It's time to head back into the confusing world of nondenominational and totally independent churches. There are thousands of them, many of which can accurately be called "fundamentalist." Most are very small and they are often dominated by the personality of a founding pastor. However, in this rather post-denominational age, there are more than a few independent megachurches with several thousand members.
Journalists, please consider this question: In terms of news value, which matters more, a statement by the pastor of an independent flock (with no connection to a larger regional or national body) with 200 or so members or a statement by leaders in a denomination with, let's say, 15 million members?
Let's think about that dynamic in light of a story that has received major news attention in the wake of the hellish massacre in the Pulse gay bar in Orlando.
Raise your hand if you are surprised that there were a few self-proclaimed fundamentalist leaders out there who said some wild and truly hateful (and heretical) things about the massacre.
Let me stress: It is perfectly valid to cover these statements. However, our earlier question remains: How important are these leaders and their churches, how representative are their voices, in comparison with the leaders of major denominations, seminaries and parachurch ministries? Also, it is crucial that readers be given information that places these wild statements in context, that lets them know that these voices are small and isolated.
In other words, the goal is to avoid doing what USA Today editors did with their story that ran with this headline: "California Baptist pastor praises Orlando massacre."
Now, is this "California Baptist" as in a reference to a Baptist pastor who happens to be in California or is it to a pastor linked to a major body of California Baptists, such as the California Southern Baptist Convention? Let's look for information on that crucial question.
SACRAMENTO -- In response to the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub early Sunday morning, aCalifornia pastor praised the massacre, stating "they deserve what they got." ...
A recording of the sermon, given by Pastor Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, was posted to YouTube on Monday, the day after the tragedy.
In the video, Jimenez preached to his congregation that they should not be grieving the homosexual victims of the shootings, comparing those killed to pedophiles.
Trust me, Jimenez had plenty more to say and all of it was ugly and inflammatory. The story does note that the YouTube video of this sermon -- obviously, a reporter was not present in the service -- was taken down.
What else does the story tell us about this church and this pastor?
In other words, the USA Today team didn't include -- or didn't bother to look up, clicking a mouse two or three times -- information about this congregation and its links, or lack of them, to any other group. Readers were left to assume whatever they wanted to assume, about this church the meaning of the words "California Baptist."
As it turns out, Jimenez and his tiny flock defined themselves right on their website, for all to see:
The word "verity" simply means "truth". It is our desire to be a church where the message is never watered down or compromised. We strive to be a church where you can come and learn the truths of God’s word.
We are an independent, fundamental, soul winning, separated, King James Bible believing Baptist church -- and not ashamed to say so.
Now, that information did make it into the massive -- think 2,500 words or so -- "Acts of Faith" feature story about Jimenez that The Washington Post has been promoting for several days now. Of course, readers had to go 18 paragraphs into the piece to find out that this was an isolated pastor, with a flock with zero ties to anyone else.
After the opening exposition of rhetoric, the Post did include this reference:
The sermon has drawn scorn from faith leaders, gay rights activists and others who have called it “hateful propaganda” and “bigotry.”
“I condemn his entire presentation,” the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a leading Christian conservative and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.
Jay Brown, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, told The Washington Post that there is “nothing whatsoever Christian” in the pastor’s sermon. “He’s preaching hate from the pulpit,” Brown said in a statement. “His words offer no comfort to the survivors of the attack, to the family and friends whose loved ones they’ll never see again. ..."
It is interesting to note that the Post team felt obligated to call the Human Rights Campaign leadership -- as was proper -- to get a response to this hateful sermon.
What about making actual telephone calls to solicit reactions and information from Southern Baptist leaders and others in national networks of evangelical churches? Nope. The Post just aggregated material from the columnist at The Bee. Some of that material was, however, very good:
As Breton wrote Tuesday: “Verity does not appear to be affiliated with any order of the Baptist faith. That means Jimenez can say whatever he wishes without any accountability to a larger religious community.”
“It’s like opening up a store and calling it whatever,” Jerlen Young-Nelson, media director for the National Baptist Convention, told the Bee of Verity Baptist Church.
Rodriguez, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president, told the Bee’s Breton that Jimenez “is a pastor because he calls himself a pastor. A pastor who is not accountable is a pastor who can actually facilitate an atmosphere of spiritual corruption. A lack of oversight serves as fodder for theologically erroneous teaching.”
So what do we have here?
The USA Today story, simply stated, was radically incomplete to the point of being unfair. I'll stress again that off-the-wall comments of this kind are fair game for coverage. But couldn't they have been contrasted with the responses of actual Baptist and evangelical leaders who represent MILLIONS of believers, as opposed to the words of one pastor who speaks for, well, DOZENS?
The Post piece was better, but it still left me wondering why the words of this pastor (and a few other independents) deserved thousands of words of coverage, promoted in Post online materials for several days, as opposed to the actual local and national reactions to Orlando from representative religious leaders on the right, left and in the middle of the theological spectrum.
What was the impression that Post leaders wanted to create with this approach to coverage? What was the point of the USA Today piece?
I will, by the way, only be posting comments that focus on the journalism issues in this post.