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Author Topic: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021  (Read 586 times)

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patrick jane

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Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« on: August 01, 2021, 04:28:12 pm »


Patrons’ Saints: Christians Turn to Patreon, Substack, and Kickstarter

As more evangelical figures embrace crowdfunding, is the format demanding too much of them?

To release her first contemporary Christian music album back in 2004, Beth Barnard signed a contract with Sparrow Records during her freshman year of high school.

Her 11-song debut was self-titled Bethany Dillon, a stage name she adopted at the recommendation of execs who thought her maiden name—Adelsberger—would be a mouthful. Through Sparrow (now Capitol Christian Music Group), Barnard spent most of her teen years recording music. Her hit songs were nominated for Dove Awards and appeared on WOW compilations.

She then married Shane Barnard—one Shane-half of Christian music group Shane & Shane—and realized that she wanted to stay at home with her family rather than record and tour. More than a decade and four kids later, Barnard sensed last year that she had another collection of songs to share. Only this time, she launched a Kickstarter campaign.

The crowdfunding site had allowed Barnard to release a worship album, A Better Word, in 2017. She turned to Kickstarter again in 2021 to bypass some of the business baggage she was happy to leave behind when she stepped away from the music industry years ago, like marketing efforts and hitting the road to promote the album.

Her fans remembered her and came through, giving more than $20,000 in the first 12 hours of the fundraiser in January.

“Thank you, thank you … not only for helping us meet the financial part of rolling this out, but also for what that speaks … that you’re behind this and excited about it,” Barnard told backers in a recorded video after her project was funded.

Kickstarter, where supporters can pledge for a one-time project, and platforms like Substack and Patreon, where they can pay to subscribe for content on a regular basis, offer creators a way to directly connect with their audiences while giving fans a way to directly support the creators they love.

These setups took off over the past decade among the aspiring and niche, including in Christian circles. Then, as the pandemic canceled events like concerts and conferences, more artists and speakers relied on direct funding and online subscription models as they adapted their material for online audiences.

Apologists, pastoral coaches, and theologians have also begun to turn to direct funding as a revenue stream and a way to share resources. The Truth’s Table podcast, hosted by Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson, and Ekemini Uwan, has over 250 Patreon supporters offering $5–$50 a month for bonus episodes and other perks. Australian Bible scholar Michael Bird offers Q&As and commentary in his Substack newsletter Word from the Bird.

Big names have stepped over to the direct-funding space too. After 40 years in Christian music, the late singer Carman created what remains one of the highest-funded Kickstarter projects in the app’s history, raising $538,103 in 2013 for what turned out to be his last album. Some of the top Christian artists on the site today include singer-songwriters Nichole Nordeman and Jasmine Tate and worship band Citizens.

Though he continued making music and releasing books through traditional outlets, rapper Lecrae joined Patreon during the pandemic, offering his weekly podcast for $5 a month or perks like live Zoom chats for $50 a month. Christian writer and podcaster Tsh Oxenreider launched a Substack in 2019, where subscribers get access for $60 a year or $6 a month to her newsletter and are invited to special events, including in-person book club gatherings (when pandemics allow).

The widespread use of direct funding has shifted the relationship among supporters, creators, and the institutions that used to stand between them.

But despite the success many Christian artists, public theologians, and podcasters have found in crowdfunding, the model raises questions Christians should consider: What are we selling, exactly? And should we sell it just because someone’s willing to buy in?

‘Quintessentially Christian’ giving
Christians were in the direct funding game long before there were websites. In Roman society, wealthy patrons supported poets, philosophers, merchants, and artisans, and the framework carried over into the church. Paul refers to Phoebe as prostatis—a “patron” or “benefactor.” Other New Testament figures such as Lydia, Jason, Onesiphorus, and Philemon may have also played that role in supporting the early Jesus movement.

For most of history, being a patron required status and big bucks. An elite few would commit to consistently support a respected artist or teacher over their career. Online tools today, however, have opened the door to huge swaths of middle-class supporters, who can offer up $5 a month via their credit cards for a members-only podcast and the distinction of digital patron status.

But the church itself has always leaned on the benevolence of the masses. Most churches across the globe rely on tithes and donations from members to operate. Churches build buildings, send youth groups on mission trips, plant other churches, and send out full-time missionaries almost exclusively on donated funds.

In a proto-crowdfunding model, missionaries regularly visit churches or send letters to recruit like-minded Christians to pledge ongoing support for their ministry work. Like the creators now recruiting online, missionaries are expected to provide their backers with updates about how the investment is paying off on the mission field.

Those missionaries are tapping into a key motivation of their donors: They want to feel intimately involved—or at least aware—of what they’re supporting. That sense of intimacy is key to other, more global Christian efforts like World Vision and Compassion International, where donors can choose a specific child and international community to support.

Still, research suggests younger generations are more inclined to give to individuals than to institutions doing mission work. Giving directly to Christian artists over the internet leans into that reality.

Whatever the reason people give, crowdfunding does seem quintessentially Christian. It answers the call to be generous, to bear one another’s burdens, and—depending on the “product”—to work together in pursuit of gospel causes.

That’s why Heather Wilson and her brother, Jacob Wells, said they wanted to create an explicitly Christian crowdfunding site. They launched GiveSendGo in 2015 and now estimate the site has raised around $25 million so far, spread out among about 8,000 successful campaigns—everything from missions and Habitat for Humanity projects to, more recently, funding for adoption or foster care.

“We got to talking about how this is really what the church should be doing,” Wilson said. “The church in Acts would give what they could and help support each other. This is the kind of the same thing.”

In practice, though, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the site doesn’t require campaigners to be professing Christians or be raising money for explicitly Christian endeavors. In fact, GiveSendGo offers a case study in the pitfalls of populist funding. It’s come under fire recently for hosting deeply controversial campaigns.

Earlier this year, a high-ranking member of the violent alt-right group Proud Boys raised more than $100,000 on GiveSendGo.

Kyle Rittenhouse, accused of murdering two Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin during the unrest last summer, has raised more than a half million dollars for his defense.

Before his murder conviction in the killing of George Floyd, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly raised more than $6,000 (his campaign is no longer active).

Wilson and Wells told Religion News Service that they decide which campaigns to allow on their site on a case-by-case basis and that they don’t want to participate in “cancel culture” or presume to be “judge and jury.”

There’s a difference, of course, between crowdfunding for a cause (controversial or not) and the patron-artist relationship fostered on sites like Kickstarter and Patreon.

GiveSendGo is perhaps a cautionary tale: When anyone can launch a crowdfunding effort with the click of a button, people will ask for money for anything—and some people will give money for anything. So how can Christians think critically about what we should create, and where we should give?

Sustaining income?
Hannah Anderson is a Christian writer whose work often explores the relationship between home life and the marketplace. Anderson thinks crowdfunding may appeal to people, especially women, who are used to giving away their artistic work for free.

She first began writing as a young mom, she said, in part because her family needed the money, but also because she felt a calling to create. “That’s just a human need,” she said.

For many like Anderson, crowdfunding and subscription platforms may seem enticing. They’re often marketed as an alternative to the uber-competitive and exclusive “marketplace”—Kickstarter’s mission is to let “creative people…take the wheel” rather than leaving “art world elites and entertainment executives to define our culture.”

But many who have found success in crowdfunding already had a steady following built through more conventional means.

