Week of Prayer is December 4-11

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Trey Haun, 10, lives with his parents in Ghana, where they serve as missionaries with the International Mission Board

It was near midnight when IMB missionary Dr. Heidi Haun had finished up an abdominal surgery and returned home. Her baby, Karen Jane, and son, Trey, 10, had long been in bed under the watchful eye of her husband, William.

The Hauns serve in Nalerigu, Ghana, and her patient was a woman who sells cabbages under a mango tree on market days in town. Heidi had planned to perform surgery earlier in the day, but the operation was delayed by an emergency cesarean section. Still, after surgery that night, Heidi said the woman reached out to grasp her hand and thank her.

“I think that’s the neatest thing about having patients that live here in town…it leads to opportunities for relationship and gospel sharing,” Heidi explained. “I look forward to the opportunity to share Christ with her—more than just a patient-doctor relationship.”

The Hauns are two of the thousands of Southern Baptist missionaries supported by the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, an annual offering established in 1888. After more than a century, Lottie Moon giving continues its steady growth, including its largest-ever offering last year—$165.8 million.

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Trey’s mom, Heidi, is a physician and his dad, William, works in media.

The goal for the 2016 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $155 million. During the week of Dec. 4-11, many Southern Baptist churches will focus on international missions in a Week of Prayer highlighting eight missionaries and missionary families, including the Hauns in Ghana and Zack and Jennifer Dove, who serve in Norway.

Sharing the gospel isn’t a one-time deal for the Doves, who work as church planters. It’s an everyday part of their lives as they deepen relationships and bridge conversations toward gospel truths in Sandefjord, Norway.

“Zack will say often…We don’t need to let cultural norms be the filter,” Jennifer explains. “We need to let the gospel be the filter and so just share a little bit and see where it lands and plant that seed.”

Though Norway has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, in recent decades spiritual life has withered and church buildings often stand empty. Only 2% of Norwegians regularly attend services—one of the lowest attendance figures in Europe. The Doves encourage existing believers and share with others who live without hope. Southern Baptists can join their work through prayer.

“Just knowing that people are praying is such an awesome thing, and then just knowing that people are giving to the Lottie Moon [Christmas Offering], that’s such an encouragement.”

For more on this year’s Offering and Week of Prayer, go to IMB.org/lottie-moon-christmas-offering.

– IMB.org

The BriefingCastro death unlikely to halt revival or spur liberty
Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who died at age 90, is being remembered as both an unwitting catalyst of revival and an opponent of religious liberty. His death, said Southern Baptists with ties to Cuba, is unlikely to yield significant increases in religious liberty for the island nation until the fall of the communist government he inaugurated 57 years ago.

3 dead, 5 sickened after church’s Thanksgiving dinner
Three people have died and five more were sickened after eating Thanksgiving dinner at an event organized by a church in the San Francisco Bay Area, health officials said. Sutter Delta Medical Center said it received eight patients with probable symptoms of foodborne illness Friday and Saturday. Three of the patients died, four patients were treated and released and one remains hospitalized. It remains unclear exactly what caused the illness.

Violent Thanksgiving weekend in Chicago
Chicago saw one its most violent Thanksgiving holidays in years, with eight people killed and 62 others wounded. The toll towers over the number of shootings in the previous two Thanksgiving holiday weekends, according to data kept by the Tribune.

Why Jerry Falwell Jr. turned down Trump’s Cabinet position
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. believes that Donald Trump “will become America’s greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” But that wasn’t enough to persuade him to accept Trump’s offer to become secretary of education. Falwell told RNS the decision was due to concerns for the health of his family and the university he leads.

Pope challenged by conservative cardinals
Four senior Catholic cardinals went public with a private letter they sent to Pope Francis, asking him to state plainly whether he is liberalizing Church practice on divorced, remarried Catholics. The letter also questions whether the Pope is relaxing traditional and biblical standards on morality in general. Francis refused to respond so, the cardinals published their letter on various Catholic news sites.

