Gleanings: May 2018

Important developments in the church and the world (as they appeared in our May issue).

Supreme Court hears pregnancy centers’ plight

The US Supreme Court will decide in June whether pregnancy resource centers in California must post notices advertising state-funded contraception and abortion, or whether the state requirements violate their free speech. During the oral arguments for National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra in March, justices appeared critical of how the state law may unfairly target pro-life centers. They will also issue in June another First Amendment ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of the Christian baker who refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Turkey: US pastor faces life sentence on terrorism charges

A year and a half after detaining American pastor Andrew Brunson on what US officials believe to be erroneous terrorism charges, Turkey finally issued an official indictment and began court proceedings this spring. Brunson, an Evangelical Presbyterian who spent 23 years in ministry in the majority-Muslim nation, faces a sentence of life in prison. He is among hundreds accused of conspiring with exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen to overtake the Turkish government in a 2016 coup. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on the White House to secure Brunson’s release.

Austria: Iranian Christian refugees stranded by US

A group of about 100 refugees from Iran spent over a year in Vienna, Austria, awaiting resettlement in the United States, only to learn their applications had been denied under stricter requirements set forth by the State Department. Most of those stranded came from heavily persecuted communities of Armenian and Assyrian Christians; they hoped to reunite with family members …

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Rwanda Weeds the Church Plants

Thousands of churches closed in attempt to curb bad buildings—and bad preaching.

Authorities have closed more than 6,000 churches across Rwanda, including 714 in the capital city of Kigali, in the span of two months for failing to comply with health, safety, and noise regulations.

Underscoring the seriousness of the campaign, a lightning strike killed 16 worshipers and injured 140 at a Seventh-day Adventist church that had not installed a mandated lightning rod.

Lawmakers are now debating new regulations in an attempt to prevent fraudulent behavior among the East African nation’s mushrooming churches.

President Paul Kagame welcomed the shutdowns but was stunned at the scale: “700 churches in Kigali?” he said during a government dialogue in March. “Are these boreholes that give people water? I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? This has been a mess!”

Kagame said his country doesn’t need so many houses of worship, explaining that such a high number is only fit for bigger, more developed economies that have the means to sustain them.

Many church leaders disagree, and six Pentecostal pastors were arrested for organizing protests. Rwandan authorities maintain the churches were in such poor physical condition that they threatened the lives of churchgoers.

The majority are small Pentecostal gatherings. Many are shepherded by charismatic preachers who draw followers with promises of signs and wonders. Often, such churches meet in houses, tents, or crude structures that lack adequate water systems. They often blast sermons down streets through megaphones and loudspeakers.

The existing law on civil society organizations permits Rwandans to open churches and register after a period of months and doesn’t require pastors to go through …

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Sectarian Cinema: Oscars Highlight Muslim Defense of Persecuted Christians

Watu Wote joins other films attempting what African sermons cannot.

Two years ago, the heroic actions of some Kenyan Muslims brought their majority-Christian nation together. The Oscar-nominated film depiction of that heroism may do so again—if many people watch.

Watu Wote is a fictional retelling of real-life horror. In December 2015, al-Shabaab terrorists stormed a bus headed toward the border with Somalia and demanded Christian passengers separate for targeted execution. Muslim passengers responded, “If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no Christians here.” The Christian women were given hijabs to wear, while the Christian men were hidden behind bags.

They knew the danger. One year earlier in a similar bus attack, Muslim militants killed 28 Christians who failed to correctly say the Islamic creed.

Filmed on location in Swahili and Somali, the 22-minute film was nominated for the Live Action Short Film category at the 90th Academy Awards.

“The film captures an issue close to Kenyan hearts, that apart from religious differences, we are all Kenyan,” said Timothy Ranji, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Mt. Kenya South. “The downside is that it will be watched by very few Kenyans.”

Access to film is limited in Kenya. The nation ranks 77th worldwide in terms of cinemas per capita, according to UN data. Radio is a far more effective means of communication in the East African nation, Ranji said.

And some, like William Black, may choose not to watch it. “The movie tells a good story, I’m sure,” said the American Orthodox missionary and professor at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. “But it hits too close to home.”

Black believes that terrorists want to push Kenya to the tipping point. “The narrow focus …

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‘These Bombs Led Me to Christ’

The “Napalm Girl” from a famous Vietnam War photo tells her story of coming to faith.

You have seen my picture a thousand times. It’s a picture that made the world gasp—a picture that defined my life. I am nine years old, running along a puddled roadway in front of an expressionless soldier, arms outstretched, naked, shrieking in pain and fear, the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.

