Three Keys to Increasing Church Planting Capacity in Denominations

AUG 8, 2017
CHURCH PLANTING

Three Keys to Increasing Church Planting Capacity in Denominations

Engage the Planters. Embrace the Pace. Establish the Path. |
Three Keys to Increasing Church Planting Capacity in Denominations

Image: pexels

A generation of Christians that has grown up with microwaves is also sold on the idea of movements. But rarely do these things go together.

Movements are not instantaneous—they can explode (that’s what makes them movements) but they don’t just show up.

It takes time to see if a movement is going to gain traction and have long-term impact. This is true in ministry. At times, the spread of the gospel has seemed to happen overnight, but the reality is that many of our greatest missionaries have labored for decades without seeing such explosive fruit.

No matter how many shortcuts we find or tips we learn, the Kingdom of God is still more like a seed and a field than a bag of popcorn and a microwave.

So what does that mean for those leading denominations?

For those looking to increase church planting at their church, or increase a focus within their denomination, there are several factors to consider, and a few keys to success. Each area of ministry has its own nuance. So, it is naïve to think that you can take a cookie-cutter approach to developing the foundations of a movement. Some things are true regardless of the ministry. Others are vastly different.

Here are three things to look at when working toward increasing church planting.

Engage the Planters

Church planting is, in a real sense, a community—it’s more of a club than an organization. Planters can spot each other in a room of pastors. It just is. Normal pastors, and a lot of denominations, feel different to them.

That isn’t a knock on denominations, many of whom do things quite well. But the fact is that many church planters find a level of camaraderie with church planters of other denominations that they do not find with people they have ministered with or learned from for years.

There is a common mindset, common passion, and common vision shared by people who are called to plant churches. Planting a church is different enough from many other ministries that it makes sense that there would be a certain level of fraternity in this movement you may not find as strongly in other ministries. That doesn’t make it better, nor does it make it worse. It just is.

There are certain expectations that come with this ministry subculture. They have their own vernacular, their own way of sizing up communities, and sometimes even their own styles. If I walk into a room of church planters, I can see them sizing each other up. They aren’t just asking, “Has this speaker ever planted a church?” They are asking, “When is the last time this speaker planted a church?” and “Has this speaker planted a church like I am planting?”

They wonder these things because they want to maximize their learning time. I’m not suggesting their approach is healthy. It is often not helpful. I’m just saying it is the reality. I’m not judging their hearts. I’m reading their culture.

If you want to be part of developing a significant and sustainable church planting movement, you need to realize that there is a strong sense of community within that culture. You may be charged with helping to grow this element in your denomination, but realize that you aren’t in this community.

As with any mission field, understanding the cultural context is important. Overseeing pioneers can seem like an impossible task. That’s part of the beauty of the Church. God doesn’t always call the equipped. He equips the called.

So, if you are a church or denominational leader, it isn’t your job to impress church planters with your planting exploits. But you can communicate that you are there to come alongside them and help them learn, pastor them, pray for them, supply biblical principles that aren’t based on trends, and generally provide a nurturing environment in which they can thrive while creating a multiplying movement. They should know that you aren’t going to pretend to be something you aren’t, but you will be what you are… and that is, for them.

Engaging church planters in this way will bring healthy side-effects that you’ll welcome. For one, planters will appreciate their denominational affiliation more and feel a part of a larger vision than just their church plant. Consequently, they are more likely to invest back into the denomination in order to push the movement forward. Nothing breathes life more into a denomination than a crop of new church planters who really believe in the vision and movement potential of their network.

Ultimately, this can win people over in a way that walking in and saying, “I’m kind of an expert,” doesn’t.

Embrace the Pace

When developing a greater church planting focus, not only is there the human community element, but there is also a time reality. Every organism and organization depends upon time to work properly. The smaller the organization, the less time it may take to achieve the goal. The larger the organization, the more time it will need to produce, but the impact is often more significant at the far-reaching level. So we can see change quickly in a small church or zone. But quick change is not part of a district or denomination. What we are talking about is recognizing the pace of a movement.

Again, we live in a world that expects immediate results, especially when it comes to change. This means there will be a lot of pressure on those initiating a culture of change. Trends may spring up overnight, but a movement will not develop in a year or two. In fact, if you want to see a mission become a movement, you will need to commit for over five years. You may be six or seven years in before you start seeing progress. The movement may not be anchored into the culture of the larger organization for at least ten years.

