Going local by going global

spotlight on missionsThings have been pretty busy for me lately, but that will change in just under two weeks. Apologies for my low level of posts lately. I wanted to slip in a brief note to highlight what seems to me an impressive journalistic endeavor for a local newspaper. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., sent reporter Trevor Aaronson along with a local Baptist church's mission group to India to report on missionary work in the world's second-largest country. The result is a very long story that has generated still more comments. Here is the gist of the piece:

What happens here is funded entirely by Bellevue Baptist, a 30,000-member church in Memphis, the nation's second-largest Southern Baptist congregation. Every year, Bellevue shells out $5.5 million -- one-fourth of its $22 million annual budget -- for missionary work around the world. At any given time, Bellevue is supporting missionaries in more than two dozen countries, and annually sends its Memphis congregants on international mission trips to Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

India is particularly important for the congregation. The country is at the center of what Bellevue and other evangelical churches refer to as the "10/40 window" -- the area 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator, from North Africa to Japan, where 95 percent of the people are "unevangelized" and where only 8 percent of evangelical missionary dollars are spent.

"It's really called 'The Last Frontier,'" says Steve Marcum, Bellevue's minister of missions.

In July, with the help of Indian Pastor Edgar Sathuluri, who named the women's conference after his mother, Grace, Bellevue covered the transportation costs for the hundreds of women and paid for their meals during the five-day religious gathering in Hyderabad.

The article has a narrative arc that is quite long and full of rich detail. It is not by any means your traditional news story, but nor is it really a traditional feature story. It is a news article told in the style of an old-fashioned story without an ending.

The comments are also interesting because the reporter is being criticized from both sides, as well as commended for a job well done. Some of the people leaving comments think the story is rotten to the core because it promotes "holier-than-thou, so-called Christians." Others, such as the person who sent us the story, say that Aaronson tries to "look at the purpose of and meaning of the trip from the eyes of the Indian and basically believes that [the] group is getting tricked by the pastor of the church they work with in India."

Without weighing the particulars of this story -- there is much to commend, plenty to quibble with -- I think it is tremendous that so much labor and money went into the story. Not only is the newspaper reaching beyond its usual coverage and defying the trend that local newspapers have been heading in for years -- it's also focusing heavily on the activities of the local religious community.

While it may seem like common sense from a news perspective to pay attention to what the large organizations in a coverage area are doing, the activities of churches often go uncovered, particularly missionary work. Take the time to read the story, view the photos and even some of the comments and give us feedback on your thoughts and how other newspapers could follow The Commercial Appeal's lead.

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