Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

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Donald Trump promised to work to free Americans held captive abroad. Here's what happened next

Donald Trump promised to work to free Americans held captive abroad. Here's what happened next

First, let's address the headline on Time's new story on President Donald Trump's efforts to free Americans held captive abroad: "The Art of the Hostage Deal."

Kudos to the magazine for a clever take on Trump's 1987 bestseller "The Art of the Deal."

Now, to the story itself: It's excellent. It's thoroughly reported and compellingly written. But that's no surprise given the byline: Elizabeth Dias. She's the Time correspondent who covers religion (often mixed with politics), and her Godbeat work has won frequent praise from GetReligion.

So yes, it's obvious that this is a fantastic piece of journalism. But is it my favorite Time piece from a religion reporting standpoint? If I'm honest, it's probably not. I'll explain why in a moment.

Before I get to that, a few readers may be wondering right about now: What exactly does hostage dealmaking have to do with religion anyway? 

Good question.

This story doesn't deal overtly with religion, but religion figures — at least figuratively — throughout the piece. 

The first mention of church appears in the second paragraph of the graphic opening scene:

RIVERTON, Utah — Armed Venezuelan police stormed Thamara Candelo's apartment complex at dawn on June 30, 2016. It was two weeks after her wedding day, and Candelo's American husband, Joshua Holt, was lying in their bed in Caracas. One officer demanded to see his visa. Others ransacked the rooms, took Holt's phone and finally ordered him to get into a pickup truck. For the next five hours, his gun-toting captors mocked and hit him. Then they took him to the Helicoide, a prison home to the Venezuelan intelligence police. He has not been allowed out since.
Holt, 25, sent this account of his capture in a letter last August to his parents, who live south of Salt Lake City in his childhood home. It was only the beginning of an ordeal his family could never have fathomed when the young couple met online through their church that year. Holt was accused of arms possession, though witnesses told his family and lawyers that they watched agents plant firearms in the apartment after the arrest. He and Candelo have been held without trial. Five preliminary hearings have been canceled, with no explanation other than judges or courts were unavailable.
According to his family, Holt has lost more than 50 lb. subsisting on the prison's diet of uncooked chicken and raw pasta, meals former Helicoide inmates have claimed are mixed with feces. He was denied medical care for bronchitis, a kidney stone and pneumonia. When an infection spread from his jaw to his eye, authorities pulled a tooth and filled the hole with cement, right atop his exposed nerve. Holt became suicidal. On July 3, the 368th day of his imprisonment, he fell from his bunk when guards woke him, sustaining what his family fears was a concussion and a back fracture. "Demons stroll the hallways," Holt wrote of the prison. "I have been told by 10 or 20 people, prisoners and guards, that I am here because I am American."

Later, Time refers twice to families placing their "faith" in Trump.

Also, there's this note:

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If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

A California imam has made some waves in recent days by suggesting all Jews be killed in an apocalyptic battle in some future time.

Needless to say, this did not go over well with some of those who viewed a video of the speech -- but its combustible content got no national coverage.

Even coverage within California was limited, causing some to wonder that had the roles been reversed -- with the speaker a rabbi or a Christian preacher, attacking Muslims -- news media professionals would have been all over the story.

The Sacramento Bee had the clearest account of the sermon with a bit of theological punch:

A Davis imam is under fire after giving a sermon last week that combined end-of-days prophecy with the current religious conflict over a Jerusalem holy site, causing critics to condemn him as anti-Semitic.
Imam Ammar Shahin on Friday gave a nearly hour-long sermon to worshippers at the Islamic Center of Davis calling for congregants to oppose restrictions placed by Israel on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and citing Islamic texts about an end-times battle predicted by the prophet Muhammad.
The sermon included a prayer to Allah to “destroy those who closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to the translation from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which first posted an edited clip of the sermon.
Shahin’s prayer continued, “count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”

After the Islamic Center claimed that MEMRI had misconstrued the remarks, the Bee got its own translator who sided mostly with the Center, but said the imam was unwise at best to give such a sermon.

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Why do Jewish and Christian Bibles put the books in a different order?

Why do Jewish and Christian Bibles put the books in a different order?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Why is there a different order of the books of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian editions?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

As we’ll see, there’s revived debate about this. For starters, one key fact is that the contrasting lists did not result from conflict between Judaism and Christianity but rather the varied sequences used by Jews.

