Archives For Commentary

By Eric Reed

Illinois Exodus

Hard times hit the publishing industry in the early 2000’s. The president of Christianity Today International, for whom I worked at the time, called the confluence of 9/11, falling ad sales, and the rise of the internet “whitewater.” Apparently he enjoyed rafting, but he knew the river crashing against the rocks as placid waters turned swift was a dangerous situation, even for adventurous souls. He talked often about “whitewater” for several years. He told us to hold on tight.

We did.

It wasn’t easy. In the end, the organization was leaner, but publishers who survived met the crisis with creativity and invention. And the gospel mission was advanced.

I thought of that while reading an article on “the Illinois Exodus.” In it, a Chicagoland pastor used the same term to describe these tremulous times in our state. “I suspect we’re headed into some whitewater,” said Mike Woodruff. “The waves are going to knock us around a bit. But our foundations are strong.”

Woodruff was quoted by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at The Gospel Coalition. She asked about the future of Illinois in light of declining population and growing debt. More specifically, she questioned the impact of the resulting exodus on churches.

Some 45,000 people left Illinois in 2018, a trend mirrored in equally high-tax states California and New Jersey. In Illinois, the mounting debt is due in large part to retirement promises—and the financial obligation to cover them—which now equals about $50,800 per household.

Sound off

“What worries me is that I think most Illinois churches are unprepared for what will happen—i.e., in an effort to meet pension obligations, legislators will raise taxes and reduce social programming, which will likely shift the safety net to churches…”
– Mike Woodruff, Chicagoland pastor

“…For several generations, pastors have not seen these issues as something they need to know anything about, so now they’re unable to do much because they don’t know anything….We need to play catch-up and fast.”
– Greg Forster, Trinity International University, Deerfield

How will that affect our ministries? The first answer is obvious: population decline. Especially in troubled neighborhoods and dwindling rural communities, the loss of people hurts. As young people leave to find jobs and older people leave when they retire, the church loses reliable attenders, servants, and givers, and to some extent its future.

But beyond population loss, what happens when the politicians try to adjust the budget to cover the bills? The pastors Zylstra interviewed pointed to a different problem: efforts to cover the gaps could result in loss of services in failing communities, and increases the probability that local churches will be called upon to make up the difference for people in need.

Such a likelihood causes me to ask, Are we prepared? Evangelicals today say we are interested in social issues and in being the hands of Jesus for our community. That commitment will be tested in time and money. “There will be opportunity for pastors to lead well and offer hope,” Woodruff said. “Don’t build barriers and retreat inside and just take care of your own.”

Who imagined a call to local and state missions would be driven by the state’s financial and demographic crunch, but if that’s what it takes to spur the church to a new era of action, so be it.

By Nathan Carter

Like a growing number of churches, The Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C., cancelled services the Sunday after Christmas. Pastor J.D. Greear took some heat on social media for the decision, but should he? What’s wrong with skipping a lightly attended service and giving everyone a break after the holidays? What about the growing practice of occasionally cancelling a Sunday service in order to send the people into the community for outreach projects? Should we ever cancel “church”?

In order to answer the question, there are at least two prior questions we must settle in our minds:

First, is a weekly gathering on Sunday commanded by God? Regular Sunday services are a firmly established part of the Christian tradition. There is strong historical warrant for gathering on Sundays, but is it a biblical requirement?

The answer to that question depends largely on whether we believe the Old Testament commandment about Sabbath-keeping teaches an inherent seven-day rhythm to time and the setting aside of one day in seven for special use. Some Christians will point out that the fourth commandment is the only one that is not explicitly repeated in the New Testament. Others will argue that it was never explicitly annulled.

Is it OK to cancel services now and then?

It is clear that Christians are commanded not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). And there is an assumption throughout the New Testament that believers come together for meetings (see 1 Cor. 11, 14; James 2:2). But where did we get the idea that this expectation applies to every Sunday at the very least?

Well, Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week and met with his gathered disciples that evening (John 20:19) and again on the next Sunday (John 20:26). In Acts 20 we read that Paul was in Troas for seven days and it was on the first day of the week that the believers all gathered together. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 says to collect an offering “on the first day of every week.” Are these examples prescriptive, or merely descriptive? That’s an interpretative decision. Wherever we land, we must at least admit that the case for first day observance cannot be easily dismissed.

