By / Jan 4

While 2018 has been a year of controversies, division, and tragedies, there were also a number of positive developments that have occurred. Here are 10 you might not have heard about:

1. Persecuted American pastor released from jail in Turkey

“After spending two years imprisoned in Turkey on spurious terrorism-related charges, an American pastor was freed on October 15, 2018, and allowed to return to the United States.”

2. ‘First Step’ criminal justice reform becomes law

“The launch of criminal justice reform backed by both conservatives and liberals has become a reality in federal law. The First Step Act to promote the rehabilitation and societal re-entry of prisoners while maintaining public safety was signed by President Trump on December 21, 2018. The measure provides training for inmates and reforms some sentencing requirements, including certain drug offenses.”

See also: What you should know about the FIRST STEP Act

3. NAMB’s Annie Armstrong Offering hits all-time high

“Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), announced to trustees during their meeting that the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions broke the $60 million mark for the first time ever in 2018, with Southern Baptists giving $61.1 million.”

4. The rate of suicide is declining around the globe

“The global suicide rates have dropped by 38 percent since 1994, saving four million lives, four times the number killed in combat during the same time.”

See also: Suicide from a Christian perspective

5. Teenage drinking declines across Europe

“The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that teenage drinking has declined across Europe, the continent with the highest rates of drinking in the world. The most dramatic decline was in Britain. Half of all teenage boys in England drank weekly in 2002, but this figure was down to 1 in 10 by 2014, the report said. For teenage girls, the same number dropped from 43 percent in 2002 to 9 percent  in 2014, with similar falls reported in Scotland and Wales.”

6. Supreme Court protects free speech of pro-life pregnancy centers

“The Supreme Court ruled on National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California, a case regarding a California law that threatened to shut down pregnancy resource centers serving women and children in need.”

7. New HIV cases decline in the country with the world’s largest population of people living with HIV

“Confounding expectations, South Africa—home to the world’s largest population of people living with HIV—has recorded a significant decline in the number of people contracting the virus. A major national survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa’s main official statistician, found that the number of new HIV infections had dropped by 44 percent since the last major study in 2012.”

8. The rates of female genital mutilation in east Africa drops sharply

“The number of girls undergoing female genital mutilation has fallen dramatically in east Africa over the past two decades, according to a study published in BMJ Global Health. The study, which looked at rates of FGM among girls aged 14 and under, suggests that prevalence in east Africa has dropped from 71.4 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2016.”

See also: 5 facts about female genital mutilation

9. America’s incarceration rate is at a two-decade low

“The U.S. incarceration rate fell in 2016 to its lowest level in 20 years, according to new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the statistical arm of the Department of Justice.  At the end of 2016, there were about 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., including 1.5 million under the jurisdiction of federal and state prisons and roughly 741,000 in the custody of locally run jails.”

10. Through the Psalm 139 Project, ERLC placed five sonogram machines in pregnancy resource centers in 2018

“Through its Psalm 139 Project, the ERLC has been a part of the placement of five ultrasound machines in pregnancy resource centers across the country this year, in New Orleans, Louisianna; Dallas, Texas; Liberty, Missouri; and Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to the machines, the Psalm 139 Project provides for the training for those who will use them to serve the most vulnerable in their communities.”

By / Feb 21

The Rev. Billy Graham died today at the age of 99. Graham has preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Here are five facts you probably didn’t know about the man who became the world’s most famous Southern Baptist.

1. Graham grew up on the family dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents were strict, but loving, Presbyterians. Graham’s father, William Franklin Graham Sr., was a stern man who eschewed tobacco and forbade the drinking of alcohol. In 1933, after the end of Prohibition, Mr. Graham placed two bottles of beer before Billy and his sister Katherine and ordered, "Drink all of it." The shock of it turned them against the bitter brew. "From now on," said Mr. Graham, "Whenever any of your friends try to get you to drink alcohol, just tell them you’ve tasted it, and you don’t like it." The experience created such an aversion that both avoided alcohol and drugs for the rest of their lives.

