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With less than one-sixth left of 2017, unless there’s a drastic turnaround, the year likely won’t be remembered as one of the country’s best. Devastating hurricanes. Political gridlock. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The headlines have only gotten bleaker as the year has worn on. And the year’s not over yet.

A new survey on what Americans fear the most paints a picture of how the year has taken a toll on lots of people. Almost 75% of Americans are afraid or very afraid of corrupt government officials, according to Chapman University’s annual survey. That topped the list last year too, but was the only fear expressed by more than half of respondents. This year, five fears were held by a majority, including the new healthcare plan, pollution, and not having enough money for the future.

Things are difficult, and people are scared. Scanning the headlines or, more likely, scrolling through a news feed, doesn’t help either. The current climate is such that as our team brainstormed how to write about Thanksgiving this year, we couldn’t come up with much of a fresh angle. Certainly, we have a lot to be thankful for; as Americans, we know that’s true. But with the din of the constant news cycle perpetually in our ears, it can be difficult to pinpoint the bright spots in an otherwise dreary year.

Perhaps that’s why a Friday conversation with an Illinois pastor’s wife was so refreshing. Jane Miller and her husband, Larry, have been part of Shiloh Baptist Church in Villa Ridge for nearly 33 years. Jane answered our call that Friday afternoon for information about the church’s recent 200th anniversary, but ended up sharing some unexpected hope too.

She talked about how she and Larry have developed deep friendships with the people in their church over the years. How he has mowed yards when some of their church members haven’t been able to do it themselves. That he keeps the church refrigerator stocked with eggs from the chickens he keeps. Every off-hand reference she made to their church and their ministry told the story of people who have put down roots in a community and are committed to each other.

That’s hopeful.

So, too, is a group of kids waiting—beach towels over their arms—to be baptized at Stonefort Missionary Baptist Church.

Perhaps it’s because the year has been so murky that these bright spots, which might have been overlooked in the past, shine even brighter. As we approach a season focused on giving thanks, may we be grateful for the little things that remind us of God’s goodness and provision, in this year and every other.

-MDF

Andreson-Ponce

Chicago pastor Dave Andreson (left) met Puerto Rican church planters while serving on the island in October, including Jose Ponce, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Resurrección in Isabela.

Arecibo, Puerto Rico | In October, Southern Baptist volunteers began relief efforts in Puerto Rico after the U.S. territory sustained devastating damage from the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The volunteers are working through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send Relief initiative, but their work is unlike other Disaster Relief projects.

“The circumstance is so unusual that we have to take the full responsibility of this response on our own,” said David Melber, president of Send Relief. “That means buying and shipping the food, renting warehouse space, sending the kitchen equipment, and then providing the volunteers to do the cooking. We are forging our entire response by ourselves.”

Chicago church planter Dave Andreson spent a week in Puerto Rico as a trained Disaster Relief chaplain. Andreson, a U.S. Army veteran, couldn’t shake the growing burden he felt for the island. “I had to get there,” said the pastor of Resurrection City Church in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood.

While plans to send volunteers to Puerto Rico were on hold immediately after the storms, Andreson attended a two-day Disaster Relief training at Lake Sallateeska Baptist Camp in southern Illinois. One week later, with Baptist volunteers able to get into Puerto Rico, Andreson boarded a flight from Chicago to San Juan.

McKnight

Pastor George McKnight and his wife, Debbie, pause for a photo at Green Island Baptist Church in Puerto Rico, which lost its roof and was flooded during Hurricane Maria’s sweeping destruction.

He served with a Disaster Relief team from Virginia in Arecibo, a city 50 miles west of San Juan in northern Puerto Rico. The team stayed at First Baptist Church there and spent their days cleaning out homes and removing downed trees. Andreson said the teams are working under the leadership of local pastors who understand the people and needs in their communities.

Since the hurricanes, Andreson said, many people are leaving Puerto Rico. Their workplaces are still without power, most schools are still closed, and if you have running water, it’s not safe to drink. FBC Aricebo has already lost about 40 people. One church planter Andreson talked to is worried his young congregation won’t survive.

But the Chicago pastor said he believes Puerto Rico is primed for the gospel. “Physical suffering makes us aware of physical need, and those physical needs always open the door by which the word of God, the gospel proclaimed, makes us aware of our spiritual need,” Andreson said.

“This is a horrible thing that happened, but it’s a good gift from God by which the gospel will go forward. Now more than ever, the church in Puerto Rico, the church of Jesus Christ, has an opportunity to shine the light of Christ.”

The punishing hurricane season has left its mark in other parts of the U.S., including Florida and in Texas, where Illinois teams have served in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For more information about Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief opportunities and training, go to IBSA.org/dr. To learn more about opportunities in Puerto Rico through Send Relief, go to sendrelief.net.

