Archives For December 2014

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

Tis the season for best-of lists, and several interesting are already floating around the internet:

Other news:

“I’m proud of you,” Rick Warren told Mars Hill Church Dec. 28. Via video, Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Ca., preached the final message members of the multi-site church will hear before Mars Hill disbands and several of the locations become independent congregations. “You know, anybody can follow Jesus when it’s a party,” Warren said. “The real test of spiritual maturity is how you handle the storms of life, the difficulties, and even the changes that you didn’t ask for.” Mars Hill Pastor Marc Driscoll resigned in October amid charges of unbiblical leadership.

“We can support the police and talk about how to make policing better at the same time,” writes Ed Stetzer. “We can seek to insert grace into these difficult moments.” The missiologist and president of LifeWay Research (and native New Yorker) reflected on his blog in the wake of the murders of two New York City police officers.

If the United States’ unchurched population was its own country, it would be the eighth most populous nation in the world, Barna reports in these “10 Facts About America’s Churchless.”

A positive note to end on: Seven NFL players participated in a holiday Bible giveaway, reports The Christian Post. “God placed us here for a reason. Use the time you have on this platform to spread His Word,” Tampa Bay Buccaneer Alterraun Verner told CP.

And what the trends mean for your church

An Illinois Baptist team report

"Imagine if you could spend 10 focused minutes each Sunday morning in extraordinary prayer on two major needs locally, in your church, in America, or across the world.” SBC President Ronnie Floyd’s “Call to Prayer” that began at the Annual Meeting in Baltimore now turns to Sunday mornings, starting with one worship service in January.

SBC President Ronnie Floyd’s “Call to Prayer” that began at the Annual Meeting in Baltimore now turns to Sunday mornings, starting with one worship service in January.

1. Churches respond to “Call to Prayer”
“It is past time for us to prioritize prayer personally and in the church,” SBC President Ronnie Floyd wrote on his blog in early December. “For far too long, we have seen what we can do; it is time for us to see what God can do. This can only happen when we pray.”

Floyd’s continued call to prayer—leading to the June 2015 SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio—began about two years ago with a series of meetings for pastors and church leaders. Floyd began quoting famed Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards who called believers to “extraordinary prayer” for revival in America.

“God’s people will be given a spirit of prayer,” Edwards wrote in 1746, “inspiring them to come together and pray in an extraordinary manner, that He would help his Church, show mercy to mankind in general, pour out his Spirit, revive His work, and advance His kingdom in the world as He promised.”

Today’s growing urgency in prayer coincided with planning for the 2014 IBSA Annual Meeting in November. “We will either hunger for God’s righteousness out of desperation or…out of devastation,” IBSA President Odis Weaver told messengers. The November meeting peaked in a Concert of Prayer for Spiritual Awakening in Illinois and across the U.S.

“I believe we need to cry out to God for spiritual awakening, and for revival in our churches,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams. He led more than 400 pastors and church leaders through a prayer cycle lamenting the lost condition of people in Illinois, repenting of apathy and ineffectiveness, interceding for spiritual awakening, and commiting to pursuit of revival in our churches.

Afterward, many pastors said they would lead similar prayer events when they returned home.

Now Floyd is asking churches to dedicate an entire Sunday morning service to prayer in January: “Just imagine if 100 churches, 500 churches, or several thousand Southern Baptist churches would turn a Sunday morning into insuring that Jesus’ House would be a genuine house of prayer for all the nations.
Just imagine what could happen if, from this point forward, you could spend 10 focused minutes each Sunday morning in extraordinary prayer on two major needs locally, in your church, in America, or across the world.”

Jonathan Edwards imagined the outcome. He called it the “revival of religion.” We would call it “advancement of the Gospel”—the salvation of lost souls, renewal of our churches, and restoration of moral sensibility to the nation.

In your church: SBC churches will likely give prayer a higher profile in 2015, but what are we praying for? How will we sustain prayer in our congregations as more than a once-in-a-while emphasis? Consider a Concert of Prayer in January. As Floyd wrote, “If we do not plan to pray, we will not pray!

