On Alma Maters

One of the influences of my Baptist upbringing was on my education.  Growing up in a small Arizona town, the only educational option was the local public school.  It was actually a pretty good school, comparatively, consistently one of the best in the county and state, having been recognized as such in recent years.  But it was public education and by the time I was ready for college, I recognized the distinct secular influence on educational philosophy, and decided to dig up the extra tuition and fees for a Christian college.  I chose the one affiliated with Arizona Southern Baptists at the time, Grand Canyon College, now Grand Canyon University.

Grand Canyon College was an excellent school.  It was small, 1,300 students enrolled in all undergraduate programs at the time, on a campus on the west-central side of Phoenix.  Most of the students commuted from home, but the small residential community of about 400 was close-knit and friendly.  It was known state-wide for having a strong teacher education program and more than half the students there were majoring in elementary or secondary education.  The combination of a strong education program and a strong business program had produced a unique training and development major that attracted many students.  It’s Biblical studies were traditionally Southern Baptist in spite of its location in a western state and conservative at a time when other SBC state convention schools were moving to the left.  It was an NAIA power in men’s basketball and baseball, winning national titles in both sports with regularity.

So I majored in history and English, and minored in Biblical studies in preparation for a teaching career.  I didn’t realize at the time that my understanding of the differences in Christian and secular educational philosophy would lead me to a career in Christian school education, but the roots for that were grown while I was a student at Grand Canyon.

At some point following my graduation, the school’s leadership achieved university status, dividing the growing school up into colleges.  As the only accredited Christian-affiliated college in the fast growing Phoenix area, the school was bound to grow.  Unfortunately, a lack of responsible leadership within the sponsoring state convention led to a scandal in the Baptist Foundation of Arizona that not only crippled the ministry of Arizona Southern Baptists, who still suffer from its effects, but put the crown jewel of their ministry institutions, Grand Canyon University, at risk of closure.

You can read the long, horrible story of the financial misdeeds of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona by looking it up, I won’t go into it here.  It’s what happens when individuals have too much influence and power in a church organization and can hand-pick the trustees who oversee their operation.  Though the school itself was not involved in the scandal, since it was owned by the state Baptist convention, its assets, including its endowment and property, were at risk of being seized to pay off the massive losses incurred by the foundation.  The trustees had no choice but to declare themselves self-perpetuating and to separate the school from the convention’s ownership and control.

The school did take a financial hit, enrollment declined and for a while it looked bad.  But God was gracious and found a way not only to keep the school open, but also to expand its tents, so to speak.  Sometimes denominational control of a college can be a limiting factor, especially in a place like Arizona, where the Christian population is small and scattered among dozens of different groups.  In just a couple of short decades since impending disaster, my alma mater Grand Canyon University has emerged as the premier Christian university in the West.  From near-financial disaster, GCU strengthened its financial standing by becoming an on-line provider and built a niche in graduate level degree programs.  Initially setting up a corporation as a for-profit school, the university recently went back to non-profit status.  This fall, 20,000 students enrolled in on-campus classes and the total student body, including on-line students, adds up to more than 70,000.  It has maintained its Christian identity and has become one of just a handful of schools in the country to offer certification programs for Christian school teachers.  It has a strong Biblical studies program and its own graduate level theological seminary.

I can only hope for the same kind of recovery for my other alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.  Right now, it doesn’t look good.

Trustee boards elected by the annual Southern Baptist Convention gathering are in charge of seminaries.  Southwestern’s problems stem from a situation similar to that in Arizona; a trustee board hand-picked by the seminary president over a period of time, made up of individuals he could trust to let him run the school without much in the way of oversight.  He “earned the right” to call his own shots by doing something many Southern Baptists consider as an act that saved the convention from liberalism.  His “reward” was to be given the high paying, high prestige jobs of leading two of the denomination’s seminaries, Southeastern and Southwestern.

Southwestern was, under more moderate Baptist leadership, the largest theological seminary in the world.  More than 5,500 students attended classes on its campus on “Seminary Hill” on the south side of Ft. Worth.  When I was there, the convention and a number of private contributors combined to provide classroom education without tuition.  We paid a “matriculation fee,” and our housing if we lived on campus.  The only condition was an agreement to spend at least five years serving the convention through ministry service in one of its churches or institutions.

And even though in denominational political terms the SBC was led by “moderates” during Southwestern’s golden years, the seminary itself was unswervingly conservative in every aspect of its curriculum and instruction.  Many of its alumni were deeply involved in the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC and much of the content of the written works of many of its professors was used in support of the BFM 2000 when it was written.  The school’s thorough commitment to conservative, Biblical scholarship in a genuinely Baptist tradition is one of the reasons I consider the favor-granting, loyalty-demanding spoils system of the current denominational leadership abhorrent and counter to Christian principles of the integrity of a denominational operation.  Had it been left alone by the resurgence leadership, it would still be the SBC’s largest, most influential and most conservative theological seminary.

