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Table Grace

It starts with a simple invitation.

“Have dinner with us.”

In a world where people tend to isolate themselves from their neighbors, Chad Williams and his family are recapturing an old-school concept to make a gospel difference in their community.

The family of five has a vision for biblical hospitality. They’re on a mission to bring people into their home and around their table to hear the gospel.

“They need Jesus, so we want them to come over to our house and see what it looks like to be a family that follows Christ,” said Williams, former family pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur and the new senior pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.

“All of our flaws, all of our issues, our dirty house,” Williams said. “This is who we are.”

The Williamses try to designate one night a week to invite people to their home for a meal. It’s not fancy—tacos or chili. And it’s not necessarily reciprocated. But the family has been able to sow seeds of the gospel, and they’ve seen results. Recently, they invited a family from church to dinner. The father, not yet a Christian, engaged in several hours of conversation with the Williamses.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know our neighbors, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.” – Chad Williams, Rochester FBC

“He had a perception of who Christians were…as he got to spend time with us, there became this openness,” Williams said. A few weeks later, the man decided to follow Christ.

Asked if the commitment to spend time with others each week impinges on their family time, Williams said no, because it’s a shared commitment. The family is still at home, still sharing a meal together. They’re just inviting another family to join them. “We see this as part of our mission,” he said, “and we want to be on mission as a family.”

How can we help?
Chris Merritt and his wife, Alyssa, moved to Blue Mound, Ill., seven years ago. Both raised in central Illinois, the couple knew they wanted to live in a smaller town. Blue Mound, a community of around 1,200, is where they’re raising their two pre-teen sons.

Their church, Tabernacle Baptist in Decatur, sponsors two small groups in the region where the Merritts live. Along with their fellow life group members, the family is invested in building relationships in Blue Mound through community activities and by simply looking for opportunities to meet needs.

About a year ago, the Merritts approached their local school to see how they could help out. When the principal identified mentoring as an area of need, the couple and others from their church started a mentoring program.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.” – Chris Merritt, Tabernacle BC

“It’s just a regular, consistent positive influence of adults into kids’ lives who maybe need an extra positive influence,” said Merritt, who serves as church administrator at Tabernacle. The 12 students in the mentoring program have lunch every other week with their mentors. For that hour, he said, someone is asking them questions, encouraging them, and helping them make good decisions.

Outside of the mentoring program, the Merritts also are involved in Blue Mound through community sports leagues—the kids as players, and Merritt as a coach. He said being involved in the community through their kids’ activities is a natural choice. And they try to be intentional about making the most of their opportunities.

“If I’m going to dedicate time for our children to be at these things, it’s logical for us to be there not just to support our children, but to build relationships in our community too.”

Faith in action
Erica Luce credits her husband’s upbringing for her children’s willingness to serve their neighbors. “Dan spent his life serving others because his parents were so others-focused,” said the member of Delta Church in Springfield. That’s why their three children can often be found raking or shoveling to help a neighbor, or baking a welcome present for neighborhood newcomers.

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God,” Luce said. “They see faith in action, whether they want it or not.”

“It’s given us so much room to speak truth into other people’s lives that are not really even seeking God.” – Erica Luce, Delta Church

It’s been contagious on their block too, she said, recalling a time when her 12-year-son was shoveling a neighbor’s driveway and another neighbor came out to help.

Seeing the family home as missionary tool—whether it’s a place to invite people to, or a place missionaries are sent out of—is something Christians needs to recapture, Chad Williams said. Too often, we’ve lost the idea that our neighborhoods and workplaces are mission fields. Instead of seeing people’s need for Jesus, we see our co-workers and neighbors simply as people we interact with—and, if they’re hurting, we often don’t know it.

Rather than backing away from a culture that seems increasingly far from the gospel, Christian families have an opportunity to lean in closer, Williams said.

“If we really want to make an impact and get to know them, we’ve got to start engaging them in a way that they’re not expecting.”

The Briefing

Muslims on pace to outnumber Jews in US
Muslims will likely surpass Jews as the second largest religious group behind Christians in the U.S. by 2040, elevated by a high birth rate and immigration. The 3.45 million Muslims will more than double to 8.1 million by 2050, surpassing the number of Jews along the way. Still, Muslims will only account for 2.1% of the U.S. population by 2050. Christians comprise 70.8% of the nation’s population, including Protestants, Catholics,  and others.

Moody Bible president resigns
Moody Bible Institute announced that President J. Paul Nyquist and Chief Operating Officer Steve Mogck have resigned, while Provost Junias Venugopal has retired. Nyquist took the helm of Moody in 2009 and Mogck had served as COO and executive vice president since 2012. The board has appointed Greg Thornton, senior vice president of media, as interim president, and board member Mark Wagner as interim COO. John Jelinek, vice president and seminary dean, is now interim provost.

Bolivia law criminalizes evangelism
Evangelicals in Bolivia are “deeply worried” about the country’s new Penal Code, which could ban evangelism. Article 88.1 of the new legislation threatens anyone who “recruits, transports, deprives of freedom or hosts people with the aim of recruiting them to take part in armed conflicts or religious or worship organizations” with between five to 12 years in prison.

