Voices: Bridges between worship and work

First Baptist Church of Amarillo is privileged to join 11 other Texas churches in Baylor University’s Soundings Project to explore within each congregation a new ministry model.

In First Baptist Amarillo, that model is something not tried previously, with a view to strengthening the body of First Amarillo, perhaps meeting a human need in a new way while sharing the gospel.

A nationwide survey shows 60 percent of Americans are disengaged from their work. Eighty-five percent experience stress because of their work. The false dichotomy is: “Church is what we do on Sunday. Work is what we do Monday through Friday.”

For First Amarillo, the Soundings Project has become Bridges, the broad mission of which is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians by equipping them to discern and live out their callings, with a focus on learning and living out the bridge between worship on Sunday and work on Monday.

Building Bridges

Bridges has been four years in development with a team led by First Amarillo Minister of Education Robby Barrett. The team includes other staff members and lay members devoted to developing curriculum to help participants discern and live out their callings in the workplace.

Initially, the focus was on younger adults as affinity group members in groups of four to six, who joined with an affinity group leader—an older adult. Over a period of seven weeks, they became acquainted with one another and journeyed through a Redeemer City-To-City six-week Bible study titled The Calling of Faith & Work.

Affinity group members have included schoolteachers and medical professionals, a hairdresser, investment advisor, banker, IT professional, insurance agent and human resources director. Some affinity group leaders are retired. Others continue in their work, all with 20 years or more in the workplace.

Affinity group leaders prepared by completing six weeks of training, working through the Bible study chapter-by-chapter and discussing ways of engaging affinity group members in meaningful conversation about integrating worship on Sunday with work on Monday.

Each group decided where and when to meet. Generally, meetings were kept to one hour weekly. Affinity group members were expected to prepare on their own time for the meeting each week to enhance the substance of discussion.

First Amarillo offered Bridges in 2022 and 2023, with plans for a fall-2024 offering.

In preparation for the 2024 session, the First Amarillo Bridges team is exploring the use of smart phone text and tablets as well as television cable channels to spread the word about the Bridges opportunity. One affinity group member has asked about the possibility of bringing the Bridges curriculum into the workplace as an on-site study.

Bridges curriculum

Questions posed by the Bridges curriculum include:

  • In what ways are you discouraged, discontent or disengaged at work?
  • Do you feel like an exile at work? If so, what makes you feel this way?
  • How does the gospel address and redeem your attitude and circumstances?
  • When you see brokenness or a hopeless situation at work, how do you typically respond?
  • How do we glorify God with our work, and what impact does that glory bring to our lives and work environments?
  • What particular decisions do you need to make in the coming week that require increasing wisdom and the guiding discernment of the Spirit?
  • How does the possibility that your work today could last into all eternity change your perspective on the value of your work?

Additional course curricula include Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor and Greg Laurie’s Tell Someone, as well as the NIV Faith & Work Bible.

The Faith & Work Bible is referenced continually in The Calling of Faith & Work and incorporates on-point, personal testimonies and real-life modern-day stories appended to the Scripture to help the reader think about ways Scripture can be applied in the reader’s own workplace.

Greg Laurie’s Tell Someone lays out in practical format how each follower of Jesus can share the good news, including the venue of the workplace.

Responses to Bridges

Post-course surveys among the 50-plus affinity group members in the 2022 and 2023 classes have shown a high degree of satisfaction and utility for the Bridges experience. Those numbers are understood best in the light of testimonies from affinity group members.

“I admire this course of study, and I value the time that I invested. First, the course materials are extremely high quality. It is clear that this course was developed by professionals who really know how to design and deliver organizational training,” one affinity group member wrote.

“Second, the focus of the course was on a subject that I had never considered before. Did you ever notice that in Genesis 1, God was performing work?

“Finally, and most importantly for me, in the course I met some of my church brothers and sisters that I had never met before. … I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in this course, and I highly recommend this course to anybody who loves working and who wants to know more about the biblical topic of work,” the group member continued.

Another participant explained: “The Bridges Bible study helped me develop a biblical perspective on the work I do. In addition, the Bridges Bible study helped me see my coworkers in a different light, as we are all created in the image of God.”

The Bridges team has learned interest in this subject crosses generational lines and is not limited to an older generation mentoring a younger generation.

One affinity group member during the first session became an affinity group leader in the second session. Some affinity group members in the second session were nearing 60 years of age, having had many years already in the workplace, but wanting the fresh experience of understanding what the Bible says about living out their calling as Christians in the workplace.

In an exit survey following the first offering of Bridges, two-thirds said they are very likely or somewhat likely to participate again in Bridges.

The Bridges team sees a bright future for this experience to help participants find contentment and satisfaction in the workplace, to see their coworkers as God sees them and to watch for opportunities to share Christ among work colleagues.

Bill Brian is an attorney in Amarillo and a member of First Baptist Church in Amarillo. First Baptist Amarillo participated in Baylor University’s Soundings Project. Soundings is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author.




Voices: How should I vote? Part 1

This is Part I in a series written by Ellis Orozco regarding Christian civic engagement.

This is a national election year that promises to be unlike any other in modern presidential history. A little more than 155 million people voted in the 2020 presidential election. That was an historical high. This year’s presidential election promises to beat that number.

More Americans engaging in the political life of our country is a good thing.

However, the increased engagement also has brought a growing polarization that threatens to tear the fabric of our national political life. It seems to have created a much more toxic political discourse.

We live in an anger-filled, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year election cycle that for many has become nothing more than background noise. For others it has created a paralyzing anxiety, fostering the temptation to walk away from it all.

The question for many Christians is: How do we engage in the brawl without becoming brawlers? How do we participate in the national conversation without descending into lunacy? How do we vote from a biblical, Christ-centered worldview?

Jesus and politics

Jesus was in the Jerusalem temple one day when he was confronted by a group of elite politicians, each with their own agenda (Matthew 22:15-22). They were attempting to destroy Jesus, politically. They wanted to chip away at the hold Jesus had over the general population—the 80 percent of the people who had been abused and silenced for decades.

To that end, they asked Jesus a trick question. Should we pay taxes to Caesar? If he answered “yes,” he would lose credibility with his followers. If he answered “no,” they could charge him with treason. Jesus’ response is interesting.

He showed them a coin and asked, “Whose image is on this coin?”

They answered, “Caesar’s, of course.”

Jesus threw the coin back at them and said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).

Modern interpreters have over-spiritualized Jesus’ question. On the day he asked it, the question actually was quite enigmatic and may have initiated a heated debate that would cause modern-day political discourse to blush.

