Little bitty flock of 1.6 million: The sequel

The other day, I made a big deal (in a negative way) out of how a single sentence in a Florida newspaper story described Churches of Christ, the fellowship to which I belong. If you missed that post, please go back and read it. Otherwise, this sequel won't make sense (maybe it still won't, but familiarity with the previous discourse might help improve the odds).

OK ... everybody back now?

It turns out that the writer of the chastised story is a GetReligion reader -- Cary McMullen, religion editor of The Ledger of Lakeland, Fla. -- and he took time to reply to my concerns. When I asked him if it would all right for me to share his response, Cary said that would be fine:

I think it can only help to further the conversation about religion coverage and how it actually works in the newsroom.

(Now, aren't you wishing I had been a little nicer in the original post? Smile.)

Here is what Cary had to say about my criticism:

I thought I might pitch in with what happened with that one sentence that seems to have caused such consternation. Like a lot of religion reporters these days, I have been pressed into service on other beats. All reporters in my newsroom are required to take a shift on the "cop beat" occasionally, and it just so happens I was on duty on that beat on May 7 when we were notified of the arrest of a part-time worker at a local Church of Christ.

As Bobby noted, most of the story was straightforward reporting (although I'll point out that I refuse to use summary attribution the way some cops reporters do, basically just narrating the arrest affadavit with a preface of "Here's what happened according to police"). Most reporters would have left it at that, but because I felt most readers wouldn't know the first thing about the Churches of Christ, I decided to throw in a little context.

I actually did check a somewhat outdated version of the trusty Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches for statistics, but as tmatt points out, you can take those with a grain of salt. So was the description of the Churches of Christ a "value judgment"? Well, of course, "small" could be seen as pejorative, but in this county, there are about 20 Churches of Christ, as compared to about 150 Southern Baptist congregations, and only a few to my knowledge have more than a couple of hundred adherents. The largest Southern Baptist church has about 8,000. I could go on with comparisons to other denominations (or "fellowships" -- sorry, Bobby), but you get the point.

As to "theologically conservative," tmatt is basically correct that I was aiming for a concise way of referring to a group in the evangelical (I deny "or worse") tradition. I agree in retrospect that "theologically conservative" is vague, but is "evangelical" any more precise? And if you want a value judgment, ask the average reader his/her reaction to "evangelical."

I did not have the luxury of an additional 10 column inches to describe the Reconstructionist history of the Churches of Christ, and in an story about an accused child molester, that was not the place for it.

All this may not get me off Bobby Ross' complaint list. I can easily see someone out there in GR land saying as The Ledger's religion editor I should have known better. But this was not a case either of tmatt's classic (and correct, in my view) portrayal of a journalist not getting religion because of 1) ignorance or 2) prejudice.

In our follow-up conversation, he added:

By the way, I didn't say this in the original message, but any tradition that does not use musical instruments in worship because they believe it does not conform to the model of the church in the New Testament has got to be "conservative" in the classic sense of the word. You can tack that on in the post, if you like.

There you go. That's the writer's perspective, and I think it's helpful. Except for the reference to Reconstructionist history (I'd love to see how those 10 column inches would read!), I at least understand what Cary was thinking when he wrote the story.

In some ways, it would be helpful for journalists such as Cary to consult The Associated Press Stylebook when writing about Churches of Christ. Unfortunately, the stylebook entry itself leaves much to desired. The entry on Churches of Christ:

Approximately 18,000 independent congregations with a total U.S. membership of more than 2 million cooperate under this name. They sponsor numerous education activities, primarily radio and television programs.

Each local church is autonomous and operates under a governing board of elders. The minister is an evangelist, addressed by members as Brother. The ministers do not use clergy titles. Do not precede their names by a title.

The churches do not regard themselves as a denomination. Rather, they stress a nondenominational effort to preach what they consider basic Bible teachings. The churches also teach that baptism is an essential part of the salvation process.

The last of those three paragraphs nails it. But since GetReligion is deeply concerned about journalistic accuracy, I'll share my problems with the first two paragraphs:

The numbers: I don't know where they're coming from. Since we're dealing with autonomous congregations, there's no official statistic. But the most recent comprehensive survey of a cappella Churches of Christ counted 12,629 congregations with 1,578,281 adherents in the U.S.

Perhaps AP also intends to include instrumental Christian Churches and Churches of Christ -- a separate branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement that does not have a stylebook entry -- in the figures. But that would bring the number of congregations closer to 19,000. And according to the yearbook figures cited in my previous post, the instrumental churches have 1.1 million members in the U.S. Added to the 1.6 million in the non-instrumental fellowship, that would take the total to about 2.7 million. The third branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement -- the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- does have its own stylebook entry.

The radio and TV reference: There are a number of radio and TV ministries supported by Churches of Christ. But they are evangelistic in nature, not educational, and they are probably less prominent in the fellowship than Christian universities, camps, publications and youth leadership training events that help tie together autonomous churches.

The governing board of elders: Each local church is autonomous, but many small congregations do not have elders. Churches of Christ believe that elders must be mature Christians who fit biblical qualifications to shepherd a congregation. In cases where churches have not appointed elders, the men of the congregation typically take charge of handling business matters and organizing worship. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that most local churches operate under a board of elders. I would strike the term "governing."

Evangelists and brothers: Again, the description is not totally accurate. In some churches, the minister would be referred to as an evangelist. But in more cases, he would simply be called the minister or the pulpit minister. Evangelist is not a universal term in our fellowship, although it certainly wouldn't offend anybody.

The minister might well be addressed as "brother Smith" (with a lowercase "b"), but so might "brother Jones," the ordinary member on the back pew. "Brother" is not a ministerial title; it's a way to describe a Christian brother (as "sister" is for female members).

In predominantly black Churches of Christ, the use of "brother" and "sister" before members' last names remains prevalent. In white churches, I'd say it's more common to hear the minister referred to as "Bill" or "Larry" or whatever his name is. It is true that Church of Christ ministers, as a general rule, do not use clergy titles such as "the Rev." "Pastor" is seen as a synonym for the specific, biblically ordained role of elder or shepherd and would not be be used, in most cases, to refer to the preacher.

Confused yet? We are not the easiest group in the world to understand. But then, as GetReligion readers know, we are far from alone in that respect.

In my time as an Associated Press religion writer, I wrote a few stories about Churches of Christ. Here is how I summarized them in a 2004 profile of Max Lucado:

Churches of Christ are autonomous congregations with no central headquarters and an estimated 1.3 million members nationwide, according to "Churches of Christ in the United States: 2003" by researcher Mac Lynn, former Bible department chairman at Church of Christ-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Most Churches of Christ teach that baptism by immersion is an integral part of salvation -- and the vast majority believe the Bible prohibits instrumental music in worship services, allowing only acappella singing.

You'll note that I used a member figure. The 1.6 million number includes total adherents (such as unbaptized children).

Here's my challenge for GetReligion readers -- help me rewrite the AP style guideline on Churches of Christ. Leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point, I'll weigh in with mine (after borrowing your ideas!).

And, Cary, thank you again for your willingness to join this conversation.

Video: "Our God, He Is Alive" has been called, only half-jokingly, the national anthem of Churches of Christ. Mention 728B, and most older members know exactly which hymn you're talking about.

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