– Meredith Flynn, with reporting from NAMB

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A log cabin stood in the exhibit hall at the 2017 IBSA Annual Meeting, surrounded by displays showing the current challenges of taking the gospel to people in Illinois.

Decatur, Ill. | Illinois Baptists were urged to remember their pioneering ancestors as they take the gospel to the more than 8 million people in the state who don’t know Christ.

One year before Illinois’ bicentennial celebration, the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Illinois Baptist State Association focused on “Pioneering Spirit” and asked churches to make four commitments: go new places, engage new people, make new sacrifices, and develop new leaders.

Kevin Carrothers web“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo, because the status quo is decline,” said IBSA President Kevin Carrothers (left) during his president’s message. The commitments are designed to help churches on the “uphill climb” to get the gospel to more people.

Preaching from the book of Numbers, Carrothers said no one remembers the names of the naysaying Israelites who didn’t want to go into the Promised Land. Instead, the real legacy of pioneering spirit was left by Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who trusted God to provide.

“They recognized the will of God was more important to obey than the whims and the desire of men, even if the majority won,” Carrothers said.

During a Wednesday evening worship service, church leaders put commitment cards on the altar—a symbol of their decision to take the gospel to new places, or to engage new people with the Good News, or to make new sacrifices of their resources, or to invest in new ways in the next generation of pastors, church planters, and missionaries.

The urgent need to get the gospel to more people was a driving theme of the meeting and Pastors’ Conference that preceded it, which started two days after a mass shooting at a Texas church. Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines was slated to speak during both the Pastors’ Conference and Annual Meeting, but instead traveled to Sutherland Springs, Texas, to minister to the church that lost 26 people in the attack.

Tom Hufty webTom Hufty (right), pastor of First Baptist Church, Maryville, Ill., filled in for Gaines at the Annual Meeting, outlining the 8-year journey his church has been on since Pastor Fred Winters was shot and killed in his pulpit in March of 2009.

“These tragedies remind us there’s an urgency to share the gospel,” Hufty said. The pastor told meeting attenders he remembers exactly where he was and what he thought when he heard the news about Winters: What must it be like to have been in that building that day, and how difficult it would be to lead the church through the aftermath.

“Even in that shape,” Hufty said, speaking of churches that have endured tragedy, “the church is still the heartthrob of the bridegroom”–of Christ. Ministry isn’t rocket science, Hufty said. “It’s loving God. It’s loving people. It’s making disciples.”

Sammy Simmons webIn the meeting’s final session Thursday morning, Pastor Sammy Simmons (right) offered encouragement for those who are weary from a difficult season of life and ministry. Rely on the Lord, said the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton. And keep taking bold steps for the sake of the gospel.

“The conditions are too rough, the lostness is too great, for us to continue to do business as normal,” Simmons preached. “The cause of the gospel causes us to make bold sacrifices for King Jesus.

“I’m all in for this pioneering spirit. Oh, how much our church needs it. Oh, how much I need it. Oh, how much our state needs it.”

The Briefing

Tragedy in Texas: Christian testimony in the face of evil
Albert Mohler writes in his commentary, “Christians have learned that sometimes we have to wait for an answer, and sometimes that wait goes beyond any answer we can get in this life. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century in London stated this beautifully: ‘When we cannot trace God’s hand, we are simply to trust his heart.’”

Evil has an expiration date: On Sutherland Springs and Christ
Owen Strachan writes in his commentary, “You cannot deny Jesus what is his. He died a terrible death to purchase a people for himself. His atonement was successful. His victory is undeniable. If Jesus suffers the little children to come to him, they will come. He will welcome them to his home. He will take their fragmented, torn-apart bodies, martyrs from over all the face of the globe, and he will make them whole.”

Survivors recount horror of church attack
Witnesses say the gunman who killed 27 people Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, shot babies at point-blank range and targeted anyone who cried out during his rampage. At one point, he yelled, “Everbody die!” Twenty people survived the attack, and at least five remain hospitalized. https://world.wng.org/content/survivors_recount_horror_of_church_attack

Death sweeps across 3 generations of a single family gathered at Texas church
Houses of worship are among the few regular gathering places left for families, sometimes extended ones and sometimes across many generations. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., is no different. And within those walls on Sunday morning, together as always, were three generations of the Holcombe family.

Faith helps mass shooting survivors
No one expects their church to become the target of an attack—especially not the kind of spare-no-one shooting that took place Sunday at a Southern Baptist church in rural Texas. For survivors and their neighbors, it’s the kind of unimaginable tragedy that will change their small single-stoplight town forever.

