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News: Sorry 666: Churches Fear 990 More

How more ministries going digital could unwittingly aid atheists targeting church tax breaks.

Critics of churches' favorable tax treatment gained ammunition from a recent investigation by National Public Radio, which questioned why the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has granted church status to 22 of America's 30 largest television ministries.

Only two are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But such filings can be legitimate, said president Dan Busby. "The advent of new technologies used by churches to disseminate their message has only served to make distinctions between church and parachurch organizations more complex."

Many churches leverage today's technology so those beyond their walls can participate. But Christian legal experts are concerned that blurred lines between "church" and "ministry" will eventually spur the IRS to reexamine what constitutes a church. (The agency last stripped a nonprofit of church status in 2004, largely because the broadcasting- and publishing-focused group mostly ceased to gather its followers in a physical space.)

In late 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS, arguing that churches should be subject to the same Form 990 paperwork as nonprofits are. A Wisconsin federal court decided that the atheist group had legal standing to proceed.

If the foundation prevails, church formation may be stifled, said Chicago attorney Rich Baker. Few of the hundreds of churches he has represented have the financial resources to complete registration forms and audited financial statements.

"Each signals a greater degree of oversight," said Baker. "If they make churches file as charitable entities, it would have major repercussions."

A federal judge in Kentucky recently dismissed ...

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News: Sorry 666: Churches Fear 990 More

How more ministries going digital could unwittingly aid atheists targeting church tax breaks.

Critics of churches' favorable tax treatment gained ammunition from a recent investigation by National Public Radio, which questioned why the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has granted church status to 22 of America's 30 largest television ministries.

Only two are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But such filings can be legitimate, said president Dan Busby. "The advent of new technologies used by churches to disseminate their message has only served to make distinctions between church and parachurch organizations more complex."

Many churches leverage today's technology so those beyond their walls can participate. But Christian legal experts are concerned that blurred lines between "church" and "ministry" will eventually spur the IRS to reexamine what constitutes a church. (The agency last stripped a nonprofit of church status in 2004, largely because the broadcasting- and publishing-focused group mostly ceased to gather its followers in a physical space.)

In late 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS, arguing that churches should be subject to the same Form 990 paperwork as nonprofits are. A Wisconsin federal court decided that the atheist group had legal standing to proceed.

If the foundation prevails, church formation may be stifled, said Chicago attorney Rich Baker. Few of the hundreds of churches he has represented have the financial resources to complete registration forms and audited financial statements.

"Each signals a greater degree of oversight," said Baker. "If they make churches file as charitable entities, it would have major repercussions."

A federal judge in Kentucky recently dismissed ...

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Meriam Ibrahim Finally Leaves Sudan, Meets Pope Francis

Christian mother once sentenced to death for her faith now bound for United States with her family.

JUBA, South Sudan (MSN) – After blocking her departure on a spurious charge of forged travel documents, Sudan today allowed a Christian mother sentenced to die over a false allegation of leaving Islam to leave the country, her attorney said.

Having given birth to her second child while shackled to prison chains just two months ago, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim arrived in Italy today and met with Pope Francis after U.S. and Italian efforts to free her. "The government decided to drop charges against her yesterday, July 23," attorney Thabit al Zubair told Morning Star News. "They have left Sudan and they are now in Italy." Ibrahim and her husband, dual South Sudanese/U.S. citizen Daniel Wani, arrived in Rome on an Italian government jet today with plans to continue to the United States. A Vatican spokesman told The Associated Press that the pope "thanked her for her faith and courage, and she thanked him for his prayer and solidarity." The couple arrived to cheers, greeted by the Italian prime minister, with their infant daughter Maya, born May 27, and nearly 2-year-old son Martin, who had remained with his mother since her imprisonment without trial in February. Muslims claiming to be relatives had accused her of leaving Islam. Ibrahim says that she was raised a Christian by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother, and that her Muslim father disappeared when she was 6 years old. She was released from prison in Sudan on June 23, less than two months after Morning Star News broke the story of false charges of apostasy against her that set off a firestorm of international protests, only to be detained at the Khartoum airport less than 24 hours later. More than 40 agents from the National Intelligence ...

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Connecting Students to God's Mission (Part 1): Look to Jesus

Connecting students to God's mission first requires us to know the mission of the Son of God.

When we begin talking about mission, many people think of mission trips. That's not a bad thing. One of my most formative experiences was a youth mission trip among the poor in Prestonburg, Kentucky.

