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Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

For those who are curious, The Austin American-Statesman did send a reporter to the anticipated Sunday Church of Open Doors service to see if the Rev. Jordan Brown or any members of his "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window" flock decided to attend.

Even though the news report that resulted was short, and rather grammatically challenged, it did yield some interesting information for journalists and news consumers attempting to follow up on the hate-cake incident.

As I said in an early post (and in this past week's "Crossroads" podcast) I am convinced journalists covering Brown's lawsuit, and the resulting counter-suit by the legal team at Whole Foods, need to know if this shepherd does, in fact, have a flock. If so, who are the lay leaders who oversee his ministry?

So here is the top of the report in The American-Statesman:

A traditional Sunday gathering led by an Austin man who targeted Whole Foods Market with controversial, viral allegations that backfired last week didn’t hold its usual services today.
Jordan Brown, who said he pastors a small group, the Church of Open Doors, didn’t have their usual meeting out of his East Austin apartment complex Sunday.

Now, take out the word "traditional" and then substitute "congregation" for "gathering" and that lede makes some sense. I really don't know what happened in the second sentence. It seems that something is missing.

The key fact here is that journalists still have had zero contact with anyone from the congregation.

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How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

At first, this story reads like it must be news satire from The Onion.

Or, given the religious nature of the piece, maybe the Babylon Bee would be a more appropriate fit.

But actually, this in-depth report on whether a Christian pastor must believe in God is real news out of Canada, via The Guardian. And here's what kind of surprised me: It's fascinating and generally handles the subject matter well.

Let's start at the top:

TORONTO — There is not one mention of God during the 70-minute service at Toronto’s West Hill United church. Bibles are nowhere to be seen. The large steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.
But that is perhaps to be expected in a church led by an avowed atheist.
“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.
Vosper’s outspoken commitment to a seemingly clashing set of beliefs has prompted turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination that began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries, the church has been left questioning its boundaries.
In the coming weeks, an unprecedented review will be carried out to determine whether Vosper can stay on as a minister. At its most basic level, the review will ask a simple question that’s likely to yield a complicated answer: can the United church of Canada have an atheist minister?
For the 100-strong congregation at West Hill, the answer is an unabashed yes. Stripped of God and the Bible, services here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.

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After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

Is there anything new to say, at this point, about the Rev. Jordan Brown, his Church of Open Doors and the mysterious case of the alleged Whole Foods hate cake?

The short answer is, "no." Of course, that tells us something about these viral, digital media storms that blow up on Twitter and then fade away. At some point, there is real reporting that needs to get done.

The key, is this point, is that there is little evidence that the same mainstream media that ran with the story early on -- The Austin America Statesman, for example -- are interested in exploring the next stage of the drama. In a post the other day, and in our "Crossroads" podcast this week, I suggested that it would be important to find out more about Brown's congregation -- such as whether it's alive and viable. (I just noticed that it's last schedule worship service was at noon on April 3 -- the week after Western Easter).

So what happens this Sunday?

Now, a GetReligion reader went online and dug out some basic, very helpful information that would have added some depth to the tsunami of early online items about this alleged hate crime:

I am not a journalist but I did do some checking on the Church of Open Doors. The "congregation" meets in the community room/area of an apartment complex. The official mailing address is a post office box at an establishment named "Drive Thru Postal". On the "church" website, there is no mention of governance or oversight.
According to Facebook link, the "church" utilizes MailChimp, I went to MailChimp and found the archive of emails for the "church" and the majority of them are pleas for money. This is the most recent:

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After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

Let's pause, for a moment, and set aside in-depth discussions of Whole Foods security-camera footage and the strategic location of UPC labels.

Ditto for the zoomed-in analysis of high-definition photos that may show clashing colors in cake icing and the width of the letters on top of what is currently America's most controversial "Love Wins" cake.

There is also the irony that this story is unfolding in the people's republic of Austin, which is both the official capital of the state of Texas and the proudly weird Mecca of folks who want to live in Texas, without really living in Texas.

What I want to do is meditate, for a moment, on the difficulty of covering totally independent, nondenominational churches. During the blitz of hate-cake coverage yesterday, very few journalists paused to ask any questions about the Austin pastor at the center of this controversy and his "church plant," the Church of Open Doors.

One of the convenient things about covering large religious institutions, and religious denominations in particular, is that they offer reporters a chance to verify key facts when a minister and/or a congregation hits the headlines, for positive or negative reasons.

This basic reporting work is harder to do with independent congregations (and there are thousands of them and that number is rising all the time). Right now, it's clear that hardly anyone knows much of anything about the Rev. Jordan Brown and his flock. And let me ask again: Why do so many journalists decline to use the normal Associated Press style -- "the Rev." -- when dealing with African-American pastors?

There is Facebook, of course, where one can learn, in addition to the fact that 27 people have visited, that the church's slogan is: "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window."

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About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

In olden times the major U.S. news magazines often ran major religion takeouts at Easter time. Fifty years ago Time greeted the holy weekend with the stark “Is God Dead?” cover story (hit the pay wall here), rousing its top newsstand sales since World War Two and a record pile of letters to the editor.

The lede:  “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.” The article pursued that duality, not only doubt but problematic aspects of fashionable skepticism.

