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'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

How many stories have been written on the important demographic slide across the decades among America’s moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline?

Such pieces typically report the latest membership totals and such. But newswriters should always seek new ways to freshen up old themes, and colleague David Briggs provides an example of just how to do that.

In case anyone doesn’t know the name, Briggs was the Religion Guy’s predecessor as an Associated Press religion writer, also covered the beat for the Buffalo News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has been president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He now edits the “Ahead of the Trend” blog for the Association of Religion Data Archives, an organization housed at Penn State that religion journalists are --  or should be -- well aware of.

By the way, the ARDA boasts that Briggs is considered “among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America,” which sounds right. Who’d be on your own list? Leave me some notes in the comments pages.

Here’s the old-school Briggs formula: Pull together telling data that haven’t gotten much coverage, interview some of the usual suspects on the implications and then propose a strong conclusion about mainline woe: “Not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups.”

These churches won’t disappear, we’re told, but their decline will not bottom out, much less turn around.

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Facing the Sexual Revolution's impact, even among 'active' members of red-pew flocks

Facing the Sexual Revolution's impact, even among 'active' members of red-pew flocks

It happens to journalists every now and then. You are interviewing a source and suddenly this person says something strange and specific that completely changes how you see an issue that you are covering.

That happened to me back in the early 1990s when I was covering the very first events linked to the "True Love Waits" movement to support young people who wanted help in "saving sex for marriage." This happened so long ago that I don't have a digital copy of my "On Religion" column on this topic stored anywhere on line.

Anyway, I realize that for many people the whole "True Love Waits" thing was either a joke or an idealistic attempt to ask young people to do the impossible in modern American culture. But put that issue aside for a moment, because that isn't the angle of this issue that knocked me out in that interview long ago. (Yes, I have written about this before here at GetReligion.)

If you want to understand the background for this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I want you to think about something else.

What fascinated me was that, according to key "True Love Waits" leaders, they didn't struggle to find young people who wanted to take vows and join the program. What surprised them was that many church leaders were hesitating to get on board because of behind-the-scenes opposition from ADULTS in their congregations.

The problem was that pastors were afraid to offend a few, or even many, adults in their churches -- even deacons -- because of the sexual complications in many lives and marriages, including sins that shattered marriages and homes. Key parents didn't want to stand beside their teens and take the program's vows.

It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue.

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Elite newsrooms avoid 'liberal' issues, as Obama visits mosque with an interesting past

Elite newsrooms avoid 'liberal' issues, as Obama visits mosque with an interesting past

Present Barack Obama's visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in the old Catonsville suburb, was an event that was both important and symbolic for a number of reasons.

For starters, violence linked to the rise of the Islamic State, as well as acts of terrorism inspired by radicalized forms of Islam, have become a bloody normality in world headlines during the years of the Obama presidency. President Obama has attempted to maintain what his supporters argue is a graceful, calm stance on these trends in an attempt to avoid pouring gasoline on the flames. His critics insist that he has chosen blindness, for motives that remain unclear.

Oh, and then there are those bizarre numbers that keep showing up in polls whenever Americans are asked if they believe Obama is, in fact, a Muslim (despite his adult conversion into a liberal, oldline Protestant band of faith).

Thus, the speech at the Baltimore-area mosque received major coverage, as it should. Most of the coverage did a good job of covering, in glowing terms, the content of the Obama message (full text here). What puzzled me, however, was the lack of attention focused on the location. This left me -- as usual -- puzzled about current trends in "liberal" and "conservative" journalism. Hold that thought.

This passage in The Washington Post report captured the mainstream media tone:

The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia ...

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Surprise! Hillary Clinton talks faith on the campaign trail, and CNN joins Trump in botching Corinthians (updated)

Surprise! Hillary Clinton talks faith on the campaign trail, and CNN joins Trump in botching Corinthians (updated)

Wednesday afternoon update: Looks like CNN has corrected the mistakes we pointed out. Who says GetReligion doesn't get action?

• • •

Evangelicals' role in Iowa's Republican presidential contest seems to make nonstop headlines. That's not the case on the Democratic side.

Hillary Clinton has said advertising her faith "doesn't come naturally to me."