Since the turn of the 21st century, however, Southwestern has been attempting to weather a decline in enrollment, from over 5,000 students to under 2,000.  Money has been tight.  The school instituted a fee schedule with tuition charges by the credit hour, scholarship money declined and the school increased its indebtedness to build facilities not justified by enrollment drops.  The trustees themselves are now calling the school’s financial situation “bleak,” large numbers of employees have been let go or laid off and it doesn’t seem like very many people are in the loop to know what is going on.  It should be very disconcerting for Baptists when this sort of thing happens.  Is this the Baptist Foundation of Arizona scandal all over again?  Over the next few months, we shall see.

The time I spent at Southwestern was a time of personal inspiration and renewal of faith for me.  I had some of the best professors and classmates.  It was a revival in every way.  I hope that it experiences the same kind of renaissance that Grand Canyon University has experienced.  It will need a visionary leader who is committed to theological education and can see the bigger picture of where the students will be making an impact for Christ in the world,  not someone who is given the presidency of the seminary as a reward for service in a denominational preacher war.

 

 

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And Now for a Change of Pace…College Football: The Playoff and the Bowls

And who cares?

That’s from a long time fan of the game.  College football has been one of the purer forms of the sport in spite of recent commercialism that seems to be inevitable in popular American sports.  I can turn on the television and get involved in a game involving two teams from anywhere in the country if it’s competitive, whether it’s at a game at Slippery Rock University playing their rivals in front of 3,500 fans packed into their stadium or one at West Virginia University when 61,000 pack every inch of space to watch the Mountaineers take on Oklahoma.

But this  year’s bowl season isn’t as exciting as it has been in the past and it seems like the atmosphere after the regular season ends is getting worse, not better.  That’s because the elitist, exclusive “playoff system” that has developed out of the equally bad BCS has made almost every other game besides the two bowls that share the playoff and the championship meaningless.

Look at the evidence.  One bowl game this season, the “Serve Pro First Responder Bowl” which was initially known as the “Heart of Dallas Bowl” was cancelled due to severe weather.  Boise State trailed Boston College 7-0 when the storms moved in and stopped the game in the old Cotton Bowl stadium on the Texas State Fairgrounds where about 20,000 people were outnumbered by 70,000 empty seats.  Most of the others have trouble gathering a crowd since the students are home for the holidays and a win or loss doesn’t change the amount of the check that the athletic department gets.

There are Too Many Bowl Games

It has become difficult in recent years for enough teams to meet the bowl eligibility threshold of six wins during the regular season to fill in all of the tie-ins to conference that are guaranteed by the bowls.  Some of the games have been built around schools outside of the power 5 conferences to have an opportunity for post season play and that’s a good thing.  But in order to survive as a business, bowls need to dig deep into the power 5 conferences to fill slots, especially if one of the teams from the conference has been selected for the championship series.

The overblown, overrated SEC has negotiated a set of bowl tie-in slots that guarantee most of their schools get an opponent that they can beat, rather than an equally ranked team from another power 5 conference.  Some of the higher paying bowls, like the Citrus, or the Sugar when it isn’t involved in the championship series, have a little more clout to get two higher ranked teams, but for the most part, the SEC team is always the higher rated team in their bowl game.  The Big 10, ACC, and Pac-12 also do the same thing when it comes to great matchups like the Cheez-it Bowl, or the Red Box Bowl.

A 6-6 or even a 7-5 season isn’t good enough

The SEC is the only one of the power 5 conferences that doesn’t require its teams to play 9 conference games.  Even though they’re a two division conference, they play 8 conference games.  And you won’t catch Alabama scheduling any other power 5 teams for non-conference foes.  They’ll stick with football powerhouses like Arkansas State, the Citadel and Louisiana (Lafayette).  They did go with a game with American Conference foe Louisville this season, but that’s not much of a risk.  So even the bottom feeders like Ole Miss, South Carolina and Mississippi State can get into a bowl game by only winning a couple of conference games.  The latter two managed to do that this season, and both of them got beat.

That sort of thing cheapens the impact for a team like Northwestern, not one of the “haves” of college football by any means, which has quietly but firmly worked its way through its own conference to the championship game and who, along the way, scheduled a game with #3 Notre Dame in the middle of their conference season.  Northwestern was arguably better than anyone in either the SEC or the ACC except the conference champions but wound up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, not a bad consolation prize, but if we had a real playoff system, would have likely been one of the teams selected in a broader field based on their accomplishments on the field.

