate and he doesn’t know what to do,” Gaither said.

First Baptist Church in McAllen is in a revitalization phase, but the church has a long history of strong Cooperative Program support, remaining committed to missions no matter what.

First Baptist McAllen, which began in 1908, has a long history of strong Cooperative Program support and has sent countless missionaries throughout the world through the years, Gaither said. They have also worked with missionaries just across the Mexican border to minister to people hoping to enter the United States.

“You’ll have groups of people who have kind of migrated toward the border from southern Mexico, and they’re right here at the Texas border, but for whatever reason, in a sense they get stuck there and they kind of form their own communities,” Gaither said.

Missionaries and churches are able to provide food, clothing and education to people in those groups, whereas once they’ve crossed the border into McAllen, many are in holding facilities that aren’t as easily accessible for ministry.

As believers follow the border crisis in the media, Gaither hopes they’ll consider that only a partial picture is conveyed.

“These are complex situations, and real people are involved in them on both sides—those who are trying to enforce the laws and those who are sometimes even completely unaware of the laws,” Gaither said.

A new generation at First Baptist Church in McAllen is being trained to carry on the task of getting the gospel to the nations.

“Just understand that we should be stirred up to love and good works. We should be stirred up to pray for these situations. When you’re in your community—it doesn’t matter where you are in the U.S. or across Texas—as you watch people, it’s probably not a long shot that you’re interacting with somebody who is a first generation American or may be in your community for the very first time, and there may be an opportunity to share the gospel with them,” Gaither said.

Sometimes people lose the ability to see others as humans, the pastor said, but most people have the same emotions, the same concerns for their families and for their well-being, no matter what country they’re from, what their heart language is or what color of skin they have.

“A bottle of water goes a long way,” Gaither said, offering an idea for how to start a connection.

Despite the border crisis, despite COVID and despite a revitalization period at the church, the Great Commission, the great commandment and the great challenge of Acts 1:8 have remained pillars at First Baptist McAllen, Gaither said.

“We understand the deep history of Cooperative Program giving here at this church. To me, knowing its history, this church has said, ‘No matter what has changed in the world, we absolutely believe that cooperating together to spread the gospel to the nations is a high priority, if not the highest priority.’

“… I think there’s a long history of this church saying, ‘We can’t do this by ourselves, but as we cooperate with other churches from all over the place that we may never interact with, we believe that we’re investing in the gospel, and that’s an investment we want to make until Jesus comes back.’”

In McAllen, pastor sees image of God in every person

MCALLEN—First Baptist Church in McAllen has a closeup look at the border crisis, and Steven Gaither, the church’s pastor, said despite the challenges, “we are still called to see the image of God in every person.

“How do you help hold the line for what is right and legal, and how do you also love your neighbor as yourself? How do you function as the Good Samaritan?” Gaither said. “I think that’s part of the unique challenge that’s here on the border.”

In some churches in the Rio Grande Valley, border patrol agents worship alongside first generation immigrants, Gaither said. Some immigrants in a congregation may have gone through the proper channels, he said, while others may not have. 

“It’s really heartbreaking because we know the rules of our country, and we are for them, and we want things to be done in an organized manner, but we also know there’s a face of desperation that is the immigration crisis and that many people are fleeing from horrific situations, and they’re looking for help,” Gaither told the TEXAN.

On a recent flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, Gaither estimated 60 percent of his plane was filled with people seeking asylum being flown to different locations. 

“What I noticed on that flight was a lot of young families with young children, and everyone looked scared—like they’d never been on a plane before, and they didn’t know where they were going,” Gaither said. 

The pastor felt compassion for the people on the plane and couldn’t imagine their stories. 

“It’s really easy to lump everybody into the same category and demonize people and their motives, but it’s different when you look into a child’s face, when you look into a scared mama’s face, when you look into a young man’s eyes and you realize this guy is desperate and he doesn’t know what to do,” Gaither said.

First Baptist Church in McAllen is in a revitalization phase, but the church has a long history of strong Cooperative Program support, remaining committed to missions no matter what.

