Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Nigerian Donation Energizes Iowa Church

Samantha Tillich, Staff Writer

If you live in New York City, seeing a $25 million building project go up across the street is no big deal. If you live in Mt. Hermon, Iowa, population 248, a project that big is bound to get noticed.

With little advance warning to the community, Mt. Hermon Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) initiated the first phase of a $25 million project just two blocks from the town square. A modern sanctuary that seats 2,500 worshippers in comfort is the centerpiece of the facility. It will also include new offices, an education wing, a gym and 30 units of affordable housing.

Stunned townspeople wondered aloud how the church, whose membership is only 41, could support such a project. The pastor, John Mayfield, calls it a miracle. “Only God could have provided for us so generously.”

In this case, God’s provision arrived via Nigeria. One day, Mayfield discovered an unusual plea for help in his e-mail in-box. The widow of a former finance minister in Nigeria needed assistance in freeing up funds from her late husband’s account. Over $100 million U.S. lay trapped in a Nigerian bank. If it could be routed to the church’s bank account in the United States, the woman would donate half to the church.

The woman, it turned out, is a Christian, and her sincere faith convinced Mayfield that God’s hand was at work. He immediately e-mailed her with the necessary information.

Though Nigerian law requires a waiting period of several months before the such a large sum could be transferred, Mayfield knew God would find a way to put the money to use immediately. He hired an architect and called a meeting of the Church Council. The leaders agreed to support the plan.

Mayfield describes what happened next as inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The pastor convinced his flock, mostly retired farmers and teachers, to come up with the initial deposit for the building project while they waited for the money from Nigeria. The congregation was able to come up with $6 million for the deposit and an extra $10,000 to help motivate the Nigerian bank to work quickly. Most church members took money from retirement funds and personal savings. Nearly half mortgaged their homes in order to assist with God’s work.

The Church Council promised to pay back all the money with interest once the money arrives from Nigeria. The church even sold its current property to the local school district. Sunday worship now takes place in the elementary school cafeteria while they wait for the construction to be completed.

“Even though we’re meeting in a school, the energy that’s flowing through the congregation is amazing,” said Mayfield. “We even took in a new member last week, the first one in ten years. Praise God!”

Church secretary Lola Evans, who was laid off until the money arrives, speaks for most church members when she says, “We all have to make a short-term sacrifice, but in the end, this will do wonders for this town.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Interfaith Dialogue Bears (Rotten) Fruit

Gerald Calvin, Staff Writer

While many Christian groups have been working together to outline common theological ground--most notably in recent months, the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation--one denomination has taken a much bolder step.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has recently completed a round of talks with the Council of Muslims Worldwide, a fundamentalist group known for its virulent declarations against the United States, Israel and Christianity. These talks, to the surprise of long-time observers of interfaith dialogue, resulted in complete agreement between the two parties.

Representative from each group--68 total, and all men--met to discuss 23 separate theological issues, some with direct political connections, such as Israel’s right to exist. When the dust had settled, the SBC and CMW issued a joint statement saying, “We have agreed to disagree on all 23 points of theology and ethics. This accord will enable us move forward in a new relationship based upon mutual misunderstanding and complete distrust.”

In a closing ceremony Tuesday at the University of Iceland campus at Reykjavic, SBC and CMW leaders signed the historic agreement, shook hands and embraced tentatively, and then sat down for a shared meal of fried seal blubber and Chai tea. The celebratory feast was awkward at first, but both sides loosened up and frequent laughter rolled through the room when each group tried to outdo the other at telling jokes about Jewish bankers.

An unidentified SBC delegate reacts after sampling the fried seal blubber.

Arriving at that jovial atmosphere based upon a common dislike for one another was not as easy as it seemed on the surface. “There were some tough issues to be hammered out,” said the SBC’s senior representative Bruce Wilks. “The whole thing nearly fell apart on the second day. We were precariously close to a point of theological agreement.”

The sticky issue was whether or not each party worships the one true God. At first, it seemed as if both groups could grudgingly admit that the other did indeed worship the one true God based upon their shared faith heritage as the actual or spiritual offspring of Abraham. Fortunately, author Robert Morey, invited by the SBC for just such an impasse, came up with a solution. Since, as he contends, “Allah” is really the name of an ancient heathen god, Muslims are idolaters.

CMW scholars immediately countered with the fact that by improperly lifting up Jesus of Nazareth as a deity, the Christians were clearly infidel idolaters themselves. “You could sense the relief spread through the room when we resolved that issue,” said Wilks. “Imagine our embarrassment if we had to return to our people telling them that we had something in common with the Muslims.”

A second round of talks is planned for early 2007, but neither side expects the same success. Twelve theological issues, including the role of women in society, are expected to create a disheartening amount of common ground. For now, both sides are still enjoying the moment. “God has really done a new thing here,” said an unnamed SBC delegate. “I came here not knowing what to expect, but I have learned that my new brothers,” he said, pointing toward a group from the CMW, “really are as evil as I had always believed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Top Consulting Firm Buys Gazette

Jonah Sanders, Senior Business Analyst

After months of negotiations, the Christian Leadership Consortium has purchased The Aldersgate Gazette. The move will give CLC a long-desired publishing arm as well as allowing the Gazette to run exclusive articles featuring CLC products.

The CEO of CLC, Rev. R. L. Steinovich, PhD, MBA, promised to give the online journal the resources it needs to “continue the high level of Christian journalism for which the Gazette has become known. Also, we hope to make lots of money selling mugs with the AG logo.”

CLC has been in business for 23 years in the field of church consulting and marketing. Their on-site assessments have become legendary, leading to such lucrative spin offs as Quest for Mediocrity, Committed to Church Growth and 40 Days of Anxiety. Churches on three different continents have used CLC products to stay busy and create the illusion of progress.

The company hopes to use the Gazette to push its primary message: if your church isn’t growing, you’re just not trying hard enough. Says Marketing Director Tony Snowbie, “Every church has its weaknesses, and our job is to help churches discover them. If the people feel genuine hope for their congregation’s future, then where is the incentive in that? Faithful Christians need a sense of anxiety and desperation in their lives.”

Gazette Publisher Burton Mackerel believes the buyout will improve the quality of the journal. “The CLC transition team has already assured us they will use their consultants to help us seek out our most miserable failures,” said Mackerel. “I think that will give us a much more somber atmosphere in the newsroom. We need that.”

The terms of the purchase were not immediately released, but experts estimate the deal was worth $140-180 million.