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Trump administration announces initiatives to protect religious freedom
President Donald Trump said Jan. 16 his administration is taking “historic steps” to protect the right to pray in public schools. On National Religious Freedom Day, the administration released new guidance for school prayer for that will require state departments of education to report public charges of religious discrimination to the U.S. Department of Education, CNN reported.

The new guidelines also add a section on the Equal Access Act, which denies federal funds to public schools that prohibit student meetings based on religious, political, or philosophical content.

Illinois lawmaker urges churches to pray for Springfield
State Rep. Dave Severin says Illinois lawmakers need prayer. So, he’s urging churches to sign up and sit in the House gallery when the legislature is in session. The Republican from Marion has launched a Pray for Springfield Facebook page, which links to a calendar that shows dates the House is in session and if a church group is scheduled to be in the gallery.

Pastoral politics mostly a mystery, survey says
Most Americans who attend religious services at least a few times a year say the sermons they hear have about the right amount of political discussion, and they generally agree with clergy about politics. But 45% also say they’re not sure if their clergy members are Republicans or Democrats, according to research by Pew Forum.

Church planter facing deportation
A Southern Baptist church planter in California will likely return to England at the end of this month, leaving behind a growing church. Obed Brefo and his wife, Elena, are planting King’s Cross Church in one of the least churched neighborhoods in San Diego. The pastor, who hopes his family can return to California early next year, will utilize guest speakers and video messages during his absence, Baptist Press reports.

Multiracial congregations on the rise
The share of multiracial churches in the U.S. has grown from 6% in 1998, to 16% in 2019, according to Religion News Service. The number of black, Hispanic, and Asian clergy leading multiracial congregations has also increased, RNS reports, while fewer white clergy members are leading multiracial churches.

Sources: CNN, Pew Forum, Illinois Baptist, Baptist Press, Religion News Service

United Methodists divide over LGBT marriage and ordination
The media has largely focused on LGBT issues in reporting on the United Methodist Church split, writes evangelical columnist David French, but, “The true fracturing point between mainline and evangelical churches is over the authority and interpretation of Scripture.”

An 8-page statement titled the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” likely will govern the divide of the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination. The plan, which will need approval from the UMC’s legislative body this spring, gives $25 million to conservative congregations toward the formation of a new denomination that opposes gay marriage and ordaining LGBT clergy.

>Related: “If the new denomination takes its orthodoxy on mission,” missiologist Ed Stetzer wrote, the Methodist traditionalist group “may create new paths we all can learn from.”

President rallies evangelical voters amid deepening divides
At the inaugural “Evangelicals for Trump” rally Jan. 3 at a Miami megachurch, President Donald Trump sought to shore up support from Christian voters after a Christian magazine editorial supported his impeachment. “Evangelicals and Christians of every denomination and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion…in the White House than you have right now,” Trump said at the rally at El Ray Jesus Church.

The event and the President’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition were announced the day after now-retired Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wrote that Trump should be removed from office.

7 key abortion stories from the last decade
Just ahead of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has released its list of seven of the most important abortion stories from 2010-2019. Leading the list: the trial of late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, whose eventual conviction on first-degree murder charges received almost no national media coverage.

As church membership declines, churches use tech to connect with new audiences
At a time when just half of all Americans belong to a house of worship, more and more churches are using online resources to gather people and address spiritual needs, USA Today reports. “In the beginning, a lot of churches thought the internet would hurt and keep people from coming,” said an online campus pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. “But it’s actually one of the best ways to reach new people.”

Sources: French Press, Christianity Today, Baptist Press, Christian Post, ERLC, USA Today

 

Christianity Today editorial highlights fractures in evangelicalism
Evangelical leaders across the country continue to debate a Dec. 19 online column by Christianity Today editor in chief Mark Galli calling for President Donald Trump’s removal from office. On Dec. 18, Trump became only the third U.S. President in history to be impeached.

“Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment,” Galli wrote. “That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”

Several evangelical supporters of President Trump spoke out publicly against the column, including Franklin Graham, son of CT founder Billy Graham. The younger Graham posted on Facebook that his father would have been disappointed by the piece, and also said Billy Graham voted for Trump in 2016.

