Journalists who want to reach beyond local coverage and bring a nationwide and international perspective to religion should be aware of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly and the sample articles posted free on its website (subscriptions to full contents cost $24.95 per year).
The periodical, founded in 1964 and now totally online, is based at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College and edited by Wheaton missiologist A. Scott Moreau though its writers, like its readers, span the globe.
The quarterly's pieces aim to be practical rather than scholarly. Examples: “Toward a Relevant Theology for the Middle East.” “Modes of Mission in New and Established Churches.” And, turning to domestic aspects, this pertinent theme: “The Religious Pluralization of America: Implications for Preaching, Teaching, Writing, and Reading” with a main focus on U.S. Islam.
Continuing with the U.S. seen as a mission field, this survey will interest religion writers: “The State of the American Church: When Numbers Point to a New Reality.”
Author Ed Stetzer, an oft-quoted source on the beat, is executive director of the Graham Center and former head of the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Research agency. The article won’t necessarily produce a story but is worth reading as a journalistic tune-up.
Stetzer’s survey is largely about U.S. Protestantism, and much of what he depicts will be thoroughly familiar to religion-watchers, notably the long-running and unprecedented decline of “mainline” and liberal churches, and the growing numbers of “nones” who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation. He finds it conceivable that the “nones” could even become a majority among Americans someday, and says “the church’s influence on Americans is beginning to fade.”
Nonetheless, he contends that the cup of U.S. Christianity is kinda sorta half full. The data present “a more complex reality. ... American religion is simultaneously growing and in decline. Fewer people claim to be Christians, but churchgoers -- those who regularly attend services -- are holding steady in some segments and thriving in others.”
Some of his analysis relies upon the large data bank of the General Social Survey (GSS), a standard resource since 1972. Importantly, the GSS says the share of Americans over-all who regularly attend a Protestant church has only declined from 23 percent to the current 20 percent over the past four decades. (Catholics’ attendance drop is, of course, another story.)
As many have observed, by West European standards the U.S. remains a remarkably devout nation. Conservative “evangelicals” have mostly defied secularization, and Stetzer says African-American churches report “steady numbers” (though the Religion Guy urges caution on black church statistics). Stetzer is on-target in observing the significant growth of “non-denominational” evangelical congregations that are difficult to assess and usually omitted in religious nose-counting.
In Stetzer’s scheme, those who identify as “Christian” are 75 percent of Americans and fall into three categories of roughly equal size:
* One-third are “cultural Christians” who identify that way “simply because the culture tells them they are” on the basis of heritage or family or membership in a social grouping.
* Another third are “congregational Christians” who have some sort of connection to a local church where they were raised or perhaps married and might or might not visit occasionally but do not really practice the faith.
* The final third are “convictional Christians” who are “actually living according to their faith" and center their existence upon Jesus. (A story idea that's probably related: LifeWay’s pre-election poll showed “evangelicals” defined on the basis of belief favored a Trump presidency by only 45 percent vs. 31 percent for Clinton and 23 percent others or undecided, versus the 81 percent of “evangelicals” in the standard exit poll.)
Stetzer says by that GSS gauge of Protestant attendance, the numbers and devotion for “convictionals” has kept generally stable, with evangelical gains offsetting the “mainline” losses of the past generation. Thus, the nation’s committed Christians are holding on while the ranks of his “squishy middle” shrink. Yet the fully committed “find themselves more and more on the margins in American society -- not persecuted, but no longer central,” and surrounded by neighbors who lack the “shared religious memory” of former times. (Another story idea: How does this vacuum relate to the demoralization of Trump's white working-class supporters?)
Compare Stetzer’s take with this somewhat more downbeat interpretation of similar terrain: “The State of the Church 2016,” a September report from the Barna Group of Ventura, California: Saith Barna, “These are uncertain times for the U.S. church,” and who could disagree?