The Holy Post podcast had been around for four years before the show added a Patreon with bonus content in 2016, and its popular cohosts author Skye Jethani and Phil Vischer (of VeggieTales fame) had name recognition with Christians long before that. They now bring in over $18,000 a month on Patreon.

While direct funding may allow artists to finally monetize their work, it’s usually not enough to pay the bills.

Beth Barnard says she never planned for her album’s Kickstarter to put food on her family’s table. “We wanted funds to be able to pay the band well and to check all the boxes of what it is to make a record,” she said.

That funding problem isn’t exclusive to crowdfunding sites, though. Even established Christian authors who publish books the old-fashioned way typically don’t make a sustaining income on writing alone.

“Almost everybody who is publishing in traditional ways in the Christian world, who are successful authors … almost everybody has a day job,” said Trevin Wax, outgoing senior vice president for theology and communications at Lifeway Christian Resources. Publishing is “at best a nice little bonus.”

For that reason and others, Wax doesn’t worry that crowdfunding sites will elbow out traditional publishing houses. Lifeway offers a machine of publicists, editors, graphic designers, inventory managers, and, crucially, event planners that those going the independent route won’t have. The events are key, Wax says; any author who wants even a modicum of success must also be speaking in front of audiences.

Expectation of intimacy
So if the majority of Christian creators using crowdfunding won’t make a sustainable family income on the art alone, what else can they sell?

Crowdfunding offers something that traditional publishing doesn’t: intimacy between creators and their audience. But the expectation of that intimacy—which comes to the forefront on social media and through these subscription models—can be more rewarding and more demanding.

Glorious Weakness author Alia Joy used to field requests from committed readers who wanted to send her money through Venmo to support her work. After her 2020 conference plans were called off during the pandemic, she took the readers up on their suggestion and started a Patreon.

“The people that have believed in my writing have really rallied around me,” said Joy, who lives in Oregon with her three kids, husband, and widowed mother.

Joy’s bipolar disorder, physical disability, and bouts with severe depression have often kept her from writing consistently. In February of this year, she wrote a confessional post to her Patreon supporters apologizing for her inconsistency and trying to set a more realistic expectation.

“When I have words, I will serve them here,” she wrote. “When I don’t, I will rest. His grace is sufficient.”

The $5 Patreon subscriptions total about $350 a month, which Joy said she uses to cover the cost of her psych medication.

She says her readers have been mostly kind and supportive. She has less of a problem with getting pushback from followers than with hearing from some who feel too connected to her when she is not able to reciprocate.

“I 100 percent don’t care if people just don’t like me,” she says. “But if people ask me, ‘Hey, can we go get coffee?’ and I say I can’t do that … if they’re like, ‘I’m not worth having coffee with,’ that actually is the thing that makes it really hard for me to set boundaries.”

After she released her book, in which she wrote about her childhood sexual trauma and other heavy issues, Joy says she started getting really personal, weighty emails from readers who wrote as if they knew her—and were expecting a response in kind. For a while, Joy shared an 800 number that connects callers with mental health experts in their area. She’d send it to especially troubled supporters.

Whenever the line between person and brand blurs, expectations become unmanageable, Anderson warns. Financial backers might feel too much entitlement to creators’ content (and time). Creators might view negative feedback as a referendum on them as a person.

In addition to the personal risks, she sees another potential problem: The quality of the art could suffer. “You have the accountability of contenting your audience, but to me that’s not a good form of accountability,” she said.

If the artist is the product, she says, there’s no editor necessary. That might feel like freedom, but when artists focus more on their fans than on their work, it can also lead to stagnation.

“If you enter into this space like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to give my thoughts to the world’ … there’s no reciprocation about whether your thoughts should be shifted,” she said.

“I would worry that people who go down the Patreon route without a clear sense of putting boundaries in place for themselves … one of the things it would do is it would stifle your personal growth.”

Wax at Lifeway says professional editors push writers to do better work. “There’s always going to be a need for traditional publishers to vet writers really well and edit their work with excellence.”

Scripture, too, warns of the potential downsides of a crowdfunding model, with James criticizing churches that catered to their generous benefactors (James 2:1–4).

There’s no doubt crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Kickstarter have paved the way for albums, podcasts, articles, theological insight, and art that may never have otherwise been produced.

Beth Barnard may never have released another album if doing it required a year of touring apart from her family. Alia Joy may never have found an outlet that would publish the heartfelt prose her audience has come to love—and that her disability keeps her from producing consistently.

But despite their clever marketing, crowdfunding sites offer neither perfect populism nor unfettered creative freedom. They don’t eliminate many of the setbacks of traditional publishing: Some really good artists still won’t find an audience. Some really bad art will. “Success,” after all, still hinges on popularity and money. And those looking for money for nefarious reasons will also try this new avenue to get it.

This presents challenges for Christians on all sides of the crowdfunding relationship: to make sure we’re creating good things that warrant distribution and to make sure we’re giving money to those good things—not as a bid for influence over the person creating them.

For her part, Hannah Anderson doesn’t support many Patreons. Instead, she likes looking for digital “tip jars” (usually links to PayPal or other money-transfer apps) at the ends of articles she enjoyed.

“I link it more directly to the artifact,” she said. “I’m going to give you money for this thing, not for you.”

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2021, 05:48:29 pm »


The Olympics Are About Failure

Olympic dreams inspire countless millions to pursue goals they’ll never achieve. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

I still remember how it felt when I first saw it. The year was 1984, and the Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Families around the globe gathered around their glowing televisions as stories of striving and victory flooded into their living rooms.

I was eight years old, and enraptured. The torch relay, the opening ceremonies, the extraordinary accomplishments of Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton, and the succession of medal ceremonies where the American flag unfurled and tear-stricken athletes sang our national anthem—all captivated me. Most captivating of all was the men’s gymnastics team winning the gold medal. My soul was elevated.

Perhaps you’ve seen a seagull on a pier over the ocean. When the wind is right, the bird has only to stretch out its wings and it will rise on the streams of the air. That’s the way it felt. It was a dream and a yearning and a flight of the soul all at once.

That yearning set the spheres of my life in motion. It inspired me to begin a career in gymnastics. It filled my mind with brilliant images when I lay down to sleep. It sustained me through countless hours of training and an excruciating series of injuries. It took me all around the country and even over the oceans, as I became a junior national all-around champion and member of the national team. It even took me to a college I could never have afforded otherwise, and an NCAA championship in my freshman year at Stanford University.

Then it came crashing down. A few months before the Olympic Trials in 1996, I fell from the horizontal bar and broke my neck. In a blink, my gymnastics career ended in failure and a lifelong sentence of spinal damage and chronic pain.

As a person of faith, I believe that history is filled with the purposes of God. The universe is rich with intention and permeated with meaning. As the psalmist writes, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps. 139:16). Which begs the question: What was the point? What was the purpose of those thousands of hours of training and hardship if it was only to end in injury and disappointment? Where was the meaning in that?

The same question has come to mind as I have watched the Tokyo Olympics on television. Again we see stories of victory in the face of impossible odds. Yet we see more stories of failure. Many athletes see their stories lose the plot. Injuries and circumstances intervene. Athletes who were expected to win, even dominate, come up short. And if it sounds harsh to call these things “failures,” then perhaps we have not recognized what a friend failure can be.

The Olympics, in fact, are all about failure. They certainly inspire enormous amounts of it.

The vast majority of athletes who go to the Olympics will not win a medal at all, much less a gold medal. Many of those who do win a gold medal in one event will also fall short in others. Then, of course, the overwhelming majority who strive to make the Olympic team in the first place fail to do so.

