Category Archives: Features

After evangelical virgin guys marry, then what?

After Evangelical Virgin Guys Marry, Then What?

By Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) For decades, evangelical leaders have touted “virginity pledges” as a way for teens and young adults to “save themselves for marriage.”

But what happens after the wedding day?

According to a researcher at the University of Washington, young adult men who took the pledge and had male friends who held them accountable before marriage find themselves suddenly adrift and unable to talk to trusted friends — and sometimes even their new wives — about sex.

“Because these men understand sex as a gift for the marriage bed, it is unthinkable to discuss sexual activity anywhere outside of their married relationships,” wrote Sarah Diefendorf in apaper presented at the American Sociological Association’s convention this week in San Francisco.

“Positive conversations around sex do not occur — and these men assume that conversations regarding sexual practices would only occur in what they think of as promiscuous, risque scenarios (such as a swinger party).”

Diefendorf, a doctoral student in sociology, interviewed 15 young evangelical Christian men in a Southwestern megachurch in 2008, then followed up with them in 2011 — when all but one had married.

The men had a clear demarcation in their views about sex before and after marriage, she wrote: “While sex within marriage is sacred, sex before marriage is a beast that must be controlled.”

But Diefendorf found that what were considered “beastly” temptations — pornography, sex outside of marriage — did not disappear after the wedding ceremony.

“It’s a myth that I think is kind of perpetuated by the lack of communication, is that once you get married, suddenly all those desires are fulfilled in your spouse,” said “Aidan,” the fictitious name she used to protect the confidentiality of one of her interviewees. “It’s not true. Guys are so visually driven. The desire for porn, especially if you struggled with that in the past, is still there. It doesn’t go away once the ring slips on!”

Diefendorf found that the men were uncomfortable speaking with each other about the intimate details of their married lives, in part because they were now talking about their wives as well as themselves.

“These men, who four years prior, had engaged in a very open discourse about sex and sexuality, now find it both highly inappropriate and awkward to engage in these conversations,” she said.

Marty King, spokesman for LifeWay Christian Resources, said an estimated 3 million students in thousands of churches worldwide have made the True Love Waits pledge, in one of the most popular campaigns for sexual purity. In 1994, more than 200,000 pledge cards were displayed on the National Mall.

Recently, South Carolina evangelist Clayton King has co-authored with his wife, Sharie, a relaunch called “True Love Project,” which focuses on helping students “understand their sexuality in light of the gospel,” including questions such as “What if you’re not a virgin?”

Clayton King said he is not surprised by Diefendorf’s findings.

“I think there’s been a big emphasis on accountability prior to marriage and then an assumption that once you get married you’re just going to figure it out, it’s going to be easy and all sexual temptation will go away,” he said. “And that has not been the case for most of the men that I know.”

The evangelist said the new “True Love Project” book addresses post-marriage sexuality as well as premarital abstinence.

Although it can mean sweaty palms and feeling sick to your stomach, Clayton King said men need to be given permission to talk to their wives first, then trusted mentors and, if necessary, professionals about their questions about marital sex.

“That’s the hurdle that married people have to overcome early in their marriage — having difficult, awkward, tense conversations,” he said. “If you skip over your spouse and just start talking to other people about the marriage, then you are literally cutting out half the marriage and you’ll never be healthy that way. You’ll never reach relational health by only talking to outsiders.”

Diefendorf said the removal of the premarital support group from the men’s lives after they married caused them to “now struggle in isolation with how to best manage their desires.”

As “Aidan” put it: “I would stand up and cheer figuratively if our pastor got up there and said, ‘Hey, I am going to spend the next month talking about sex.’”

At Liberty University, big goals — and big money — for football and other sports

At Liberty University, Big Goals , Money For Sports

By Dan Wolken

LYNCHBURG, Va. (RNS) In December 2011, Turner Gill sat in the plush presidential suite atop Liberty University’s football stadium, on the verge of accepting the school’s head coaching job.

But as he peered out from a brand-new five-story tower onto the program’s practice complex just beyond the north end zone, Gill, the former Buffalo and Kansas coach, had another question for school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.

“Would it be possible to add one more practice field?” Gill asked.

“Sure,” Falwell replied. “We can make that happen.”

At Liberty University, big goals — and big money — for football and other sports

Liberty University football stadium during the 2007 convocation.

In the current climate of NCAA uncertainty, where smaller Division I athletic departments are more concerned about their future viability than getting into the facilities arms race, granting such a request with a snap of the fingers is practically unheard of.

But at Liberty, a private evangelical school suddenly flush with cash and immense athletic ambitions, there is almost no amount of dirt officials won’t move or concrete they won’t pour these days to help break into the big time.

In the middle of a $500 million makeover of this campus, which sprouted up from the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills in 1971 under the name Lynchburg Baptist College and endured nearly 40 years of financial hardships and political controversies attached to its late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., is a sparkling set of new athletic facilities that touch nearly all of Liberty’s 20 varsity sports.

Its baseball stadium, which opened last year, has player and fan amenities that would put most of the neighboring SEC and ACC schools to shame. Its half-finished softball complex promises to be just as spectacular. In the past five years, new practice or playing facilities have gone up for soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, golf, track, basketball, volleyball and tennis.

And its football stadium, which reached capacity of 19,200 after a renovation in 2010, has a set of blueprints at the ready to add 6,000 seats in the near term and more than 40,000 over time.

“Everything here,” athletics director Jeff Barber said, “is built to expand.”

But Liberty’s very public desire to move up from the 63-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision has yet to generate mutual interest.

Buoyed by rumblings earlier this year that the Sun Belt Conference would consider adding a 12th football member, Barber and Falwell Jr. made lobbying trips to seven schools and explained why they were ready to make the transition.

But at the league’s spring meetings, the Sun Belt voted against adding another school until at least 2015. According to a person with direct knowledge of the Sun Belt’s expansion plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the dialogue was supposed to be private, there wasn’t much support for inviting Liberty this time around.

“They have a lot of resources, but does anybody even know they’re Division I?” the person said. “If we’re going to add a 12th, we want someone people are going to recognize and raise the profile of the conference. I just don’t think Liberty adds anything to our profile.”

That decision has, at least for the moment, left Liberty in a difficult position. In an era when administrators in FBS leagues like the Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA are worried about how they’ll afford a wave of new player benefits brought on by autonomy for the NCAA’s power conferences, here’s a school saying it can commit whatever resources necessary to play at the highest level.

