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How Do You Solve a Theological Problem Like Maria?

Record hurricane season challenges believers in paradise to trust God amid lifes literal storms.

Christians across the Caribbean are turning to God during a hurricane season like no other. On Wednesday morning, Hurricane Maria landed on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the strongest to hit the US territory in at least 80 years.

The night before, pastor Gadiel Ríos prayed and read the Bible during a Facebook Live broadcast with more than 100 of his congregants, asking that God intercede to protect them and allow them to bless their island in the aftermath.

“As a congregation, we help each other during the preparation time, pray together a lot more, and help on relief efforts after the event,” said Ríos, lead pastor of La Iglesia del Centro, a congregation of about 350 in Arecibo. “The evangelical church is an ever-present force before and after these dire situations.”

Evangelicals make up about 15 percent of the population in Puerto Rico, where Catholics remain the majority, according to the Pew Research Center. Many churches, including Calvary Chapel of Puerto Rico, held special prayer nights this week to pray for their island and others in Maria’s path.

In practical ways, Caribbean churches have become better prepared for the annual threat of storms each hurricane season: Buildings are constructed to endure hurricane-force winds, forecasters can better predict a hurricane’s path, and social media networks allow congregants to quickly share warnings, pray, and coordinate relief efforts.

“We deal with the hurricane season as a ‘normal’ thing in our region, but the giant scope (size, force, rapidness of development) of Irma and Maria are just of another league,” Ríos explained by email.

Maria arrived about two weeks after Irma skirted Puerto ...

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Twin Peaks: The Return Gets Cosmic Conflict Disturbingly Right

David Lynchs cult-classic revival is exactly as imaginative—and as uncomfortable—as it always needed to be.

“Should we watch Twin Peaks: The Return?”

Now that all 18 episodes of David Lynch’s long-awaited television series are available for binge-viewing on Showtime, I’m fumbling with insufficient answers to this question. As I formulate replies, I feel myself fracture into three distinct personalities:

(1) The Twin Peaks fanboy who spent a quarter of a century dreaming of new episodes.

(2) The film student who finds Lynch’s movies and television difficult to parse.

(3) The Christian whose conscience is troubled, because the show’s imaginative brilliance is tainted by graphic scenes of violence—particularly sexual violence.

There’s no easy answer.

David Lynch doesn’t mean for this to be a comfortable ride. Twin Peaks: The Return is, in fact, about a man split into three personas—possibly more. While the original 1990–91 series began by whispering “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and then asked “Can law enforcement stop an evil spirit?” this sequel series asks “Can multiple manifestations of an FBI agent be reconciled into one human being, healed and whole?”

This theme won’t surprise Lynch’s fans. In his book of reflections on creativity, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch expresses his desire to see human beings overcome divided minds and pursue lives of integrity. (He prefers the word “unity.”)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who need it, here’s a quick review of what preceded The Return.

The Story So Far

It begins: In the first episode of the original Twin Peaks, a fisherman discovers a popular high school girl dead on the riverbank behind his Eastern Washington home. The resulting investigation leads ...

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No Child Left Behind Comes to Awana

The childrens ministry rethinks the competition at its core.

One of the most important symbols in modern Christianity is a circle inside a square, its sides marked red, blue, green, and yellow, divided by diagonal lines. For some Christians, it is a literal mark of orthodoxy, a subtle indicator that a church teaches Scripture authoritatively and rigorously (and usually from a particular Reformed, premillennial, cessationist perspective).

The square has changed little from its origins in the 1940s at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Church youth leader Art Rorheim had been having trouble with traditional two-team games as his youth group grew; his four-team court was designed to let 100 play with little downtime. Now more than 10,000 churches in the United States use it as they host Awana programs.

Some of Rorheim’s early games “were unconventional and even illegal,” according to Awana: God’s Miracle, Awana’s official history book. Boys ran out of the building and around the block, then fought in the halls to slow each other down. “That game was short-lived when the church board heard about it,” God’s Miracle notes. Others continue today, largely unchanged since some clubbers’ grandparents’ day. Baton relay races. Three-legged-races. Balloon volleyball. Four-way-tug-of-war. Throwing bean bags to knock over plastic bowling pins.

As Awana leaders have seen it, the game circle is why kids showed up week after week, year after year, decade after decade. “Game Time surely is the drawing card to the gospel presented in Council Time!” in the words of God’s Miracle (emphasis in the original). And both fans and critics of Awana stress that its competitive streak doesn’t ...

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Bible Study Fellowship Rewrites the Rulebook

From denim to downloads, BSF is loosening up and adapting for millennials.

