2011's Top Ten Religoius Stories

The Religion Newswriters Association recently released their list of 2011’s ten most important religious news stories. I don’t know that I agree with them all, or the order they’re in, but here’s the list:

1. The death of Osama bin Laden spurs discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace, justice and retribution.

The death of bin Laden brought to a kind of conclusion the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of course, in the decade since those attacks, the Western/Muslim conflict has spun off into so many directions that it’s hard to nail down just a few. But among the political, economic and cultural shifts that have occurred in the last ten years, surely the religious debate has dramatically changed. In my own denomination a renewed passion for Muslim evangelism is clearly evident—and continues to grow.

2. Lively congressional hearings are held on the civil rights of American Muslims. In the House hearings focus on alleged radicalism and in the Senate on crimes reported against Muslims.

One of the difficulties in evangelism into the Muslim world is how we as conservative Christians reconcile in our own hearts what happened on 9/11 and the spiritual need of Islam. We’re still figuring that out.

3. Catholic Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City. Mo. is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child, becoming the first active bishop in the country to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

 While evangelical churches haven’t had to deal with the scope of the child sexual abuse scandal that has swept through the Catholic Church like a storm, we still deal with our own sexual issues, including the sexual sins of clergy. We no longer, though, ignore the issue and most of our churches have a broader understanding today—as opposed to a few years ago—of the nature of this sin and each congregation’s responsibility for dealing with it.

4. The Catholic Church introduces a new translation of the Roman Missal throughout the English–speaking world, making the first significant change to a liturgy since 1973.

A big deal for the Catholic Church, with more ripple effects for evangelicals than we think. The drive to modernize church liturgy, language, preaching, hymnody and programming is universal, as churches of all stripes accelerate our attempts to better connect with modern culture. The real challenge is how to do that without so compromising our heritage that we lose our distinctiveness.

5. Presbyterian Church (USA) allows local option on ordination of partnered gay people. Church defections over the issue continue among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.

Allowing gay clergy has proved the death knell of the Episcopalians and may well do the same for all the mainline Protestant denominations. Nowhere is the gulf more evident between the professional ministerial class and the lay people they claim to serve than in this key subject. Biblically astute lay people simply refuse to accept gay clergy. They tend to be much more conservative than their purported spiritual leaders and are increasingly refusing to follow their leadership, resulting in large numbers of people leaving these denominations.

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified—the last step before sainthood—in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

While I don’t have a dog in this fight, I have read enough of Pope John Paul’s writings to be deeply impressed with his insight into the Church’s prophetic voice in the twentieth century.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

A story that the secular news media loved because they believe it exposed all evangelical Christians as simpletons, fools or charlatans. It didn’t. Just Harold Camping.

8. A book by Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell, “Love Wins,” presenting a much less harsh picture of hell than is traditional, stirs discussion in evangelical circles. Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention rebut it.

Rob Bell’s subsequent journey since the publication of his incendiary book is instructive. He left his church in Minnesota, moved to southern California and set up his own nationwide speaking tour, where for $35 dollars you can hear him talk about something called “Fit to Smash Ice.” The SBC wasn’t alone in rebuking the Universalist theology of “Love Wins.” Most evangelical groups did the same thing.

9. The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion by declaring a fetus a person, fails on Election Day in Mississippi, but advocates plan to try in other states. Meanwhile, reports show the number of restrictions adopted throughout the country against abortion during the year are far more than in any previous year.

While Mississippi’s attempt as altering the legal landscape of abortion failed, the larger trend toward a growing trend toward respecting the life and legal rights of the unborn is good news.

10. Bible translations make news, with celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version; criticism, notably by Southern Baptists, about gender usage in the newest New International Version; and completion of the Common English Bible.

The problem of the newest edition of the New International Version isn’t just in gender usage. On a broader scale, the new NIV ‘s language flattens out the meaning of many key verses of the Bible. The result isn’t a more accessible translation of God’s Word but a less meaningful one. I paid $50 for a copy of the new NIV and after reading through it, put it on my shelf, never to be used again. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible is a happy event for all evangelical Christians. The KJV not only captures much of the distinctiveness of classical Christianity; it not only was crucial in establishing the English language itself; it also possesses the unique quality of sounding like the Bible ought to sound. When you read a Scripture in the KJV it’s like what Willie Nelson once said when refusing to cover a    George Jones classic: once George has sung a song, nobody else can do it half as well.

To these ten stories, I’d add two more of my own:

11. The bankruptcy of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. After several years of growing financial shortfalls, the Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy in 2010. In July of 2011, Robert Schuller was voted out of leadership by the Board of Trustees and last month the facility was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County for use as their new cathedral.

 The first mega-church in America came to a disgraceful end because of a situation that will shortly confront every mega-church: the succession of their founding pastor. It’s a lesson the modern evangelical world better take to heart because of our celebrity-driven church culture.

12. Anglican bishop and author John Stott dies on July 27. Stott was an internationally known pastor, leader and author with an impact beyond his own Church of England to the entire evangelical world.

 Stott was one of the most profound and accessible expositors of the Bible I’ve ever encountered. His books are still among my favorites and his example of biblical teaching remains the goal of many of us who attempt to faithfully teach God’s Word.