What belongs to God? The answer, in Jesus’ day, depended on your political perspective.

The Sadducees would have said the Temple and the sacrificial system belongs to God.

The Pharisees would have been divided, some saying it was the throne of David that belongs to God, and others saying it was the Mosaic Law.

The Zealots would have screamed with one voice it was the Promised Land that belongs to God.

A few Essenes, had they happened to wander into Jerusalem that day, might have said it was the community of true Israelites that belongs to God.

Jesus’ answer was designed brilliantly to elicit such a debate. In the end, his central thesis most likely was missed in the brawl that almost surely ensued.

Jesus’ thesis: It’s all of the above. Everything belongs to God. Including the passionate debate.

A biblical foundation for voting

Let’s begin with this basic truism: Politics is not the most important thing in life.

Can you take a deep breath and just live in that for a moment? We have survived some pretty ugly political circumstances in the past, and we will survive these days as well.

This nation, as we know it, one day will cease to exist. All nations come and go, and if you think ours is any different … you’re wrong.

Jesus, however, is eternal, and our relationship with him is the most important thing in life.

Most Christians seem to understand this truism and, therefore, are tempted to wash their hands of the nasty, political climate and walk away from it all. That would be a big mistake for two reasons.

Two reasons for political engagement

1. Political decisions impact people.

The decisions we make as a country impact the lives of people all over the Earth.

We have a mandate from Jesus to stand on the side of the weak and oppressed—to fight for the rights of the vulnerable and the voiceless; to advocate for the responsible and ethical stewardship of our collective resources; to fight against corruption, hatred, violence and racism wherever we find it.

Political action is a vital way we stay true to that mandate.

2. Jesus is Lord over all things.

The central confession of the Christian church is this: Jesus Christ is Lord.

There is evidence that when confronted with the political mandate to confess, “Caesar is Lord,” some first-century Christians chose death over capitulation.

Before his ascension into heaven, Jesus said to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christians believe Jesus has power over all things and ultimately is in control. The Bible teaches us God cares deeply about his creation—all of it. And he calls us to care for it as well (Genesis 2:15).

One of the most effective ways for us to be good stewards of the Earth God gave us is to be involved in the political process.

If the Christ ethic demands we remain involved in the political process, how then should we vote? Is there a biblical-theological framework that can guide us as we prepare to vote in 2024?

That question will be the subject of my next article.

Ellis Orozco served as a pastor 30 years. He is the founder and CEO of Karooso Ministries and the public theologian in residence at Stark College & Seminary, where this article first appeared. Republished by permission.




Voices: Revitalization put fizz back in our church

Rosebud is a small town east of Temple and southeast of Waco. Consequently, ours is a small church.

It’s easy to think not much happens in small towns and small churches. Sometimes, that’s true. But big things are happening here through revitalization.

We recognized our church was flat—like a Dr Pepper that lost its fizz. Our church needed revitalization from the inside before we could proceed in any other area.

First Baptist Church in Rosebud was invited to participate in the Baylor University’s Soundings Project. We were honored and wanted to be good stewards of the money, yet we seemed overwhelmed and struggled for quite a while to determine how best to apply the grant.

We felt it should go toward spreading the gospel to further God’s kingdom. With the guidance of the Soundings Project leadership, we were able to state our goal.

Revitalizing within

Our Soundings Project goal was divided into two phases. The first phase was to revitalize our own congregation. We wanted and needed to be a healthy church, so we could address the ultimate goal of reaching out to our community with the love of Jesus Christ to further God’s kingdom.

We began with an “in-house” three-day revival. The Soundings grant allowed us to bring in an outside speaker for a Friday through Sunday event. The topic was “Recharge, Revitalize and Re-unite.” Every congregation member received a special invitation to attend. We served food, provided child care, and minimized kitchen prep and clean-up so all could hear the speaker.

The second phase involved many varied events. For example, members volunteered to place advertisement-type signs in their yards stating, “Jesus Loves You.” The church hosted several singing groups for the community, which were well attended by several church denominations. The community was invited to attend an Easter lunch provided by our church.

Revitalizing without

Our interim pastor has been instrumental in revitalizing the ministerial alliance in our community. In keeping with our Soundings goal of community outreach, our church was instrumental in the alliance organizing a free Thanksgiving meal in 2023 for anyone in our community.

Members of area churches donated the food and worked together to serve all who attended. To emphasize the meal was a ministerial-alliance sponsored event, the event was held at a city-owned property rather than at a specific church.

The ministerial alliance established a goal of providing school supplies for the 2024-2025 school year for elementary students who live in our district. This is a community-wide project well on its way to reaching its goal solely through donations. No Soundings grant money was used for the event or for the school supplies.

One of the simplest, yet powerful, events was a prayer walk that took place over several Saturday mornings. Congregation members walked the streets of Rosebud to pray over every house, church and business in the city.

We did not knock on doors; however, if people were outside, we told them who we are and asked them, “How can we pray for you?”

Advertisement-type signs stating, “How can we pray for you?” were an offshoot of the prayer walk. The signs include our church’s name and phone number. Congregation members have placed the signs in their front yards, and the signs are placed outside in front of the church as well.

Other revitalization efforts

The Soundings grant enabled us to purchase Thom Rainer’s book Autopsy of a Deceased Church:12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. We read and discussed the book over several weeks on Sunday night during fall 2023.

Our men invited friends, family and neighbors to attend a men’s retreat in Waco in October. About half of the attendees were from our congregation, and half were from the community.

In early 2024, the Soundings grant purchased T-shirts with our church’s name for every student and adult volunteer for our Wednesday after-school program for pre-K through 6th grade. The majority are minority students and are not from our church. Students typically wear the shirt to school on Wednesdays.

First Baptist Rosebud is in the active planning stages of a church and community revival set for April 26–28. The theme of the revival is “Will You Take the Dare?—Dare to Obey, Dare to Speak Up Boldly, and Dare to Stand Strong.”

We are incorporating music in a variety of styles, some from area churches. One of the groups will be singing in Spanish and English. Soundings is providing food each night, breakfast Sunday morning, and providing for the speaker.

We are in the early planning stages of a fall 2024 women’s retreat. The goal is to reach out to community members to hear about Jesus and to spread the gospel to further God’s kingdom.

The whole church blessed

Since the Soundings Grant has been implemented, seven individuals—three adults and four young people—have made professions of faith followed by baptism. There have been six adults who have joined the church either by statement or by letter. These individuals are remaining faithful members actively serving the Lord in the church.