The second question we must consider is this: What is the purpose of the Sunday gathering?

We’ve all probably wrestled at some point with whether Sundays are for the saints to be edified or outsiders to be evangelized. I think we must answer, “Both!” Paul envisioned unbelievers having an encounter with God after walking in on Christians worshiping and ministering to each other (1 Cor. 14:23-25).

Even more fundamentally, however, we must reckon with the very essence of what it means to be the church. Most scholars agree that the word “church” (ekklesia) means “assembly.” This would imply that when the church assembles it is being most true to its identity.

So is gathering together simply one (among many) practical means of achieving edification and/or evangelization? Or is holding a public meeting a declaration of what it means to be the church, sinners reconciled to God and each other through the blood of Christ? These are important questions church leaders must resolve in their minds before calling off a corporate gathering.

My conviction is that there is something sacred to Sundays, not as a legalistic box to check to be right with God, but as a time for the church to gather as the people of God and be regularly reminded of what indeed makes us righteous and what alone has the power to save—the work of Christ. If workers need a break, find temporary replacements or schedule a simpler service. Cancel Christmas Eve, but stick with Sundays. And if only two or three show up, his presence is still among us.

Nathan Carter pastors Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.

By Leah Honnen

Editor’s note: January 20 is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.

I never thought I would be so moved while attending my first IBSA Annual Meeting, but when we voted as the church to be compassionate toward those experiencing infertility, I melted.

Messengers to the meeting in Maryville last November voted to acknowledge the many trying aspects of infertility for couples, and the church’s appropriate response to such a struggle. They recognized that infertility is a result of the first sin, and that the medical routes couples take to overcome it do not go against God, based on Scripture.

The resolution encourages the church to do all they can so these couples are not left out of church life because of their infertility, and urges churches to help those who yearn to be parents through the struggles, decisions, and heartbreaks they will undoubtedly encounter. Finally, the resolution asks the church to surround these couples as the family of God, reminding them that all of these problems can be overcome through Christ.

They need to know they’re not alone.

As a woman, wife, and hopeful mother who has struggled with infertility for the past two years, this resolution did my heart good. At last! The most pressing problems my husband and I have faced in our marriage had been acknowledged in a public forum…in the one place I struggled to find clear support for us as a couple.

Please don’t misunderstand me—our church family has loved us through our problems, but in many ways, the church is lacking empathy for those living the childless-not-by-choice life. It’s not necessarily the regular churchgoer’s fault. I believe our biggest issue in searching for support through our infertility has been educating those around us.

If people have never faced trouble growing their family, they simply don’t know what to think, so they say whatever platitude comes to mind, unintentionally resulting in deeper emotional wounds for those building their family non-traditionally, rather than tenderly nursing those wounds as Jesus did.

I’m not here to bash the church. I grew up in the church. I’m a pastor’s kid who looks at her time in ministry as a blessing, and I love my past and current church family dearly. They have blessed me in ways I never saw coming—and I only hope I can serve my church family in kind through our time together. Instead, could I share some ways the church can learn to care for those in the infertile world?

1. Listen. Many couples struggle privately—which is their choice and right. But I believe many couples would choose not to struggle alone if they felt their church family would be receptive listeners, rather than inexperienced advice-givers.

2. Don’t give advice. Unless you have lived through infertility, and even sometimes if you have, please do not make suggestions to couples struggling to grow their family. The endless replies of “just relax” and “why don’t you just adopt?” are not helpful when someone is in this stressful place. More often than not, these couples will be up to their ears learning new medical jargon, procedures, and options—both traditional and unconventional. Believe me, they are informed.

3. Educate yourself. Maybe this includes hosting a class for your church leadership. If a couple is open about their infertility experience, perhaps they would like to share their personal story in order to help others understand. If no couple is available, you could reach out to a nearby infertility specialist or infertility counselor and ask them to give a presentation at your church. Either way, search online; there are plenty of resources, including Moms in the Making and Sarah’s Laughter, both of which have given me hope over the years.