CT President Timothy Dalrymple discussed the whirlwind surrounding the column in a statement supporting the editorial and calling for further conversation between evangelicals. Meanwhile, Christian Post reports, nearly 200 evangelical leaders told Dalrymple in an open letter that the column “offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens of millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”

California church defends prayer for 2-year-old’s resurrection
Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., is planning a memorial service for a 2-year-old girl after praying several days that she would be resurrected from the dead. Olive Heiligenthal, daughter of Bethel Music’s Kalley Heiligenthal, was pronounced dead by doctors Dec. 14 after she suddenly stopped breathing. Using the hashtag #wakeupolive, the church spread word online about the prayer campaign.

Church leaders cheer repeal of parking tax requirement
Lawmakers have effectively rescinded a measure that would have cost churches and other nonprofits more than $1.7 billion over the next decade. A section of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would have required houses of worship and other nonprofits to pay a 21% tax on employee benefits including parking and transportation. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation in December that repealed the requirement.

Supreme Court to review ‘ministerial exception’ rulings
Religious liberty advocates cheered the announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether churches and other religious organizations can make employment decisions without government interference. The high court will review opinions by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found two Roman Catholic schools in California do not have the right to fire teachers for the purpose of the “ministerial exception” recognized by the high court in a 2012 opinion. In that unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled a “ministerial exception” exists that enables churches and other religious groups to hire and fire based on their beliefs.

Religious freedom commission reauthorized
President Donald Trump signed an omnibus bill Dec. 20 that has as one result the reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The agency, created in 1998, is now reauthorized until Sept. 30, 2022, and will receive funding of $3.5 million a year, Religion News Service reports.

Sources: Christianity Today, Facebook, Christian Post, ERLC, Baptist Press, Religion News Service

O’Rourke: Opposing same-sex marriage should mean losing tax-exempt status
“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights and full civil rights of every single one of us,” Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said at a forum hosted by CNN and gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. O’Rourke’s controversial position has been rejected by some of his fellow candidates, but Religion News Service reports the candidates’ liberal theology on orientation and gender is now the norm for most of the country.

Conflict in Syria endangers Christianity in the Middle East
The United States’ decision to withdraw troops from a Kurdish-controlled region of Syria “could lead to the extinction of Christianity from the region,” said one evangelical leader. President Donald Trump announced last week he would hand over control to the Turkish government, a move many say will allow ISIS to continue their assault on religious minorities, including Christians.

Brunson’s book details discouragement, suicidal thoughts in prison
Missionary Andrew Brunson contemplated taking his own life while imprisoned in Turkey, he writes in a new book released Oct. 14. In “God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance,” Brunson writes at one point, all he heard from God was silence. He was released last October after more than two years in prison. Since his release, he and his wife, Norine, have shared their story at various events, including at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference.

Man baptized after Arkansas church offers forgiveness
Brenton Winn destroyed $100,000 of property at Central Baptist Church in Conway, Ark., in February 2019. Six months later, Winn was baptized after accepting Christ through a recovery program the church helped him enter. “As I’m starting to understand how God works, I’ve realized I didn’t pick the church that night. God picked me,” he said. “If it had been any other church, I think I’d be sitting in prison right now.”

Are our pastors our friends?
One-fifth of Christians say they regularly meet with or talk to the lead pastor of their church outside of weekly church services and events, according to Barna Research. Still, “friend” leads the list of words that best describe a Christian’s relationship with his or her pastor, followed by mentor, counselor, and teacher.

Sources: Religion News Service, Christianity Today, ERLC.com, Christian Post, Baptist Press, Barna Research

Pastor’s death by suicide renews calls for help for hurting leaders
California pastor Jarrid Wilson died by suicide Sept. 9 after preaching that day at the funeral of a woman who had taken her own life. Wilson was an advocate for mental health and had encouraged the Church to care for people who are struggling. The news of his death started numerous conversations about the depression and isolation often connected to church leadership.

“Sometimes people may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” wrote Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship where Wilson served as associate pastor. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

Related: Depression often goes unshared in isolating vocation

Liberty students protest after Falwell aides speak out
A recent Politico story on Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. resulted in a protest attended by around 200 students Sept. 13. Around 60 of those were there to demand an investigation of the president, Religion News Service reported. Falwell’s leadership and management of the Virginia university founded by his father were called into question by the Politico article, which relied on information from several current and former staffers.

Duke rejects ministry over policy on sexuality
Young Life was denied official status as a student organization on campus at Duke University after the student senate unanimously rejected the ministry for its policy on LGBTQ volunteers and staff. “We do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ,” Young Life’s policy states. “We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life.”

