Surveys & polls

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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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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Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

This just in: It appears that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, thus, totally embrace his agenda to destroy all of humanity.

Or something like that. Also, it doesn’t matter that evangelical voters aren’t all that powerful in several of the key purple or blue states in which Hillary Clinton received way fewer votes than Barack Obama, thus costing her the election.

But let’s return to the great 81 percent monolith again, a number that hides complex realities among morally and culturally conservative voters. For more information on that, check out this survey by LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. Also, click here for a GetReligion podcast on that topic or here for a “On Religion” column I wrote on this topic.

I bring this up because of interesting remarks made during a recent Faith Angle seminar, an ongoing religion-news education project organized by the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The topic this time: “America’s Religious Vote: Midterms and New Trends.” Clicking that link will take you to a website containing a video of the event and, eventually, a transcript. I heard about this through Acts of Faith at The Washington Post, specifically its must-get online newsletter. In a recent edition, religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein pointed readers to remarks at that event by Alan Cooperman, director of religion surveys at the Pew Research Center (and a former Post reporter). The Christian Post offered a summary of what Cooperman had to say — focusing on four myths about evangelical voters.

This is interesting stuff, although it doesn’t really explore key fault lines and mixed motives inside that massive white evangelical Trump vote (click here for tmatt’s typology of six different kinds of evangelical voters in 2016 election).

… Cooperman outlined what he says are “straw men” arguments, or “myths,” that he hears being asserted in political discussions today. Four of those myths involve some common misconceptions about white evangelical voters.

Myth 1: Evangelicals are turning liberal or turning against Trump

While there certainly are some white evangelicals who are staunch in their opposition to President Donald Trump, he doesn't see any rise in their numbers in Pew data.

Citing aggregated Pew Research Center data compiled from 2017 to 2018, Cooperman stated that there is “a lot of stability” when it comes to Trump’s approval ratings among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Protestants.

“Right up before the election, aggregated data from our polls over the last several months [showed] 71 percent approval rating for the president [among white evangelicals],” Cooperman said. “If anything, party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican. This notion that white evangelical Protestants are turning liberal, I don’t see. … I don’t see it anywhere.”

Now, here is the crucial question: Is saying that “party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican” the same thing as saying that all of those white evangelical Protestants wholeheartedly support Trump?

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Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

THE QUESTION:

What do today’s U.S. Protestants believe about the use of alcoholic beverages? Have attitudes softened?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Yes, without question. And there’s been a bit of soul-searching about this in America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Its press service reports ongoing concern especially about teen alcohol abuse has increased somewhat since recent Senate testimony about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Catholic prep school experience.

Further, just afterward USA Today reported a study showing from 2007 to 2017 U.S. deaths attributed to alcohol increased 35 percent, and 67 percent among women (while teen deaths declined 16 percent). These fatalities well outnumber those from opioid overdoses that have roused such public concern.

Not so long ago, total abstinence predominated among many or most Protestants, who effectively mandated this for clergy and expected the same from lay members. (Other faith groups such as Muslims and Mormons elevate abstinence into a divine commandment.)

In a 2007 survey of Southern Baptists, only 3 percent of pastors and 29 percent of lay members said they drink alcoholic beverages. This survey showed that across other U.S. Protestant denominations 25 percent of pastors and 42 percent of lay members said they drink.

A 2016 Barna Group poll showed 60 percent of adults who are active churchgoers (both Protestants and Catholics) said they drink, compared with 67 percent for the over-all U.S. population. Among evangelicals there was a nearly even split with 46 percent who drink. (Barna defines “evangelicals” by conservative beliefs, not the loose self-identification political polls use.) Only 2 percent of evangelicals admitted they sometimes over-indulge.

Otherwise, Barna found, regular churchgoers consume smaller amounts on average than others. Asked why they don’t drink, 10 percent of abstainers acknowledged it’s because they are addicts in recovery. Notably, 41 percent of the population said alcohol causes trouble for their families.

The Bible does not teach total abstinence, and says wine can be a blessing (Psalm 104:15) and helpful medicine (Proverbs 31:6 or 1 Timothy 5:23).

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A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason.

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Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

The next gathering of the U.S. Catholic bishops is only days away.