2. In 1934 at the age of 16, Graham was turned down for membership in a local youth group because he was "too worldly." A man who worked on the Graham farm persuaded the young man to go and see the evangelist Mordecai Ham. According to his autobiography, Graham was converted during a series of revival meetings led by Ham in Charlotte, North Carolina. After graduating from Sharon High School in May 1936, Graham attended Bob Jones College. After one semester, he found it too legalistic in both coursework and rules. He was almost expelled, but Bob Jones Sr. warned him not to throw his life away: “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks. . . . You have a voice that pulls. God can use that voice of yours. He can use it mightily.”

3. Graham was ordained by a Southern Baptist Convention church in 1939. He intended to become a chaplain in the armed forces but, shortly after applying for a commission, he contracted mumps. After a period of recuperation in Florida, he was hired as the first full-time evangelist of the new Youth for Christ International (YFCI). He preached throughout the United States and in Europe in the immediate post-war era, emerging as a rising young evangelist. After a Los Angeles revival that included the conversion of Hollywood stars, Graham was surprised by a crowd of reporters and photographers. When Graham asked what caused the fuss, a reporter said, “You have just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst. Look here.” Hearst, the powerful newspaper mogul, had sent the message that his reporters were to "Puff Graham." Within days, the crusade was being given extensive coverage by Hearst's chain of papers, major national magazines, and wire services. Graham never met Hearst, and no one is sure why the publisher took an interest in the evangelist. But as a result of the media coverage, Graham soon moved from a tent evangelist to a national figure.

4. When he first began to receive national attention in the early 1950s, Graham had not publicly displayed opposition to racial segregation.  But in 1953 he tore down the ropes that organizers had erected to separate the audience into racial sections. Although he would later allow segregated seating at other crusades, he became increasingly opposed to segregation and racism. In 1955, Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week revival in New York City, where 2.3 million gathered at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Times Square to hear them. In his autobiography, Graham says he and King developed a close friendship and that he was eventually one of the few people who referred to King as "Mike," a nickname that King asked only his closest friends to call him. In 1963, Graham posted bail for King to be released from jail during the civil rights protests in Birmingham.

5. Graham was often referred to as the “pastor to the presidents” because he had a relationship or personal audience with every U.S. president from Truman to Obama. He was particularly close with Eisenhower, who asked for Graham while on his deathbed, and Nixon. He presided over the graveside services for president Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and spoke at the funeral of president Richard Nixon in 1994. The only president that didn’t like Graham, as the evangelist frequently noted, was Truman. Truman called Graham a “counterfeit” and said “he was never a friend of mine when I was President.” In 2001, a committee of historians, journalists, and public intellectuals ranked Graham as the fourth most influential Southerner of the 20th century behind Martin Luther King Jr., William Faulkner, and Elvis Presley.  Between 1955 and 2006, Graham won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s roster of ‘Ten Most Admired Men’ 55 times (including 49 consecutive years), trumping his closest rivals, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, who appeared 31 and 27 times.

By / Mar 28

We're told church relevance and membership is declining daily. So how should Christians think about such claims? Dan Darling sits down with Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway, to talk about the good things happening in today's churches.

By / Aug 18

NOTE: Sam Allberry will be one of the speakers at the ERLC National Conference: “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” The conference is designed to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches. This event will be held at the iconic Opryland Hotel on October 27-29, 2014. To learn more go here.

We were having lunch together, and I was praying like mad. My friend had been in a committed same-sex relationship for about 15 years. He was interested in Jesus; attracted to his teaching and message. But he wanted to know how becoming a Christian would affect his gay lifestyle.

