Christian Today Digest – Issue 1 2019

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After lead is ripped from 600-year-old church, vicar just wants prayers for the thieves

Thieves who stole valuable lead from a historic church in Harrogate need prayers 'more than our poor roof', the vicar has said.

All Saints Church in Ripley, which dates back to 1390, is now facing costs running into the thousands to replace the lead and repair the damage caused by the thieves when they ripped the original fittings from the roof.

If enough funds can be raised, the church plans to install a new church roof alarm system.

It is believed that the thieves targeted the Grade II listed church between the night of January 9 and morning of January 10 after driving a van through the main gate of the churchyard.

Despite the huge cost of repairing the damage, vicar Paul Harford is not angry. Instead he said he was more concerned about what drove the perpetrators to do something so dangerous, adding that he was praying for them.

'A question should be asked – What would drive someone to do this?' he said.

'A historic building has been damaged and put at great risk of further damage, but is that the real concern here?

'Should we not be questioning how we have created a society in which people are driven to such dangerous, and desperate acts of vandalism to support themselves?

'My thoughts and prayers are with the perpetrators of this crime, they need help even more than our poor roof.'

Lead theft from churches has become such a problem in the UK that many have resorted to installing expensive alarm systems or introducing security measures like watermarking and anti-climb paint.

Last October, thieves stole the entire lead roof from the Grade I listed All Saints Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire. Police said the 'audacious' thieves had posed as tradesmen to gain access.

Treasurer Joyce Bullock told the BBC that their insurance would not cover all the repair costs, running into tens of thousands of pounds.

'I don't know how we're going to pay for it,' she said at the time, adding, 'I just pray every day that nothing else happens.'

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Emotional impact of divorce on children varies according to age

The emotional toll of divorce is greater on children who were in late childhood or early adolescence when their parents split up, a study has found.

Researchers at the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies found that children between the ages of seven and 14 were more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems than their peers who were still living with both their parents.

The study was based on the mental health data of more than 6,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the century as part of the Millennium Cohort Study.

The researchers found that children whose parents had split when they were between the ages of seven and 14 experienced a 16 per cent increase in emotional problems and an eight per cent rise in conduct issues in the short term.

The increase in emotional problems was true for both boys and girls, although only boys tended to have greater behavioural issues.

The study also found that the likelihood of emotional and behavioural problems was unaffected by levels of affluence.

For children who were much younger when their parents split – between the ages of three and seven – the prevalence of mental health problems remained on a par with children whose parents were still together.

Prof Emla Fitzsimons, co-author of the study, said: 'With adolescent mental ill-health a major concern nationally, there's a pressing need to understand the causes. There are undoubtedly many factors at play, and our study focuses on the role of family break-up.

'It finds that family splits occurring in late, but not early, childhood are detrimental to adolescent mental health. One possible reason for this is that children are more sensitive to relationship dynamics at this age.

'Family break-ups may also be more disruptive to schooling and peer relationships at this stage of childhood.'

The Coalition for Marriage said the study was further evidence of the damage done to children by divorce.

'Divorce still damages children. There are exceptions but that's normally the case,' it said, adding that it only reinforced their view that the Government should not go ahead with plans to introduce no-fault divorces.

'Divorce for any and every reason – euphemistically known as 'no-fault' divorce – could, according to the Government's own research , cause the divorce rate to soar,' it said.

'It will inflict long-lasting pain on yet more young people and damage society as a whole.

'Why would any Government want to introduce it?'

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Wales´ struggling rural churches look to tourism for survival

A new tourism scheme is to offer a financial lifeline to rural churches fighting for their survival across Wales.

The SpiritCymru project will see churches and chapels open up as accommodation along popular cycle routes.

The joint venture by the Church in Wales and Ceredigion businessman James Lynch has been launched at the start of the Welsh Government's Year of Discovery tourism campaign.

In addition to active churches, the doors of those that no longer have a congregation will once again be opened to offer overnight accommodation to touring cyclists.

The scheme is the brainchild of Mr Lynch, founder of sustainable holiday company fforest, and is being supported by the Welsh Government's Tourism Product Innovation Fund.

The churches will be fitted out with sleeping stalls and 'services built for cycling', with bookings expected to open in the autumn.

'We know that there are some 800 chapels and churches in the rural and coastal communities of Wales – many of which are facing an uncertain future,' said Mr Lynch.