If you aren’t willing to work in the trenches to establish a church planting culture, you may be better off to not start at all.

You can fight time, and see it as your enemy. You can struggle to meet deadlines passed down by people who don’t realize the dynamics of pace, and end up burning out. Or you can be honest about the reality, communicate it well to those around you, and up the line. Keep the idea of pace in front of everyone. This is not a sprint. It is a marathon. And that is by God’s design. Patience through seasons of growth and decline encourages trust in and dependence on God.

Embracing the reality that a movement takes time to develop and communicating that to those involved gives the whole organization a better chance at achieving its goals in a way that is healthy and sustainable.

Establish the Path

If you are going to work with two or three church planters, you can probably do that without creating much of an infrastructure. But if you are working on a district or denominational level to create a national movement, you will need to develop a path to success. This is about systems. It is simply not possible for a person, or even a group of people, to reproduce within a movement apart from systems that carry the weight of development.

We see this in scripture with Moses, the kings, Jesus, and the Early Church leaders. Good systems were in place to move the gospel, doctrines, traditions, etc. from one generation to the next.

Systems aren’t bad. They can become clogged. They need routine maintenance. They can be modified to become more or less productive. But they are essential to the success of a growing movement.

The systems are changing. The ways we learned and worked in the 1980s and 1990s have changed. The rapid change in technology has impacted this. Ultimately, you have to be able to say, “Here is the pathway. This is how we will know you are walking the path. Here is how we will celebrate the completion of the journey.” Systems are required to know the pathway and help people walk through it. And systems can outlast the current team of overseers, allowing for reproduction beyond the current cycle.

But also, this doesn’t mean that systems have to be rigid or one-dimensional. It is entirely possible for a movement to house multiple systems that are rapidly multiplying different kinds of churches. The important thing to remember is that systems are meant to be helpful and simple. When that is no longer the case, then it’s time to innovate new paths to keep the movement going.

Successful church planting movements often require these three things: engaging the people you will be working with by understanding the nature of the culture; embracing the pace that is necessary to see the long-term dream become reality; and establishing the pathway to success and the associated systems so that all involved know what is expected and how to achieve the goals.

We need more church planting… and more leaders making good choices to get there.

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

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POSTED:August 8, 2017 at 7:00 am

Thomas á Kempis

Thomas á Kempis

Author of the most popular devotional classic
Thomas á Kempis

“We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do.”

Sir Thomas More, England’s famous lord chancellor under Henry VIII (and subject of the film A Man for All Seasons) said it was one of the three books everybody ought to own. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, read a chapter a day from it and regularly gave away copies as gifts. Methodist founder John Wesley said it was the best summary of the Christian life he had ever read.

Timeline

1370

Catherine of Siena begins her Letters

1373

Julian of Norwich receives her revelations

1378

Great Papal Schism begins

1380

Thomas á Kempis born

1471

Thomas á Kempis dies

1479

Establishment of Spanish Inquisition

They were talking about Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, the devotional classic that has been translated into over 50 languages, in editions too numerous for scholars to keep track of (by 1779 there were already 1,800 editions).

Little is known of Thomas himself, and he is known for little else—although this one contribution to history seems to be enough.

Humility first

Called the “calamitous century,” the fourteenth century into which Thomas Hemerken was born felt the shadow of the apocalypse. Constant wars and repeated bouts of the Black Plague drove population down. The Great Schism tore the church apart, seating one pope in Rome and another in Avignon. In rural areas, roving marauders knew no restraints, and peasant revolts kept urban centers reeling with confusion.

Early on Thomas gave himself to a Dutch Augustinian monastery associated with a group called The Brethren of the Common Life. There he became the prior’s assistant, charged with instructing novices in the spiritual life. In that capacity, he wrote four booklets between 1420 and 1427; they were collected and named after the title of the first booklet: The Imitation of Christ.

In The Imitation, Thomas combines a painfully accurate analysis of the soul with a clear vision of the fullness of the divine life. He does not describe the spiritual life in a linear way, as if one step precedes another, but instead repeats and embellishes themes, like a symphonic composer.

In the first treatise, “Useful reminders for the spiritual life,” Thomas lays out the primary requirement for the spiritually serious: “We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.”

The highest virtue, from which all other virtues stem, is humility. Thomas bids all to let go of the illusion of superiority. “If you want to learn something that will really help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance,” he writes. “This is the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we truly are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings, and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.”