Sources: Baptist Press, Fox News, Chicago Tribune, Religion News, CNN

The pulpit is the best place to address difficult topics

Open Bible

I remember a time when I sensed God leading me to go deeper in my preaching, specifically on the topic of racial reconciliation. As I was speaking to the congregation, I felt the level of tension rise almost immediately.

This was confirmed by comments I received later.
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It’s not easy to preach on difficult topics. The cultural issues of our day can be divisive. They can cause conflict in a church. Pastors tend to know where their people stand on the hard topics, and since they do, many would rather stick to abstract application in order to avoid hitting a nerve with consistent volunteers and faithful tithers. No wonder we tend to shy away.

But we can’t avoid the issues people in our world are navigating every day.

In his seminal work “Christ and Culture,” H. Richard Niebuhr wrestled with how Christians are to relate to contemporary culture. For Niebuhr, the best approach is not to stand against, blend in with, take the best of, or try to sanctify culture. Rather, Christians should aim to transform culture.

There is no doubt that Niebuhr was correct in his assessment. Anyone who has understood the Gospels will affirm our Lord’s purpose and desire to change the heart of man, which invariably leads to a change of culture.

Preaching is an integral part of the process of cultural change. It is during the preaching moment that people are most in tune to the voice of their shepherd, and it is during that moment where the Spirit of God is at work both in the heart of the preacher and in the hearts of those who are listening.

The apostle Paul exemplified this kind of preaching. For him, the gospel removed barriers of race, gender, and religion; it also gave clarity to domestic issues, such as marriage and divorce, as well as matters related to sexual deviance and perversion (Romans 1:18-24; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 7:1-16; Galatians 3:28).

Since the church still contends with these same issues, preachers must continue to proclaim and apply the same gospel.

Three reservations
Some preachers hesitate to deal with cultural issues and difficult subjects because that approach lends itself to topical preaching, and away from a more expository method. However, those of us who preach should understand that some of the most effective preachers in Christian history preached sermons that were not expository in the strictest sense. And even still, one can preach expository sermons while addressing key topics as they arise.

Another reason some preachers neglect these issues is a lack of sensitivity. Pastors preach about and congregations prioritize the things that resonate most with them and the areas in which they are most involved. I know a pastor in Laredo, Texas, near the border of Mexico. He spends the majority of his time ministering to illegal immigrants trying to escape the violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Therefore, his view on whether America should build a wall is much different from someone who lives elsewhere in the U.S. The point being, in order to speak to the issues, pastors must gain some level of familiarity with the issues, if not for themselves, for the sake of those they serve.

Perhaps the most common reason pastors shy away from difficult topics is that preaching on these issues can cause conflict within the congregation. This, of course, is a pastor’s nightmare, one I faced head-on when I felt the tension begin to rise the Sunday I preached on racial reconciliation. But remember, people usually come around.

In our case, after some time had passed and those present had the opportunity to prayerfully consider what was said, their testimonies and changes in behavior demonstrated to me that spiritual growth did occur, enabling several people to move a step closer toward true healing.

Four suggestions
What then are some helpful tips for pastors who want to move forward in preaching on cultural issues and difficult topics? I offer four:

First, be sure to always revert to overarching principles in Scripture, such as love, justice, reconciliation, grace, and forgiveness. In his book “Principle-Centered Leadership,” Steven Covey argues that leaders do better to maintain focus on principles, rather than values. Values change and may differ between people and organizations, while principles remain constant.

The same prescription can be applied to pastoral leadership and preaching. Take for example issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and health care for the elderly. The reality—even in Southern Baptist circles—is that there are differences of opinion when it comes to these issues. However, the overarching principle is the sanctity of human life. Approaching any of those issues from that perspective will remind people that all life is precious in the sight of God—in the womb, the nursing home, and everywhere in between. This is where the preacher is able to deal with the issue while helping people see beyond their personal values, and lead them to submit to a higher theological principle—in this case, God’s value on life.

