Pentecostal-Charismatics

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

This week in Friday Five, we've got closing churches. We've got "Submarine Churches." We've got serpent-handler churches.

We've even got a church — flash mob style — at a Chick-fil-A.

I bet you just can't wait!

So let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a fascinating piece this week on how a way of life is fading as churches close.

The "first in an occasional series written by Jean Hopfensperger" explores how "Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations face unprecedented declines, altering communities and traditions celebrated for generations." 

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly's post titled "New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?" occupies the No. 1 spot this week.

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When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

I recently come out with a book on 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers who publicize their exploits on social media, so I know a few things about what it’s like to cover this unusual group. I’ve handled a lot of topics on the religion beat, but this was one of the most difficult.

First, most of their churches are tough to find, as they typically wish to stay hidden from the media. Worship, to them, is not a spectator sport and services are four hours or more. Most of these churches are tucked into remote corners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; south West Virginia, western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Alabama, western Virginia and northwestern Georgia.

You need to earn the trust of those handling the snakes. You don’t just walk into a service and expect to be handed the right to interview people or take photographs. It takes several visits to for them to know you. I stuck out because I was bringing a 7-year-old with me.

I was also fortunate that the photographer I worked with for my first article on these folks, which ran in late 2011 in the Washington Post, had done all the prior groundwork for this first encounter. That meant that I simply needed to drive 420 miles from inside the Beltway to a famous church in Jolo, W. Va., and stay there three days.

I learned these handlers are some of the most vilified people in American religion. I explain why in a Wall Street Journal “Houses of Worship” column running today. It says, in part:

In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.

Thanks to a reality show, "Snake Salvation," on two serpent-handling families that ran in September 2013 on the National Geographic Channel, coverage of this culture has exploded. All sorts of media flocked to eastern Tennessee when one of the photogenic leaders of the movement ended up in court. The following February, Jamie Coots, one of the stars of the reality show, died at the age of 42 from rattlesnake bite, leading to more coverage.

A lot of handlers have faded into the woodwork since then, but there are still reporters out there seeking to cover this culture.

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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Catch a Deuteronomy reference? Another #ChurchToo case emerges in Tacoma

Catch a Deuteronomy reference? Another #ChurchToo case emerges in Tacoma

Most everyone has heard of the imbroglio that drove famed Willow Creek Church pastor Bill Hybels from his Chicago-area pulpit in recent months -- because that received tons of mainstream news coverage.

Fewer news readers have heard how the #ChurchToo movement has filtered down to lesser-known clerics.

Thanks to former GetReligionista Mark Kellner who alerted me to the story, I’ve been following recent revelations in the Tacoma News Tribune about a local Assembly of God pastor who’s been forced from his pulpit after similar complaints: Sexually suggestive remarks, a relationship with another woman that allegedly turned physical and a prior investigation that cleared him of all wrong. He leads a 4,500-member congregation, which is megachurch level here in the religion-parched Pacific Northwest.

The bottom line? This is a story that really needed attention from a religion-beat pro.

The Trib first came out with this story on July 2, updated it a day later here, then filled in various holes and updated it again this past Sunday with the following: 

Revelations surrounding Tacoma megachurch pastor Dean Curry have reached the crisis stage.

Last week, Curry stepped down as leader of Life Center Tacoma in response to a complaint of physical misconduct with an ex-employee. This week, a former church board member filed formal complaints with federal and state agencies, alleging prior instances of sexual misconduct by Curry with female church employees and congregation members.

The complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Human Rights Commission come from Julee Dilley, who was elected to the Life Center Board in 2014. She said she and her husband left the church in 2016 over concerns about Curry’s conduct and the church’s response to it.

The allegations described in Dilley's complaint appear to be distinct from the more recent misconduct charge brought to the Northwest Ministry Network by the former church employee. That record is confidential, and the employee has not been identified publicly.

What so often happens in these instances is a reporter publishes a few facts he can prove.

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When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

In late 2005, back in my Washington Times days, I visited the Scottsdale, Ariz., offices of Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm that is best known today for litigating Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and a wave of other important religious-liberty cases before the Supreme Court.

I was very much aware of them, as they were beginning to outdo other stalwarts  -- such as the Rutherford Institute and Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice -- in the Christian legal arena. I was researching a piece on ways legal groups were mounting annual campaigns to “defend Christmas,” which ran here. (My byline has been removed, but that is my piece. At the time, the ADF was known as the Alliance Defense Fund.)

It took other media nearly a decade to wake up and discover the ADF. There’s Think Progress’s 2014 piece on the “800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right;" a similar piece, also in 2014, by the New York Times; a 2016 mention by Politico, a 2017 piece by The Nation on “the Christian legal army” behind the Masterpiece case and more.

So I was interested to see yet another profile on the group; this time a spotlight on Kristin Waggoner, who has litigated ADF’s most high-profile cases this year, by Washington Post feature writer Jessica Contrera.