But with no immediate prospects of getting into one of the 10 FBS conferences, Liberty must wait, continue to build and hope its investment into college athletics will eventually pay off.

“We can be patient,” Barber said. “I think there’s still going to be more settling, more landscape change if you will. We just hope any of these conferences, when they decide they want to expand, that they’ll give us a look.”


The elder Falwell, who was both famous and polarizing as a conservative political figure and televangelist, long envisioned the university he founded as a potential religious/athletic power in the same vein as Notre Dame and Brigham Young.

But until his death, Liberty had neither the resources nor the academic reputation to even be a candidate for a major athletic conference.

What changed? In 2007, the school collected on Falwell’s $29 million life insurance policy, clearing its entire debt. Then, thanks to an external degree program developed and accredited in the 1980s — “course work mailed in boxes with videotapes of lectures,” Falwell Jr., said — the school was well positioned to take advantage of the explosion in online education.

Liberty now has roughly 12,000 students on its physical campus and 95,000 online, putting the school in a good enough financial position to rebuild almost everything, including a new high-tech library, music school, health sciences building, a school for osteopathic medicine, student recreation space and 252-foot tower attached to a student center. It even has a year-round, artificial “Snowflex” ski slope atop a nearby hill, the only one of its kind in the United States.

But Falwell Jr. acknowledges the university is still battling an image problem attached to its early days and some of the political backlash that surrounded his father, particularly within the academic community given that school presidents ultimately decide who gets invited to their conferences.

“The perception is that we’re primarily a small Bible school, and the reality is we’re a liberal arts university with engineering, medicine and nursing,” he said. “A lot of people think religion is our No. 1 major, and in reality it’s ninth.

“One of the (Sun Belt) presidents made the comment, he said, ‘Yeah, Jerry, all you have to do is show people Liberty’s not Oral Roberts; it’s Baylor.’ We’ve moved toward that goal much faster than anybody thought.”

Not that Liberty is running away from its religious roots. Students are still required to go to convocation three times a week, curfew is enforced at midnight, alcohol isn’t allowed on campus and there are no coed dorms.

It’s also true that Gill, who kept a Bible on his desk when he was coaching at Kansas and Buffalo, was hired in part because his religious beliefs align with what the school espouses.

According to the person with direct knowledge of the Sun Belt’s thinking, the school’s religious mission “never came up” in discussions among athletic directors and presidents, nor did controversies surrounding the elder Falwell.

Especially in these times, where some FBS schools may be weeded out on finances alone, Liberty’s future is likely to be evaluated strictly on its athletic merits.

“I tell people Liberty is better than what they think it is and different than what they think it is,” said Barber, who spent 10 years as an associate athletics director at South Carolina. “We have a lot to offer a conference.”

Bill Carr, a prominent college sports consultant who did Liberty’s FBS feasibility study, said it is already more prepared than the other schools who recently made the jump.

And Liberty isn’t going to stop spending until it does happen. Because for all the work Falwell Jr. has done remaking the campus and the school’s academic image, he knows nothing would be a game-changer quite like the opportunity to play a Baylor or BYU on ESPN.

“My father used to say there were two universal languages all young people understood — music and athletics — and to build a world-class university those two components have to be a major part of it,” Falwell Jr. said. “Athletics isn’t our mission, but it has the potential to shine a light on our mission like nothing else ever can.”

(Dan Wolken writes for USA Today.)

No longer behind the curve: Black churches address mental illness

Black Churches Address Mental Illness

By Adelle Banks

(RNS) The death of beloved comedian Robin Williams has heightened awareness of suicide and its relationship to mental health problems. But many African-American churches quietly began educating members on the issue well before the Oscar winner’s death.

“A lot of times in the past, African-Americans have viewed severe depression and other mental illnesses as indicating a spiritual weakness,” said Tamara Warren Chinyani, an instructor with the “Mental Health First Aid” program. “We’re changing that paradigm around.”

No longer behind the curve: Black churches address mental illness

Tamara Warren led a session at an African-American church in D.C. on Aug. 2, 2014 about signs and symptoms of mental illness. Photo courtesy of Tamara Warren

The National Council for Behavioral Health introduced the program in the U.S. in 2008, with the goal of helping people learn how to spot signs and symptoms of mental illness. The program began its focus on African-American churches this year.

African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to report instances of serious psychological stress, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. And while more white teens commit suicide than their black counterparts, more African-American teens (8.3 percent) attempted suicide than their white peers (6.2 percent).

Some of the people leading the effort to build awareness about mental illness have seen its most tragic consequences up close.

Bishop William Young and his wife, Pastor Dianne Young, co-founded the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference about a decade ago after a member of their Memphis, Tenn., congregation shot and killed herself under a large cross on the church grounds. Fifty attended the first biennial meeting and about 500 attended the 2013 gathering, he said.

“We’ve been silent on issues that have been right before us all the time,” said William Young. “Because of our mainly not having knowledge of these different types of issues we have avoided it.”

In addition to the conference, the couple started “Emotional Fitness Centers” at 10 churches in Tennessee, in hopes they will increase access to services and reduce the stigma associated with therapeutic care.

“People will come to the church when they won’t go to a mental health center,” said the bishop, who attended a July launch of a broader new initiative called the Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership.

Dianne Young, the centers’ director, said 722 people were screened during the most recent fiscal year and 300 followed through with the plans they were given, some of which included hospitalization.

In Texas, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health will begin an $850,000 grant program in October that will help 10 African-American churches educate congregants about mental health for the next three years.

Program Officer Vicky Coffee-Fletcher said the foundation received an “overwhelming response” to the grant announcement.

“To an increasing degree, African-American faith-based leaders are no longer content with being behind the curve on mental health issues,” she said. “Pastors are excited about the chance to spread awareness about mental health in a way that capitalizes on their strengths as standard bearers in the community.”

Experts say many African-Americans have long been hesitant to pursue medical and mental assistance because of fears they may be discriminated against and because of recollections ofnotorious experiments on unsuspecting black men in the mid-1900s.

But the Rev. Frankey Grayton of Edgewood Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which hosted Warren Chinyani’s recent training session, said it’s time for congregants and clergy to acknowledge their need to learn more and, when necessary, seek help.