Dump the Playoff

A playoff with four teams chosen by the opinions of a group of elite, wealthy, semi-celebrities who have influence within the circles that are perpetuating the commercialism of college football is not the way to decide a “national championship.”  The process depends on a skewed, biased ranking system and the schedule and posture of some schools gives them an unfair advantage when it comes to the attention necessary to get picked.  While the committee insists it is picking the “best college football teams” at the time the selection is made, regardless of their record, it tends to ignore teams that lost early conference games.  By the time the first rankings came out, Alabama had played three of its four weak sister non-league opponents, one bottom feeder from each division of its own conference and one decent, ranked opponent which was the game that got all the attention.  Clemson is in what is arguably the weakest division of the weakest of the power 5 conferences and had played nobody by the time the rankings came out.

If it’s about who is playing the best football toward the end of the season, as the claim is made, then those teams were all ignored.  Clemson and Alabama ripped through weak non-conference schedules and Clemson plays in the weakest division of the weakest of the power 5 conferences.  Alabama plays in the SEC west, where only an inflated and over-rated LSU really turned out to be genuinely competitive.  On the other hand, the Pac 12 and Big 10 were so evenly matched, that their teams spend the season knocking each other off.  And both of those conferences had one more team ranked in the top 25 all season than the SEC and three more than the ACC.  The best bowl game of the season was a knock down, drag out, scratch to get back in it game played in front of 42,000 rain-soaked fans in San Diego between two teams, Northwestern and Utah, whose regular seasons did not characterize the quality or toughness of the two teams that played yesterday.

The solution to this is simple.  Let the teams play it out on the field.  If you want to use the existing bowl system, so that cities who host games can still get revenue, go ahead.  There are enough of those to make it work.  Drop the conference championship game and push the regular season back to 11 instead of 12.  Conferences with two divisions of at least six teams in a division get both division champions in the playoff (ACC, Pac-12, SEC, Big 10) and the Big 12 gets its champion in.  That’s nine teams.  Each of the other Division 1 conferences gets their champion in, the MWC, the CUSA, the American and the MAC.  That’s 13.  Three other teams are picked at large by their ranking, which would include the independents like Notre Dame and BYU.  One game a week for four weeks and you have a national champion who won on the field.

 

Ground Zero for the First of the Caravan: Tijuana.

You can set aside the social media memes and “reports” of flag burning, rebellious behavior and general anti-American attitudes among the first individuals in the now-famous “Caravan” travelling through Mexico to reach the United States.  None of that is happening.

There have been some reports of violence, inflated by media sources that are biased against immigration reform.  You have a group of people who have managed to travel over a thousand miles from home across a foreign country in search of a better life, or at the very least, a place where they don’t have to worry about their safety.  Hunger, exhaustion, malnutrition, among other obstacles they have encountered, might have created a sense of hopelessness and triggered some fights.  Most credible media sources say the biggest issue isn’t violence, it is hunger.

The fears of those who have been berating this group ever since their existence was first reported are unfounded.  Facts, when separated from whipped-up, hysterical fantasy, can do wonders for getting an accurate picture of just what is going on, and why.  The plan, if there is even that much organization going on here, is to come to the United States and ask for asylum.  Can you guarantee that in a group of Central Americans this size, there won’t be some who might think it is easier to sneak across the border than to go through the restrictive, pernicious immigration policy developed by the land of the free?  No, but it is clear that most of these people intend to ask to come across.

The United States has promoted itself as a haven from oppression for all of its existence as a nation.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that reputation, it is hard to scan the culture, read the stories, meet the people and study the history and not see that being a refuge from poverty, oppression, anarchy and persecution is one of our highest values.

But, while these people wait across the border to navigate an immigration system that makes appealing for asylum a tedious, aggravating, senselessly complicated process, they have humanitarian needs which need to be met.  So my question is, where are the American Christians lined up to cross the border and help meet those needs?

I’ve seen a lot of news stories praising the efforts of Christian denominations in responding to the hurricane and flooding disasters in Florida and the Southeastern US this past summer.  Southern Baptists are equipped with trailers in which thousands of meals a day can be prepared, shower trailers, laundry units and groups who can build temporary shelter in a heartbeat.  Other denominations have similar equipment and respond accordingly.  The more pressing issue isn’t taking some kind of a political stance on whether these people belong in the US or not, it is whether they can feed themselves and their children while they are waiting on the Mexican side of the border.