There were delicious details but major gaps. For example, try to find any specific, factual information about this woman's faith. Some excerpts:

Two days before the announcement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement, a woman who stood to gain from it was on the steps of the Supreme Court once again. Kristen Waggoner’s blond bob was perfectly styled with humidity-fighting paste she’d slicked onto it that morning at the Trump hotel. Her 5-foot frame was heightened by a pair of nude pumps, despite a months-old ankle fracture in need of surgery. On her wrist was a silver bracelet she’d worn nonstop since Dec. 5, 2017, the day she marched up these iconic steps, stood before the justices and argued that a Christian baker could legally refuse to create a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

Her job was to be the legal mind and public face of Alliance Defending Freedom., an Arizona-based Christian conservative legal nonprofit better known as ADF. ...

Then follows some back story, then a pivot to Waggoner’s personal life.

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Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

The clock is ticking and the news coverage is heating up. At this point, for religion-beat pros, there's only one question that matters: Will Donald Trump GO THERE? Will he nominate the "loud dogma" candidate who will make heads explode in the liberal Catholic and secular politicos camps? We are, of course, talking about Judge Amy Coney Barrett. 

However, there is a rather cynical possibility linked to this story, an angle explored in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

You see, Trump needs to fire up voters for the midterm elections. In particular, he needs evangelical Protestants and pro-Catechism Catholics to turn out in droves, to help rescue the GOP from, well, Trump's unique ability in infuriate half of America (especially in elite zip codes and newsrooms).

So what if he nominated Barrett and let the blue-culture masses go crazy?

What if he unleashed that storm, knowing that the moral, cultural and religious left will not be able to restrain itself?

What a scene! Remember the hearings long ago for Justice Robert Bork -- the SCOTUS seat eventually taken by one Judge Anthony Kennedy -- and this famous speech by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, speaking for the Catholic left and cultural liberals everywhere?

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

So what would that sound like today, if Barrett has to face her critics once again?

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already prepared that script, in a piece for The New Yorker, describing this future nightmare court:

It will overrule Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortions and to criminally prosecute any physicians and nurses who perform them. It will allow shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and hotel owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds.

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Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Over the nearly 15 years of GetReligion's run, I have learned quite a few lessons about content and online clicks.

No, I'm not talking about the sad reality that hardly anyone reads and retweets positive posts that praise good religion reporting in the mainstream press.

I am referring to the fact that GetReligion readers are way, way, way, way less interested in sports that most readers. However, the GetReligion team has always included some sports fans -- in addition to me -- and we persist in thinking that "religion ghosts" and quality reporting on faith issues matter just as much in sports journalism as anywhere else. And we're not just talking about Tim Tebow updates.

This brings me, of course, to the biggest thing that is happening in the world right now. Yes, a news event bigger than that open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We're talking about World Cup 2018, of course. When you look at global media and passionate fans, nothing can touch it.

Now, there are always religion-news hooks during a World Cup, because religion plays a huge role in most cultures around the world. In the past decade or so, for example, there has been lots of coverage of the strong evangelical and Pentecostal presence on the high-profile squad fielded by Brazil. Of course, some scribes have found political implications of that trend.

This year, if you've been tuned in, it’s been interesting to watch Fox Sports trying to figure out how to handle all of the Russian churches that keep showing up whenever the graphics team needs to produce dramatic, sweeping images of the host nation. Was it just (Orthodox) me or, early on, had the Fox digital tech team removed some crosses from the top of some of those signature onion domes?

Anyway, the religion-news coverage has been rather right, this time around. However, Christianity Today just ran a story that I would like to recommend to journalists who are looking for valid news angles in the Russia World Cup.

Once again, the Brazilian squad is involved, but there's more to this story than that. Check out the dramatic double-decker headline:

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Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

One of the tragic facts about religion is that true believers have been known to go off the rails. Sometimes they take groups of people -- large or small -- with them into various degrees of oblivion. When this happens, it is common for people outside of these groups to use the word "cult" -- one of the most abused words in the religion-news dictionary.

Long ago, I took a course in contemporary religious movements and "cults" as part of my graduate work in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University. It was easy to see that the term "cult" is like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement.

But here is the crucial point I need to make, before we look at that massive Washington Post Magazine feature that ran under this headline: "The Exiles -- Former members say Calvary Temple in Virginia pressures people to banish loved ones. What happens to those who leave?"

People who study "cults" use this term in one of two ways. There are sociological definitions, usually linked to the work of prophetic figures who hold dangerous degrees of control over their followers. Then there are theological definitions linked to religious groups in which a leader has radically altered core, historic doctrines of a mainstream faith.

You will find all kinds of "cult" talk if you plug "Calvary Temple" and the name of its leader, the Rev. Star R. Scott, into an Internet search engine. However, veteran freelance writer Britt Peterson avoided this term, for the most part, in this feature. I think that was wise.

Has this congregation in Northern Virginia evolved into a pseudo-cult operation? I don't know. What I do know is that it appears to be a perfect example of a trend in American Pentecostal and evangelical life that causes all kinds of trouble for journalists. I am referring, once again, to the rising number of independent churches -- large and small -- that have zero ties to any denomination or traditional faith group.

Many of these Lone Ranger churches are perfectly healthy. Many others go off the rails and, tragically, there is no shepherd higher up the ecclesiastical ladder to hold their leaders accountable. Thus, here is the crucial passage in this first-person magazine feature:

When the Azats joined Calvary in the mid-1980s, its charismatic pastor, Star Robert Scott, had been there for over a decade, starting as youth pastor at what was then the Herndon Assembly of God in 1973, according to former congregants.

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Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.”

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