Second, consider the idea attributed to Karl Barth, that sermons are best prepared with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Pastors must be aware of the conversations taking place. Understand the arguments. The people you preach to on Sunday are looking for answers to the pressing concerns of the day. They are trying to figure out what position is the right position.

If pastors fail to search the Scripture and provide a biblical perspective, there is the risk that church-goers will fix their moral compass on the thoughts and opinions of Sean Hannity, Oprah Winfrey, or the panel of “The View.”

Third, after listening well to the issues, do not be afraid to deviate from a 10-week sermon series you’re currently preaching in order to tackle a difficult topic. When the entire world is talking about human trafficking, a terrorist attack, or protests and issues of race, Christians want to know the heart and mind of God on such issues.

Some are questioning where God is when tragedy strikes, and if your people are not asking these questions for themselves, it is likely they know someone who is. Imagine the witnessing opportunities members of your church will have when you have equipped them with a sound biblical perspective for the discussion that is sure to take place in the cafeteria at work or at the student union on campus.

Finally, use other venues that allow your congregation to hear your voice on crucial matters. In my experience, some of the deepest theological discussions related to culture have taken place during our mid-week gatherings. There are a couple of advantages to using a Sunday evening or Wednesday evening to preach or teach on difficult topics: If the topic is published beforehand, church members who normally do not attend may, and they might even invite a friend who does not attend church at all. And, I have found, difficult topics and current cultural issues often make room for seasons of focused prayer.

If evening or mid-week services are not an option, look for another opportunity, like a written article distributed to your congregation. For example, I wrote an article titled “The Ministry of the Peacemaker” based on Matthew 5:9 in response to violence in Africa, the Middle East, and our own city of Chicago. In the article I challenged the congregation to live incarnationally within their own sphere of influence, allowing the peace of God to emanate from their lives as a means to bring about change.

A close examination of the words of Jesus in John 17 reminds us that to isolate ourselves from culture was never our Lord’s intent. Our responsibility as pastors is to facilitate disciple-making. One way we do this is by equipping the saints to share their faith and make disciples wherever they go.

With the ever-increasing presence and influence of social media, our challenge is a culture that is constantly bombarding those who God has placed in our charge. For their sake, we must be careful not to shy away from difficult topics. Instead, we must speak clearly and authoritatively from the perspective of God’s Word.

Bryan Price pastors Love Fellowship Baptist Church in Romeoville, the congregation he started in 2003. This article was originally printed in the Spring 2017 issue of Resource magazine published by IBSA.

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The BriefingAmericans most thankful for family & health
When Americans count their blessings at Thanksgiving, God will get most of the credit. And money might be the last thing on their minds. Most Americans are thankful for family (88%), health (77%), personal freedom (72%) and friends (71%). Fewer give thanks for wealth (32%) or achievements (51%), according to a new study from LifeWay.

Top Bible verse, topics of 2016 election
On Election Day, more people were searching the Bible for topics involving the end times than for praying for government. And the top Bible verse of the 2016 presidential election: 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Christian colleges grapple with election, views on women & minorities
Exit polls suggest 81% of white evangelicals voted for President-elect Donald Trump. But support for him may have been less decisive on Christian college campuses, where most students are also white evangelicals. Internal polls from some Christian colleges before the general election showed weaker Trump support than among the evangelical community at large. At Wheaton College in Illinois, 43% of respondents said they would vote for Clinton.

University: Religious volunteering doesn’t count
Two students are suing a Wisconsin university for denying them mandatory community service credits for work they did with a local church. The university claims their service projects violate a policy excluding hours that involve certain religious activities. The students, who filed a lawsuit in federal court, argue the policy is viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutional.

