Here’s our look back at some of the biggest new stories involving the Church, communities of faith and religion in 2014.

The Persecution of Religious Communities by ISIS

In the wake of the Syrian civil war, instability in regions of northern Iraq gave way to a new, shockingly violent militant organization that rapidly rose to power in 2014. ISIS—or the Islamic State—took over large swaths of the region, brutally enforcing their strict form of Islam. The resulting persecution—of Christians, Yazidis and even fellow Muslims—has resulted in a refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands fled their homes to escape ISIS. The situation has become so dire for many religious minorities that Canon Andrew White, known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ said Christianity in the region—which dates back to Bible times—could soon be extinct.

Missions Work in the Ebola Crisis

As of this month, the recent Ebola outbreak has killed more than 7,800 people—the vast majority of whom live in West Africa. But as Western media audiences began to become more aware of the crisis earlier this year, an interesting story emerged: The first American to return home to be treated for the disease was a doctor, working in Liberia with the Christian missionary organization Samaritan’s Purse. Kent Brantly, as well as fellow missionary Nancy Writebol, both survived after receiving treatment. They helped shine a light on the important work health care workers in Africa were doing to fight the outbreak. In addition to speaking out about the importance of fighting Ebola, Brantly also donated his blood to at least three other people who had contracted the virus while either serving the sick or documenting its spread.

Hillsong New York’s Influence

The most recent issue of Esquire named Hillsong New York Pastor Carl Lentz one of the “37 people under 35 who are changing the world”—a group that includes the likes of Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Mark Zuckerberg. The pastor of the NYC church plant from Australia’s Hillsong movement spends time hanging out with pop stars and NBA all-stars, but regularly brings the Gospel to crowds of thousands who attend the services. In 2014, the church’s sudden rise in influence and popularity made it a fixture of mainstream media coverage—from ABC’s Nightline and CBS This Morning to the frontpage of The New York Times.

The Israel-Gaza War

For 50 days this summer, the Israeli military and fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip engaged in a violent clash that left more than 2,100 dead—many of them civilians. Though the region has long been contested and the home of violent showdowns, the most recent war was sparked after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered. In the crackdowns that followed, several Palestinians were killed and hundreds were arrested. The tensions escalated following a series of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, which led to airstrikes and a massive ground invasion. Though a cease-fire was eventually agreed on, the fighting yielded few diplomatic results: In the end, both sides declared themselves victorious.

Kenneth Bae Returned to U.S.

From hosting weird basketball games in January to possibly hacking Sony Entertainment this month because of an unflattering movie, North Korea was in the headlines a lot in 2014. But one of the biggest (though not as sensational) stories to come out of the reclusive country in the last year was the release of missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been held for two years on charges that he was attempting to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Prior to his arrest and sentencing to years of hard labor, the Korean-American Christian had been conducting evangelistic missionary trips into the country. All religion is strictly regulated in North Korea, and even minor transgressions can lead to devastating punishments. In the months leading up to his surprise release, Bae was said to be in declining health. After President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, took part in a secret meeting with North Korean officials, the North Korean government agreed to release Bae and another American, Todd Miller, who was also being held.

The #BlackLivesMatter Hashtag

The deaths of several unarmed, black men by white police officers (and how the courts handled them) in 2014 has sparked renewed conversations about racial injustice, the criminal justice system and how much of the country is still divided on these issues. The #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign was more than just an awareness effort to share news related to the cases of men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, or the protests in Ferguson and New York: It was a catalyst for a new, ongoing conversation—in culture at large, and within the Church—about racial injustice and fixing a broken system.

Mars Hill Closing

For much of the last 15 years, Mars Hill Church—and its polarizing but influential lead pastor, Mark Driscoll—was an important voice in American evangelicalism. Along with a main campus in Seattle, the organization ran several other large locations via video sermons. But this year, after Driscoll resigned following allegations of bullying church members, misusing church funds to aid his writing career and plagiarism, the church fell on hard times. In October, they released a statement saying, “Rather than remaining a centralized multi-site church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities.” The move means that the churches that once operated under the umbrella of Mars Hill will either close or operate totally independently. This weekend, guest speaker Rick Warren delivered the final Mars Hill sermon.

The Bible Took Over Hollywood

Following the unexpected mega-success of History Channel’s The Bible miniseries in 2013, Hollywood took notice. 2014 saw the release of Bible-based epics like Son of God (made by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the duo behind The Bible), Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christian book adaptations (Heaven Is For Real, Left Behind) and a few small-budget, faith-marketed indies (Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, The Song, God’s Not Dead, Believe Me). Though they mostly opened to mixed reviews from critics and Christian audiences, 2014 will be remembered as the year the Bible took over the big screen.

#BringBackOurGirls and the Rise of Boko Haram

In the early morning hours of April 15, militants from the Islamist terror organization Boko Haram kidnapped 276 young girls from a school in northern Nigeria. Thanks to the “#BringBackOurGirls” social media campaign, in the weeks following, much of the world was introduced to Boko Haram and learned of their brutal campaigns of kidnappings, sexual assault, mass murder, bombings and religious persecution. Though they have been active in northern Nigeria for several years, the brazen abduction showed just how powerful they had become. Known for their radical brand of Islam and their extreme opposition to “western education,” the group experienced increased exposure in 2014. It’s estimated that they have killed 13,000 since 2009—many of those were in the last 12 months. The hashtag campaign also drew questions about the effectiveness of social media activism: Though some of the girls managed to escape in the moments after the raid, efforts to rescue the rest of them have failed.

The Vatican’s Family Summit

This fall, Pope Francis invited religious leaders from around the world—including big names like Rick Warren and N.T. Wright—to an interfaith conference at the Vatican to discuss the role of the family in society, marriage and how religious leaders should handle changing social values. Though the synod didn’t yield any significant changes to church policy or teachings, it marked a potentially important step forward in efforts to understand changing culture and engage in interfaith dialog on the topic of family.

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