By / Sep 11

It’s perhaps one of the greatest fears for a parent — that his or her child will become a victim of sexual abuse. Authors and husband and wife, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, have responded to parents’ concerns by writing God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies, a resource for moms, dads and caregivers who want to protect and educate their children.

Justin and Lindsey share about the book in this Q&A.

Q: What prompted you to write God Made All of Me? What age range was it written for?

The book is for two to eight year old boys and girls. We wrote it because we have two young children and know that parents need tools to help them address body parts with their kids and to help them understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch. It allows families to build a first line of defense against sexual abuse in the safety of their own homes. Our goal is to help parents and caregivers in protecting their children from sexual abuse. Because private parts are private, there can be lots of questions, curiosity or shame regarding them. For their protection, children need to know about private parts and understand that God made their body and made it special.

We want parents and caregivers to be smarter and better prepared than those who would want to harm children. While we know that actions by adults can be more effective than expecting children to protect themselves from sexual abuse, children still need accurate, age-appropriate information about child sexual abuse and the confidence that their parents and caregivers will support them. That is why we used the storybook approach.

Q: You were intentional about using the terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate” when referring to kinds of touch, instead of the words “good” or “bad.” Why?

It is important to be clear with adults and children about the difference between touch that is appropriate and touch that is inappropriate. Experts discourage any use of the phrases “good touch” and “bad touch” for two main reasons. First, some sexual touch feels good and then children get confused wondering if it was good or bad. Second, children who have been taught “good touch” or  “bad touch” would be less likely to tell a trusted adult as they perceive they have done something bad.

Say something like this to your child: “Most of the time you like to be hugged, snuggled, tickled and kissed, but sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay. Let me know if anyone — family member, friend or anyone else — touches you or talks to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Q: Why do you encourage moms and dads to use the proper names when referring to private body parts, even for young children?

It can be uncomfortable at first, but using the proper names of body parts is important. This knowledge gives children correct language for understanding their bodies, for asking questions that need to be asked, and for telling about any behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.

Offenders most likely will not talk to children about their private parts by using the anatomically correct names for genitalia. They will likely use some playful sounding term to make it sound more like a game.

Q: How did you approach talking about this issue with your own children?

We started by teaching them the proper names of their private parts at an early age and telling them that their bodies are strong, beautiful and made by God. We read books to them from an early age on this topic and would talk about who can help them in the bathroom or bath and that it was okay for the doctor to check their private parts at appointments when mom or dad is present.

We would also role play different scenarios to get them thinking about what they would do if someone approached them and wanted to touch their private parts, show theirs, take pictures, etc. Play the “what if” game with them at the dinner table with different scenarios to gain a better understanding of their thinking and problem solving skills. “If someone asked you to show them your private parts and promised to give you candy if you didn’t tell anyone, what would you do?” Remind them that they can tell you anything and anytime without fear of getting into trouble.

We’ve also tried to instill a sense of the control our kids have over their own bodies. We would tell them to say “no” or “stop” when they were all done being hugged, tickled or wrestled. We encourage them to practice this with us so they feel confident saying it to others if the need arises. We also tell them they don’t have to hug or kiss a family member if they don’t want to and teach them how to express this without being rude. It is important to empower children to be in charge of their bodies instead of at the mercy of adults.

Q: Is there a way to educate your children about this without instilling fear?

It is important to explain about private parts in order to teach children about sexual abuse. Clearly identify for your child which parts of their anatomy are private. Explain to your child that “some places on your body should never be touched by other people — except when you need help in the bathroom, are getting dressed, or when you go to the doctor.” You can do this with young children during bath time or have your child dress in a bathing suit and show them that all areas covered by a bathing suit are “private.” The bathing suit analogy can be a bit misleading because it fails to mention that other parts of the body can be touched inappropriately (like mouth, legs, neck, arms), but it is a good start for little ones to understand the concept of private parts.                                                                               

To teach about sexual abuse offenders, it is important to teach your kids about “tricky people.” Tricky people are grown-ups who ask kids for help or tell kids to keep a secret from their parents. Teach your kids not to do anything or go anywhere with any adult at all, unless they ask for permission first.

Q: What do parents need to know about child sexual abuse offenders?

Although strangers are stereotyped as perpetrators of sexual assault, the evidence indicates that a high percentage of offenders are acquaintances of the victim.

Most child sexual abuse offenders describe themselves as religious and some studies suggest the most egregious offenders tend to be actively involved with their faith community. Sex offenders are often religious and many of them attend church. In a study of 3,952 male sex offenders, 93 percent of these perpetrators described themselves as “religious.”

Dr. Anna Salter, a sexual offender treatment provider, states it is important for parents and child-serving organizations, such as churches, to avoid “high risk situations.” This is because “we cannot detect child molesters or rapists with any consistency” and thus “must pay attention to ways of deflecting any potential offenders from getting access to our children.”

Many youth organizations have prevented the abuse of children in their care simply by limiting the access of potential offenders to boys and girls. Child abusers count on privacy to avoid detection of their criminal behavior. When churches or other faith institutions remove this privacy it becomes more difficult for the offender to succeed.

