Year in review: Newsmakers in 2011

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP) – Between headlines of “Church backing pastor jailed on molestation charges” on Jan. 3 and “Scholar says Christmas as celebration of domesticity a modern invention” on Dec. 22, Associated Baptist Press published 586 news and feature stories in 2011. Some were more memorable than others. Here is our review of some of the year’s top newsmakers.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP) – Between headlines of “Church backing pastor jailed on molestation charges” on Jan. 3 and “Scholar says Christmas as celebration of domesticity a modern invention” on Dec. 22, Associated Baptist Press published 586 news and feature stories in 2011. Some were more memorable than others. Here is our review of some of the year’s top newsmakers.

--Rob Bell: The Michigan mega-church pastor’s book Love Wins sparked new debate about what the Bible really has to say about hell. Bell caught heck from fellow evangelicals including Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler, who convened a panel March 17 to warn students about the book’s “not just getting a doctrine wrong, but the loss of the gospel.” In June the Southern Baptist Convention responded with a resolution affirming “belief in the biblical teaching on eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in Hell.”

-- God (as in “acts of”): If 2010 is remembered as the year of the earthquake in Haiti, 2011 brought a whole smorgasbord of natural disasters. A March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan prompted one Baptist leader there to predict the country will remember 3/11 the same way Americans do 9/11. Baptists and others were also called upon to respond to suffering caused by spring tornadoes in the East, South and Joplin, Mo.; summer floods along the Mississippi River; wildfires in Texas; Hurricane Irene in August, drought in East Africa and even a rare east-coast earthquake that damaged buildings including two Baptist churches near the epicenter in Virginia.

-- The Bible: This year marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, commonly known as the “book that changed the world,” but it also included introduction of some newer translations. The Southern Baptist Convention panned the latest New International Version in a rare resolution that came not from a committee but a messenger at a microphone on the floor. About the same time, five mainline denominations unveiled a new Common English Bible, a common-ground translation intended as a “denomination neutral” Bible for the 21st century.

-- Trouble in Mayberry: Mount Airy, N.C., the place that inspired the fictional small town of Mayberry in the long-running “Andy Griffith Show,” made news July 26 when Surry Baptist Association voted to expel Flat Rock Baptist Church for calling a woman to be its pastor. Two other churches resigned their membership in protest. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Airy, a former association moderator, lamented that controversies that used to divide the Southern Baptist Convention were trickling down to local associations.

Not to be outdone, Daviess-McLean Baptist Association in Owensboro, Ky., kicked out two churches – one for allowing a gay-parent support group to use its building and another for being too Calvinistic, a doctrine admittedly “not heresy” but nonetheless “vastly different” from what a majority of the association’s churches believe.

--Sex and the Southern Baptist: Six gay-rights groups traveled to Phoenix in June to hand deliver a petition calling for the Southern Baptist Convention to apologize for its treatment of gays. That didn’t happen, but SBC President Bryant Wright agreed to meet with representatives in a conversation that was open to members of the press. They didn’t agree on much, but in past years, Soulforce protesters were arrested for trespassing if they set foot on grounds of a convention center where Southern Baptists were meeting.

Meanwhile, over at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, leaders began planning a [Baptist] Conversation on Sexuality and Covenant next April to clear the air about different ways that churches respond to challenges like gay marriage and heterosexual couples who live together but do not marry.

In North Carolina, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh voted Nov. 20 to cease performing civil marriage ceremonies until gay marriages in the state are legal.

Finally, a couple of prominent Southern Baptist congregations got mixed up in scandals involving sexual abuse by clergy.

After the arrest of a former minister of music in Mississippi Sept. 7 for sex charges involving young boys from incidents alleged to have occurred in the early 1980s, it became known that similar accusations had been made against the minister, John Langworthy, in 1989 while he was on staff of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. Church leaders, including future SBC President Jack Graham, fired Langworthy but did not notify the police.

Then after the Dec. 14 arrest of former youth minister Chad Foster, authorities wanted to interview seven girls Foster might have abused at Second Baptist Church in Houston, where he worked before moving to another church. That church’s pastor, Ed Young, is also a former SBC president.

SBC leaders Al Mohler and Richard Land both admonished Southern Baptists about their legal and moral obligation to report suspected child abuse in wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.

A member of Mohler’s board of trustees, meanwhile, faced questions about his handling of an internal investigation of allegations against Langworthy at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., which elders refused to discuss with police citing clergy-penitent privilege.

--The end of the world as we know it: Radio Bible teacher Harold Camping’s doomsday prediction of May 21 did not materialize. Neither did a revised Rapture forecast of Oct. 21. ABP didn’t carry a story about the 2011 breakup of REM, known for the 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But we were there in June when the Southern Baptist Convention, usually known for values closer to the Tea Party than the Democratic Party, passed a resolution calling for “a just and compassionate path to legal status” for undocumented immigrants. Critics of the statement called it “Southern Baptist amnesty.”

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Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.