What kind of message would be sent if this caravan, as it slowly arrives at the various border crossing areas between Mexico and the United States, met with hundreds of Christian volunteers, bringing goods and food collected from thousands of Christians in the United States, stocking temporary shelters and serving to meet their daily physical needs?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”  Matthew 25:35

No qualifications or politics.  Just service.  It means looking at people as those whom God loves, and who need to have their needs met so they can hear the gospel of Jesus (though there are many Christians among those in the caravan) instead of looking at them as evil potential criminals.  Jesus transforms lives, so serving on the border would be a great way to show that American Christians believe that.

 

 

Is That What it Takes to Get a Senator to Listen?

Jeff Flake is now Arizona’s senior senator, following the death of John McCain.  His title will be short-lived, as Flake has already announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, mainly because he’s tired of the increasingly partisan, political maneuvering that has rendered the Republican-controlled Congress the most unpopular in American history.

Not that Flake hasn’t been partisan on most issues, but the Senator from my home state has, to his credit, been more of a free thinker than a staunch partisan.  He’s definitely conservative, as you would expect from his small-town, Mormon heritage and background.  He was born in Snowflake, Arizona, a community not named after snow, but after two Mormon pioneers, Lorenzo Snow and William Flake, the latter of whom is the Senator’s great-great grandfather.  But he’s also been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, disagreeing not so much with his policy, but with his lack of morals and ethics, his corrupt actions and his Machiavellian approach to just about everything.  Unlike conservative Evangelicals, Mormons have stuck to their convictions when it comes to the qualifications of moral character and behavior consistent with faith.  Flake decided to get out of the Senate rather than compromise his convictions for the sake of secular politics.

He was the one uncertain vote on the Senate judiciary committee when his fellow Republicans attempted to rush the process of recommending Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court nominee to the whole Senate.  Flake isn’t worried about re-election and so was able to make a decision based on his own perspective, and not the party line.  Of course, since the hearing, and the subsequent questioning of Kavanaugh and one of his accusers was rushed through, he announced that he would be supporting Kavanaugh.  That was until he was confronted in an elevator by a group of women who had enough, and decided to show up and speak up.

It is unfortunate that it took the combination of a passionate confrontation in an elevator by a woman who was herself a victim of sexual assault, and a Senator cut loose from any obligation to a partisan agenda to get to the point where his vote, the necessary one for Kavanaugh to move forward, could influence the committee to do what was right and what proper procedure called for, and get the FBI involved in an investigation.

The week’s delay doesn’t slow down the process enough to endanger Kavanaugh’s potential appointment, but it does allow time to gather evidence that will either put the matter to rest by supporting Kavanaugh’s claim, or confirm his involvement in what his accusers say he did.  Even at that, there will be some Republicans who have decided that it doesn’t matter, that “boys will be boys,” and will abandon the values and morals they held when they made similar accusations against Democrats just a couple of short decades back and decide that even if he did what he has been accused of doing, he’s still their guy for the Supreme Court.

If I were Kavanaugh, I’d be the leader in asking for an FBI investigation, especially if I were certain that I had not done anything of the sort of what I had been accused of doing.  I’d want a credible investigation to say that they could not find a scrap or shred of evidence that I’d ever been involved in anything that would give even the most rabid partisan any doubt about the consistency of my morals and integrity.  And I sure wouldn’t want to appear evasive, overly defensive, or opposed to a short delay and an investigation that would exonerate me.  But Kavanaugh’s reaction to the hearing and to the news that there will be an investigation and a delay isn’t one that generates hope for a finding that he is innocent.

For a state that has had more than its fair share of quirky political disasters, Arizona has produced two Senators that have set the bar high when it comes to integrity in politics, and to how someone elected to represent all the people should behave.  It is unfortunate that the country is losing the service of both of them in such a short period of time.  McCain’s replacement, John Kyl, is a hard core partisan Republican who didn’t leave behind the same kind of legacy.  Flake will be replaced by a woman, regardless of whether the Democrat or Republican wins the election, though the Democrat, current Congresswoman Kirsten Synema holds a large, double digit lead in the polls over her Republican opponent.  Synema will be a strong voice for women in the Senate.

That Flake’s integrity was pushed to the front by his decision not to run, and by being a lame duck is a great argument for term limits for Congress.  Three terms for a representative, one for a Senator.

Southern Baptists and the Social Justice Debate

I’ve spent all but the past eight years of my life worshipping, serving and being a member of a Southern Baptist church.  My undergraduate college work was done at a school affiliated with a Southern Baptist state convention, and I got a master’s degree from one of the convention’s six seminaries.  In spite of what amounts to 52 years of familiarity with the denomination, I’m still baffled by some of the things that become debates, and by the position taken by some who are involved in the debate.

