Churches

Churches Settling Refugees Against Governors' Wishes

Image via REUTERS / David Ryder / RNS

Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch north of Atlanta, has helped resettle a Syrian family, despite an order from Gov. Nathan Deal that the state would not accept Syrian refugees.

Bryant Wright, the church’s pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNN Dec. 9 he understands the governor is “concerned about the security of the citizens of the state. But as Christians and as a church, we want to reach out with the love of Christ to these folks.”

He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his church had been planning to help the family before the recent attacks in France.

Faith-Based Groups Earn Millions on Refugee Loan Commissions

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

Faith-based agencies that resettle refugees in America stand to gain more than a clear conscience if the United States — after what is expected to be a fierce debate in Congress — accepts a proposed 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.

More refugees also means more revenue for the agencies’ little-known debt collection operations, which bring in upwards of $5 million a year in commissions as resettled refugees repay loans for their travel costs. All nine resettlement agencies charge the same going rate as private-sector debt collectors: 25 percent of all they recoup for the government.

This debt collection practice is coming under increased scrutiny as agencies occupy a growing stage in the public square, where they argue America has a moral obligation to resettle thousands of at-risk Syrian refugees. Some observers say the call to moral action rings hollow when these agencies stand to benefit financially.

How Some Churches Are Turning Empty Buildings into Artist Spaces

Judson Memorial Church / RNS
Abhay Singh & Friends performs during Arts Wednesdays at Judson Memorial Church. Photo via Judson Memorial Church / RNS

On the north side of Indianapolis, the historic First Presbyterian Church is now the Harrison Center for the Arts. Its owner, the upstart Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is landlord to two dozen artist studios, three apartments, four galleries, an annual music festival, and the Indiana office of VSA, the John F. Kennedy Center’s nationwide arts program for people with disabilities.

Redeemer is among a host of churches that own old buildings and have embraced the arts as a way of enlivening hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors, and paying the heating bills.

‘Blessing of the Bikes’ Helps Churches Make Climate Change a Local Issue

Photo via Ron Csillag / RNS
The sixth annual Blessing of the Bikes at Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on June 7, 2015. Photo via Ron Csillag/RNS

It was the sixth annual Blessing of the Bikes at the downtown church — a type of local event that has become more common as a growing number of churches consider the idea that protecting the environment is not just a scientific or political debate, but a spiritual one.

The movement has grown in the past decade and crosses denominations. An “Evangelical Climate Initiative” issued in 2006 has been signed by hundreds of religious leaders, and the Vatican held a one-day summit in late April to “elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment.” Pope Francis is preparing this summer to issue an encyclical — one of the most authoritative church documents — framing climate change action as a moral and religious imperative.

What Might Tomorrow’s Faith Community Look Like?

Photo via MilanB / Shutterstock.com
Photo via MilanB / Shutterstock.com

It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules, and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.

It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.

5 Ways Churches Inflicted Pain on Themselves

Photo via Robyn Mackenzie / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Robyn Mackenzie / Shutterstock.com

Let’s be clear: The much-heralded “decline of Christianity in America” isn’t about God losing faith in humankind.

It isn’t about losing our moral compass thanks to whatever you happen to loathe. It isn’t about fickle millennials. It isn’t about zigging trendy or zagging traditional.

In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Religious institutions like seminaries are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.

But churches can’t hold God hostage. 

A 'Dramatic Turnaround'

BY CHANGING THE definition of marriage in its constitution from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has joined a number of other religious groups in the U.S. in allowing same-sex marriage.

In so doing, the 1.75 million-member denomination completed a dramatic turnaround on marriage equality. In 2012—at a time when same-sex marriage was legal in only a handful of states—the 220th PC(USA) General Assembly was so deeply divided on the issue that it merely called for two years of “serious study and discernment” of Christian marriage.

The 2014 General Assembly—with nearly two dozen states by then having legalized same-sex marriage—voted 429-175 to recommend the constitutional change. By March of this year, the requisite majority of the PC(USA)’s 172 presbyteries (regional governing bodies) had ratified the proposal.

Reaction to the change was immediate, and predictable.

“The change aligns the church’s constitution with a reality that has long been true: Both same-gender and opposite-gender couples have been living in relationships that demonstrate covenant faithfulness, shared discipleship, and mutual love,” said the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that since its founding in 1997 has been working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Presbyterians in the church. “We rejoice that all couples can now see those relationships solemnized before God and the Christian community in marriage, at the discretion of ministers and sessions.”

The new constitutional language grants full discretion to ministers to decide whether they will perform same-sex marriages and to church sessions (congregational governing bodies) to authorize the use of church property for such ceremonies.

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Building Beloved Communities

ONE OF MY favorite descriptions for the people of God, what the New Testament calls the “body of Christ,” is the evocative language of “the beloved community” used by Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

beloved community is a powerful vision of a new coming together, a new community that welcomes all peoples in their diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Everygroup, clan, and tribe is included and invited in. That dream and vision undergirded King’s movement for civil and voting rights, both spiritually and philosophically, and deeply reflected his own underlying moral belief and hope as a Christian minister.

Yet in one of his most famous quotations, King also said this: “I am ashamed and appalled at the fact that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” He said this in 1953, while he was still associate pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But obviously, and most painfully, that quote is still true today.

Incredibly, prior to 1998 there was no good national data on how many U.S. churches were “multiracial.” In this context, a multiracial congregation is one in which less than 80 percent of members belong to any single race. This definition is now widely used by scholars of modern religion, including Michael O. Emerson, the definitive scholar on multiracial congregations. According to scientific surveys of U.S. congregations of all faiths, Emerson has observed that “7.4 percent of U.S. congregations were multiracial in 1998, [and] in 2010 that figure had grown to 13.7 percent.” In other words, truly multiracial congregations in the United States are still very much the exception to the rule. At the same time, it is highly encouraging that their number nearly doubled in just over a decade.

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New York City to Change Rules to Allow Churches to Rent Schools

Photo via Alliance Defending Freedom / RNS
Church members hold signs during a 2013 rally in the Bronx. Photo via Alliance Defending Freedom / RNS

Congregations in New York City that rent space in public schools will be able to hold Easter services this Sunday despite a ruling on March 30 by the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting an appeal from an evangelical church in the Bronx that sought to overturn a ban on after-hours worship services at public schools.

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio also said that the mayor would work to ensure that houses of worship could continue to rent space like any other group.

“Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop rules of the road that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants,” Wiley Norvell said in response to the ruling.

“While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises.”

Pastor Robert Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith, which was the plaintiff in the case, said he was cautiously optimistic after the administration’s response.

“We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay,” Hall told The New York Times.

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