Prepare for passing the torch

Regardless of whether a pastor has founded or taken over a church, or has led it for 5 years or 40 years, "it's time to talk about succession." So concludes Leadership Network's Warren Bird after examining the ages and tenures of current senior pastors at America's 100 largest churches (see chart). This month, Bird and recruiter William Vanderbloemen reveal in their book, Next, how nearly 100 other prominent pastors passed their pulpits to others—successfully or not. Of those, more than half stepped down by age 65. The average age of today's leaders: 55. Bill Hybels revealed his plans in 2012. Who's next?

Image: Christianity Today

Iraq: Historic Christian communities swallowed up by terrorists

Jonah survived three days in the belly of a giant fish, but it took far less time for the reluctant prophet's revered tomb to turn to dust after militants rigged it with explosives. The destruction symbolized the seizure of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group ordered the city's Christians to convert, pay a protection fee, leave—or be killed. Almost all chose to flee the Nineveh plains, long Iraq's Christian heartland and intended by its government as a future Christian province. Meanwhile, the Arabic letter N used by ISIS to mark Christian homes became a worldwide symbol of solidarity.

IRS agrees to investigate churches

After a long hiatus, the IRS has promised to investigate churches that preach politics, and says 99 merit "high priority examination." In return, an atheist group asked a Wisconsin federal court to dismiss its own lawsuit claiming the IRS has failed to enforce the ban. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has a strange bedfellow in demanding church investigations: Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has organized thousands of pastors (including 1,600 in 2012) to deliberately disobey tax code regulations that say nonprofits cannot endorse political candidates. ADF hopes to prompt a lawsuit that will prove the ban unconstitutional. The next Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 5. However, all investigations are on hold until Congress finishes investigating the IRS's controversial scrutiny of "tea party" organizations.

Christian college punts decision on gay professors

The first Council for Christian Colleges and Universities member school to openly weigh dropping its de facto ban on employees in same-sex relationships voted this summer to delay its decision. Trustees at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) said they would defer to "ongoing discernment of human sexuality" in its affiliated denomination, the Mennonite Church USA. The following week, the denomination voted to not recognize the licensing of a Colorado pastor in a same-sex relationship, and asked its Mountain States Conference not to ordain the pastor. In November, EMU said that during its own "listening period," it will "suspend personnel actions related to the current hiring policy" indefinitely.

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Italy: Pope apologizes for Pentecostal persecution

In an unprecedented papal visit to a Pentecostal church, Pope Francis apologized for the way Catholics treated such Protestants during Italy's fascist years. The apology drew praise for the popular pontiff from evangelical leaders worldwide. But mere weeks beforehand, a "near totality" of Italian evangelical leaders had urged their counterparts in other countries to stay on guard against Roman Catholicism. Leaders of the Italian Evangelical Alliance, the Federation of Pentecostal Churches, and the Assemblies of God in Italy expressed concern that evangelicals outside Italy were so enthusiastic about "ecumenical openings." In a statement, the leaders asserted that many Catholic teachings are incompatible with the Bible, and that points of commonality are not "reasons for hope in a true change."

Ex-Muslim sues church for publicizing baptism

A Muslim convert to Christianity sued his Oklahoma church for negligence, claiming he was tortured and almost executed on a trip to his home country after the church announced his baptism online. He asked for $75,000, claiming that the baptism notice by First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa resulted in death threats in Syria, where his son still lives, and that he lost his Syrian business and possessions. The church's pastor said in a congregational letter that the church followed its normal baptism procedure and that the lawsuit's claims were "not proper."

Supreme Court pops abortion 'buffer zone'

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Massachusetts "buffer zone" law was unconstitutional because it over-restricted the free speech of pro-life advocates in a public space. The decision did not, as pro-life groups had hoped, overturn an older Colorado law. But Americans United for Life and other groups still hailed the ruling as a landmark for getting all nine justices to support sidewalk counseling. However, a month later, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a law creating a smaller, temporary buffer zone around misbehaving protesters outside abortion clinics.

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Egypt: Infamous Christian convert gets jail sentence

The first Egyptian to try to legally change his religious identity from Muslim to Christian was sentenced to five years in prison for "disturbing the peace." Bishoy Armia Boulous, formerly known as Mohammed Hegazy, was arrested after allegedly documenting political protests by Islamists for a U.S.-based television station owned by Coptic Christians. He was briefly released on bail in late July but imprisoned again on new charges of "defaming Islam."

Three SBC colleges learn accredidation fate

Three Southern Baptist schools with presidents dogged by controversy received varying accreditation decisions. Officials voted to revoke accreditation from Brewton-Parker College over concerns about financial stability. The Georgia school, which appointed prominent ex-Muslim speaker Ergun Caner as president in December, remains on probation pending an appeal. Louisiana College, where president Joe Aguillard recently stepped down amid accusations of financial and administrative misconduct, was placed on probation. And Georgia's Shorter University, where a new conservative lifestyle statement prompted a mass faculty exodus, was taken off warning status to full accreditation.

Biblical mediation: not preventing lawsuits

A Christian couple implicitly agreed to handle disputes through biblical mediation when they joined the largest Vineyard church in the world. But an Ohio appeals court ruled that their family's lawsuit (filed against the church after an associate pastor had an affair with the wife while counseling her for sex addiction) can move forward. Vineyard Columbus requires biblical mediation or arbitration among its 9,000 members, and told the court that the couple signed its membership application. But the couple said they never received a copy of the policy, nor was it addressed in their membership class. Similarly, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities protested (but didn't sue) earlier this year when its fired president, Edward Blews, broke from a required biblical mediation process to sue the group for breaching his contract 10 months into the job. Meanwhile, pastor Mark Driscoll announced that Mars Hill Church will replace its criticized nondisclosure agreements and other policies with more Bible-based covenants.

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Lecrae: Katy Perry stole my beats

Pastors' kid turned pop starlet Katy Perry was hit with a lawsuit from Christendom when hip-hop artists Lecrae, Flame (Marcus Gray), and two others claimed she stole their riffs for her "witchcraft" hit, "Dark Horse." The rappers claim Perry ripped beats from "Joyful Noise," a song from Gray's 2008 Grammy-nominated album, Our World: Redeemed. Fans of both songs noted similarities when "Dark Horse" hit the radio. Lecrae's new album, Anomaly, was set to release in early September and had already hit No. 2 in iTunes' best-selling album chart by late July. In other pop culture news, media mogul Tyler Perry won an unusual trademark battle for the use of "What Would Jesus Do?" as an entertainment title.

How non-Christians view the Bible:

1 in 10: Believe the Bible is the "actual word of God," and should be "taken literally, word for word."

3 in 10: Believe the Bible is the "inspired word of God," but should not be taken literally.

"I suspect we need to lose a million more."

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, on seven straight years of losing members making Southern Baptist churches smaller but stronger.

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