In spite of an awful lot of attention paid to belief that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, it seems like positions taken by many pastors and leaders in the denomination are increasingly based on the authority of right wing politics, and involve either twisting scripture to justify the position, or ignoring it altogether.  “Social justice,” because it is both a term and a domain in which those that many Southern Baptists label as “liberal” or “leftist” spend a lot of time and energy, has been something that they’ve either abandoned or re-defined, rather than face with Biblical honesty.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

That’s certainly not all there is to social justice, but the principle is definitely there.  And there isn’t anything that falls into this category that falls outside of the application of this Biblical principle.

The problem is not with “social justice” itself, or with the issues that involve inequality of treatment, racism, and the whole scope of what gets rolled into this issue.  The problem is believing that human wisdom and reason alone are where the solutions to the issues can be found.  It can’t, any more than it is possible for human wisdom, steeped in political rhetoric, to judge the thoughts and intentions of other people’s actions.

But what I read on blogs and message boards, where Southern Baptists are able to express their opinions on issues, is not what I’d expect to see from people who claim belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible and hold a “Christian worldview.”  What I see are hints of racial bigotry and prejudice, and the undue influence of a secular, right wing political perspective.  And while the definition of “social justice” in American culture does involve things over which there is some room for debate and there is a difference between Christian principle and American idealism, the perspective being put forth by many Southern Baptists makes them appear to be racist, unsympathetic to suffering and perceived oppression and unduly influenced by secular politics.

The Bible instructs followers of Jesus to be “salt and light.”  Salt, when sprinkled on food, changes the taste because it is a compound containing two elements, sodium and chloride, which react with water and other chemicals to bring about a transformation.  Light simply prevents darkness from taking over.  The Christian perspective on social justice is not to judge whether a particular position is right or wrong, but it is to chase away the darkness so that a transformation can occur.  When a partisan political stance prevents an understanding of someone else’s perspective, or distorts the ability to see things clearly, it has a tendency to weaken Christian influence and nullify the testimony of an evangelistic witness.  The Christian response to perceived oppression and injustice, regardless of whether the cause seems right or wrong, is ministry.  Period.  Many Southern Baptists have lost this vision.  Maybe that’s why they are losing more members than those “liberal” Methodists these days.

There is a real opportunity for ministry here, but I think there are some perceptions which have been created by the too-close association between conservative Evangelicals, including some very visible Southern Baptists, and right wing politics that cut those opportunities off before they happen.  There is probably nothing more difficult than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, as the expression goes.  We don’t like the thought that our sense of what is right and wrong, which is a product of our own life experiences, are not absolutes, nor perfect solutions to anyone else’s problems.  And we really don’t like coming to grips with the fact that only God can judge the thoughts and intentions of anyone else’s heart, and he doesn’t clue us in on what’s going on in someone else’s life to the point where we can decide that their opinion is wrong, and their life experience was flawed.  Apply that to Colin Kaepernick, and see how that makes you feel.

The Christian position on anything shouldn’t be something that lines up with a political position or a philosophical view.  It should be how to approach people with a ministry heart that demonstrates the love of God to a world that doesn’t know or understand that way of thinking and living.  Most Christians are so convinced of their own righteousness and their own doctrinal purity that they can’t even get along with other Christians.  If you need evidence of that, I’ll just point to the debates going on among Southern Baptists over defining and doing social justice, and the dismissive nature of those who have their narrow minds made up.

Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Senator John McCain

The senior Senator from my home state of Arizona wasn’t actually born and raised in the state.  But then, neither were a significant number of the other six million people who live there.  But then, most of the people who have moved there over the years have done so because they love the place, and it has provided them an opportunity to start a new life.  So Senator McCain was the perfect person to represent the state in Congress.

Whether you agree with his political perspective or not, the fact that he served in the military, and endured a term as a prisoner of war is enough to command the respect of any American citizen.  He knew the risks he was taking when he signed up for military service, and his service helped pay the price for my freedom.  Thank you, Senator, for the sacrifice you made for this country.

Politics being what they are these days, Senator McCain was a statesman, and an honorable one.  He was a Republican because, in this day and age, identification with a partisan perspective is almost mandatory for getting elected, but he was also a “maverick,” and while his personal views did line up with the Republican party on many occasions, he was one of the few members of Congress who was willing to part ways with a partisan agenda when he thought a different view was best for those whom he represented.  He had integrity.  And he let it show.  I don’t think anything demonstrates that more than the night he gave a thumbs down to the repeal of the ACA.  He was the people’s representative, and a clear majority of the people in the state he represented were not in favor of its repeal.  So he voted as their representative.  He got berated and criticized for it, but that’s what integrity in politics looks like.