Take women’s gymnastics. In America alone, millions of girls participate in gymnastics and tens of thousands compete in any given year. Every four years, six at most will make the Olympic team. If one million girls watch Simone Biles or Suni Lee and enroll in gymnastics classes with Olympic dreams in their hearts, perhaps 999,999 will fail to achieve that dream.

Of course, there are smaller victories on the path. But even that one gymnast in a million who achieves her dream of making the Olympic team will become intimately familiar with failure. Learning new skills and new routines requires countless failures along the way. Even a gymnast as dominant as Biles will press through a seemingly endless succession of failures—and then when she makes the Olympics, her story will likely be complex. Every gymnast on the United States team endured her share of successes and failures. Jade Carey was weeping one night and draped in gold on another.

The point is not to criticize the athletes. The point is that failure is essential to the athletic life. The Olympic dream animates tens and perhaps hundreds of millions around the globe to pursue dreams they will never achieve—but in striving for those dreams, if they are lucky, they become more of who they were meant to be.

I’ve asked numerous Olympic athletes about their experiences. One thing they agree on was that it was never really about the Olympic Games themselves. It was about the people they became in striving for excellence. It was, in large measure, about what failure made them. Victory, when it came at all, was treacherous. It threatened to unmake what failure had made. Victory is more dangerous for the soul, defeat more instructive.

This is not simply the secular aphorism that failure makes us stronger. It doesn’t always do so. Some failures are so devastating or so complete that it may be hard to find a redemptive arc. Some failures make us bitter rather than better.

When we’re willing to learn from its instruction, however, failure can be the best thing that ever happened to us. The Bible is rife with stories of failure. Could Abraham and Moses have become exemplars of faith if they had not failed? Could David have written his psalms? The Teacher in Ecclesiastes tried to find meaning in the pursuits of the world, and we are blessed by the wisdom he gained through failure. Would Peter and Paul have become supple instruments in the hands of God if they had not been humbled by their failures?

In retrospect, I can see it. Failure—the failures I endured all along the way as well as the failure to make the Olympic team due to injury—has shaped me so profoundly that I hardly know who I would be apart from it. It showed me the end of myself. It taught me compassion. It showed me my many sins and flaws. It showed me my need for a strength beyond my own. It illuminated the grace of God. In some respects, the Olympic dream plays a role similar to the Law (Rom. 3:20; 7:7). As an ideal of perfection, it inspires striving, failure, and ultimately the acknowledgement of our own shortcomings and our utter dependence on God.

As with other athletes, those who make the Olympics and those who do not, the purpose of my gymnastics career was never to purchase a few shining moments of gold-medal glory, but to prepare me for the rest of my life. It was never about making me a champion. It was about making me an instrument.

After my career ended, an older gymnast told me, “You learned how to excel at one thing. Now take everything you learned and excel at something else.” It seemed like helpful counsel, and perhaps it was what I needed to hear at the time. But I was not yet ready to leave behind the cult of victory.

Now, 25 years later, with the perspective that offers, I would put it differently. To athletes and all of us who experience failure and disappointment, I would say this: You have learned how to fail in fellowship with God. Now go and fail again and greet your failure as a friend. For your failure will refine you, if you let it. It will shape you more and more into the likeness of Christ. And in becoming like Christ, you become an instrument for his glory and for the good of the world.

Timothy Dalrymple is president and CEO of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @TimDalrymple_.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #2 on: August 16, 2021, 03:26:58 pm »


TikTok in Tongues? Charismatics Disagree.

Spirit-filled content creators test theological limits on social media.

Michael Paul Corder says he “cut his teeth” praying in public by going around to grocery stores and striking up conversations, asking folks if they wanted to pray. But even in the Bible Belt of East Tennessee, he found people were often hesitant or embarrassed.

Not so, he said, on TikTok.

Corder does a livestream open prayer every day, in which he prays for the hundreds of people who hop into the virtual chatroom without embarrassment. Many of his nearly 165,000 followers who join express feeling relief or calm when he prays for them. Their pain or healing is not something that can be verified, Corder admits, but still, he believes their presence testifies to something missing from their churches.

“At those churches, they’re not praying for the sick, or if they are, they’re not seeing results. At mainstream churches, you get more of a philosophical lecture,” Corder told Religion News Service.

Sometimes on his livestreams, Corder will pray in tongues—a practice popular among charismatic and Pentecostal Christians who say the unknown language is a gift from the Holy Spirit, as described in Acts 2.

“I think words are not the greatest at describing the sensation,” Corder said. “It’s being filled, it’s being baptized.”

“It’s a little mysterious,” he added, saying he speaks in tongues when the Holy Spirit moves him.

Pentecostal or charismatic TikTok is a thriving community of diverse Christians. It’s multilingual and multicultural and spans generations. Its hashtags have millions of views. Here, Christians who identify as charismatic, nondenominational, Assemblies of God, or Pentecostal all gather to share encouragement and witness for their on the internet.

Many of the videos on charismatic TikTok are dedicated to prayer—talking about prayer, encouraging others in prayer or praying on camera. In the charismatic tradition, this can often include praying in tongues, also known as glossolalia, and the hashtag for speaking in tongues has more than 4 million views.

Heidi Campbell, author of the recent book Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority, says new media has long been a ripe platform for evangelization and religious discussion—from the printing press to TikTok.

Before the internet became widely available to the public, Campbell described participating in charismatic email-based communities on internet relay chats, forerunners of popular messenger platforms like AOL Instant Messenger.

“If you were speaking in tongues, you would just kind of let your fingers go over random keys—like gobbly goop,” said Campbell, “but that was the symbolism of speaking in tongues.”

In nearly 30 years of research on faith practices in the digital world, Campbell believes that Pentecostal theology provides a warrant for enthusiastic embrace of new technology.

“Pentecostal theology is all about being led by the Holy Spirit,” said Campbell, “so the idea of the Holy Spirit moving through the computer or having a spiritual experience through the computer is very acceptable.”

But not all believers on charismatic TikTok agree.

Taylor Cuthbertson, 27, has 27,000 followers on TikTok who watch her videos about living as a Pentecostal Christian. For Cuthbertson, there are some things that “are a big no on TikTok” and one of them is praying.

“I’m a very private person,” she said.

Michael Grattan, pastor of Manhattan Pentecostal Church, believes prayer belongs in public, but he’s not sure it belongs on TikTok.

Grattan explains the tradition of speaking in tongues as a sign of God’s spirit dwelling with baptized believers. The apostles were able to speak in many languages, to be understood as they addressed a crowd of people from different nations gathered in Jerusalem.

In a monolingual community, Grattan said, that sort of diversity of language becomes unnecessary, so the often unintelligible prayer language of “speaking in tongues” becomes a way of “expressing the deepest parts of your spirit,” Grattan said.

It’s perfectly appropriate for a public setting, Grattan said. But he cited Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which reads, “Let everything be done decently and in order.” On the internet, Grattan sees disorderliness and chaos.

Grattan does have an account on TikTok. “It’s a good way to get the pulse of the people,” he said. But he doesn’t post on it. He’s not sure it’s the ripest ground for prayer or evangelization, saying he thinks the internet’s constant stimulation drowns out the message of the gospel.

“When you have so many choices, it’s hard to see the real value and it’s hard to communicate value,” he said, “The vistas of knowledge available on the internet are unimaginable. But the flip side of that is that meaning is lost in the midst of it.”