“Quite frankly, we felt unprepared,” said Grayton, who learned of the training from another pastor who had participated. “But I don’t think that we as a community can ignore it.”

Now, his congregation is developing an action plan, which will range from offering in-house counseling to the bereaved, divorced and unemployed to determining when they need to call 911 or otherwise seek professional help.

Before she started working directly with congregations, Warren Chinyani trained about 100 clergy and lay people in two sessions last year sponsored by the Maryland affiliate of Volunteers of America.

The consultant, who used to attend a church in Michigan where a fellow member committed suicide about a decade ago, said she hopes more African-American congregations will step up to a greater role on mental illness, just as many have recently on HIV/AIDS where they’ve started clinics, health fairs and counseling.

As she shows videos of people who have recovered and supervises role-playing exercises to foster openness about mental health, she hopes the training will become as common as CPR.

“We want just as many people who are certified in CPR to become knowledgeable and equipped with the tools and skills necessary to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” she said.

The Truth About Racism

Racism: The Cause, The Cancer, And How Christians Can Get Beyond It

When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the United States, some people saw him as the herald of a new era—The Era of Post Racialism. They saw his election as a sign that racism was finally abating in the United States and perhaps around the Western world.

But in the wake of racially charged attacks on Obama and racially tinged occurrences like the Michael Brown shooting, one has to acknowledge that that “racism is going away soon” thing was just a flight of fancy.

Racism is real, and will probably be with us for a while. To get past it, we have to understand it.

That’s why Dr. Philip Asante wrote “The Truth About Racism.”The Truth About Racism

In his new book, Asante, who has a doctorate in biblical studies, provides a thoroughly researched and carefully examined account that lays out the origins of racism from a biblical perspective.

The book is broken down into chapters which explore the origins, how the Bible was misused to justify racism and the lingering effects of racism.

He  goes into detail about the various church-sanctioned racist institutions such as slavery, segregation, colonialism and Apartheid. Asante also talks about how having an authentically Christian worldview can bring people past racism, and to the point where they realize that people are people.

Here’s what Dr. Asante had to say about his book, racism and Christianity:

Q. What is racism?
A. Racism is a relatively modern phenomenon. Firstly it assumes that different races exist, which is not true and so it is a social construct which creates division and is used as a way of domination and power. Racism can be defined a number of ways, but essentially the most common form of racism, academically referred to as “white racism,” is any attitude, action or institution which subordinates a person or group because of their color.

It is the belief that each “race” (which is a misnomer, as there is actually only one race on this planet, that is Human beings) or ethnic group, possesses characteristics or abilities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another and causes discrimination and/or antagonism based on such beliefs. Racism leads to discrimination and prejudice and is accompanied by a belief of superiority and power.

Q.Does “reverse” racism exist?
A. Research shows that racism is predominantly a white vs black issue, whereby a white person behaves in a racist way towards a black person. History demonstrates this to be true e.g. Transatlantic slavery (The African Holocaust), Segregation, Colonialism and Apartheid. I have found that reverse racism, i.e. black people being racist towards white people, to be very uncommon in practice. It may sometimes manifest itself as retaliation or revenge as result of the initial white racism and is therefore often academically termed “Black anger” rather than racism.

Q. If race doesn’t exist on a biological level, why do you think so many people think that it does even in the age of the Internet?
A. The ideology of race is a social construct and is in itself racist. It has been scientifically proven that there is only one race, i.e. human beings. Humans should more correctly be referred to in terms of ethnic groups or nations. Scientists have shown that the differences between different ethnic groups is smaller than the differences within specific ethnic groups.

In other words differences between all human beings is minimal irrespective of ethnic group or nationality. Unfortunately, however, we are all educated and indoctrinated into believing that there are different races. Even the church uses the term race to describe different nationalities. Racism is inherently associated with inferiority and superiority and so the use of the term race immediately creates the dilemma and therefore division. The Bible does not differentiate people based on race or skin color, only based on nations and beliefs.

Dr. Philip Gyang Asante has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Pharmacy. Deeply passionate about ending racism, he believes that the Church, the body of Christ, has an obligation to speak up against what he calls “one of the most divisive issues on the planet.”

Dr. Philip Gyang Asante has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Pharmacy. Deeply passionate about ending racism, he believes that the Church, the body of Christ, has an obligation to speak up against what he calls “one of the most divisive issues on the planet.”

Q.What should Christians think about racism?
A.As a Christian, I believe that racism is evil and sinful. God created man in His own image and therefore it is an insult and offense to God for certain people to believe that they are better and for them to behave in a superior way to others. Also as the “Christian Church” has been implicated in various racist institutions, I have made it crystal clear in my book what a true Christian is and what they believe by referencing scripture. The church is the body of Christ on this earth and so there is no place for racism amongst Christians. Any form of racism is wrong and sinful.

Q. Why do you think people are hostile when it comes to talking about racism? Is the blame game helpful in discussions on the subject?

A.The issue of racism is an uncomfortable subject and can generate hostility for a plethora of reasons. It is a classic Victim-Perpetrator relationship. The victims feel a sense of anguish, injustice, upset, inferiority, shame, frustration and may either wish to forget and move on, or highlight and fight against it. The perpetrators believe themselves to be superior and therefore does not see any issue and so may continue with the same behavior and attitude. In addition there are those people who have never experienced racism and therefore do not understand the issue and so cannot empathize and often refuse to sympathize.

They often believe it is a fuss about nothing and those who stand against it are trouble makers or have chips on their shoulders. Some people feel guilty about either being racist or the historical racism in the records and so would rather ignore the issue or confine it to the annuls of history. They suggest that racism no longer exists and is historical and so should be forgotten and we should move on. Racism however is still alive and well and in my opinion is on the rise since the economic austerity and the appointment of President Obama. The blame game in terms of argument is not helpful, however, the issue must be debated and understood from both sides and an acknowledgment that racism exists and has existed in many forms must be recognized. The injustice done to black people in the past and which continues must be acknowledged as evil and sinful. Only when the issue is taken seriously and debated can any form of reconciliation take place and solutions be put in place

Q. Does your book just deal with racism in the West? Why was it so important for you to get this message out?
A. My book deals primarily with racism based on skin color, which is apparent worldwide. It focuses on the issues experienced by Africans, African Americans and those who are Afro-Caribbean. I co-published my book as I found it difficult to get a traditional publisher to take on such an emotive subject. The message is extremely important. We constantly read, hear about or see unjust treatment and situations experienced by people of color. Many young black people continue to be racially profiled and harassed by police and society.