He has passed on, and so the time for stating disagreements with his position has also passed.  He can’t hear them, and they are no longer relevant.  He has earned the respect of people on both sides of the political aisle.  To say that he wasn’t a war hero because he was captured is as disgraceful an act as failing to lower the White House flag to half staff in his honor, and are despicable acts and words that reveal the true character of the one who used them.  They stand in contrast to the honor and character of Senator John McCain.

 

Late Night Thinking on Random Topics

Football has returned, the NFL pre-season is going strong, and the college season started.  There are a lot of things going on there.

There’s the high profile suspension of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer for not reporting an awareness of spouse abuse by one of his staff members.  I’m not sure what to think of that.  Is this an incident where a person’s value to the coaching staff meant more than what he was doing to his wife?  Was it an oversight?  Is this a case of a football coach who is clearly the highest paid, and most visible person on a university campus, and in a community and state where the sport is revered getting away with something that others wouldn’t get away with?  Or is it an awkward situation related to a personal matter that should be handled in another way?

I like Urban Meyer, and what he’s done at Ohio State.  But I really don’t like the fact that this appears to be more than just an oversight.  I can’t imagine how the wife of the assistant coach who was abusive felt, not only because of the abuse, but because she must have also felt like the whole world was against her, and that because her husband worked for a high profile, popular coach in a revered football program, he was going to get away with it.  Meyer did apologize, though it was after the fact, and got suspended for three games, which amounts to a slap on the wrist. How much responsibility Meyer had here is up to his supervisors to decide, but I don’t think this was handled with the kind of seriousness it should have been.  There are a lot of people to be considered, including the players who committed to come to the school, and the fans and alumni who support the program, but those are considerations that the guy who runs the program should have taken when this action first became known to him.  The life of a coach’s wife is far more valuable than the whole football program combined.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of what to do with NFL players who continue to take a knee during the national anthem as a means of protesting what they perceive as unfair treatment by law enforcement.  They have a right to their perception which is based on accurate statistical information.  The question is whether taking a knee is disrespectful to the veterans who fought for the country, and the anthem that represents it.  Those who are doing this as a protest say, rather vehemently, that it is not intended to be disrespectful, that it is a protest against injustice that would otherwise be ignored.

The injustice they are protesting is real, and can be backed up with statistical information.  As a Caucasian male of a mature age, I can’t claim any authority to know how those who face this kind of injustice feel, nor can I understand the background behind it.  I know the history of racial discrimination and prejudice in this country, and I know that in spite of our best efforts to overcome it, it’s still there.  The NFL players who are doing this have moved into a position of wealth and influence as a result of their talent and the venue in which they use it.  The constitution guarantees their right to free speech.  They’re the ones who get to decide the meaning and purpose of their actions, and accept the consequences of their choices.

Do the club owners have a right to regulate their behavior?  On the field, absolutely.  They are employees, being paid to do a job by an employer.  The employer has the right to be represented as he or she decides, and they also have the right to decide to be respectful of their employee’s rights.  There is a line in there somewhere.  But free speech is as much of a constitutional guarantee as the right to bear arms and religious liberty, which many of their critics claim.  And those veterans, who are invoked as being victims of an act of disrespect of the flag and the anthem, fought for the right to protest.  The players taking the knee have made it clear that their actions are not intended to be disrespectful to anyone.  Maybe the focus does need to be directed toward their obviously deep feelings and convictions.

Here’s a video that might change your mind about the whole thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2018/aug/22/beto-orourke-nfl-protests-texas-video

The NFL is not suffering, as some have claimed, and no professional sport in this country ever will.  Player salaries will set an all time record in the 2018-19 season, television revenue and viewership during the pre-season is up over the previous year, and winning or losing had a much greater effect on NFL franchises last season than this did.  No winning team will ever have trouble filling its stadium, and the Super Bowl will remain the top sporting event annually.  Whether you agree or disagree with their actions, the fact of the matter is that the atmosphere that surrounds professional sports in the United States gives the players the upper hand on this issue, and that’s just the way it is.  No “boycott” will bring about a change, and no owner action will be more than just a scolding.  The morality of idolizing sports figures is a whole other discussion, but it is clear that on this issue the players hold the power.

The injustice they are protesting is also another discussion, one that requires honesty, and cannot take place in the emotional turmoil that currently exists surrounding it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Aretha Franklin

I discovered Aretha Franklin listening to the radio I got for my 12th birthday.  That was a time when the best music was on the AM side of the dial, and my radio got switched back and forth between the two pop rock stations from Tucson, Arizona that we could pick up in my hometown, at least during the day, KTKT and KIKX.  Of course, you switched back and forth to listen for your favorites, and those stations mainly played just the top 40 current hits, so you could hear your favorites several times a day on each one.