Protests at FBC Dallas draw spotlight
Protesters picketing First Baptist Church in Dallas will have no effect, pastor Robert Jeffress. “Look, these people, these protesters, aren’t opposing me or our church,” he said of the 50 or so protesters who picketed the church because of the pastor’s apparent public support of Trump during the contentious presidential campaign. “When I see these protesters, it kind of reminds me of a flea striking its hind leg against Mount Everest, saying I’m going to topple you over.

Sources: Facts & Trends, Christianity Today, Religion News, World Magazine, Baptist Press

Give thanks Autumn conceptual creative illustration

(Editor’s Note: Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck annually penned a list of things for which she was grateful, letting lines from a few famous hymns to guide her prayer. With appreciation, we borrow her literary form for our own version again this year.) 

As we gather together to count the Lord’s blessings, 396 years after the first Thanksgiving day, we are thankful once again that our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation… that survives even today, twelve score years later,

still committed as one nation, despite our divisions,
still committed to the proposition that all people are created equal,
still committed to pursuit of life, the cardinal freedoms, and happiness.

Our fathers’ God, to Thee, Author of Liberty, we are grateful—
For the rule of law and peaceful transfer of power,
for the right to vote, and whether we win or lose, we’re still one nation under God;
That truth, justice, and the American way, mystifying it at times may be
Is God’s gift, this noble attempt to govern well through liberty.

O Lord My God, when we in awesome wonder consider—
this year’s progress with cancer drugs, loyal dogs and healing hugs;
children raised with tender care, troops come home in answered prayer,
dear souls saved by God above…this is amazing grace, unfailing love.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come;
Wins we never dreamed came true, this was the year for champions:
Gymnasts, Phelps, and medals gold, victory laps and stories told
Of dedication’s sure reward, winners crowned and loss consoled;
Several million voices raised, the whole state rings with the praise;
Holy cow! a chant sublime, Go, Cubs, Go! It’s about time.

Count your blessings, name them one by one…
the bills were paid, the taxes too, the floors were sound, the roof was sure;
with many homeless, we were “homed,” many hungry, we were fed.

So thank you, Lord, for my three squares, Pease’s candy, deep-dish pizza,
Horseshoes, cornbread, and Cracker Barrel.
Forgive the irony, but thank you, too, for insulin and athletic shoes,
which we’ll use next year.

Surely, there are 10,000 reasons for my heart to say…Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

In Christ alone my hope is found…and in a year of uncertainty, we have learned again the meaning of sovereignty, that God’s in charge whatever man plans, when the world’s unsafe we rest in Your hands. At day’s end with the lights turned out, we hold this blessed assurance close, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.

Taking the risk

ib2newseditor —  November 17, 2016

Serving Christ has always been dangerous. He said it would be. Now, even telling the stories of missionaries puts them in danger.

London | We can’t tell you their names. We can’t tell you where they live. We can’t really even tell you where they work. They are missionaries.

Times have changed. We all know social and cultural values have recently experienced massive upheavals in western nations. Religion has played a major role in these changes. Missions work is no longer tolerated in places it once was. Working to fulfill the Great Commission can no longer be done so openly.

We can’t tell you their names. We can’t tell you where they live. We can’t really even tell you where they work. They are missionaries.

Coinciding with these cultural shifts are changes within the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest missions sending agency. The International Mission Board (IMB) is adapting the way it does missions. When IMB President David Platt stepped into the role in 2014 he soon discovered the agency was facing a budget overspend of more than $200 million. Personnel costs would have to be greatly reduced with action being taken quickly. With a major and largely voluntary staff reduction in 2015, going from nearly 5,000 missionaries and staff to 3,800, IMB expects have a balanced budget in 2017.

The changes included cutting most of the communications team serving in Richmond, and replacing them with a small team of young communication specialists stationed at points all around the world. With them comes new strategies for engaging Southern Baptists with missionaries that take into account the risky business of gospel witness.

Not your mother’s mission magazine
You may have noticed the stories about IMB missionaries have changed. Remember Commission magazine, with its glossy photos and National Geographic style? Today’s mission stories are not written in a long, detailed format anymore. We don’t often see photographs of missionaries’ faces. The name of the countries where they serve may not be reported. There is a good reason for this. A very good reason.