Palestinian leaders to withdraw Israel recognition
Palestinian leaders called on President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw recognition of Israel and break off security cooperation, in a move following the Trump administration naming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council declared its leaders will restore their recognition of Israel when Israel accepts Palestine as a state. Abbas has cut off diplomatic contact with the U.S. since President Donald Trump said last month that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and intends to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Last Sutherland Springs victim returns home
Six-year-old Ryland Ward, the last victim hospitalized from the Sutherland Springs massacre, returned home Jan. 11. He rode in a fire truck driven by volunteer firefighter Rusty Duncan, who had rescued the boy from the Nov. 5 carnage. Ryland returns home to a world markedly different than the one he left — a new normal without his sisters and his stepmother, Joann Ward, who died shielding her children from the shooter.

Sources: Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, Time Magazine, Baptist Press

The Briefing

Illinois family killed in ISIS attack in Egypt
An Illinois man and several of his relatives, including two sons and a grandchild, were among 29 killed during an ISIS attack on a church bus in Egypt. Family members say the bus was full of Christians on their way to a remote Egyptian monastery when they were attacked by members of the Islamic state.

Illinois House approves transgender ID change bill
The Illinois House has endorsed a plan to make it easier for transgender people to change their birth certificates. The bill would allow transgender citizens to change their gender designation with authorization from a medical professional confirming they have undergone medically appropriate treatment. Current law requires proof of a surgical operation.

Evidence against Planned Parenthood disappears from YouTube
Last week, lawyers for The Center for Medical Progress released more footage of abortionists discussing late-term abortions at National Abortion Federation conventions. The video, along with other footage under temporary injunction after a civil suit filed by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) and Planned Parenthood, disappeared from YouTube after U.S. District Judge William Orrick ordered it taken down.

TX governor signs bill to ‘shield’ pastors’ sermons
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed legislation that prohibits Texas government agencies from subpoenaing the sermons of religious leaders. Four of the five Houston pastors whose sermons became the target of a sweeping 2014 subpoena “fishing expedition” by City of Houston attorneys and then-Mayor Annise Parker joined the signing ceremony.

Christian school bans pregnant teen from graduation
Despite a public outcry and growing pressure from national antiabortion groups to reconsider, Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Maryland says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. … The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”

Sources: News Channel 20, US News, Baptist Press, World Magazine, Washington Post

The Briefing

Christian nation no more?
Most Americans do not believe America is a Christian nation today, even if many say it was in the past. About one-third (35%) of the American public believes the U.S. was a Christian nation in the past and is still a Christian nation today; close to half (45%) say the U.S. was once a Christian nation but no longer remains so; and 14% say the U.S. has never been a Christian nation.

SWBTS apologizes for photo
Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, apologized for a photo of white professors posing as rappers that appeared on Twitter and was instantly deemed racist. The photo featured senior School of Preaching faculty members gesturing and wearing bandannas and chains and was labeled “Notorious S.O.P.” One of them appears to hold a handgun.

Cedarville’s Philippians 4:8 rule
This spring, Cedarville University enacted new curriculum guidelines inspired by Philippians 4:8 and aimed at purifying coursework of erotic and graphic content. The university has spelled out new guidelines officially barring any materials that “may be considered ‘adult’ in nature, that represent immorality, or that may be a stumbling block to students.”

Religious freedom dying in Russia
Russia’s nationwide outlaw of Jehovah’s Witnesses will likely ricochet and strike other religions outside of Russian Orthodoxy there, said Donald Ossewaarde, an independent Baptist missionary forced to shut down his church in that country. He has exhausted his appeals on an August 2016 conviction of operating a church without a permit under the 2016 anti-religion Yarovaya Law. Ossewaarde, who is making plans to return May 8 to his home in Elgin, Ill., said every religion outside Russian Orthodoxy is considered a cult.

Students: Biblical views on sex ‘unChrist-like’
A student club at Seattle Pacific University recently protested against the Christian university because it adheres to biblical views on human sexuality and gender identity.  The club, called SPU Haven, which advocates for gay students, claims that the university’s “Statement on Human Sexuality” is “unethical, unscientific and unChrist-like,” according to College Fix.

Sources: Facts and Trends, Religion News, Christianity Today, Baptist Press, The Christian Post

Exterior of a building with Education engraved in stone

I hadn’t intended college to be a particularly eye-opening experience. I was excited about my newfound freedom and interesting classes and those deep friendships everyone always talked about, but I was going someplace where I thought all those things would happen in the context of familiarity. My Southern Baptist college had felt like home during my first on-campus visit—that was what drew me there in the first place.

But at the start of my second semester, I sat with my Bible on the roof of the gymnasium (where the serious scholars went to study all night), wondering whether the loneliness and uncertainty I felt meant I had made the wrong decision in coming to a place six hours from home. Those good college things—the classes and the friends and the football games and the freedom—had all happened. But instead of feeling fulfilled, I was left with a bigger question, one that I now know most people that age, particularly younger Christians, probably face at one time or another: Who am I going to be?