4. Offer support. Similar to the way your church family would support a member who is grieving the death of a loved one, support those struggling through infertility. They are mourning the picture of life they dreamed of for years. They are floundering through so many hard decisions they must make to pursue a family, whether biological or adoptive. They need your love. They need your care. They need to know they are not alone.
Not every couple that experiences infertility chooses to pursue treatment. These couples need support too. Don’t forget them.

As I write this, our struggle to conceive has ended for now. My husband and I are due to have our baby in June 2019. Praise the Lord! This is not our first pregnancy, though. We lost our first child to miscarriage on Dec. 3, 2017. Please pray that we may still find joy throughout this pregnancy, and that we can trust God no matter what tomorrow brings.

Leah Honnen is the administrative assistant for IBSA’s Church Communications Team and an active member of Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church. She and her husband, John, live in Jacksonville.

What’s trending in 2019

Lisa Misner —  January 16, 2019

Key issues in culture

IB Media Team Report

Gaining ground on old divides
The last few years have seen an increase in the number of public conversations Baptists are having about race. Sparked in large part by shootings of unarmed black men by law enforcement, churches have been confronted by an urgent question: How does the Bible call us to respond, both in the short-term and going forward?

In 2018, several state conventions answered by adopting resolutions on racial harmony. Missouri Baptists denounced the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined a freed slave was not an American citizen. In Charleston, S.C., South Carolina Baptists held one session of their annual meeting in the African-American church where nine people were killed by a self-proclaimed white supremacist in 2015. The meeting’s theme, “Building Bridges,” spoke to the convention’s commitment to healing racial divides.

In Illinois, IBSA President Adron Robinson urged Baptists in the state to overcome “growing pains” and feelings of superiority that can result in division. “Salvation has never been about race,” he preached, “but it’s always been about grace.”

Especially in the Southern Baptist Convention, conversations around race tend to land on leadership. Are SBC committees and trustee boards truly representative of the entire SBC family, when recent estimates show about one-fifth of SBC churches have non-Anglo majority memberships?

SBC leadership made an effort last year to increase minority representation on boards and committees. Another key area to watch in 2019: the filling of presidential vacancies at four Southern Baptist entities.

Debate raises larger questions
At face value, “social justice” doesn’t read like a particularly controversial term. It can ruffle feathers in church life, though, especially when connected to a social gospel that downplays repentance.

After the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission convened an April conference commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., some Baptists expressed their opposition to social justice causes they said could water down the gospel. After that, well-known non-Southern Baptist John MacArthur and other leaders released a statement expressing concern “that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.”

Baptist reaction to the statement was mixed. With race and gender poised to remain key areas of challenge for the forseeable future, the opportunity for churches is to dive deep into a difficult question: How do we stay biblically faithful and still engage our community, and the larger culture?

Faith in peril
Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world, according to watchdog group Open Doors. On average, 255 are killed every month, 160 are imprisoned, 104 are abducted, and 66 churches are attacked.

In 2018, more Christians were displaced by violence in Nigeria. In China, the government intensified its crackdown on churches. American awareness of persecution was heightened by the murder of John Allen Chau, a young missionary killed while trying to share the gospel on North Sentinel Island.

Chau’s death sparked a variety of responses among Christians regarding evangelism and appropriate missiology. While his approach was debated, his commitment to take the gospel to a difficult place served as a reminder of the call to pierce darkness with the light of Christ.

In letters before their arrests in early December, Chinese church leaders Li Yingqiang and Wang Yi encouraged their church to remember the words of Paul and rejoice in the midst of persecution, and not to count it strange. The letters also assured the church that “civil disobedience” is acceptable in order to “never stop testifying to the world about Christ.”

Their words, and Chau’s example, challenge American Christians to pray for the persecuted and to take a new look at their own calling in Christ.

What’s trending in 2019

Lisa Misner —  January 10, 2019

Key issues in politics

IB Media Team Report

Will the church embrace immigrants?
After illegal border crossings declined in 2017 to a more than 40-year low, the numbers began climbing again in 2018. This included a record-setting number of people from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico traveling in September in a caravan toward the border.