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SHADOW AND LIGHT – This photo from IMB’s
Instagram account shows their new communication strategy: show the missions concept, but protect the identity of the missionary. Posted with the photo is a brief message from the missionary: “Pray for God to provide me with a teammate willing to work in rough, remote places so we can reach the mountain shepherd people.”

Almost a dozen state Baptist convention newspaper editors met with members of the Board’s media network in London recently. The chief topic was security concerns.

“There’s spiritual warfare on the front lines,” a member of the media team shared. “A battle is going on against the spread of the gospel.”

For example, one missionary took all the necessary precautions. But when a photo that had been taken years earlier was found online it led to his undoing. Somehow a person in the country where the missionary was serving connected it with some other information online to learn the missionary’s true identity. It almost cost him his life.

He walked, unsuspecting, into a meeting and found the atmosphere was charged with anger. People once friendly were now menacing as they kept him there for hours shouting, “Is this you? Did you say this?” When he was finally allowed to leave, he gathered his family and they fled the country. His identity had been compromised and it was no longer safe for them to continue to spread the gospel message in that country.

The missionary life can require living in countries where it’s dangerous to be a Christian. But it can also be risky living in “safe” countries among those same people groups that are hostile to Christians. There are parts of Africa and Asia that have always been high risk and high security for missionaries. With the increased mobilization of people, now it’s not just there, it’s everywhere.

“There’s spiritual warfare on the front lines. A battle is going on against the spread of the gospel.”

In other cases, the country may feel it is already a Christian nation and therefore does not need to admit anyone into the country for the express purpose of doing mission work. In those places, missionaries enter as workers who are in the country to do charity work or other vocations.

Tell the old, old story—differently
If you visit the International Mission Board’s website, IMB.org, you can read its mission statement, “Our mission is evangelizing, discipling, and planting reproducing churches among all peoples in fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

In today’s world, technological advance has produced security issues, so can the missions stories be told to the people back home in the pews? It’s becoming more and more challenging. Things aren’t as simple as when Lottie Moon would write about her work in China and send the letter to Annie Armstrong to be copied (and recopied) by hand or typewriter, and distributed across the United States.

For years the National Woman’s Missionary Union’s prayer calendar in Missions Mosaic magazine has contained a birthday prayer calendar for missionaries. It listed their names and the countries where they served. In recent years, fewer real names or locations can be shared. Quite often a pseudonym will be used along with a region of the world, “South Asia,” for instance.

While the IMB remains committed to telling the story back home, they are having to become more and more creative in doing so. Lengthy articles are now less common and story vignettes are better vehicles not only due to safety concerns, but also for ever shrinking attention spans.

“The missionary life, missions sending, it’s always changing.”

This has caused the IMB to shift the way it creates the content of a story, looking more at the concept that describes the missions work. As a member of the media team said, “There are avenues of telling the story without focusing on people in specific locations. We’ve had to shift the way we’re doing content altogether.”

The use of social media including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter is proving to be a good way for Southern Baptists to stay informed about missions. It connects with younger generations who need also to learn the importance of giving to missions through the Cooperative Program.

The IMB website has undergone a complete retooling and now sports a fresh look that supports this challenging new media world.

Another change is in the reporting on the safety of missionaries after breaking news events. Southern Baptists often express interest in how an event affects missions efforts in those areas. According to their website, “Due to security considerations for IMB personnel and the national believers with whom they work, we usually don’t discuss their locations. However, with any breaking news event, we are in contact with anyone who might be affected, due to travel or other reasons, to confirm their safety and security.”

A media team member summed it up: “The missionary life, missions sending, it’s always changing. There are always new security challenges necessitating a new way of telling their stories. Most of our missionaries, we can’t print their names.”

Lisa Misner Sergent will focus on London, a world city with many people groups, in her next report.