I met people my own age who pushed me to a deeper investigation of what it means to be a Christian, no matter what job I would eventually choose.

A few years later when I graduated, I was glad I had been at that small college six hours from home as I tried to answer that big question. Because it was there that I found people with the knowledge, experience, and empathy to help young people navigate that tricky territory between the familiar and the future. Here are three things I still value about my Christian college experience:

1. A deeper faith identity. Raised in a minister’s home, I thought I had Christianity figured out (and, at 18, probably most everything else too). That’s why it was surprising, then convicting, to find other people my age who knew much more and felt much more about the call of Jesus on their lives than I did. And these weren’t just the kids that had committed to career ministry or missions—these were everyday students studying to be dentists, attorneys, and counselors. But they seemed to understand that the responsibility of a Christian to be, well, a Christian, extended far beyond one’s future vocation. They lived their faith in a way I wanted to, and their example pushed me to a deeper investigation of what it meant to be actually be a believer in Christ, no matter what job I would eventually choose.

2. Challenging, trustworthy professors. My first class on my first day of college was Old Testament Survey, taught by a young professor who would present four or five different theories about a difficult text and then say something like: “That’s what some people think. Here’s what I think.” Usually, his opinion was similar to one that he had presented. But by giving us the breadth of knowledge on a particular topic, he showed us young Bible scholars that it’s OK to wrestle with Scripture. At the same time, his daily, trustworthy counsel through the Bible gave us an anchor to come back to amid the multiple interpretations offered by the outside world.

3. Unrequired opportunities. Like many high school youth group kids, I started going to church because my parents drove me there, and I kept going because I had always gone. But in college, I didn’t have to be anywhere. Tuesday night Bible study wasn’t a necessity; neither was a Saturday mission project in our neighboring city. Learning to commit to things that weren’t required drove me to deeper discipline about how I spent my energy and time. The ministry activities that are most valuable, I learned in college, are the ones that root themselves in your mind and heart so that you are compelled to take part, even if no one would miss you if you weren’t there.

After I graduated, I moved to the Midwest to attend graduate school at a large state university. It was certainly different than where I had been. And that’s one more reason I’m grateful for my college experience: The foundation that God, through wise professors and leaders, had begun to lay for me carried me through the challenges of a truly unfamiliar place. And has continued to do so, all these years later.

– Meredith Flynn

Nathan Carter

Nathan Carter

At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out. One of the questions is, “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?” We strongly believe these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.

Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States. His assessment of the religious scene here was “Protestantism without Reformation.” This critique still largely holds true. We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th century Europe be present in 21st century evangelicalism? I am afraid so.

The five solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
I think there are many churches who say on paper that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God. But in practice, you cannot tell. Scripture does not saturate their worship services. The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God. The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks. Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis. And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.

Sola Fide (faith alone)
If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with this true or false question—“People get into heaven by doing good”—I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE. But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.

We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do…to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families…instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family. The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.

Sola Gratia (grace alone)
We like grace—when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk. The polls are heart-rending that show the number of Christians who think that the quote “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace? If so, we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.

Solus Christus (Christ alone)
We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up? We live in a highly pluralistic society. Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ? Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share with them the gospel of what Christ has uniquely done?

Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ. Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ. We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.

Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone)
Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand. We like to take the credit for our successes. Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness in our culture which has seeped into our churches. We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs. Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around. We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit easily from this fad to that fad.

In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket. But they truly represent our only hope. We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible.

Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.

The BriefingMoore clarifies comments on Trump supporters
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore has clarified that he never intended to criticize all evangelical supporters of President-elect Donald Trump, noting many were motivated by “biblical convictions” and “voted their conscience.”

National Geographic features trans girl, 9, on cover
Avery Jackson, a Kansas City fourth-grader, is the first transgender individual to grace the cover of the 128-year-old National Geographic magazine, which is rolling out to subscribers this week in a special edition devoted solely to gender issues around the globe. Growing up, “I really just wanted to be myself,” Avery told USA Today. “I’m just a girl.”

Movement for third gender option ‘exploding’
Since Jamie Shupe became the first legally non-binary U.S. citizen six months ago, the amount of people petitioning courts for third gender designations has increased exponentially. Some were born intersex (with female and male sex characteristics), while others identify on a spectrum of gender that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the categories currently available on identity documents.

U.S. citizen & pastor in Turkey jailed for faith
Andrew Brunson, formerly of Black Mountain, N.C., was reportedly detained 63 days without charges at the Harmandali Detention Center in Izmir, Turkey, before being imprisoned Dec. 9 at nearby Sakran Prison. He’s being held on false charges of being a member of an armed terrorist organization, World Watch Monitor reported.

Burmese Christians ministering in Mosul
As Iraqi coalition forces claw their way into Mosul, the retreating ISIS fighters have booby trapped streets, sent suicide bombers against the liberating army, and used civilians as human shields. The civilians left in their wake are hungry, thirsty, terrified, and exhausted. One of the first humanitarian groups to aid Iraq’s once second-largest city, moving in even as ISIS moves out, has been a group of persecuted Christians from Burma.

Sources: Baptist Press, USA Today, NBC News, Baptist Press, Christianity Today