Billy Graham’s 99th birthday offers 12-day radio special
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) will host the Billy Graham Channel Nov. 6–17 as channel 145 on SiriusXM Radio, featuring sermons from Graham’s six decades of evangelism, as well as salvation invitations and reflections from family and friends, BGEA said. A companion website, TheBillyGrahamChannel.com, will offer companion resources.

Sources: AlbertMolher.com, Center for Public Theology, World Magazine, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Baptist Press

The Briefing

Happy Reformation Day! As Christians around the world celebrate the movement’s 500th birthday, go to IllinoisBaptist.org for our coverage of the anniversary, including:

  • Baptists’ roots in the Reformation,
  • the continuing theological debate, and
  • a list of the ‘new Reformers.’

Pence promises help for persecuted Christians
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in October that the federal government will shift funds away from United Nations programs and toward faith-based and private organizations to better aid persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence said at the annual summit for the group In Defense of Christians. Critics of the U.N. projects have said they have not been effective in helping Christians in the region who have been displaced due to war and the rise of ISIS.

Ahead of rallies, Baptists denounce racism
Counter-protestors far outnumbered white supremacists at two “White Lives Matter” rallies in Tennessee on Oct. 28. Prior to the protests, Southern Baptists in Tennessee joined other faith groups to take a public stand against racism and the white supremacy movement.

Church removes historical markers
A church in Alexandria, Va., is removing plaques that mark where President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee sat when they attended services there. “For some, Lee symbolizes the attempt to overthrow the Union and to preserve slavery,” reads a letter from the Christ Church board. “Today our country is trying once again to come to grips with the history of slavery and the subsequent disenfranchisement of people of color.”

The church initially considered taking out only Lee’s plaque, but later added Washington because he owned slaves, reports The Christian Post.

House of prayer
A federal judge reaffirmed the constitutionality of legislative prayer with her Oct. 11 ruling against an atheist who filed suit against the U.S. House of Representatives and its chaplain when he wasn’t allowed to deliver a secular invocation.

Major league visibility
With the Houston Astros still in the hunt for a World Series Championship, the city’s First Baptist Church is gaining notice for its prominent sign in right field.

Illinois Baptist, Christianity Today, The Tennessean, Baptist Press, The Christian Post

Luther movie

Joseph Fiennes as “Luther” (dir. Eric Till, 2003)

Before a few years ago, I couldn’t have told you the day or the month or the year (and probably not even the century) that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. But now I know, thanks to a church history buff (and seminary grad) community group leader and the 2003 movie “Luther.”

Most years, on the Wednesday evening that falls closest to October 31, our group gathers in the living room to watch a scene or two from the film that chronicles the life of the most famous Reformer. We’ve cheered on Joseph Fiennes as his Luther, full of righteous anger, rebels against the corrupt religious practices of his day. We’ve seen his determination and grit (the movie, true to its medieval roots, even feels dusty). And we’ve learned what Luther was actually rebelling against — the sale of indulgences to secure pardon from sin—and marveled at how foreign that concept is to us in our modern-day church.

Watching those clips has become a fun way to celebrate Reformation Day, and to wink at that other holiday that falls on October 31. But what I haven’t appreciated until recently is the opportunity to learn about Luther with people who—with me—are inheritors of the revolutionary changes he and his fellow Reformers set into motion.

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, maybe this is the year to settle in and reflect more fully on Luther’s legacy. Maybe this year, it’s time to finish the movie.

– Meredith Flynn

Family blocks

The word “family” conjures up feelings of warmth, sentimentality, peace, and tranquility—the kinds of things we put on Christmas cards, said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Often, though, our families aren’t really like that. We’re not lying, Moore said, but there are so many things we leave unsaid. Those things—the challenges of parenting, the hard conversations, the fears that children won’t turn out like we want them to—were at the heart of the ERLC’s conference on “Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World.”

The podium at the Aug. 24-26 meeting was filled by family experts, church leaders, storytellers, and even a U.S. Senator (Ben Sasse of Nebraska). But the audience looked a lot like real parents. Strollers lined the walls of the auditorium as parents and children listened together. One speaker in a breakout for moms tweeted that it was highly appropriate to hear several crying babies in the session.

Over three days at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel, conference speakers drew on their experiences ministering and equipping families—and raising their own—to guide parents toward a gospel-centered view of the family. Along the way, they touched on some specific issues of our day—gender identity, racial division, sexuality, pornography, and the overwhelming influence of technology.

They also called Christian parents to an ideal that grows more and more radical as the culture around them changes. “Those who grow to know and serve God with everything they have do not blend in,” said author and speaker Jen Wilkin. “The goal of a Christian parent is to prepare their child to live in a world that is not their home.”