Q: Is it a bad idea to force our kids to sit on an uncle’s lap or to return Grandma’s kiss? What are some ways parents can help their extended family understand the physical boundaries they allow their kids to have?

It is important to teach kids how to say, “Stop,” “All done,” and “No more.” You can reiterate this by stopping immediately when your child expresses that they are all done with the hugging or tickling. Your reaction is noteworthy for them as it demonstrates they have control over their bodies and desires.

If there are extended family members who may have a hard time understanding your family boundaries, you can explain that you are helping your children understand their ability to say no to unwanted touch, which will help them if anyone ever tries to hurt them. For example, if your child does not want to kiss Grandpa, let them give a high five or handshake instead.

Q: What are some practical things parents can do to protect their children from sexual abuse?

In our book, the last page is to parents and is called, “9 Ways to Protect Your Children from Sexual Abuse.” Some of the key practical things parents can do are: teach proper names of private body parts, talk about touches, throw out the word “secret,” and identify whom to trust. You can read about all nine here.

Q: What advice do you have for parents who want to create an open environment in their home so  that their children always feel comfortable talking to them about issues related to their sexuality or body?

We remind parents that some people are out there looking to prey on our children. We have a duty to protect and prepare them for the world and to fight for them. By talking with them candidly (and again developmentally appropriate) about their bodies, we are setting up safe guards around them.

John T. Chirban has written an excellent book How to Talk to Your Kids about Sex that we highly recommend to all parents. He explains: “Someone is going to teach your kids about sex . . . shouldn’t it be you?” His book gives parents tools to talk with their children about the connections between sex, intimacy and love.

Q: It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, but what should a mom or dad do if they suspect their child might have been the victim of sexual abuse?

You can call your local sexual assault crisis center and talk with a child advocate or hotline volunteer about your concerns. They will be able to point you to the proper authorities. Some areas would have you speak with a detective, where other areas would have you talk to a victim witness advocate. Don’t ask probing questions that could instill fear in your child. Just assure them that you are so proud of them for telling you what happened, you believe them and that your job is to keep them safe.

By / Aug 5

Jeb Bush former Governor of Florida sits down with ERLC President Dr. Russell Moore at Send 2015 to answer questions on important issues to evangelicals.

By / Aug 5

Senator Marco Rubio sits down with ERLC President Dr. Russell Moore at Send 2015 to answer questions on issues important to evangelicals.

By / Apr 6

Gloria Furman is a wife, mom, cross-cultural worker and author. Her husband of 12 years, Dave, serves as the pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the Middle East. About five years ago, Dave developed a rare nerve disorder that causes shooting pain in his arms and hands, leaving them unusable. In this interview, Gloria shares about her life and ministry and encourages those who serve and love others suffering from a disability.

When did Dave go into pastoral ministry?

Here’s the long story abbreviated: The Lord saved Dave in college. When we got married, Dave was leading a residence hall ministry on a university campus. While we were both in seminary, we organized and led overseas mission trips for college students for five years. After we graduated, we did a year-long church planting residency with Fellowship Associates in Little Rock. Then we completed some more cross-cultural ministry trainings, fundraising, and moved to the Middle East to study Arabic. Five years ago this month, Redeemer Church of Dubai was planted.

When did you discover Dave’s physical disability? Is there a name for it? Tell us what it is?

Around the same time that we made a commitment to move out to the Middle East, Dave came back from a seminary class and told me that his pinky finger on his right hand was buzzing. Weird, right? We thought so, too. The doctors he saw thought it was a carpal tunnel issue that could be solved by better posture, ergonomic keyboards, etc. Then, within a few months, the buzzing spread up his arm and turned into burning pain. I remember how desperate those days felt, especially because I was pregnant with our first child. Then, rather quickly, the same thing happened to his left arm.

I guess in layman’s terms, you could say that the nerves in his arms are really messed up. Over the years, he’s had more medical procedures than I can count and two large-scale surgeries on both arms to attempt to release the ulnar nerve from being entrapped (it’s the nerve that people call their “funny bone”). Physicians have described his condition as resembling Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (AKA Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) and ulnar neuropathy.

How does his disability affect everyday tasks at home?

It’s hard to think of everyday tasks that aren’t affected. We need our elbows and wrists for so many things! Turning on a faucet, shaking someone’s hand, holding a pen, cutting food on your dinner plate, putting on your seatbelt, opening a door, driving a car, pushing the lever down on the toaster, buttoning your shirt, cradling your baby…

But with thankfulness in our hearts, we humbly testify that God has given our family more than what we need. These gifts of undeserved favor come in various shapes and sizes. Our daughters have buttoned Daddy’s shirts since they learned to button their own. Our older son likes to run ahead to get doors and push elevator buttons. God gave us friends here who are sensitive to the needs of our family and help us in many ways—from the men who ask me if there is anything around our flat that needs fixing, to the teenagers who come find me at church events to take our four kids to and from the parking lot and help buckle everyone in, to the women who brought us meals when I’ve had a newborn. We now live in a flat downtown with plenty of public transportation options, and we’re walking distance to just about everything we need for daily life stuff (except the children’s school). God provides!

You are essentially a wife, mom of four and caregiver. How are you able to serve with joy?

Short answer: by grace through faith.

