Trump administration announces initiatives to protect religious freedom
President Donald Trump said Jan. 16 his administration is taking “historic steps” to protect the right to pray in public schools. On National Religious Freedom Day, the administration released new guidance for school prayer for that will require state departments of education to report public charges of religious discrimination to the U.S. Department of Education, CNN reported.

The new guidelines also add a section on the Equal Access Act, which denies federal funds to public schools that prohibit student meetings based on religious, political, or philosophical content.

Illinois lawmaker urges churches to pray for Springfield
State Rep. Dave Severin says Illinois lawmakers need prayer. So, he’s urging churches to sign up and sit in the House gallery when the legislature is in session. The Republican from Marion has launched a Pray for Springfield Facebook page, which links to a calendar that shows dates the House is in session and if a church group is scheduled to be in the gallery.

Pastoral politics mostly a mystery, survey says
Most Americans who attend religious services at least a few times a year say the sermons they hear have about the right amount of political discussion, and they generally agree with clergy about politics. But 45% also say they’re not sure if their clergy members are Republicans or Democrats, according to research by Pew Forum.

Church planter facing deportation
A Southern Baptist church planter in California will likely return to England at the end of this month, leaving behind a growing church. Obed Brefo and his wife, Elena, are planting King’s Cross Church in one of the least churched neighborhoods in San Diego. The pastor, who hopes his family can return to California early next year, will utilize guest speakers and video messages during his absence, Baptist Press reports.

Multiracial congregations on the rise
The share of multiracial churches in the U.S. has grown from 6% in 1998, to 16% in 2019, according to Religion News Service. The number of black, Hispanic, and Asian clergy leading multiracial congregations has also increased, RNS reports, while fewer white clergy members are leading multiracial churches.

Sources: CNN, Pew Forum, Illinois Baptist, Baptist Press, Religion News Service

Home ownership tops list of goals for young Americans
More than half of current 18-35-year-olds hope to own a home in the next 10 years, according to a Barna survey of what the researcher calls “the connected generation.” The surveyed group, comprised of both Millennials and members of Generation Z, also puts marriage (41%) and parenthood (33%) in their top five goals.

Baptist Press debunks George Soros/ERLC claims
The Southern Baptist Convention’s news service published an Jan. 9 explainer about rumors linking the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with progressive billionaire George Soros. A Breitbart.com article Dec. 11 linked Soros with the Evangelical Immigration Table, a nonpartisan coalition of which the ERLC is a part. But the evangelical group has never received funding from Soros, BP reports.

Most states willing to accept refugees
President Donald Trump’s new policy on refugees requires state and local governments to opt-in to continue to receive refugees, and many have done so, Christianity Today reports. Forty-one states and 86 local governments have filed letters of consent with the federal government, while Texas became the first state to reject resettlement. CT reports the Evangelical Immigration Table played a pivotal role in lobbying states to receive refugees.

Former students sue seminary over marriage policy
Two former Fuller Theological Seminary students are suing the school for what they say is a violation of anti-discrimination. Fuller, located in Pasadena, Calif., holds marriage to be a “covenant union between one man and one woman,” according to its Sexual Standards policy. Former students Nathan Brittsan and Joanna Maxon say they were expelled for being in same-sex marriages.

‘Jeopardy’ answer sparks Israel/Palestine debate
A contestant’s answer about Jesus’ birthplace was ruled incorrect on a recent episode of “Jeopardy.” But the fallout was more than the $200 Katie Needle lost for answering “Palestine” as the site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

After Needle’s answer was rejected, a fellow contestant rang in and answered “Israel,” which was credited as the correct answer. The show may have fixed the mistake (Needle’s score was increased by $200 when Jeopardy returned from a commercial break), but the debate is still going online, with many commenters noting the Church of the Nativity is located in the West Bank.

Sources: Barna, Baptist Press, Christianity Today, CBS News, Christian Post

United Methodists divide over LGBT marriage and ordination
The media has largely focused on LGBT issues in reporting on the United Methodist Church split, writes evangelical columnist David French, but, “The true fracturing point between mainline and evangelical churches is over the authority and interpretation of Scripture.”

An 8-page statement titled the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” likely will govern the divide of the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination. The plan, which will need approval from the UMC’s legislative body this spring, gives $25 million to conservative congregations toward the formation of a new denomination that opposes gay marriage and ordaining LGBT clergy.

>Related: “If the new denomination takes its orthodoxy on mission,” missiologist Ed Stetzer wrote, the Methodist traditionalist group “may create new paths we all can learn from.”

