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A bill in the Illinois Senate that would have required pastors to take state-regulated classes in child protection raises important questions: Shouldn’t pastors do all they can to protect children, one colleague asked. Yes, obviously, but at what risk to religious communities’ First Amendment rights?

And, as important is this question: Why aren’t clergy engaging in stronger self-policing using a mechanism most already have in place, the ministerial code of ethics?

Sen. Melinda Bush of Lake County withdrew the bill last week, after objections from pastors on First Amendment grounds: If the state requires pastors to receive certification in this well-intended and altruistic concern, then what’s next? There aren’t many steps from this bill to government licensure of clergy and churches. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” isn’t a sufficient argument to allow government regulation of pastoral work.

And, there’s a better way.

As a seminary student, I was required to write for myself a ministerial code of ethics. I studied a dozen examples and came up with a list of biblical and ethical ways for dealing with people, issues, and sticky situations.

A year or two later, I was the grader for that class, and I read scores of codes of ethics submitted by students. Most of these aspiring pastors took the assignment seriously, considering how they should handle counseling and confidentiality, reporting of abuse or neglect, the pastor’s relationship to the law and enforcement agencies. Some addressed euthanasia, and a few spoke to sexual identity and relationship issues just entering public discourse at the time.

Some of these students laid a good foundation for engaging and regulating their future work, so when hard questions arose, they already had biblical ways of processing the issues not based on emotion and reaction.

A good ministerial code of ethics guides pastors in their ministry to children and families in jeopardy. It requires that pastors stay up-to-date on the issues and the law. Through such personally adopted codes, pastors police themselves. They may join in voluntary association with other clergy in their enforcement.

Our Baptist polity—respecting the autonomy of the local church—doesn’t allow the denomination to enforce rules on pastors. Neither does the U. S. Constitution. That’s why we must take responsibility to govern ourselves.

For the sake of the children.

– Eric Reed

The Briefing

Has Trump found religion in the Oval Office?
President Donald Trump has increasingly infused references to God into his prepared remarks — calling on God to bless all the world after launching strikes in Syria, asking God to bless the newest Supreme Court justice, invoking the Lord to argue in favor of a war on opioids. Language like that has the Christian conservatives who helped lift Trump to the White House nodding their heads in approval. But others who have long followed Trump are skeptical that the president has found religion in the Oval Office.

Study: Evangelicals left churches over Trump
A number of Christians left their churches following last November’s election won by President Trump, including 10% of evangelicals who reported leaving their houses of worship before last December, a new study has found. The study found those most likely to leave their churches were Trump supporters who felt their clergy didn’t support him and those who opposed Trump and believed their church leaders strongly supported the billionaire real estate mogul.

Sounding the alarm on transgender regret
Robert Wenman was four years into being a “full-time” transgender woman in Ontario, Canada, when a police officer asked him: “You got all your legal rights by now. Why don’t you just enjoy life as a woman?” The question left the then-LGBT activist stuttering: Here he was, training a group of law enforcers on transgender rights, yet he couldn’t answer a basic question: Why? Why was he still campaigning, still fighting?

‘Bible Answer Man’ converts to Orthodoxy
On Palm Sunday, Hank Hanegraaff and his wife entered into Orthodox Christianity at St. Niktarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC. The former Protestant is well known among evangelicals as the Bible Answer Man. Since 1989, Hanegraaff has been answering questions on Christianity, denominations, and the Bible on a nationally syndicated radio broadcast.

Anticipation growing for SBC Phoenix 2017
Apparent interest in the Southern Baptist Convention’s upcoming annual meeting has necessitated an increase in hotel room availability for attendees the second consecutive year. The SBC Executive Committee has reserved an additional 500 rooms for the 2017 meeting June 13-14 in Phoenix. The previously reserved block of rooms was fully booked as early as March.

Sources: Politico, The Christian Post, World Magazine, Christianity Today, Baptist Press

BETHLEHEM, ISRAEL - MARCH 6, 2015: The modern fresco of Palm Sun

The modern fresco of Palm Sunday in Syrian orthodox church by artist K. Veniadis (1987).

The crowd is often wrong. Popular opinion frequently misses the truth. And unfortunately, it seems that unrighteousness is usually trending.

From the earliest days of human history that has been so. The crowd was wrong in the days of Noah, as it was in the gathering at Babel. Godliness was often forsaken in the days of the prophets, and the dominant culture was usually wrong in the days of the early church.

But the crowds that gathered as Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday got it gloriously right.

The crowds that gathered in the city just days later would call for the murder of Jesus. Many political and religious leaders would exult in the His crucifixion. But on that first Palm Sunday the gathered people welcomed the Messiah and Savior of the world.

Let’s note three ways the crowd got it right on that first Palm Sunday as we consider our response to Jesus on this Palm Sunday.

The crowd was right to give honor

The people got word that Jesus was entering the city and they immediately stepped forward to honor Him. He entered on a borrowed donkey which both fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and spoke to humility. People rushed to cushion each step by placing palm branches and even their own cloaks on the ground before Him.