2. Evangelicals cope with minority status
Say goodbye to Mayberry. The culture is shifting. What was once called good is now called evil, and vice versa, just as Isaiah said of his own times. The majority opinion in the U.S. approves of same-sex marriage, and many other sexual matters—once outside the norm—are being accepted by society at large. But, while the morals and mores are changing, Southern Baptists are not.

We still stand on the Word.

“One of the biggest challenges for conservative Christians is moving beyond a Bible Belt mentality, or a moral majority mentality,” said Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “and seeing ourselves instead as in many cases a prophetic minority speaking to a larger culture about things that matter.”

Moore called on pastors and church leaders to “prepare people for what the future holds, when Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality aren’t part of the cultural consensus but are seen to be strange and freakish and even subversive.”

“The Bible Belt is collapsing,” Moore has concluded.

The main evidence of that in Illinois is same-sex marriage which became legal June 1. Churches, at one point concerned they would be forced to perform
gay weddings, instead began addressing their bylaws as means of protection.

Another response by evangelicals is to make the church a place of refuge, said John Stonestreet, commentator for Breakpoint Ministries. “People who are enslaved to porn and suffer different forms of brokenness need to be able to come to the church and find answers. The church needs to offer hope and solutions. We need to say, ‘Here’s an option. Here’s the hope; here’s the gospel; here’s the truth; here’s Jesus; and here’s the cross.’”

Moore concurs. “We must have a voice that speaks to the conscience, a voice that is splattered with blood. We are ministers…not of condemnation, the devil can do that, we are ministers of reconciliation, which means that we will speak hard words…truthful words to address the conscience, even when that costs us everything.”

In your church: Church leaders are ministering from a new vantage point, but with the same apologetic. The challenge will be to confront cultural ills in a way that is biblically faithful and yet winsome. The message hasn’t changed, but some in our society today need to hear the truth truly spoken in love.

At a meeting in Asia, young missionaries surround new IMB President David Platt to pray for him as he seeks to mobilize churches. Photo by Hugh Johnson/IMB

At a meeting in Asia, young missionaries surround new IMB President David Platt to pray for him as he seeks to mobilize churches. Photo by Hugh Johnson/IMB

3. Young leaders urge peers to “re-engage”
The evidence has been building for a few years now: young Baptists are back. Or on their way back, at least.

They’re more visible at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meetings, and, in 2014, at two meetings on the gospel and marriage hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They’re also beginning to look remarkably similar in age to the leaders of several of the denomination’s entities. At the ERLC’s October national conference, 125 young leaders had dinner with President Russell Moore and the heads of the SBC’s two missions agencies, Kevin Ezell and David Platt. At four years, Ezell is the longest-tenured at his post; Moore took the ERLC reins in 2013, and Platt was elected in August.

“There’s never been a better time in my lifetime to re-engage as a Southern Baptist than right now,” Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said at the meeting. “I really believe that God is up to something very special in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Many young Baptists likely would cite the election of Platt, 36, as one of the highlights of 2014. Midwestern Seminary President Jason Allen, himself 38, blogged that when he announced Platt’s election during a September chapel service, students (and faculty and staff) broke into applause for the missiologist and author of bestseller “Radical.”

More than 1,000 miles away in Richmond, Va., young missionary appointees gathered around Platt shortly after his election to congratulate him and tell him how “Radical” and his messages on reaching the nations had helped lead them to the international mission field.

After Platt’s election, some Baptist leaders expressed concern that his Birmingham congregation, The Church at Brook Hills, gave a lower amount through traditional Cooperative Program channels, instead sending a large portion of their gifts directly to the SBC Executive Committee and International Mission Board.

But even with those concerns, established leaders affirmed Platt’s ability to mobilize young people to share the gospel to the ends of the earth. Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson noted it in a blog post published shortly after Platt’s election, calling for “thanksgiving to God for the presence of a young leader who has obviously garnered the hearts of the younger generation and who will have the opportunity to lead them to a commitment to the world mission enterprise.”

One blogger put it a little more plainly, noting Platt may be just the right voice to deliver tough love to would-be male missionaries outnumbered by female “Journeymen” appointed through the IMB.

“Lend your voice to addressing the issue of young males wimping out of Journeyman service,” William Thornton wrote at SBC Voices. “These guys think you walk on water, Mr. Radical. Give ‘em both barrels on this and see what happens.”