First Baptist McAllen, which began in 1908, has a long history of strong Cooperative Program support and has sent countless missionaries throughout the world through the years, Gaither said. They have also worked with missionaries just across the Mexican border to minister to people hoping to enter the United States.

“You’ll have groups of people who have kind of migrated toward the border from southern Mexico, and they’re right here at the Texas border, but for whatever reason, in a sense they get stuck there and they kind of form their own communities,” Gaither said.

Missionaries and churches are able to provide food, clothing and education to people in those groups, whereas once they’ve crossed the border into McAllen, many are in holding facilities that aren’t as easily accessible for ministry.

As believers follow the border crisis in the media, Gaither hopes they’ll consider that only a partial picture is conveyed.

“These are complex situations, and real people are involved in them on both sides—those who are trying to enforce the laws and those who are sometimes even completely unaware of the laws,” Gaither said.

A new generation at First Baptist Church in McAllen is being trained to carry on the task of getting the gospel to the nations.

“Just understand that we should be stirred up to love and good works. We should be stirred up to pray for these situations. When you’re in your community—it doesn’t matter where you are in the U.S. or across Texas—as you watch people, it’s probably not a long shot that you’re interacting with somebody who is a first generation American or may be in your community for the very first time, and there may be an opportunity to share the gospel with them,” Gaither said.

Sometimes people lose the ability to see others as humans, the pastor said, but most people have the same emotions, the same concerns for their families and for their well-being, no matter what country they’re from, what their heart language is or what color of skin they have.

“A bottle of water goes a long way,” Gaither said, offering an idea for how to start a connection.

Despite the border crisis, despite COVID and despite a revitalization period at the church, the Great Commission, the great commandment and the great challenge of Acts 1:8 have remained pillars at First Baptist McAllen, Gaither said.

“We understand the deep history of Cooperative Program giving here at this church. To me, knowing its history, this church has said, ‘No matter what has changed in the world, we absolutely believe that cooperating together to spread the gospel to the nations is a high priority, if not the highest priority.’

“… I think there’s a long history of this church saying, ‘We can’t do this by ourselves, but as we cooperate with other churches from all over the place that we may never interact with, we believe that we’re investing in the gospel, and that’s an investment we want to make until Jesus comes back.’”

2022 to be final T4G conference, founders say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) – Together for the Gospel, a conference occurring every two years since its inception in 2006, will come together for the last time in 2022, organizers said today.

Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, shared the news in a video posted to T4G.org.

When Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler shared how other commitments prevented him from being part of the 2022 conference, Dever and Ligon agreed that the next T4G would also be the last one. “This has been an ongoing discussion for many months,” an email announcement said. “Dr. Mohler called us a few weeks ago and said, ‘I love you brothers,’ but it’s time.’”

The theme for the conference will be “Last Word: Come Together One Last Time” and be held April 19-21 in Louisville.

Speakers joining Dever and Duncan include David Platt, H.B. Charles, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung and Alistair Begg. Early bird registration has been extended to Nov. 18. Those registrants will be mailed Piper’s book, Providence.

“I’m pretty pumped about this being the last one, and maybe this being the best one,” Dever said.

Attendees come from more than 25 denominations, all 50 states and 62 nations, according to the T4G website. For the 2022 meeting, all breakout sessions have been removed in order to provide room for an extended discussion on missions at the main stage as well as for participants to browse the bookstore.

41 U.S. cities ban abortion as Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn

LONGVIEW, Texas (BP) – There are 41 local governments across the United States that have adopted ordinances banning abortions and declaring themselves Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn since the grassroots movement launched in 2019, movement founder Mark Lee Dickson said.

Dickson was on hand when Mason, Ohio, a town of about 33,000 people 30 minutes northeast of Cincinnati, became the latest city to declare itself a sanctuary for the unborn. The Mason City Council adopted the ordinance by a 4-3 vote Oct. 25.

“When I meet people who are interested in outlawing abortion in their city I always ask them if their community is ready for such a task. I ask them about what resources they have in their community to help women who find themselves in an unexpected pregnancy and I ask them if the area churches are involved in supporting those local efforts,” Dickson said Tuesday (Nov. 2). “If they do not have that in line, then they have some work to do.”