Numerous cases and stories highlight the plight of African Americans. We see police and civilians killing black youth with impunity (e.g. Trayvon Martin), higher incarceration, de facto segregation, poor health and low social standing amongst many as part of the racist legacy. If the issue is highlighted then the evil racists get exposed (e.g. Donald Sterling) and people are forced to acknowledge the issue is real (or at least they can’t deny it) and positive action can be taken to fight against racism.

Q. You say that racism has roots in Darwin’s ideas, but didn’t the idea of “races” exist before Darwin (1800’s) and social Darwinism?
A. The idea of race did indeed exist before Darwin, however when Darwin published his evolutionary theories (‘On the Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man’), the classification of humans into different groups called races, generated a wider interest in the theory of evolution (Note: Evolution is a scientifically unproven theory, a belief, a faith, yet it is commonly taught as a proven fact and many therefore believe and assume that it is a fact and not a theory), plus whites were classified as being more evolved and therefore superior to other “races.” Darwin’s theories exacerbated the situation because many nefarious racist individuals now believed that they had “proof” that white people were superior to blacks and so were able to justify their racist views and the subjugation of black people.

Q. Do you think the Christian church is divided along racial lines? Is so, why? What will it take for racism to be a thing of the past?
A. The true Christian church tends to be more multicultural and welcoming now, however, many people claim to be Christians simply because they are white-skinned, European or American. Those who have this belief can often be narrow-minded and racist. The Southern Baptist church only denounced its racist past and involvement in slavery and segregation in the 1990s. The Dutch reformed Church created Apartheid and believed that God had intended for Blacks and Whites to be separate. This evil church led institution was only dismantled in 1994.

As a result of these institutions and their views the church is still divided. After the end of slavery and segregation blacks were not welcomed into white churches and so they set up their own places of worship. After World War II, Afro-Caribbeans were invited to Britain to help rebuild the country but were not welcome into the white churches to worship and so they had to set up their own churches. Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourselves” and yet this was not being put into practice and we still the legacy today. We also see various white supremacist groups such as the KKK and the Christian Identity movement who claim to be Christians but are evidently far from it as they do not follow or adhere to the teachings of Christ. Instead they make up there own rules for their own gain.

The Church is still divided because of man’s sinful nature and disobedience to God. Unfortunately racism will never be a thing of the past because of man’s fallen sinful nature, just as there will always be disagreements between people and wars etc, there will always be racism. However it is not to be ignored, we must continue to take a stand against racism and do all we can to reduce it and expose it as ungodly and evil.

Michael Brown, 18, was killed in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis on Saturday, Aug. 9.

After The Ferguson Protests, Church Volunteers Pick Up The Pieces

By Lily Fowler

FERGUSON, Mo. (RNS) On the fourth morning after Michael Brown’s death, residents from different parts of the region came together to pick up the pieces.

Some were young, some old. The majority arrived as part of the faithful. Others trickled in after spotting volunteers marching up and down West Florissant under the hot sun. Carrying brooms and large garbage bags, they collected whatever they could find: rubber bullets, broken glass, liquor bottles, tear gas grenades.

“I needed to come out today just to get some stability,” said Gary Park, 34, an auto mechanic who lives near the area in Ferguson where Brown was shot and protests erupted. Close by is the looted and burned QuikTrip that sits as a symbol of the severity of the unrest that resulted from an unnamed cop fatally shooting an unarmed 18-year-old.

“I wanted some encouragement,” Park said.

Michael Brown, 18, was killed in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis on Saturday, Aug. 9.

Michael Brown, 18, was killed in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis on Saturday, Aug. 9.

Park is a member of Passage Community Church in Florissant, which together with a few other local congregations, organized the Wednesday morning cleanup. Pastor Joe Costephens said that although the trash-collecting effort was a last-minute plan, more than 100 people joined the endeavor.

It was a simple act but not an insignificant one, especially since authorities reported two shootings only the night before. In fact, the continued violence has put future volunteer efforts on hold, Costephens said.

Elise Park, 31, a stay-at-home mom, arrived with her two young children who were excited by the novelty of using garbage pickers.

“I was very encouraged coming out here today, seeing all the groups helping,” Park said. “It’s an opportunity for me to invest and really become part of the community.”

Others, including a group of 20 somethings, came out to help on their own.

Larry Fellows, 28, of Ferguson, said that since the shooting he’s been doing what he can to spread a little cheer. Together with a group of friends, Fellows walks the neighborhood’s roads, handing out free water, snacks and cleaning supplies.

Fellows, who works for a health care company, said recent demonstrations aren’t just about the Michael Brown shooting.

“This has been building up for years,” he said.

He said he’s even offered supplies to police, but authorities rebuffed his offers.

Fellows believes that attitude is part of the reason the community remains angry.

“We’re the enemy.”

In an attempt to inspire compassion, another volunteer, Derrick Spencer of St. Louis, said he planned to return a sign to his truck’s windshield that recites a line from the New Testament: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

“We can’t take justice into our own hands,” Spencer said. Those who loot businesses are doing so at the expense of Michael Brown, he said.

After working for two hours, nearly 20 people gathered in the parking lot of First Baptist Church in Ferguson and held hands in prayer. They prayed for the family of Michael Brown and for businesses in the area that have been damaged by the riots.

Michael Williams of St. Louis, who described himself as a troubled individual who had managed to reset his life, was among those in the crowd. He said he wanted to show that “everybody is not about the rioting. Everybody is not about the destruction.”

Williams said he knows there are good police officers out there. “Most of us believe in doing the right thing, but this came to a boiling point,” he said.

(Lilly Fowler is the religion reporter at The Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter.)

Assemblies of God turns 100, and looks to a multiethnic future

Assemblies Of God Turns 100, Looks To A Multiethnic Future

Assemblies of God turns 100, and looks to a multiethnic future

Left to right, Deepak Gerung, lead pastor of Emmanuel International church; Kevin Zaun, lead pastor of Heartland Community church; Paul Agamari, lead pastor of All Nations, and Shawn Stoll, assistant pastor of Heartland Community Church stand together at Heartland Community Church. Photo courtesy of Chris Dawes

By Adelle Banks

(RNS) The Rev. Paul Agamiri made a vow when he was housed at a Kenyan refugee camp in the 1990s: If he ever made it to the United States, he would work with the white pastors in America.