In your church: Look for increased excitement from your own young leaders now that the authors and speakers they’ve followed for several years are in prominent positions. Be prepared for them to want to go to the hard places for ministry and missions. “That’s where we hear young couples saying they want to go, that they want to be radically obedient to what God has called us to do for the nations,” said IMB trustee chairman David Uth. “The passion is there.”

4. Growing persecution: From “the Nun” to “resurrection people”
Before Ebola dominated headlines, another one-word threat struck fear in the hearts of many around the world—and even here. The war of terror and persecution waged by ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was the story of the year earlier in 2014.

ISIS chased religious minorities high into the mountains of Iraq. They filmed beheadings and broadcast them as warnings to the rest of the world. And they stirred many in the Western world to stand with the persecuted church. The Arabic letter “Nun” was used on social media pages to symbolize solidarity with those persecuted for their faith in “the Nazarene,” or Jesus.

It’s not just a problem in the Middle East. In Nigeria, 1,505 Christians were killed for their faith in the first seven months of 2014, according to non-profit Jubilee Campaign. North Korea again topped Open Doors’ list of most persecuted countries, highlighted by the imprisonment of American Kenneth Bae, who was finally released in November. Others, including Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran, remain in prison.

Closer to home, Christians felt a different kind of persecution. Businesses and non-profits faced government fines for not providing abortion-causing contraceptives. The mayor of Houston, Texas, subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who were against the city’s pro-LGBT ordinance.

Christian leaders here urged believers to remember who they belong to. “The answer to the decline of religious freedom and the change in the moral climate is not found in waging incessant cultural wars, filled with rage at our changing culture,” said LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. “Simply put, you can’t hate a people and reach a people at the same time.”

Instead, he urged Christians, “Let’s live like the resurrection people, adorning the gospel with lives of grace. Even in our passion to defend freedoms increasingly at risk, let’s remind ourselves this generation is desperately in need of the love of Christ, lived and shared.”

In your church: Be prepared to think globally about persecution. How can your church go beyond your normal prayer times to intercede for those under threat for their faith?

Be alert to what government bodies are doing. Speak out when religious liberties are threatened. The IRS prohibits churches from supporting candidates, but not from speaking on issues related to faith.

SBC’s Frank Page speaks frequently about the future of the Cooperative Program, painting a hopeful picture despite years of declining offerings. Photo by Morris Abernathy

SBC’s Frank Page speaks frequently about the future of the Cooperative Program, painting a hopeful picture despite years of declining offerings. Photo by Morris Abernathy

5. Cooperative missions for a new generation

Most Baptists agreed the Cooperative Program, the denomination’s chief method of funding missions and ministry, is the best way for churches together to pursue the Great Commission. But how to fix the CP, plateaued and trending slightly downward for years, is up for debate. The election of David Platt as IMB president revealed how his church and other large churches have bypassed their state conventions, even though CP gifts for national and international missions are supposed to be routed first through the state level.

“I have heard some people say, ‘The big problem is that the younger generation simply isn’t educated about CP,’” blogged pastor J.D. Greear after Platt’s election. “That may be true for a small percentage of people, but the bigger problem is probably that they are educated about it. The more they find out about CP giving, the less they are motivated to give.”

Meanwhile, blogger Bart Barber spoke up for the reliability of the system itself, calling those who disagree with the way CP funds are allocated to greater involvement in SBC life. “…Within the Cooperative Program approach you can pursue any ministry, reallocate any budget, or adopt any methodology that you can convince enough of your fellow churches and fellow pastors to adopt,” Barber posted at SBC Voices.

“Bring on the changes! Make your proposals! Go to the floor of the SBC Annual Meeting! Attend your state convention meeting! Advocate tirelessly and fearlessly for the improvements you’d like to see. Whatever they are and however much adaptation they would require, I’m betting that almost none of it would actually require any changes at all in the Cooperative Program.”

SBC Executive Committee CEO Frank Page continued his campaign for increased giving through the Cooperative Program, touring the nation (including Chicago) to talk with younger pastors and leaders. “I’ll drop the Cooperative Program if you can show me something else that long-term is effective and engages every church concurrently and consistently in an Acts 1:8 strategy,” Page has said on several occasions. “Show it to me, and I’ll support it….But I
haven’t found it yet.”