In addition to these, there has been a non-English-speaking individual who has made a profession of faith and is wanting to be baptized. She has been attending faithfully.

Most members of the congregation have participated in events, and most have contributed in some way to make the events possible. Consequently, most members of our congregation are aware of the Soundings grant and the blessings we have received because of it.

The Lord has blessed First Baptist Rosebud. There is fizz back in the church.

First Baptist Church in Rosebud participated in Baylor University’s Soundings Project. Soundings is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the authors.




Voices: Parenting advice that pulled us through hard days

Parenting is difficult. Some parenting situations are very difficult and require outside help.

When a parent goes to counseling with a child, some powerful words from the counselor can stick with them.

We had more than one counselor over a period of 25 years, but these words stuck with us. We hope if parenting is your present calling, they might help you, too.

Advice we found helpful

Even though your child is rebelling now, the odds are great he will turn out to be a lot like you. Actually, the odds are he will be just like you.

Your anxiety is raising your child’s anxiety level. Work on your own stress, anger and depression.

Your child shows you her negative feelings or hyperactivity because you are her safe place.

Most children on medication are medicated to behave at school. Medication may be worn off when the child gets home after school. Be prepared, and help your child understand this change.

The educational system is designed for “average” students in the middle of the ability continuum. It is likely one-third to two-thirds of our children do not fit in that range and will have special needs or learning disabilities addressed in school.

If your child has special needs, get all the help for him you can. Learn to advocate for your child. Educational attorneys can advise, as can the special-ed administrators in your school district. The law is powerful, and it is your ally here.

Some problems are meant for you to fix. Other problems are meant for doctors, agencies and even the government and courts to fix. Know what problem is yours.

Understand and graciously accept you may have to let others take over. Be grateful you have help. You did not fail.

When what you are doing isn’t working, try something else. Surprise your child with an unexpected reaction. You at least will have their attention.

Children and teens may not listen to what you say, but they are aware of what you do. Action is powerful.

More advice we found helpful

Remember, you as a parent always have power. If you have the family money and car, you can control a lot more than you realize. Hold onto your power, no matter how your child acts out.

Do not be afraid to walk away from a scene or abusive language. Do not be afraid to leave church and take your child with you.

Do not parent to please others. Other people have different children.

Safety must come first. Do whatever you have to do to keep everyone in the family safe.

Call the police if you must. They have seen family conflict before and are trained to handle your child, at least temporarily, and give you sound advice. Some officers bring teddy bears for young children in family crisis.

Always be honest with counselors and helpers. If you did or said something you regret, admit it. We are human, and parenting can be extremely stressful, with ongoing and escalating pressure. Perfection does not exist.

Give your child opportunity in counseling to learn calming skills and anger management strategies. Learning to deep breathe, count to 10 before reacting, visualizing a happy place, utilizing affirmative self-talk, all empower children and parents.

Most of us can learn to achieve internal self-control, which will help us all through life. Staying in peace with others, and out of trouble, is a definite life skill.

When in doubt, get help—especially if depression and/or risky behaviors are taking place. It always is better to err on the side of caution than to ignore a problem.

Lastly, when a child is in treatment, the whole family is in treatment. All members need to be open to change that will improve family life, agreeing on a beneficial plan and committing to our part of family healing.

When you need more than advice

When advice that “should work” doesn’t work, you may be dealing with psychiatric, emotional or brain chemistry/brain development problems, not just usual childhood or teen rebellion.

Doctors may not always agree on the diagnosis or medication for a pediatric or teen patient. Some trial and error with medications is usual, along with talk therapy and feedback about symptoms. Form an alliance with your medical team and work together on solutions.

Because we parent with biblical principles, we know the importance of marriage, parenting, harmony and love in the home, obedience and leadership, consequences of poor decisions, faith and salvation always will be true and irreplaceable.

The best advice we can give is to pray and never give up. Remain faithful to the parenting call. It can take decades to see the fruitful results of God’s work in the life of your child. We may not see it until heaven.

Family life is meant to be a blessing, not constant pain. Don’t settle for ongoing pain. Act now to seek help and learn strategies that will bring us greater harmony.

Ruth Cook is a cancer survivor and crime victim. Joe Cook is a counseling professor at Liberty University. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Regent University. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the authors.




Voices: Reflections on a historic joint worship service

On March 17, two churches gathered to worship alongside each other for the first time.

On its own, this may not seem that significant—until you know the history.

Historically, Calvary Baptist Church is a mostly white church in Port Arthur. Greater Faith International Ministries is a mostly African American and new church plant.

I am the pastor of Calvary Baptist and have been here a little more than five years. Since Day One, I have been seeking ways to unite our community under the banner of Christ. It has been harder than I imagined. I found out Port Arthur has gone through some very tough times that have left a lot of hurt in its wake.

I met Overseer and Pastor Kevin Domingo of Greater Faith International Ministries a few years back, and we developed a close friendship. The idea of bringing our churches together for worship began to grow as we learned about each other and developed a trust as brothers in Christ. It is an amazing relationship.

What follows is our discussion about our shared worship event.

Historical background and significance

Historically, this was a first to my (Overseer Domingo’s) knowledge and on the scale it was done to have happened in our area. Those familiar with the history of our area informed me we were about to make history in that area for the first time.

A predominantly Caucasian Baptist church and a predominantly African American nondenominational church worshipped together under the same roof in this region of Texas for the first time.

It was something sought after by others but had not been done prior to our meeting and planning and had not come to fruition. We believe this is what heaven will look like, which made it easy for us not to just toss around the idea, but to bring it to pass.

It was an opportunity to go against the grain of culture and present to the world the reality, not only can we coexist and bring different worship and culture under the same roof and worship the same God, but we can cause it to be infectious in our society in this day and time to bring glory and honor to our heavenly Father.

Because of the mutual love and respect we—Overseer Domingo and Pastor Blake—share, our congregations were ready for such an event and didn’t have any concerns going into the service.

What it was like

While different, the clash of styles of worship was met with open arms. Although unfamiliar in some cases, they were still welcomed by both congregations.

Everyone was engaged and into the service. It was great, a true testament to both leaders who envisioned something bigger than themselves.

It was more of a blessing than we both could have imagined. It put to rest all our prohibitions and showed us—through fellowship, worship and love for one another—that when God’s plan is at the forefront of our priorities, it is nothing we cannot accomplish together.

It was a life-changing experience. I (Overseer Domingo) and Greater Faith International Ministries cannot wait until the next time we can come together as one body in Christ.