Overview: The Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament have the same contents, but list the books in different order. Catholicism’s ordering is similar to Protestants’ but its “canon” (recognized Scriptures) includes “deuterocanonical” books not found in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles, while the Orthodox add further deuterocanonical materials.

Jews organized the biblical books into categories in this order: (1) Law, or Torah, the first five books with specially revered status. (2) Prophets or Nevi’im, a confusing label since this sections begins with books of history, followed by prophets ending with Malachi. (3) Writings or Kethuyim, a variegated collection dominated by the Psalms, including books accepted as Jewish Scripture later than the Law and Prophets. The initials T, N, and K produce the acronym Tanakh that Jews use for the Bible.

With ordering, the chief issue is where to fit Chronicles (or 1 and 2 Chronicles) and whether it properly concludes the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles, which repeats much of the history covered in the colorful Samuel (or 1 and 2 Samuel) and Kings (or 1 and 2 Kings) was compiled round 400 B.C.E., many centuries after the events.

Unlike Samuel and Kings, the Harper Study Bible observes, Chronicles omits most “references to the defects and the sins of David and Solomon,” emphasizes “the Temple and the Davidic line,” virtually ignores the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and warns and encourages future generations.

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Sacred rite takes secular turn: This is why church weddings aren't as popular as they used to be

Sacred rite takes secular turn: This is why church weddings aren't as popular as they used to be

When my son and daughter-in-law exchanged wedding vows two years ago, they did so in a church — but not their church.

They had a couple of reasons for this: For one, Brady and Mary grew up in different churches. They wanted to avoid choosing between either of them.

The second, more important consideration: They liked the distinctive look of the sanctuary they chose and the amenities, such as a large bridal room.

I was reminded of their experience as I read a fascinating trend piece in the Wichita Eagle this week on more couples foregoing church weddings altogether:

When Monique Pope was engaged, she had no doubt that the wedding ceremony would be in her Catholic parish.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Pope, who married her husband Mike in October 2012. “When you walk into St. Anthony you’re just overcome by the beauty and the splendor of the church.”
Marrying in St. Anthony Roman Catholic Church in Wichita meant marrying in a church and a faith she had a close connection to, Pope said.
Yet Pope and her husband are among a decreasing number of American couples who have their wedding ceremony in a church.
Only 26 percent of couples had their wedding ceremony in a religious institution in 2016, according to data from The Knot’s 2016 Real Weddings Study. That’s down from 41 percent in 2009.
he Knot surveyed nearly 13,000 U.S. brides and grooms, finding that weddings in farms, barns and ranches had gone up, along with weddings in historic buildings and homes. Other popular venues are beach houses, public gardens, wineries and museums.

The byline on the piece belongs to Katherine Burgess, the Eagle's relatively new faith reporter. I don't know that we've mentioned her at GetReligion. If not, welcome to the Godbeat, Katherine!

It's an interesting piece that hits at major reasons behind the trend:

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There they go again: Digital gods at Facebook zap some big Catholic pages (news media yawn)

There they go again: Digital gods at Facebook zap some big Catholic pages (news media yawn)

Every now and then, the principalities and powers at Facebook do something that ticks off lots of religious people, usually morally and doctrinally conservative people.

Most of the time, Facebook leaders issue a kind of "the technology made us do it" apology and life rolls on -- until the next time. In most cases, these alleged Facebook sins are treated as "conservative news," with coverage at Fox News and various alternative, religious news sources online. Something like this.

The GetReligion "mirror image" question, as always, is this: How much media attention would these news stories have received if Facebook folks had shut down lots of pages belonging to LGBTQ groups (or Muslims, or environmentalists, or #BlackLivesMatter networks). I know this is hard to imagine, but please try.

So this time, a bunch of Catholic websites were taken down. Here is the entire Associated Press report on this, at least as it appeared at ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc.

Facebook is blaming a technical glitch for knocking several Catholic-focused Facebook pages with millions of followers offline for more than a day.
Catholic radio network Relevant Radio says on its website that its "Father Rocky" Facebook page went down on Monday and wasn't restored until late Tuesday night. It says more than 20 other prominent Catholic pages were also suspended.
The shutdown prompted speculation among some page administrators that they were being intentionally censored.
A Facebook spokesperson apologized for the disruption Wednesday, telling The Associated Press in a statement that all pages have been restored. Facebook says the incident "was triggered accidentally by a spam detection tool."

My favorite detail missing from that little story is that one of the sites knocked offline was the "Papa Francisco Brazil" page dedicated to the life and work of Pope Francis.