Several people have approached Dickson about the initiative, he said, since Waskom, a small Texas town, became the first to adopt such an ordinance in 2019. The director of the grassroots Right to Life of East Texas was senior pastor of Sovereign Love Church in Longview when he initiated Sanctuary Cities for Life. He currently describes himself as more of a church missionary.

“Most of the time when I go to cities, I am meeting with pastors and elders and deacons and speaking at churches about the importance of being involved in our communities; not just on the abortion issue, but on a whole variety of issues,” he said. “This isn’t just about loving our unborn neighbor, but loving our born neighbor as well.”

He sees value in working through local governments to fight abortion.

“I would hope that all of our cities would consider what they do and do not want taking place within their city gates. If a city does not want an abortion facility in their city then I think they need to consider passing an ordinance which would state, very clearly, that abortion is not allowed within the city limits,” he said, quoting Amos 5:15.

“For too long we have expressed our hatred for evil and our love for what is good, but we have neglected that part of Scripture which speaks of establishing justice in our city,” Dickson said. “I believe all of our cities need to have laws which protect pregnant women and their unborn children from the horrors of abortion.”

Lubbock, the only city among the 41 sanctuaries for the unborn that has an actual abortion clinic, survived a legal challenge in June when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and the American Civil Liberties Union. In Lubbock, residents approved the ordinance by 62 percent in May after the local government declined to enact the measure.

Similar to a statewide Texas abortion ban the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing, Lubbock’s ordinance allows relatives of unborn children to see abortion providers.

 

"I would hope that all of our cities would consider what they do and do not want taking place within their city gates."

The only other lawsuit filed in response to sanctuary cities is a 2020 challenge by the ACLU against seven local ordinances in February 2020, but the lawsuit was dropped after the cities amended their measures to decriminalize the organizations that brought the lawsuit, with both sides viewing it as a victory, Forbes reported in June.

“To this day,” Dickson said, “abortion remains banned in every city which was sued.”

Sanctuary city ordinances vary. Most cities declaring themselves such sanctuaries don’t have abortion clinics within their city limits and are substantially smaller than Lubbock, where population exceeds 250,000.

Mason’s ordinance does not penalize abortion seekers, but makes it illegal to knowingly “aid or abet” an abortion and to possess or distribute “abortion-inducing drugs.” The latter is considered a first-degree misdemeanors punishable by Ohio law with up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, The Enquirer reported.

Mason allows exceptions for “accidental miscarriages,” ectopic pregnancies and abortions to save the life or protect the health of mothers threatened by “death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Mason’s ordinance is the second such ordinance adopted in Ohio after Lebanon, a town of 20,000 people adopted an ordinance in May. Other Ohio cities considering such bans have included Celina and London, both towns of about 10,000 people, The Enquirer reported. The ordinance is set to become effective 30 days from passage, but its enforcement is not certain in light of Roe v. Wade’s national legalization of abortion.

Most sanctuary cities for the unborn are in Texas. In addition to Waskom and Lubbock, Texas sanctuaries for the unborn are, according to Dickson, Joaquin, Tenaha, Gilmer, Westbrook, Rusk, Colorado City, Gary City, Big Spring, Wells, Whiteface, East Mountain, New Home, Morton, Ackerly, Grapeland, Goldsmith, Carbon, Gorman, Abernathy, Poynor, Murchison, Latexo, Levelland, Sundown, Sterling City, Centerville, Eastland, Leona, Crawford, Brownsboro, Impact, Nazareth and Cisco. Omaha adopted an ordinance in September 2019, but replaced it with a resolution the following month.

Other sanctuary cities include Hayes Center and Blue Hill, both in Nebraska.

This article originally appeared in Baptist Press.

Almost all churches and most churchgoers are now gathering in person

NASHVILLE (BP) – More U.S. Protestant churches are gathering in person since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and pastors say most churchgoers have returned as well.