In a story this week on how the two major parties can't agree on the issues, let alone the solutions, the Washington Post noted:

At the Democratic debate, no candidate said the words “God,” “Christian,” “Bible” or “scripture,” and the three — Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — do not commonly use such words in their speeches.
By contrast, the Republican candidates tend to wear their faith on their sleeves, in part to win over conservative Christian voters in Iowa and other states.
Donald Trump brings his childhood Bible with him to some campaign rallies and holds it as a prop, although the billionaire mogul drew mockery when he botched a reference to Second Corinthians during a recent speech to students at Liberty University, the Christian college in Virginia founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush often talks about his Catholic faith and carries a rosary on the campaign trail.
And Cruz, whose father is a born-again Christian and travels the country preaching, has taken to quoting scripture in his stump speeches. He cites Second Chronicles 7:14 and urges his supporters to find time every day to pray for the country’s future.
“Just one minute when you wake up in the morning,” Cruz says. “When you’re shaving. When you’re having lunch. When you’re tucking your kids into bed.”

So when a voter asked Clinton about her faith Monday and the candidate responded with a rather detailed answer, I'm surprised no one yelled, "STOP THE PRESSES!" (I kid. I kid.)

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey dives deep into Wheaton wars and conflicts inside evangelicalism

Sarah Pulliam Bailey dives deep into Wheaton wars and conflicts inside evangelicalism

So have you been waiting for someone who knows "evangelical" stuff to write the "big picture" of what is going on in the Wheaton College wars?

That is precisely what veteran Washington Post religion-beat pro Michaelle Boorstein asked former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey to do the other day. I especially appreciated that this journalistic view from 5,000 feet (or higher) involved the angle that GetReligion has been talking about from Day 1 -- the "who gets to define what 'evangelical' means, especially when jobs are at stake?"

As always, it's hard to critique the work of a former colleague. Thus, I wrote Sarah and asked if she would write a short introduction, when I pointed our readers toward a few key parts of her long, long news feature. Here it is:

I was actually on vacation when the news first broke, so I came back to the story trying to sort out what actually happened, who said what when, why it had turned into such a nightmare for the college. I saw a lot of people posting really simplistic reactions, like the college is racist or the professor equates Islam with Christianity, so clearly people didn't understand the complexities.

And there was, of course, one other interesting question linked to Sarah reporting this story (a question longtime GetReligion readers will have already thought about):

I asked our higher education reporter if I should disclose that I went (to Wheaton College). She said no, unless I'm on some alumni association or something. We have UVA grads report on UVA, etc. It's pretty easy to find through Facebook or Linked In or pretty much anywhere that I went there, but we didn't feel like it was necessary to stamp on the story itself.

So what are the real issues in this doctrinal skirmish?

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Hey reporters: Donald Trump tries to woo Iowa evangelicals, by attending liberal church?

Hey reporters: Donald Trump tries to woo Iowa evangelicals, by attending liberal church?

So you are a billionaire Republican candidate from New York City and your goal is to demonstrate your conservative, man-of-the-people bona fides in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. You know that evangelical Christians are a crucial constituency in this contest, so on Sunday morning you visit a:

(a) Nondenominational megachurch, the kind with a praise band, an altar call at the end of the service, a history of sending people to the "March For Life" and backing centuries of church doctrine on marriage and family.

(b) Southern Baptist congregation that is putting down roots up in the rural, small-town soil of the north.

(c) Conservative Presbyterian Church in America flock, since you have been reminding doubters that you are very, very proud to be a Presbyterian.

(d) Solidly progressive church in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that represents almost everything that evangelical voters in Iowa consider dangerous.

The answer for reality-television superstar Donald Trump was (d).

However, perhaps there is another answer. Perhaps it doesn't matter where you go to church since elite reporters won't know the difference (or spend a few seconds online to learn)?

Consider the top of the Washington Post story that ran under this headline: "Trump goes to church in Iowa and hears a sermon about welcoming immigrants."

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What are the ins and outs -- mostly ins -- of the giant, online Bible Gateway?

What are the ins and outs -- mostly ins -- of the giant, online Bible Gateway?

HEATHER’S QUESTION:

I don’t see the New Revised Standard Version in my biblegateway.com app. Do you have any idea why it’s excluded?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This specific topic is quick and easy, so the Guy will use the space and occasion to provide broader information about the quite remarkable www.biblegateway.com (hereafter BG), billed as “the most-visited Christian Website in the world” with “more than 18 million unique visitors per month” -- and a must reference stop for journalists and Religion Q&A readers. The heart of things is a free and fully searchable online archive of complete Bible texts in 70 languages. The offerings in English are 53 texts and 14 audio versions (three of these read by the euphonious Max McLean of C.S. Lewis On Stage fame) plus many related features.