Mission trips can be helpful to us in considering the mission of God and potentially can lead students to think more deeply about their roles in the mission. However, mission (not plural) is bigger than trips, but not so big that students cannot understand it or be involved. If students can learn algebra at school, they can learn theology at church. If they are learning theology but not putting it into practice, we are failing them. Maybe we haven't challenged our students enough in terms of missional living.

To help them understand mission and put it into practice, we need to consider what the mission is, how we might point students toward it, how they can begin being involved right now, and how we can prepare them for an entire life on mission.

What Is Mission?

Definitions matter when we talk about mission (I'll have a more extensive blog post on this subject on Monday). If we want students to be involved in something, we have to know what mission actually is.

God is a missionary God. As believers, we need to understand what God desires and what He is doing for His purposes in the world. Then we see how Jesus engaged in and called us to that mission—and we join Jesus in His mission. The obvious question is: How can we engage students in the privilege of joining Him in that mission? First, we have to help them see the two aspects of it.

The mission includes gospel proclamation—sharing the good news of the gospel through many means, including cross-cultural missionaries, outreach campaigns, ...

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The Good Ministers of the Silver Screen

Sure, there are badly-written clergy at TV and the movies. But it's the good ones that tell us something about what it is to be a minister.

After watching "Two Boats and a Helicopter," the third episode of The Leftovers—HBO's TV show about a small town in the wake of the Rapture—I wrote that the character at the center of the episode, the Reverend Matt Jamison, was "one of the more complex portrayals of a true believer who's losing his grip that I've seen in a while." Others I read and talked with agreed.

Two days later, I was seeing an advance screening of Calvary, which releases August 1, and has one of the best portrayals of a "good priest" that I've ever seen. (More on that to come.)

What makes both of these characters good, and real, is that they aren't just "good" ministers: they are also real people, with doubts and struggles and screw-ups. Yet they're not portrayed in a bad light, or as hypocrites. They are people who want to follow their calling, and who encounter difficulties. They have histories. They have weak spots. They even do things that are destructive.

But, importantly, they dwell among the messed-up people in their towns, living with them, talking to them, listening to their confessions. They are reviled and trusted, often by the same people. They have what the priest in Calvary calls "integrity," in the way that Christ did: not because they are blameless (they can't be—they're human), but because they falteringly give us a sense of what this means:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. ...

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Mosul Christian: Thanks for Changing Your #WeAreN Photo

Believers in Iraq rally around label that forced them out of their homes and churches.

Editor's note: In the reflection below, a young Christian from Mosul writes about the takeover of her hometown by the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the recent international support shown through the #WeAreN campaign on social media. She has been living in the safer Kurdistan Region in the northern part of Iraq for the past few years and works with refugee relief efforts supported by Open Doors International as Mosul's remaining Christians flee north.

I can't believe what's happening now. And it's all happening all so fast. 2,000 years of Christian history and presence is being destroyed. I am confused and sad. Everybody is. On the news I saw the extremists replaced the cross on our church in Mosul with the black flag of the Islamic State. They are doing a call of Islamic prayer from our church. They have turned it into a mosque.

I can't believe it. I wanted to cry when I saw this on the news. This past weekend, the Islamic State gave Christians in Mosul an ultimatum: convert, pay a high tax, leave before Saturday at noon, or die. All Christians chose to leave. This is what we have feared for a long time.

My aunt and her sons were the last of my family to flee from Mosul. They left after the threat of the Islamic State last weekend and are staying with family here in the north now. They are devastated. My aunt kept crying. Her husband died a long time ago, and she has raised her children on her own. She cried, "What do I do now? I have nothing left. They even took my house."

Two other houses of relatives have also been taken. They left one of the houses a while ago. They asked a Muslim neighbor to live in it because they knew it would be protected if a Muslim ...

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Not Another Charity Case

Violence against women calls for an immediate, institution-wide response from Christians.

Vast amounts of ink have been spilled pointing out how our attempts at charity go about it wrong. TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie came under fire for his model, which donated a pair of shoes to someone in a developing country for each pair sold, arguably leaving foreign markets flooded with an overabundance of shoes and putting locals out of business. (Mycoskie may be improving his business model these days.) Other criticized aid ideas include cartons of unwanted T-shirts sent to African nations; short-term missions trips, if not planned well; and, generally, any idea that involves a relatively wealthy and privileged person thinking she can use physical resources to stem the tide of a disaster by buying, building, or visiting.