Almost all U.S. Protestant pastors (98 percent) say their church met in person in August, according to a new Lifeway Research study. This marks the highest percentage of churches holding in-person services since March 2020, when COVID-19 became a national health issue.

During the first week of March last year, 99 percent of Protestant churches met in person. By the end of the month, only 7 percent did so, according to a previous Lifeway Research study. A majority of churches didn’t start holding in-person services again until June 2020. By September 2020, 87 percent met physically, but that dropped to 76 percent in January 2021, according to Lifeway Research studies conducted at the time. In August 2021, however, only 2 percent of churches did not meet in person at all.

“Every church’s path has been different during the pandemic, and each stage of resuming specific aspects of ministry is significant,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Worshiping together as a physical assembly of believers in Jesus Christ is an important element of the Christian faith. For almost all Protestant churches, this stage of ministry is now active again, though other aspects of ministry may not be.”

Return of the churchgoer?

Earlier this year, even as fewer churches held in-person services, 91 percent of churchgoers told Lifeway Research they planned on attending church services as much as they did prior to the pandemic or even more once COVID-19 was no longer an active threat to people’s health.

By September 2020, U.S. Protestant pastors reported most churchgoers had returned. The average church drew 63 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance levels. That dipped slightly in January 2021 to 60 percent. By August, the average pastor saw 73 percent of their church members in person on Sunday morning.

“Many pastors and church leaders are anxious for the whole congregation to gather physically together,” McConnell said. “Worship attendance is improving, but there is still a large gap between today’s in-person attendance and pre-COVID levels.”

While some churches are still below 50 percent of their January 2020 attendance levels, others report growing during the pandemic. Almost 1 in 8 (13 percent) say they had less than half of their pre-COVID-19 crowd in August. That percentage is down substantially from earlier in the pandemic. In both September 2020 and January 2021, more than 1 in 4 churches had less than half their normal Sunday morning crowds.

A plurality of pastors (35 percent) report attendance between 50 percent and 70 percent in August 2021. For 30 percent of pastors, late summer congregations were 70 percent to less than 90 percent. Another 1 in 8 (13 percent) were 90 percent to 100 percent of their previous levels, while 9 percent say they had more people in attendance in August than they did prior to COVID-19. Only 2 percent of pastors reported growth in January this year.

Some pastors are finding it harder to bring back their pre-pandemic churchgoers. While African American Protestant pastors were only slightly less likely than their white counterparts to say they met in person in August (95 percent to 98 percent), African American pastors were 12.5 times as likely as white pastors to say their attendance was less than 30 percent what it was before COVID-19 (25 percent to 2 percent).

Almost 3 in 4 pastors (73 percent) say their worship service attendance in August was fewer than 100 people, with 40 percent drawing fewer than 50 on an average weekend. More than 1 in 5 pastors (22 percent) report crowds of 100 to 249, while 6 percent say they reached 250 or more.

The small church, however, has had an advantage in the pandemic recovery period. Pastors of churches with pre-COVID-19 attendance levels of fewer than 50 people are more likely to report August 2021 attendance back to or exceeding their previous levels. Almost 1 in 4 small church pastors (23 percent) say they had 90 percent to 100 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance in August, while 1 in 5 (19 percent) report higher attendance compared to January 2020.

“Most small churches are still not back to pre-pandemic attendance, but far more of them are reaching this point than larger churches,” McConnell said. “It’s possible small churches are aided by perceived safety of a naturally smaller gathering, differences in technology options for gathering online, or the strength of relational connections. But regardless of the reasons why, in-person worship attendance trends currently look promising for small churches.”

For more information, visit LifewayResearch.com and view the complete report.

Methodology

The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 1-29, 2021. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each interview was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Comparisons are made to the following Lifeway Research surveys that each used probability sampling: a mixed mode survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors Sept. 2-Oct. 1, 2020, an online survey of 430 Protestant pastors February 1-11, 2021, an online survey of 443 Protestant pastors July 20-22, 2020, an online survey of 470 Protestant pastors April 27-29, 2020, and an online survey of 400 Protestant pastors March 30-31, 2020.