That was also back in the day when you collected records of your favorite songs.  The local drug store sold 45’s for 99 cents and I had a pretty good collection of Aretha Franklin’s songs.  The flip sides were pretty good, too.  She had a remarkable voice, and the combination of that with the songs she sang was just something special.  Listening to her now brings back memories from that time of life.

She had a rough life.  Her music reflected that in many ways, though it was “g” rated compared to much of the music of the day, and especially compared to much pop music now.  It was approved to be played at our school dances, and in those days, not all songs passed that standard.  She was a genuine celebrity who used her celebrity status, and gave a good portion of what she earned to make life better for people.  If you knew anything about her, you thought about that when you listened to her music.

She will not be replaced.

Grieving…

So what do you do when someone who knows better decides they’re going to go ahead and do something to make themselves look more important, or better, in someone else’s eyes?  When they decide they are going to open their mouth, and say something that really has no purpose other than to put someone else down?

One of the strictest rules in the house in which I grew up was that you always told the truth, and there were times when even the truth didn’t need to be told by you because it wasn’t any of your business, it was someone else’s.  Both of my parents had some pithy, Southern colloquialisms, or more specifically, West Virginia hillbilly colloquialisms, to make their point.  “None of your business” was put in pretty succinct language, one of their favorites being, “So when did you become God?”  I got the point.

So why is it that some of the most damaging gossip, and some of the most vicious treatment of another human being that I’ve seen in my lifetime has come from people claiming to be Christians, and has taken place not only among Christians, but in some of the places within the context of the Christian community where there’s an expectation of the existence of a more mature faith?  The grief?  That’s come because what I’ve seen and heard came from someone who made an effort to build a trusting relationship with the person that they ultimately betrayed with their gossip.

What really hurts, in this case, is that the victim is someone I really care about.  And the gossip that was hurled to intentionally do harm and damage took place following the worship service in a church.  

Some people have simply said that the best resolution to this is to simply move on, and let those who said the damaging words face accountability to God for their words.  The Bible says that the kind of person who would engage in such conversation is not exhibiting any characteristic of Christlikeness, and they are “empty tombs”.  I’m not in a position to judge, but I have a hard time understanding how a person whose life has been transformed by Christ can so quickly and easily return to the flesh.  There’s a selfish motive there that we can’t see, I’m sure.  And selfishness is the ultimate evidence of a heart full of sin.  It’s not hard for Christians to fall in this particular regard.  But how can you build a relationship with someone, trust them with helping you to provide an education to your children, invite them to your house to spend holidays, and then so easily believe something that someone else told you without question, and withour any real reason or evidence and then condemn that person by telling someone else what you think they did.

Yep, pretty specific.  It is a real situation.  And it’s personal.

Forgive them.  Seventy times seven.  I hear those words.  Faintly, reluctantly, wanting to find a way not to have to hear them, or act on them.  Looking for an exception, but realizing that the only way to put this in God’s hands is to be obedient to them.

 

 

Declining Membership in the “Nation’s Largest Non-Catholic Denomination”

Or the Nation’s largest Protestant denomination if your view of the reformation includes influences that led to the beginnings of the Baptist family of denominations.

Southern Baptists are intoxicated…with numbers.  The pause there works better when that statement is made verbally, rather than in writing.  It’s probably not as prevalent now as it was when I was growing up, and every church had the same register board up front with Sunday school enrollment, attendance, offering this week, last week, and worship attendance.  The Sunday school enrollment figure in the church where I grew up was always somewhere around 140.  It would fluctuate a bit, usually going up at the beginning of the new church year in October, and would drift back down by the end of the year.  It was located in a community where a lot of people came in to spend the winter months, so while summer attendance averaged around 50, from January to April it was not unusual to have a month with an average attendance of 70.  Church membership was always around 225 and the worship service would average about 80 in attendance.

As a kid, I always wondered who the other members were, if they didn’t come every Sunday.  If the whole membership ever showed up, we’d have to set up extra chairs in the auditorium, since it could only seat about 150.  And every week, the “outreach” director of our Sunday school class would report that he’d called the members of the class who had a card on the roll, but always got marked absent.  On occasion, someone would respond, but not often.

But through all of those growing up years, and through the time I spent at an SBC state convention related college, and an SBC seminary, the SBC was always touted as the “Nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” and the membership growth was always pointed to as a sign of the theological correctness and the “health” of the denomination, compared to those “liberals,” who were declining.  Of course, the Catholic church was booming, explained away by “immigration,” and in the community where I grew up, the two Mormon wards were, by far, the largest churches in town, and were also growing fairly rapidly.