President rallies evangelical voters amid deepening divides
At the inaugural “Evangelicals for Trump” rally Jan. 3 at a Miami megachurch, President Donald Trump sought to shore up support from Christian voters after a Christian magazine editorial supported his impeachment. “Evangelicals and Christians of every denomination and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion…in the White House than you have right now,” Trump said at the rally at El Ray Jesus Church.

The event and the President’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition were announced the day after now-retired Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wrote that Trump should be removed from office.

7 key abortion stories from the last decade
Just ahead of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has released its list of seven of the most important abortion stories from 2010-2019. Leading the list: the trial of late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, whose eventual conviction on first-degree murder charges received almost no national media coverage.

As church membership declines, churches use tech to connect with new audiences
At a time when just half of all Americans belong to a house of worship, more and more churches are using online resources to gather people and address spiritual needs, USA Today reports. “In the beginning, a lot of churches thought the internet would hurt and keep people from coming,” said an online campus pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. “But it’s actually one of the best ways to reach new people.”

Sources: French Press, Christianity Today, Baptist Press, Christian Post, ERLC, USA Today

 

Christianity Today editorial highlights fractures in evangelicalism
Evangelical leaders across the country continue to debate a Dec. 19 online column by Christianity Today editor in chief Mark Galli calling for President Donald Trump’s removal from office. On Dec. 18, Trump became only the third U.S. President in history to be impeached.

“Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment,” Galli wrote. “That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”

Several evangelical supporters of President Trump spoke out publicly against the column, including Franklin Graham, son of CT founder Billy Graham. The younger Graham posted on Facebook that his father would have been disappointed by the piece, and also said Billy Graham voted for Trump in 2016.

CT President Timothy Dalrymple discussed the whirlwind surrounding the column in a statement supporting the editorial and calling for further conversation between evangelicals. Meanwhile, Christian Post reports, nearly 200 evangelical leaders told Dalrymple in an open letter that the column “offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens of millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”

California church defends prayer for 2-year-old’s resurrection
Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., is planning a memorial service for a 2-year-old girl after praying several days that she would be resurrected from the dead. Olive Heiligenthal, daughter of Bethel Music’s Kalley Heiligenthal, was pronounced dead by doctors Dec. 14 after she suddenly stopped breathing. Using the hashtag #wakeupolive, the church spread word online about the prayer campaign.

Church leaders cheer repeal of parking tax requirement
Lawmakers have effectively rescinded a measure that would have cost churches and other nonprofits more than $1.7 billion over the next decade. A section of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would have required houses of worship and other nonprofits to pay a 21% tax on employee benefits including parking and transportation. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation in December that repealed the requirement.

Supreme Court to review ‘ministerial exception’ rulings
Religious liberty advocates cheered the announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether churches and other religious organizations can make employment decisions without government interference. The high court will review opinions by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found two Roman Catholic schools in California do not have the right to fire teachers for the purpose of the “ministerial exception” recognized by the high court in a 2012 opinion. In that unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled a “ministerial exception” exists that enables churches and other religious groups to hire and fire based on their beliefs.

Religious freedom commission reauthorized
President Donald Trump signed an omnibus bill Dec. 20 that has as one result the reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The agency, created in 1998, is now reauthorized until Sept. 30, 2022, and will receive funding of $3.5 million a year, Religion News Service reports.

Sources: Christianity Today, Facebook, Christian Post, ERLC, Baptist Press, Religion News Service

Study finds big differences in preaching
An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons found church-goers experience a wide array of sermons, depending on their branch of Christianity. Pew Research Center’s study of the sermons (shared online by 6,431 churches) reported the median sermon length was 37 minutes. Historically black Protestant churches have the longest sermons—54 minutes—while Catholic homilies clocked in at 14.

Sermons from evangelical churches were three times more likely to include the phrase “eternal hell,” Christianity Today reported on the study. And sermons in black Protestant churches are eight times as likely to use the word “hallelujah.”

Former Harvest pastor sues radio host
James MacDonald, former pastor of Chicagoland’s Harvest Bible Chapel, is suing Chicago radio personality Matthew “Mancow” Muller for defamation. MacDonald was fired in February amid charges of poor leadership and financial mismanagement, and after Muller aired inappropriate comments allegedly made by MacDonald. In his lawsuit, the former Harvest pastor says Muller broadcast a private conversation that was recorded illegally.

Reform Jews support reparations for slavery
The country’s largest Jewish denomination will advocate for a federal commission to develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery. Religion News Services reports the vote by the Union for Reform Judaism marks the first such effort by an American Jewish organization.