“TikTok to me is the ultimate noise,” Grattan said.

Montana Cooley sees her mission on TikTok as breaking through the noise. “I want to spread the love of God,” she said.

At the end of 2020, Cooley, 19, said she was in a dark place. And then she started getting more involved again at the Assemblies of God church at which her great-grandfather was a preacher.

“I fell back in love, I guess,” she said.

She wouldn’t show video of herself praying in tongues, however. First, she said, because it’s not premeditated but rather prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Sometimes I’ll do it out in public when the spirit comes my way,” Cooley said. But mostly because it usually happens in church.

Cooley does however talk about her experiences praying in the spirit to her 15,000 followers because she wants them to know that talking in tongues is a part of the Christian life.

“Some people think that talking in tongues is demonic,” she said, “but it’s evidence, showing other people that the Holy Spirit is there in your presence.”

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #3 on: August 16, 2021, 03:31:37 pm »


Assemblies of God Growing with Pentecostal Persistence

ow has the 3.2-million-member denomination avoided decline?

At most denominational conferences these days, leaders have to recognize and reckon with the challenge of continued declines in membership. But for the US Assemblies of God (AG), which drew 18,000 registered attendees to its General Council meeting in Orlando last week, it’s a different story.

The largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God has been quietly growing for decades, bucking the trend of denominational decline seen by most other Protestant traditions.

At three million members, the Assemblies of God is far outsized in the US by groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, which is more than four times as large. But in many ways, the Assemblies of God provide can a case study for what many Southern Baptists—and really, all Christians—want to see: steady and sustainable growth.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Assemblies of God has continued to increase over the past 15 years. Research shows that membership of the Assemblies of God has become more politically conservative and more religiously active today than just a decade ago, but its own numbers indicate that it has achieved incredible racial diversity—44 percent of members in the United States are ethnic minorities. A confluence of these trends may be factors in its ability to keep its numbers up.

As it has grown over the decades, the Assemblies of God has maintained its Pentecostal theological distinctives, like believing in divine healing, practicing spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, and anticipating a premillennial second coming of Christ.

When analyzing survey data on the church attendance patterns among traditions, it’s clear that the Assemblies of God is not growing by adding lukewarm worshipers to its ranks and church roles. Instead, the data point to a denomination that is incredibly active in congregational life. On average, about a third of US Christians attend church weekly. In 2020, the Cooperative Election Study reported that 57 percent of AG members attend church at least once a week, compared to 49 percent of Southern Baptists.

When the analytical lens turns to political partisanship, a more nuanced story emerges of how the AG has shifted compared to the Southern Baptists.

During the 2008 presidential election, about 22 percent of AG members identified as Democrats compared to 68 percent who affiliated with the Republican Party. Among Southern Baptists, the differences weren’t as stark. About a third of Southern Baptists were Democrats and 60 percent were Republicans.

Over the past 12 years, both traditions have drifted toward the right. In 2020, nearly three-quarters of all AG members said that they were Republicans, up about 5 percentage points. Among Southern Baptists, 67 percent claimed to be a Republican, an increase of 7 percentage points. But the share of AG members who are Democrats remained basically unchanged during that time, while declining nearly 7 percentage points among Southern Baptists.

Pastors, denominational leaders, and those in the pews are always interested in what leads to a denomination’s growth, particularly when the group is growing year after year while others around it experience decline. The Assemblies of God currently has around 13,000 congregations, more than a quarter of which were formed in the past decade.

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one reason for the increase in membership, but the data do paint a portrait of a membership that is very involved in the life of the church. When half of all members report weekly attendance, this goes a long way in warding off defections to other denominations. Research shows that such involvement makes it more likely that young people raised in the tradition will not leave it as they move into adulthood. More than half (53%) of AG adherents are under 35.

The fact that its churches are so politically homogeneous may work in its favor as well. Research has increasingly shown that more and more Americans are choosing their churches based on political considerations. If this is the case, then AG churches portray a clear message to potential converts about their political orientation, making it easy for newcomers to know what the church is about.

Finally, it may be helpful that the Assemblies of God, though growing, is small enough to lay low in the national media, largely avoiding the controversy and attention toward infighting in other denominations.

As the nones continue to rise and more and more nondenominational churches are planted in the United States, it will likely become more difficult for the Assemblies of God to sustain its growth.

As I describe in my forthcoming book on surveys—20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America—almost no traditional denomination has seen any growth in the past 12 years, so the Assemblies of God is a true outlier. It seems to have found a combination of factors that has succeeded even in these difficult times.

Compared to the two largest Protestant denominations in the United States—the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church—the Assemblies of God has always been outnumbered. In 2005, there were about 16.3 million Southern Baptists in the US, by the denomination’s own tally, and nearly 8 million United Methodists. At the time, the Assemblies of God reported 2.8 million members.

However, between 2005 and 2019, both the Southern Baptists and the United Methodists reported a membership decline. In 2019, there were 14.5 million Southern Baptists, down 11 percent. The United Methodists reported a total of 6.5 million members in 2019, down 19 percent. Meanwhile, the Assemblies of God grew over 16 percent to nearly 3.3 million members.

While other denominations have been dropping year-over-year for more than a decade, there have only been three years in the past 40 when the Assemblies of God did not report annual growth in adherents. Just one of those came this century. As a result, the Assemblies of God has managed to add nearly half a million members since 2005.

Ryan P. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His research appears on the site Religion in Public, and he tweets at @ryanburge.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #4 on: August 16, 2021, 03:35:47 pm »


Is Evangelicalism Due for a Hundred-Year Schism?

Our divisions are markedly political, and they echo religious controversies of the past.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus told the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” he continued. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). He goes on to set a higher standard in other aspects of life, too, a standard where even private intentions matter to God.

The future of American evangelicalism—particularly white evangelicalism, a part often wrongly mistaken for the whole—has been subject to intense scrutiny for at least half a decade, and this year’s departures of Russell Moore (who has begun a public theology project here at CT) and Beth Moore (no relation to Russell) from the Southern Baptist Convention have revealed just how deep those divisions are.

As I’ve browsed reporting on the Moores’ decisions and read analyses on whether the US evangelical movement is heading for a schism—a complete and formal break in fellowship—Jesus’ words about murder and adultery keep coming to mind: If intentions matter so much, have we split already?

Widened and embittered division in the movement is certainly impossible to deny. The specific issues are many, some comparatively new (critical race theory, former President Donald Trump), some all too familiar (racism and race relations beyond the one theory, roles of women, sexual ethics, Christian nationalism, church handling of abuse), all with a political edge.

It’s not primarily about different policy agendas or rival partisan loyalties. On paper, a lot of that remains unchanged. The political division I see is more, as CT president Timothy Dalrymple wrote in April, about different informational worlds feeding different fears, hopes, habits of speech, and political priorities. And that political aspect is crucial, in two ways, to thinking through where we are now and where we may go next.

The first is this: If we were to diagram where American evangelicals coalesce around the issues I’ve just listed, the collective result would look a lot like a new (and newly important) tribal division in US politics.

For a long time, there was a stereotype that cast Republicans as rich people who go to country clubs and work at big banks, and Democrats—Hollywood and the media aside—as poor and working-class. This was a decent shorthand once, but no longer.

Nationally, we aren’t polarized according to income as we once were; the “diploma divide” is now the more useful indicator, and its importance is growing. More educated people increasingly vote Democratic, while the less educated increasingly vote Republican. That disparity contributes to a defensive populism on the American right, including among educated Republicans, via the perception that elite institutions (where college degrees are a baseline for participation) are all controlled by political enemies.