Sentence answer: According to Christ’s pattern, by his power, and holding onto God’s promises of future grace.

Chapter answer: “Mothers Are Weak, But He Is Strong” – chapter 10 of Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full

Interview answer: Family Life Today interview on Glimpses of Grace and God’s faithfulness in disability.

Are there certain verses that help remind you of God's faithfulness as you work for the good of others and to his glory?

1 Peter 4:10-11 means a lot to me:

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

If you could sit down with someone who feels like they are suffering with those who suffer, what would you say to them?

People who care for the suffering also experience genuine loss and grief. In the midst of true loss, there is a need for true grieving, which means there is true hope in Christ available to you. If you’re suffering with the suffering, don’t pretend you’re not in pain; cling to Jesus and grieve with hope. I’d also give them a copy of the book Dave is writing to encourage those who help the hurting (forthcoming from Crossway in 2016).

Dave is a pastor and helps lead a pastoral training school. I imagine that his ministry often keeps him away from the home. How do you balance work, life and ministry?

(I wonder how our close friends might answer that question for us?) The balancing act is dynamic—more like art than science. Our responsibilities require different things from us at different times (at varying levels of intensity!). The one thing that is constant is God’s faithfulness to give us more than what we need to do what he has called us to do.

When we bought our first iPod in 2003, we renamed it “ourPod.” That stopped the tug-of-war over who got to use it. In the same way, we also share ministry as “ours” as we play different roles. He would say that he is not able to do the ministry he does without my help, and I certainly couldn’t serve the way I do apart from his equipping and encouraging leadership and direction. We love how God designed the beautiful perichoretic (mutual indwelling) quality of complementarian marriage. (That ourPod still works, by the way. It sits on an ourPod dock in the kitchen.)

Practically-speaking, when Dave is traveling outside the country or is in a busy season of working long days/nights, then I find lots of occasions to be thankful that he is the head of our family. I can see his godly influence over the kids and me as his thoughtful leadership steers us even when he’s not physically at home. We also revisit our ongoing time commitments regularly, communicate about spontaneous plans often, and plan in advance about a year out at a time.

What is one of the best ways a caregiver can truly care for someone in need of assistance?

One of the best ways to truly care for someone is to understand their spiritual needs. Fellow believers need their faith strengthened, and our non-believing friends need Jesus to save them. Our physical abilities and resources are all different, but spiritually-speaking, we are the same.

What I mean by that is a hurting person’s deepest problem is the same as your deepest problem. We were made for unbroken fellowship with God, but our sin separates us from him. Our deepest need is to be reconciled with God and our only hope is Jesus and his cross. Holding the truth of the gospel in your mind, respond to God’s call on your life to serve others in word and in deed with the strength that God supplies so that Christ gets the glory.

You asked for “one” of the best ways, but can I give two? I like to encourage people to use their imaginations. Often people look at others and say, “Wow, I can’t imagine what it would be like.” I think the love of Christ enables us to use our imagination and say instead, “I don’t pretend to understand everything about what you’re going through, but I want to try. Help me understand what you need and how I can help you.”

What freedom that we don’t have to know all the right things to say or even the best ways to serve, but that we can seek out those we love and simply ask how we might help. May we all seek to love our neighbors as ourselves through spiritual and practical service.

By / Mar 3

When you say the word, “media” a lot of Christians might groan. There is a sense that the media is not always favorable to people of faith. But there are many media members who also happen to be followers of Christ. So how should a Christian think about the media? I asked two professionals their opinions: Mark Mellinger, a evening news anchor in Fort Wayne, Ind., a radio talk show host and a contributor to The Gospel Coalition and Kate Shellnutt, a veteran journalist who is now an editor for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics

Seems the media is trusted by fewer people these days, including many Christians. What should our relationship to the media be? 

MARK MELLINGER: The media is still really important and serves all of us in valuable ways. The news media's reporting is still the primary way we find out about those who want to serve us in government -what their policies will be and what they stand for – and hold accountable those who actually do serve us in government. So good reporting helps us all make better decisions at the voting booth.

The news media also helps us with more mundane matters in day-to-day life: letting us know if there is a major traffic accident to avoid, if school is delayed or canceled on a given day, and whether our electric and sewer bills are going up. This is all information that is important to have and helps us live in a more informed way as we plan our lives.

I understand why many people do not trust or are skeptical of the news media in general. It sometimes seems like the news media is only interested in covering conflict and generating controversy. And at some level, this is true. All good stories have some element of conflict, and at its heart reporting is often about telling good stories. The questions a discerning reader or viewer must ask when consuming media are: Is this reporter playing up the controversial aspect of a given story too much? What nuances of the story is he minimizing or perhaps leaving out? What good information and useful information am I getting out of this story? If the reporting seems imbalanced, where should I go next to find more information that will help flesh out the topic being covered?

So I'd say it is a good thing to approach media consumption with a somewhat skeptical eye and to demand better reporting in many cases, but also to remember that the news media – despite its faults – still does a good to decent job of giving us important information that helps us live our lives in a more informed way. We as Christians should have some appreciation for the news media rather than disdain for it, and we should give God thanks that we live in a country that allows journalistic freedom. I think it is also appropriate for us to thank him for giving us people in the journalism profession – and there are many of them – who sincerely want to be helpful, fair-minded public servants and work hard to be just that.

