10 of the biggest stories in American Christianity in 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, I wanted to take a look back at some of the top stories impacting Christianity in 2018.

1. The death of Billy Graham
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Arguably the leading figure in American Christianity of the 20th century, evangelist Billy Graham died on February 21 at the age of 99.

In an era when so many churches are rocked by sin and scandal, Billy Graham was respected by both Christians and non-christians for his integrity.

In an era where sexual harassment is rampant in seemingly every sphere of life, Billy Graham vowed to never spend time alone with a woman who was not his wife, mother, or daughter.

In an era where many of our most famous pastors live in mansions, Billy Graham vowed to not live lavishly.

In an era where there is so much hype, Billy Graham didn’t exaggerate attendance figures at his crusades.

In a Gallup poll of the most respected men in the world, Billy Graham made the top 10 a remarkable 50 times (read more).

2. LGBT issues and the church

The third anniversary of the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage in America came in June. One story that helps illustrate the conflict of the church an the culture is the story of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who famously refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips.

In August, Phillips was again defending himself after a lawyer sought legal action against Phillips for refusing to bake a cake in honor of the lawyer (who’s transgendered) transition anniversary.

3. Sex abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church 

It’s been a rough few months for the Catholic Church in America, largely because of self-inflicted wounds. In July, the New York Times ran a cover story alleging sexual abuse of a Catholic seminarian perpetrated by Theodore McCarrick, a Catholic Cardinal, who had retired as the archbishop of Washington D.C. in 2006. Shortly after the Times story was released, McCarrick resigned as a cardinal. He’s the highest ranking American Catholic to  have been accused of abuse. But there were also Catholic leaders who say that they had heard of these allegations and reported them up the chain, prior to the July story.

In August, Carlo Vigano, who had served as the archbishop nuncio to the United States (basically the Vatican ambassador to America) wrote that he had previously reported on McCarrick, as had Vigano’s predecessor. The abuses were swept under the rug.

There were several stories about Vigano this summer. Vigano is a pretty credible person to be making those claims. Vatican gave smoke and mirrors. Pope Francis asked people to pray for the Catholic Church in these “attacks from the devil.”

Chicago archbishop Blasé Cupich brushed off Vigano saying: “The pope knows we have a bigger agenda. We have to speak about the environment, about the poor, we have to reach out to people who are marginalized in society. We cannot be distracted at this moment,”

The hits kept coming.

In August, a Grand Jury Report came out in Pennsylvania, investigating eight of Pennsylvania’ diocese. They found evidence spanning decades of hundreds of priests allegedly sexually assaulting over a thousand children.

When that report was released, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro talked about a “sophisticated cover up,” and claimed they even had evidence that the Vatican was aware of the cover up.

Pennsylvania had been the former stomping grounds of Cardinal Donal Wuerl, who had succeeded McCarrick as the archbishop of Washington D.C. Wuerl had previously been archbishop of Pittsburgh and was one of the names named by Vigano. Wuerl resigned in October.

In November, authorities in Houston raided the offices of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who’s the archbishop of the Houston-Galveston Catholic Dioceses. Being the archbishop of the fourth largest city in America is pretty significant, but DiNardo is also the President of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The raid was related to the Houston diocese handling of sexual assault allegations against a local priest named Manuel La Rosa-Lopez.

Next February, the Vatican is hosting a summit on these clerical abuses. This week, Blase Cupich (Mr. Environment) was tapped as one of the organizers for the summit. I was immediately skeptical of this selection.  In addition to talking about how the Pope had to focus on the environment (something he doesn’t’ control) rather than being troubled with an imploding sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church (something he does control), said they weren’t “going to go down a rabbit hole” on Vigano’s credible allegations.

It all seems reactionary and slow to come. And my concern is that it still won’t fix the problems. People can try to dismiss these issues as being things that happened a long time ago, but when many of the higher ups within the church are being shown to have had knowledge (or in McCarrick’s case, to be the perpetrator), it remains a major crisis (read more).

4. American pastor freed by Turkish government 

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October 12

The Turkish government released American pastor Andrew Brunson after more than two years in custody.

Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a failed coup on the Turkish government and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Brunson had nothing to do with the coup. At the time, he had been in the country for over 20 years serving as a pastor and was taken as a political prisoner.

