How to Church Shop Like the First Christians

In an age of virtual worship services, some things should stay the same.

A lot has changed with respect to church service attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and some of these trends are likely to continue this year.

Many believers are still navigating the precarious balancing act between in-person gathering and online streaming, while some are looking to switch churches or denominations this year. Others have stopped going to church altogether.

There are those who attend multiple churches, often via virtual platforms—a practice which intensified last year.

In the summer of 2020, just a few short months into the pandemic, more than one in three practicing Christians—those for whom church engagement is a priority—were streaming services from churches other than the one they were formally committed to.

And while this trend is relatively recent historically speaking, the phenomenon of church hopping and shopping began well before the pandemic—with nearly two in five churchgoers reporting regular attendance to multiple churches back in 2019.

A friend told me recently that when the pandemic first forced churches online, she began streaming services from a church across the country because she had always enjoyed the preacher’s style and his books. But once her county allowed gatherings again, she returned to attend her home church in person. When I asked her why, she said she came to the realization that “watching a service is great, but it isn’t church.”

While we may not all agree on that statement, it is worthwhile for us to discuss what constitutes “church” and what sets it apart—as well as how and why we are called to commit faithfully to one. Whether they acknowledge it or not, some Christians primarily ...

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Interview: Miracles Are Outlasting the Arguments Against Them

New Testament scholar Craig Keener investigates contemporary accounts of “signs and wonders,” while suggesting that many grounds for skepticism are behind the times.

In the halls of the academy as well as on the street, there is no more controversial aspect of the Bible than its accounts of miracles. Skepticism about supernatural intervention in human affairs—rooted in the Enlightenment, especially the writings of philosopher David Hume—has become mainstream in the modern mind. At the same time, however, there is a growing body of documented evidence, as well as compelling stories by credible witnesses, of miracles taking place.

Ten years ago, prominent New Testament scholar Craig Keener assembled a large collection of this evidence in his two-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, and he returns to the topic in his latest publication, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World. Freelance writer and editor of The Worldview Bulletin Christopher Reese spoke with Keener about the reasons for widespread skepticism of miracles and about some of the amazing stories his new book recounts.

You wrote a two-volume book on miracles in 2011, a topic you revisit in this current book. Why has this been an important subject for you to write about?

My regular job is as a New Testament scholar, and one of my interests is historical study about Jesus and his first followers. Sometimes critics have dismissed miracle stories in the Gospels and Acts simply because they recount miracles. (They often do make exceptions for potentially psychosomatic cures, but normally not for instant healings of blindness, raisings from the dead, or stilling storms.) The idea is that such reports must be legends that couldn’t really go back to eyewitnesses.

Yet I always found that approach problematic, since I know of many eyewitness reports like this in my ...

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Francine Rivers Wants ‘Redeeming Love’ to Draw People to Christ

It’s the story of Hosea—but steamier.

“While studying the Book of Hosea, I felt nudged to write another novel, but one that would show the difference between what the world considers love and the unconditional, sacrificial, all-consuming love of God,” Christian romance author Francine Rivers wrote for CT in 2016. “The result was Redeeming Love. The writing process kept me close to the Lord.”

The book was her first after becoming a Christian and was wildly successful among evangelical readership, selling more than three million copies. Along with a loyal fan base, it has garnered criticism for being a “gateway” to soft pornography for its steamier scenes and as an endorsement of unequal power dynamics between men and vulnerable women. Thirty years later, the historical romance has been brought to the screen with Rivers as executive producer.

The Gold Rush–era retelling of the Book of Hosea follows Angel (Abigail Cowen), a woman trapped in prostitution, and Michael (Tom Lewis), the man God calls to rescue her by marriage. Angel struggles to believe in Michael’s love or in his God, but slowly becomes convinced. But in the screenplay, Angel’s conversion experience mellows Rivers’ original distinction that the titular redeeming love is ultimately God’s, not Michael’s.

Dorothy Bennett talked with Rivers, who cowrote the screenplay with director D. J. Caruso, to discuss the film’s purpose in Christian culture today.

Redeeming Love addresses traumatic sexual experiences and celebrates sex between a husband and wife. The book was released at the beginning of the purity culture movement (1990s–2000s). How does Redeeming Love address how Christians talk (or don’t talk) about sex?

Well, ...

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During the Synagogue Standoff, We Showed Up to Help Our Neighbors. We Ended Up Praying Together.

Texas pastor Bob Roberts Jr. led prayer among interfaith clergy who were there to support the rabbi’s family and local authorities throughout the Colleyville hostage crisis.

Last Saturday, Bob Roberts Jr. had just sat down at a restaurant with his wife when he heard about the hostage standoff at nearby Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three others were being held at gunpoint.

