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Religion Today Blog Christian Blog and Commentary

Mike Ellis

Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world

GREENVILLE, S.C. (USA Today Network) — The new pastor of a South Carolina megachurch gave his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini SUV for their eighth anniversary five days ago, and he’s been getting heat on social media for it ever since.

In an Instagram video taken at the celebration Saturday (Dec. 8), John Gray, pastor of Relentless Church here, led his wife to a bow-wrapped car and handed her the keys while saying “Lamborghini Urus.” He later acknowledged on social media that he had bought the luxury vehicle for her and responded to criticism of the purchase.

The video of the presentation, which he had not posted, was taken down.

“God helped me to make my wife’s dream come true,” he wrote in an Instagram post Tuesday night. “Why not? She’s made mine come true!”

By Thursday, he was on Facebook Live, tearing up at times as he defended his decision and said the sport utility vehicle was bought with “not a nickel, not a penny” of his salary from the church or other church money.

“My wife has pushed for my dreams and my vision, and she has toiled with a man who is still trying to find himself,” Gray said. “That carries a weight. I wanted to honor her for how she’s covered me.”

Gray, 45, took over leadership in May of Relentless Church, which had five campuses and an active membership of 22,000 when church founder Ron Carpenter handed him the reins of what had been called Redemption Church for 27 years. Carpenter moved to San Jose, California, to become pastor of Jubilee Christian Center, which he renamed Redemption Bay Area Church.

Gray, who is a Cincinnati native, also remains an associate pastor at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston while taking the lead at Relentless. Gray has control of the assets of the Greenville church, its vision, and the future of its ministry.

As the pastor of a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch, Gray is in a relatively small club.

As of 2015, the United States had about 1,650 Protestant churches whose weekly attendance averages 2,000 or more, according to the Hartford (Conn.) Institute for Religion Research. As of 2012, only 40 of about 300,000 churches across the USA had more than 10,000 worshipers each Sunday, the institute’s analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study showed.

Greenville’s median household income from 2013 to 2017 was a little less than $54,000, about $4,000 less than the U.S. as a whole, according to the Census Bureau. With median income, the midpoint, half of all households in this city of about 500,000 residents make more money and half make less.

Gray said he has saved his money for years and drew on a variety of sources financially including his second book deal and the fourth season of The Book of John Gray, his Oprah Winfrey Network reality-TV show, to pay for the gift. On he and his wife’s honeymoon eight years ago, they were so broke that he said they had to share a shrimp cocktail.

His wife, Aventer Gray, defended her husband Sunday in her own Instagram post, saying he gives away cars and furniture as well as coats off his back in addition to tithing to the church. The pastor recently said that people in need, especially widows and veterans, should take money from the church’s donation baskets.

“I don’t see anyone screaming about how basketball players drive what they do while you paying $$$ to see them play in arenas and on fields,” she wrote on Instagram. “We don’t live for people! We live for God!”

In a December 2017 interview with The Greenville News when he was hired, John Gray defended pastors who drive fancy cars. He said he had few indulgences and one of those was to own a fine car.

“If the individuals that are serving are honorable and they are committed to serving, if they have saved their money and want to do something nice for their spouse — or they want to live in a (nice) home — you’ve got one life,” he said a year ago.

In February, the couple went to the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, and at their hotel was a presentation for the luxury vehicle, John Gray said.

“I saw my wife’s eyes light up,” he said. “She said, ‘This would be a dream,’ and that’s all she had to say.”

The pastor put down a deposit and hasn’t paid off the SUV but questioned the criticism he has received. If he had bought her a mid-sized, mid-priced sedan, no one would have cared, John Gray said.

With the income from his other projects, he said he can afford to make her happy.

(Mike Ellis is a reporter for The Greenville (S.C.) News. Angelia Davis of The Greenville News contributed to this story.)


Article originally published by USA Today, shared by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: RNS/Oprah

(RNS) — It was the night before Christmas, and not a creature was stirring.

Except for the mice at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, who were busy chewing through the bellows of the organ.

Their handiwork left the church’s priest, the Rev. Joseph Mohr, scrambling to find music for a Christmas Eve service. So he dashed off a few lines about the night Jesus was born and asked composer Franz Xaver Gruber to set the lyrics to a simple tune, played on guitar.

On that night 200 years ago, the two stood in front of the church’s nativity set and performed a song that began with words “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.”

Better known as “Silent Night,” the song would go on to become one of the season’s most beloved Christmas carols, translated into more than 300 languages and sung all over the world by artists from Bing Crosby Crosby to Beyoncé.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Legends aside, the song endures in part because it brings a sense of calm to the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, said Brian Lee, head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

“We seem to live in such a noisy chapter in history,” Lee said. “I think even just the title of the song in and of itself speaks to people.”

In Austria, where “Silent Night” has been declared part of the nation’s cultural heritage, the country’s tourism office has planned a number of events, including concerts and exhibits, to celebrate the song’s anniversary this year. The events included a concert late last month at Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal church in New York City, where it is believed the song first was performed in the United States.

Moody also planned its annual Candlelight Carols program around the song — linking it to the famed Christmas Eve truce during World War I. During that brief respite from fighting, British and German troops set down their weapons and sang “Silent Night,” among other carols.

And modern hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty are making the song part of their Irish Christmas Tour, with stops at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

Singing carols is as old as Christmas itself, Keith Getty noted in an email to Religion News Service. The story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus, he said, begins with Mary, Zechariah, Simeon and angelic choirs all bursting into songs.