In his opening address, Moore said the unspoken challenges of parenting are part of the reason it can be so difficult. “…In our culture, parenting so often is about winning and displaying.” If something goes wrong in our family, he continued, we worry people are going to think something’s wrong with us. He quoted a friend who said he knew parenting would be humbling, but had no idea it would also be humiliating.

“Parenting matters. The stakes are high. That’s why it’s hard.”

– Russell Moore, president, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The antidote to drowning in all the potential failures? A Christ-centered perspective, one that acknowledges parents are called to follow Christ’s example and take up a cross, Moore said.

“Parenting is a unique mixture of joy and terror, beauty and brokenness, happiness and disaster. Nothing is easier than loving your children, and nothing is harder than loving your children. We as Christians ought to be people who understand that dynamic.”

Alien children
It’s easy to blame kids for peer pressure—for exerting it on one another and for feeling it themselves. But it’s generally not children who fall victim to it, said Jen Wilkin. It’s parents who feel a strong pull to soothe their own memories of not fitting in by helping their kids fit in.

But Christian parents need to be looking instead for opportunities to help their children get comfortable with being different—even “alien” in our culture, Wilkin said. She gave five areas where Christian families and kids will look different, beginning with their activities.

“We have to be running these things through a different filter than other people,” she said. A filter that places a higher priority on the dynamic at home than allowing children to run themselves—and their parents—into the ground with an ever-increasing list of activities.

She read Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

“The author of Deuteronomy seems to think that there will actually be times when we sit in our house­—together,” Wilkin said. “Seems to think there will be times where we walk by the way­—together. When we lie down­—together, and when we rise up­—together.
“This passage assumes a natural rhythm of the home that is bringing the family together, versus spreading the family out.”

Jim Kerr is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fairview Heights. Wilkin’s talk on family activities resonated with him because he sees families in his church struggling to balance all the things they think they have to do. Churches can fall victim to the same kind of thinking, he said.

“The guilt of doing ministry sometimes overrides the benefit of the right amount of ministry and the right amount of time,” Kerr said. “Because we just wear ourselves out.” That’s why his church plans intentional seasons of break in certain activities and ministries, he said, “realizing that there’s so much going with our families and our children, we’re going to wear ourselves out from doing, while not really gaining the purposes we need.”

Wilkin talked about four other areas in which Christian families should be alien and strange: speech, possessions, entertainment, and friends. Look for more on counter-cultural families and how parents in Illinois are raising “alien” children in upcoming issues of the Illinois Baptist.

The role of the church
At least two speakers in Nashville quoted a study that found children are more likely to stick to their faith after high school if they’ve been invested in by adults other than their parents. Christ-centered parenting can’t be done in a vacuum. It calls parents to rely on others in their faith community, Russell Moore said. Christians are to bear one another’s burdens, including in parenting, he said.

“That is what is so dangerous about the church turning, in many cases, into silos filled with individual minivans full of families, coming to receive instruction and then to return home to their self-contained units.” Even more so in our rootless, hyper-mobile culture, Moore said, where children don’t see their extended families often and mothers and fathers fight feelings of isolation, parenting can be a lonely endeavor.

“We need each other, and we cannot be godly parents to our children if we are not brothers and sisters to each other.”

Moore recalled a woman who approached him after he preached at her church and leaned close to whisper a prayer request for her daughter, who was away at college and had decided she was an atheist. When Moore asked why she was whispering, she said, “I don’t want anybody to think, ‘There’s that lady with the atheist daughter.’”

Something’s terribly wrong with that picture, Moore said. “Here we are when every family in Scripture has prodigals, including God the Father. And we are scared to cry out to one another and say, ‘I feel like in my parenting I am drowning and I need help.’ That is what the church is for.”

If parenting in community means bearing one another’s burdens, it also involves having the courage to turn children loose to engage in God’s mission. In fact, that should be the goal of parenting, said North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear. Children are designed by God to be arrows, Greear said, referencing Psalm 127, not accessories.

Quoting family ministry expert Reggie Joiner, Greear said in our safety-obsessed culture, we forget the ultimate goal of parenting is to let go.

“The ultimate mission of the family is not to protect your children from all harm, but to mobilize them for the mission of God,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham.

And as they go, they’re sure to look different, having been shaped in a community in which the goal of the family is to glorify God and, through their example, to bring others to a saving knowledge of Christ.

“As Christian parents, the most hopeful thing we can do is lift up our own eyes and train the eyes of our children to behold our Savior, alien and strange,” Wilkin said. “He is coming on the clouds, and when he comes, may he find the family of God, and your family and my family, desperately hoping and yearning to look like him.”

For more from the ERLC’s National Conference on Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World, see upcoming issues of the Illinois Baptist, or go to ERLC.com to view conference sessions.

-Meredith Flynn, managing editor, Illinois Baptist