Furthermore, humility leads us to embrace the path of suffering: “Plan as you like and arrange everything as best you can, yet you will always encounter some suffering whether you want to or not. Go wherever you will, you will always find the cross… God wants you to learn to endure troubles without comfort, to submit yourself totally to him, and to become more humble through adversity.”

Trust not yourself

Thomas goes on to tell his novices how to handle criticism, failures, sensual desires, and the difficulties of obedience—always with an eye to the paradoxes of the deeper Christian life. For example, in chapter 20 of the first book, he writes, “If you aim at a fervent spiritual life, then you too must turn your back on the crowds as Jesus did. The only man who can safely appear in public is the one who wishes he were at home. He alone can safely speak who prefers to be silent. Only he can safely govern who prefers to live in submission, and only he can safely command who prefers to obey.”

The first two treatises are written as sermons or reflections. In the third treatise, “Of Inner Comfort,” Jesus and the Disciple talk together about the spiritual life, and in the fourth treatise, “The Book on the Sacrament,” Thomas discusses how the Eucharist can help the faithful draw nearer to Christ.

Throughout the book, Thomas’s advice is consistent: Do not trust yourself, do not indulge yourself, do not put yourself forward; instead put your full trust in God and, out of love for God’s will, yield to all the circumstances of life into which God places you.

The Imitation was published in Latin, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English by the end of the fifteenth century, and it remains one of the most popular devotional guides to this day.

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Being People of Truth in a World of Fake News

AUG 7, 2017
TRUTH, FAKE NEWS

Being People of Truth in a World of Fake News

Use common sense, desire discernment, and cultivate accountability. |
Being People of Truth in a World of Fake News

Image: pexels

One of the hottest topics in our culture is fake news. I’ve written about it, and others have as well. Obviously, not all news is fake. At the same time, not everything that calls itself news is real news. When one of the leading stories in USA Today is about someone wearing a thong, we are reminded how far the media have fallen. But fake news is not just an industry issue or a cultural issue. It becomes a discipleship issue because we are people of truth in a world that has been dealing with alternative facts since the Garden of Eden.

The growing problem of fake news gives pastors and church leaders a great opportunity to teach and challenge Christians to be more discerning about the stories they consume. What we are talking about is helping people think more critically about the world in which we live.

Nothing is true simply because it is believable, or because it fits our worldview or preference. Nothing is untrue simply because it is unbelievable, or doesn’t fit our worldview or preference. As Christians, we believe some things that would qualify as unlikely, or straight up unbelievable. The gospel has changed us. That gospel is ‘good news’.

We need to remember that what we call good news (God became flesh, born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died, rose from the dead, and is coming back on a white horse to receive His people into eternal life), the world calls fake news. The fact that we are known as “believers” tells us how much our identity is tied up in accepting things others do not. We are banking our eternity on what we believe. But with our faith comes responsibility.

In a rising tide of fake news, what can we do to not become part of the destructive flood that is washing away decency and sensibility in our culture? How can we live out Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:8?

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.

Here are some things we all can do:

Never share what you cannot verify.

The Internet is a double-edged sword. Fake stuff is not hard to find. But it’s important to remember that it’s just as easy to find true reports as it is fake reports. So, if you see a claim in an article, check it out. Do not share something you only find in off-beat sources. Check out some mainstream sources. You may not trust mainstream sources, but they are a great way to verify if something is a true story.

If you read, for example, on RightWingPatrioticAntiHillaryNews.info that a pastor was arrested for preaching against same-sex marriage, do not click the SHARE button before checking a mainstream source. If that event happened, it will be on FOX News, CNN, ABC, etc. If you don’t see any of those organizations talking about it, it didn’t happen. We can’t complain about fake news if we become fake news reporters.

Make sure what you share would be recognizable by the people you are talking about.

If a story is so far out that even the subject would scratch their heads at the wild claims, don’t share it. In other words, if something sounds entirely unreasonable, it probably is. And it just isn’t nice to talk about people in ways that are not remotely true.

We are people of Jesus. Jesus said that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I don’t want people saying things about me that have no connection to reality. So I shouldn’t carry such tales about others. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Beth Moore spoke out about the infamous recording of Donald Trump degrading women. Breitbart then ran a story claiming that Moore was supporting Hillary Clinton. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It wasn’t a reasonable claim because no one who knows Moore or Clinton would recognize such a thing. We can respectfully talk about differences without making wild unreasonable claims. If we can’t, we are no better than the sources of fake news.

