Worship

'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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The New York Times asks: Is that historic Bernie Sanders win 'good for the Jews?'

The New York Times asks: Is that historic Bernie Sanders win 'good for the Jews?'

I guess this really is the year of the outsider -- even the Jewish outsider.

Take a look, if you will, at the following New York Times piece about the historic New Hampshire Primary win by Sen. Bernie Sanders. We're talking about the sidebar that ran under this headline: "As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means."

I realize that this piece is little more than a round-up of clips from Jewish newspapers and commentary publications. The goal, apparently, was to raise topics, one paragraph after another, that Jewish thinkers are talking about (with little new reporting).

If that was the goal, it is amazing what is NOT in this piece. Here is a sample, including the question-mark lede:

But is it good for the Jews?
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ... became the first Jewish candidate in history to win a presidential primary election, setting off a familiar mixture of celebration and anxiety among Jews in the United States and abroad, who pondered what his milestone victory meant for the broader Jewish community.
“Did Bernie Sanders Just Grab Jewish Crown In New Hampshire?” asked a headline in the The Forward, which questioned why Mr. Sanders’ victory received less attention as an emblem of acceptance and accomplishment than the selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 2000.
The likely reason: While Mr. Sanders was raised Jewish and even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s, he has been muted in his own embrace of the faith.

His own embrace of the "faith"? Or are we talking about a matter of heritage and culture?

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Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

The big Catholic news out of the Archdiocese of Chicago -- the nation's third-largest diocese -- has become shockingly normal, perhaps so normal that journalists aren't even asking basic questions about this trend anymore.

The Chicago Tribune put one of the big numbers right up top in its latest report, noting that the Chicago archbishop -- a man closely identified with the tone of the Pope Francis era -- is now facing a crisis that will literally cost him altars. How many churches will he need to shutter? The current estimate is 100.

It's hard to keep Catholic church doors open without priests:

A radical overhaul in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church's houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church's chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage -- an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese's 351 parishes -- could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

So what are the basic questions here? Yes, obviously, there is the question Catholic leaders have been asking for several decades: Where have all the seminarians gone? Why is a larger church producing fewer priests?

Looking at the hard-news coverage of the Chicago crisis, other questions leap to mind (or to my mind, at least). People keep saying that the "demographics" of the church have changed. This is true, but that only raises more questions that link demographics and doctrine. Hold that thought.

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Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Unless you have been on another planet, you are aware that the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl L.

You also probably know that National Football League MVP Cam Newton was sacked six times, knocked down a dozen-plus times and ended the game in a state of frustration and even rage. This followed, of course, weeks of public discussion of whether many fans don't approve of his joyful, edgy, hip-hop approach to celebrating life, football, his team and his own talents.

This led to the press conference from hell, when Newton -- forced by the NFL to take questions in the same space, within earshot, of the Broncos' victory pressers -- had little to say, while his eyes said everything. A sample:

What's your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
"No."
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn't play the way it normally plays?
"Got outplayed."
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."

You get the idea. With that as a backdrop, let's move into GetReligion territory -- in the form of a long, long Vice Sports piece by Eric Nusbaum about the Newton family and, especially, a Sunday morning spent listening to the superstar's Pentecostal preacher dad, Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. The headline: "The House that Built Cam."

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About that church girl on The Voice: Might faith have something to do with her music?

About that church girl on The Voice: Might faith have something to do with her music?

Anyone who follows GetReligion knows that I am really into music of just about every kind (basically everything except opera and pop-country). I have never, however, been a fan of the whole world of reality TV.

So you put the two together -- pop music and reality TV -- and I would much rather cue up something from my massive Doctor Who library.

However, I do live in East Tennessee and was pretty hard not to notice, in the newspapers at least, when a show like The Voice got down to the final two singers and both of them were from here in the Hills. The winner of season nine was Jordan Smith, from down the valley at Lee University, and the runner-up was a young woman from Knoxville named Emily Ann Roberts.

Now, if you follow those polls to determine America's most religious or "Bible-minded" cities, then you know that Knoxville is not exactly Portland, either Maine or Oregon. Thus, it didn't take a doctorate in sociology to figure out that, here in Dolly Parton territory, young Roberts has spent some time singing in church.

This showed up -- in the vaguest possible terms -- in a recent Knoxville News-Sentinel update on her life and work after the finale of The Voice.

This was not a hard puzzle to figure out, folks. Let's start right at the opening:

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Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

The Zika virus is all over the news, right now, so it isn't surprising that journalists are looking for other news stories they can connect to it.

This past week, I received several notes from readers about the following Washington Post "Inspired Life" feature. One came with the traditional trigger warning: "Have tissues ready."

The reader could have added this warning: "Prepare to read about a powerful human drama that is haunted by a religion ghost." The headline: "What this amazing mom of two girls with microcephaly has to say about Zika scare." Here is the classic feature-story overture:

Gwen Hartley’s 19-week sonogram was normal. Her baby girl, her second child, was going to complete her storybook life. She’d married her high school sweetheart, they already had a healthy son, a house and a dog.
When Claire was born, Hartley looked adoringly into her daughter’s big eyes and remembered thinking that she’d forgotten how tiny a newborn’s head was. Then the doctors whisked her baby away. Something was wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed.

After a series of misdiagnoses, the Hartleys, of Kansas, were told Claire had microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes babies to have extremely small heads and brains, and, in her case, made it unlikely she would live beyond a year. Almost five years later, Claire was defying the odds and, although she couldn’t speak or walk or even sit upright, she was a happy and vibrant child. The Hartleys felt ready to get pregnant again.

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Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

JOSH’S QUERY:

[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.

THE RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

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Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

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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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