Most Monday evenings for the past two years, Naomi Ruth Jackson has ridden her 22-speed bike uphill or caught a bus after work to Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. She meets there with around 450 women for a Bible Study Fellowship class. The 30-year-old is not the lay-focused ministry’s typical participant, having majored in Bible and theology in college. Her own church offers only unstructured Bible study, and her job as a medical records clerk grants her few occasions to re-engage her skills in scriptural interpretation.

The class lasts two hours. It starts with a time of worship at 6:40 p.m., rolls into discussion and fellowship in small breakout groups, and ends with a 40-minute lecture. But rather than deterrents, the breadth and commitment to the 30-week program are draws for Jackson.

“I think about Scripture a lot, but there isn’t always an opportunity to have an audience or be around people who want to discuss that,” she said. “So for me, personally, it meets that need.”

After singing some hymns at a class on the Gospel of John earlier this year, Jackson and about 10 other women filtered into the church’s “cry room” and formed a cozy circle on rocking chairs and a stray pew. A group leader, in her mid-40s, encouraged everyone to share a few words based on questions relating to each chapter of the book.

Jackson had a lot on her mind. She was worried about her younger sister, who had been in a car accident.

“I was frustrated and angry and praying for her,” she said. “I thought to myself, I need to be an advocate for my sister,” as the group studied John 14 about the Holy Spirit’s role as advocate. “And just as that ...

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Online Tribalism Threatens Womens Ministry

From our special issue: reflections on discipleship in a fractured age.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Change Makers,” our recent CT special issue focused on some of the ways women are influencing the church, their communities, and the world. In this special issue, we’ve included articles that explore trends in women’s discipleship, examine research on women and workplace leadership, highlight women who are making a difference, and grapple with the unique challenges female leaders face. Click here to download your own free digital copy of “Change Makers.”

Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, reveals the delicate interplay of race, class, and religion in the Jim Crow South. It also reveals something important about women’s discipleship.

The story unfolds around the trial of Tom Robinson, an African American man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and is told from the perspective of Scout, the daughter of Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch. Despite his innocence, Tom is convicted and sent to prison.

As the town moves on from the trial, the ladies’ missionary circle of Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South gathers to raise awareness of the plight of the faraway Mruna tribe. Scout’s Aunt Alexandra hosts the event in the Finch home. In the midst of the refreshments, pastel prints, and concern for souls, Atticus slips into the kitchen with the news that Tom has been shot and killed. As Aunt Alexandra and the housekeeper, Calpurnia, struggle to absorb what has happened, the ladies in the front room continue their earnest missionary efforts in oblivion.

Lee uses this scene to show the disparity between the white citizens’ sense of their own compassion and their neglect of justice in their local community. ...

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20% of Americans are on the Threshold of Religion

New research on American religion

An important trend in American religion has been the rise of the religious nones. A religious none is someone who has no religious affiliation. They are given this name because when researchers survey them as to which religious faith they affiliate with, they check the box “none.”

Current estimates identify about 20% of Americans as religious nones, with the remaining 80% having some religious affiliation.

But this may be the wrong way to think about religious affiliation. This binary portrait—some or none—arises from cross-sectional surveys. These are surveys that are administered only one time. They give a snapshot of people’s religious affiliation, but they cannot measure how individuals’ affiliation changes over time.

As a result, cross-sectional surveys overlook the possibility that some people fluctuate in and out of religious affiliation. That is, they sometimes say that they have a religious affiliation and sometimes say that they do not. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam identified this possibility and termed it being “liminal,” from the Latin word limin which means threshold.

Religious liminals fluctuate between religious affiliation and no affiliation. I’m a liminal myself. Not with religion, though, but with professional basketball fandom. On some days, I say that I don’t really have a favorite team. On other days, however, I say that I’m a Celtics fan. Growing up, my dad was an avid Celtics fan, and some of it rubbed off on me. Similarly, religious liminals sometimes identify with religion and sometimes do not.

Just how many Americans are religious liminals? Michael Hout just published a paper analyzing this question with longitudinal data from the General ...

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Can Leadership Be Learned?

You do not have to be a natural-born leader to become a great leader.

Is leadership something we’re born with, or is it something we learn?

Yes. Both-and.

Some people seem to be born with leadership skills. These people may be more charismatic, sometimes more extraverted, more affirming. Maybe he or she was president of their class and captain of their teams in high school. Their voice holds the room’s attention, and their ideas catch on throughout an organization.

You Have to Learn Leadership

But, in my experience, natural leaders often rely on instincts. Instincts work for a while, but eventually they fail. They do not scale up to tackling new or more complex leadership challenges—to creating plans for strategic leadership or for effecting system-wide change. That takes processes, strategies, and tools that don’t always come with instinct or experience.

Other people are dropped into leadership positions without natural leadership gifting. Maybe it’s the wise, compassionate woman who is asked to lead her Bible study. Maybe it’s the pastor who loves theology or Biblical counseling but who feels overwhelmed when faced with leading a congregation.

