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Our 20 favorite RNS stories from 2014

(RNS) These are the 20 stories from 2014 that captured our imagination and reminded us why we love the religion beat.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of Philadelphia's St. Paul's Baptist Church, holds her daughter Bella at the child's dedication.

(RNS) Every news outlet does its own version of the year’s biggest stories (we certainly did ours), but we wanted to do something different.

These may not be the biggest news stories from 2014, although many of them were big. But they were the ones that captured our imagination and helped us remember why we love the religion beat.

If you like what you see here, remember that it’s not too late to make a (tax-deductible!!) year-end financial donation to help RNS deliver stories that inform, illuminate and inspire.

From the entire RNS staff, Happy New Year and thanks for reading with us in 2014. We look forward to bringing you more in 2015:

BaconMay the Lard be with you: Welcome to the United Church of Bacon

“Hail Bacon, Full of grease, The Lard is with thee.” Need we say more? By Brian Pellot.

Brittany Maynard’s death: Does suffering have spiritual meaning? (ANALYSIS)

(RNS) By dying at age 29, Brittany Maynard signaled that she saw no point in needless suffering. And if suffering is optional, then it might also be spiritually meaningless. By Cathy Lynn Grossman.

Lost in translation? 7 reasons why some women wince when Pope Francis starts talking

When he speaks about women, Pope Francis can sound a lot like the 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned. By David Gibson.

Left to right, lay evangelists Lauren Bowerfind, Karel Wallace, Rebekah Hammond, Elizabeth Christiensen, and Abebech Tebeje review their visit to a Washington, D.C.-area nursing home with team leader Rhonda Rowe on July 17, 2014. They followed the “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script” during their visit.

Left to right, lay evangelists Lauren Bowerfind, Karel Wallace, Rebekah Hammond, Elizabeth Christiensen, and Abebech Tebeje review their visit to a Washington, D.C.-area nursing home with team leader Rhonda Rowe on July 17, 2014. They followed the “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script” during their visit.

Nursing home evangelism: Preaching at the last ‘bus stop to eternity’

Welcome to the world of nursing home evangelism, where teams of lay evangelists target senior citizens for one last chance in this life for glory in the next. By Adelle M. Banks.

Gay, Christian and … celibate: The changing face of the homosexuality debate

Straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, celibate gay Christians present a challenge to both their churches and the secular LGBT community. They often find themselves trying to translate one side for the other. But frequently, neither side really understands what it’s hearing. By Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Kosher bakery finds sweet success with its disabled employees

The idea that this suburban bakery could make adults with cognitive disabilities into employable bakers surprises even some in their own families. Perhaps more surprising: the Sunflower bakers must work within the strictures of Jewish dietary laws, assuring customers that the products they make are certified-by-a-rabbi kosher. By Lauren Markoe.

Love thy neighbor: Westboro’s ‘God Hates Fags’ message vs. a drag show 

TOPEKA, Kans. (RNS) Steve Drain, spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church, says the intersection of 12th and Orleans streets is “the epicenter of the moral struggle of the covenant.” Sally Morrow takes us inside with an amazingly personal video.

Many church choirs are dying. Here’s why

(RNS) Praise bands aren’t the only forces making church choir directors sing the blues. By Cathy Lynn Grossman.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of Philadelphia's St. Paul's Baptist Church, holds her daughter Bella at the child's dedication.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of Philadelphia’s St. Paul’s Baptist Church, holds her daughter Bella at the child’s dedication.

Mommie, minister and unmarried: Single mothers in the pulpit

Ever since Murphy Brown shocked much of the country in 1991 by deciding to raise her baby on her own, the culture has changed. Once unthinkable and later unacceptable, single mothers by choice today are met with less judgment — even in the pulpit. By Lauren Markoe.

Does purgatory have a prayer with Protesants?

Most Protestant traditions forcefully rejected the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory after the Reformation nearly 500 years ago. The Protestant discomfort with purgatory hasn’t eased much since — and many Catholics don’t seem to take purgatory as seriously as they once did, either. But advocates who say it’s a doctrine Protestants can and should embrace are having a degree of success that hasn’t been seen in, well, centuries. By David Gibson.

5 reasons we want to believe Jesus was married

People find Jesus’ sex life endlessly fascinating, and plausible. Why is that? Here are five reasons. By David Gibson.

RNS-WWI-ANNIVERSARYWorld War I at 100: New books examine the battle of beliefs behind the ‘Great War’

Today’s religious and political realities — ongoing wars, disputed borders and hostile relationships — have their roots in the global conflict that began when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. “You can’t understand the war fully without investigating the religious dimensions of the war,” said Jonathan Ebel, an associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois. By Kimberly Winston.

Top 12 pastor stunts: Living as an atheist for a year is just the latest ministry gimmick

The rise of the entertainment industry, combined with a focus on marketing techniques to preach the faith or build up a church, have sparked a penchant for ministry gimmicks that go well beyond the old dunk tank. By David Gibson.

Can you question the Resurrection and still be a Christian?

Many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ? By Kimberly Winston.

Sorry, Fido. Pope Francis did NOT say all pets are going to heaven.

Sorry, folks. That whole thing about Pope Francis promising that we’ll see our favorite pets in heaven? He never actually said that. By David Gibson.

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend.  Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

Cracks in the ‘Stained Glass Ceiling’: Women reach 3 prominent pulpits

Chicago. New York. Washington, D.C. In quick succession this year, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in all these cities. By Adelle M. Banks.

Was Pope Benedict XVI right about Islam?

(RNS) Eight years ago, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria in which he seemed to diagnose Islam as a religion inherently flawed by fanaticism. Now, with the Islamic State on the march in the Middle East, some of Benedict’s allies on the Catholic right are saying, in effect, “See, he told you so.” By David Gibson.

Jewish bakery evolves to cater to East London’s new clientele

Some customers ask: If the Rinkoffs are not religious, is it still a Jewish bakery?  “We say we’re an artisan bakery, but we’re proud of our Jewish heritage,” Jennifer Rinkoff said. Rinkoffs’ food is not kosher certified, but the family avoids cooking with animal fat and serving pork. These considerations suit their Muslim clients’ needs. By Brian Pellot.

Green burials reflect a shift to care for the body and soul 

When the time comes, John B. Johnson wants to skip the embalming fluid and fancy casket in favor of a plain pine box. And he would just as soon skip the grand procession, led by a gas-guzzling hearse. “It’s the notion that Jesus was so humble,” he said. “I am a follower and I want to follow that example. I want my death as humble as I think Jesus lived.” By Lauren Markoe.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!* Billy Graham's 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign started small, in a rented circus tent, but grew into a life changing event for Graham -- propelling him onto the national stage. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association  *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story "RNS-GRAHAM-LA" written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

*ATTN: DO NOT PUBLISH THIS PHOTO!*
Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles evangelism campaign started small, in a rented circus tent, but grew into a life changing event for Graham — propelling him onto the national stage. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association *Note to Eds: This photo can ONLY be republished with the story “RNS-GRAHAM-LA” written by Cathy Grossman and published on December 9, 2014.

Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and the two nights in 1949 that changed their lives

(RNS) The preaching in that rented circus tent in Los Angeles changed Louis Zamperini, then 32 — who put away the bottle and devoted his life to Jesus. It also changed the preacher, Billy Graham, and the future course of American evangelicalism. By Cathy Lynn Grossman.