A local pastor and cofounder of Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, Roberts felt the responsibility to step in and help. He ended up hunkered with fellow clergy and the rabbi’s family at a church near Beth Israel for the duration of the crisis. The standoff extended for 11 hours before all hostages escaped safely; the hostage taker was killed in a SWAT team assault.

Afterward, the group of clergy made for an apt photo op—an evangelical pastor, Catholic priest, Muslim imam, and Jewish rabbi all standing together for the sake of their community. But behind that picture were years of relationship building to create the kind of network that runs to help in times of disaster.

“A lot of times, when these situations come, there’s really nothing anybody can do because they have no relationships. So the only thing you can say is, ‘Well, let’s pray,’ and ‘Isn’t it sad?’” said Roberts, who leads Northwood Church in Keller, Texas. “We have to do better.”

In an interview with CT, Roberts shared his prayers during the crisis, his work that allowed him access, and an encouragement to evangelicals in an increasingly fractured religious landscape.

How did you find out about the hostage situation?

As we were sitting there, my phone began to blow up with texts from people telling me something was going on. Then somebody else sent me some pictures of the situation. ...

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What’s New in Evangelical Views on Abortion? The Age Gap

Between 2016 and 2020, younger white evangelicals started to shift away from pro-life positions while older ones solidified their stances.

Abortion holds a unique place in the realm of American public opinion.

While views on issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization have shifted dramatically over the last ten years, people tend to hold on to their positions on abortion. In my upcoming book, 20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America, I spend a chapter explaining how abortion opinion is basically unchanged over the last four decades.

Evangelicals have been the religious group with the strongest views against abortion, and across generations, they’ve held to their pro-life stances. As recently as 2016, the age gap between younger and older generations on the issue was small and substantially insignificant.

But data from 2020 has begun to show a different trend. Younger white evangelicals have become more permissive of abortion, while older ones have moved in the opposite direction.

When survey participants were asked about abortion rights—whether women should always be allowed to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice—overall support was predictably low in 2016. Just a third of those 35 and younger were in favor. In older groups, fewer and fewer evangelicals were in support. Among white evangelicals of retirement age, less than a quarter were in favor. There was about a 10-percentage-point gap between the youngest and oldest evangelicals on the issue of abortion.

By 2020, support for abortion rights dropped among every age group but the very youngest.

Thirty-eight percent of them said that they favored abortion on demand—a four-point increase in four years. But among older evangelicals, support dropped significantly. In 2020, just 16 percent of the oldest white evangelicals were in favor, a drop of eight points in just ...

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Texas Pregnancy Centers See Clientele Shift After Abortion Ban

With the Heartbeat Act restricting abortions after six weeks, the women coming in for tests are earlier along, more confused, and more desperate.

On paper, Texas’s Heartbeat Act—the most restrictive ban on abortion in the country—doesn’t affect the nearly 200 pregnancy centers spread across the state, since such facilities don’t perform abortions or make abortion referrals.

Yet those who work at pro-life pregnancy centers have seen shifts in their clientele ever since the law passed in September, making it illegal to perform abortions on women when a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Centers were flooded with phone calls from women worried they might be pregnant or unclear about the details of the law. Tonya Thomas, executive director of Pregnancy Help 4 U in Keller, Texas, said client calls and walk-ins picked up right away.

“Before, we would see them at 6–8 weeks of pregnancy,” she said. “Now, we’re seeing them right at 4 weeks—as soon as they think they should have their period. … They know time is of the essence.”

Women who are further along know they’ll have to cross state lines to obtain an abortion, so they go straight to facilities out of state, like in Oklahoma and New Mexico, where there are fewer restrictions. The new clientele at Texas centers often arrive in shock and desperation, never expecting to face a decision so early in pregnancy.

“We have heard of some clients being upset at the pregnancy centers themselves, thinking they are to blame for the new law,” said Vincent DiCaro, chief outreach officer (COO) of Care Net, the evangelical network of more than 1,100 pregnancy centers around the country and 168 in Texas. “Many of our centers have said it's a very challenging environment.”

The controversial law comes as a victory for pro-life advocates—the ...

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What Liz Cheney Can Teach American Evangelicals

Christians should preserve their integrity instead of conserving their influence.

This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Some people in her own party want Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to lose her membership on committees and even her place within her party’s conference in the United States House of Representatives, all because she won’t “move on” from her beliefs that the attempts to overturn the last election—leading up to last January’s attack on the Capitol—are a clear and present danger to democracy.

Whatever you think of Cheney (as you can imagine, I am a fan), there’s a larger point here—one that applies to many evangelical Christians in a thousand different situations in their churches and communities: At what point will you stop conserving your influence?

I thought about this conundrum last week while reading the transcripts of a New York Times podcast debate between Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark and Rich Lowry of National Review, both of whom are conservatives that admire Congresswoman Cheney’s integrity and conviction.

Where they disagree is on whether Cheney has squandered her influence within her party in ways that will prevent her from solving these problems in the future.