My own people, the South Vietnamese, had been bombing trade routes used by the Viet Cong rebels. I had not been targeted, of course. I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Those bombs have brought me immeasurable pain. Even now, some 40 years later, I am still receiving treatment for burns that cover my arms, back, and neck. The emotional and spiritual pain was even harder to endure.

And yet, looking back at the past five decades, I realize that those same bombs that brought so much suffering also brought great healing. Those bombs led me to Christ.

Mountain of Rage

As a child, I was raised in the religion of Cao Dai (pronounced cow-die). My grandparents were important leaders within the religion, and they enjoyed respect from our entire community. Following in their footsteps, my parents, who had grown up knowing no religion except Cao Dai, also devoted themselves to its beliefs, as did all of my siblings.

Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognizes all religions as having “one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,” or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. “You are god, and god is you”—we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet …

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Whatever Happened to Gifts of Language, Prophecy, and Healing?

Let’s ask the early church fathers.

Sometimes we start our history in the wrong place. It can be tempting to trace our roots back to the origin of our denomination or even the origin of Christianity in our country. But taking a longer view by tracing our roots back to the early church fathers leads to some surprises. We discover that some things, though relatively unusual in recent times, are actually very normal across the broader sweep of human history. Angels and demons would be an obvious example. Or, more surprisingly, miraculous gifts.

There is general agreement today that gifts like languages, prophecy, and healing disappeared early in the church’s history. Among those who believe they have ceased, this confirms the view that miraculous gifts are novel or even unorthodox. Among those who believe they continue, it confirms the view that modern charismatics are the radical heirs of a long-lost flame.

If we start our history at the Reformation, this is understandable. Ongoing prophetic (let alone apostolic) revelation sounded like the Roman Catholic view of the papacy. Miraculous gifts could easily be associated with practices like venerating the relics of saints. Those we call “charismatics” or “Pentecostals” today—people like me—would certainly have troubled many of our Reformation ancestors.

Yet if we take the long view of church history, the picture looks different. The New Testament is obviously full of miracles, but many patristic writings suggest that this continued throughout the first few centuries. Justin Martyr, the first great Christian apologist, put it bluntly in his Dialogue with Trypho (written around A.D. 160): “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time.” So did …

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Southern Christianity Is Bigger Than the Bible Belt

A scholar’s journey through the region reveals much more than Baptists and church barbecues.

In the spring of 2008, my wife and I loaded up a truck and moved to Tennessee, where I’d taken a job as the religion writer at a newspaper in Nashville. I’ve spent the decade since then covering religion in the South, first at the paper and later as a magazine writer and freelancer.

I thought I understood how things work here. But I was mistaken. A new book from Vanderbilt Divinity School professor James Hudnut-Beumler, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table, helps explain why.

Based on a lifetime’s worth of work—Hudnut-Beumler grew up visiting his mom’s relatives in Appalachia—the book winds its way from a slave cabin in Spring Hill, Tennessee (about five minutes from my house), to the storm-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans; from a Catholic monastery in the sticks of Alabama to the headquarters of the Sons of the Confederacy.

Along the way, we see the many splendors and the deep flaws of Southern religion. It’s a place where faith is always personal, where everyone knows your name, and where the Bible shapes everything. At the heart of this new book is the question of Southern hospitality. Who is able to “sit at the welcome table,” in the words of the old spiritual? Who is turned away? And why is the South—a place of such kindness—so divided and inhospitable at times?

Hudnut-Beumler answers these questions and more in a book that’s part pilgrimage, part history lesson, and part celebration of the many versions of Christianity in the South. He writes with grace about almost everyone he meets. At one point, he visits a table at a homeschooling convention that features tips on “food security”—how to plant your own garden and raise …

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The Two Kinds of Government That Show Up in the Bible

They have different responses to God. And He has different responses to them.

Broadly speaking, two basic kinds of government show up in the Bible: those who knew they were under God and those who thought they were God or were equal to God. The first kind protected God’s people. The second kind attacked them. The first knew they were servants (Rom. 13). The second didn’t and so acted like divine impostors and beasts (Ps. 2; Rev. 13, 17:1–6).

King Nebuchadnezzar offered an example of the first, at least after the Lord humbled him. This pagan king declared that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.” He then provided what might be one of my favorite lines about God in the Bible: “None can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’ ” (Dan. 4:34–35, ESV throughout). It was whenever Nebuchadnezzar was humbled that he stopped questioning God and made a space for God’s people.