We rightly honor Jesus by our care for the things of God. When we care more about the glory of the Lord than our own comfort, we honor Him. When we sacrifice our time and energy and possessions, we honor Him. When we look for ways to bless His work, we honor Him.

I pray you will honor the Lord with your life this Palm Sunday and Easter season. Honor Him by loving the things that matter. Honor Him with your sacrifice for the things that count. Honor Him with a bent knee and a giving heart. On Palm Sunday we remember all that Jesus is and all that He has done. And we honor that memory and that mission as we gather with the crowd.

The crowd was right to worship

The people began a spontaneous worship service as Jesus passed by on the first Palm Sunday. They sang out snatches of the Psalms. Their cries of “Hosanna” — a word of praise from the Hebrew word for “salvation” — rang out above the noise. They sensed the working of God to save mankind from sin and could not contain songs of loudest praise.

I hope you will worship the Lord joyfully this Palm Sunday and Easter season. He is worthy of all your praise. By His death, we can find life. By His work, we can find meaning and purpose in the work of our lives. By His resurrection, we have power over death and the grave. We have ample reason to praise our Messiah, Savior and Lord.

When you gather for worship on Sunday, remember who Jesus is and what He has done. And praise Him from the depth of your heart. Jesus told the skeptical Pharisees who hated this praise that the rocks would cry out if the people didn’t. We have a reason to sing and a reason to shout and Palm Sunday reminds us of this privilege. Let no stone be needed to take your place in worship. Praise His name fully and powerfully.

The crowd was right to proclaim

Matthew’s Gospel tells us the city was shaken by the crowd’s praise. People asked who it was that passed by. The crowd proclaimed, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee!” (Matthew 21:11).

We gather in worship on Palm Sunday and the Easter season to proclaim the message of Jesus. We proclaim the Gospel message that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, that He died to pay the penalty for our sins, that He was buried but that He rose from the dead on the third day. We proclaim Christ as our Savior and as our King. We proclaim that He is the only hope for the world. We proclaim that He will return one day to claim His own and that those who repent of their sins and place their faith in Him will live for eternity with Him in heaven. This is our proclamation in song and sermon and life.

The crowd got it right on that first Palm Sunday. Let’s gather this week with other believers and all those who will hear and, together, honor and worship and proclaim the name of Jesus. There will be no need for stones to take our place.

— Doug Munton is pastor of First Baptist Church O’Fallon and first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. This column first appeared in Baptist Press.

Illinois-Senate-chambers

Illinois Senate Chambers

An Illinois Senate bill that would have mandated training for clergy has been pulled by its sponsor. The bill had raised concerns regarding First Amendment rights and religious liberty.

Senate Bill 912, the Abused and Neglect Child Training Bill, mandated clergy be required to complete at least four hours of training each year to recognize signs of domestic violence against children and adults. According to Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the Illinois Family Institute (IFI), the bill’s sponsor, Senator Melinda Bush (Grayslake), is instead working on a resolution that would urge the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to reach out to clergy and churches through an educational campaign about how to recognize child abuse and domestic violence.

In an e-mail, Rivera credited the bill’s defeat to “quite a number of pastors and citizens who contacted their senators urging them to oppose this government intrusion into the affairs of churches and religious liberties.” This included the Catholic Conference and over 500 people through IFI.

Read the next issue of the Illinois Baptist for additional coverage breaking news.

Church pews with hymnalsI’ve never really had a moment in my life—39 years—when I wasn’t going to church. My parents got engaged and married in the church. I was born into, raised in, and baptized in church.

My parents, first-generation Christians, were devout church-goers. We went every time the doors were open—and many times when they weren’t. My father, a plumber, volunteered thousands of man-hours helping build church buildings. My mother volunteered, worked as a secretary, and later served as a preschool teacher.

Since age five, I sat in services: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I wasn’t allowed to draw. I was required to sit up straight—no fidgeting. And I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep.

Up through my teenage years, I thought of church as a bit boring. Sure, there were some life-changing, soul-stirring messages at summer camp or a special service. But for most of my life, including my years as a pastor, I did pretty much the same thing every week: singing familiar songs, reading Scripture, listening to a sermon.

Ironically, one axiom of my childhood evangelical faith was this: Church is more than the service or a building; it is the called-out people of God, living on mission every day. Church, I was told, will not get you to heaven. Only a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ will do that.

Tantalizing ways to excite people, or timeless rituals that shape our hearts?

I still believe this, more strongly now than ever, but I also believe that in some ways church does—or did—save me. It didn’t save me in the ways you might expect: a spectacular Sunday service, a home run sermon, or a gripping worship set. God’s primary tool to transform my heart was not the conference speaker or the traveling revivalist or the worship concert. Those events were important, but now I realize that, more often, God changed my life using routine worship services in which I sang hymns I didn’t quite understand and heard messages I didn’t quite grasp.

During times of fear and anxiety, I drift back to the words of hope from Martin Luther’s epic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

And though this world, with
devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.