I had explained, as carefully and graciously as I could, that Jesus upheld and expanded the wider biblical stance on sexuality, that the only context for sexual activity is heterosexual marriage. Following Jesus would mean seeking to live under his word, in this area as in any other. He had been quiet for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and asked the billion-dollar question: 'What could possibly be worth giving up my partner for?' I held his gaze for a moment while my brain raced for the answer. There was eternity, of course. There was heaven and hell. But I was conscious that these realities would seem other-worldly and intangible to him. In any case, surely following Jesus is worth it even for this life. He was asking about life here-and-now, so I prayed for God to lead me to a here-and-now Bible verse. I wanted my friend to know that following Jesus really is worth it—worth it in the life to come, but also worth it in this life now, no less so for those who have homosexual feelings. Yes, there would be a host of hardships and difficulties: unfulfilled longings, the distress of unwanted temptation, and the struggles of long-term singleness. But I wanted him to know that following Jesus is more than worth it, even with all it entails for gay people. And I also wanted to tell him that I had come to know this not just from studying the Bible and listening to others, but from my own experience.

More grace, not less

Homosexuality is an issue I have grappled with my entire Christian life. It took a long time to admit to myself, longer to admit to others, and even longer to see something of God's good purposes through it all. There have been all sorts of ups and downs. But this battle is not devoid of blessings, as Paul discovered with his own unyielding thorn in the flesh. Struggling with sexuality has been an opportunity to experience more of God's grace, rather than less. Only in recent months have I felt compelled to be more open on this issue. For many years I had no intention of being public about it. I am conscious that raising it here may lead to any number of responses—some welcome, some perhaps less so. But over the last couple of years I have felt increasingly concerned that, when it comes to our gay friends and family members, many of us Bible-believing Christians are losing confidence in the gospel. We are not always convinced it really is good news for gay people. We are not always sure we can really expect them to live by what the Bible says. As my mind raced that lunchtime God gave me a verse to share with my friend. It demonstrates precisely why following Jesus is worth it, in this lifetime, and even when we have to give up things we could never imagine living without:

Peter said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much as in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:28-30)

Following Jesus involves leaving things behind and giving things up. For gay people, it involves leaving behind a gay lifestyle.

God's clear Word

The Bible is consistent in prohibiting homosexual practice. Jesus himself condemns “sexual immorality” (Mark 7:21, for example). Though Jesus does not directly mention homosexual activity, he does include it. The Greek word we translate as “sexual immorality” (porneia, from which we get the word pornography) is a catch-all term for any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage. Paul is more specific, directly referring to homosexual practice in three passages. InRomans 1:24-27 both homosexual and also lesbian activity are given as examples of the “unnatural” behavior that results from turning away from God. In 1 Cor. 6:9-10 “homosexual offenders” are listed among those whose behavior will result in their exclusion from God's kingdom. The word Paul uses literally translates as “men who lie with men” and comes again in 1 Timothy 1:10 (where the NIV 1984 unhelpfully translates it “perverts”). It is simply not possible to argue for gay relationships from the Bible. Attempts by some church leaders to do so inevitably involve twisting some texts and ignoring others. God's Word is, in fact, clear. The Bible consistently prohibits any sexual activity outside of marriage. As someone who experiences homosexual feelings this is not always an easy word to hear. It has sometimes been very painful to come to terms with what the Bible says. There have been times of acute temptation and longing—times when I have been “in love.” And yet Scripture shows that these longings distort what God has created me for.

Extraordinary returns

However much we have to leave behind we are never left out of pocket. Whatever we give up Jesus replaces, in godly kind and greater measure. No one who leaves will fail to receive, and the returns are extraordinary—a hundredfold. What we give up for Jesus does not compare to what he gives back. If the costs are great, the rewards are even greater, even in this life. For me these include a wonderful depth of friendship God has given me with many brothers and sisters; the opportunities of singleness; the privilege of a wide-ranging ministry; and the community of a wonderful church family. But greater than any of these things is the opportunity that any complex and difficult situation presents us with: to learn the all-sufficiency of Christ—learning that fullness of life and joy is in him and his service, and nowhere else. There is a huge amount to say on this issue, but the main point is this: the moment you think following Jesus will be a poor deal for someone, you call Jesus a liar. Discipleship is not always easy. Leaving anything cherished behind is profoundly hard. But Jesus is always worth it.

This article was orginially published at The Gospel Coalition.