Among white evangelicals, the education-politics correspondence isn’t so strong. Being college-educated doesn’t make you a Democrat or a progressive theologically or politically. But there’s an echo of the diploma divide in the discord among evangelicals.

The populist faction in evangelicalism similarly accuses prominent figures and institutions (“big eva,” in the Twitter terminology) of neglecting or abandoning truth to curry secular, liberal favor. Such accusations played a role in both Moores’ departures from the SBC, though both remain dependably theologically conservative.

In a widely shared Twitter thread in late May, historian of American religion and politics (and CT contributor) Paul Matzko compared this divide to older divisions in American Christianity in the 1830s and 1930s. Those were times, like ours, of “intense political polarization,” he told me in an email exchange, as well as “intensive technological innovation, dramatic social change, and widespread fears that something vital was being lost in the shuffle.”

Matzko believes our politicized breach is already in its middle stages and will prove irreparable. He anticipates “the current divide will widen into a series of formal splits that cut through each of the major evangelical denominations and institutions,” a forecast with which I struggle to disagree.

Yet I’m less sure about his expectation that the populist faction “retain control of the existing infrastructure.” In many cases, I think that will prove true—the Southern Baptist Convention could become one such case, though the June gathering in Nashville seems to have delayed it.

Elsewhere, however, institutions may go to progressive evangelicals and still-churched post-evangelicals, to borrow a label from a June Mere Orthodoxyarticle proposing a six-way fracture of US evangelicalism. See, for example, Bethany Christian Services’ shift on LGBT adoption, or how disagreement over gay marriage within Mennonite Church USA has led to conservative departures while progressives stayed put.

The question of reparability brings me to the second way focusing on the political nature of this division is instructive: Our turmoil is significantly about political content consumption and how it competes with Scripture, pastor, and church community to claim our attention and disciple our minds.

Matzko’s Twitter thread gestured in this direction: “Evangelical clergy only get their congregants in the pews one to three times a week,” he wrote, while their favored political media “get them every day, all day.” When there’s a conflict between the two, polling suggests, political media win and the intra-evangelical divide expands.

Matzko highlighted political media sources like Newsmax, One America News, and outlets further right, which is the pulpit’s populist competition, but the same dynamic can and does emerge anywhere on the political spectrum.

The bad news, as he wrote to me, is it’s very difficult to break habits of heavy media consumption in a political echo chamber. The resultant “influence gap” between church and political content will prove a durable challenge to discipleship regardless of the issue arguments at hand.

But the good news—as Matzko and the Mere Orthodoxy authors, Michael Graham and Skyler Flowers, noted alike—is that as alarming, precarious, and dire as intra-church conflicts feel now, some past upheavals have ultimately borne good fruit. “Something new can be built on a firmer foundation, new churches founded, new magazines started (or older magazines expanded), new denominations coalesce, new communities engaged and churched, and so on,” Matzko wrote to me. “You wouldn’t have thought it possible in the 1930s,” when the liberal-fundamentalist schism happened, “but if it happened then, why couldn’t it happen in, say, the 2030s?”

And after all, Graham and Flowers conclude, the “church is not held together by its own strength but by the unbreakable bond of the unity of the Spirit. With this confidence, the church can move forward into this sorting, whatever it may look like, with hope that the Lord is using it to strengthen and embolden his church for fruitful mission in this age.”

I suspect that we have indeed already split in our hearts, and that it is impossible to go back to what we had before. Our schism is already here by the standard Jesus raises in the Sermon on the Mount, and we too often do not behave as we ought with the knowledge that, together, we “are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:23). We may well be “subject to judgment,” not least for treating fellow Christians as our enemies. Yet even here, God can and will work for our good (Rom. 8:28).

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #5 on: August 18, 2021, 11:49:05 pm »


The Spiritual Discipline of Forgiving Total Strangers

How do Jesus’ commands apply when we are remote witnesses, not in-person victims?

Some teachings of Jesus are ambiguous. His command of forgiveness is not among them.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them,” he taught his disciples, “and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3–4).

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22) and then tells the parable of the unmerciful servant, which warns hearers not to be like a much-forgiven servant who refuses mercy for a small debt (Matt. 18:23–35).

In Mark, Jesus says we should forgive before we pray, “so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25), and in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4, emphasis added).

There’s no evasion of forgiveness available to us as Christians, it seems. Yet forgiveness—both giving and seeking—is never easy. No wonder the apostles, on receiving Jesus’ command in Luke 17, “said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (v. 5).

Forgiveness strikes me as particularly difficult in our public square, where we too often not only fail to forgive but also sometimes reject forgiveness as a virtue to which we should aspire.

“If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now,” wrote Catholic journalist Elizabeth Bruenig at The Washington Post in 2018. She continued:

Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. … It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together. … It’s the total absence of forgiveness from our cultural logic that makes any penalties whatsoever feel terminal.

In personal relationships, we still find our way to forgiveness. We must, sometimes, if we don’t want to be estranged. Forgiveness in public (and especially political) spaces is different in several ways.

For one, we often speak of forgiving people who have done us little to no direct harm. When a celebrity says something crude or offensive in public, we wonder whether we can ever forgive him, but it’s not always evident we’re really in the rightful position to forgive.

Can I forgive a celebrity whom I do not personally know, with whom I will probably never interact, and whose hurtful words I may never have encountered if I’d happened to lose my Wi-Fi connection on any given day? Did I ever have, in Bruenig’s phrase, a “right to exact some penalty”? (Consider Hebrews 10:18, “where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”) If not, what do I forgo in pursuit of mercy?

Or suppose the public offender isn’t a celebrity at all, merely some unfortunate who, say, made a bad joke on Twitter then sat on a plane for several hours, unaware the tweeting public was tearing her life apart.

With celebrities, I suppose I might forgive by declining to boycott their future work or to speak ill of them to others who recognize their names. But in a case like this—and there are so many of them now—what rightful penalty could I relinquish? Perhaps it’s only my own animosity, including its public expression among Twitter’s furious flock.

The difficulty of public forgiveness is also compounded, as Bruenig has elsewhere observed, by our culture’s lack of a “coherent story … about how a person who's done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life [and] identity before and after the mistake.”

We have public apologies, yes, but they are mainly known for their failures. “I’m sorry if you felt offended.” “I’m seeking help.” You know the sort of thing. They often feel less like repentance than forced box-checking and are received by their audiences accordingly.

Yet even genuine, voluntary public apologies are frequently unmet by forgiveness. We get bogged down in permanent, low-level despising instead of the endless mercy Jesus commands. Eventually we may forget, but not because we forgave.

In the political realm, I see these dynamics compounded by a pair of mutually reinforcing impulses from right and left. “The failure mode of right-wing is kook,” theorized an American Conservativearticle about the QAnon conspiracy movement earlier this year, while the correlate “failure mode of left-wing is puritan.”

This is a bit glib, but I think it gets at a certain truth about American politics in the last half decade. From some parts of the Right, there’s an impulse to transgress and troll: to “own the libs,” to provoke elite pearl clutching, to say exactly the shocking, perhaps hateful things “the PC police” try to suppress.

The mirror impulse, from some who lean more to the Left, is to condemn and ostracize: to “denounce those who are impure” and act as if “defilement marks you forever,” in the words of Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs.