KATE SHELLNUTT: I bet this question was easier to answer when “the media” was a much narrower entity, but these days, it’s not just our daily paper and the 5 o’clock news—it’s tickers, Twitter, Facebook, texts, and more.

Given the barrage of content, we’re conditioned to consume it quickly—we look, we react, we move on. We’re commodifying culture, and we’re less inclined to look for the source, tradition, or context of a piece of information. This is risky, I think, for contemporary Christians. We miss out on the spiritual ramifications of cultural phenomena when we consume culture rather than engage it.

More and more, in a postmodern society, we see our media celebrate a plurality of voices and perspectives, reject absolute truths, and level hierarchy. Still, as Christians, we should take advantage of the variety of news sources available to us, both secular and Christian. The knowledge, understanding, and even emotional pull we get from the news can and does reflect back on the fallenness of our world, the goodness of God, and the truths we know form Scripture. We shouldn’t view our media consumption separate from our Christian lives or “the media” in opposition to them. 

Should Christians care and even invest in good journalism? Why? 

MELLINGER: I do think Christians should care about good journalism for all of the reasons I just mentioned above. We also need to be aware that we are living in a time when the notion of real religious liberty itself seems to be endangered in a way it has not been before in this country. Christians, of all people, should be following these stories: The Hobby Lobby case and freedom of conscience when it comes to the new healthcare law, whether new policies and regulations will allow clergy to flourish and do their jobs in a way that comports with their conscience as they serve the military, whether pastors will be allowed to maintain their housing exemptions for tax purposes, as well as same sex marriage and the ramifications it could have for churches in this country.  

These are not just abstract issues. They have a concrete impact on real people and what happens on each of them down the road will determine whether certain people -and maybe all of us- will be able to honor God with our actions, or at least whether honoring God in accord with our consciences will be lawful or not. If the degree of difficulty for living out the life of a convictional Christian in this country is about to get higher, we need to be prayerfully prepared for that. 

Some media sources are more focused on these issues than the mainstream media, and I would include in that category outlets like the Gospel Coalition, the ERLC, and World Magazine. I appreciate the depth of thought and gracious tone given to the coverage of these important issues by all of those media outlets and others, and I certainly think it is wise and helpful for individual Christians and families to support them financially if they sense God may be calling them to do so. These various entities are doing vital work in keeping us informed about these issues that affect how we live out the Christian life and by keeping them on the front burner. It's also helpful that these sources come at the topics from a Christian worldview. They are speaking our language and share our beliefs and concerns. That of course is not the case with the mainstream media, which generally approaches the issues of the day from a postmodern worldview guised under the cloak of objectivity. That isn't to say that the mainstream media does not report important things in true and helpful ways. It does. But Christians have even more of a motive to report the truth since we are supposed to be people of truth and since truth with a capital T undergirds our entire worldview. After all, if Jesus did not truly die for our sins and then rise again, and if God does not truly credit Christ's righteousness as mine as a consequence of that, very little about the way we Christians live our lives makes sense.

SHELLNUTT: Absolutely. (You are talking to a journalist here, after all.)

I believe Christianity shares essential core values with journalism. As purveyors of the truth, we should support and seek out those who proclaim truth. Of course, our truth is first and foremost capital-T Truth—the gospel message—but we also learn from the world around us, where “all truth is God’s truth.” In their watchdog function, journalists are the ones to find and expose the truth about institutions, businesses, and government.

They have the right to do so thanks to the U.S. Constitution. In our country, the first amendment brings together freedom of speech and freedom of the press with freedom of religion. Christians can find common ground with journalists in their willingness to defend and uphold these liberties. As a Christian journalist, I’ve always felt doubly fond of the first amendment—which protects both what I believe and what I do. 

If you could counsel a young Christian aspiring to journalism, what advice would you give him or her? 

MELLINGER: My advice to an aspiring young journalist would be to think about what types of reporting you want to do and what types of media outlets you would like to work for. I believe any honest, lawful work that is done well is honoring to God and is an important part of our witness.
So a young journalist has to think through what he or she wants to cover: Sports? Politics? Religion? All of the above in differing doses? Something else? I think it's generally good to specialize in a topic or two that you are passionate about. Work will just be more enjoyable that way. And joy in work is a tremendous gift from God and a legitimate way of enjoying him.

After a young journalist has thought through that, he or she needs to think about what type of organization to work for: A newspaper? TV station? Website? Intentionally “Christian” media? Secular? Nonprofit? One is not inherently better than the others. We need Christians working in all of these types of media environments, laboring to evangelize, disciple, and glorify God through our spoken or printed words and our conduct in general. It's all about thinking through what you are most gifted at and passionate about. If politics confuse or bore you and you get nervous in front of a camera, you obviously shouldn't harbor the ambition to become a TV political reporter. You have to think through common sense diagnostic questions like that.
Finally, once you think you have decided which direction you would like to take, get educated about it. See if people whom you admire in the field would spend time mentoring you. Look for opportunities like internships that will get you a foot in the door. Do your research and find out whether you could make a salary that would support a family for decades if you plan on being the breadwinner. And needless to say, this entire process should be bathed in prayer and hopefully thoughtful counsel from wise believers who have proven themselves trustworthy in your life.