“As a politician, you have to be aware of where your voters are,” Lowry said. “Doesn’t mean that you pander to them or play to their worst instincts or always say yes to anything they want. But to live is to maneuver. Especially if you’re a politician.” Lowry said that Cheney’s refusal to back down on these matters wouldn’t be helpful. After all, if you’re not at the table, you can’t have influence.

Sykes noted that this idea is a common rationalization and that it’s circular. ...

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Here’s Who Stopped Going to Church During the Pandemic

Recent research paints a grim picture for local congregations. But it also highlights opportunities.

During his 21 years as lead pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, North Carolina, Mike Meshaw has seen many people come and go in the transient area that is home to East Carolina University.

Before COVID-19 shut things down in March 2020, the independent evangelical church averaged about 220 people a week. Almost two years after the church briefly suspended in-person services because of COVID-19, he says they are averaging about 150 people a week.

“Most of the people who are not attending [services] are afraid,” he told us. “They are uncomfortable being around crowds.”

The church voluntarily halted in-person worship early in the pandemic, but it was not long before the leadership began hearing from members who missed their church family. “More than 50 percent of our church pushed us to reopen,” Meshaw noted.

As soon as possible, they reopened—and sooner than other churches in the area. That decision turned out to be a positive thing for the church.

“Our people still take precautions, social distancing, and masks—voluntarily,” Pastor Meshaw stated, including canceling a service when necessary. “But we stay open.”

While the church has fared well, the pastor is concerned about the impact of the ongoing pandemic on his congregation, especially during this recent surge in cases.

“One positive test and you put the information out there, and the fear multiplies into a monster, and people get shaken by it,” he said. “My concern is this wear and tear on people’s emotions. How long will they be able to sustain that before they just get frustrated? Some have.”

Other churches have had to deal with declines in attendance ...

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Let’s Praise Progress on Religious Freedom. Start with These Countries.

Four Muslim-majority nations deserve our support and engagement, as an alliance of 33 other nations finds its voice.

Today the Open Doors World Watch List has again thoroughly documented the severe repression that many Christians experience every day. The church is under outright attack in many countries, while grinding repression and ceaseless limitations slowly strangle believers in others.

The list is a call to action and prayer for the persecuted. Understanding the dire situation should motivate Americans of all denominations to ask our government to help the persecuted church and to speak up for others victimized for their beliefs.

Yet while the World Watch List paints a troubling picture, the news is not all bad. There are positive situations in a few countries. Of course they are not perfect, and Open Doors still gives several low marks. But these glimmers of light are worthy of prayer, support, and continued engagement to press for further improvements.

Here are my picks for five recent religious freedom developments worth praising:

1) United Arab Emirates

Last year, construction begin in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country, part of a larger state-funded project to build a mosque, church, and synagogue in the same complex to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. The UAE is also funding the restoration of two historic churches in Iraq that ISIS tried to destroy. The synagogue construction comes alongside the Emirates establishing ties with Israel and expatriate Jewish life blossoming in the Gulf state. Emirati citizens do not enjoy full conscience rights, but the country boasts many churches for foreign Christians—something remarkable considering its neighbor Saudi Arabia and nearby Iran.

2) Sudan

In 2019, the transitional Sudanese government issued a new constitution with several notable provisions defending ...

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The 50 Countries Where It’s Hardest to Follow Jesus in 2022

Latest report on Christian persecution finds Nigeria has 4 out of 5 martyrs worldwide, China has 3 out of 5 church attacks, and Afghanistan is now worse than North Korea.

A thousand more Christians were killed for their faith last year than the year before.

A thousand more Christians were detained.

Six hundred more churches were attacked or closed.

And Afghanistan is the new No. 1, according to the 2022 World Watch List (WWL), the latest annual accounting from Open Doors of the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian.

“This year’s findings indicate seismic changes in the persecution landscape,” said David Curry, president of Open Doors USA.

Since Open Doors began its tally in 1992, North Korea has led the ranking. But since Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban last August, Afghan believers have had to leave their country or relocate internally. Many lost everything they had, notes the report, while house churches were closed in their wake.

“Before the Taliban, it was not great, but it was good,” said one evacuated Afghan, requesting anonymity in hopes that he may one day return. “[Now] Christians are living in fear, in secret, totally underground.”

Open Doors is quick to note the displacement of North Korea to No. 2 does not reflect an improvement in religious freedom there. On the contrary, a new anti–reactionary thought law has resulted in an increase of Christian arrests and house church closures.

Overall, 360 million Christians live in nations with high levels of persecution or discrimination. That’s 1 in 7 Christians worldwide, including 1 in 5 believers in Africa, 2 in 5 in Asia, and 1 in 15 in Latin America.

Last year, for the first time in 29 years of tracking, all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels on Open Doors’ 84-question matrix. This ...

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