'SpiritCymru will celebrate and promote the heritage values of these beautiful buildings and provide a new sustainable model for continued community engagement and use.'

The head of Property Services at the Church in Wales, Alex Glanville, said: 'This is an exciting opportunity to work in partnership with fforest to find a new, innovative purpose for churches that have been closed.

'These buildings remain special places which will find a new audience through SpiritCymru.'

The steady decline in attendance – and the income it brought through offerings – has forced many churches across the UK to find new ways to stay open.

In 2015, the Churches Conservation Trust launched ' Champing ' – camping in historic church buildings that no longer offer services but which are still consecrated. The initiative is a creative take on the glamping trend, with rural churches in beautiful settings providing comfortable and quirky accommodation.

Other tourist-focused ventures have focused on putting churches on the map as places to visit for their historical and architectural value.

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Christians are ignorant of Great Commission because churches aren't teaching it enough

A pastor and missiologist have weighed in on why so many Christians are unaware of the Great Commission.

After Barna research found that 51 per cent of American Christians do not know what the Great Commission means, it called in the experts to find out why.

Allen Yeh, associate professor of intercultural studies and missiology at Biola University, said some of the ignorance could be explained by simple terminology – the fact that 'the Great Commission' is not a specific term that Jesus actually used.

By contrast, Jesus taught his followers the 'greatest commandment' in Matthew 22:37–40 and it's a passage many Christians know by heart.

But that can't explain all of confusion, Yeh told Barna, and in his view, there's another important reason – churches are failing to teach it from the pulpit.

'I think some of the ignorance of this term can be attributed to churches not teaching this concept enough any more,' he said.

'I certainly heard it a lot growing up, but perhaps it has been lost on this current generation of believers.'

David Daniels, lead pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, takes a similar view.

He thinks churches might be guilty of a little cherry-picking when it comes to what they choose to focus on and so perhaps leave it to those who feel a particular calling.

'Some churches view mission and evangelism as "one item on a spiritual buffet". That is, the Great Commission is one of many options for churchgoers who feel personally inclined,' he said.

'Other churches view mission and evangelism as "one item on a spiritual plate"—like beets, the Great Commission doesn't appeal to most people, but everyone has to eat their vegetables, so to speak.'

What these two 'distorted' perspectives have in common, he warned, is that they both 'fail to put gospel proclamation as the centrepiece of the Church's existence'.

Instead of feeling called to serve the world, churches may think their mission is only to serve people. The result of this, he said, is that 'the Great Commission gets lost in the flurry of church-centric activities'.

'The Great Commission and the glory of God it declares must be more than a verse; it must be the driving force of a disciple-making church,' he said.

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Level of Christian persecution in the world is 'extraordinary', says Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised to use the Commonwealth and Britain's ties with Europe and the US to tackle the persecution of Christians around the world.

Mr Hunt, who recently ordered a review into global Christian persecution, made the pledge while addressing the launch of the Open Doors World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians suffer the most for their faith.

He expressed concern at the decline of religious freedom around the world as he said it was 'extraordinary that nearly a quarter of a billion people are suffering persecution today because of their Christian faith'.

'It's also extraordinary to think that 80 per cent of people who are suffering persecution because of their faith are Christian,' he said.

Mr Hunt said that life was 'very, very tough' for the Christians living in countries on the World Watch List, which was topped by North Korea for the 18th year in a row. It was followed in the top 10 by Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, and India.

Reflecting on Britain's role in improving religious freedoms for persecuted Christians, Mr Hunt said he wanted to tap into Britain's global links.

'I want to think about what Britain's role could be. We are not a superpower but we are a global power and just as we shouldn't overestimate our strength we shouldn't underestimate it either and one thing we have despite all the travails of Brexit that we brilliantly timed this event to coincide with is we do have the most fantastic links around the world through our links with the Commonwealth our alliance with the United States, our links with our European friends and neighbours,' he said.

'And I want us to use those links to be an invisible chain that binds together countries that share our values.'

Mr Hunt said that, as a Christian country, Britain must not be shy about speaking up for Christians around the world.

'And what I want to do is to remove any nervousness or sense of political correctness that might have said that Britain shouldn't be championing the rights of Christians around the world for whatever reasons, reasons of history and empire and all that sort of thing which may have been an issue that we have been a bit shy about in the past and we mustn't be,' he said.