SHELLNUTT: As Christians, we honor God and reflect his nature when we do our jobs well, with a sense of purpose and willingness to get creative. Young journalists should keep that in mind. Be good at what you do—take initiative, know the latest technologies and formats, research thoroughly, ask follow-up questions, check your work, and read constantly.

While the stats on Christians in mainstream newsrooms (or even religious folks in general) can seem grim, don’t be afraid of being among the “lone” Christians in journalism. Even when I covered religion for a secular publication, church-going copy editors or photographers would stop by my desk to talk about their faith. Don’t let people tell you it’s a godless profession.

The scare headlines you read about the instability of the journalism industry? You can believe those. I’m a young journalist, and I’ve already seen things change a lot as companies struggle to make money and keep staff as audiences shift to digital. Be patient and keep an open mind while job-hunting. As with all things, let God guide you, through what may become a nontraditional career in an evolving industry. 

By / Feb 11

At this year's ERLC Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality,” Heath Lambert will be speaking on the church and pornography in his session “Finally Free: The Gospel and Pornography.” Lambert serves as the Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and as assistant professor of Biblical Counseling at Southern Seminary and Boyce College.

If you're interested in attending the Summit, go here.

Why is pornography an important issue for evangelical churches to consider?

This is an important issue for every evangelical to consider because every evangelical church has to deal with it. Pornography is in the atmosphere today, and is touching every, single congregation. A particular individual might not struggle with it, but they likely live in a house with someone who does, and they certainly go to church with people who do. As Christians we must unite together to confront this scourge. 

What is a key aspect of pornography that churches aren’t addressing adequately? Why is that the case?

I don't think churches are addressing this topic at all. Pastors are afraid to talk about it, and church members are nervous to hear about it. When the topic does come up, people lament the problem, but don’t talk about how to help people change. The church needs to be equipped to talk about this problem, and to do so in a way that leads to help and change for those who are struggling.

This conference seeks to apply the gospel to issues related to human sexuality. What are some ways the gospel relates to this?

The gospel is crucial in a couple of ways. First of all, in order to be forgiven of the sin of looking at pornography people need the forgiving grace of Jesus to pay for their sin. Second, people need the transforming grace of Jesus in order to pursue purity in this regard. Finally, I really believe that the greatest threat to the expansion of the gospel in our day is the moral poison of pornography that is smothering the Christian witness of generations of men and women hooked on porn. If we want to see the gospel advance in our day we need gospel medicine to purge us of our pornographic obsession.

If evangelical churches transformed the way they handled the subject of pornagraphy, how would it reshape their congregations?

Churches will become places where people don't have to put up a front, but can talk openly and honestly about the problems people are having with this issue. Finally churches will be filled with the power that comes from a pure proclamation of the gospel. God will never use unholy men and unholy churches to advance his kingdom. If God is raising up a generation of men to advance the gospel in ways never seen before (and oh how I pray he is) then he will raise up a generation of men and women concerned for the purity of the church.

Register for the Summit here.

By / Feb 6

Fred Luter hadn't planned on becoming a multi-site preacher. But in the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina buried his church and his city under nine feet of water — and dispersed his congregation across the country. By January 2006, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church had recovered enough that it began holding worship services in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston. Luter, while living in Birmingham, Ala., spent his time traveling to these three cities — as well as across the United States — to minister to his church's displaced members.

“Fred Luter is a hero,” says Russell Moore, president of the ERLC. “He stood with conviction and compassion and shepherded his flock after Katrina, when he could have gone anywhere, had a comfortable ministry, and chalked the move up to the ‘calling of the Lord.’ He's never hesitated to persecute the Devil by preaching the poured out blood of the living Christ.”

“Fred Luter is one of the most loved and respected pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention,” adds Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Today, Luter carries out the dual role of preaching the gospel and leading America's largest and most diverse Protestant denomination as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Luter is the first African American elected president of the SBC in its 166-year history. “A descendant of slaves elected to lead a denomination forged to protect the evil interests of slaveholders is a sign of the power of a gospel that crucifies injustice and reconciles brothers and sisters,” Moore added. “The election of Fred Luter doesn't mean the question of racial justice is settled for Southern Baptists, but it is one small step toward our confessing that Jesus Christ and Jim Crow cannot exist in the same denomination, or in the same heart. One has got to go.”

In 2012 I had a chance to talked with Pastor Luter about his challenges as a minister, his view of racism in the SBC and why denominations still matter.

What did you do before you became a pastor?

In 1983, when I first received the calling to be a preacher I was working for a brokerage firm. I'd work for the firm during the week, and then every Saturday I'd be on different street corner preaching the gospel. My first job as a pastor came in 1986. Even though I had no pastoral experience the members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church hired me to be their pastor. I've been there ever since.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a pastor of a large congregation?

Before Hurricane Katrina, our church had more than 8,000 members; today we have 4,500. A lot of churches in the area lost a lot of people. Even now only about 75 percent of the former residents have returned to New Orleans. So we have the challenge of losing half our members and having them be spread all over the country.