Leadership Journey

That’s the situation I was in during my second year of a church plant years ago. We’d successfully launched the church, counting 234 people in attendance for the first Sunday. But then we moved past the frenetic energy of the launch, saw our numbers settle around a hundred, and slid towards rhythms of regular church life. And I realized I did not know what to do next. I was stuck, and leadership was the lever I needed to get through.

I am not a natural leader. I am a nerd, thank you very much. While some of my good friends were leading student government in school, I was reading the encyclopedia ...

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Gleanings: October 2017

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

Christian ministry fights ‘hate group’ label

After D. James Kennedy Ministries was cited in local media reports as the No. 1 “hate group” in Florida, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian broadcaster became the first ministry to sue the label’s instigator, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), for defamation. The SPLC lists almost 20 Christian organizations—including Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, and the Family Research Council—on its hate map for their “anti-LGBT” stance. The Coral Ridge ministry said the hate group label was not only false but was intended to hurt its reputation and fundraising efforts. The SPLC’s hate map has been covered by CNN, noted by charity researcher GuideStar on ministries’ profile pages, and used by AmazonSmile to block donations to listed groups.

Joel Hunter is done pastoring churches

After more than three decades as senior pastor of the 20,000-member Northland Church in the Orlando area, Joel Hunter announced he was stepping down in order to minister to the “unincluded in the Kingdom.” The 69-year-old, who served as an evangelical adviser to President Barack Obama and prayed at his inauguration, said his “call to the pastoral role in a church is fulfilled.” But Hunter isn’t finished with ministry. “My experience, relationships, and apostolic gifting are at their highest potential,” he told his congregation, “and I will spend them in the most productive way possible in this final season of my journey.” That will include teaching a weekly Bible study where community members can ask questions, helping to address homelessness, and forming networks to “distribut[e] the ...

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Shalom, Amigos: The Changing Faces of Christian Zionism

How Hispanic evangelicals hope to become Israels best friends.

When Tony Suarez lost his wife to cancer last year, the Passover song he learned at his first Seder meal only months before became his anthem.

Just as the Jewish people sing dayenu—“it would have been enough”—about God saving them from the plagues and leading them out of Israel, the Virginia pastor proclaimed that God’s faithfulness was enough, even without the miracle he had prayed for.

“That song meant everything,” said Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). “And we wouldn’t have known it if we hadn’t been in a synagogue.”

Suarez is helping to lead a movement among Latino evangelicals that aspires to change the face of Christian Zionism in America.

For the past few years, the NHCLC’s Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition (HILC) has brought Latino churches—some with blue-and-white Israeli flags in their sanctuaries and Hebrew songs in their worship sets—together with pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

The coalition has organized seminars, trips to the Holy Land, and sit-downs with Israeli politicians in order to make Hispanics “the most pro-Israel, pro-Jewish demographic.” With arms extended and flags waving, its members pray with their congregations for the peace of Jerusalem and the well-being of Israel.

In addition to events in places like New York, Florida, and Washington, DC, HILC leaders have also advocated across Latin America against anti-Semitism and for the Jewish state. For example, Orlando pastor Carlos Ortiz has joined advocates for Israel in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Nicaragua reestablished a diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state earlier this year after a seven-year ...

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Our October Issue: Rooting for Bible Ministries

Confessions of a Bible study dropout.

Apologies if this disappoints, but I was never a Bible genius. Don’t misunderstand: My love for Scripture runs deep. But I’ve always had to work harder than others to write its commandments on my heart, as if everyone else had nice pens and mine was the flimsy kind with dried ink that churches keep giving away because they ordered too many.

I certainly tried. Most recently and probably most successfully, I was a Bible Study Fellowship devotee. My wife and I earnestly sought out classes in various cities where we’ve lived. And I was raised in an inner-city Awana program that embodied the challenges highlighted in this month’s cover story, where volunteers faithfully struggled each week to balance the needs of kids who devoured memory verses like gummy bears with those of kids who could barely read.

But the taproot of my Bible insecurities rises from my short stint in the most competitive of ministries: Bible quizzing. For the uninitiated, youth “quizzing” teams compete in churches and schools across the country in Jeopardy-like matchups, springing from trigger-rigged chairs for the chance to recite verses or answer questions about a given chapter. Teams typically prepare by memorizing entire books verbatim.

I was no quizzing star. My turn in the ring was always a sweat-soaked bout of quiet prayer for quick mercy. I never uncovered the secret for motivating myself to large-scale Scripture memorization. Which is why I’m so grateful for tiny Bibles and phone apps that have leveled the playing field for the recollection-challenged like me.

Despite my scarring, I’m a big fan of all these Bible ministries. And I am rooting for them more than ever as they adapt their approaches to the ...

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