Guard your integrity.

We are people of truth. When people of truth participate in sharing false information, we do not just do injury to the other person and the process, but we also injure our personal reputation and testimony. When we are gullible, we hurt the team of people called believers. In fact, you make the team look silly when you post false information.

We already believe and spread an incredible gospel. We don’t need people going around adding ridiculous fake news stories about the political candidate they hate. It just creates another roadblock between the sinner and the Savior. We are supposed to be the people who inform the world that the truth sets us free. How can we successfully offer freedom through truth when we are bound to untrue stories plastered all over our social media page? The information you share reveals your heart. Be careful with that.

Apologize if you are part of the problem.

If you share something and then find out it was a hoax or fake news, apologize for being part of the problem. Don’t justify your gullibility by saying, “Well, it could have been true,” or “Something like it happened.” Own your gullibility. This goes back to the integrity issue. Being people of the Truth means that we clear up what we mess up. Apologizing helps prepare you to be more careful the next time around.

I don’t like saying I was wrong. It is embarrassing. So when I do it, it causes me to steer away from embarrassing situations. Making things right also lets people know that truth matters to you more than sensationalism. It is easy to click a link to an untrue story. It is difficult to say that you were wrong. People appreciate that, and it is good for your witness.

Pastors and leaders can pass this along to their people through their preaching. The Bible says much about lying, truth-telling, gossiping, integrity, discernment, and the appearance of evil. Preach about the value of truth in the life of the believer. These topics can also be dealt with in small groups through more interaction and by fleshing out specific tools. It can even be done on a private level through emails. “Hey, that link you shared… it isn’t helpful, because it isn’t true. You are an influencer. Make it count for the kingdom by posting truth.” It is good to have people in our lives who will send us such an email if needed. Don’t weed accountability out of your life.

How can we avoid getting caught up in fake news?

First, start by using the common sense God gave us.

Second, take it to another level and use the discernment that comes with the Spirit of Truth given to believers.

Finally, ask yourself some accountability questions… Does this story make sense? Is the headline so sensational that it deserves to be on a gossip rag at the grocery store, or is it within the realm of possibility? Does this claim seem reasonable, or does it just appeal to the side of me that wants it to be true to validate my position against the person in the story?

I tend to get my news from several sources. This doesn’t mean they all say the same thing about the stories, or that I believe everything they say. But if a story is true, it will likely show up in several of the mainstream sources I read.

Ultimately, remember that we follow a Man who claimed to be the Truth. He told Pilate that He came to testify to the truth. Pilate then asked, “What is truth?” That is the question of our time. The truth will be clearer if it isn’t hidden among the clickbait in our lives.

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

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POSTED:August 7, 2017 at 7:00 am

Robbing God, Literally: 1 in 10 Protestant Churches Experience Embezzlement

Robbing God, Literally: 1 in 10 Protestant Churches Experience Embezzlement

Survey finds 1 in 2 only has enough cash for four months of services.

Robbing God, Literally: 1 in 10 Protestant Churches Experience Embezzlement

Churches and other faith groups collect tens of billions of dollars in donations each year. But not all of it ends up where it’s supposed to.

About 1 in 10 Protestant churches has had someone embezzle funds, according to a new survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from LifeWay Research.

That figure isn’t surprising, said LifeWay executive director Scott McConnell. Most churches rely on volunteers to handle their finances, he said.

Those volunteers are usually honest. But churches often lack systems to catch those who aren’t. As a result, he said, money that could have been used for ministry goes missing.

“Churches run on trust—but they also know people are imperfect and can be tempted,” said McConnell. “That’s why safeguarding a church’s finances is an important part of ministry.”

Overall, 9 percent of pastors say that their church has had funds embezzled, while 91 percent say they are not aware of any embezzlement.

Churches of Christ ministers are more likely to say their church had funds embezzled (16%) when compared to Baptist (7%) or Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (6%).

Pastors of mid-sized churches—those with 100 to 249 members—are less likely to say funds have been embezzled (6%) than those with 250 or more members (12%).

LifeWay’s survey echoes a smaller 2012 study of churches in Kansas and Missouri, which found that 13.4 percent of churches had experienced embezzlement or other fraud.

study of more than 2,400 fraud cases at businesses and nonprofits by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners found 2.4 percent of cases involved churches or other charitable groups. The average loss was $82,000.