Another challenge we have as a church with a large congregation is trying to minister to each person individually and to not see them as just a number. But that's a problem for all churches, both large and small. Our congregations include a diverse group of folks—singles, young families, senior citizens—and they all have different needs. We want to help them become better than what they are, better servants of the Lord. But that's not an easy task.

The SBC was born in a climate of racism. But since 1845, and especially since 1940, there have been at least 31 SBC resolutions on race and racism. Is racism still a significant problem for the SBC?

People ask me all the time, “Why would you want to be Southern Baptist when their history is rooted in racism?” The truth is that when I became a Southern Baptist I wasn't even aware of the denomination's history. It wasn't until years later that I found out, and by then I was already involved in the association.

I look at it this way: All of us have a past. But it's not what happened in the past, but what is happening right now that matters most. I was in the convention in 1995 when the denomination repented and apologized for perpetuating individual and systemic racism. I thought that was a major step forward for racial reconciliation. I don't think racism is still a problem, because the convention has said that they want to make it a racially diverse community. The SBC reaches out to all different races and culture.

Is self-segregation of congregations still a problem? If so, what can we do about it?

I get asked that question a lot, because I am often the first African American preacher in Anglo churches. Local churches often reflect their communities. Where neighborhoods are predominately Anglo or African American, the churches tend to be predominately Anglo or African American. Where neighborhoods are changing in racial diversity, we see more racial diversity in the churches.

There are a lot of cultural issues, ranging from the way people dress to the style of worship, that lead people to choose a particular congregation. You can't force people to come to your church. But the doors need to be open to everyone. At Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 99 percent of the congregation is African American. Now I would love for our church to be more diverse, say 50-50 between Anglo and African American. But it just doesn't happen. We are in the “hood,” so the people in the neighborhood are African American. We have Anglo guests every Sunday, and every last one of them will tell you they feel welcome. That's the key. We can't force people to come to our churches, but when they do come they should feel welcome.

Denominationalism has been on the decline for the last 50 years. Many evangelical churches are moving toward aligning with networks or other non-denominational organizations. Why is it important for the SBC to remain a denomination?

Because we can do more together than we can do apart. When Hurricane Katrina hit, volunteers from SBC churches around the country came by the hundred of thousands to our city and helped whoever needed to be helped. They helped to remove debris and rebuild homes. One particular church in Tennessee came to New Orleans more than 20 times to help. Often, these were Anglo churches coming to help their brothers and sisters in African American churches.

When the government was slow in their response to rebuilding the city, the local newspaper editor — who, I believe, is Catholic — wrote that if Southern Baptists were building New Orleans, we would have been rebuilt a long time ago. That is a great testimony. That is one reason why we need to stay a denomination — we don't want to lose the reputation for compassion that we have built over the years.

Note: This article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

By / Jan 17

Renee Rizzo chats with Dan Darling about the lifesaving work of faith-based pregnancy centers. Nashville's Hope Clinic for Women, where Rizzo is president and CEO, provides not only help for women facing an unplanned pregnancy but also medical testing, assistance, and counseling.

By / Dec 4

The Bible is clear on many ethical issues. Adultery, for example, is not only forbidden but the lust that typically precedes the act is violently opposed. Jesus says it is better to have one’s eye gauged out and tossed away than it is to look at a woman lustfully (Matt. 5:29). He does not mean that we actually pluck out our eyes, but the imagery gives us an idea of the seriousness of the offense. But there are other situations that aren’t so clearly defined, such as what music to listen to or how much is too much to eat. These are what Brett McCracken calls gray areas, those areas that are left for us to pray through and seek guidance.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Huffington Post,, Christianity Today and the Princeton Theological Review.

Your subtitle suggests that we could fall prey to legalism when thinking through gray matters. What is your definition of legalism? 

BRETT MCCRACKEN: I see legalism as an unhealthy fixation on rules and “dos-and-don’ts” moralism. It minimizes grace by emphasizing works, focusing on strict formulae for behavior and a preference for control over freedom. The legalism I talk about in Gray Matters, however, is more specifically about one’s posture toward culture. Legalism is a posture largely of fear, seeing pop culture mostly as something dangerous that Christians should avoid, lest they be tainted, corrupted, led down a slippery slope, etc. It’s a posture that focuses more on curse counting as a way to evaluate a movie, for example, rather than on the positive attributes (goodness, truth, beauty) that might be found therein.

What is your definition of liberty?

MCCRACKEN: In one sense (the soteriological sense), liberty is the freedom we have in Christ to break the chains of a works-based salvation or a rules-oriented religion. It’s the freedom of justification by grace alone. In another sense, liberty is the freedom God grants each individual Christian to enjoy or participate in a wide range of cultural activities that Scripture does not directly speak about, without being judged by other Christians (Rom. 14:1-8). It’s the liberty to exercise one’s preferences according to one’s conscience, within the bounds of whatever Scripture says explicitly or implicitly about a given thing. But liberty has limits. As Paul says, all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 10:21). We have the freedom to do a lot of things, but not all of them are wise. 

How can Christians guard against the temptation to legalism in these gray areas? 