Transgression is met with condemnation, which is met with trolling, which is met with ostracism, and on and on. The cycle of retribution doesn’t end. “And so,” wrote Miroslav Volf in his theological classic, Exclusion and Embrace, “both victim and perpetrator are imprisoned in the automatism of mutual exclusion, unable to forgive or repent and united in a perverse communion of mutual hate.”

I have no pat answer for this dilemma. I’m still thinking through how “seventy-seven times” could scale in today’s public spaces—physical and otherwise—of a nation of over 331 million.

For now, I can only say, again, that the command for Christians to forgive—and repent—is clear, though its fulfillment may be confusing, difficult, complex, even humanly impossible. Our faith rests, as Volf says, in an “economy of undeserved grace,” and “the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace” his unrepentant enemies: us.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #6 on: August 21, 2021, 07:07:03 am »


Indian Christians Discuss Different Reports on Persecution

Evangelical Fellowship of India panel responds to Pew research as annual tally of religious freedom violations gets released.

Christians in India are seeking to square conflicting research on communal tensions in their country.

About 100 Christian leaders from across the subcontinent attended an online consultation last month hosted by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) to discuss the findings and ramifications of a recent landmark report by the Pew Research Center, entitled “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation.”

A panel of seven leaders convened by EFI, which represents 65,000 churches and hundreds of Christian organizations across India, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the report’s methodology and engaged attendees in Q&A on Pew’s findings on tolerance, segregation, religious beliefs, identity, nationalism, and more. Indian Christian sources previously told CT the report offered quantitative validation of their lived experience.

While the report surveyed about 30,000 Indians nationwide across six faiths and 17 languages, including about 1,000 Christians, the EFI panel wished the sample size had been even larger—given their nation’s 1.38 billion people and its size and diversity—and thus better able to examine regional differences in complex issues.

Their biggest area of disagreement: the level of communal tensions between India’s majority Hindus and its Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities.

Pew found 9 in 10 Indian adults say they feel very free to practice their religion, while 8 in 10 say respecting other religions is very important to their own faith as well as to being truly Indian. Yet Pew also found a fair amount of support for religious segregation. For example, a third of Hindus in India would not be willing to accept a Christian as a neighbor, and neither would a quarter of Indian Muslims or Sikhs.

“Indians, then, simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres,” wrote Pew researchers. “They live together separately.”

“It was generally agreed that the [Pew] report, although unsurprising in some respects, does not adequately reflect the ground reality in India—particularly the narrative of hate and polarization,” said Vijayesh Lal, EFI’s general secretary and a panelist during the consultation.

As CT previously noted, tensions over increasing Hindu nationalism in India have caused the nation to climb the ranks of persecution watchdogs in recent years. Open Doors ranks India at No. 10 on its 2021 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends India be added to the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern. Pew itself calculates that India has the highest level of social hostilities regarding religion among the world’s 25 most-populous countries, as well as one of the higher levels of government restrictions.

Pew found that only 1 in 10 Indian Christians reported being discriminated against in the past 12 months because of their faith. Yet this ranged regionally from 19 percent of Christians in the East and 12 percent in the Northeast to 6 percent in the South. (Pew could not break out Christian responses regionally in the North, Central, or West due to sample sizes.)

Days after EFI’s panel assessed the Pew report, its Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) released its latest report on hate and violence against Christians in India, concluding the number of incidents targeting Christians in the first six months of 2021 has increased compared to the same time period last year—even despite a brutal second wave of COVID-19.

The commission recorded 145 incidents targeting Christians from January to June 2021. Researchers stated the violence “was vicious, widespread, and ranged from murder to attacks on church, false cases, police immunity and connivance, and the now normalized social exclusion or boycott which is becoming viral.”

The analysis documents three murders, 22 cases of physical violence, 22 instances of attacks on churches or places of worship or their vandalization, and 20 cases of ostracizing or social boycotting in rural areas of families which had refused to renege on their Christian faith and had stood up to mobs and political leaders from the local majority community.

“The most alarming development has been the expansion and scope of the notorious Freedom of Religion Acts, which are popularly known as the anti-conversion laws, earlier enforced in 7 states, to more states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party,” stated RLC researchers. “Once targeting only Christians, they are now armed also against Muslims in the guise of curbing ‘Love Jihad.’ This is an Islamophobic term coined some years ago to demonize marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim women, particularly those belonging to the Hindu upper castes.

“The laws ostensibly punish forced or fraudulent religious conversions,” the researchers stated. “But in practice, they are used to criminalize all conversions, especially in non-urban settings.”

For example, a mob of religious extremists forcefully barged into a church and assaulted 25 Christians, including women worshipers, on February 7 in the Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh, according to the report. The attackers also lodged a complaint against the Christians at the Udaygarh police station alleging conversions. This resulted in the police detaining and interrogating the two dozen Christians and filing charges against their pastor Dilip Vasunia under the state’s Freedom of Religion ordinance. The pastor was imprisoned and finally made bail after a few days, while no action was taken against the attackers who assaulted the Christians.

The report also narrates how on June 28, police in Uttar Pradesh arrested pastor Shivkumar Verma and another Christian on trumped up charges of religious conversions. Local sources alleged that since there was no evidence corroborating the accusations, police demanded bribes to release the two Christians. Verma spent a month in prison before finally being released at the end of July.

The EFI commission made it clear that its report is indicative of current events, not an exhaustive tally, and the actual number of sectarian incidents may be much larger.

Madhya Pradesh, the central state of India, and Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, led the tally of incidents against Christians, followed by Chhattisgarh and Karnataka.

“Violence against Christians by non-state actors in India stems from an environment of targeted hate,” stated researchers. “The translation of the hate into violence is sparked by a sense of impunity generated in India’s administrative apparatus.”

The RLC report offered recommendations to the government of India. Chief among them: enacting a comprehensive national legislation against targeted and communal (sectarian) violence; advising the various state governments to repeal anti-conversion laws that limit religious freedom and are being misused against religious minorities; the enaction of laws to check hate speech and propaganda; and amending paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 to include Christians and Muslims.

“The sad reality is that minorities are targeted, and these incidents occur and despite the pandemic have increased over last year’s figures,” said Lal. “This appears to be in contrast with the Pew report that would like us to believe that tolerance runs high in present-day India. While there are examples of tolerance historically, the dividing of people driven by narrow political interest is real as well and too often makes use of religion for polarizing people and carrying out sectarian violence.”

Panelist John Dayal, a Delhi-based Christian political analyst and cofounder and past secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said the report could mislead global thought leaders, the media, and fellow Christians into a “dipstick understanding” of religion in India and miss the “extreme polarization” in recent years.

Pew’s research found that 53 percent of all Indians and 44 percent of Indian Christians think religious diversity benefits India, while 24 percent of all Indians and 26 percent of Indian Christians think it harms the country. Christians were the least likely of any religious group to say that religious diversity benefits India.

The EFI panel concluded with recommendations for the Indian church.

The first was for Indian believers to go beyond the segregations of the denominationalism that exists within the church in India, and to examine how a more inclusive Christian spirituality could be developed.

“Failure to do this may destroy our ability to be a witness in the nation,” warned panelist C. B. Samuel, a respected Bible teacher and former executive director of EFICOR (formerly the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief).

The divides of regionalism and caste in Indian society exist also within the church, thus a noticeable difference in the response of south Indian Christians vs. their brethren in the north or northeast. “Therefore, a conscious modeling of church which breaks the barriers is very important,” said Samuel.