LifeWay researchers asked pastors when their church’s financial books were last audited and how much cash they had in reserves.

Half of pastors (47%) say their church has had a complete audit in the last year. Two-thirds (66%) say their church’s books have been audited within the last four years.

About a third of pastors (34%) say the most recent audit was more than five years ago (10%), never (10%), or unknown (14%).

Among other findings:

  • Methodist pastors are most likely (74%) to say their church had a complete audit within the last year.
  • Baptist (17%) and Pentecostal (18%) pastors are more likely to say their church had a complete audit more than five years ago. Lutheran (3%), Methodist (4%) and Holiness pastors (4%) are less likely.
  • Church of Christ (16%) and Pentecostal pastors (17%) are more likely than pastors of other denominations to say their church has never been audited. Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (7%), Lutheran (5%), and Methodist (2%) are less likely to say the same.
  • African-American pastors (25%) are the most likely ethnic group to say their church has never had an audit.

Most churches realize that having an audit can be good thing, said McConnell. It’s another aspect of being a good steward of a church’s finances.

“It’s helpful to have a second set of eyes look at the church books,” he said.

Many churches function with little margin for error when it comes to their finances.

According to their pastors, 1 in 4 churches (26%) only has enough cash on hand to cover seven or fewer weeks. A similar number (24%) have between eight and 15 weeks of operating reserves. Meanwhile, 15 percent have between 16 and 25 weeks of reserves, while 12 percent have between 26 and 51 weeks. Almost 1 in 4 churches (23%) have a year or more of reserves.

Smaller churches often have more weeks of reserves than larger congregations.

Among small churches—those with fewer than 50 people—27 percent say they have a year of cash reserves. By contrast, 15 percent of churches with more than 250 people have a year of reserves.

An earlier study found about a third of churches have struggled to make their budget, said McConnell. So it’s not surprising that some churches have few reserves.

“It takes a lot of faith to run a church, especially when finances are tight,” he said. “But some churches may be missing out on ministry, because there’s not enough money in the bank to respond to needs and opportunities that arise.”

Methodology:
The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted August 22—September 16, 2016. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

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Joel Hunter Is Done Pastoring His Orlando Megachurch

Joel Hunter Is Done Pastoring His Orlando Megachurch

(UPDATED) Obama’s spiritual adviser explains why his gifts are at ‘their highest potential’ but his call to local churches like Northland is ‘fulfilled.’

Joel Hunter Is Done Pastoring His Orlando Megachurch

Image: Northland Church
Joel Hunter

Joel Hunter, the innovative megachurch pastor who spoke out on the national stage as an evangelical adviser to President Barack Obama, is stepping down from Northland Church in order to minister “outside the four walls of the church.”

“My call to the pastoral role in a church is fulfilled,” wrote Hunter after serving 32 years as the Orlando-area church’s senior pastor and a previous 15 years as a United Methodist pastor.

While grateful for Northland’s accomplishments at discipling its congregants and community, he explained that, like Jesus, he now feels called to focus on those “unincluded in the Kingdom” outside religious settings.

“My experience, relationships, and apostolic gifting are at their highest potential,” wrote Hunter, “and I will spend them in the most productive way possible in this final season of my journey.”

“There is no one like Pastor Joel,” Northland wrote in a statement announcing Hunter’s plans, which he revealed to staff on Wednesday after returning from an annual sabbatical.

Under his leadership, Northland grew from a couple hundred people in 1985 to 20,000 weekly attendees at three locations, and Hunter became an innovative leader among the early wave of pastors building multisite congregations with streaming services.

Elders at his nondenominational congregation have not yet identified the “best timing” or plan for his transition following the announcement, which indicated that Hunter, 69, will not fully retire from ministry.

“Pastor Joel made it clear to us that he is not finished serving God and this community,” stated Northland’s lead pastor, Vernon Rainwater. “However, he has completed his pastoral call.”

Hunter explained:

“You’ve often heard me express a desire to serve at Northland for the rest of my life. So you may be asking, ‘What changed?’

I believe God will continue using Northland in wonderful ways, but He is calling me to focus my life on a new season of ministry outside the four walls of the church.

