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CHRISTIAN NEWS 

Meaningful debate requires us to define the terms of discussion.

Widespread acceptance in our culture of all forms of birth control, including abortion, makes it harder for the Christian to discern if, when, and how to incorporate such practices into one's own life, as well as what place personal convictions have in community and in public policy.

I suspect one of the greatest obstacles to constructive dialogue on the questions about birth control raised by the Hobby Lobby case is the imprecision of the terms being discussed. Perhaps, then, the first step toward finding agreement—or at least correctly identifying at the points on which we can agree to disagree—is to employ common definitions.

The debate around the Hobby Lobby case, birth control methods, and insurance coverage illuminates not only how deeply divided Christians are on these matters but also how ill-defined the central questions are. Questions of conscience are matters for all believers to respect in each other even amidst disagreement. If Christians cannot engage with each other with clarity, respect, and good faith on difficult questions, how will we do so with those outside the church?

In an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled war of words, here are some of the questions central to this conversation. They're not as simple as we might assume.

How does the medical community define pregnancy?

At the heart of the debate is the question about whether or not certain birth control methods prevent pregnancy or terminate pregnancy. Part of the problem in answering even this basic question is that even the term pregnancy is not agreed upon universally and has undergone numerous changes, due less to scientific debates than semantic ones. While the American College of Obstetricians and ...

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Churches must assess themselves in an effort to be more effective at making disciples.

Most churches do a good job of measuring what Micah Fries calls the "three B's"— budgets, buildings, and baptisms.

Those are helpful, he said. But they don't always show whether a church is fulfilling its mission to make disciples.

"Every church should ask two questions," said Fries, director of ministry development for LifeWay Christian Resources. "'Are we healthy?' and 'Are we making disciples?'''

To help answer those questions, LifeWay developed the Transformational Church Assessment Tool (TCAT)—an 80-question, online survey that looks at a church's spiritual health.

The TCAT is based on a long-term, research study of effective discipleship that included surveys of 7,000 pastors and 20,000 churches members from 123 denominations, along with in-depth interviews with hundreds of pastors.

"Its biblical, reliable, and data-driven," said Fries.

That kind of research-driven approach appealed to Steve Ballew, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Farmington, New Mexico. The church, which has aSunday attendance about 300, used the TCAT, two years ago.

Ballew said that there's difference between success and transformation. A church can grow its membership and still not affect its community.

"You have to decide - are we here to grow a church, or are we here to make a difference?" Ballew said.

An assessment tool like TCAT can help a church focus on making a difference.

"It's not simply saying, 'here are some successful models,'" he said. "It is saying, 'here are some principles that we've discovered in research that are relevant to all churches.'"

Fries compared using ...

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"Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted," says indie director Joshua Overbay.

A week ago, I saw As It Is In Heaven, a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded, gracefully-shot independent feature film about a doomsday cult somewhere in the American South.

I was pleased with what I saw. Others were, too: the film earned positive reviews at RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times, where it was named a Critics' Pick.

Most of us have never been the leader of a doomsday cult, I presume (I haven't), and we generally don't hear their stories, instead believing that such a person is a megalomaniac, mentally unstable, or just plain evil. David, the leader at the center of this film, is certainly some—if not all—of those things. But there's something more to him: a deep desire to live the right life, to find meaning in the world and even, after a fashion, to serve God as best he can. David is not a good leader, but he is a true believer.

Not only is the story suspenseful and engaging, but it acts like a mirror: these characters have characteristics and wants and motivations that find their reflection in us. And so while you may never have thought about joining a doomsday cult, you might discover that you see yourself up there on the screen.

After all, who among us—even the most faithful believers—hasn't wondered, while praying, if anyone was listening?

As It Is In Heaven was directed by Joshua Overbay, who co-wrote the script with his wife Ginny Lee Overbay and shot the film near where he was living in Kentucky, where he was teaching at Asbury College (he's since relocated to Baton Rouge). He was kind enough to answer some questions about low-budget filmmaking, tackling his own ego and doubts, complex characters, the problem with "Christian" ...

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