Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why God Didn't Curse Haiti

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Many people have heard about Pat Robertson’s terrible remark where he states that the country has been “cursed” because they “swore a pact to the devil.” Christians, in varying degrees, have denounced his statement. Some say that while God does judge us, this isn’t an example of that judgment. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY says it was the right sentiment at the wrong time. He states “Do I believe God punishes nations? You bet, the same way I know that judgment falls upon individuals.” Is there really a right time to tell a nation that you think they signed a pact with the devil because they stood up to those oppressing them and threw off the shackles of slavery—a biblical paradigm straight from Exodus, I might add? The associate pastor of my church, Susan Parker, says the opposite on her blog, “Choosing life and blessings”:

“My God is grieving for the tens of thousands of people who have died, grieving for those who may still be clinging to life, but who are trapped under the rubble and may not be able to be saved. My God is instilling hope in those who are working feverishly to uncover any remaining survivors, giving strength to aid workers who have been on their feet for days without proper rest, and comforting the survivors who have lost family, friends and all their meager possessions.”

I completely agree. Unlike some who denounced the timing of Robertson’s words but stood by the idea of a God who would judge Haiti through an earthquake, I believe that God is not instigating catastrophes but is present in the response of aid workers like the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and many Baptist entities including CBF missionaries Steve and Nancy James and coordinated disaster response teams. As Jon Stewart pointed out in what seemed like an impromptu sermon on The Daily Show last week, there are countless Bible verses a minister could use to bring comfort at a time like this (Psalm 34:18, Isaiah 41:1, Isaiah 54:10, to name a few). These entities that are so dutifully coming to Haiti’s aid embody these scriptures.

As I was listening to NPR a week ago, a Haitian immigrant now residing in the U.S. told a story she had heard in the news coverage. Rescue workers tried desperately to extract a little girl from the debris, and when she was freed later she spoke about feeling God’s presence as she was trapped. Conversely, Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, talks about his experience at a concentration camp during World War II about not feeling the presence of God as he watched a boy being hung on the gallows by Nazis. Whether or not we feel the presence of God in the debris of Haiti or atrocities of war, God is suffering with us. That is why Jesus is called “Immanuel” and why God plays the role of comforter in so many passages, as Jon Stewart pointed out. As we struggle for answers, let us remember that we are called by God to bring hospitality and comfort to God’s people. Let us do that both in our own communities and in Haiti. Donate to CBF’s efforts in Haiti, the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Haiti Action, or any other charity you have found to be effective during this tragedy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eight Trends Pastors and Church Leaders Should Consider for 2010

by Rev. Neil Westbrook

As pastors, deacons, and other church leaders prepare for the new year it is important to consider what trends will most likely impact their churches. This list of trends is based on my own research of what’s happening in society today and what trends will most likely have the greatest impact on local churches next year.

The premise of this article is that the local church is the primary way and means for believers of Christ to gather, worship, and serve as the people of God!

1. New economic realities and perceptions. The reality is that our economy is already bad but it may get worse before it gets any better. Church leaders should closely examine their budgets for line items that may not be prudent or that are no longer effective in order to cut costs. One approach is to use a zero based budget. It is also important for church leaders and churches to remember that cuts may need to be made temporarily, but can be changed back once the economy improves. There are also many people who perceive our economy to be worse than it actually is. This can create an attitude of fear and cause people to hold on to or hoard their money. Even in difficult financial times church leaders should encourage members to be faithful and continue to tithe.

2. Shift from nuclear family to diverse meanings of family. The word “family” continues to change and take on new meanings. Family used to mean a husband and wife, and their kids. Today’s family may be two people or “partners” living together or “shacking up” who are completely unrelated, a household filled with extended family members such as grandparents and grandchildren, or just a group of people who have known each other for a long period of time and who live together in order to share living costs. These types of families are often times less stable than traditional, nuclear families and may require more attention or help from local churches. Additionally, local churches will have to wrestle with the challenges of accepting new family models into the church and find new ways to minister to these new families.

3. Increasing number of single adults (of all ages). More and more people are either choosing to stay single or are getting divorced. Studies show that the total percentage of married people in America is at it’s lowest point in over 30 years. This trend presents many unique challenges for churches. Many younger people who are choosing to stay single find it difficult to fit in to traditional churches that are predominantly attended by married couples with children. Often times when couples divorce at least one of them also chooses to divorce themselves from the local church. As the divorced population grows so will the percentage of unchurched Americans. The senior adult population is one of the fastest growing single populations in America. One study suggests that “Beginning in 2011, the population 65and older will grow faster than the total population in every single state.” (Source: SeniorJournal.com)

4. Importance of social media networking. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogs, and other social media networking websites continue to grow not only in popularity of use, but also in importance. Studies show that the internet has actually outpaced the television in terms of where people get their news, keep up with current events, and connect with friends old and new. Churches seeking to reach this audience should consider developing an online presence of some type in order to “get in the loop” and keep their information in front of their members. Also, when people move into a new community they often use the internet to find their next church home. Blogging represents another option for pastors and church leaders. A blog provides an opportunity for a pastor or other church leaders to connect on a deeper or more personal level.

5. Rampant church planting. Church planting has gone wild! There is no excuse…most traditional or established churches have failed to go out into their communities and reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ. However, for those churches who are trying to do that, the church planting movement represents yet another obstacle. Many denominations have all but given up on the churches who have supported them for decades now and are turning their attention and resources towards starting new churches as their strategy for sustaining denominational structures and their hope for reaching tomorrow’s generation. Unfortunately, established churches will actually have to compete with these newer, niche church plants for members. Although new church plants do reach unchurched and dechurched people, they also gain much of their membership by taking members from other local churches.

