Over the weekend, newspaper readers in America's fourth-largest city woke up to a front-page religion story.
Ordinarily, we at GetReligion would praise the Houston Chronicle for recognizing the importance of faith in readers' lives and giving it prominent play.
But oh, what a giant piece of fact-free cotton candy this Page 1 story turns out to be.
Seriously, this puff piece offers a nauseating case study in how not to do religion trend stories. From the beginning, the Chronicle ignores old-fashioned journalistic conventions like attributing statements of facts to named sources and quoting experts who could help put the random featured church into a wider context.
Instead, this piece reads like a journalist's stream of consciousness — no actual reporting or quoting people necessary:
On Sunday mornings at many mainline Protestant churches around Houston, there comes a moment when the pastor has to doff the robe, ditch the suit, throw on some jeans or khakis, run down the hall to a room with no pews or stained glass, and — most importantly — get his or her head into a different place.
Such is the nature of the modern church. The traditional service in the traditional sanctuary, supported by choir and organ and centuries of custom, is often no longer enough.
For many worshippers, the contemporary service is what they know and expect, conducive not only to casual attire but a more relaxed attitude, comfortable seats, and actual enjoyment. Praise Jesus? Sure, but how about a little raucous praise music to go with it? And cue the slide show while you’re at it.
At first glance, the gathering overseen by Pastor Eric Huffman on the campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church looks like any other contemporary service. But in fact there’s a different story behind The Story, the name given to the church within a church that St. Luke’s decided to establish just yards away from its blue-blooded main building across from the southern flank of River Oaks.
It’s an entirely reasonable thing to aim for a younger churchgoer, given that Grandma’s church hasn’t been cutting it with newer generations since the 1960s. The trend of declining church attendance is known to most every leadership team at pretty much every denominational church. But for most of them, the solution, by and large, has been stylistic.
Few, for example, try to lure visitors by emphasizing disagreement and doubt, to the point that The Story asks on its website, “What if Christians stopped treating doubt like an enemy? What if Christians could agree to disagree?”
Where concrete facts would be helpful, this story focuses on vague generalities — with the writer's personal opinion sprinkled liberally throughout the text:
The atmosphere is short on judgment and moral superiority, though his sermons are chockablock with impassioned appeals about the essential truth of Jesus as it is explained by his disciples and throughout the New Testament.
One can't help but wonder: Where were the Chronicle's editors as this story went from newsroom keyboards to prime dead-tree real estate?
There's no timely news peg — or any news peg at all. How this pablum ended up in a major metropolitan newspaper, much less on the front page, seems inexplicable.
The Chronicle uses words like "doff," "raucous" and "chockablock" in an apparent effort to give the story a hip edge, but such language fails to distract from the lack of any real journalistic meat.
Only two people are actually quoted by name — and both are pastors for the congregation featured. No actual church members or faith seekers are quoted. Nor, as we mentioned earlier, are any religious experts or outside observers.
On the bright side, if you enjoy cotton-candy journalism, it doesn't get any better than this.