California lawmakers call on pastors to change treatment of LGBTQ people
The California Legislature passed a non-binding resolution Sept. 4 blaming religious groups and others for “disproportionately high rates of suicide, attempted suicide, depression, rejection, and isolation amongst LGBTQ and questioning individuals.” The resolution calls religious leaders to “counsel on LGBTQ matters from a place of love, compassion, and knowledge of the psychological and other harms of conversion therapy.”

Wednesday night is still a church night for most
An overwhelming majority of Protestant pastors say their churches host some type of activity on Wednesday evening, with adult small group Bible study and gatherings for youth and kids atop the list. “Church leaders frequently discuss the difficulty of getting people to participate in church activities multiple days each week,” said Scott McConnell of LifeWay Research. “Yet the vast majority of churches are still open and active on Wednesday nights.”

Sources: Christianity Today, USA Today, Illinois Baptist, Religion News Service, Christian Post, LifeWay Research

Relief agencies respond to urgent needs after storm
Hundreds of people are still missing in the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, which did massive damage in the island nation as it crawled toward the U.S. coast. At least 44 people died in the storm, local officials have said. Samaritan’s Purse is among the ministry organizations on the scene, assisting with medical care, emergency shelters, and water filtration, The Christian Post reports.

Baptist Global Response also is coordinating aid in the Bahamas, supplying food, blankets, and hygiene kits to families in need.

Newspaper reports on Baptist church autonomy
The Houston Chronicle continues its coverage of Southern Baptist response to sexual abuse in the denomination with a new story on the doctrine of church autonomy. A new lawsuit filed in Virginia claims local, state, and national Southern Baptist leaders were negligent after eight boys were abused by a youth minister. The suit, the Chronicle reports, is rare in that it names the SBC as a defendant. And some leaders new policies adopted by the SBC could make the denomination vulnerable to future lawsuits.

Southern Baptists celebrate ‘Baptism Sunday’
Churches across the Southern Baptist Convention held baptism services Sept. 8 as part of a denomination-wide focus on the ordinance. “I was encouraged to see so many churches issue an intentional call to embrace the Lordship of Christ and express that through baptism!” SBC President J.D. Greear told Baptist Press. “May God give these churches grace to ensure these are not just converts but disciples.”

Read stories from Baptism Sunday here.

College’s social media policy sparks free speech debate
Lousiana College’s social media policy requires certain students to give administrators access to their personal accounts and requires all students to report inappropriate information posted by classmates, Christianity Today reports. A former professor says the policy “seems designed to silence criticism from students, faculty, and staff,” but the Southern Baptist school says it’s meant to protect the institution and its students.

Church exodus continues, but Barna finds ‘resilient disciples’
Barna says 64% of people 18-29 years old who grew up in church have withdrawn as an adult after having been active as a child or teen. About one-in-ten young Christians, though, run counter to the trends, Barna reports. Among several markers, these “resilient disciples” are involved in a faith community beyond worship attendance and strongly affirm the Bible is inspired by God and contains truth about the world.

Sources: Christian Post, Baptist Global Response, Houston Chronicle, Baptist Press, Christianity Today, Barna Research

Photo: Baptist Global Response

Pritzker signs curriculum bill set to take effect in July 2020
Public school students in Illinois will study the roles and contributions of LGBT people in U.S. and state history, following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s approval of a bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly in May. Four other states have enacted similar legislation: California, New Jersey, Colorado, and New York.

Baylor students request review of school’s LGBT policies
Students at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, have asked the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Big 12 Conference to investigate the Baptist school’s treatment of LGBT students and compliance with Title XI civil rights law. The student group includes members of gay club Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which has sought recognition as an official on-campus student group since 2011, The Christian Post reported.

Baylor, the country’s largest Baptist university, is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Seminary denies liability in sex abuse lawsuit
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the school has a responsibility to protect students from sexual assault, and to train them to avoid such a risk. The suit was filed by “Jane Roe,” a former student who claims she was raped on campus at gunpoint by a student the seminary employed.

Hillsong songwriter renounces faith
“I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me,” songwriter Marty Sampson wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post. The Australian writer of dozens of worship songs continued, “Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet—they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.” Sampson’s announcement followed a similar statement by Joshua Harris, the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” who announced last month he’s no longer a Christian.

Christians differ on the church’s role in racial reconciliation
Four hundred years after slavery began in the U.S., age and ethnicity factor into how practicing Christians think the church should respond to the African American community now. One-third of white Christians say there’s nothing the church should do, compared to 15% of black Christians. And 35% of Millennials say the church should try to repair the damage done by slavery, compared to 17% of Elders.

Sources: The Hill, Freeport News Network, The Christian Post, Baptist Press, Barna