In your church: More conversation about CP in the national SBC could mean it’s time for a refresher course in your local church. A class for young or new Baptists is an opportunity to teach about why Baptists give cooperatively. One big reason: CP helps missionaries focus on their mission field, instead of fundraising. Another reason: CP helps the local church have a balanced missions strategy, supporting work on all their Acts 1:8 mission fields.

-With reporting from Baptist Press

Read all of the December 22 Illinois Baptist at


O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hands have made in 2014…

365 days marked by evening and morning, 365 sunsets and sunrises, as 143,341,000 people were born onto this planet and 56,759,000 departed, all receiving 1,640 minutes each day and blessings beyond number, I say

Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul; thank you, Lord, for making me one of the billions you have saved by grace through faith. I was sinking deep in sin, far from your holy standard, and yet you made a Way for me—for us—to be rescued.

And His Name is Jesus.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish use of time and grant that we may more wisely employ our moments and our days to share your peace with a world that has suffered its absence this year: the death-march of ISIS and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the kidnapped girls and the lost boys; the fear in Ferguson, and the failure of our social contract. We are grateful for God’s peace in our hearts, even as we realize the fragility of peace in our streets.

Sixty years after D-Day, bless the Greatest Generation who secured our freedom, and guard the young soldiers whose service today has redefined sacrifice.

calendar 2014.In this, the year of Ebola, we pray: Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the deadly wave with wonder drugs and rescue teams, hazmat suits and quarantines. For healthcare, though at times it’s costly, sparing lives that once would lost be; for ribbons pink and yellow wristbands and friends who live strong when faced with cancer. (And their hats.)

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for the year to come, we’re grateful for a stronger economy, steadier jobs, and the roof overhead. Our kids are warm and safely tucked in; thank you for the joy of children (those here now and those a’comin’).

For our Baptist family on bended knee lifting lost ones up to Thee; for our dear church, where would we be without your Body on earth that meets just down the street and comes over for small group?

For faithful friends and faithful givers, co-laborers in Christ who become brothers and sisters, the cloud of witnesses in heavenly places who cheer us on as we run our races.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed is all you made and we marvel still at your inscrutable creation…yet little things cheer our hearts and make us sing “Happy” songs. I love breakfast (oh it’s so good!), foods I eat and foods I should. Coffee hot and iced tea sweet, mittened-hands and sock-warmed feet; feeling glad when winter comes and gladder still when winter goes.

Clinging to the hope of spring, there are 10,000 reasons for my heart to sing…Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul…because whatever comes in 2015,
“I am persuaded 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” (Romans 8:38-39).

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist and IBSA’s associate executive director for the church communications team. This column was written in the style of the late Joan Beck, Chicago Tribune columnist, whose annual “thanks” essays inspired readers for 30 years.

The_Briefing_ChristmasTHE BRIEFING | Grinches might have tried to ruin a nativity scene in Indianapolis, but organizers at the Indiana Masonic Home got back-up in the form of GPS monitors placed inside the Jesus statue and several others.

After Baby Jesus was stolen Dec. 6 (and returned Dec. 11), BrickHouse Security made the Masonic Home the latest recipient of its “GPS Jesus” tracking devices,  USA Today reports.

Speaking of festive holiday displays, a Christian group in South Korea has decided not to reconstruct a Christmas tree tower on the border between North and South Korea, Christianity Today reports. “The establishment of our Christmas tree [tower] was to be a religious event aimed at promoting peace,” Christian Council of Korea (CCK) senior official Hong Jae-Chul told reporters. “However, our pure intention caused undesirable misunderstanding that it would aggravate inter-Korean friction.”

Where are people a little less worried about big holiday displays? In New Jersey, apparently, where Liquid Church is planning a “spiritual flash mob” for Christmas Eve. Read the Christian Post story here.

“We tend to idealize holidays, but human depravity doesn’t go into hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,” blogs Russell Moore. The president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission gives five pointers for those who face tension around the Christmas dinner table.

Every time a bell rings … It’s a Wonderful Life is on TV again. Especially this time of year. But there’s more to the classic movie than just serving as a staple of Christmas-time viewing. Critic Phil Boatwright says, “Without any sermons or altar calls, It’s a Wonderful Life reveals how God’s love transforms and sustains. For me, that makes it the best film of all time.”