When I feel insecure, I recall the lines of the Methodist hymn:
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.

The hymns of the blind poet, Fanny Crosby. The majestic lines from Isaac Watts. The simple melodies of Bill Gaither. These are just a few of the hundreds of hymns that were cemented in my heart from week after week of “boring” church services. As a young child enduring the routines of our Baptist church, I didn’t realize what was happening to me.

In his book, “You Are What You Love,” James K. A. Smith talks about the way our hearts are formed:

“There is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life— to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”

This repetition built in my heart a deep reservoir of theology. And now, as a husband and father, and pastor, whenever I stand and sing these hymns, I can barely contain myself. Some choruses evoke memories: My father serves communion while “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” plays faintly in the background. Dad fights back tears as we sing “Jesus Paid It All.”

These rituals train our hearts. We sing to ourselves songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. We hear the gospel preached to us over and over. We lift the cup to our lips and the bread to our tongues remembering, again, our place at the King’s table. Through these practices, God takes our hearts and seals them for his courts above, to paraphrase another hymn writer, Robert Robinson.

Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t eschew creativity in the church. We are, after all, “new creation” people. But our creativity should not seek to tell a new story. It should be designed to communicate to our hearts that same, old, wonderful story of salvation.

When I think back on the simple routines that changed my life, I’m encouraged in my own pastoral role. I’m reminded afresh that the work of ministry is not so much about finding new, tantalizing ways to make people excited about Jesus, but about the timeless rituals that shape their hearts.

Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Previously, he served as a senior pastor in the Chicago suburbs. This column is excerpted from Baptist Press.

VBS Concept Metal Letterpress TypeIf you’ve ever planned a big event, you know how it feels when it’s over. All the work and energy and trial and error that went into planning and executing the project can be exhausting, and when it’s finally over, all that energy seems to fly out the window too.

But for church leaders, the end of an outreach event is only the beginning.

This is heavy on my heart as we enter Vacation Bible School season, and I’m reminded how crucial a church’s follow-up process is to their overall VBS strategy. That’s why I advise churches to recruit a follow-up director. His or her only job is to connect people from VBS or any other outreach with other people and opportunities at the church. Encourage the director to have their follow-up strategy before the first person ever walks in the door, including:

Effective registration. The follow-up director will likely work with other VBS leaders to accomplish this. The truth is, you can’t follow up with someone you can’t find. Make sure you have the full name and contact information for every person who attends your VBS. It’s important to know these things not only for follow-up, but in case you need to get in touch during VBS with someone related to the child.

Follow-up teams. Ask the director to recruit pairs or small groups of people who can make personal visits to families. The church I previously served sent our deacons two-by-two to follow up after VBS. We found in-person visits to be most effective, but some of our teams felt more comfortable making a call first to set up a time to visit.

Connection points. When our follow-up teams made their visits, they made it a point to take something that would forge a connection with the family. For example, one year the children decorated frames during VBS and we attached a calendar of church events for the deacons to deliver.

Above all, remember that a follow-up strategy doesn’t have to be complicated; it just needs to allow you to make significant contacts with people who otherwise may only encounter your church through one event. The goal of any VBS or outreach effort should be to connect unchurched people with the church for the purpose of expanding God’s kingdom. We can’t do that if we don’t follow up.

Jack Lucas is IBSA’s director of next generation ministry.

The BriefingGraham urges ‘Beast’ boycott
Franklin Graham has called for a boycott of Disney over the company’s inclusion of a gay character in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake. “They’re trying to push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children—watch out!” Graham wrote in a Facebook post.

Christian bakers appeal $135K fine
Christian bakers who lost their store and were fined $135,000 for declining to make a cake for a same-sex wedding brought their case before the Oregon Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn the judgment. Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon, said they simply want the freedom to live by the tenets of their faith.

High court vacates pro-transgender ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court set aside March 6 a ruling in favor of a transgender high school student and returned it to a lower court for reconsideration in light of the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal of a directive issued under President Obama. With the change in administration guidance, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will have to weigh its April 2016 decision that the school board of an eastern Virginia county violated federal law by refusing to permit a transgender high school student — who is a female biologically but identifies as a male — to use the boys’ restroom.

Muslim chaplain to head Army division
After a ceremony this summer, Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz will become the first Muslim division-level chaplain in the history of the U.S. military. In January, he was offered the job of chaplain for an entire division, an honor for anyone in his field but a milestone in his case – a Muslim spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers.

Americans warm to religious groups—except evangelicals
Fewer Americans say they know an evangelical Christian. Potentially as a result, evangelicals were the one religious group that didn’t experience an increase in warmth among Americans. Pew Research asked Americans to rate their feelings toward major faith groups on a “feeling thermometer,” ranked from zero to 100—the higher the ranking, the more positive the impression. Overall, Jews (67 degrees), Catholics (66 degrees), and mainline Protestants (65 degrees) were rated warmest.

Sources: Time, The Washington Times, Baptist Press, McClatchy DC, Facts and Trends