6. Anti-denominational attitudes. In the general population denominations are out. People are tired of old denominational rules and politics that seem to be divisive rather than unifying. This is exactly why most new churches or church plants do not put their denominational affiliation – Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran – in their names. (New Spring, High Rock Community Church, etc.) The general population continues to be less and less impressed with a church’s denomination and more and more concerned about a church’s witness, community involvement, and the programs they offer.

7. Aging population. By 2030 people 65+ are expected to make up around 20% of the American population. As our population shifts, so will local churches. Many of these senior adults have been the foundation of support for local churches for over fifty years. Younger generations have been slower to make the same level of commitment. Financially, this means that when local churches lose their older members it may take two or three families to make up the difference. However, the aging population is still very active. Churches may consider starting new ministries to capitalize on the passions and energy of their aging members. Additionally, many senior adults are concerned about the political climate and newer technologies that they don’t understand. They will seek comfort and security from their church family.

8. Desire for authentic, meaningful religious experiences WITH REAL PEOPLE. Although the internet has provided a means for connecting people with old friends and making new friends across geographical borders…people are thirsty for an authentic relationship with God and for genuine relationships with other people. The truth is that God created us this way (in his image!). More and more people are looking for the opportunity to connect with others in deeper and more meaningful ways. Affinity groups, men’s and women’s groups, ministry teams, or other small groups will serve to help people connect with one another. Authenticity and intimacy are slowly replacing the big or mega-church experience.

This article was orginally posted to Neil Westbrook's blog, www.deacondynamics.com. Neil is the pastor of Neel Road Baptist Church in Salisbury, NC.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Free For All" Book Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

In their book Free for All, Emmaus Way pastors Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes share their experiences with interpreting the Bible in community. Far from the disaster of what some might expect from the implications of a “free for all,” the communal interpretation brings the Bible to life through discussions of issues most churches fear discussing.

One of the most compelling chapters looks at the community’s discussion of Romans 1:26-27 and surrounding verses, a passage that is frequently used to condemn homosexuality. This Durham, N.C. community of liberal, moderate, conservative, straight and gay members fearlessly and respectfully discusses the text and interprets it for today. One gay member is comfortable enough to share a story about a group of boys who stoned her after a Pride event as she walked to her car, sending her to the hospital with a detached retina. While the members do not uniformly agree on an interpretation of this passage — rarely would any church community agree on all texts — they do respect their brothers and sisters in Christ, condemn the violence and hatred shown to their fellow church member, and provide a safe and compassionate space for fellowship and sharing.

In a chapter discussing the changing landscape of Christian ethics as new discoveries are made — for example, global warming — the authors discuss the nature of baptism in one of the most compelling pieces I’ve read on the topic. To symbolize the churning waters of chaos at the beginning of Genesis, new members are baptized in a river, experiencing death through full immersion and being raised into a New World with a new system of ethics in Christ. The authors characterize baptism as a “strong political and ethical statement, because it declares the advent of a new order.” This new order is characterized by a biblical hermeneutic that is mindful of the poor and accomplished through the missional efforts of the church, such as community organizing and work with ex-convicts. It is also accomplished through embodying the hospitality of Jesus. In welcoming all and allowing all voices to struggle with the text in this community around food and table fellowship, these ministers and this church are accomplishing a level of Christian community rarely seen in most churches.

For information on the book, visit http://www.amazon.com/Free-All-Rediscovering-Community-communities/dp/080107147X

Learn more about Emmaus Way in Durham, N.C., at http://www.emmausway.net/

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Separation of Church, State, and Bathrooms?

by Rev. Laura Barclay

The offices of CBF of North Carolina share second floor office space with the NC Revenue Service, among other businesses. We have never had a major conflict with that office--until that fateful Tuesday. My co-worker came back from the restroom horrified. “They are putting locks on the restrooms to keep the public out!” Upon our questioning of the building manager, who arrived shortly after to give us the code to the bathroom keypad, he explained that it was to “keep street people out.”

“Who are street people?” I asked.
“Uh, you know, not people who would come to your office. It’s mostly the people that come to the tax office,” he responded.
“Oh, you mean poor people?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I mean, the people that visit your office are ok,” he said nervously.
“So, our visitors are somehow better than those of the revenue office?” I questioned.

And so on. My co-workers and I argued something like this: “Going to the bathroom is a basic human right. The tax office should not dictate this as there are other paying tenants in the building. If you give us that code, we will give it to everyone, because the government cannot say who can and cannot go to the bathroom. We are a church, and Jesus preached hospitality. We refuse to sit in a building and idly watch people who come in to conduct business not be allowed to use the bathroom because they are not deemed eligible by the revenue offices’ standards. It’s inhumane.”

He later apologized, explained he was a Christian and just doing his job. He stated that they had responded to a complaint from the tax office about a messy bathroom. Because they had the highest number of visitors of any tenant, their opinion was chosen without asking others.

Perhaps this encounter underscores, in an everyday and mundane way, the importance of the Baptist value of separation of church and state. We can’t even agree on bathroom procedure! While the government does have some wonderful services that the church is simply not organized enough to provide (i.e., public education and unemployment services, among other things), we can call the government toward the hospitality exemplified in Jesus’ life. We have the freedom to do so because our interests are not entangled. I encourage you to do this in your own lives and churches, whether it pertains to healthcare for millions of uninsured Americans, environmental concerns, systemic poverty issues in your community, or any issues that weigh on the hearts of those who love God and their neighbor.

Thoughts and questions for reflection:

How does the church reflect hospitality? Is your church open to the poor?

How do Christians reflect or not reflect Jesus’ call to hospitality?

What does Jesus’ example of hospitality mean to you?