Gratitude

Blake Alling, lead pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Port Arthur. (Courtesy photo)

I (Blake) thank Overseer Domingo for the honor of allowing us to worship with his church. It truly was an honor because they easily could have said, ‘No,’ and we would have understood. His community has been hurt in the past, and for people to look beyond the hurt and worship with us truly was a God-movement.

Most white churches in Port Arthur have struggled with racism. We could ignore it and expect those affected to move on, but that is not as easy as it sounds. We needed to acknowledge the hurt of the past and be aware of the pain many in our community still deal with every day.

The only concern I (Blake) had was if everyone in our congregations would embrace this service as we—their pastors—had. And they did. We saw the evidence of God moving in the room as we worshipped together. That is a testament to our friendship and our mutual desire to see Christ high and lifted up in our city.

Like Overseer Domingo, I cannot wait until we do this again. My heart already has been yearning for this kind of worship again. I was shaken to my soul by the presence of God in this place. I cannot thank my friend Kevin enough for sharing this time with me.

Blake Alling is lead pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in the Port Acres area of Port Arthur. Kevin Domingo is overseer and pastor of Greater Faith International Ministries in Port Arthur. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the authors.




Voices: Introducing Easter for the first time again

As believers, Holy Week is central to transformation. The Lenten season leading up to Holy Week, which leads up to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus lays the foundation of our faith.

The Easter season always has been a favorite of mine. Advent is a really close tie. I think it’s because of the anticipation in the waiting, that anticipation followed by the power displayed in the most unlikely of places—a feeding trough, on a cross, in a tomb with a stone sealing the entrance, in an empty tomb and a risen Savior.

If we aren’t careful, Easter becomes ordinary. It happens every year at approximately the same time, give or take a month, and we celebrate the same thing.

Introducing Easter

Two years ago, I received my first emergency foster care placement. The kids’ experience with church up until that point was summed up best in the first question out of my son’s mouth: “Do we go to church at this house?”

His response to me informing him I worked at church, so we would be going often was about what you would expect: “Ugh! I hate church!”

We quickly fell into a rhythm—“Jesus music” in the car and church attendance. The week of Palm Sunday, my son and eldest daughter questioned the things we were doing. Apparently, it isn’t normal to wave palm branches around, shouting, “Hosanna!” Who knew?

It felt a little bit like I was anticipating the hope of Easter for the first time—really, like I was anticipating the hope of the gospel for the first time.

Trying to convey the most important thing in my life to kids who had zero foundation or frame of reference for the message of Jesus created a pause. It created an excitement and joy that comes with learning something new.

That year holds a special place in my heart. Two of my babies heard the good news of the gospel for the first time. In the months that followed, I led my son to Jesus at church camp and then sat with him on the couch as my daughter made that same decision a few months later.

Introducing Easter again

On the cusp of Holy Week this year, I said “yes” to another emergency placement. The kids are younger, but the story is the same. There isn’t much church or faith background.

On Palm Sunday, my biggest little went to Sunday school for the first time. After church, he excitedly recounted the final week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. When I asked why Jesus died on the cross, the 5-year-old quickly told me, “Because Jesus is the King.”

As I mulled over that response, I realized I was in a sacred place. I was part of a holy moment. That same anticipatory excitement I felt two years ago started to bubble up and over.

I added to his answer, telling him Jesus is the King, and he died on the cross for our sins so we could be a part of God’s forever family. He smiled at me and moved onto the next 5-year-old thing. I answered many more questions that week about church and Jesus.

The life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is something that stirs in us a joy that comes only from transformation found in sanctification. It can’t be replaced. It can’t be manufactured. It’s like we are hearing the hope of the gospel for the first time.

As we reflect on Resurrection Sunday, might we understand the magnitude of God’s grace in our lives. Might we remember, once again, what it feels like to hear the words of God’s saving power for the first time. Might we be renewed and transformed by the resurrection.

And maybe, just maybe, we can see the good news of Jesus through the eyes of a 5-year-old experiencing Jesus for the first time.

Abby Manes is the children’s and family minister at First Baptist Church in Muleshoe. She is a proud [foster] mom and spends her time chasing kids, investing in her church and the surrounding community, and drinking good coffee. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author.



Voices: Sounding out soul culture at FBC Waco

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peter Drucker told a generation of leaders.

Fair enough, but his counsel would help more if he also told us what culture is.

Peter Scazerro calls culture “that imprecise something.” For too long, culture has been the “black box” of pastoral leadership.

Breakfast calls for biscuits, and biscuits come from dough. Dough offers a better image for culture and how to steward it wisely.

J.B. Gambrell, a Texas Baptist pioneer of a century ago, wrote: “If we are wise, we will work our dough. There is no greater nor more hopeful task before us than so to culture our people as to bring them to a New Testament way of thinking and feeling.”

Gambrell dreamed of a vibrant “soul culture, growing out of a deep experimental knowledge of God.” That remains our dream for the First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas Baptists and the wider church.

With generous support from the Soundings Project administered by Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning, First Baptist Waco has devoted the past four years to “working our dough.” Pastors and congregation have labored together to discern the proper ingredients of a healthy soul culture and to knead it using the proper technique, time and temperature.

Soul culture ingredients

Belief is the bedrock of the church, but bare orthodoxy satisfies no more than a dough made of flour alone. Faithful deeds identify the church as the salt of the earth, but orthopraxy alone nourishes no more than a bowl of Morton’s crystals.

Our attitudes, values and goals are critical ingredients akin to the baking soda, powder and yeast that transform and literally elevate the batch into a beautiful loaf.

Combining these ingredients in the right proportion, at the right time and at the right rate is the joy and challenge of ministry. Only then can our churches face times of proving and eventually the oven’s refining heat.

Working the dough

We began exploring these five ingredients at First Baptist Waco during a summer sermon series in the pandemic’s first year. We returned from fully remote broadcasts to highly cautious in-person worship midway through the series.

We yearned—and learned—to live as the “one loaf” 1 Corinthians 10:17 calls us, while we struggled to peel foil from individually packaged Lord’s Supper servings. The practices of physically social distancing within a diverse congregation forced us to identify and cling to the values and goals that hold us spiritually close.

In time, we rejoiced to regather around literal tables. We worked the dough first introduced in sermons around dinner discussions in the fellowship hall. We talked beliefs over burgers, attitudes over applesauce and values over Veg-All. As Texas Baptists, we also had Bush’s chicken and mashed potatoes.

Church members from the Greatest Generation to Generation Alpha had a chance to weigh in with their perspectives on the ingredients of soul culture and how each one finds expression in our local congregation.