Now there's a nice headline, for those included to write it: Facebook zaps Pope Francis page in Brazil.

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When discussing Dawkins' dissing, journalists miss a major irony and lots of context

When discussing Dawkins' dissing, journalists miss a major irony and lots of context

Richard Dawkins is, arguably, the world's most famous atheist. He opposes religions of all stripes as "false," dangerous and anti-scientific. And while that stance has earned him the opprobrium -- and, presumably the prayers -- of many faithful people in many religious traditions, it's rarely gotten him bounced from a speaking engagement.

Until now.

Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California, canceled an event featuring Dawkins -- in the video above, he uses the rather charming term "de-platformed" to describe it -- because the station didn't like the author's "assertions during his current book tour that Islam is the “most evil” of world religions, Twitter posts denigrating Muslim scholars as non-scholars and other tweets," as a statement from the radio station indicated.

This generated somemainstream media coverage, with The New York Times coming to the fore:

Henry Norr, a former KPFA board member, criticized Mr. Dawkins in a July 17 email to the station. “Yes, he’s a rationalist, an atheist and an advocate of the science of evolution -- great, so am I,” Mr. Norr wrote. “But he’s also an outspoken Islamophobe -- have you done your homework about that?”
Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which is based in San Francisco, also emailed the station last week. She said Mr. Dawkins’s comments give legitimacy to extremist views.
“KPFA is a progressive institution in the Bay Area, and an institution that reflects social justice,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday. “It isn’t required to give such anti-Islam rhetoric a platform.”
Quincy McCoy, the station’s general manager, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a KPFA news broadcast on Friday, he said the station “emphatically supports free speech.”

Except, apparently, when that "free speech" offends followers of one of the three Abrahamic faiths.

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Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

As a rule, I post "think pieces" -- posts pointing readers toward essays about trends on the religion beat -- on the weekend. I'm going to make an exception because I can't imagine waiting a few more days for readers to see this one.

I mean, we're talking about a John L. Allen, Jr., analysis piece at Crux with this headline: "Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not."

Prepare to chat away.

The piece starts off with a complicated drama in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where -- as Allen puts it -- Pope Francis has "thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time."

It's the kind of move, literally threatening the status of every priest of the diocese, that would freak out mainstream reporters if attempted by any other recent pope. But it's not the kind of thing that sticks to Pope Francis, because everyone knows what he is a friendly, populist kind of man who is gentle and kind, etc., etc. As Allen kicks things into gear, he writes:

What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. ...
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”

The heart of the essay is a bit of speculation about what it would take to pop this amazing papal media bubble.

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Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Jesus. God. Church. Faith.

Read ESPN's in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of the Ole Miss football coach's resignation — titled "How a phone call to an escort service led to Hugh Freeze's downfall" — and you won't come across any of the above words.

"Sin," too, is missing from ESPN's 2,400-plus words.

Granted, nobody expects a deep exploration of theology by ESPN. Right? The fact that the story focuses on NCAA football is certainly expected and appropriate.

But — and this is a big "but" — it's difficult to give readers a full picture of Freeze and just how far his reputation has plunged without mentioning his outspoken Christianity. More on that in a moment.

First, though, ESPN's dramatic opening provides important background:

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The man who helped take down Ole Missfootball coach Hugh Freeze is a lifelong Mississippi State fan who attended his first Bulldogs game 37 years ago and has the university's logo tattooed on his left hand.
But he insists he never set out to bring down the Rebels and their coach.
It just kind of happened that way.
When Steve Robertson was sifting through Freeze's phone records on July 5 as part of his research for an upcoming book he's writing, he discovered phone calls he expected to see. There were mostly calls to recruits and assistant coaches.
But when Robertson saw a phone number with a 313 area code, he was stunned by what he discovered in a Google search. A call made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts. Robertson then asked his wife to read him the telephone number again to make sure it was correct. The escort service ads came up again.
Robertson called Thomas Mars, an attorney who is representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt's case. They've since developed a close working relationship, talking on the phone several times a day and sharing what they found in their investigations.
"He asked me to fill in some blanks," Robertson said.
When Robertson told Mars to enter the phone number in Google, Mars was silent for nearly a minute before yelling an expletive in excitement.
Ole Miss had unwittingly provided information that would lead to Freeze's resignation.

The rest of the story is worth a read if you have time before finishing the rest of this post.

But the closest the piece gets to any religion is a mention of "Sunday school" — and not the kind at my church:

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