A decade after he arrived in Fargo, N.D., the Sudanese man started All Nations Assembly of God in 2005 with fellow Sudanese and Liberian refugees. It now includes Africans from a dozen nations and three deacons — a Liberian, a Hutu and a Tutsi. Though just a few white worshippers join the 250 each Sunday for standing-room-only worship, Agamiri wants them to feel included.

“Many of the white people, they’re afraid to come, thinking that they would not be accepted,” Agamiri said. “White or black or whatever color, we are all connected together. We are God’s children, so there’s no worry.”

Agamiri’s church — with its swaying youth choir singing in Swahili — is the epitome of the Assemblies of God, which is marking its 100th anniversary this week from its home base in Springfield, Mo., and is the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination.

The centennial events include a summit on church planting — the process that gave birth to Agamiri’s church, which was sponsored by a parent church that has also spawned a Nepali/Bhutanese congregation. AG members from more than 100 countries will attend the celebration of the “fellowship” that has grown from 300 people gathered in Hot Springs, Ark., in April 1914 to 67.5 million adherents worldwide.

The U.S. denomination alone is a veritable United Nations of some 3.1 million faithful — with a membership that is 41 percent nonwhite, up from 31 percent a decade ago.

General Superintendent George Wood said the denomination has grown because its members model the methods of the earliest followers of Jesus.

“They were tasked with taking the gospel to every nation,” said Wood, 72, who also heads the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. “The word ‘nation’ in the Greek language is ‘ethnos,’ or ethnic group. Our task, right from day one, has been to attempt to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ethnic groups of this world and in this country.”

Wood and others acknowledge that the Assemblies’ racial history has not been unblemished. With roots in the interracial Azusa Street Revival that began in Los Angeles in 1906, the leaders of the Assemblies of God started out as a group of white men. Bishop Charles H. Mason of the Church of God in Christ, which would eventually become one of the largest black Pentecostal denominations, attended the Hot Springs gathering, but black and white leaders ended up leading segregated groups.

“We did have a slow start,” Wood said. “In the last number of decades, we’ve seen tremendous progress in the United States.”

He attributes the racial separation of the early years to leaders’ following the segregationist culture at the time rather than scriptural ideals.

“However, the Holy Spirit is a great corrector of behavior, and over a course of time, people more and more realized that this segregation and division among races was not ever God’s plan,” Wood said. “And so I think now, as we look over 100 years, the majority of our history has been one of inclusion rather than exclusion.”

Despite the advances in race relations, the multiethnic dynamic only goes so far.

Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, who studies race and religion, said the Assemblies are “more diverse than most other denominations,” but that diversity doesn’t always trickle down to individual congregations.

“Forty percent of their membership is nonwhite,” he said, “but nowhere near 40 percent of their congregations are multiracial.”

During an eight-day trip in July, Scott Temple, the Assemblies’ director of ethnic relations, traveled to settings that bore out the range of what American AG churches look like. He went from a multiethnic congregation in Englewood, N.J., where 40 different nationalities worship together, to a Messianic Jewish congregation, to a biennial meeting of the denomination’s National Black Fellowship.

“My wife says I have the job because I like to eat anything,” admitted Temple, who is white and spends 120 nights a year on the road. “That’s pretty true.”

Assemblies of God turns 100, and looks to a multiethnic futureBeyond building the range of ethnic congregations, the U.S. denomination has worked to foster better relations with predominantly black groups from which it had been estranged. Last November, AG leaders invited their counterparts from the Church of God in Christ to Springfield. COGIC leaders, in turn, have invited Wood to speak at a September celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bishop Charles H. Mason, COGIC’s founder.

Since reaching agreement in February with the smaller, predominantly black United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, leaders of the two fellowships have begun to meet.

The Rev. Thomas Barclay, international presiding elder of the UPCAG, who is based in Chicago, said he attended the AG’s Illinois District meeting and received a standing ovation and apologies for the past.

Grant Wacker, Duke Divinity School professor of Christian history, said the Assemblies are simultaneously increasing their outreach to Hispanics and Native Americans and retaining their strong conservative political and theological values.

“There are more and more minority worshippers who take the Assemblies of God absolutely seriously in their claim that the Holy Spirit is blind to gender and ethnic differences,” said Wacker, author of “Heaven Below,” a book on U.S. Pentecostalism.

Temple is hoping that trend continues. By 2020, he says, the AG “will be what is called a minority majority. There will be no dominant group.”

In fact, the AG’s long-term emphasis on sending missionaries overseas is now working in reverse, with immigrants like Agamiri coming to the U.S. to win souls.

“They are truly missionaries in a refugee package,” said Pastor Shawn Stoll, a white assistant pastor at Agamiri’s church. “They’re not just here as a refuge, as a place to land, but they are here in a missionary form, to reach out to the Americans and to the Africans as well.”

Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate

Gay, Christian And Celibate: The Changing Face Of The Homosexuality Debate

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

(RNS) When Julie Rodgers came out as a lesbian at age 17, her mom responded by taking her to an ex-gay ministry in Dallas. Rodgers had grown up in a nondenominational evangelical church where she assumed being gay wasn’t an option.

“With ex-gay ministries, it gave me the space to be honest about my sexuality,” said Rodgers, now 28. Yet that same honesty eventually led her away from ex-gay ministries.

Rodgers spent several years in Exodus, the now-defunct ex-gay ministry, before deciding she couldn’t become straight after trying to date men. Instead, she has chosen celibacy.

When Exodus shut down in 2013, some said it spelled the end of ex-gay ministries that encourage reparative or conversion therapy for gays to become straight. Ex-gay groups such as Restored Hope Network stepped in to the gap, but many religious leaders are now encouraging those with same-sex orientation or attraction to consider a life of celibacy.

Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate

Julie Rodgers is a celibate, gay Christian blogger.

For years, those who were gay or struggled with homosexuality felt like they had few good options: leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change. But as groups like Exodus have become increasingly unpopular, Rodgers is among those who embrace a different model: celibate gay Christians, who seek to be true to both their sexuality and their faith.

Straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart wrote in a recent piece forSlate that celibate gay Christians present a challenge to the tolerance of both their churches and the secular LGBT community. Those celibate gay Christians often find themselves trying to translate one side for the other.