But “Silent Night” is unique, he said.

“Its simplicity makes it easily accessible even for kids — both lyric and melody are haunting, unique and yet painfully simple,” Getty said. “If only we had the potion to reinvent that!”

Part of the song’s genius is its simplicity, said Michael Hawn, a global hymnologist and professor emeritus of church music at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. The lyrics and music paint a scene, and it “doesn’t try to do too much,” he said.

Most of the story about its origins is true. But the details don’t quite match the legend.

While “Silent Night” may have been performed for the first time 200 years ago, Mohr had penned the poem a bit earlier, amid a trying time in Austria’s history at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

It’s true the church’s organ wasn’t working properly, though Hawn called the tale about the mice “a little bit over the top.” Using a guitar to accompany the song turned out to be “providential,” he said.

On the guitar, “Silent Night” sounds like a lullaby, according to the hymnologist. Its gentle 6/8 time signature mimicks a mother rocking her child — appropriate alongside lyrics about the baby Jesus sleeping in heavenly peace.

After its debut, it spread as a folk song, said Paul Westermeyer, professor emeritus of church music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. The Rainer family singers, a traveling singing group from Austria, then brought it to America, performing the song in 1839 at Trinity Church.

Twenty years later, a priest at Trinity, John Freeman Young, published the first English translation of three verses of “Silent Night.” Young had been ordained at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and later became bishop of Florida.

Betsy Calhoun, director of music at St. John’s, said the church wasn’t aware of its ties to the origins of “Silent Night” until this past year, when a musicologist researching the 200th anniversary of the song reached out to the church. The church also has ties to another famed Christmas carol: It’s home to the organ on which James L. Pierpont composed “Jingle Bells.”

St. John’s, like many other churches, has ended its Christmas Eve services for years with “Silent Night,” sung a capella by candlelight.

There’s always a tense moment when the lights dim and candle flames drift, and once, Calhoun remembers someone’s hair catching fire during a service.

For countless churchgoers, though, that moment of quiet reflection captures what Christmas is all about — a moment amid the noise of the holidays when all is calm and bright. It’s a moment to gather with family and friends to remember a holy infant so tender and mild.

“It’s just a very hushed, calm, just unified spirit that kind of takes over, and it is very moving,” Calhoun said.


Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: RNS/Creative Commons

When Christian contemporary artist Francesca Battistelli answered a phone call asking her to perform a Christmas duet with Italian singer Andrea Bocelli, there was no hesitation in her answer: “absolutely.”

“It was a no-brainer,” Battistelli told The Christian Post. “It was a surreal experience, a dream come true.”

The Grammy-winning artist will join Bocelli to perform a rendition of “What Child is This.” The performance can be seen on the upcoming holiday special, “Andrea Bocelli: The Heart of Christmas,” which is set to air on TBN December 20 at 8/7pm CT.

Filmed in a historic church in Lajatico, Bocelli’s hometown located in the Italian region Tuscany, was nothing short of “magical,” Battistelli informed CP. She notes that it also took a great deal of prayer.

“I never get nervous, but I just crying and praying, ‘Lord, let me not do a bad job,’” she revealed. “And it ended up being so beautiful. There was a moment where we’re in this beautiful church, and we’re singing and worshiping Jesus and Bocelli’s voice just rolled out incredibly. I looked out into the audience and I had this moment that was so emotional for me. I had to snap myself out of it so I wouldn’t cry. It was just so, so special.”

Over the course of his career, Bocelli has sold over 90 million albums and is widely regarded as one of the most “loved and recognizable performers” in the world. His most recent album, Sì, debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart for the first time in his career and simultaneously topped the charts in the U.K.

But Battistelli informed CP that the “biggest reason” Bocelli desired to do the Christmas special was due to the fact that it presented an opportunity to share the Gospel. After the show’s music portion, which also includes duets between Bocelli and his son, Matteo, favorite Christmas songs, and more, the Italian singer will sit with TBN president Matt Crouch to speak about his faith.

“He gets asked about his music, his story, and personal life all the time, but no one ever asks about his faith,” Battistelli stated. “So, he wanted to specifically focus on that for this special.”

Battistelli has earned quite a few chart-topping hits and awards, including a Grammy Award and four nominations. Own It, her latest album, was released in October following a four-year hiatus. Centered on the themes of identity and fully giving in to God’s will, the album is the product of many life-changing events in the singer’s life — including the birth of her children.

“This season of life has been about finding my identity and figuring out who I am,” she mentioned to CP. “My career and personal life took off at the same time. It’s kind of been a whirlwind decade with raising babies and being on the road. I went through this season of slowing down. When I got pregnant with our fourth child, I decided to take some time off to just be home and have some normalcy in my life.”

“It was a beautiful season,” she added. “I grew a lot personally and started to understand who I was and what I wanted to say. These songs came out very easily and are a reflection of what I’ve been walking through.”

Battistelli noted that she hopes her music empowers listeners to celebrate their identity in Christ while helping them to remember what matters most. Christmas, she said, is a wonderful time to do just that.

“For me, the heart of Christmas is Jesus coming to the world to save us,” she stated. “It’s also about family and friends and reaching out to the ones you love. I hope that through this Christmas special, people are put into the Christmas spirit and are reminded what the season is truly about.”

Photo courtesy: Getty Images/Terry Wyatt-Stringer