In the ensuing months and years, the five ingredients and how they interact have entered the vernacular of our shared life. We intuitively sift new ministry ideas through “the grid,” to borrow language from our friend and dialogue partner Pastor Ralph West.

Attending to culture and continually working the dough builds energy around our best endeavors. It also provides shared language to discard plans inconsistent with our identity and mission without growing disagreeable or defensive.

Shared joy

Through the convening invitation of Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning, we also have enjoyed sharing with partner congregations from across our state. Most recently, we spent four days together in the Texas Hill Country at Laity Lodge celebrating both our shared call in Christ and the more specified local callings that make each congregation unique.

We rejoice that the very idea of a call implies a divine Caller.

When we grow tempted to treat our vocations as esoteric puzzles or Indiana Jones-style quests, we remind ourselves that discerning calling is as simple as listening for the voice of Christ. As his voice sounds forth, we responsively sound the depths of our own congregations to discern what gifts, passions and opportunities he has placed within and before us.

Our beliefs, attitudes, values, goals and practices form the grid for this sacred work of community discernment.

Soul culture resources

Finally, First Baptist Waco has delighted to introduce soul culture to the wider church. Our pastor Matt Snowden and I published Soul Culture in August 2023. The book distills our congregational project into summary form that has proven helpful for churches from Houston to Calgary.

Pastor friends in the Appalachians and the Midwest have hosted leadership workshops for their own churches, and the book has become a course text within Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.

April 18-19, Truett Seminary will host pastors and other church leaders for their annual Truett Pastors Conference to explore more about the ingredients we work into our dough. Bringing the project full circle, the conference will take place at First Baptist Waco in the same room where the initial sermon series began. We hope you can join us for worship, teaching, fellowship, encouragement, discussion and renewal.

“Since there is one loaf of bread,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “we who are many are one body.”

Texas Baptists like to celebrate our “many-ness” as part of our state’s pride in all things big. This occasion is an invitation to rejoice that we also are one.

Psalm 34:8 beckons us, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” As we partake of Christ, we too become inviting and nourishing for a hungry world.

Joshua Hays is associate pastor of discipleship at First Baptist Church in Waco. First Baptist Church in Waco participated in Baylor University’s Soundings Project. Soundings is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author.




Voices: Used: A roughneck’s salvation story

As best I can remember, he started working in the oil fields of West Texas as a young man and a new husband. His title—a roughneck. This was the toughest of the tough. This job required harsh language, taxing work and long hours, which equated to good pay.

In our gender-sensitive environment, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but it was a job only a man could do. He could mix it up with the best of them, and he was succeeding.

Then one day he got saved. He knew something was missing in his life. He felt the gentle invitation from the Lord like what a young girl would hear in the proposal from the man of her dreams. Nothing can describe his response other than to say he fell in love with Jesus.

I still can hear the gentle, tender way he would say his name: “Jesus.” There was a sweetness about the way he said the name, a reverence yet a familiarity with Jesus I never heard before or since.

Surrendered to preach

He surrendered to preach at some point, and he became my preacher when I was about 9 or 10 years old in Glen Rose. He took the church following a strong preacher everyone loved.

As a pastor myself, they say when you follow a beloved and popular pastor, you have a title—“interim”—because you won’t be around long.

For some reason, the next pastor after a beloved pastor always is under the curse of comparison. It takes a church a while to get over the one who left and whomever they choose never measures well. Usually, the third pastor after the favorite pastor gets an honest shot.

Why do I tell you this? Because the former roughneck knew how to fight, how to work and how to survive. Where the former pastor won this congregation with strong preaching, the man I am telling you about won over the congregation with love. His name? Brother Bill Schibler.

If someone needed a place to stay, Brother Bill gave them a room in his house. If someone needed a visit in the middle of a Saturday night in a distant town, he would get up, drive there, visit, pray and drive back just in time to take the pulpit on Sunday morning to preach God’s word.

Brother Bill told everyone about the love of his life in every conversation. You mean his wife? Yes, he loved his wife more than anything or anyone else in the world except for one other—Jesus.

He knew what Jesus could do for people in this life and in the next. He knew because Jesus did it for him. He would discuss, softly debate, seek to persuade and even beg them to receive Jesus’ offer.

Saved from two fires

A successful man in the neighboring town was good in business and brutal at home. His wife got saved when she heard Brother Bill preach, and she begged her husband to come. He refused.

She asked Brother Bill to talk to him, which Brother Bill did many times. He went to the man’s house, to his business, took him for coffee, but to no avail.

Then one day, this man’s house caught fire. The wife smelled something, rose from her bed to see her house engulfed in flames. She called to her husband, but no word. He was not in the room. She assumed he was fighting the fire, so she ran out for air. Just then the volunteer fire department pulled up.

Brother Bill, a volunteer fireman too, rushed up.

She said, “I can’t find my husband.”

Brother Bill ran into the burning home to find this hard-hearted businessman asleep in his recliner. Overcome by fumes, the man would not wake up. Brother Bill dragged him out of that fiery blaze and resuscitated him.

Do you know what that man did the next day? He knelt by a couch in Brother Bill’s home and asked Jesus to be his Savior. That man was saved from a greater fire.

A headstone’s story

Before his last surgery, I had supper with my childhood preacher. Mrs. Schibler had passed some time back. We talked about her funeral, the crowds, the long procession and the scenic drive from Clifton to Cranfills Gap for her burial. I mentioned their beautiful headstone to him. Brother Bill smiled and gave me some inside scoop about that headstone. It was used.

How can someone buy a used headstone? Well, a family bought it, designed it and had it engraved. The monument maker misspelled their name on it. So, it was scrapped, thrown out in the back of their monument business.

Brother Bill went to buy a headstone, knowing he and Mrs. Schibler would need one soon. He did not have much money. Why? Because he never made much, and he gave away what little he did make.

Brother Bill could not afford any of the monuments the dealer had. Then, Brother Bill happened upon the scrapped one in the back. The monument dealer told him the story.

Brother Bill said, “If you can carve out their names and put ours on it at my price, I’ll take it!”

The monument dealer saw an opportunity to turn a loss into a gain and shook on it.

Brother Bill’s headstone is a used headstone. If you ever are near Cranfills Gap, go out and visit their graves and see that headstone. It will remind you of Brother Bill and his life.

Do you know the coolest part of this story? It is what Brother Bill had engraved on that headstone: “Believe in Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.’” Even in death, he still is telling people about Jesus.