But frequently, neither side really understands what it’s hearing.

“We can be easily misunderstood, to put it nicely, by both sides of the culture war,” Rodgers said. “For those who have a more affirming position, it’s as if we’re repressed, self-hated homophobes, encouraging the church to stand in its position on sexuality. And conservative Christians think that those who shift on sexuality are being rebellious.”

Moving from ex-gay

Christians’ shift away from ex-gay therapy came amid larger cultural changes, including a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality and a rapid embrace of same-sex civil marriage.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution that mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation. Since then, California and New Jersey have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and several other states have considered similar measures.

Earlier this year, the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics to eliminate the promotion of reparative therapy, and encouraged celibacy instead.

“Counselors acknowledge the client’s fundamental right to self-determination and further understand that deeply held religious values and beliefs may conflict with same-sex attraction and/or behavior, resulting in anxiety, depression, stress, and inner turmoil,” the revised code says.

A number of leaders of the ex-gay movement have renounced the very teachings they once embraced. John Paulk, who was once a poster boy for the ex-gay movement, apologized in 2013 for the reparative therapy he used to promote. Yvette Schneider, who formerly worked for groups such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and Exodus, recently published a “coming out” interview with GLAAD calling for bans on reparative therapy. Last week, nine former ex-gay leaders denounced conversion therapy.

Mark Yarhouse, a Regent University psychology professor who has done research on ex-gay Christians, is just now beginning to study celibate gay Christians. “Evangelicals are so enamored with marriage, it’s been hard for them to value singleness and celibacy,” he said.

Some Christians left ex-gay ministries and eventually began to embrace a position that’s more affirming of gays and lesbians. Josh Wolff, a gay 2009 graduate of Biola University’s Rosemead School of Psychology who is now a licensed clinical psychologist, said he went to reparative therapy for nearly two years before fully embracing his sexuality.

“I’ve seen a real shift away from some of the language (that) you need to go to counseling, you can experience healing that can make you straight,” Wolff said. “When Exodus came forward and said ‘We’re sorry for some of the harm that we’ve done,’ I think it was a wake-up call to many members of faith communities that for the vast majority of people, these treatments don’t work.”

Rediscovering celibacy

Celibacy is a better trend for Christians than conversion therapy was, said Alan Chambers, who led Exodus before shuttering it last year.

“Celibacy is an age-old concept, so I think it’s a great option for a lot of people. People have been so afraid of it,” said Chambers, who has been married to his wife for 16 years. “The only option before it was to stay completely silent or adopt this ex-gay mentality.”

Some evangelicals mine Catholicism’s centuries-old tradition of celibacy, said Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, who wrote “Washed and Waiting,” a 2010 book on being gay and celibate.

“They already have a rich history of celibacy that I had to discover as an evangelical,” Hill said. “Twenty years ago, being gay would be considered irredeemably bad, something to be delivered from or be changed. (Celibacy) leads me to form close bonds with friends, to have self-denial and sacrifice.”

Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate

Alan and Leslie Chambers married in January 1998.

Eve Tushnet, a 35-year-old whose book “Gay and Catholic” comes out in October, is fast emerging as a significant voice on sexuality and Catholic teaching.

“I felt like there’s a lot of things I don’t understand, but I can do my wrestling and doubting from within the church,” she said.

Tushnet grew up somewhere between agnosticism and Judaism, and when she became a Catholic in 1998, she didn’t know of other openly gay Christians who were following the church’s teaching on sexuality.

“Because marriage, the standard American solution to the problem of the human heart, is typically unavailable to gay Christians, we’ve had to confront loneliness earlier and more publicly than many of our peers,” she wrote in The American Conservative.

In a 2013 study in the journal Symbolic Interaction, Hollins University sociologist S.J. Creek found that celibate gay Christians tend to prioritize their sexuality differently than others might, unwilling to compromise their Christianity.

For some like Tushnet, the loneliness of celibacy has been tempered by communities such as Spiritual Friendship, a blog for celibate gay Christians. Hill co-founded the blog with Ron Belgau, who grew up Baptist and converted to Catholicism at 24. Belgau said celibacy was one of the things that attracted him to the Catholic Church.

“The ex-gay message was appealing because the problem was solved and we didn’t need to talk about it,” said Belgau, who spent some time in the Catholic Church’s Courage ministry that encourages celibacy for gays and lesbians.

“If you realize that a lot of people will have an ongoing attraction to same-sex and can be kept secret, you have to deal with as a church how we’re going to talk about this. With the ex-gay message, we can farm this out and continue with our nuclear family model.”

Naming and claiming

The mere presence of self-identifying celibate gay Christians requires other Christians to wrestle with theological challenges, says Matthew Vines, author of “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”  Vines doesn’t promote sex outside of marriage but believes gay Christians can make a theological case for same-sex marriage.

“It’s a subtle but significant shift,” said Vines, who is openly gay, of celibate gay Christians. “They’re saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being gay in and of itself,’ and that is a big change.”

In fact, that’s the teaching of major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Homosexuality only becomes sinful when a person chooses to act on it.

Moody Bible Institute professor Christopher Yuan has been countering progressive messages like Vines’ with a more traditional message of celibacy for those who, like him, are attracted to the same sex. In his book reviewof Vines’ book for Christianity Today, however, Yuan, too, took a harsh look at conversion therapy.

“Sanctification is not getting rid of our temptations, but pursuing holiness in the midst of them,” Yuan wrote. “If our goal is making people straight, then we are practicing a false gospel.”

Some pastors, like John Piper, a respected Minneapolis preacher and author, still encourage the possibility of change for those who have same-sex attractions. And some Christians are debating over whether identifying as gay or having a same-sex orientation is itself unbiblical.

“My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful,” Denny Burk, a biblical studies professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a blog post for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

After Grady Smith’s widely shared article for the Gospel Coalition about coming out as a Christian while he worked for Entertainment Weekly, he also wrote a post about coming out as gay to other Christians. In an email, he said he regretted identifying as a “gay Christian” because of how it might define him as a person.

Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate

Wesley Hill is a New Testament professor at the Trinity School for Ministry and author of “Washed and Waiting,” a book on being gay and celibate.