Earlier in 2018, when the Trump administration attempted to deter immigration, migration declined. The government’s zero-tolerance policy ramped up criminal prosecution of anyone entering the United States illegally. But when 3,000 children were separated from their arrested parents, the policy came under attack, including a public letter of protest written to the administration by evangelical leaders.

“As Christians, we should share the heart of Jesus for refugees and others imperiled,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Those escaping violence and persecution in Honduras and elsewhere bear the image of God and should be treated with dignity and compassion.”

An executive order officially halted family separations in June, but immigration policy is still in limbo, a fact highlighted by a December court decision that grants those crossing the border illegally the right to seek asylum in the U.S. With its current trajectory, migration is expected to grow in 2019—increasing the challenge for the church to offer a biblical response to an increasingly volatile problem.

Is Pence courting evangelicals?
With the first Trump term at its midpoint, several questions face evangelicals: How do they view the president now, in light of increasing scrutiny over his ethical and legal behaviors and the pending special counsel’s report? And, in contrast to Trump, how do evangelicals feel about Vice President Mike Pence?

Self-described as both evangelical and Catholic, Pence has managed to stay above the fray mostly, while appealing to Republicans’ traditional faith-base. “We know that what you do in the ministries of your churches make an extraordinary difference in the life of our nation…” Pence told Southern Baptists in June. “You’re the cornerstone, not just of your communities but, in so many ways, of our country.”

Some wonder if Pence has his own presidential ambitions. In May, the New York Times reported while “[the President is] mostly uninterested in the mechanics of managing a political party” his “supremely disciplined running mate has stepped into the void.”

The Times also noted that while the two previous Vice Presidents “have played important roles maintaining the political coalitions of their ticket-mates, neither man wielded Mr. Pence’s independent influence over an administration’s political network and agenda,” referring in part to his networking with evangelicals on Trump’s behalf—and perhaps his own.

New justices differ on key issues
In a year that saw a vicious, partisan fight over a U.S. Supreme Court nominee with a pro-life record, many were surprised by that new justice’s decision in a life-related case.

The Court announced Dec. 10 it would not review decisions by lower courts in Kansas and Louisiana that require Medicare to remove Planned Parenthood as a patient provider. Controversial new Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined more moderately conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and liberal justices in refusing to consider the lower court rulings.

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s previous Court pick, joined conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in filing written dissents of the High Court’s decision. Kavanaugh’s move has caused many to speculate that he may be a more moderate influence on the Court than originally thought.

In the nearly three months since Kavanaugh joined the Court, he and Gorsuch have differed on rulings concerning abortion, immigration, and the environment, USA Today reported. “There’s a pattern here that you can’t ignore,” Curt Levey, president of the conservative Committee for Justice, told the newspaper. “It corresponds with our prediction for Kavanaugh, which is that he would be more like Roberts.”

Written by the IB Media Team for the 1/1/19 issue of the Illinois Baptist.

What’s trending in 2019

Lisa Misner —  January 7, 2019

Key issues for the Southern Baptist Convention

IB Media Team Report

A season for reinvention
There’s no time in living memory when there have been so many vacancies at the top of key SBC entities. The election of Paul Chitwood to the presidency of the International Mission Board in November fills but one of five vacant posts. Two seminaries (New Orleans and Southwestern), the Executive Committee, and LifeWay Christian Resources are all engaged in president searches right now.

There was a period of turnover after World War II that stretched over several years, and, of course, the Conservative Resurgence that swapped out leaders and philosophies of SBC entities over more than a decade. But this shifting of leadership gears represents the greatest change in the shortest time in living memory.

What is the effect of all that change in executive leadership?

In any organization, changes at the top mean changes in philosophy and style, the departure of some second-tier leaders and rearrangement of others, and—in general—a season of optimistic uncertainty.

People are glad there’s a new leader but unsure where that leaves them, and they are wondering about the new direction of the organization.

Multiply that times five, and the ripple effect is felt across the Convention.

If we consider the last round of changes at the top of the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and LifeWay—and how long it took for the new leaders and their new plans to settle in—the SBC as a whole may be looking at two or three years of choppy water.