Johnny Teague is the senior pastor of Church at the Cross in West Houston and the author of Preaching Your Way Out of a Mess, The Lost Diary of Anne Frank and other books. The views expressed are those of the author.




Voices: Surveying the “flowerbed” of soteriology

Everybody loves flowers. Well, unless you’re one of those who develops a respiratory reaction to the smell of flowers—or nonallergic vasomotor rhinitis.

Did you know a love of flowers has made its way into Christian theology—the study of God? Yes, flower acrostics have become a popular way to illustrate various historical—and oftentimes hotly-debated—interpretations of the Christian soteriology—the doctrine of salvation.

Over the years I have come across at least six soteriological flower acrostics. Each letter in each acrostic represents a certain doctrinal assertion from a certain soteriological interpretative perspective.

Let’s take a little walk through the “flowerbed” of soteriology and see if we can “smell” some interesting theological assertions.

TULIP

TULIP—representing Calvinism—is the most famous flower acrostic of them all.

T for Total depravity. Sinfulness pervades all areas of human life and existence, people cannot save themselves, and God must sovereignly intervene.

U for Unconditional election. God sovereignly and unconditionally chooses who he will save. It’s not conditioned on anything people can do.

L for Limited atonement. Christ died only for the sins of the elect.

I for Irresistible grace. God sovereignly brings his elect to salvation through an internal call of grace that cannot be resisted.

P stands for Perseverance of the saints. The elect cannot lose their salvation because God sovereignly keeps them eternally saved and secure.

ASTER

ASTER also represents Calvinism.

A for Absolute predestination. God has absolutely and eternally predestined the salvation of the elect.

S for Specific atonement. Christ specifically died for the sins of the elect alone.

T for Total inability. Because of their sinfulness, people have no ability to save themselves.

E for Effectual calling. For those God has called, it will be accomplished certainly.

R for Reliable promise. God’s promise of eternal security in salvation is a guarantee.

DAISY No. 1

DAISY represents Arminianism.

D for Diminished depravity. Humanity is depraved, but God uses prevenient grace to restore man’s ability to respond to him.

A for Abrogated election. God bases his election on his foreknowledge of those who freely choose him.

I for Impersonal atonement. Christ died for everyone, making salvation possible for everyone.

S for Sedentary grace. God calls everyone to salvation, but many freely reject it.

Y for Yieldable justification. The saved can fall from grace and lose their salvation.

DAISY No. 2

This second DAISY also represents Arminianism.

D for Deliberate sin. Sin is by choice, not by sinful nature.

A for All-encompassing call. Salvation is available to all who seek it. Election is God’s agreement with a person’s decision.

I for Infinite love. God desires all to be saved.

S for Spontaneous faith. Faith, while a gift of God, is brought about by human choice.

Y for Yieldedness of the saved. You can lose—or yield—your salvation.

LILAC

LILAC is yet a third acrostic representing Arminianism.

L for Limited depravity. Sinfulness has pervaded all humanity, but not to the point of limiting one’s ability to respond to God and his invitation to salvation.

I for I choose Christ. Individuals have a choice in their salvation.

L for Limitless atonement. Christ died for all.

A for A resistible grace. God offers his gift of grace, but it can be resisted.

C for Carnal security. Because of humanity’s ongoing struggle with sin, people can carnally choose to lose their salvation.

ROSES

ROSES represents Molinism, a mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism.

R for Radical depravity. Every aspect of humanity is depraved, but we are not always as bad as we could be.

O for Overcoming grace. God’s grace is persistent in the life of the believer, but it can be resisted.

S for Sovereign election. God desires the salvation of all, but our salvation is based on his choice not ours.

E for Eternal life. God grants believers eternal security in their salvation.

S for Singular redemption. Christ died sufficiently for all people, but efficiently only for the saved.

LILY

LILY is an acrostic developed by Malcolm Yarnell, research professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

L for Lord. Jesus Christ alone is Lord.

I for Integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

I for Love. Love is the ethics of our Savior.

Y for Yieldedness. Discipleship is the call of God upon us.

LILIES

LILIES is my own flowery acrostic interpretation.

L for Limitless love of God.

I for Individual accountability to God.

L for Limiting—but not devastating—effects of sin.

I for Invitational offer of God to all.

E for Encompassing grace of Jesus.

S for Sovereign love of God from beginning to end.

Which “salvation flower” in this soteriological flowerbed do you love the most?

‘A fragrance of Christ’

I’ve been studying these theories for some 50 years and teaching about them for 16 years at Dallas Baptist University. I always find it a fascinating and enlightening topic to explore. The more I read, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more I see there are strengths and maybe even some weaknesses in all these flowery interpretations.

It might be an interesting and worthwhile endeavor to do a little more in-depth research on your own into each of these interpretative views of salvation.

Whatever flower soteriology one chooses to embrace, it’s important to remember all these theories are simply that—theories. They are human, finite attempts to comprehend our superhuman, infinite God and the enigmatic unfolding of his plan of salvation.

There always must be an element of majesty and mystery when it comes to God and our understanding of how he chooses to work out the details of our salvation. We always must be cautious of trying to force God into a nice little theological box when it comes to discussions like this.

Manmade theories regarding the mind of God and the ordering of his salvation proceedings never should become divisive theories in the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, soteriological theories tend to become just that—doctrines that divide.

Isn’t division exactly what the Enemy always endeavors to do? And when that happens, beautiful “flowers” easily can turn into destructive “weeds.”

As you pick your way through the flowerbed of salvation, don’t forget to enjoy the sweet, flowery fragrance of God’s salvation gift along the way. And don’t forget you should become a sweet, flowery fragrance to him in return.

The apostle Paul put it well: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us reveals the fragrance of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, NASB).

Jim Lemons is professor of theological studies and leadership in the College of Christian Faith and the director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Dallas Baptist University. The views expressed are those solely of the author.




Voces: Brilla el poder transformador de la fe

La Conferencia Shine Girls, un evento estatal de dos días, se erige como una luz de esperanza en un mundo lleno de desafíos e incertidumbres. Fundada en los principios de la fe, la comunidad y el amor, Shine ha surgido como una fuerza transformadora, encendiendo corazones y mentes con la luz de la verdad de Dios.

Para Brenda Rincónes, la visionaria detrás de Shine, el viaje comenzó con un sentimiento profundo, en su espíritu—un llamado a alcanzar a la generación más joven e inspirarlas a vivir apasionadamente por Cristo.