“I knew it was writerly and provocative and expressed attractions I’ve felt, and I hoped it was bridge-building,” he wrote. “But it in no way describes the life I am living — and I think most people interpret ‘gay’ to mean the cultural box of the gay, sexually expressed lifestyle.”

Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian who rejects the “ex-gay” label  and the movement behind it, also disputes Burk’s interpretation of sexual orientation. “The Bible doesn’t speak against attraction,” said Butterfield, a mother of four whose conversion story went viral after it was published in Christianity Today. “It speaks against attraction that becomes lust.”

While she affirms celibate gay Christians, she says they should not use “gay” as a descriptive adjective.

“The job of the adjective is to change the noun,” said Butterfield, who will speak at the Southern Baptist convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s fall conference on sexuality. “Our sexuality exists on a continuum, but our Christianity does not.”

Nursing home evangelism: Preaching at the last ‘bus stop to eternity’

Nursing Home Evangelism: Preaching At The Last ‘Bus Stop To Eternity’

By Adelle M. Banks

Nursing home evangelism: Preaching at the last ‘bus stop to eternity’

Left to right, lay evangelists Lauren Bowerfind, Karel Wallace, Rebekah Hammond, Elizabeth Christiensen, and Abebech Tebeje review their visit to a Washington, D.C.-area nursing home with team leader Rhonda Rowe on July 17, 2014. They followed the “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script” during their visit. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) Rhonda Rowe and her team gathered around a diagram of the nursing home’s floor plan and determined how to split up to avoid praying with anyone twice.

Rowe made her way to a room where a 93-year-old woman lay in her bed while her 87-year-old roommate sat in a wheelchair. Rowe knelt between them and went through her “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script.”

“Fill me with your Holy Spirit and fire of God,” the 93-year-old repeated. “I’m on my way to heaven. I have Jesus in my heart.”

Rowe was soon off to the next room, but before she left, acknowledged that she might never see them again on earth. “I’ll see you girls in heaven!” she chirped.

Welcome to the world of nursing home evangelism, where teams of lay evangelists target senior citizens for one last chance in this life for glory in the next.

Rowe, who attends The River at Tampa Bay Church, was in town for a three-week “Celebrate America” revival in downtown Washington led by the church’s pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne. Each night, attendees heard Howard-Browne preach at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall. By day, as others hit the subway stations or visited Capitol Hill, Rowe and other team members made a beeline for local nursing homes.

“Do you know, for sure, that you will spend eternity in heaven?” Rowe would ask a typical resident.

Pastor Eric Gonyon, coordinator of the Celebrate America revival, reviewed the rules before the teams departed.

“If you do go to the nursing homes or assisted living homes, there’s HIPAA rules and we do follow them,” he told about 60 people at a training session, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law that governs patient privacy. “You can’t give follow-up information in nursing homes and assisted living homes. We don’t bring anything in.”

Ministry officials had contacted a nursing home here ahead of time to get permission for the visit. After checking in, the team immediately went to work for about an hour.

Sometimes, Rowe and her five-member team asked residents who couldn’t speak for nonverbal answers, such as blinking their eyes or squeezing a hand if they agreed with the script.

“There’s no more ‘I’ll do it next year,’” said Rowe, who has traveled with Howard-Browne’s ministry to nursing homes as far as California. “There’s no more ‘I’ll decide about this in 10 years.’ This is it.”

The website of Revival Ministries International includes detailed instructions on how to search Google for nursing homes, determine the size of a visiting team based on the number of beds and tally the decisions garnered during the visits.

Of the millions of souls the ministry claims to have won, Gonyon says more than 500,000 came from commitments and recommitments at retirement and nursing homes since 2007.

“Pastor Rodney says: ‘The retirement home is the bus stop to eternity,’” Gonyon said.

“Many of these people, they don’t have friends or families that visit,” said Lauren Bowerfind, a 27-year-old student at Howard-Browne’s River Bible Institute who was on Rowe’s team. “We’re the only Jesus that they may see.”

Some experts on elder spirituality said the methods give them pause. Nursing home residents are, after all, a mostly captive audience — many of them hobbled by mental as well as physical ailments.

“In a sense, it’s good that they were remembering older people who often are just totally not remembered, but I do just have some reservations about the sort of conversion emphasis,” said the Rev. Nancy Gordon, director of California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging.

“From where I sit, it’s a little disrespectful to just launch into nursing homes and start to talk to people with a script, basically wanting them to believe in Jesus,” Gordon said.

The Rev. John McFadden, a retired United Church of Christ minister and the memory care chaplain at Appleton Health Care Center in Wisconsin, said spiritual care in elderly home settings ranges from a “wonderful, person-centered” approach to those “fearful that some of the residents are going to go to hell if they don’t do the deathbed confessions.” Most religious groups, he said, tend toward the first option.

But McFadden said a Catholic resident, for instance, who might not be aware of a conservative Protestant context, could think, “’These are church people, so it’s got to be OK’ and kind of goes with the flow.”

During Rowe’s recent visit here, some residents were more receptive than others. A 57-year-old man halted a solitaire game on his laptop and let Elizabeth Christiensen, another Bible institute student, pray for “a favorable report” at an upcoming doctor’s appointment.

Abebech Tebeje, a first-time trainee from Silver Spring, Md., found her English script was too hard for a bedridden resident to repeat. When she switched to Amharic from her native Ethiopia, the man followed along and repeated her words. But a woman, who was standing in another room when Tebeje approached, listened as she started the script and eventually said: “Not today. I’ve got to think about it.”

In the hallway, where the 1950s song “Lollipop” was piped through the sound system, the evangelists discussed whether each discussion merited an addition to their count or not. Once outside, Bowerfind tallied their total: 16.

To those who question their mission, Gonyon said the ministry answers to a higher power.

“We have no response to those who are critics other than obeying Jesus and the Great Commission to preach the gospel regardless of the physical condition of the hearer,” he said. “Eternity will answer their questions!”

Rockets or not, Birthright still going to Israel

Rockets Or Not, Birthright Still Going To Israel

Rockets or not, Birthright still going to Israel

Visitors board a Birthright Israel bus during their 10-day tour in 2003. Despite increased violence in the region, the tours have continued and visitors are accompanied by an armed security guard. Creative Commons image by Avi Drissman / USA TodayRocket fire from terrorists in Gaza may have scared off U.S. and European airlines, but Taglit-Birthright Israel is still sending thousands of young Jews to the famed summer Israel experiences.