'And I think it's also very important to remember that although we are a western country and a very wealthy country and a Christian country, the vast majority of people we're talking about are Christians in much poorer countries and they are entitled to our thoughts and prayers and action just as any persecuted minority are anywhere in the world and I think that must be part of our mission.'

Mr Hunt concluded by asking Christians to pray for those in places where being a believer is 'an act of great courage', before adding that he wanted the suffering church to know that 'there are people who understand what they're going through and are sincerely trying to do everything they can about it'.

As part of this commitment, he said the Foreign Office would be keeping the issue of Christian persecution high on the agenda in private and public meetings with countries where it is occurring.

'For me when I go to church the biggest stress is trying to get my kids to come along with me,' he said.

'But for other people who have much much more serious issues and we must remember that indeed Christianity has its heart in the story of persecution and so we should always be alive to those people suffering it today and secondly, please don't just hold it in your prayers but also remember there are things that we can do about this and this is not something that is just about making speeches.'

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Open Doors 2019 report: Persecution is on the rise globally

Figures for the persecution of Christians have shown a 'shocking increase', according to persecution watchdog Open Doors.

The charity has released its World Watch List 2019 today and says Asia is showing a particularly sharp rise. In China, which has risen 16 places to number 27, new laws are seeking to control all expressions of religion.

Open Doors UK and Ireland chief executive Henrietta Blyth said: 'Our research uncovers a shocking increase in the persecution of Christians globally. In China our figures indicate persecution is the worst it's been in more than a decade – alarmingly, some church leaders are saying it's the worst since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. Worldwide, our data reveals that 13.9 per cent more Christians are experiencing high levels of persecution than last year. That's 30 million more people.'

India, the world's largest democracy, has entered the World Watch List top 10 for the first time as Hindu extremists act with impunity and violent attacks on Christians and churches rise. This is driven by growing ultra-nationalism, which has brought waves of violence against India's significant non-Hindu religious minorities.

Rising nationalism is leading to similar persecution in other countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal where national identity is tied to religion and those from minority faiths are considered outcasts.

This impacts Christians most significantly in remote rural areas. Blyth said: 'It's shocking that India – the country which taught the world the way of "non-violence" – now sits alongside the likes of Iran on our World Watch List. For many Christians in India, daily life is now full of fear – totally different from just four or five years ago.'

Persecution in North Korea is worse than any other country in the world and has been for the last 18 years. Five years ago only North Korea was in the extreme category for the level of persecution suffered by Christians there. This year Christians in the World Watch List's top 11 countries live where persecution is extreme These are: North Korea (1), Afghanistan (2), Somalia (3), Libya (4), Pakistan (5), Sudan (6), Eritrea (7), Yemen (8), Iran (9), India (10) and Syria (11).

Over 4,305 Christians were killed simply because of their beliefs during 2018. Many deaths go unreported because friends and relatives of the dead are afraid to report the killings. This is especially true for Christian converts in rural areas.

In the North and Middle Belt of Nigeria, at least 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith – almost double the number of a year ago (an estimated 2,000) – with villages completely abandoned by Christians forced to flee, as their armed attackers then moved in to settle with impunity.

Deaths were highest in Plateau State (1,885) where Christian deaths at the hands of Muslim Fulani herdsmen were declared 'genocide' by the Nigerian House of Representatives. Open Doors´ research shows that these targeted murders in Nigeria account for about 90 per cent of all faith driven killings of Christians worldwide.

In every country on Open Doors´ World Watch List, persecution also comes from family and friends, from fellow-villagers and work colleagues, from community councils and local government officials and from the police and legal systems.

Gender-specific persecution is found to be a key means of undermining the Christian community, so the differing areas of vulnerability for men and women are systematically exploited. In the top five most difficult countries to live as a Christian, the female experience of persecution is characterised by sexual violence, rape and forced marriage. This means that Christian women and girls face more persecution pressure in family and social spheres, whereas Christian men are more likely to be detained without trial or summarily killed by the authorities or militias.

The 2019 trends reinforce the findings of 2018: that the persecution of men is, by and large, 'focused, severe and visible' and that of women is 'complex, violent and hidden', Open Doors says. As well as exploiting gender vulnerabilities, persecution is also found to exploit other existing vulnerabilities such as age, disability, class and ethnicity. Religious persecution remains the 'canary in the coal mine' often pointing to wider human rights abuses.