On Heather’s point, the main Website posts the New Revised Standard Version, known for its gender-inclusive language. But, yes, the NRSV is not among the text and audio versions accessible for free via the Bible Gateway App for mobile iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android and KindleFire. This is not BG’s doing. Older Bible versions in “public domain” can be used free by anyone but BG negotiates with 27 publishers for licenses that allow posting of newer versions under copyright. The National Council of Churches, which controls NRSV rights, granted BG the Web rights in 2012 but decided not to include a license for the app.

Still, the app’s offerings are extensive, and the ins and outs of the parent Website are almost totally “in.”

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Forgive the pun, but here's how to make the 'graying of the pulpit' sound like old news

Forgive the pun, but here's how to make the 'graying of the pulpit' sound like old news

While serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I wrote a series 15 years ago on the "graying of the pulpit."

My 2001 stories cited a potential crisis for Christian denominations facing "a shortage of pastors as the boom generation of clergy who entered the ministry in the 1950s retires in great numbers over the next decade."

Fast-forward to this week and a front-page Houston Chronicle story similarly focused on aging clergy:

Newly ordained, the Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley hit town in 2007 eager to save and nurture souls. Her first posting was as associate pastor at a southwest-side church, where she joined an energetic, innovative team ministering to a classically diverse Houston congregation. But beneath the godly high of a worthy mission and great job was one troubling worry.
It came as she met her colleagues in the United Methodist Church’s Texas Annual Conference, the Houston-based assembly of more than 600 Southeast Texas churches, and it was undeniable.
“Wow!” she thought, “We’re really old.”
The onetime small-town Baptist-turned-Methodist clergywoman had stumbled onto one of Christianity’s most daunting 21st-century challenges: the inexorable aging of its ministers.
When Malone-Wardley arrived, just over 3 percent of the conference’s ordained pastors were younger than 35. Nationally in her denomination — America’s largest mainstream Protestant group — more than half of ordained ministers now are 55 or older. Among Southern Baptists — the biggest evangelical Protestant group — half of senior pastors are 55 or older and fully 20 percent are on the gray side of 65. Among Catholic priests, the median age is 59 — up 14 years in just over four decades.
Like their pastors, American congregations are getting older as well, with a Pew Research Center study finding a direct correlation between age and affiliation with a religious group. All but 11 percent of Americans ages 70 to 87 are affiliated; more than a third of those ages 19 to 25 are not.

Before I make my point about this story, a quick nitpick: The United Methodist Church isn't America's largest mainstream Protestant group. The correct word there would be mainline. It's a common mistake.

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New York Times explores Trump and those 'evangelicals,' whoever or whatever they are ...

New York Times explores Trump and those 'evangelicals,' whoever or whatever they are ...

As you would expect, variations on the word "evangelical" appear quite a few times in a New York Times news feature that appears under this headline -- "Evangelicals See Donald Trump as Man of Conviction, if Not Faith."

Yes, it does appear that issues of religion and culture will play some role in the GOP side of the contest to win the White House, in spite of that other recent Times feature that left religion totally out of that equation. I know that's hard to believe, so click here for more info.

So the evangelicals are back and some love Trump while others do not. Surprise!

As I read the new Times piece, a familiar question entered my mind: What do these journalists, the elite of the news elite, think that the word "evangelical" means? GetReligion has dedicated quite a bit of attention to the meaning of that word, as have I as a columnist.

So the goal, in this post, is to look for clues as to what the Times people think this term means. At the end, we will actually look at a set of characteristics used to define "evangelical" endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Ready? Here is our first passage:

Buford Arning, a retired building-supply executive in Statesville, N.C., went to church each week until a pinched nerve made it hard for him to leave his house. He believes in living a faith-filled life. But he does not demand piety of his preferred presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump.
“Am I a Bible toter that gets out and preaches on the side of the street and tries to convert everybody? No,” said Mr. Arning, 62, who calls himself an evangelical voter. He said he believed that Mr. Trump was “a Christian man,” and that was good enough.

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