Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Back in August, a memo by The Religion Guy outpointed the value of the “Ethics + Religion” section at theconversation.com, where scholars reconfigure their  research in terms lay readers can grasp.

A good example is an October 11 item about what two professors claim “is the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly around the world.” The authors are Biola University sociologist Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, senior research director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Their label for this is the “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” movement, described in detail in their recent book “The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape” (Oxford University Press).

Props to colleague Bob Smietana for grabbing the importance of this for an August 3 interview with the two authors at christianitytoday.com, which interested writers will want to peruse.

INC is a particular subset of the independent, non-denominational congregations that are the growing edge of U.S. Protestantism. The authors calculate that over four decades ending in 2010, regularly attending Protestants of all types declined by an average .05 percent per year, which is “striking” since the U.S. population was growing by 1 percent per year.

Meanwhile, adherents of “independent, neo-charismatic congregations,” the category that includes INC groups among many others, grew an average 3.24 percent per year. So INC is a distinct sub-category within an already thriving segment of U.S. Protestantism that shuns traditional forms and provides a particularly intense form of Pentecostal-flavored experience.

The movement has expanded for the most part under the radar. Have you seen many news stories about such influential INC personalities as Che Ahn, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs or Chuck Pierce, or about Bethel Church, Harvest International Ministries (HIM), or International House of Prayer (IHOP)?

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

Certainly I was interested in reading about the unlikely match between the "coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical" that is now running our country, which is why I quickly reached for the New Yorker's piece on Vice President Mike Pence.

With a headline of "The Danger of President Pence," I knew where the article was going, but I hoped there might be solid, factual, even fair-minded gleanings about Pence's faith and how his God connection guides what he does. 

The bottom line: I found little there that other writers hadn't already covered. The feature began like this:

On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who doesn’t want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”

The piece goes on to describe how little attention has been paid to Pence (who refused to be interviewed for the piece) until now, when people are longing for anyone, anything to replace Trump. And that Pence, with his political experience, conservative moorings and connections, may be as dangerous as his boss or even more so (you know, all that religion stuff).

The New Yorker then went on a long digression about Pence’s connections with billionaires Charles and David Koch. (Not surprisingly, the reporter, Jane Mayer, did not mete out the same criticism to multi-billionaire George Soros and his contributions to Democrats but then again, this part of the piece is recycled from her recent book “Dark Money” about conservative fat cats ).

Any fresh religious content is surprisingly skimpy, when you consider that this is a profile on a very devout man. Starting in his college days:

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In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

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The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

Besides its world-class financial reporting, the Wall Street Journal does some fantastic pieces on the most quirky of subjects.

Today's Exhibit A: the WSJ's feature this week on a popular sketch comedy troupe out of Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University. 

I mean, this story is just lovely from top to bottom — with plenty of relevant details tied to the troupe's religion.

The lede — wow! — sets the scene in a remarkable way:

Conan O’Brien and his family were out to dinner in Santa Monica last year when his daughter began to screech, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“I thought a Cessna had just plowed into the sidewalk and burst into flames,” the late-night TV host recalls. “Then my son started to freak out and he was like, ‘They’re crossing the street! They’re crossing the street!’”
The source of the pandemonium was the arrival of what Mr. O’Brien’s children deemed some bigger celebrities: a few mild-mannered Mormons. The late-night TV host, who soon took a picture with them, recognized them as the stars of Studio C, a sketch comedy show out of Brigham Young University.
Studio C has achieved sizable popularity on the internet, despite—or perhaps because of—its super-scrubbed brand of clean humor, such as a skit about a soccer goalie named Scott Sterling who accidentally, and agonizingly, blocks shots with his face.

The writer's mastery can be seen in the juxtaposing of the unlikely fan who exclaims "Oh my God!" in the lede with this later note:

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Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

As veteran journalists know, sometimes there are stories that seem really, really big when you read the press releases, but they turn out to be business as usual when you dig into the details.

That appears to be what happened with the Cincinnati Enquirer story (part of the USA Today network) offering on update on one of the many legal battles unfolding in the United Methodist Church about the status of LGBTQ ministers. The headline: "Gay Methodist minister David Meredith, church claim victory."

It's a very familiar story, part of a familiar ecclesiastical puzzle that has been in place since (wait for it) 1980. How many years ago was that? Let's put it this way: I wasn't even working full-time on the religion beat at that point.

