Demographics

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips. 

Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock,  America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.

Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds. 

Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998.

That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).

Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes.  Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in  the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).

Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors.

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

News consumers who have been paying attention to religion trends may have noticed this one: There are lots of church buildings for sale these days.

This is especially true with old-line Protestant sanctuaries located in older neighborhoods — often on prime property deep inside zip codes that are evolving due to gentrification.

What to do? Well, lots of urban folks — singles, cohabitating couples, married-without-kids folks — are attracted to unique condos and apartments that don’t look like they are assembled using cookie-cutters and one or two sets of design plans.

That brings us to the following real-estate headline at The Chicago Tribune: “Logan Square church gets new life as 9 luxury apartments.” Let me stress that I realize that this is a real-estate story. One should not expect that news desk to provide a lot of depth, when it comes to the religious implications of some of the information in a news report of this kind.

But let’s see if you can spot the detail that I think would have been worth a follow-up question or two — a click of a computer mouse, at least, or even a telephone call. Things start in a rather predictable manner, with a bad pun:

Living in one new Logan Square apartment building is a heavenly experience. The former church was converted into nine distinctive residences, incorporating many of the original architectural features.

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

That brings us to the colorful details that caught my attention. Read this carefully and think, well, sort of like a liturgist, or a religion-beat professional:

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety.

“Any of the elements that were left here, the developer was able to repurpose and reuse,” said Mark Durakovic, principal at Kass Management Services, which is managing and leasing the building.

Wait a minute!

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RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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China considers three-child policy while India ponders two-child limit due to Muslim birth rates

China considers three-child policy while India ponders two-child limit due to Muslim birth rates

I’ve been watching for almost a year now as China has radically changed its child control policies from the infamous one-child policy to an almost-three child policy.

Thirty-five years of forced abortions, sterilizations, hysterectomies and outright murders of any children who managed to survive these procedures have drastically affected the Chinese family and kin structures on which Chinese culture rested. The South China Morning Post said the psychological trauma to Chinese society surpasses the impacts of other calamities, such as the Great Famine of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.

So … now three children?

Last fall, the Wall Street Journal laid out some hints the government was throwing around. And there is a religion connection to this, so please stay with me.

BEIJING—A government-issued postage stamp of a happy pig family—with three piglets—has raised expectations that China may loosen its family-planning policy yet again.

China Post, the national postal service, on Tuesday unveiled its Year of the Pig stamp for 2019, prompting commentators on social media to speculate that the two-child policy is on its way out.

There is precedent: The ditching of the one-child policy in 2016 was foreshadowed by a Year of the Monkey stamp showing two baby monkeys.

Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—and longtime critic of China’s birth policy—said the government is likely to go further this time. “It’s a clear sign that they are going to abandon all birth restrictions,” Mr. Yi said.

China’s fertility rate is one of the world’s lowest and nowhere near the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. The country disbanded its family planning commission last year.

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

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'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

As a part-time New York City resident — lower Manhattan, to be precise — I am learning how to read between the lines when people talk about their adventures trying to find affordable places to live.

Basically, if your family and/or set of roomies can live with one bedroom, you’re in business. If you need two bedrooms, things get tougher but you are still in the game. Listening to New Yorkers talk about apartments is kind of like hearing an urban version of Lord of the Rings or some other epic Hero’s Journey narrative.

Marriage doesn’t really affect this tale — but children do. Again, it’s all about needing that second bedroom. A third bedroom? Fuhgeddaboudit. Then it’s time to start studying commuter trains.

This is another way of saying that — in the New York City context — the decision to have more than 2.100 children has massive implications that involve real estate, but other big issues as well. If being a New Yorker is a kind of cultural religion, having two children raises eyebrows. But having more than 2.100 children is a heresy (for folks with normal incomes). At the very least, it’s countercultural.

This leads me to a remarkably faith-free New York Times story that ran the other day with this epic double-decker headline:

New York’s New Strollervilles

In search of affordable housing, young families are putting down roots in places like Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Morris Park in the Bronx.

What a great word — Strollerville. It’s kind of cute and trendy, but with just a pinch of judgment. The key is that all one needs to get into Strollerville status is, obviously, one stroller. The opening scene:

A few years ago, the gateways to the courtyard of Peter Bracichowicz’s co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were empty. Now, there are wall-to-wall baby strollers.

“I actually counted them: 10 on one side, eight on the other,” said Mr. Bracichowicz, a Corcoran agent who used to live in the complex. “And that’s just in the entrance.”

Oh the humanity.

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as American coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

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