When I knelt at the altar to give my whole life to Jesus, I was a part of the Civil Rights movement. My focus on Jesus was not only for personal salvation after this life but also for compassion towards the marginalized in this life. My call to follow Jesus and serve the vulnerable is stronger than ever.

Jesus often taught in different synagogues but the bulk of his teaching and work was outside established religious settings. Following his way, I will seek to include the unincluded in the Kingdom.

http://www.visit-thuringia.com

Hunter explained he will initially focus on three initiatives: teaching a weekly Bible study where community members can ask questions; helping the Community Resource Networkunite people and churches to address the problem of homelessness; and forming networks of Jesus followers in order to “distribut[e] the church into everyday life.”

Rainwater praised Hunter for being “a man of integrity, full of compassion for others and infectious love for Jesus Christ,” as well as “a catalyst for worship and service throughout this city and around the world.”

Meanwhile, Rainwater stated that Northland will remain focused on its purpose to “bring people to maturity in Christ” and will “continue to be a community that includes the unincluded, the marginalized, and gathers to worship God for who He is and what He has done.”

Hunter, who serves on the boards of both the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance, famously served as a moderate evangelical (and registered Republican) on Obama’s spiritual cabinet, having resigned from the Christian Coalition a couple years earlier.

“Politics is one venue in which the Lord can work, but his plan A has always been the local congregation,” Hunter said in a 2009 CT profile. “My calling is to be part of that frontline ministry.”

He explained more in his Northland bio: “I am not partisan, nor am I politically oriented. But as God has ordained three institutions—the family, the church, and the government—I work as a pastor in all three of these arenas to promote love and caring and service, especially to those who need it most.”

Hunter served on President Obama’s first Advisory Council on FaithBased and Neighborhood Partnerships, and published A New Kind of Conservative: Cooperation Without Compromise.

In 2010, he decided to leave the Republican Party, explaining to CT:

For 40 years I was a registered Republican like Paul was a registered Pharisee after he became a follower of Christ—when it furthered the agenda of the Gospel (as I understood it) then I was active as a Rep. When it didn’t, I wasn’t.

I was never comfortable being identified with a political Party but the hyper-partisanship and the outside voices hijacking legitimate political debate is not something of which I will be a part.

In 2011, Hunter was named to the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, an inquiry led by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability on behalf of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in the wake of his investigation of the finances of six televangelists.

Hunter shared his response to Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement in a 2012 interview with Leadership Journal, a CT sister publication.

In Orlando, Hunter belonged to the group of pastors seeking dialogue and racial reconciliation in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2013. He told CT that their partnerships ultimately “built a much closer relationship between many of the African-American pastors and Anglo pastors” in the area.

When national tragedy struck the Orlando area again in 2016 with the Pulse Nightclub attack, his church joined in the citywide response. “I was brokenhearted, not because I had so many relationships in the LGBTQ community, but because I had so few,” he wrote in a reflection earlier this year. “Was I complicit in the divisions that led to this destruction? Could anything I said, or preached, have led to this kind disrespect or prejudice or ostracism for that community?”

Back in 2008 and 2009, Hunter prayed at the Democratic National Convention (after first getting Billy Graham’s advice) and on Obama’s inauguration day, hopeful about evangelicals’ place in America’s political future. (CT recently examined the precarious task of praying with presidents.)

“There is great potential for the church to be part of the solution to the problems in our culture and the problems in our world,” he told CT in a 2008 interview, “if we can build coalitions that help enhance the common good that also enhances the Christian social agenda.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with Hunter’s personal statement, released Thursday morning.

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Missionary died thinking he was a failure; 84 years later thriving churches found hidden in the jungle

Missionary died thinking he was a failure; 84 years later thriving churches found hidden in the jungle

By Mark EllisIn 1912, medical missionary Dr. William Leslie went to live and minister to tribal people in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 17 years he returned to the U.S. a discouraged man – believing he failed to make an impact for Christ. He died nine years after his return.

But in 2010, a team led by Eric Ramsey with Tom Cox World Ministries made a shocking and sensational discovery. They found a network of reproducing churches hidden like glittering diamonds in the dense jungle across the Kwilu River from Vanga, where Dr. Leslie was stationed.

Loading Cessna Caravan
Loading Cessna Caravan

With the help of a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot, Ramsey and his team flew east from Kinshasa to Vanga, a two and a half hour flight in a Cessna Caravan. After they reached Vanga, they hiked a mile to the Kwilu River and used dugout canoes to cross the half-mile-wide expanse. Then they hiked with backpacks another 10 miles into the jungle before they reached the first village of the Yansi people.