MCCRACKEN: Three practical tips: 

1. Forge relationships with all sorts of people from all sorts of perspectives. Nothing kills narrow-minded dogmatism and cultivates nuance like getting to know a variety of people who hold different views on these issues and yet still are seeking to passionately follow after Christ. 

2. As often as you can, experience Christian community in different cultural contexts. It will open your eyes to how small-minded we can be when we think that our way of doing things is the only right way. There is huge diversity in the way Christians across the world navigate their relationship with culture. Learning more about what informs those perspectives and what we can learn from them is a healthy thing. 

3. Read a ton. Read all sorts of things. Read to learn what others love and why. Read the classics of Christian wisdom. Read smart Christian critics of culture. Reading can really expand one’s world and one’s ability to locate goodness, beauty and truth in a whole host of things that might otherwise seem trivial, grotesque or un-edifying.

Do you discuss license? If so, how might you encourage Christians to guard against license?

MCCRACKEN: Again, three tips: 

1. Be self-critical about your motivations for exercising “license.” Are you doing it because you grew up in a more legalistic environment and are now rebelling against that? Are you a libertine because you are trying to prove something to the world (“I’m not one of those prudish, fundamentalist Christians!”)? I think today many young Christians are celebrating license less out of a desire to know God more and worship him through culture than a desire to shed the legalistic baggage of their youth. 

2. Listen to those who say no and respect their abstention. If you have a friend who doesn’t drink alcohol or refuses to watch an R-rated movie, don’t judge them; get to know their rationale. Learn from them. If they make you feel guilty, think about why. 

3. Think carefully about the “all things are permissible but not all things are beneficial” idea. License in cultural consumption is a great thing, but shouldn’t be abused. Not everything is beneficial, and we should be willing to admit that to ourselves more often than we do. 

What about interacting with others, do you see a temptation or tendency for Christians to push their conviction on others? If so, how do we balance living with others and extending grace?

MCCRACKEN: It’s a hard balance. Our tendency is to want to believe that our conviction and our conscience on a matter should be shared by others. We want to believe that if something seems wrong to us, it must be wrong for everyone. If we have a hard time watching certain types of movies, but other Christians in our community are not affected negatively by the same movies and have no problem watching them, we can be left feeling prudish or judged. But it goes both ways (Rom. 14:3). The Christian who drinks alcohol regularly should not judge the Christian who is a teetotaler; likewise, the teetotaler shouldn’t judge the drinker. We shouldn’t be fighting about these disputable matters (Rom. 14:1) and should stop judging one another; rather we must bear with one another in love and not make one another stumble (Rom. 14:13). 

We hear the phrase “to each his own” which leads me to these questions: How do we draw the line on things such as music and movie watching? Is there an element that depends on each individual’s conscience and conviction? And do you think that phrase above is helpful or lacking?

MCCRACKEN: I think “to each his own” is often unhelpful because it places the standard of what is or isn’t OK entirely on the individual. I think that kind of exaggerated subjectivism is often quite dangerous. That said, there definitely is a degree to which the individual person, acting on his or her own conscience and convictions, can come to conclusions that are different than another person. Passages like Romans 14 emphasize the individual conscience in life’s “gray matters”: what's okay for one person may not be for another. Insofar as a cultural activity is not directly forbidden by Scripture or does not prove to be a stumbling block or stepping stone to sin, there is a lot of latitude and liberty given to Christians. But there are certainly limits. It's clear, for example, that one's community should be a factor in one's individual choices–even if it's "ok" for you to do something, should you do it if others in your community may struggle with it? It's also clear in Scripture that the lifestyles of Christians should be distinct and set apart from the surrounding culture. We are called to holiness. To be salt and light. What does this mean for us as we think about how to engage culture? The answers are not simple or easy, but that's the point. The more we think about them and discuss them–not shrugging them off as "subjective" and leaving it at that–the more we will begin to formulate a more robust theology of culture that will bless us individually, advance the witness/mission of the church, and bring glory to God.

In Gray Matters, you focus on eating, listening, watching, and drinking. Why did you choose those areas to concentrate on?

MCCRACKEN: I chose these simply because I think these four modes of cultural consumption are the most common and relatable for all Christians. Almost everyone listens to music and watches movies or television. And everyone, by virtue of being human, eats. I structured the book’s four sections in an order of “least controversial to most controversial,” starting with food, then moving into pop music, movies, and finally drinking (alcohol). By starting with something relatively uncontroversial within Christianity (eating food), I wanted to establish some of the big themes and principles of healthy cultural consumption (moderation, gratitude, the importance of community, etc.) without losing people who have strong opinions about more divisive issues (R-rated movies or alcohol, for example). One of the inspiration verses for the book is 1 Cor. 10:31 (“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”). I really want the book to get Christian readers to think about what it might mean to glorify God in almost any cultural activity. The four genres of culture I cover in are not exhaustive, of course, but I think they help flesh out general principles of cultural consumption that can be applied to almost anything.

Gluttony isn’t addressed much in Christian circles. Do you address it in your book? If so, how?