Elizabeth Gerhardt would add to that list our project-based attempts to alleviate gender violence.

Too many Christians, she says, are blind to institutional frameworks — some as close as our own families, churches, and communities — that perpetuate gender violence as Christians go about planning fundraisers and mission trips that, at best, bandage the festering issue.

"Calls to care for the poor and oppressed and to denounce unjust systems that maintain material and physical deprivation are often met by resistance by faithful Christians," Gerhardt says in her new book, The Cross and Gendercide (InterVarsity, 2014). "Philanthropy and charity are often applauded and encouraged while the call for changes in systems that support injustice is met with suspicion and division within the Christian community."

And gender violence is no small problem. According to the World Health Organization, around one-third of all women in the world have experienced some form ...

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Interview: Meet the Failed Pastor Who Ministers to Other Failed Pastors

J. R. Briggs sympathizes with church leaders who don't live up to expectations.

As a dynamic young preacher at a large church, J. R. Briggs felt God calling him to start a church plant. Gradually, the church grew, but its growth eventually stalled out. Disappointment led him to found the Epic Fail Pastors Conference—"a gathering for pastors and leaders seeking to understand how God works through failure"—and to write Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (InterVarsity Press). Briggs spoke with Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal, about redefining the notion of ministry success.

What attracted you to a topic that most people would rather avoid?

It started with attending pastors' conferences. They featured well-known pastors of large churches, but average pastors were never invited to share their experiences. These events were all about success and getting results. I was in the middle of a painful season of ministry. I needed something that wouldn't discourage me or add to my spiritual vertigo. I wanted to talk honestly. I needed an AA meeting for pastors, but there was no such thing.

Many pastors, ex-pastors, and Christian leaders were desperate for that type of forum. I wasn't trying to create a conference. I simply longed for a space where no one was scared by the shortcomings of other sinners, even if those sinners were also ministry leaders.

Do our issues with failure come from faulty notions of success?

I don't like using the word success when talking about ministry. I'd much rather use words like health, faithfulness, and obedience. Our culture is obsessed with success, and the church is not immune. Pastors are inundated with temptations to chase the wrong things. We need to take a hard look at how we define ...

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What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Birth Control'

Meaningful debate requires us to define the terms of discussion.

Widespread acceptance in our culture of all forms of birth control, including abortion, makes it harder for the Christian to discern if, when, and how to incorporate such practices into one's own life, as well as what place personal convictions have in community and in public policy.

I suspect one of the greatest obstacles to constructive dialogue on the questions about birth control raised by the Hobby Lobby case is the imprecision of the terms being discussed. Perhaps, then, the first step toward finding agreement—or at least correctly identifying at the points on which we can agree to disagree—is to employ common definitions.

The debate around the Hobby Lobby case, birth control methods, and insurance coverage illuminates not only how deeply divided Christians are on these matters but also how ill-defined the central questions are. Questions of conscience are matters for all believers to respect in each other even amidst disagreement. If Christians cannot engage with each other with clarity, respect, and good faith on difficult questions, how will we do so with those outside the church?

In an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled war of words, here are some of the questions central to this conversation. They're not as simple as we might assume.

How does the medical community define pregnancy?

At the heart of the debate is the question about whether or not certain birth control methods prevent pregnancy or terminate pregnancy. Part of the problem in answering even this basic question is that even the term pregnancy is not agreed upon universally and has undergone numerous changes, due less to scientific debates than semantic ones. While the American College of Obstetricians and ...

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News: New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs

(UPDATED) But Obama won't withdraw memo on religious discrimination.

An executive order President Obama signed Monday prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in federal hiring may not immediately affect many religious organizations, but leaders are still raising their eyebrows.

The executive order amends a 1965 order prohibiting some forms of discrimination by federal contractors. The old text forbade contractors from discriminating "against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Obama's revision adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" between "sex" and "national origin."

Many religious organizations, such as World Vision, World Relief, and Catholic Charities partner with the federal government, but often receive grants, not contracts, so are not affected by the order, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Religious organizations with federal grants are currently protected: A 2007 religious exemption memo from the federal attorney general's office says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is reasonably construed" to exempt World Vision (and other religious organizations that administer federal funds through social services programs) from religious nondiscrimination requirements on other federal grantees.

The executive order also lets stand a George W. Bush-era provision allowing religious contractors to hire employees "of a particular religion," said Thomas Berg, a professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.).