But time has passed, and there’s been a lot of change.

Membership growth peaked in the SBC in the mid-1970’s.  The increases each year following that are numerically smaller than the previous year, and the percentage increase also drops each year.  It is interesting to note that while the “Conservative Resurgence” came along in 1979, with an aim of turning the denomination back to its conservative “roots”, and to avoid declining membership that mainline churches were experiencing because of their “liberalism,” and abandonment of evangelism, the percentage of membership increase in the SBC continued to decline, the decline in baptisms began to steepen, and the numerical increase in membership grew smaller every year following 1979.  During the 90’s, the “growth” was actually statistically insignificant.  But over the past decade, the number is no longer a membership increase each year, it is a decrease, and it is getting larger each year.  The number of members is now more than a million less than it was a decade ago, and there have been years when more than 200,000 members have been subtracted from the membership.  That this is not just some reporting or statistical anomaly is evidence in the fact that attendance has gone down by a similar percentage, and other statistical categories, including church income factored for inflation, are declining by similar percentages.

So what’s going on?

Generational Decline

The Baby Boomer generation is still the largest among the current American population. With half of this group now past 60, and Baby Boomers making up approximately 50% of the current church membership in conservative Evangelical churches, including Southern Baptists, we are seeing a statistical “aging” of churches (the median among Evangelicals, according to church researchers, is past 65) and the number of member deaths exceeds the number of new converts baptized.  The Southern Baptist Convention is seeing its churches baptize approximately 250,000 new converts each year, though 80% of that number are the children of church members, and are, for the most part, already included in attendance figures.  The only estimate I could find on the number of member deaths was somewhere just south of 300,000.

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have been losing their young people since the 80’s.  I remember Lifeway sounding the alarm bells when a study came out that showed 70% of the youth who were raised in church and active in their youth group during high school were leaving the church during or after college.  That was a staggering figure then, representing mostly the beginning of Generation X.  But as time has passed, awareness of the situation has brought about a whole series of changes in church programming and ministry that has failed to stop that departure.  In fact, among the latter half of Generation X, and into the Millennial Generation, the figure has increased to 85% leaving.  Unlike their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, many of whom returned to church in adulthood, these kids aren’t coming back.

The influence of the humanism that now dominates the public education system is one of the main reasons for this exodus.  Students who attended Christian schools in either grade school, high school, or college seem to be far less inclined to leave than their counterparts who did not have that instructional opportunity added to their experience.  Those are not guarantees of fidelity to church membership, but the percentages are much higher.  And it is in these younger generations where the church membership is missing, and where the membership decline is being felt.

Evangelism, Outreach and Ministry

Since people seem to be attracted to megachurches, that might not be a place where you’d look to explain declining membership.  But while many megachurches appear to be growing in number (though the decline among Evangelicals has hit even some of the largest and most venerable churches) they are growing by attracting members out of smaller congregations which is where the ground work of evangelism is being done.  The SBC is a good example of this.

Megachurches grow by attracting members from smaller congregations.  Other than children, most of these folks are already baptized.  But as smaller churches empty out, disband, and close, the groundwork of evangelism ceases.  People that might be reached by a smaller congregation are overlooked or ignored by larger ones.  The personal touch is gone.  From a generational perspective, Baby Boomers are the ones attracted to these large, impersonal congregations because they are interested in the theatrical style worship and the celebrity pastor.  Younger people aren’t brought in by those things.  Millennials in particular appear to be much more attracted to non-traditional congregations that are small and personal, and where their own expression of faith can be seen, discussed, helped and encouraged.

Politics

The overwhelming support of Evangelicals for Trump has become a leading cause of the drop in church membership and attendance among Evangelicals.  Accelerating declines in attendance have steepened since 2016.  Oh, yeah, I know that for many evangelicals, abortion is still the bottom line, and for those who are white, fear of immigration and refugees, and fear that the rest of the world is after their money is pushed along by the conservative media sources they watch.  But when you narrow your issues down, you get lip service to grab your vote, and you wind up electing terrible leadership.  And a lot of Evangelicals are deeper thinkers than they are given credit for, and they see that support for an immoral playboy like Trump, who hasn’t held back on either his unrighteousness in the form of lying, or his crude attitudes and words.  Churches where leaders have been particularly active in right wing politics are seeing members drain out like water through a sieve.  And it is no coincidence that the declines in Evangelical church membership among whites parallels the 2016 election.  People are leaving because churches are too political.

I have to say that I’d walk out the door of any church where a pastor brought any political content into the service.