There had been several times over the past year where Brunson’s release seemed possible, but the Turkish government and courts were resistant. In July, Brunson was allowed to go on house arrest (read more).

5. American missionary murdered on remote island

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November 17 
An American missionary, John Allen Chau lost his life on a remote island off the coast of India last week.
His goal was to share the gospel with the Sentinelese tribe. Their island is a protected area, which is isolated from the outside world. The tribe has also been violent towards visitors in the past.

Chau attempted going to the island and the Sentinelese shot arrows at him, forcing Chau to flee. But he returned again, tragically losing his life (read more).

6. Willow Creek sexual misconduct and fallout 

A long investigative story from the Chicago Tribune reports on several allegations of moral filings from Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek, a suburban Chicago church which is one of the largest churches in America (read more).

The article says:

The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true, the Tribune found.

Hybles stepped down in April.

More fallout continued into the summer. A New York Times story in August included further allegations. Willow Creek teaching pastor Steve Carter resigned.

The leadership of Willow had been informed about these allegations four years ago and did very little to take them seriously. They did an internal investigation, but internal investigations can be hard when their is an internally vested interest in clearing someone of wrongdoing.

Two days later, on August 9, Willow Creek’s other lead pastor and elder board resigned.

Willow Creek was not the only church to have sexual assault issues come to light. In the continuing fallout of the #metoo movement, a separate move started within the church called #churchtoo.

7. Megachurch pastor takes his own life 

Andrew Stoecklein was pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California. Stoecklein had struggled with depression and had taken leave from the church this summer (read more).

8. Survey reveals pervasive heretical beliefs in the American Church 

Working with Lifeway Research, Ligonier Ministries recently released the third installment of their “State of Theology” survey.

Part of the goal is to find out what American Chrstians “believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible.” Lifeway polled 3,000 Americans in the survey.

The results were troubling.

Many people in the poll have unbiblical views on moral issues. For instance, 46% of people ages 18-34 believe that gender is a matter of personal choice. 38% disagreed that abortion is a sin.

But what is even more concerning than views on moral issues is views which are heretical. For the question, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” 78% agreed with that statement.

Other key doctrines where people disagreed with Biblical teachings included undermining that humans have a sinful nature. 53% of respondents agreed with the statement “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”

51% of respondents believed that a person can be saved who follows a religion besides Christianity. 58% believed that “worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church” (read more).

9. Beth Moore calls out misogyny within Evangelical Christianity 

Over the last generation, Beth Moore has been one of the most prominent female leaders and speakers in American Evangelical circles. Her Bible studies are hugely popular among women. She’s the founder of Living Proof Ministries, a ministry for women based out of Houston.

She’s not a pastor. She’s an author and speaker.

Although she’s popular in Evangelical circles, she’s not universally supported. Some of the criticisms of her theology include that it’s a prosperity gospel or that it’s intellectually light theology.

In writing, Moore talks about some of the misogynistic treatment she’s received over the years. Considering the divergent opinions within Christian circles on women in leadership, Moore’s letter talks about how she had chalked up some of her treatment as being a byproduct of deeply rooted Biblical convictions among sincere Christians with whom she simply disagreed.

From the letter:

I accepted the peculiarities accompanying female leadership in a conservative Christian world because I chose to believe that, whether or not some of the actions and attitudes seemed godly to me, they were rooted in deep convictions based on passages from 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

As Moore continues to elaborate, she talks of coming to a realization that it wasn’t simply about differences in opinion.

I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.

Our culture largely disrespects women. The #metoo movement showed the rampant sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. As the movement spread, more and more areas of life came to light that were stained by the mistreatment of women. The #churchtoo movement showed further examples of assault and harassment from within the church. Obviously we knew that there were issues but these movements have created a national dialogue.

While Moore’s post dealt more with misogyny than sexual assault, both are a reflection of a culture which far too often devalues women.

10. Death of Eugene Peterson

October 22

Eugene Peterson, pastor, professor, and writer passed away today at the age of 85 after battling dementia and heart failure.

Peterson authored 35 books in his lifetime. The most popular among them was The Message, which has sold over 20 million copies. The Message is a paraphrase translation which attempts to capture the idea of a Biblical verse and not necessarily the exact wording (read more).

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to subscribe! 

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.

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