The kings of Egypt and Assyria offered pictures of beastly imposters. They attacked and destroyed God’s people. Pharaoh responded to his first encounter with Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?” (Ex. 5:2). The Assyrian king’s field commander, likewise, taunted the people of Israel, “Beware lest [your king] mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?” (Isa. 36:18). They saw themselves as equal to or greater than God, and so their rule was both against God’s people and outside of God’s guidelines.

No governments are all good or all bad. Even the worst help the traffic lights to work, and the best spend money they shouldn’t. …

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How to Become America’s Fastest-Growing Church? Think Like a Startup.

Cincinnati’s Crossroads uses entrepreneurial strategies for gospel ends.

The fastest-growing congregation in America is one you may never have heard of with a name you hear everywhere: Crossroads Church.

Crossroads are about as common as First Baptists among today’s non-denominational, contemporary churches. But this particular Crossroads, based in Cincinnati, could have a location near you in coming years if all goes according to plan. It has set out to take on nationwide influence, leveraging data from its app and streaming services to choose where to launch new campuses.

Just over two decades old, the booming church still functions like a startup—for good reason. Described by Cincinnati Business Courier as both “an entrepreneurial church and a church for entrepreneurs,” its business mentality has been key to its growth so far and shapes how it will expand—essentially, franchise—in the future.

In 2017, Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research named Crossroads the fastest-growing church for the second time (the first was in 2015). With 14 campuses and 38,000 in attendance, Crossroads added around 6,000 members in 2016—growing at a rate of 25 percent.

Taking ministry out of the box

While keeping focused on Scripture and the Spirit, leaders at Crossroads pride themselves on rethinking the standard tone of church life. They favor catchy language and marketing, powerful messages, and exciting programs. They credit the church’s growth to an entrepreneurial willingness to break the mold—even their own.

“We don’t set out to intentionally disrupt anything,” said Brian Tome, senior pastor of Crossroads, who mingles business metaphors and spiritual allusions.

“But Jesus said he works in new wineskins. He’s not against old wineskins. …

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Why God Still Works Through Fools Like Samson

The deeply flawed Old Testament “hero” was set apart for a very specific purpose.

Growing up in church as a scrawny kid, I was captured by stories of David slaying Goliath, Gideon defeating the Midianites, and especially Samson taking out 1,000 Philistines practically barehanded. While I loved the daring of those figures, I was also taught to be careful about the temptations of great champions: David’s moral failure and desperate attempts to cover it up, Gideon’s late-in-life slip into creating an idol and snare for his family, and the dramatic and colorful life of Samson and his sensational self-destruction.

All of these stories served as lessons to us that great strength demands responsibility, and there is danger of misusing those gifts. The consecrated life demands constant self-examination and moral integrity.

When I re-read the account of Samson recently, in Judges 13–16, I was looking for that lesson I had been taught as a young man. But it wasn’t there. Instead, what I discovered was a new way of looking at what it might mean to live a consecrated—but empty—life.

Can a fool with no redeeming qualities still be consecrated? The conclusion I came to after re-reading the tale of Samson surprised me.

The hero Israel deserved

Samson was a miracle child announced by the angel to his mother and father—like Samuel, John the Baptist, or Jesus—so it’s easy to expect great things from the beginning. Why else would there be so much preparation for his arrival? Fully a quarter of his entire story is spent on the buildup to his birth, so it makes sense to assume after his miraculous birth announcement that he will have a life and calling to match. Anxious to believe he will be the one to deliver the people from their oppression and rebellion against God, we soon …

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The Church and Mental Health: What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or has even taken his or her own life as a result of a mental illness. There are many difficult issues for Christians to talk about, and mental health would certainly be near the top of that list.

Yet, this is a conversation the Church needs to have. Suicide may be one of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Over the past few years, the discussion has felt forced, especially when the event is connected to high-profile suicides of prominent Christian leaders or their family members and close associates.

While the circumstances in these situations are varied, the question of mental health always comes up; and when we talk about mental illness and suicide, it immediately creates a unique challenge for believers. The question is “Why?” Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?

God Heals

The answer is, at least partly, because we know God heals. He not only restores our spiritual wounds, but many also believe God physically heals… at times in miraculous ways. So, as people of faith, we accept the miraculous, know of freedom in Christ, experience the forgiveness of sin, and acknowledge supernatural healing.

However, we have all seen people, even believers, struggle with severe mental problems. They affect them emotionally, spiritually and relationally, and sometimes deliverance does not seem to come in supernatural ways.

The person wants help. His or her family seeks answers. Others wonder what is going on. So, it makes for awkward and limited conversations. As leaders, we often end up avoiding mental illness concerns altogether, or we fly by the seat of our spiritual pants in response when help …

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