Churches minister to inmates at Christmas
For 40 years, Baptists in South Carolina have gifted inmates in the state with holiday packets. The ministry means every inmate in South Carolina receives a Christmas gift. Baptist Press reports churches and associations prepared 19,825 packets this year, including toiletry items, pens and notepads, a 30-day devotional, and a Christmas card.

Study: Every generation is tough on the one that follows
A phrase used to criticize young people is an actual cultural trend, according to researchers who say older generations tend to judge more harshly people who are younger than them. Wall Street Journal explains the “kids these days” effect.

Sources: Pew Research Center, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, Baptist Press, Wall Street Journal

‘Fairness for All’ proposed to increasingly polarized lawmakers
A Utah Congressman introduced the Fairness for All Act Dec. 6, which would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, but also exempt churches, religious groups, and some small businesses from the anti-discrimination laws.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart faces an uphill battle in Congress, Christianity Today reports, and also among LGBT advocates who oppose the exemptions. Some religious liberty advocates also disagree with the bill. In 2017, a group of evangelical leaders, including Southern Baptists Russell Moore and Albert Mohler, signed a statement opposing any law that would protect gender identity and sexual orientation because such measures “threaten fundamental freedoms.”

Ultrasound law survives legal challenge
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Dec. 9 to hear an appeal of a Kentucky law that requires doctors to perform ultrasounds before abortions. The law, passed in 2017, also requires physicians to show fetal images to patients, and to play an audible heartbeat. In upholding the law earlier this year, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said it provides “relevant information.” Judge John Bush, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote, “The information conveyed by an ultrasound image, its description and the audible beating fetal heart gives a patient a greater knowledge of the unborn life inside her.”

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the lower court’s decision, USA Today reported, leaves the measure in place.

California church stages controversial nativity scene
Claremont United Methodist Church near Los Angeles is making headlines with a nativity display depicting Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as a refugee family made to stay in separate cages. The church’s lead pastor, Karen Clark Ristine, told a local news station one goal of the display is to spark conversation. Ristine’s Facebook post about the scene garnered more than 11,000 comments in two days.

China recognizes church of Baptist pioneer Lottie Moon
Wulin Shenghui Church of Penglai, attended by Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon for much of her time in China, has been designated by the country as a protected historical and cultural site. One religious freedom watchdog noted the designation comes at a time of heightened government restrictions on churches. “It’s surely easier to honor a dead evangelist than to grant basic liberties to the living ones,” Massimo Introvigne told Christianity Today.

Year’s most popular Bible verse focused on worry—again
The Bible app YouVersion announced its most shared, highlighted, and bookmarked verse of 2019 is Philippians 4:6. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done” (NLT). It marks the third consecutive year that worry was the theme of the year’s most popular passage.

Sources: Christianity Today, USA Today, CNN

Attack on church kills 14 in Burkina Faso
The president of a West African country condemned “the barbaric attack” on one of his nation’s churches Dec. 1. Christianity Today reports Islamic extremists have been active in Burkina Faso since 2015, recently striking in the eastern region of the country. At a church in Hantoukoura last Sunday, 14 people were killed and several others injured when gunmen opened fire during a worship service.

Christians in India face heightened persecution, restrictions on freedoms
An estimated 65 million Christians in India are being threatened with increased persecution for their faith, amid the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism. New security measures in the former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir make it “nearly impossible” for Christian congregations to meet, Morning Star News reported. Nationwide, Christians were attacked in at least 24 of India’s 29 states in a two-year period ending in July, Aid to the Church in Need reported Nov. 14.

>Related: Persecution watchdog group Open Doors ranked India #10 on its 2019 World Watch List of the top countries for Christian persecution. “The view of the nationalists is that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so any other faith—including Christianity—is considered non-Indian,” the organization said.

Muslim minorities held in Chinese camps
Around one million Muslims reportedly are being held in Chinese internment camps designed to make them loyal members of the Communist party. The Ethics and and Religious Liberty Commission has issued an explainer on the camps, which Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, has said are “created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities.”

The ERLC has called for the U.S. government to hold China accountable for religious freedom abuses, including those against Muslims in the country.

>Related: China frees Christian prisoner amid ongoing persecution

Evangelical leader says faith and practice, not name, is what matters
Leith Anderson, retiring president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told Religion News Service he likes the word evangelical. “But if people want to abandon the term,” Anderson said last month, “let them abandon the term. That’s really not what matters. What really matters is their faith and their practice.”

Sources: Christianity Today, Baptist Press, Open Doors, ERLC, Religion News Service