This is an opinion column. Views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of SI.
Last year, I introduced my personal choices for the Top News Stories of 2006 that impacted or reflected the corner of the Christian world I most frequently navigate. I was shocked at how my article grew legs and was picked up by other blogs and cited by media sources. I don’t know that anything in my list contained any earth-shattering insights, but it was fun for discussion as people ordered and added and deleted the list I put together.
So in the interest of discussion, debate, and just fun, I offer my current list of Significant News Stories in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in 2006. This year, I went farther out on my limb and made two lists—one for those who identify themselves as “Evangelicals” and a list for those who are “Fundamentalists” (proving once again that Fundamentalists are separatists to the core—we even want separate lists!).
So … (drum roll please) … I present …
The Top 10 News Stories of Interest in Evangelicalism in 2006 (in ascending order of importance)
10. The Caner/Caner vs. White/Ascol Debate on Calvinism
Promising a “Thrilla’ on Theology,” a “Contest over Calvinism,” a “Jousting in Jerrytown,” a “Lickin’ in Libertyville,” a “Waxing by White,” a “Conquest by the Caners” (OK, OK. I’ll stop it!)—the much bally-hoo’ed debate between the four docs who thought they could settle the centuries-old conflict over Calvinism turned out to be an embarrassing bust for all involved. Unable to contain themselves before the actual event scheduled for November in the new auditorium of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia (the Mother Ship/Church of Liberty University), the four “intellectuals” started unleashing on each other via email in the ugliest of terms over everything from the rules of the debate to the tone of each other’s emails regarding the rules of the debate. In the end, it spilled out onto the Internet and created a messy scene that drew rubber-neckers and sycophants alike. Finally, the plug was pulled (creating yet another exchange of “who quit firsts” postings), and the whole sullied affair finally disappeared from cyberspace. Sadly, perhaps the greatest chance to finally resolve the issue of Calvin’s five-points in 250 years was lost. Yeah, right.
9. SBC Pulpit Shuffles Continue
Over the last couple of years, many of the great pulpits of major Southern Baptist Church congregations have been vacated and refilled. Among those that experienced the transition were First Baptist, Jacksonville; First Baptist, Daytona Beach; Bellevue Baptist, Memphis; First Baptist, Charlotte; First Baptist, West Palm Beach (which eventually had to receive the resignation of Pastor #2 after revelations that he had lied on his resume and had been accused of financial improprieties at his previous church were exposed in the local media) and multiple other large churches as a mini domino effect occurred. Many of the great old warriors of the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence are retiring, moving on, or going to heaven including Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Bobby Welch, Charles Page, and others.
8. Barna Report—No One Knows Christian Leaders
In a giant moment of burst egos and a reintroduction to reality, George Barna issued a report that shows that most of the country has no idea who Christian celebrities like James Dobson, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Rick Warren really are. Fully three-fourths of Americans have never heard of Warren in spite of his ability to make headlines constantly. Not even self-described Christians recognized his name with two-thirds of them scratching their potentially purpose-driven heads while saying, “Rick who?” Never fear, however; pop-culture fascination is still with us as 95 percent know who Rosie O’Donnell is, 96 percent are familiar with Mel Gibson, and 93 percent think that Denzel Washington is the bomb.
7. A Big Boom in Distance Learning
Christian colleges all over the country are catching the distance-learning wave as more and more schools develop Internet-based programs for earning graduate degrees. Fewer are into undergraduate degrees, but it is a growing area for undergraduates as well. Falwell’s Liberty University now boasts some 25,000-plus distance learners. Colleges and universities that refuse to consider distance learning as an option may be losing out on a lot of students and on their revenue stream in the future. Accrediting agencies are even putting their stamp of authenticity on these programs with greater frequency.
6. “They Like Us! They Really, Really Like Us!”—Hollywood Chases Holy Dollars
With apologies to Sally Field, many evangelicals are finding themselves “woo’ed” by the publicists and advertising agencies hired to promote Hollywood movies (sometimes referred to by the devout as “films”) to believers. After seeing Mel Gibson reap boatloads of evangelical largess by promoting Passion to churches, they are waking up to the fact that evangelicals are flocking to theaters after a 50-year-old (or so) boycott. Pastors pimped for DaVinci Code so well that what otherwise might have been a major financial flop got so much hype with millions of Christian books, sermons, and articles that the movie ended up making money. Not since Y2K hysteria have we seen more bandwagon jumping. Now every week, pastors get “kewl” advertising kits, begging them to develop sermon series, lessons, Bible studies, youth activities, and more around the latest celluloid release.
5. It’s the 1980’s All Over Again—Ted Haggard … Exposed!
Just when people quit snickering every time they heard the names Bakker or Swaggart, we are being treated to another round of high-profile peccadilloes. Right before the election, a gay prostitute from Denver exposed NAE President and Colorado Springs pastor Ted Haggard for a range of charges including purchase of crystal meth and payment for gay sex. Shortly thereafter, another Denver pastor of a megachurch was pushed out of the closet by a Denver newspaper; and more recently, another staff pastor from Haggard’s church was forced to resign over an affair that was conducted years ago. Once again, the reputation of the church and the presentation of Christ suffered over moral failures.