NEWS | Meredith Flynn

“Our town is starting to come back,” said Pastor David Siere. For a year, he has watched Brookport, Ill., recover from a tornado that destroyed several homes and killed three people in Massac County, located at the southern tip of the state.

The storm hit on a Sunday afternoon, part of a tornado outbreak that wreaked havoc all over the state. Siere’s church, First Baptist in Brookport, sits next to a mobile home park that was almost completely destroyed, he said.

But Brookport is rebuilding, and Siere and his church are playing an integral role in the process. The town is starting to look a lot better, he said, and “we’re praising God for what He’s done so far.”


The Massac Pope County Recovery Committee has helped rebuild five homes since a tornado tore through the region last November. Nine more new houses are under construction. Photo from MPCRC Facebook page

Immediately after the tornado, FBC became Brookport’s ground zero for storm recovery. A ministry facility they had built in 2011 across the parking lot from the main building housed donated food, water and clothing. The pastor sees God’s provision in that building—“I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t had it.”

Illinois Disaster Relief teams moved quickly into the area to cut down damaged trees and visit with shaken residents. About a week after the tornado, Siere was approached by a city leader about being part of a long-term recovery team. Two of his church members, Bob Craig and Jerry Muniz, also joined the Massac & Pope County Recovery Committee.

So far, volunteer groups working through MPCRC have built five houses in Brookport, and nine more are in process. In August, the first homeowners moved in, including Clark Blasdel, who said he had never been through anything as bad as the tornado, and had never had anything as good happen to him as his new home.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m happy,” Blasdel told WPSD in Paducah, Ky.

The work of the committee is funded through grants and donations, combined with money provided to residents by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Their goal is two-fold: To provide housing for people who were displaced after the tornado, and to make Brookport a better place to live. In doing so, the team, which includes members of local churches, is also looking out for the spiritual well-being of their town.

“We keep God at the center of it, and I think that’s what makes a difference,” said Craig, noting that without God, it would be difficult to keep a sweet, loving attitude. The committee’s meetings start with prayer and Scripture reading, and they recently sponsored a “gospel sing” on the one-year anniversary of the

Craig, who pastored FBC Brookport before Siere, told around 200 attenders that with all the safety precautions people take—like storm shelters and weather radios—there’s a greater safety to be found in Christ. “You might not make it through another circumstance like this, and you need to have that provision taken care of,” he said.

When asked if there are stories from the past year that stand out, Craig recalls one young man whose mobile home rolled over several times during the storm, even as his wife and child were inside. They were bruised and banged up, Craig said, but survived. And the young man gave his heart to Christ.

“It was such a thrill, because it was a son-in-law of a long-time brother in Christ that I’ve known many years.”

To God be the glory
After the tornado, Siere was unsure what to put on the church sign, in light of everyone who had done so much to help Brookport. He settled on a simple message: “Thank you, everybody.”

Certainly, many are thanking the church in return. All of the houses built through the recovery committee have been constructed by volunteer workers, and those workers are fed at the church through the efforts of a woman from Metropolis who coordinates the meals. She was looking for a way to help and, Siere
said, “God led her here.”

The volunteer teams have slowed down for the winter; one group is scheduled for late December and one in January. But as the weather warms up, the committee expects more people will come to help.

When they started a year ago, eight houses was set as a goal, Siere said, and “God has seen fit for us to do a lot more than that.” The number 23 has come up, but whether or not the committee is able to see that many projects through, they want to help as many people as possible get a place to live.

Ultimately, he said, they want God to get the glory.

“We meet once a week still, here at the church, and as we’re seeing things happen, we just thank God because it has to be a God thing.”

Danielle and Jonathan Spangenberg portray Mary and Joseph at Living Faith Baptist Church’s living nativity scene Dec. 6.

Danielle and Jonathan Spangenberg portray Mary and Joseph at Living Faith
Baptist’s living nativity scene Dec. 6.

HEARTLAND | Meredith Flynn

“Start tending the sheep!” The warning is issued from a pint-sized shepherd on this chilly Saturday night in the parking lot of Living Faith Baptist Church.