Based on his previous research, Ramsey thought the Yansi in this remote area might have some exposure to the name of Jesus, but no real understanding of who He is. They were unprepared for their remarkable find.

“When we got in there, we found a network of reproducing churches throughout the jungle,” Ramsey reports. “Each village had its own gospel choir, although they wouldn’t call it that,” he notes. “They wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.”

They found a church in each of the eight

The Yansi jungle "cathedral"
The Yansi jungle “cathedral”

villages they visited scattered across 34 miles. Ramsey and his team even found a 1000-seat stone “cathedral” in one of the villages. He learned that this church got so crowded in the 1980s – with many walking miles to attend — that a church planting movement began in the surrounding villages.

“There is no Bible in the Yansi language,” Ramsey says. “They used a French Bible, so those who taught had to be fluent in French.”

Apparently, Dr. Leslie crossed the Kwilu River once a year from Vanga and spent a month traveling through the jungle, carried by servants in a sedan chair.

Yansi men and boys
Yansi men and boys

“He would teach the Bible, taught the tribal children how to read and write, talked about the importance of education, and told Bible stories,” Ramsey notes. Dr. Leslie started the first organized educational system in these villages, Ramsey learned.

It took some digging for Ramsey to uncover Leslie’s identity. “The tribal people only knew him by one name and I didn’t know if that was a first or last name. They knew he was a Baptist and he was based in that one city and they knew the years.”

When Ramsey returned home he did some additional investigation and discovered Dr. Leslie was affiliated with the American Baptist Missionary Union. The American Baptist Missionary Union was founded in 1814 by Adoniram Judson, who led a pioneering work in Burma.

Born in Ontario, Canada, William H. Leslie followed his intended profession as a pharmacist until his conversion

Dr. William H. Leslie, M.D.
Dr. William H. Leslie, M.D.

in 1888. He moved to the Chicago area, where God began to grip his heart with the desire to become a medical missionary.

Dr. Leslie initiated his Congo service in 1893 at Banza-Manteke. Two years later he developed a serious illness. A young missionary named Clara Hill took care of him until he recovered. Their budding friendship ripened into love and a marriage proposal. They were wed in 1896.

In 1905 William and Clara pioneered a work in Cuilo, Anglola, where they overcame a hurricane that struck the night before one of their children was born, and more mundane obstacles like charging buffaloes and armies of ants.

Seven years later they cleared enough of the leopard-infested jungle along the Kwilu River at Vanga for a new

mission station perched on a small plateau. Some of the villages surrounding Vanga were still practicing cannibalism at that time.

They spent 17 years at Vanga, but their service ended on a rocky note. “Dr. Leslie had a relational falling out with some of the tribal leaders and was asked not to come back,” Ramsey says. “They reconciled later; there were apologies and forgiveness, but it didn’t end like he hoped.”

“His goal was to spread Christianity. He felt like he was there for 17 years and he never really made a big impact, but the legacy he left is huge.”

Leslie_Vanga_Settlement_Africa
Land for the Vanga mission was first cleared in 1912

Spider-Man: Homecoming

In ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ Greatness Starts with Becoming a Servant

Peter Parker has finally entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but he can’t join the Avengers until he practices the heroic discipline of humility.
In 'Spider-Man: Homecoming,' Greatness Starts with Becoming a Servant

Image: Courtesy Sony Pictures

The latest superhero movie can sometimes feel like the last one, with over-quippy dialogue and shallow themes—especially if it’s one of a few recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Not so, however, with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This film marks a happy return for Marvel’s popular yet humble hero, and to Spider-Man’s classic themes of power and responsibility.

Newer Marvel stories occupy amazing fantasy settings (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) or offer up wish-fulfillment glamour (Iron Man). Homecoming, however, returns to basics by counterintuitively skipping Peter Parker’s spider-bite origin and sharing a new perspective on his familiar challenges: Now that Peter can join the broader Avengers universe, he must learn how to become great like the A-list superheroes—by first learning to serve his own people.