By Oren Dorell / USA Today

“There are seven trips arriving from North America tomorrow (Thursday, July 24),” said Gail Hyman, vice president for communications at Birthright, which has sent about 400,000 Jews ages 18 to 26 on free, 10-day educational junkets to Israel. About 36 people are on each trip.

“We’ve sent 6,000 in this period since the conflict began, and only had 10 people leave early, which says something about what it must feel like to be there,” Hyman said.

Israel says more than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israeli communities since July 8, when the fight with Hamas and other Palestinian factions began. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted 420 of those. Yet rockets have killed at least three civilians, and a rocket that landed about a mile from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport prompted the Federal Aviation Administration and several European airlines Tuesday to suspend U.S. flights to Israel for the time being.

Hyman said the Birthright program has made adjustments to ensure the safety of participants. Flights were switched to Israel’s national airline, El Al, which is still flying into Ben Gurion, and itineraries are being adjusted based on consultations with Israeli security officials, she said.

About 30 percent of the people who had signed up for the trip have dropped out because of the fighting.

Birthright provides heritage, religious and cultural trips free to young adults who travel the country together with young people serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.

“Part of the mission of Birthright is to build relationships between people who would not otherwise be spending time together,” Hyman said.

Many times they make lifelong friendships, she said. The program’s goal is to build a relationship between Israel and Jews who don’t live there, and to develop a core of people who sustain Jewish communities that are supportive of Israel. Max Steinberg, a Taglit-Birthright alumnus who emigrated from the United States to Israel and joined the military, was killed in combat in Gaza on Sunday.

The program has run continuously since it began 14 years ago, even during the second Intifadah (uprising), when Palestinian terrorist attacks killed about 700 Israeli citizens and visitors.

The conflict provides the participants with a greater sense of what it’s like to live in Israel.

“We certainly didn’t look for it,” Hyman said. “But you can say we’ve had an extra layer of learning or experience that no one wanted or planned for, but people certainly told us it had an impact on them.”

(Oren Dorell writes for USA Today.)

Image desert.jpg

Moving Churches To Discuss The Morality Of Climate Change

Moving churches to discuss the morality of climate change

Rabbi Moti Rieber is director of the Kansas chapter for the San Francisco-based Interfaith Power & Light.

(RNS) Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber said. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

Where allowed behind the pulpit in a United Methodist or Lutheran church, Rieber can sense a restless shifting in the pews as he draws parallels between God asking Adam to tend the Garden of Eden and humankind’s stewardship duty to the environment.

He can see a few faces turn away while describing the disproportionate plight of human-driven climate change on the world’s poor, and reminding parishioners of Jesus’ admonition that “as you do it to one of the least of these my brothers, you do it to me.”

Rieber has his work cut out for him in a state governed by Tea Party favorite Sam Brownback — who has blasted Obama administration rules on reducing carbon emissions — and home to the conservative-activist billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Rieber, who leads a congregation of about 85 families at a synagogue in Lawrence, is director of the Kansas chapter for the San Francisco-based Interfaith Power & Light — one of the most prominent groups championing greater faith-based activism on  climate change.

Led by an Episcopalian priest, Sally Bingham, the organization is a network of 15,000 churches across 41 states, including some of the most conservative in the country. Members often begin with promoting green technology in a church — efficient light bulbs and solar panels — before turning to the morality of environmental stewardship.

“I honestly believe that there’s not been a single cultural change or big movement that didn’t have the voice of the religious community,” Bingham said. “It’s crucial.”

Her effort is not alone. The United Methodist Church promotes a “Green Church Initiative.” A core mission of the Episcopal Church is “to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

In May, the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops urged the Environmental Protection Agency to draft new carbon-pollution rules for power plants. For years, the leader of the 300-million member Christian Orthodox faith — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known as the “Green Patriarch” — has declared planet stewardship a spiritual duty.

And this year, Pope Francis is preparing an encyclical — one of the highest forms of papal opinion — on the “ecology of mankind.” He has already weighed in against what he calls the greedy exploitation of the environment.

“I think it will be a game changer,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, of the encyclical that would guide 1.3 billion Catholics. The forum is an international multireligious project that promotes dialogues with religions and other disciplines on environmental solutions.

Research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, as director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, studies the ebb and flow of discourse over environmental changes. He believes the faith-based embrace of the issue is “one of the most exciting things happening in this entire space.”Image desert.jpg

It moves the discussion, he says, beyond science and polar bears to “a whole different set of values. Not liberal vs.conservative, but now moral and religious … It can engage people in, I think, a particularly deep and powerful way.”

The toughest hurdle, however, are evangelical Christians, Leiserowitz noted in a published paper last year. One in four Americans fall into this group, a powerful supportive force for those in Congress who do not believe in global warming. Yet even among evangelicals, Leiserowitz says, there is not just one view about climate change.

When asked in a 2008 survey cited in Leiserowitz’s study whether “global warming is happening,” 44 percent of evangelicals said it is and the result of human actions, 41 percent said any warming was not caused by man.

Evangelicals tend to be less receptive to outsiders, making efforts such as Interfaith Power & Light ineffective, say evangelical leaders such as the Rev. Mitchell Hescox.

Hescox is president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, devoted to raising awareness about the threat of climate change.

Hescox said the reach of his network has grown from 20,000 evangelical Christians to 300,000 in five years. the organization has 900 “creation care specialists,” many of them evangelical ministers, trained to spread the gospel of safeguarding God’s handiwork.

When Hescox speaks to congregations across the country, he says climate change threatens a core evangelical concern — the sanctity of life.

“One of the key values of the evangelical church is being pro-life. I’m pro-life from conception to natural death. To go in and be able to talk about my values truly gives me an opening for them to hear what I have to say,” he said.

A rising star in this new firmament is Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian who is also a scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Her husband, Andrew Farley, is an evangelical minister.

She was featured in Showtime’s climate documentary “Years of Living Dangerously,” and in April was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

“You have to know who your audience is,” said Hayhoe who speaks at churches, evangelical colleges and conferences, half of them from red states. “I know what people are thinking. I know what many of their questions are. I know what they’ve been hearing.”

She answers their doubts even before they are raised. But more importantly, Hayhoe said, “I start out by sharing not from my head, but from my heart — what my own values are and why I care about this issue.”

(Gregg Zoroya writes for USA Today.)