"Several federal courts have held that this language, incorporated from elsewhere in antidiscrimination law, allows religious organizations ...

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Beyond the Echo Chamber on Gender Roles

Our notion of male and female begins with a robust understanding of creation.

Despite the title of Hannah Anderson's Made for More, the book is actually less about more and more about less. Anderson writes about stripping away the trappings of stereotypes and unbiblical constructs, tearing down the self-made idols of motherhood and husbandry. Her book is an invitation to live in God's image, setting a fairer table and finer feast than almost any book on gender I have read.

The first-time author begins by walking readers through creation—not the creation of man and woman, the imago dei, but the creation of a new believer, that tender sprout of life bursting within. She wrestles with issues of faith in tears and pain, only to find the birth of realization, the a ha! of salvation, continues as we wrest within our souls to discover who we are at our core. Anderson pushes beyond what physical attributes we bear or circumstantial constructs the world has given us to the actual core, to that deep and profound moment when we, like Adam, say, "At last!"

Sadly the "At last!" happens for fewer of us, and so Anderson makes it her aim throughout all of Made for More to draw readers' eyes back to the beauty of the image of God. It is not a book about biblical womanhood, nor a book about how to be a better wife, a more desirable woman, a more chaste single, or more of anything but an image bearer of the Most High. It is a book about humans flourishing under the great weight and light burden of God's design.

It doesn't take more than a cursory glance around the Internet—or in the church pews—to find the discussion on gender raising heated opinions everywhere. The problem though, it seems, is that no one is starting from a common place. Each person's ...

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Interview: How to Avoid the Church's 'Hero Culture'

Chuck DeGroat reveals his strategy for spiritual health while ministering to difficult people.

Shepherding a church or ministry inevitably means dealing with difficult personalities. How can leaders handle hard relationships without buckling under the pressure? Chuck DeGroat, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary, as well as a pastor and therapist, tackles the question in his latest book, Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life—Including Yourself (Eerdmans). Daniel Darling, a pastor and author, spoke with DeGroat about embracing vulnerability and avoiding the pitfalls of the church-based "hero culture."

You write candidly about having nurtured suicidal thoughts, even while serving in ministry. Should church leaders publicly share their struggles this way?

I've done research on seminary graduates who had been in ministry five or more years. They were excited to study the Bible, read deep books, and preach. But they weren't prepared for the barrage of criticism, gossip, triangulation, stress, exhaustion, and more.

Throughout my own time in ministry, there have been dark times. I've felt worthless, like it just wasn't worth it, like my wife and I were a thousand miles apart. I've had times when I felt like everyone was against me, when my inner critic was so loud I couldn't think. As leaders, we need greater permission to tell stories that include the darker edges. Every good story involves suffering, death, and resurrection—that's the pattern Jesus set! Why pretend we're superhuman when Christ was fully human?

I distinguish between openness and vulnerability. Vulnerability is saved for a few close friends and one's spouse. Openness is for larger audiences. Good leadership ...

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Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights? It's More Complicated

The legal context for what's happening at Gordon College, and how Christians can respond despite intense cultural backlash.

A private Christian school holds what it considers a biblical view of marriage. It welcomes all students, but insists that they adhere to certain beliefs and abstain from conduct that violates those beliefs. Few doubt the sincerity of those beliefs. The school's leaders are seen as strange and offensive to the world, but then again, they know that they will find themselves as aliens and strangers in the world. This description fits a number of Christian schools confronted today with rapidly changing sexual norms. But the description also would have fit Bob Jones University, a school that barred interracial dating until 2000. And in 1983, that ban cost Bob Jones its tax exemption, in a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even for a relatively small school of a few thousand students, that meant losing millions of dollars. And the government's removal of tax-exempt status had a purpose: one Supreme Court justice described it as "elementary economics: when something becomes more expensive, less of it will be purchased." The comparison between Bob Jones in 1983 and Christian schools today will strike some as unwarranted. Indeed, there are historical reasons to reject it. The discriminatory practices in Bob Jones were linked to the slavery of African Americans and the Jim Crow South. The 1983 Court decision came within a generation of Brown v. Board of Education, and its legal principles extended to private secondary schools (including "segregationist academies") that resisted racial integration. There are also significant theological differences between Bob Jones's race-based arguments and arguments that underlie today's sexual conduct restrictions. Those differences are rooted ...

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