The shepherds are a middle stop of the church’s drive-through nativity experience, and these kids in belted tunics have been waiting for the first car to arrive at their scene. Inside the cars, families listen to a CD of the Christmas story they received as they drove in; each track corresponds to a different scene. Outside, the shepherds act it out, tending their sheep like any other day, until a heavenly host appears above them.

“Christmas seems to be the most hectic time, the most stressful time of year,” says Pastor Adam Cruse. “And so, really, we want to bring it back to what is Christmas truly all about? The simple message of Christmas is about a savior who came into the world, and so we just wanted people to come back to the focus of it all.”

Living Faith planned to do the nativity last year, but were snowed out, making this year the “second annual attempt,” according to associate pastor Daniel Waters. A few minutes before this year’s performance is set to start at 5:30, cars begin lining up at the edge of the parking lot. Turning off their lights, they drive single-file past several scenes: Mary and Joseph hearing individually from angels; the couple with their new baby and the manger, shepherds tending their flocks; and wise men from the east visiting the family.

The last two scenes don’t feature any actors. In the corner of the parking lot stand three empty crosses, the middle one slightly larger with a white cloth wrapped around it. Next to the crosses, a small trailer has been fashioned into an empty tomb.

“We didn’t want to just focus on the Christmas scene, because it’s very easy to forget what Christ did and why he came,” Cruse said. “He came to die on the cross and then to come out of the grave, so we wanted to depict those scenes as well.”

Cuban children learn to pray during a weekly meeting held in the home of two ladies with a passion to evangelize children. In 2010, the religious affiliation of Cuba was estimated by the Pew Forum to be 59.2 percent Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), 23.0 percent unaffiliated, 17.4 percent folk religion and the remaining 0.4 percent other religions. Wilson Hunter/IMB

Cuban children learn to pray during a weekly meeting held in the home of two ladies with a passion to evangelize children. In 2010, the religious affiliation of Cuba was estimated by the Pew Forum to be 59.2% Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), 23% unaffiliated, 17.4% folk religion, and the remaining 0.4% other religions. Wilson Hunter/IMB Photo from

President Obama’s announcement Dec. 17 that the U.S. will renew its relationship with Cuba had pundits talking about the political and economic implications. Meanwhile, many Christian leaders focused on what the decision could mean for Cuban believers.

Phil Nelson has traveled to Cuba 11 times since 2003, speaking about the gospel with college students and on one occasion, a university president.

“Everybody we met with, we talked with about the gospel,” said Nelson, pastor of Lakeland Baptist Church in Carbondale. The Cuban Christians he has worked with are “passionate about the gospel, unashamed about anything. They had a boldness that we just don’t know anything about here in the United States.”

Still, there is the specter of oppression, said Kevin Carrothers, who traveled with Nelson to Cuba in 2006. He remembers noticing from Cuban people and visitors to the country that no one wanted to draw attention to themselves. The stereotype most people apply to the Caribbean – bright clothing, a festive, celebrative atmosphere – didn’t hold water in Cuba, said the pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.

Their mission team saw people come to Christ, though, including one woman who stopped them by the side of the road to ask for a drink of water. Nelson talked with her about the living water that Jesus offers; right there on the road, Carrothers said, she accepted Christ.

After Obama’s announcement, leaders weighed in on whether the decision would help or hurt people in the country. “This change is not going to help the Cuban people [under] a communist government in power for more than 50 years,” said Óscar J. Fernández, a Tennessee minister who holds political asylum from Cuba. “I will applaud if Cuba makes any concessions, but they are not [likely to do so],” he told Baptist Press.

But David R. Lema, whose family left Cuba for Spain when he was 7, said “any normalization of political ties between Cuba and the U.S., regardless of political implications or results, should prove beneficial for Christian work.”

“Travel for Americans going to Cuba would flow smoother and with less inconvenience—anyone that has gone to Cuba knows what I am talking about here,” Lema, director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami, told BP. “Churches and individuals will have more freedom to help the churches directly without having to worry about U.S. embargo violations.”

Carrothers said he didn’t know whether more mission teams will begin traveling to the Caribbean country. “What I do know, and what I think the reality is, is that where the church has been oppressed, and the church has been persecuted, the gospel has flourished.

“And that certainly was the case in Cuba, the gospel was flourishing in the midst of oppression.”