We will return to the WABAC machine angle of this story in a moment. First, let's look at the story that the Enquirer thought it had, as opposed to what appears to have happened. The key question: Is this a local story, a regional story or a national/global story? Here is the public-relations release overture:

Claiming victory for LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide, officials told The Enquirer on Wednesday that two of three charges against a Clifton congregation's openly gay pastor, David Meredith, were not certified
The Rev. Meredith appeared Sunday before the Methodist Committee on Investigation in Columbus, Ohio. Several complaints were filed against Meredith after his May 2016 marriage to his significant other of 29 years. Meredith and Jim Schlachter were married in a Methodist church by a Methodist minister.
Meredith was not charged with being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or with immorality.
Clifton United Methodist Church, whose membership overwhelmingly supports its pastor, said the case may be the first time in denominational history that a charge relating to homosexuality reached the investigative body and was dismissed. A charge of disobedience was certified. 

OK, readers, here is my question. Based on what you just read, at what level of United Methodist polity was this decision made?

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Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

One of the greatest gifts I’ve derived from being a journalist has been to repeatedly face situations in which what seemed obvious to me made no sense to someone else. This helped me understand that's it's an enormously complicated world that requires empathy toward others to comprehend it at any depth.

This can happen when you're fortunate enough to mix with people who have a world view that’s quite different than you're own. You learn that preconceived notions about “the facts” of a story can be a barrier to grokking the heart of the story.

Crux, the online Roman Catholic journal, reminded me of this last week via a series of stories it published about besieged Christian villages in the Lebanese-Syrian border region.

That's a pretty tough neighborhood. In such places, simple survival -- particularly for religious and ethnic minorities -- can mean assuming positions that seem morally unthinkable for those of us fortunate enough to live in far gentler environs.

Take the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example. Who of us thinks him to be anything less than a brutal murderer with little -- “none” might be the better word -- regard for anything but his own survival? Who of us would be willing to live under his leadership?

As part of the series, Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., in a piece labeled analysis, wrote that what seems apparent about Assad to most of us in the West holds little sway for Christians living in Lebanon and Syrian. His piece ran under the following headline: “Meeting Middle East Christians is where Western stereotypes go to die.”

 

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Grab a tissue before reading this: A young Astros fan got a home run ball, and this is why it's so special

Grab a tissue before reading this: A young Astros fan got a home run ball, and this is why it's so special

I love baseball, even though my beloved Texas Rangers didn't make the playoffs this season.

As a Texas fan, I'm finding it especially difficult to root for either team in the American League Championship Series. That best-of-seven series, tied 2-2 heading into today's Game 5, pits the Evil Empire (the New York Yankees) vs. the Rangers' in-state rival (the Houston Astros). I don't suppose there's any way that both teams could lose, is there?

But seriously, folks ...

My friend David, a minister in Houston, alerted me to a tear-jerking feature story about a young Astros fan who ended up with a home run ball. This story almost makes me want to root for Houston. Almost.

The piece ran at the top of the Houston Chronicle's front page today. And yes, there's a religion angle. More on that in a moment.

"I don't know if you saw this, but it brought me to tears in public when I read it," David said. "Great writing."

Although I subscribe to the Chronicle, I hadn't read it yet today, so I appreciated my friend calling my attention to this story.

The lede:

When Amanda Riley arrived at Minute Maid Park for Game 1 of the Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series, she couldn't contain her tears.
"We walk in, and all I'm seeing are families and dads holding their sons up," Riley said. "The whole time all I could think about was that we're there as a family, too, but we're missing one."
Four weeks earlier, 15-year-old Cade Riley — Amanda and Mike Riley's oldest son — died in an all-terrain vehicle accident on a trail near the family's home in Liberty Hill.
Since then, Amanda, Mike and their son Carson had trouble finding the motivation to leave the house as a family.
Mike knew it was time, and he made a decision that put his family directly in the path of a crucial Carlos Correa home run and made their youngest son the center of media attention and the object of Astros players' affection. 

Keep reading, and the Chronicle offers relevant details on how the family ended up at two ALCS games in Houston last week — and on the providential circumstances that seemed to surround their time at Minute Maid Park. No, the newspaper never uses the phrase "providential circumstances," but the family's quotes make no doubt that they see them as such.

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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