Obviously, the topic of clergy sexual abuse of teens and children is going to get lots and lots of attention from the press. There is the outside chance that the bishops may also talk — thinking about Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick about the abuse of seminarians and young priests by those who have power over them.

Thus, reporters are looking for stories right now — new information about these issues to serve as background for what is ahead.

So, the other day I sent a URL to some Catholics in journalism. The massive double-decker headline proclaims:

Is Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Related to Homosexual Priests?

An interview with sociologist Father Paul Sullins, whose new study documents a strong linkage between the incidence of abuse and homosexuality in the priesthood and in seminaries.

One reporter’s reply went something like this: I predict this study will not be covered by The New York Times.

That’s a #DUH comment. For starters, check out this conservative priest’s mini-bio at The Ruth Institute. Spot any landmines?

Dr. Paul Sullins has a Ph.D. in sociology and is recently retired from teaching at the Catholic University of America. He is a married Catholic priest, and has written a book on that subject, Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests.

My question here is not whether this sociologist’s study — combining material from several different sources — is beyond debate. I am well aware that many Catholics will debate his conclusions.

That’s my point. The question is whether this study deserves mainstream press overage AND DEBATE.

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Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Surely it says something about the current state of American politics and religion when the organization Democrats For Life sends out a press release celebrating the election of one — count ‘em, one — new pro-life member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Just a reminder: I have stated many times that I was a pro-life and registered Democrat my whole adult life — until the 2016 White House race. I am now a registered member of a tiny (in America) third party that’s progressive on economic issues and conservative on cultural issues (other than being old-school liberal on the First Amendment).

But back to that release from Democrats For Life, celebrating a win in the rather unique political environment of Utah:

ANOTHER PRO-LIFE DEMOCRAT

A bright spot this election cycle is the election of Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. Twice elected the mayor of Salt Lake County, McAdams may be the kind of Democrat we need. He has a history of bringing people together to provide solutions.

On his campaign website, he stressed his bipartisan cooperation.

”Ben worked with both sides of the aisle in the Utah Legislature and as Salt Lake County mayor to balance the budget and act on important initiatives. He will continue to work with colleagues in both parties to overcome Washington’s broken politics and put Utah families first. He has proven bringing people together helps to solve tough problems like homelessness and criminal justice reform....”

Meanwhile, a member of an even more endangered political species — a pro-life Democrat incumbent in the U.S. Senate — lost his seat. If you followed the race carefully, it was obvious that Sen. Joe Donnelly had trouble separating himself from those “other” Democrats” during the firestorm surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and now justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

This brings me to the main theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focused on the rare glimpses of religion during the mainstream news coverage of the 2018 Midterm elections. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes to subscribe.

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Here we go again: U.S. Supreme Court gains even more power in America's culture wars?

Here we go again: U.S. Supreme Court gains even more power in America's culture wars?

The day after election day is, of course, a day for political chatter. Let’s face it: In Twitter America, every day is a day for political chatter.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to see a few religion ghosts in all of this media fog — hints at the religion/politics stories that will soon return to the headlines. Let me start with a few observations, as a Bible Belt guy who just spent his second straight national election night in New York City.

* I didn’t think that it would be possible for the U.S. Supreme Court to play a larger and more divisive role in American political life than it has post-Roe v. Wade. I was wrong. Do you see big, important compromises coming out of the new U.S. House and Senate?

* Maybe you have doubts about the importance of SCOTUS in politics right now. If so, take a look at the U.S. Senate races in which Democrats sought reelection in culturally “red” states. Ask those Democrats about the heat surrounding Supreme Court slots.

* So right now, leaders of the religious left are praying BIG TIME for the health of 85-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, to a lesser degree, 80-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. After two battles with cancer, activists inside the Beltway watch Ginsburg’s every move for signs of trouble. What will conservative religious leaders pray for?

* If Ginsburg or Breyer exit, one way or the other, what will be the central issues that will surround hearings for the next nominee? Do we really need to ask that? It will be abortion and religious liberty — again.

* If the next nominee is Judge Amy Coney Barrett (a likely choice with GOP gains in the U.S. Senate), does anyone doubt that her Catholic faith (“The dogma lives loudly in you”) will be at the heart of the media warfare that results?

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