By Meredith Flynn, with additional reporting by Baptist Press

Fear and worry in St. Louis

Lisa Misner —  December 18, 2014

COMMENTARY | Growing up in a small rural Missouri community just 90 miles north of St. Louis gave me the opportunity to experience some of the best the city and its surrounding communities had to offer. My family made frequent trips to the St. Louis Zoo, the Museums of Art and Natural History, Six Flags, Cardinals baseball games, the Fox Theatre, and, of course, the numerous malls and shops.

I looked forward to any and all trips into the city. St. Louis seemed so fast and exciting compared to my sleepy little farming community. I still love St. Louis and look forward to any visits I can make there. It’s because of my heart for the city and the connections I have there that the recent events in Ferguson have particularly saddened me.

I’m Facebook friends with former classmates who now live in the metro area. I’ve been following one of my classmate’s posts in particular since the evening of August 29, when a white police officer shot and killed a young black man. She and her family live in a town adjacent to Ferguson and have experienced first-hand the events that have captured the nation’s attention.

She has chronicled the fear and frustration felt by many in the community. She has also shared about being a parent of four young children and how the unrest has affected them. Some nights they could hear the sounds of the protestors from their home.

My classmate has struggled to explain to them what happened, why people are angry, why school has been cancelled, and many other related things. Along with her husband, their top priority has been keeping their children safe and also making them feel safe.

I’ve read with joy when she’s written about her faith in the Lord and knowing He would keep them safe. I’ve read with sadness when she has expressed fears for her family. When the announcement was made that the grand jury had come to a verdict, she wrote that a friend in another town had offered to let them stay in her home if they felt unsafe in their own. She jokingly posted that she hoped they didn’t have to have a “slumber party” that night.

When the school reopened following the grand jury announcement, she wrote about walking her children in and reassuring them of their safety. She also shared about barely making it out the school’s front door before collapsing into tears from stress and worry.

What my friend and her family are experiencing doesn’t have anything to do with whether you agree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. It’s about the sin that is in this world and our failure as a society to seek God.

May we turn to Him to ask for healing and understanding between all races in our nation, and for Him to be glorified through our words and actions.

JesusTHE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

How well do Americans fare at keeping Christ the center of Christmas? Pretty well, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research. 79% agreed that “Christmas should be more about Jesus,” and 70% said “Christmas would be a better experience if it had a more Christian focus.” 63% of people said the holiday should include a visit to church.

Even so, LifeWay reported, people are less sure about the season’s theological details: Only 56% agreed that Christ existed before Jesus’ birth.

As you send your Christmas cards this year, remember who’s on the receiving end, Kay Warren said in a Dec. 4 Facebook post and a later article for Warren, whose son, Matthew, committed suicide in 2013, said receiving cards with happy family photos served as sharp reminders of their own family’s grief.

As protestors rallied to speak out against grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission changed the theme of its second annual leadership summit to racial reconciliation. The March 26-27 meeting was set to focus on pro-life issues, but ERLC leaders announced the new emphasis in light of national response to current events, Baptist Press reported.

Christian leaders will gather today in Memphis, Tenn., to discuss the church and race relations. “It’s Time to Speak” will be streamed live from the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum. The event, organized by Memphis pastor Bryan Loritts, also includes John Piper, Derwin Gray, Matt Chandler and Darrin Patrick. Gray told The Christian Post, “This event will be a call for the local church to be what she was meant to be – a multi-ethnic and multi-class of communities of reconciliation, love, and unity.

The plywood nailed to the windows of homes and businesses reminded Stoney Shaw of living near the threat of hurricanes when he was younger.

“People would brace themselves for the storm that was coming,” said Shaw, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ferguson, Missouri. “That’s exactly what is happening here; a devastating storm. But praise God things seem to be winding down and there is a lot of rebuilding going on, which is what we’ve been praying for.” Read the full story from the Illinois Baptist.

More than $30,000 has been donated online to help three families in the wake of a triple murder in Florida. Southern Baptist pastor Tripp Battle was one of the victims in the Dec. 4 shootings, which also took the lives of Denise Potter and Amber Avalos. Avalos’ husband, Andres, was arrested Dec. 6 in connection with the deaths, Baptist Press reported.