Author John T. Elson (1931-2009) was no faith-basher but an intellectually inquisitive Catholic who worshiped regularly at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Church. This uber-talented religion writer was largely unheralded in that era when Time barred bylines. Later, he was a senior editor or A.M.E. who often supervised the Guy during 19 years as the news magazine’s religion writer.

The God article raised a classic journalistic issue as  pertinent as the latest Trump outburst: Does media sensationalism distort reality and harm the culture? After all, only a handful of “mainline” Protestant theologians were the “Christian atheists” of 1966. But Elson captured a cultural moment other media were pondering. Weeks beforehand, John Lennon had remarked that “Christianity will go” and “we’re more popular than Jesus now.” Another Elson cover story later that year profiled the Episcopal Church’s doubt-drenched Bishop James Pike.  

God didn’t die.

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Episcopal leader cleans house, while reporters ignore that whole 'bugging' thing

Episcopal leader cleans house, while reporters ignore that whole 'bugging' thing

It's time for an update on a "mirror image" post that I wrote a few months ago during the media dead zone that is the days just before Christmas.

That was, when you may recall, the new leader of the Episcopal Church -- Presiding Bishop Michael Curry -- sent out a very interesting letter (in the midst of a personal medical crisis, no less). In said letter he wrote the following, which I argued was very important news if the Episcopal Church remains a highly important institution in American religious life (and, thus, in the news).

The headline on my post was, I thought, pretty sexy: "Zero news coverage? Episcopal Church's new leader cleans house (including a possible spy."

Yes, "spy," as in a corporate spy, as opposed to the Rt. Rev. James Bond, or something. The Curry letter said, in part:

I need to inform you that on Wednesday I placed on administrative leave Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer, Samuel McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Director of Mission, and Alex Baumgarten, Director of Public Engagement. This is a result of concerns that have been raised about possible misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

So what kind of mainstream news coverage did the more controversial elements of this bombshell receive?

(Cue: crickets)

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For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

With Easter celebrations behind them, four U.S. Protestant denominations are about to plunge into a 9-week swirl of big decision-making on their unceasing and anguishing gay dispute. The actions will come less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.

In the Reformed Church in America, 21 days of continent-wide fasting and prayers for wisdom will culminate in an April 15-18 “Special Council on Human Sexuality” in Chicago. The 74 delegates are assigned to devise “a constitutional pathway forward” that can manage the deep division over sexuality, for proposal to the General Synod June 9-14 in Palos Heights, Illinois. Though relatively small, the RCA is one of the oldest U.S. denominations, dating to 1628 in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City). 

Next up is the May 10-20 General Conference of the large United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. The UMC has debated the question without letup since 1972, always upholding the belief that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” while liberals regularly defy the required discipline of clergy living in homosexual relationships or who conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples.

An unusual aspect of the situation is that though the U.S. flock has declined dramatically to 7.2 million, the UMC includes overseas churches, mostly in Africa and mostly conservative, that now boast 5.2 million members. Legislation on the table includes a bid from the “Connectional Table,” an official coordination body, to replace the strict UMC-wide policy with local option.

The split is demonstrated by two pending cases.

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Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?

Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.

The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?

Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?

So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.
The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.
“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”

North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat.

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On Easter, this obscure topic made front-page news: Why that's a very good thing

On Easter, this obscure topic made front-page news: Why that's a very good thing

In a GetReligion post last year, I wrote:

"Church-planting" is, of course, a buzzword in Christian circles these days.
Not too many journalists, though, could turn that esoteric subject into the lead story in the Sunday edition of a major metropolitan daily.

In that case, I was talking about award-winning Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But add another religion writer to that elite list: budding star Holly Meyer of The Tennessean.

Meyer's deep dive on a United Methodist church plant in the Nashville area dominated the top two-thirds of her newspaper's front page on Easter Sunday.

Her timely angle:

Providence United Methodist Church has a new beginning this Easter season.
The church began eight years ago with an Easter Sunday service in Mundy Memorial Park in Mt. Juliet. And after holding 389 services in parks, school gyms and the like, Providence will celebrate its first Easter in a new building of its own on South Rutland Road.
It's a key milestone in the history of the congregation, which began as a church plant and has emerged as a leader in the Methodist denomination's nationwide efforts to grow.
“I’m pumped about our building because of what we get to imagine together,” Pastor Jacob Armstrong told the congregation during the final service at West Wilson Middle School.
Members of the church sat on bleachers and folding chairs as the gym's basketball hoops hovered overhead. They listened intently as Armstrong, 35, recounted how Providence's dream to reach those who feel disconnected from God and church manifests itself in overseas charity work, special-needs ministry and more.
“It’s been a great run in the school, guys, hasn’t it? It’s been a great run," Armstrong said. "Celebrate it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But here’s what I don’t want to do — stop dreaming.”
Providence began in 2008 just as the United Methodist Church as a denomination was preparing to launch a program focused on the intentional creation of new churches across the country. But it's not just the Methodists; new Protestant churches nationally are starting faster than old ones are disappearing, Nashville-based LifeWay Research shows.
Denominations are making it a priority, with more than 4,000 new churches launching in 2014 across the nation, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research and an expert on planting churches.

Count Stetzer among those impressed with Meyer's story. He tweeted to his 186,000 followers:

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