Both panelists and participants stressed the themes of common humanity and the intentional visibility of good deeds. It was also shared that the church must be intentional about critiquing power issues.

“The report speaks about segregation, but the core issue is the misuse of power that leads to segregation which eventually destroys common humanity and leads to silos,” said panelist Richard Howell, principal at the Caleb Institute of Theology and past general secretary of EFI.

Howell also stressed the primacy of theological identity rather than cultural identity. “We have forgotten our theological identity. If we only major on cultural identity, there is no critique of power left,” he said. “Our critique comes from a transcendence. We must never forget this.”

Panelist Ashish Alexander, head of the English department at Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology, and Sciences in Allahabad, pointed out that during the survey Christians were asked if Muslims were discriminated against in India and only 16 percent agreed. When Muslims were asked the same about Christians, only 8 percent agreed. Hence, Indian Christians need to be sensitized about Indian Muslims and vice versa, and a bridge needs to be built.

The consultation ended with a call for deeper research into themes both explored in the Pew study and beyond it, such as polarization, hate campaigns against minorities, and Islamophobia in India.

“I also wish that Pew would have dissected Indian Christianity,” said Dayal, “to find out what are our strengths and soft spots.”

“We do need more studies, more understanding among ourselves,” said panelist Vinay Samuel, founder of the Oxford Center for Mission Studies and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. “Identities have boundaries as well. So, we do need to look at how different groups are constructing their identities, i.e. South Indian Christians, North Indian Christians, Punjabi Christians, etc.”

“There is a need to devise institutions to bring India’s religious communities onto common platforms to discuss issues and diffuse tensions,” said Lal in summary at the end of the consultation.

“In India, religion has to be experienced. Experience comes first, then relationship and thirdly conceptuality,” said Howell. “Where Christians have taken time to build bridges, things are better. We [Christians] must take time to build bridges with all communities.”

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #7 on: August 30, 2021, 07:41:24 pm »


Pro-Life Advocates Push Local Resolutions

Tired of failures at the ballot box and in courts, some turn to community declarations.

Ryan Sullivan didn’t give much thought to his pro-life position as a Christian beyond voting for pro-life politicians. Then he studied Exodus 21:22–24, where God prescribed the death penalty for any Israelite who assaulted a woman and caused her to miscarry.

“In that Scripture, the life inside the womb is treated with the exact same value as the life outside the womb,” said the pastor of Grace Community Church in Jackson, Mississippi. “Once I started thinking that way, I noticed that so much of the world around me—and even the Christian world around me—almost thinks of this abortion issue as merely a political one.”

The realization led Sullivan to embrace a new pro-life strategy: pushing local governments to declare themselves “safe” for the unborn. Members of Grace played key roles in establishing several safe cities in Mississippi. To date, 11 cities and two counties in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama have done the same.

According to Les Riley, president of the pro-life Personhood Alliance, the Safe Cities and Counties Initiative shifts the strategic focus from federal-level efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade to local arenas.

Since 1973, the pro-life movement has “built huge organizations, raised millions of dollars, elected pro-life politicians and pro-life majorities, and, at the federal, state, and local levels, we’ve had control of the courts,” Riley said, “yet tens of millions of children are dead.”

The Personhood Alliance decided in 2018 it was time for another approach and started pushing for cities and counties to pass resolutions saying they are safe for the unborn. Other grassroots groups, such as Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, have advocated ordinances outlawing abortion, to provoke lawsuits that send the question of abortion’s legality back to the courts. Resolutions, on the other hand, are not laws. They send a message that local communities, through their elected officials, “recognize and declare the humanity of the preborn child.”

The resolution template provided by the Personhood Alliance “urges the citizens” in a safe city or county “to encourage the humane treatment of all human beings, including the preborn child, as well as to promote and defend the dignity of all human life.”

A more localized movement made sense to Sullivan: “Why is the state of Mississippi waiting around for a Supreme Court decision to change?”

After connecting with Riley, Sullivan scheduled a meeting with the mayor and several aldermen in Pearl, Mississippi, where he lives. He wasn’t sure how they would respond, but they embraced the idea of a resolution. On October 1, 2019, Pearl became the first “safe city” in Mississippi.

The success inspired one member of Sullivan’s congregation. Christy Wright, a 28-year-old accountant from Crystal Springs, Mississippi, went to the mayor of her hometown and told her about the resolution. In April 2020, Crystal Springs declared itself a safe city for the unborn too. “We all don’t have to do the same thing, but we all have to do something,” Wright said. “If you see a need, meet a need.”

According to the Safe Cities and Counties Initiative, this is the second phase of the plan, after passing local resolutions: The pro-life group wants to activate communities.

Gualberto Garcia Jones, legal counsel and former president of Personhood Alliance, said citizens “take ownership” in Phase 2, which involves educating people and working to create communities that value human life inside and outside the womb. Most communities aren’t ready to outlaw abortion, he said.

“We realized even well-meaning, good-intentioned people have a lot of questions about this and they have a lot of concerns,” Jones said. “You really want to convince your community first that the protection of preborn life with equal protection is a true and good principle they want to invest in.”

The Personhood Alliance argues that the 14th Amendment, passed during Reconstruction to guarantee the rights of citizenship to Black Americans, should disallow legal abortions. The amendment says that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The unborn should be protected because they are people.

Jones and others pushed for federal legislation to declare that the unborn have the legal rights of personhood in 2004, with little success. They then worked on ballot initiatives in multiple states, including Colorado and Mississippi, but couldn’t win enough votes to change the state constitutions.

In 2014, he and others in the Personhood Alliance decided to focus on “the most local level possible.”

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. The opposite,” he said. “We’re creating a new roadmap.”

So far, no major pro-life organizations have thrown their support behind this new strategy. There is little appetite for inner-movement quarreling, however, so pro-life groups working on state or federal legislation or potential Supreme Court appointments also haven’t directly criticized resolutions or sanctuary-city ordinances.

But pro-life activists see, at the least, limitations to a local-resolutions approach to ending abortion.

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, policy director at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said a “very obvious challenge” is the reality that the Supreme Court legalized abortion across the nation and only some towns in some regions are passing pro-life resolutions.

“It’s not going to be able to happen all over the country,” she said. “So I think that’s why we need all the players at the table, and we need folks in DC working on federal policy. We need state legislatures and folks doing advocacy on a state-based level to ensure that babies are protected all over the country.”

Supporters of the Safe Cities and Counties Initiative say its local focus is important, though, for tackling problems that can’t be dealt with at the state or federal level. For example, Keith Pavlansky, president of Personhood North Carolina and a pastor in Yadkin County, said personhood is fundamentally a “philosophical question” that the local church must be equipped to answer.

“It predates Roe v. Wade,” he said. “The question of when somebody is, or what makes somebody a person, is something that has been asked and answered incorrectly a number of times through human history and, sadly, in the United States of America. We’ve had times like our bout with slavery where the personhood of an entire population was in question based on skin color, which is completely outrageous. It’s not scientific, yet it was the law of the land.”

Sarah Quale, president of Personhood Alliance Education, said she’s passionate about the initiative because it centers pro-life activism in the lives of individual Christians.

“It has to start with us individually, and that means personal repentance,” she said. “We have to focus on being consistent in our own homes, in our marriages, and in our parental responsibilities...that extends to the culture and engaging in relational charity in our own backyard.”