Los ojos de Brenda se abrieron al ver la gran necesidad de involucrar a las jóvenes en el camino de la fe durante la celebración del centenario de la Unión Femenil Misionera. Sabía que algo tenía que cambiar. Así, se sembró la semilla de Shine, una semilla nutrida por la oración, fe y un profundo deseo de marcar la diferencia en las vidas de las jóvenes en todo Texas.

El génesis de Shine estuvo marcado por momentos cruciales que conmovieron el corazón de Brenda de involucrarse urgente mente a la mision que Dios puso en su corazón. Al observar una transmisión en vivo de un campamento juvenil, Brenda quedó impactada al observar un escenario lleno después de un llamado al altar para aquellos que luchaban con pensamientos suicidas. Entre la multitud, Brenda vio un rostro familiar—la hija de una amiga de la iglesia.

La comprensión de que estas no eran caras desconocidas, sino niños de sus propias iglesias lidiando con desesperación y desesperanza, pesaba mucho en el corazón de Brenda. Fue una señal, un llamado a actuar para brindar apoyo, aliento y guía espiritual a quienes más lo necesitan.

Amor y empoderamiento

A través de actividades como “Levántate por tu hermana”, Shine enfrenta los sentimientos comunes de miedo, soledad y tristeza que afectan a muchas niñas y jovenes latinas hoy en dia. La pandemia solo hizo que estos problemas fueran peores, haciendo que el sufrimiento de las familias hispanas fuera más grande.

En respuesta, Shine se erige como una fuente de esperanza, entregando el mensaje de amor, perdón y empoderamiento a aquellos que más lo necesitan.

Asistentes a la Conferencia Shine 2024. Yamileth Guzmán en el extremo izquierdo. (Foto cortesía de Yamileth Guzmán)

El compromiso con la comunidad latina es central para la misión de Shine. Reconociendo las vulnerabilidades únicas y las necesidades desatendidas de las jovenes de minorías, Shine brinda un espacio seguro para la validación, conexión y restauración.

A través de talleres, discusiones y programas de mentoría, las niñas aprenden a construir relaciones saludables y no tóxicas, y se sienten apoyadas y protegidas en su camino de fe.

Un movimiento

Shine es más que una conferencia. Es un movimiento alimentado por la pasión y dedicación de mujeres adultas que desempeñan un papel crucial en la formación de las experiencias de las participantes más jóvenes. Su presencia sirve como testimonio del poder transformador de la comunidad llena de fe, inspirando a las generaciones más jóvenes a abrazar su identidad como hijas amadas de Dios.

Como nos recuerda el Salmo 102:18, “Que se escriba esto para las generaciones futuras y que el pueblo que será creado alabe al Señor”. Nuestras acciones de hoy moldean el legado del mañana. La Conferencia Shine Girls se erige como un testimonio del poder perdurable de la fe, la comunidad y el amor para transformar vidas e impulsar un movimiento que continuará por generaciones.

Al mirar hacia el futuro, sostengamos la misión de Shine en oración, confiando en la fidelidad de Dios para guiar y sostener este ministerio vital para su gloria.

Testimonios

El impacto de Shine se extiende mucho más allá de los dias de la conferencia.

“Tuve una experiencia increíble en Shine. … Agradezco a Dios por permitirme compartir esta experiencia con mi mamá, familia y amigas. ¡Soy amada! ¡Soy perdonada! ¡Soy ESCOGIDA!” escribió Makayla Rodríguez sobre Shine.

“Sus promesas nunca fallan, y tengo historias que vivir para contar. ¡Mi primera conferencia SHINE con mis niñas! Definitivamente a sido una experiencia para toda mi vida. No tengo las palabras suficientes para explicar la bondad y lo que Dios ha hecho en nuestras vidas y seguirá haciendo”, escribió Joanie Ríos, madre de tres niñas.

“Asistir a SHINE fue una experiencia increíblemente inspiradora para mí. Estar rodeada de otras mujeres y jovenes que comparten la misma fe y el deseo de levantarse unas a otras fue verdaderamente edificante. … Compartir mi testimonio y poder alentar a otras jovenes fue una gran bendición”, escribió Cara Arevalo.

Visión y futuro de Shine

El centro de la visión de Shine es simple y profunda: inspirar a las generaciones futuras a alabar al Señor a través de nuestras acciones hoy, mientras nos esforzamos por alcanzar a la generación actual para Cristo. Anclados en la verda de que Jesús es el camino único camino hacia la salvación y la esencia misma de la verdad y la vida, nuestra base es inquebrantable.

La Conferencia Shine Girls se erige como un testimonio del poder transformador de la fe, comunidad y amor para levantar y empoderar a la próxima generación. Mientras celebramos el impacto de este ministerio, sigamos sosteniendo a Shine en oración, confiando en la fidelidad de Dios para guiar y sostener su misión para su gloria.

Al reconocer la necesidad, Brenda decidió actuar sobre lo que creyó que era el llamado de Dios junto a su esposo Jesse Rincónes, director ejecutivo de la Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas, así como sus hijos. Su familia ha sido un apoyo vital para el ministerio.

El Señor ha sido fiel, y hasta el día de hoy, Dios ha levantado líderes en cada ciudad que se han comprometido a ser parte de la Conferencia Shine Girls, continuando ministrando a cientos de niñas jóvenes cada año.

¿Qué necesidad estamos viendo tú y yo? ¿Cuándo decidiremos actuar en lo que Dios nos está llamando a hacer? ¿Puedes imaginar todas las vidas que serían impactadas si empezamos a responder al llamado que Dios ha puesto en nuestras vidas?

Yamileth Guzmán es estudiante de la Universidad Bautista de las Américas. Las opiniones expresadas son las del autor.




Voices: Shine the transformative power of faith

The Shine Girls Conference, a two-day statewide event, stands as a light of hope in a world filled with challenges and uncertainties. Founded on the principles of faith, community and love, Shine has emerged as a transformative force, igniting hearts and minds with the light of God’s truth.

For Brenda Rincones, the visionary behind Shine, the journey began with a stirring in her spirit—a call to reach out to the younger generation and inspire them to live passionately for Christ.

Brenda’s eyes were opened to the pressing need for engaging young girls in the journey of faith during the centenary celebration of Union Femenil Misionera. She knew something had to change. Thus, the seed of Shine was planted—a seed nurtured by prayer, faith and a deep desire to make a difference in the lives of young girls across Texas.

The genesis of Shine was marked by pivotal moments that stirred Brenda’s heart and underscored the urgency of the mission. Watching a livestream of a youth camp, Brenda was struck by the sight of a crowded stage after an altar call for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. Among the throng, she glimpsed a familiar face—a friend’s daughter from church.

