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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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Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.

Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.

But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.

With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.

First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”

Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.

Now, compare and contrast what you find.

Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.

The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.

So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.

The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.

Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.

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Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

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The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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LGBTQ redux: Seattle Times leans left while covering church struggles over the issue

LGBTQ redux: Seattle Times leans left while covering church struggles over the issue

On Sunday morning, the Seattle Times ran this story: “ ‘I am a gay Christian’: Debates about LGBTQ acceptance roil Seattle-area non-profits, churches.”

It was an even-handed headline, in the online version.

But in the print version, which was just above the fold on A1, the headline was: “When religion discriminates: LGBTQ debate roils faith groups.”

Reporters have no control over headlines, so this one inadvertently let us know what direction the story was going: Traditional religious groups are inherently discriminatory.

I am glad the Times tackled this, as it is a real issue here in the Pacific Northwest (even though as of Sunday night it only ranked third in reader viewership, after stories about an alleged remnant of an alien civilization and the burst water pipes that will happen if Seattle has an earthquake like Anchorage did last week).

But one does tire of the black/white view some reporters adopt. Which is: Liberal religious folks are good. Conservative believers are jerks.

Let me point readers to a multi-faceted story on the Christian music scene in Seattle that appeared three years ago this month in the Stranger, not a publication that is pro-faith by any means. Both sides were represented accurately and sympathetically.

So it is possible, but I can’t say the Times reporter did the same. Her article begins:

As board president of World Concern, Jun Young was a believer.

He felt called to the Christian development agency’s mission, spoke about it to donors, traveled to Sri Lanka to see the work up close and donated tens of thousands of dollars through his public relations company, Zum Communications.

“You are beloved.” That’s the message he said Shoreline-based World Concern imparts to marginalized people around the world. “I so believe in that. And I still do. It pains me that I can’t be part of that.”

This summer, parent organization CRISTA Ministries — a more than $100-million operation that runs schools, retirement communities and radio stations in addition to its international relief work — told Young he would not be invited to serve a second, 3-year term on its board or World Concern’s.

At 45, he had just unearthed a secret he had kept even from himself: He was gay.

The story then introduces us to two local Christian organizations who’ve been struggling with the issue.

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O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

Maybe you saw this headline, or variations on it: “Clergy No Longer Need to Believe in God, Liberal Protestants decide.”

That looks like a satirical “news” headline from TheOnion.com or its religion equivalent, BabylonBee.com. However, it’s a real-life precedent set by the United Church of Canada — an event with considerable interest for religionists and journalists. The progressive UCC (not to be confused with the edgy United Church of Christ in the United States) has allowed ample flexibility on much else, but the optional God is brand new.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper (see www.grettavosper.ca), far more publicized in Canada than the U.S., is the pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario. She faced a church tribunal this month over her atheism. But a terse announcement Nov. 7 said Vosper and the UCC’s Toronto regional body “have settled all outstanding issues” and she “will remain in ordained ministry.” Further explanation of the deal is sealed by court order.

Vosper, who took over West Hill in 1997, says she “came out as an atheist” in 2001, stripping language about any supernatural God from prayers and hymns, followed by her 2008 book “With or Without God.” She openly embraced an “atheist” identity in 2013. Meanwhile, her congregation officially defined itself as “theists, agnostics and atheists” with “roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” who seek truth and justice.

There’s no mention of any role in this for Jesus or the Bible

The UCC was formed in 1925 through a union of Canada’s Congregationalists, Methodists and a majority of Presbyterians. On paper, it still enshrines an orthodox founding creed that includes worship of “the one and only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being and perfections.” The United Church of Canada was a celebrated ecumenical milestone, the world’s first major Protestant union across denominational lines. In 1962, U.S. “mainline” Protestant churches launched a similar merger effort that fizzled.

As with U.S. “mainliners,” the UCC has suffered steady decline in numbers and vitality. By government data, Canadians identifying with this body went from 3,769,000 in 1971 to 2,008,000 in 2011. The number of congregations dropped a third over those years to the current 2,894. Currently, the church reports only 424,000 full “communicant” members and average attendance of 139,000.

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Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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