A Small Rural Church Is Hard to Kill

A Texas Baptist pastor on the risk and resilience of America’s smallest congregations.

By any measure, Sunday’s mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, breaks records we’d rather not see broken. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott characterized it as the worst mass shooting in the history of our state and among the worst in the country’s recent history. It is the deadliest church shooting on record.

Superlatives abound as our society scrambles to understand what these things mean. Framed in an overarching narrative of the decline of American civility or debates over gun-politics or increasing hostility toward people of faith, the shooting serves as a data point for the more cerebral and an exclamation point for the more passionate.

When you remove the framework and look at the story of a small church in a rural town, this event defies ranking or evaluation.

For the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, it is an extinction-level event. The church’s lay leadership have all been murdered. The preponderance of the church’s surviving membership lies in the hospital. Eight of the slain come from a single family.

The worship center lies smothered in the carnage and riddled with bullet holes. Who’s going to clean it? Who’s going to pay to have it cleaned? The people who have taken care of those needs in the past were carried out of the meeting house on stretchers and gurneys.

The death of 26 members would traumatize any church, but for a church this size, it threatens the church’s very existence. It threatens that small church; it frightens every small church. Most of the pastors of small churches across the nation know someone whom they could imagine committing a similar crime.

The definition of the family and the nature of childhood in America is …

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Shooting at Southern Baptist Texas Church Kills 26 Worshipers

Tragedy at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs is deadliest US church attack since 1963.

During its 11 a.m. worship service, a Southern Baptist church in rural Texas suffered not only America’s latest mass shooting but the deadliest at a US church in more than 50 years.

At least 26 worshipers, ranging in ages from 5 to 72, have died from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, according to Texas authorities. YouTube videos of the church’s weekly service indicate that recent Sundays have drawn about 50 to 75 attendees.

Among the victims, 23 died inside the rural church’s small sanctuary, 2 outside the church, and one later while receiving treatment. Another 20 worshipers were injured. The shooter was identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of New Braunsfels, Texas, about 35 miles away.

The Texas tragedy is only the 14th mass murder at an American house of worship since 1963, according to statistics compiled by church security expert Carl Chinn. It is also the deadliest shooting in the Lone Star State, taking place on the anniversary of the Fort Hood shooting that killed 13 people on an Army base in 2009.

Texas governor Greg Abbott said, “The tragedy of course is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship, where these people were innocently gunned down.”

“The death toll will mark this as the worst [church shooting] in US history,” Chinn told CT. Fewer than 40 percent of church attacks happen during Sunday worship or other official church events; however, Chinn said the ones that occur during services tend to be worse.

Kelley entered the church shortly after the service began. According to reports, he wore black ballistic gear and carried a Ruger military-style rifle.

A pastor of a neighboring church told TV reporters that he knows most of the church’s …

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The Martyr’s Oath, an Interview with Johnnie Moore on the Persecuted Church

The persecuted church calls the free church to live for the Jesus they are willing to die for

Ed: What is The Martyr’s Oath, and why did you write it?

Johnnie Moore: I’ll never forget meeting a nun on a visit to Iraq just after Mosul fell to ISIS. She said to me, “I love America. Such beautiful people. Such a wonderful place. I have a PhD from an American university. You care for your pets so well. So, when will you care for us? Why are you so silent in the face of our genocide? We feel forgotten.”

Since that moment, I have felt a call to be a voice for the persecuted church, and to call the church to care more, pray more, and do more. I’ve come to realize this is actually my primary call. I’m committed to telling the stories of the suffering church to the free church. This is my latest and most comprehensive effort to do so.

The Martyr’s Oath is the result of months of travel documenting the actual experiences of persecuted Christians. It’s a book of firsthand accounts from more than a dozen different countries. Some of the stories we found are very powerful.

We met one newly-converted Syrian family who welcomed a threat of martyrdom from a family member but refused a threat of crucifixion because they said, “We felt so unworthy to die the same death as our Jesus.”

We found supernatural stories like one of a judge awakening in the middle of the night from a dream where he was told not to touch the Christian pastor he was planning on ruling against the next morning. We found another pastor whose ministry led him to a spy for Osama Bin Laden who became a believer and is now a Christian pastor himself.

We met one woman who told us that after her family got out of prison in China they became so courageous that they stopped meeting in a basement but instead chose …

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Screen Time Is Changing the Way We Think, Focus, and Memorize

What old wisdom brings to the smartphone era.

The first time I heard a pastor say, “Take out your Bible or phone or iPad and turn to …” was in 2016. It seems like a fairly harmless statement, but given recent evidence that screen time is changing the way we think, perhaps not.

Approximately 2 billion people use a smartphone every day. Many of these use the device for work, scheduling, and organizing their busy lives. With punctual reminders and helpful apps, smart devices easily override our fickle attention span. Sometimes it is difficult to tell how much time one is spending on a device. In fact, one recent study showed that participants underestimated their usage by almost half.

For many, it’s believable that our attention is shorter than it used to be. In 2015, several major news sources reported that humans now have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. The study, however, wasn’t peer reviewed or a properly controlled experiment. In fact, there isn’t any solid evidence that the attention span is shrinking (or that goldfish even have an attention span).