Making room at the table
Questions surrounding women in the church came into sharp relief in 2018 on the heels of #Metoo. Southern Baptists struggled through their own version of the movement, resulting in the termination of a seminary president and public investigations of pastors and missionaries accused of sexual abuse. Amid the scandals, women leaders denounced abuse and also prescribed preventive measures for churches and pastors.

In “A Letter to My Brothers” in May, Bible teacher Beth Moore called out misogyny of any kind among believers in Christ. “One of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life,” Moore wrote, is “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women” among some key Christian leaders. “It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.”

Moore and others, including Texas Bible teacher Jen Wilkin, have called both men and women to more fervent Bible literacy, and to a reexamination of how men and women are called to build the church—together.

“The women e-mailing me regularly are not worried about winning the pulpit,” Wilkin wrote in 2015. “They are looking for leadership trajectories for women in the local church and finding virtually nothing. They watch their brothers receive advocacy and wonder who will invite them and equip them to lead well.”

As the dust settles on an unsettling movement, Baptists and other evangelicals still have questions to answer about what it really means for men and women to be made in the image of God, and treat each other as such.

The Greear Effect
The election of David Platt, then 35, to head the International Mission Board in 2014 prompted this question, but his departure this year means we have to ask it of another young leader, J.D. Greear, instead: What will be the impact of this young pastor on senior leadership in the SBC?

It’s probably too early to talk about his legacy, since he’s only six months into his first term as SBC president. It won’t be until the nominations for denomination committees are made in June that the presumed influence of Greear’s Reformed theology—as implemented by his likeminded peers—will be known. And we can only assume, based on a few comments he’s made, that his reluctance to embrace populist U.S. politics will mean an annual meeting with less public support for the Trump administration.

So far, we have only seen some public statements in support of Cooperative Program, and in November, a challenge to raise giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions by $10 million, surpassing IMB’s goal of $160 million. If giving reaches $170 million, Greear has pledged to engage in some kind of stunt in celebration.

The nature of the stunt is unknown, but Baptist Press reports, “suggested stunts include singing a duet with newly elected IMB President Paul Chitwood, arm wrestling Chitwood, performing a Broadway number, taking a pie in the face, and sporting a mullet at the SBC annual meeting.”

Signs are the Greear Effect seems, at this point, more youth-ministry than missional in nature. With four SBC entities still seeking head leadership (LifeWay, Executive Committee, and Southwestern and New Orleans seminaries), perhaps it will be in his second one-year term (if reelected) that Greear really makes his mark on behalf of a younger generation.

Written by the IB Media Team for the 1/1/19 issue of the Illinois Baptist.

In all circumstances

Lisa Misner —  December 27, 2018

By Adron Robinson

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, ESV).

We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can control how we respond to what happens to us. The Apostle Paul knew this to be true, so he gives us three ways to live a thankful life.

First, be joyful. The apostles did not encourage believers to live in denial. We are never to deny the fact that trials, tribulations, and adversities bring us pain and grief, but the child of God must recognize that in the midst of trials, tribulations, and adversities, the presence of God through the power of the Holy Spirit gives us reason for joy.

We can rejoice despite our circumstances because God is in control!

Second, be prayerful. The second command to pray is the foundation for the first command of joy and the last command to be thankful. Paul knows that in order to obey either we have to be praying people. Oftentimes our circumstances can cause us to abandon prayer, but if you don’t feel joy, pray! If you don’t see anything to be thankful about, pray! Let nothing stop you from praying!

Finally, Paul tells us to be thankful. It is the will of God that Christians be thankful, but we aren’t commanded to be thankful for everything, we are commanded to give thanks in everything. We cannot control our circumstances, but whatever the circumstance, we have reasons to thank God.

PRAYER PROMPT: Father, we thank you for your promise never to leave us or forsake us. And because of your presence we can be thankful in all things. Thank you for salvation, thank you for life eternal, and thank you for the gift of today. Help us, Lord, to live thankful lives, being grateful for all that you have given us through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Adron Robinson is pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and president of the Illinois Baptist State Association.