Denver Post paints local religious scene with too broad a brush


This is that time of year when under-researched or over-generalized articles about religion sprout up around the country.

Usually, an editor has realized that Christmas is around the corner and someone needs to throw together a piece about religion. It helps if the story has good color art. Content and a strong news hook? Maybe. Maybe not.

This seems to be the case in a recent piece that ran in the Denver Post. It certainly has one of those broad, sweeping trend-story headlines: "Here's what's bringing millennials back to churches."

The newspaper's former religion writer seems to have moved to the health beat and there being no specialist currently on the beat, the assigning editor nabbed a writer who is the Post's travel and fitness editor. Her street cred is that she has collaborated with a Catholic priest on a book, which may be why she took on the story excerpted below: 

Five friends cluster for conversation among hundreds pouring out of a Sunday service at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette. The five are in their 20s and 30s. And at this church, they don't stand out for their age or their attire -- it's easy to come to church dressed casually when the pastor gives the sermon in jeans and a hoodie.
They've returned to church as adults, under their own volition, for varied reasons — a tragedy, a friend's infectious enthusiasm, a feeling that something was missing.
"Life is just hard," said Jennifer Luoma, 26. "So you end up back here because you don't know what to do in life," she said with a mix of exasperation and humor.
Faith is in decline in this country by several measures, and some churches are wondering who will fill the pews in the future. Capturing the attention of millennials is no easy task...
Yet while some churches are in decline because of those young "nones," some in the Denver area -- from large organizations, such as Flatirons, which has three area campuses, and Red Rocks Church, which has four, to smaller ones -- have turned to creative methods of engaging millennials in ways that matter to young potential congregants, appealing to their more earnest and transient lifestyles.

OK. There is such a thing as having a paragraph that contains too much blue sky. To say in the nut graph (which in journalistic lingo means the paragraph that sums up what the reporter is going to write about) that “faith is in decline in this  country” is being over broad.

Now, I cut out the reference to a Pew study on the “nones” that’s mentioned at the end of the fourth paragraph because it’s been covered extensively on this site already. The Pew study she quotes does say the practice of non-Christian religions is up and that numbers of evangelical Protestants went up by 2 million. It would be more accurate to specify that Catholics and mainline Protestants have taken the largest hits.

And the churches in the Pew survey that are growing are evangelical Protestant, which is basically what the reporter discovered is the case in the Mile-High City. 

She did get good quotes from professors at the two major seminaries in Denver, although one got a lot more space than the other -- plus a plug for her new book coming out in January. A priest with the Archdiocese of Denver had interesting observations, but there was nothing from anyone representing black, Hispanic or mainline Protestant churches, not to mention the Mormons, who are pretty numerous out west.

Where the article did well was describe the ephemeral nature of the Millennial churchgoer and how Christian leaders have had to struggle with what success looks like with this low-commitment, highly mobile group. The piece did mention that Millennials tend to gather either at informal evangelical congregations in strip malls or liturgical churches. But, since most of those liturgical churches are losing ground across the country, I wanted to hear exactly which churches of those type are attracting the young in and around Denver. 

Also, it would have helped to have pinned a label of some kind onto three other churches mentioned: New Denver Church, Red Rocks Church and Flatirons Community Church.  I assumed they were evangelical Protestant. Am I right? Why not say so?

The article would have been strengthened by a better lead sentence stressing how some evangelical churches in Denver are bucking national trends. It took me well into the story to figure out what the article was trying to say.

I am curious if the presence of many evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs -- a mere hour's drive to the south -- is a factor in the success of these Denver churches. Could be, but this article won't be the one to tell us.

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