A quick recap: To date, this is the third cinematic version of Spider-Man. Sony Pictures licensed the Marvel hero for the first 2002–2007 Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Then, Sony rebooted the series in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred the earnest Andrew Garfield. But the rebooted series didn’t work well, partly because Sony engineers wanted both a cool, merchandisable story-world and a humble Spider-Man at once, and partly because Iron Man (2008) had kicked off the idea of a shared hero universe, motivating fans to expect a broader story palette. Meanwhile, growing special-effects resources helped push superhero films out of the standard “secret identity” plotlines, which had helped balance epic fantasy battles with the more budget-conscious civilian lives of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.

Sony executives thus chose to reboot Spider-Man again, this time teaming up with Marvel Studios to share plotlines and profits. The Avengers had taken the baton from Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy, and now they passed it right back. Our new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) no longer needed to live in a universe of Sony products and overly grandiose side plots about conspiracies and his late parents; now, he lives in the same cinematic world as Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.

Spider-Man made his debut in 2016’s hero-packed Captain America: Civil War, in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited Peter to join Team Iron Man for a battle against Captain America and a giant-sized Ant-Man. It’s easy to imagine that in Peter’s eyes, this was like the best and most “spiritual”-feeling summer camp ever. But as Homecoming begins, Tony drops Peter back into his old “unspiritual” life with only a new suit to help with part-time heroics. It’s nothing compared to becoming a full-time hero with the Avengers: Spider-Man is stuck in the dull web of home and school, with friends and a pretty girl, but also tests and bullies.

Director Jon Watts’s team has fun with Peter’s frustration but never laughs at him. Nor does the story cast Iron Man and his amazing friends as villains—even when Tony won’t answer Peter’s calls. And when Peter jailbreaks his own suit’s tech, takes a battle into his hands, and causes a crisis, Tony arrives and steps into a new armored form: Iron Patriarch Mark I.

“I need you to be better,” Tony lectures. “I’m taking back the suit.”

“I’m nothing without the suit!” Peter pleads.

Tony counters: “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”

A lesser movie would have taken Peter’s side when he demands to be taken seriously and not treated like a kid. But Tony, despite his own immaturity and other flaws, knows this world better. He rightfully lectures and even punishes the well-meaning upstart hero.

In a way, so does the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), leader of a band of alien tech scavengers. His arrogant response to a similar authority’s correction gives the story its negative example. Toomes also personally challenges Peter’s existence—and not just because he can hook into a hovercraft/jetpack and soar high like a vulture, while Peter needs buildings he can stick to. Toomes is aggressive, world-wise, and blue-collar philosophical. In one of my favorite Marvel villain scenes, he challenges Peter: Why can’t Peter see that Toomes is only doing what’s right to protect his people? After all, those rich heroes like Tony don’t know how the real world works. They only care for themselves.

Peter’s humble, intentional response, both to Tony’s well-meant lessons and Toomes’s villainous challenges, elevate the film even while it draws us to Peter’s side. He’s not a Christ-like hero; instead, he’s more like us—a Christian-like hero. Like many young Christians, he is given great gifts, cast into a world of established heroes and villains, and burdened to change this world—the same world that keeps interrupting him with jerk schoolmates, barking dogs, Aunt May’s probing questions, and school detention.

By the end, Peter finds that he doesn’t need to reach a higher numerical score, attain special knowledge, or hit physical training goals to join the Avengers; he simply needs to mature. Through repeated discipline and self-sacrifice, he needs to become a better person. And by defining the goal so vaguely, Tony—and the story itself—incidentally point Peter and his fans in the same direction as biblical servanthood.

For our part, we may have new tech, special gifts, or improved views on how the church should engage culture, but we can’t instantly level-up into heroes who save the world. Only God can decide how and when we grow. Jesus told us how we ought to think of this growth process: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Jesus showed this by lowering himself from his privileged place, dying on the cross, and enduring the shame for the joy set before him (Phil. 2:1–11, Heb. 12: 1–2).

Of course, this act of humility is often itself the exaltation. By Spider-Man: Homecoming’s finale, the filmmakers happily reflect this truth as Peter re-embraces his unique identity. Peter’s fans know his given power and responsibility: to stick to his friendly neighborhood, fighting his own villains and balancing his normal life with discipline and maturity. Only through these acts of servanthood can Peter become great enough to take a break from New York and join the Avengers a few movies later. Only then will the joy of Peter’s level-up and his team-up feel truly earned for both Spider-Man and his fans.

E. Stephen Burnett writes about biblical truth and fantastical stories at Speculative Faith and Christ and Pop Culture. He lives with his wife, Lacy, in their Austin-area home.