Your GetReligionistas love to hear from veteran religion-beat professionals, in part because journalists who have spent years covering this complicated news topic can spot subtle, and often humorous, issues when they pop up in news reports.
Take issues of journalism style, for example. Now, your average blog reader may not get excited about references to tricky issues in the Associate Press Stylebook, but this is the kind of thing that fires up veteran editors and reporters.
After all, if you don’t know your AP style and some church history you can end up printing a story that says that Lutherans aren’t Christians.
Yes, that happened the other day in a Chicago Tribune story that ran with this headline: “County defends surprise church inspections.” Thus, I received this note from a religion-beat veteran:
This caught my eye. … The zoning dispute doesn’t bother me, it’s the weird contrast of Lutheran with Christian. “He was a baseball player before he became an athlete” would be a fair comparison.
Say what? Here is the strange passage in context, right at the top of this business-like story about a rather business-like topic:
For as long as Hillcrest Christian Church has been around, and that's more than 40 years, parishioners and church leaders always assumed the building and grounds were part of Hazel Crest, the community that surrounds the property.
Turns out they were wrong.
The church, 3223 W. 175th St., gets water and sewer service from Hazel Crest, and police from the village routinely patrol the church lot, but a visit last month from Cook County building inspectors brought a surprise -- the property is actually in unincorporated Cook County, and the church is being required to obtain an occupancy permit.
Built for a Lutheran congregation more than 50 years ago, it has been a Christian church for at least four decades, according to the Rev. Bob Grundhofer.
That is a puzzler. Lutherans are not “Christians”?
As is often the case, it appears that this particular minister made a remark about this congregation that went right over the head of the reporter and, later, the pros on the newspaper’s copy desk. The result was a paraphrased quotation that appears to say that being a Lutheran is one thing, while being a “Christian” is something else.
It took a few minutes to figure out what happened. Then I looked through the story a second time and spotted, in the lede and then in a cutline under a photograph, references to Grundhofer as the pastor of “Hillcrest Christian Church.”
Now this makes sense! It is highly likely that this strange wording was caused by a style error, because the story wasn’t handled by someone who knows that there are generic “Christian churches” and then there are “Christian Churches,” with a large “C.”
A reporter (or copy editor) with some religion-beat experience would have asked a follow-up question to prevent this strange wording. That question: Is this particular congregation part of the oldline Protestant denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) or is it one of those new nondenominational churches with highly generic names that offer no hints about church history? That’s actually an important question in a legal story of this kind, which could end up involving input from regional Disciples leaders.
In other words, especially in a story set in the Midwest, I would assume that the pastor said that his congregation is part of the Christian Church, with an upper-case “C” on the word "church." But if you look on the church sign, or its stationary, if probably says Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Members of this denomination are often referred to as “Disciples,” as in, “I attend the DIsciples church in the neighborhood right behind city hall.”
The AP stylebook reference begins:
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) The parentheses and the words they surround are part of the formal name.
The body owes its origins to an early 19th-century frontier movement to unify Christians.
The Disciples, led by Alexander Campbell in western Pennsylvania, and the Christians, led by Barton W. Stone in Kentucky, merged in 1832.
A few paragraphs later in the AP style bible there is a reference to the Churches of Christ, another Protestant flock located on the same branch of church history. This is the branch of the Stone-Campbell movement that does not use musical instruments in its main worship services.
To add to the confusion, there is another movement found, doctrinally speaking, in between the Disciples and the Church of Christ that is made up of local congregations that, together, are usually called the “independent Christian churches.” I used to teach at Milligan College, an East Tennessee campus that was part of this Stone-Campbell flock.
Yes, it’s all very confusing. Does any of this matter?
Well, it probably matters to Lutherans who see this story and think, “What the heckfire is going on here (or words to that effect)?” I would assume that Disciples who read the story simply assume that the reporter forgot the capitalize the “C” in “Christian Church,” and leave it at that.
However, accuracy always matters, in a subject as complicated as religion. As the old saying goes, “God (or the Devil) is in the details.” If you are covering soccer, it helps to know the rules and lingo of the game. The same is true for reporters covering, oh, opera or country music. Hank Williams is not the same person as Hank Williams, Jr.
This is yet another reason why the people who manage newsrooms need to hire journalists who have experience on the religion beat, or who are committed to getting some training in order to catch up.
Mistakes matter. Can I get an “Amen” from any Lutherans in the audience? Oh, right. In this case, to be precise, the term “Lutheran” refers to members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA), the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod or any other Lutherans in the North American context that I have forgotten to mention.