In the past several years, Sullivan has seen that focus shape the culture of Grace Community Church. While several members go to the local abortion clinic every week to pray and ask mothers to consider visiting a local pregnancy clinic, a pharmacist at the church has chosen to only work in places that do not dispense birth control that has the potential to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. Others are finding ways to support mothers who’ve decided against abortion, and some are taking care of children.

“It’s just a culture of adopting and fostering children,” Sullivan said. “I praise the Lord for that. I think that’s the Holy Spirit helping people to live out their faith.”

Lanie Anderson is a writer and seminary student in Oxford, Mississippi.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #8 on: September 01, 2021, 04:54:39 am »


1 out of 3 New Guitars Are Purchased for Worship Music

Industry study says church bands are core business.

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation sold a record number of guitars in 2020, driven in part by people forced to stay at home during the pandemic. The company calculates that nearly a third of those new musical instruments were purchased by people who play in praise and worship bands.

This may not be surprising to anyone who knows a worship leader.

“Worship leaders are always commenting about wanting to get a new guitar,” said Adam Perez, a postdoctoral fellow in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School. “There are conversations about needing to ‘up my guitar’ and discussions about types of guitar. For a lot of worship leaders, the guitar is that companion that marks your journey and marks your development as an authentic worship leader.”

No one knows the first person to bring a guitar into church, but it became common in charismatic congregations in Southern California in the 1970s.

Folk, rock, and folk-rock went to church with the hippies who converted during the Jesus People movement, and guitars became staples of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard church style before spreading to other evangelical churches.

The style signaled openness and authenticity to white baby boomers raised on the Beatles, but guitars also had some practical advantages, according to Perez. They were portable. When a new church started in a school, or someone’s house, or even on the beach, no one had to haul over an organ. Guitars are also easier to learn to play than the pianos and organs traditionally used in church music.

“People joke about how simple it is—three chords or four chords—but that was a strength, not a weakness,” Perez said. “You could have a beginner guitar player who learned to play to lead their small group, their cell group, or even a new church. You’re democratizing access to the sacred.”

Worship music in the 2020s is not all guitar-based, but industry experts know there is a lot of money in church guitars. According to Ultimate Guitar, an estimated one million guitar players are “gigging” at churches every weekend, and more people play praise and worship music than any other genre in the US.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - August 2021
« Reply #9 on: September 01, 2021, 04:57:53 am »


Don’t Quit Twitter Yet. You Might Have a Moral Duty to Stay.

As leaders, how do we avoid the faults of online life without shirking our public responsibility?

Recently, Caitlin Flanagan argued in The Atlantic that we really need to quit Twitter. She joins a long line of people who’ve sworn off the medium (at least for a time). Andrew Sullivan, Chrissy Teigen, Alec Baldwin, and other celebrities have publicly quit social media. Ta-Nehisi Coates famously left Twitter (and his 1.25 million followers) after an online argument with Cornel West in 2017.

In her essay, Flanagan examines how Twitter destroyed her “ability for private thought” and enjoyment of reading. She even admits to being a Twitter addict.

I am too. I have committed a thousand times to take a break from social media, just to find myself sneaking a look, consumed by shame, as if I huffed some glue real quick between work and picking up the kids. There are nights when I’m up too late, reddened eyes locked onto a screen, finally shaking myself out of my stupor with a cry: “Why am I doing this?”

We’ve all heard the studies. Social media decreases our ability to think critically, increases rates of depression, and fuels anxiety and distraction. Facebook and Twitter often make our conversations more combative. And online advocacy often usurps the more enduring (and more boring) work of governance and institutional change.

Nevertheless, most public discourse is now online. So even if social media is a cesspool, we still have to ask the question: Do some Christians have a moral responsibility to wade into the mire to voice opposition to bad legislation, promote good work, or amplify the concerns of the marginalized?

To cite one particularly disheartening example, sexual abuse victims of a lay leader in my own denomination took to Twitter this summer to highlight the ways leaders and systems allegedly failed to handle their abuse. The only way many of us (even within our institution) heard about any of this was because some brave survivors spoke up online. These institutional concerns were brought to light through social media.

I have written about the spiritual and emotional danger of social media consumption, but always with a bit of internal conflict, because I know that people are most likely finding these very essays through platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

The pitfalls of social media are real, dangerous, and myriad. But the unavoidable fact is that people today find a public voice, in part, through social media. This goes for Christian writers, artists, and public leaders as well. These online spaces are where people—those whom Jesus loves—are talking about important things. This is where people share their work.

But this fact, though unavoidable, is also rather destructive. If all our up-and-coming leaders, artists, and thinkers are formed by social media, this very formation will inevitably shape and limit our cultural possibilities, imaginations, and thought.

Our implicit requirement of emerging leaders for copious social media engagement is like requiring all of America’s young cardiologists to take up smoking. The means necessary to have a public voice in our culture is precisely that which undoes the kind of deep thinking, nuance, creativity, humility, and compassion we desperately need from leaders of any sort.

This dynamic can also undermine our institutions. The last thing we need in the church is for each pastor to be a public brand. As I’ve written in CT, the authority that comes from being popular online can subvert institutional health and accountability. Yet, do our institutions themselves have some responsibility to deal with and equip people for the reality of a digital world?

I’ve had older church leaders praise the idea of opting out of social media altogether. They want to be “above the fray,” which is not a bad goal. But I wonder if Christians have some responsibility to enter the fray, even if it is fraught with all sorts of temptations, perils, and dangers.

How then do we—as individuals and as a church—resist the malformation of being always online without shirking our public responsibility? Is there any moral imperative to be part of the digital public square?

I’ve agonized over these questions and still don’t know the answer.

In their book, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass write that the practice of discernment teaches us our own finitude, our need for prayer, our dependence on the Spirit of God. It shows us how our theology resonates “with the beliefs and practices that guide the community of faith on its pilgrimage.”

We are certainly in new territory on this pilgrimage. The church has faced persecution, famine, and plague, but we’ve never yet had to decide when or if to tweet. Of course, Christians have always faced temptations to vanity, arrogance, distraction, addiction, and idolatry. But we’ve never had hundreds of engineers hired by megacorporations to pinpoint how to ensnare more and more of our attention in ways uniquely suited to our individual loves and desires.

Still, Christian discernment is not a new practice, and we need to be intentional about discerning the vices and virtues—the dangers but also the obligations and responsibilities—that this new medium brings. I don’t mean we need to simply decide this individually. Discernment is a communal activity, which means we must ask these questions as a church. This needs to be a constant topic of Christian discipleship and debate.

The church and some individuals within it are called to the public square and, whether we like it or not, social media is an increasingly important part of that. Those digital spaces will inevitably involve us in practices, systems, and formation that are harmful to our souls. But we have a moral obligation not simply to perfect purity and personal health but to a wider world—a misshapen world that will inevitably misshape us as well. We can and should take up practices that limits these harms. But we might not be able to avoid them altogether.

Flanagan may be right: I may really need to quit Twitter. I may be self-justifying a damaging addiction. I truly do wish that a Christian ethical engagement with media was as easy as just quitting all the bad things, but there’s a kind of fundamentalist reductionism in this desire. Instead, we are faced with a riskier path, a practice of ongoing discernment as we navigate these complicated questions about both the needs of our souls and our responsibility to others.

I still believe what I wrote previously, that “technological habituation begets our spiritual formation, which begets our devotion and doxology.” I do not think that social media shapes our souls, our thinking, or our conversations in excellent ways. But at the end of the day, the church is called both to proper devotion and to the sullied complexities of the public square.


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