In a recent survey, evangelical pastors and leaders claimed that the average church service should be 75 minutes. After asking preachers about their sermon length, LifeWay president Thom Rainer found that the typical evangelical sermon lasts 20-28 minutes. Should pastors worry about whether church members need even shorter sermons?

It appears, no. Thankfully, from the evidence we currently have, electronic devices (everything from smartphones to iPods) do not seem to be shrinking our attention span. Like a puppy dog in a pet supply store, we are just easily distracted.

What does seem clear is that electronic devices (especially smartphones) are addictive and can easily distract …

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What Arab Leaders Think of USAID Funding Persecuted Christians

Middle East believers pray more American money won’t mean more problems.

Ashty Bahro was one of the first to the scene in al-Qosh, traveling 25 miles over mountainous roads from his base in Iraqi Kurdistan to the town where 850 Iraqi Christian families had been newly displaced.

Only weeks earlier, the families had relocated to Teleskof in the Nineveh Plain, following its liberation from ISIS. But the Kurdish independence referendum sparked a new crisis in the region. The Iraqi government moved quickly to reclaim lands controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Shia militias linked with Iran also threatened the Christian areas, forcing families to flee once more.

“They are very tired. They just rebuilt their homes,” said Bahro, head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation and former director of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan. “Now they are scared to remain in government-held cities.”

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

The Iraqi Christian leader praised charities like Voice of the Martyrs, Tear Fund, Operation Mercy, and World Vision. And he welcomed American vice president Mike Pence’s statement that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will start to fund Christian groups in the region directly.

“They are here in the area, they know what’s happening, and they go immediately to help,” Bahro said.

Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hama, Syria, confirmed concerns that UN aid was not reaching Christians in the …

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The Faith of the ‘Killable People’

Why “prison Pentecostalism” is flourishing among criminals, gang members, and others on society’s margins.

Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.

We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”

But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”

To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.

For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, …

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500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified

Luther’s law/gospel insight is as brilliant as ever—especially in 21st century America.

Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.

In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a …

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Why Critics Are Wrong to Scold Evangelicals for Historical Rootlessness

A new book demonstrates the movement has been “a perennial and recurring feature of Christian history.”

About 20 years ago, theologian D. H. Williams wrote a book called Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. He focused on a certain sector of evangelicalism—the free church tradition, including many Baptists, independent Bible churches, nondenominational churches, and the like. These churches were admirably devoted to preaching and studying Scripture, but they were dangerously neglecting the rich legacy handed down to them from the church’s past. Williams worried that this disregard of the historical church’s wisdom would spell disaster, gradually resulting in shallow worship, superficial discipleship, and weak missional and social engagement, among other ills.

Accordingly, he issued a clear warning: “If the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church. . . . Tradition is not something evangelicals can take or leave.”

Since Williams’s dire warning, contemporary evangelicals have made significant strides in linking their theology and practice not only to the early church, but to the church of the past two millennia. But critical voices still scold evangelicalism for its historical rootlessness. Such criticism often comes from adherents of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, especially those who were formerly evangelicals.

In 2002, observing the recent drift of evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism, theologian Scot McKnight speculated on the cause:

Many feel they are isolated in the faith, in a modern evangelical movement that has cut itself off from the history of the Church. …

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A Call to Faith in Action: Mass Incarceration & The Church’s Response

IPM, CACE, and FPE hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration

On Wednesday, the Institute for Prison Ministries (IPM) of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration. This event was co-sponsored by Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) and Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics (FPE).

The first session began with a presentation by Dr. Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. Her topic was “What Is Mass Incarceration.” The second segment was an interview with Dr. Vince Bacote, Director of CACE. He addressed “Is This A Christian Obligation?” The next speaker was Joseph Williams, Executive Director of Correctional Ministries & Chaplains Association, who spoke on “Reintegration and Collateral Sanctions.”

Jon Kelly, a local pastor and Colson Scholar, shared his experience of incarceration and post-incarceration. He was followed by Dr. Dean Trulear, National Director of Healing Communities in Philadelphia, PA, who spoke on “The Role of the Church.” The first session ended with an interview with Pete Leonard, Founder and Roast Master of I Have a Bean, which employs formerly incarcerated individuals.

The second session began with Professor David Iglesias, Director of FPE. A former federal prosecutor, he spoke on “Politics and Mass Incarceration.” The next presenter was Dr. Karen Swanson, Director of IPM, who focused on a survey of Protestant pastors’ views on correctional ministry. The next segment was an interview with Miea Walker, Engagement Coordinator for the Second Chance Alliance of the North Carolina Justice Center. She encouraged attendees to develop a new mindset on the issues of mass incarceration …

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Saturday is for Seminars and Church Signs: Monterey, Manhattan, and around Illinois

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer!

November Speaking Engagements

November 1-2
Homiletical Lectureship at Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois

November 4
Life Answers
West Chicago, Illinois

November 7-8
Exponential Regional – Chicago
Naperville, Illinois

November 7-8
Illinois Baptist State Association Pastors’ Conference
Decatur, Illinois

November 9-11
Organic Outreach Conference
Monterey, California

November 15-16
Church Planting Leadership Fellowship
New York, New York

November 25
Highpoint Church
Naperville, Illinois

Church Signs

And here are church signs! Back by popular demand.

Thanks, @johnstonalanc!

Thanks, @gabebernal!

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer(or email to stetzerblog[@]gmail[.]com).

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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