The realization these were not nameless faces but children from their own churches grappling with despair and hopelessness weighed heavily on Brenda’s heart. It was a wake-up call—a call to action to provide support, encouragement and spiritual guidance to those who need it most.

Love and empowerment

Through activities like “Stand Up For Your Sister,” Shine confronts the pervasive feelings of fear, loneliness and sadness that afflict many young Latina girls. The pandemic only made these challenges worse, amplifying the trauma experienced by Hispanic families.

In response, Shine stands as a source of hope, delivering the message of love, forgiveness and empowerment to those who need it most.

Attendees of 2024 Shine Conference. Yamileth Guzman on far left. (Photo courtesy of Yamileth Guzman)

Commitment to the Latina community is central to Shine’s mission. Recognizing the unique vulnerabilities and underserved needs of minority girls, Shine provides a safe space for validation, connection and healing.

Through workshops, discussions and mentorship programs, girls learn to build healthy, nontoxic relationships and feel supported and protected in their journey of faith.

A movement

Shine is more than a conference. It’s a movement fueled by the passion and dedication of adult women who play a critical role in shaping the experiences of younger attendees. Their presence serves as a testament to the transformative power of faith-filled community, inspiring younger generations to embrace their identity as cherished daughters of God.

As Psalm 102:18 reminds us, our actions today shape the legacy of tomorrow. Shine Girls Conference stands as a testament to the enduring power of faith, community and love to transform lives and ignite a movement that will continue for generations to come.

As we look to the future, let us uphold Shine’s mission in prayer, trusting in God’s faithfulness to guide and sustain this vital ministry for his glory.

Testimonies

The impact of Shine extends far beyond the confines of its conference walls.

“I had the most amazing experience at Shine. … I thank God for allowing me to share this experience with my mom, family, and friends. I am loved. I am forgiven. I am CHOSEN!” Makayla Rodriguez wrote about Shine.

“His promises never fail, and I’ve got stories I live to tell. My first SHINE conference with my girls! Definitely an experience of a lifetime. I don’t have enough words to explain the goodness God has done in our lives and will continue to do” Joanie Rios, a mother of three girls, wrote.

“Attending SHINE was an incredibly inspirational experience for me. Being surrounded by other women and girls who share the same faith and desire to uplift each other was truly uplifting. … Sharing my testimony and being able to encourage other women with it was a blessing,” Cara Arevalo wrote.

Shine’s vision

At the heart of Shine lies a simple yet profound vision: to inspire future generations to praise the Lord through our actions today, as we strive to reach the current generation for Christ. Anchored in the belief Jesus is the ultimate path to salvation and the very essence of truth and life, our foundation is unwavering.

The Shine Girls Conference stands as a testament to the transformative power of faith, community and love to uplift and empower the next generation. As we celebrate the impact of this vital ministry, let us continue to uphold Shine in prayer, trusting in God’s faithfulness to guide and sustain its mission for his glory.

Upon recognizing the need, Brenda decided to act on what she believed to be God’s steadfast calling alongside her husband Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas (Convención), as well as their children. Their family has been a vital support for the ministry.

The Lord has been faithful, and to this day, God has raised up leaders in every city who have committed to being part of the Shine Girls Conference, continuing to minister to hundreds of young girls each year.

What need are you and I seeing? When will we decide to act on what God is calling us to do? Can you imagine all the lives that would be impacted if we started to respond to the calling God has placed on our lives?

Yamileth Guzmán is a student at Baptist University of the Américas. The views expressed are those of the author.




Voices: AI biases present ethical opportunity for Christians

In the last few weeks, Google’s AI system Gemini has made quite a splash in the news. Several have been understandably concerned the output from the prompts revealed deeply concerning biases and question the agendas the systems are being programmed with.

If you haven’t heard much about this, here are a few examples.

AI biases

Gemini intentionally distorted historical photos of American founding fathers to look more inclusive and ethnically diverse. At times, it seemed nearly incapable of creating a photo with a Caucasian.

Gemini refused to give moral judgments on issues that ought not be controversial or hard and then weighed in heavily on other issues. Examples would be: (1) saying it’s impossible to say if Adolf Hitler or Elon Musk were a greater evil in the world, and (2) refusing to create a job description for an oil and gas lobbyist and then lecturing why the oil and gas companies are bad.

There are several reasons to be concerned about this, but it may not be for the reasons you think. As I’ve sat back and tried to listen and understand what all went down with Gemini without going into the weeds, I think the bottom issue was a company trying in vain to create a “neutral” AI program that went horribly wrong.

In trying to avoid bias, it created a more biased—and frankly weird—AI than anyone could have imagined. This was an epic misstep by Google and revealed a significant flaw in the larger issue of large language models and AI.

Three considerations for AI

Over the last year, I’ve traveled across the state to discuss issues related to AI and ways Christians ought to engage with it. I think AI is exciting and has a lot of potential, and we should use it.

That said, there are a few issues I think we consistently need to bring up and say out loud frequently both to ourselves and legislators when they think about regulating AI.

1. No neutral AI

There is no such thing as a neutral AI, just as there is no such thing as a neutral internet. AI mimics human interactions, and humans are not neutral. We are complex and beautiful creatures with strong convictions and diverse opinions.

2. Transparent AI

Instead of a neutral AI, we should insist on a transparent AI. There is a shocking and deeply troubling lack of transparency in the world of AI research, development and output. A group at Stanford University has created a grading index for companies using AI and their transparency. The highest grade is 54. The highest grade is failing. This is a problem.

3. Whose morals?

This is a great opportunity for Christians to advocate for transparency in the ethics of the large language models being trained. Chatboxes are simply creating predictive text based on the most likely pattern of words. The greater ethical question should be: Whose morals get to direct which word is the most likely?

Your home may really value and adore peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But my daughters hate jelly. In our house, it’s peanut butter and honey sandwiches—all day, every day. Growing up, my mom often made peanut butter and bananas.

Different values and preferences determine what is the most likely word after “peanut butter and …” At the very least, we need clarification on what the value—ethical—system is establishing that we eat jelly sandwiches instead of honey.

Gemini is just one in the large world of AI. It’s a big one, and their misstep is significant. Without running into the realm of conspiracy theories, it’s a great opportunity to speak the truth and uphold Christian ethical standards that stand the test of time as we venture into the new digital age.

Katie Frugé is the director of Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission and Center for Cultural Engagement. This article is adapted from her Facebook post and republished by permission.