4. Blogs Run Amok
Blogs, blogs, and more blogs. Everyone with an opinion seems to start a blog though most disappear faster than Frosty the Snowman in August, littering the Internet with their skeletal remains flashing years-old posts to those who happen by. But by most accounts, the blogosphere is getting meaner. Calvinism seems to be a hot topic on many Christian blogs, but a newer phenomenon is the use of blogs to uncover political issues within churches and Christian organizations and anonymously “inform” the faithful. The New York Times did a major piece on churches in the South that were experiencing great conflict over anonymous blog sites that were stirring trouble on issues like music styles and even pastoral authority. The highest profile church to be affected by these tactics was Memphis’ historic Bellevue Baptist Church, which has an “underground” blog that got hundreds of thousands of hits as a group of disgruntleds opposed newly installed pastor Dr. Steve Gaines. Recently, leadership at Bellevue had to address an affair by a staff pastor that had occurred 17 years ago but was publicized by the underground blog. Many believe bloggers were responsible for Ronnie Floyd’s defeat for President of the SBC at this year’s Southern Baptist national meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina.
3. Sitting Out the Elections
Republicans took their base for granted, detached themselves from their grassroots, arrogantly pushed ahead with wild spending and an unpopular war, and lost both the House and the Senate. The margin of defeat in many extremely close districts around the country was attributed to the fact that many evangelicals decided to sit this election out, sickened by a lack of progress on issues important to social conservatives: pork-barrel spending, repeated ethical and moral scandals, and a lack of connection to the religious right. Some believe this may have been like cutting off one’s nose to spite the face while others saw this movement as an important wake-up call for Republicans. Of major concern is the absence of a true social conservative who has any early traction in the race for the Republican presidential nomination for 2008, raising the specter of even more Christian conservatives sitting at home rather than voting for John McCain or Rudolph Giuliani.
2. Rick Warren—24/7
Everywhere you turn, Rick Warren is in the news. His P.E.A.C.E. initiative is bringing together liberal activists and his brand of evangelicals. He gets a one-hour puff-piece special on Fox News that has been run multiple times. Every time the hype over the Purpose-Driven Life dies down, something happens in the news to bring it back to the attention of the public, and a few more million copies are sold. In the process of incredible publicity and riches, Warren seems to be tracking a course that takes him away from a clear Gospel message and more toward social activism. Some are (prematurely) calling him “America’s Pastor” before Billy Graham is gone. Recent missteps including inviting liberal Democrat Barak Obama to a Saddleback conference on AIDS and making some rather outrageously positive comments about Syria have taken some of the gild from his halo. But the media seems ready to forgive him while his more conservative Christian brethren seem tired of what is increasingly being seen as a “Messiah Complex.”
And you’ve waited for it all this time … The Number 1 News Story Impacting Evangelicals …
1. Porn–It’s Not Just for Perverts Anymore.
Multiple studies show a crisis of pornography viewing and addiction that is infecting born-again males as much as it is those who do not profess to be believers. The Internet has opened the gateway to a private struggle that many Christian men fail to admit they have—controlling one’s thought life and sexual appetites and using the gift of sex outside of the context of Scripture. Because of the three “A”s—it’s Anonymous, Affordable, and Accessible—more and more men are casually visiting pornographic websites and then finding themselves ensnared. Most men report that they did not have to go looking for pornography. Through thousands of spam email messages, deceitful links on Google and Yahoo searches, and other covert methods, the pornography came to them. Before long, they developed a habit. As a result, Christian counselors report a dramatic rise in crisis counseling among porn addicts. Marriages are damaged when hubby is discovered. Ministries are ended when pastors are uncovered. The church has a history of trying to ignore the topic of sex in general and has done little to deal with this issue honestly, transparently, authoritatively, and scripturally. Thus, many men describe themselves as being “in agony” over the addiction without knowing where to turn for help. One study suggested that for some men, pornography can be as addictive as crack cocaine. The pornography problem is one of the most important areas of concern in churches across the philosophical spectrum, and church leaders need to get serious about working with their men and young men (and sometimes women) in dealing with this temptation.
Not making this list but on the Honorable Mention list are the following stories:
- Evangelicals and Environmental Activism
- Evangelicals and Social Activism
- The Rise of Flagrantly Anti-Christian Books
- International Mission Board Puts the Heat on Missionaries to Sign the Baptist Faith and Witness Statement
- Billy Graham’s Family Feuds Over Burial Spots for Billy and Ruth
- Anglican Church in the Process of Dividing Over Liberal Drift
- Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Video Game—Complete with Assault-Weapon-Totin’ Believers Doing Battle with the Antichrist Crew
- DaVinci Mania
There you have it. Now feel free to argue, debate, offer alternatives, reorder the list, and make your own list.
Tomorrow … it’s the Fundamentalists’ turn!
Dan Burrell is senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church (Charlotte, NC). He’s also a commentator for the Evangelical Press News and blogs at Whirled Views with Dan Burrell.