The upcoming movie version of Louis Zamperini’s life may not fully explore his faith, but the WW2 survivor’s conversion was in the spotlight leading up to the Dec. 25 release of “Unbroken.” The 1949 Los Angeles revival where Zamperini was saved not only changed him, wrote Religion News Service’s Cathy Lynn Grossman, but also transformed the ministry of the young evangelist preaching those nights.

Numerous fires were set in Ferguson, Mo., following the decision by a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Photo from by Victor Miller

Numerous fires were set in Ferguson, Mo., following the decision by a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Photo from by Victor Miller

NEWS | Kayla Rinker

The plywood nailed to the windows of homes and businesses reminded Stoney Shaw of living near the threat of hurricanes when he was younger.

“People would brace themselves for the storm that was coming,” said Shaw, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ferguson. “That’s exactly what is happening here; a devastating storm. But praise God things seem to be winding down and there is a lot of rebuilding going on, which is what we’ve been praying for.”

Despite the rioting and arson surrounding the grand jury’s Nov. 24 decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, Shaw said there are glimpses of hope among the ashes.

“On that very same plywood, artists have drawn pictures of encouragement and hope,” he said. “We are the real Ferguson people, black and white. As a whole we are not the ones marching and picketing, we are the ones getting looted and broken into. There are a lot of other narratives, but the reality is that this is a terrible tragedy and it does not have our best interest in mind.”

But because of that reality, it leaves Ferguson-area churches with a unique opportunity to minister to a broken and hurting community. Shaw said FBC is engaged with the city to promote positive changes.

For example, when the district closed a nearby school because of the impending threat of rioting, FBC opened its facilities to provide meals, tutors, and a safe place for the kids to be during the day. The City of Ferguson has also used FBC’s fellowship hall for their “Talk-Back” meetings for people to express their grievances and appeals for change to the mayor and city leaders.

“It’s exciting to be a practical part of the solution to a very complicated situation,” Shaw said. “I’ve said it before but we were at Ground Zero before it was Ground Zero. These are scary times and we are living in the shadow of that. God has called Christian people and churches in Ferguson to go and do what needs to be done together, in order to recover our fine city for Him.”

Sean Boone is pastor of New Beginning Christian Fellowship, an SBC church plant in nearby Hazelwood, Mo. “What I’m seeing and hearing is more about believers being white or black before being Christian,” Boone said. “As believers we must step back and ask are we rendering grace to both sides? Are we looking at everything through the lenses of U.S. citizens or (as) citizens of the body of Christ?”

He said only when believers answer these questions honestly can Biblical and fair solutions for all people be found.

“If we only rely on a system born out of the flesh of sinful man, we will constantly get flawed results,” Boone said. “One side or the other will always feel disenfranchised. Right not we are witnessing an expression of a group of people feeling hopeless. The church needs to address the reason for this hopelessness…which is sin.”

Shaw believes there are legitimate issues and injustices regarding the treatment and the voice of the majority of Ferguson residents. He said that more than anything, this tragedy has shined a light on those problems.

For starters, the African American subgroup in Ferguson makes up 70% of the city’s total population, but there is only one African American member of the city council. Shaw said the city needs to push for everyone to register to vote.

“We are blessed to have some neat African American ladies in our church who have started taking young adults in the 18 to 30 age range and teaching them the basics of our democratic republic,” Shaw said. “We have a nation of people who don’t know how it works. When only 10% of the majority 70% of the population is registered to vote in a city, it’s bad. People start to feel like they aren’t included and can’t change anything, which leads to looting and burning.”

And that idea of feeling included is what lays heavy on Shaw’s heart because he knows where it needs to begin: within the body of Christ. Though pastors and churches have come together to pray for one another in light of recent events, Shaw says that trend needs to continue.

“It sends a wonderful message that we are united as one body of believers,” Shaw said. “We need to get back to really associating with each other and that may require churches, whether predominately white or black, get out of their comfort zones: team up, serve together, go on mission together, fellowship together and even periodically do a pastor swap.”

“We are only racially divided if we want to be,” Shaw said. “We need to be living like Christ throughout this crisis.”

Special to the Illinois Baptist. Kayla Rinker is a reporter living in southwest Missouri.