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Weekend Plug-in: May 1, 2020

Analysis, insights and the week's top headlines from the world of faith, from Religion Unplugged.

Warren Cole Smith speaks at Wilberforce Weekend 2017, an annual gathering to equip Christians in Christian worldview and cultural renewal. Smith is the new president of Photo provided by Warren Cole Smith

Editor’s note: “Weekend Plug-in,” featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced by Religion Unplugged.

(RNS) — Warren Cole Smith wants to strengthen Christian ministries.

A major way he intends to do that: through investigative journalism. 

Smith, 61, has served since October as president of the independent charitable giving watchdog 

“Our overarching goal is to create transparency and accountability in the Christian ministry world,” the 1980 University of Georgia journalism graduate told me. 

Rusty Leonard, who founded the nonprofit with his wife, Carol, in 1998, serves as board chairman. Leonard reached out to Smith after a donor provided funding for the new position.

Smith’s past experience includes serving as vice president and associate publisher of World, a leading evangelical magazine, and owning a chain of Christian newspapers. He is working on a book titled “Faith-Based Fraud,” which MinistryWatch hopes to publish in August.

His interest in reporting stretches back nearly five decades to the 1970s Watergate scandal uncovered by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. 

“When we’re doing investigative journalism, there are two audiences that I care most about,” Smith said. “What do donors need to know to make them more effective stewards? And how can we serve the victims?

“There’s an old saying that I use a lot in this kind of work: Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims,” he added. “So we want to be an advocate for the victims, which is why we will not only cover financial abuse, but we will also cover sexual abuse as well.” 

See examples of Smith’s recent work here, here and here.

Power Up: The Week’s Best Reads

  1. DNA points to former suspect in 1985 church murders

Here’s a real whodunit with a major break in the 35-year-old case, thanks to digging by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“One night in 1985, a white man walked into an African American church in southeast Georgia and fatally shot a beloved couple,” the Journal-Constitution’s Joshua Sharpe reports. “For decades, DNA found at the crime scene didn’t match that of any of the suspects who were tested — until now.”

The match: Erik Sparre, a suspect dropped from the investigation in 1986 based on an alibi with which the newspaper’s recent reporting found problems.


  1. Donations plunge because of COVID-19, and some churches won’t survive

Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein takes a deep dive into how the coronavirus “is pressing painfully on the soft underbelly of U.S. houses of worship: their finances.”

The blow is hitting small congregations particularly hard, she notes.

But this is more than a story about dollar signs. Boorstein’s focus on real people — such as the Mississippi pastor “who sold cars until the ministry called him 15 years ago” — is what brings this compelling piece alive.



  1. Religion freedom attorneys pick their battles amid pandemic

As houses of worship nationwide face decisions over when and how to reopen, The Associated Press’ Elana Schor explores the conservative legal landscape.

Elsewhere, some of the nation’s best religion journalists tackle the question of resuming in-person worship — including The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer, The Oklahoman’s Carla Hinton, the Houston Chronicle’s Robert Downen (with colleague Brooke A. Lewis) and the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas.



More top reads: Some Catholics suffer sacramental withdrawal as virtual confessions are ruled out, Nathan Romo, Religion News Service … Harlem pastor increases focus on church’s mental health as COVID-19 takes toll, Kimberly S. Johnson, Wall Street Journal New York City Muslims work to build food security during Ramadan, Aysha Khan, RNS … Beyond Cedarville: Why do pastors keep getting rehired after abuse? Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today A Virginia preacher believed ‘God can heal anything,’ but then he caught coronavirus, Peter Jamison, Washington Post Black pastors say they have trouble accessing SBA loan program, Tom Gjelten, NPR … 2,500 mourners jam a Hasidic funeral, creating a flash point for New York mayor, Liam Stack, New York Times An Arab doctor and an ultra-Orthodox Jew find common ground in a COVID ward, Steve Hendrix, Washington Post … Military chaplains pivot to serve soldiers in virus outbreak, Sarah Blake Morgan, Associated Press … On LA’s Skid Row, Catholic Worker’s ‘Hippie Kitchen’ adjusts to COVID-19, Alejandra Molina, RNS … Knock knock. It’s weird evangelical Twitter, by Daniel Silliman, Christianity Today.


Inside The Godbeat: Behind The Bylines

Daniel Darling, formerly the vice president of communications for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has a new gig.

He’s the new senior vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters.



Recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged



The Final Plug

If we gave an award for Religion Headline of the Week, the Dayton Daily News would win it.

See if this title doesn’t grab you: “Holy rock ’n’ rollers: Heavy metal church hosts drive-in service every Sunday.”



That headline appeared atop a feature on the First Heavy Metal Church of Christ.

Yes, that’s a real church. And no, the religion beat is never boring.

(Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor in chief of The Christian Chronicle. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)