Blyth said: 'People need to wake up to the fact that the persecution of religious minorities is increasing. These figures show we're going backwards not forwards. This is the issue of our time – governments must act to reverse this change. That's why we will be engaging actively with the independent review into the persecution of Christians, recently announced by [UK foreign secretary] Jeremy Hunt. This is a positive first step from the UK government and we look forward to seeing concrete policy change.'

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Five things which are more important than Brexit

The body was being wheeled on a trolley to the morgue, my wife said.

It was in a body bag, of course – after all, they do these things decently in a hospital, which was where we were at the time. But such a sight is always sobering – whatever and wherever the context.

While much of the UK was pre-occupied by what was going on with Brexit in Parliament last week, we were just a few miles away from the nation's MPs at a top-quality NHS medical facility in central London.

And that location certainly puts everything else in context – including Britain's plans to leave the European Union. When you're in a hospital, suddenly everything that dominates the headlines seems, well, rather less important. It made me ask myself, 'What's really important right now?' So here – in a rough, but only rough, ascending order, from lower to higher in priority, are a few of the things which came to mind:

5. The environment: If you've been pre-occupied with Brexit, like the media, then you might have missed the news that 2018 was the hottest year ever measured. You can read the evidence in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Science. Scientist John Abraham, one of the research collaborators involved, commented: 'We scientists sound like a broken record. Every year we present the science and plead for action. Not nearly enough is being done. We can still tackle climate change, but we must act immediately. We have the means to make a difference, we lack only the will.' Christians, as stewards of God's earth, should be at the forefront of speaking out about this and encouraging action.

4. Homelessness: Towards the end of last year, it was reported that a staggering 320,000 people were homeless in 2018 in the UK. Yes, that's not a typographical error – the figure is three hundred and twenty thousand. You find such a figure hard to credit? Well, read an analysis of the data on which that figure is based. If anything, statistical analysis suggests that figure might be an under-estimate rather than an over-estimate. Go read the article.

3. Hunger: The Food Aid Foundation estimates that “795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life”. This is about one person in nine on the planet. The foundation also suggests that one-third of food in the world is wasted. The World Food Programme has a phone app called 'Share the Meal' which is a simple way of making a small difference. Come to think of it, if everyone reading this article were to install and use the app from time to time, then collectively that difference might become quite significant.

2. Loving your neighbour: When someone is in hospital, you realise the importance of relationships. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, we are 'made for relationship'. That's part of the message of the Bible. Do you need to put down your phone – and look up at your partner or family members more over meals? What kind of neighbour are you? What does it mean for you to be a good neighbour and to 'go and do likewise' as Jesus instructed the snooty lawyer in his famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:37)? In our hospital context at the moment, we've certainly been touched by the amazing kindness of both Christians and non-Christians. It makes a real difference.

1. Loving God: Jesus says this is what's most important (Matthew 22:37), so it has to be at the top of this list. Not a Christian? Wondering why this is even 'a thing' worth thinking about? Well, if you want to know what God is like, or indeed whether there is one, look at Jesus. Read a gospel. Get to know him. If you feel slightly resentful about the whole idea – and in fact don't really want any kind of 'God' in your life – then that's perfectly normal. In fact, Jesus also helps explain why you feel like that, what it signifies, and why it really matters. And if you are a Christian, can you de-clutter (spiritually, emotionally, whatever) to focus on Jesus more clearly? At the end of the day – at the end of our lives – it really all does boil down to this: you, and Jesus.

At the end of the day during which my wife saw the body on the way to the morgue, we left the hospital quite late. As we walked towards the main entrance, we fell into step with a young couple carrying a new-born baby in a pram. Outside, the mother wheeled the child down the long accessibility ramp zig-zagging beside the steps. The father was now ahead, walking backwards in front of them, taking photos of his new child constantly. In the midst of Brexit there are things that are far more important. Death and life. Heaven and hell. In the midst of life, we are in death. Alongside death there is always the chance of new life. Jesus says he has come that we might not 'perish' but have life in all its fullness.

We clapped and cheered the young couple with their baby as they walked away. The mother looked round, and smiled.

[David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A]

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