MCCRACKEN: It’s regrettable that the dangers of gluttony are so little discussed in Christian circles. There were probably a thousand sermons delivered on the dangers of drinking alcohol last year, but how many sermons on the dangers of excessive unhealthy eating? I could probably count them on one hand. I do discuss gluttony in the food section of Gray Matters. Scripture is clear that gluttony is to be avoided (Prov. 23:2, 20-21; Prov. 28:7). I think it’s interesting that in Proverbs 23, gluttony and drunkenness are mentioned in the same breath as vices to avoid. From this passage, over-eating and over-drinking seem to be equally unwise. It’s not that food itself is bad, or alcohol itself; it’s that they can become bad things when we consume them to excess. In keeping with the larger call to exercise restraint and self-control in the use of our bodies (2 Pet. 1:6, Gal. 5:22) and to remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20), I believe Christians must be careful to not eat excessively or without regard to health. 

How would you suggest that we enjoy food to the glory of God?

MCCRACKEN: I would say that one big way that we glorify God through food is simply by eating it with glad and thankful hearts. Food is such a sign of God’s provision for us, and has been throughout Christian history (think about manna in the wilderness, the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper, etc.). We should not eat so fast and thoughtlessly that we forget that first and foremost, food is a gift from God. It sustains life and also tastes good! Eating in community is also a way that we can enjoy food to the glory of God. Nothing draws people together and facilitates fellowship quite like a good, long meal. Jesus himself conducted much of his ministry and outreach around dinner tables, eating with family, friends and sinners of every sort. Finally, I believe a huge way we can glorify God through food is by learning to love it more and appreciate its amazing complexity. Developing one’s taste and expanding one’s palate doesn’t need to be an elitist, snobby thing; it can be a beautiful, almost worshipful thing. “Foodies” must always be cautious to not let their obsession with excellent food become its own sort of legalism (grimacing at the thought of anything processed or non-organic), but on the whole I think that learning to seek out and truly relish the amazing food that exists, by God’s grace, can be a wonderful way to honor the Creator. 

How can we begin to worship or idolize food?

MCCRACKEN: There are various ways that food can become an idol in our lives. As mentioned above, “foodies” definitely run the risk of obsessing so much about haute cuisine that it becomes the object of their worship, rather than something wonderful that they can worship God through. Another way we make food an idol is by fixating on what we eat or don’t eat and how that plays into the control we can exert over our bodies, physique, weight, etc. Many people obsess about diets, health food, protein shakes, etc. to such an extent that these things become idols they are unwilling to live without. When we start approaching food as something we can use to make our body do whatever we want it to do, and not as a gift that we must graciously enjoy and thoughtfully steward, we’ve got a problem. 

What about music? Are there some types of music that you believe are clearly sinful? If not, how might you judge whether or not one should be listening?

MCCRACKEN: I think with any gray area, there probably is a line somewhere, but it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where it is in some universal, for-everyone-in-every-context sense. Is a song with one f-word OK but a song with 15 not OK? Does an explicit song about rape cross the line? What about music that glorifies drug use in the same breath that it powerfully expresses a cathartic sentiment of some marginalized group? The line is different for everyone and often depends on one’s cultural context and their own struggles/weaknesses. In Gray Matters I suggest five discerning questions that can help each of us figure out when a certain form of music is unproductive or sinful for us to listen to.

1. Does it point me toward God?

2. Would Jesus listen to it?

3. What would my community say?

4. Is it good quality?

5. Is it edifying?

Asking these questions, I believe, will help us think more critically about what we should or should not be listening to.

What type of music and food do you enjoy?

MCCRACKEN: I like all sorts of music–everything from jazz and classical to hip-hop, indie rock and folk/singer-songwriter. In general I like anything that feels honest, personal and true (rather than pop-manufactured for a mass audience). Some of my favorite albums this year include Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and Over the Rhine’s Meet Me At the Edge of the World. For food, sort of like music, I really gravitate toward things that are out-of-the-box, experimental, and personal. I love going to restaurants where the chef’s passion and story comes through in the food, or when their creativity just astounds me. I recently took my wife to Alma in downtown L.A. to celebrate her birthday and the food there was mind-blowing. The celebrated chef, 27, describes his menu as “personal cooking, based on memories, emotions or experiences,” and that was really apparent to us. As we tasted our dessert–a “sunchoke split” with caramelized sunchokes, “ash” meringue, “wood” ice cream toasted marshmallows–we could almost imagine the childhood campfire in Big Sur that inspired the concept. I love food that is so creative and so tasty that you take one bite and can’t help but worship God: for creating such amazing edible raw materials on earth and for creating mankind with the creativity to think up ways to turn it into an artful feast. 

How do you practice discerning what is good and evil in your own life?

MCCRACKEN: I think the key thing is just immersing myself in Scripture and the resources of Christian wisdom (including Godly men and women in my life) around me, always measuring my own discernment by those external standards. Too often our culture’s insistence on the sovereignty of the self (“to each his own!”) leads to unwise, undiscerning choices because they are never run through the gauntlet of anything transcendent. In my life I always want to check myself and my inclinations against a higher standard (Scripture). Developing discernment and wisdom in anything happens over time by training ourselves in the habits of Christ-like living: reading Scripture, prayer, surrounding ourselves with older, wiser Christians (and valuing their perspectives!), and being willing to put aside self-interest for the sake of the gospel.