Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Media critics wonder about Josh Harris, the no-dating avatar, who's recanting his stance

Media critics wonder about Josh Harris, the no-dating avatar, who's recanting his stance

I had only been living inside the Beltway for about a year when “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book by Josh Harris, a 23-year-old pastoral intern at Covenant Life, a local megachurch in the Maryland suburbs.

I had just turned 40, so knew enough about the dating world to know that much of what he was advising –- such as not kissing your mate until the day you get married –- was pure bosh and unworkable in any healthy Christian or secular relationship. But –- darn –- if that book didn’t become a bestseller pretty quickly, sparking all sorts of angst among Christian 20-somethings who wanted to meet their intended the right way.

Harris’ book sold more than a million copies and he followed up with a few other books; none as successful as the first, which hit the zeitgeist just right. He was a quick learner and he hopscotched over several men older than he to become senior pastor in 2004. The guy definitely knew how to work the system, plus he was a protégé of one of the founding pastors, C. J. Mahaney.

Years later, he resigned from the megachurch and moved to Vancouver, B.C. to attend Regent College. Covenant Life underwent wrenching changes, as described in this Washingtonian investigation.

His family liked Canada so much, they’ve applied to become permanent residents. Harris, who seems to have left the professional religious world for good in that he’s started a marketing and strategy business, is also doing a mea culpa about his once-best-selling book.

The story has been been trickling out for some time now and I’m surprised more religion reporters haven’t jumped on it. He got mentioned yesterday in a Religion News Service column by Cathleen Falsani about the purity movement.

Among (its detractors) is Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships,” the 1997 book that became the de facto bible of the purity movement. Last month, Harris apologized for the harm the book had caused and asked his publisher to cease printing it.

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Friday Five: Baptist sex scandal, NYT paranoia, Brooklyn bridge, Julie Roys story, drive-thru priest

Friday Five: Baptist sex scandal, NYT paranoia, Brooklyn bridge, Julie Roys story, drive-thru priest

Do you want a hippopotamus for Christmas?

If so, enjoy the video.

If not, what request would you like me to pass along to Santa?

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion of the week: The investigation by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram into sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches nationally is the must-read story.

For additional insight on that topic, check out Kate Shellnut’s coverage for Christianity Today.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly’s analysis titled “Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy” occupies the No. 1 spot.

His intro sets the scene nicely:

ts the scene nicely:

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

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A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.

But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.

There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.

The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.

Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.

Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or amy-jill.levine@vanderbilt.edu. Witherington: benw333@hotmail.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.

The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.

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Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

It’s time for a major-league GetReligion flashback.

It has been a decade since M.Z. “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway wrote a post — a low-key nod to the whole “War on Christmas” school of media coverage — in which she talked about the overlooked religious traditions that, once upon a time, millions of Christians followed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The name of her post back in 2008: “The War on Advent.” Here is MZ’s overture:

Of all the seasons of the church year, the first — Advent — is definitely the one that leaves me feeling most out of touch with my fellow Americans. While everyone else is frantically shopping, decorating, partying, those Christians who mark Advent are in a period of preparation and prayerful contemplation. The disciplines of Advent include confession and repentance, prayer, immersion in Scripture, fasting and the singing of the Great O Antiphons and other seasonal hymns. …

The season is marked by millions of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and many other Christians, but not only do you rarely see any media coverage of it, the media actively promotes the secular version. 

Advent ends on Christmas Eve with the beginning of the Christmas season. In America, the end of Advent coincides with the end of the secular Christmas season/shoppingpalooza. Just as my family is putting up Christmas trees and lights and buying gifts for friends and family, much of the rest of America is experiencing the post-Christmas hangover.

This is all true. I thought that back when I was an evangelical Anglican and I feel that way today as an Eastern Orthodox Christian — only we observe Nativity Lent. Yes, I have written about this topic here, here and here (in which I asked Siri for some seasonal info). You get the point.

So what is Advent? Here’s a piece of yet another column I wrote on that. The voice here is the Rev. Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist who is the author of “Church History Made Easy.

… Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

This brings us to an Associated Press story with this rather non-liturgical headline: “Forget the chocolate: Advent calendars go for booze, cheese.

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Theology of Baptist seminary's lament: Slavery is the headline, but a few media reports mention sin

Theology of Baptist seminary's lament: Slavery is the headline, but a few media reports mention sin

In inside-the-Beltway speak, by releasing an extensive report on its racist past, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., decided to “hang a lantern” on its problem. (It’s a term that readers of Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” will understand.)

In other words, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s oldest educational institution, wanted part of the story to be about how blunt and candid the seminary was in acknowledging its historic sins.

The basic point is that when something is really bad, you want to be the person who tells the public that it's really bad. 

Mohler did that Wednesday in releasing a report that has drawn — and rightly so — extensive national media coverage.

The lede from the New York Times:

The first and oldest educational institution of the Southern Baptist Convention disclosed in a report Wednesday that its four founders together owned more than 50 slaves, part of a reckoning over racism in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The 71-page report released by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a recitation of decades of bigotry, directed first at African slaves and later at African-Americans. Beginning with the founding of the seminary in Greenville, S.C., in 1859, the report found that the school, with few exceptions, backed a white supremacist ideology.

“The moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgment of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy,” wrote R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the seminary, which is now in Louisville, Ky.

Over at the American Conservative, blogger Rod Dreher praised Mohler for the release of the report:

I have an immense amount of respect for Albert Mohler and the institution he leads, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for having commissioned a hard-hitting report looking into the seminary’s racist past. This is a profoundly Christian act of historical reflection and repentance. Read the report and Mohler’s cover letter here. 

But the Times’ coverage — like that of most other mainstream news reports that I saw — lacked any mention of the theological angle.

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What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

In the category of cool-religion-stories-that-no-one-knows-about, we learn that America’s trucking industry driver shortage is getting some help from an unlikely religious group.

Didn’t know the industry is in trouble? That 48,000 more drivers are needed on America’s highways thanks to burgeoning demand in on-line shopping/shipping services?

If you’ve ever dodged a truck on an interstate, you know there’s a lot of them out there and that anything you wear or eat these days was probably brought to you via truck. So what is the religion angle here?

Sikhs have stepped up to fill the gap. And thanks to stories on Sikh websites and in trucking industry outlets, we can learn why. Here’s from Freight Waves:

The U.S. trucking industry is so massive that not only does it cater to myriads of different verticals, but also houses different ethnicities under its roof, who are part of the industry as truckers, owner-operators, fleet owners, and even as people in gas stations, truck stops, and maintenance sheds. In this mix, the Punjabis or rather the Sikh population have built themselves a bastion in the North American trucking market that is second to none.

Though the terms ‘Punjabi’ and ‘Sikh’ look quite interchangeable, they are essentially entities that cannot be compared on the same breath, as its akin to reasoning out between apples and oranges. Punjab is a geographic region, that is split between the countries of India and Pakistan, the meaning which translates to “the land of the five rivers.” Sikhism however, is a religion that originated in the Punjab region in the 15th century, with most of the followers of the faith living in the Indian part of Punjab.

The U.S. is home to half a million Sikhs, of which the Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that around 150,000 of them work in the trucking industry - which makes the sector an overwhelming favorite amongst their populace. The statistics are interesting, to say the least. 90% of all the Sikhs in the trade are truckers, and Indians, in general, are ahead of other Asian nations, controlling nearly half of all Asian-owned trucking businesses in America. And as per the findings of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA), California is the ground zero of the Punjabi bulwark, with 40% of truckers in the region being Sikhs.

Readers may need a bit of history to put this in context.

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