Baptist News Global

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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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Having watched the entire social-media era, from beginning up to the current craziness, I have a confession to make. I have been shocked that we have not heard more neo-Luddite sermons from the conservative side of the religious world.

I’m not talking about making a case for a full-on Amish withdrawal from the Internet and from social media.

As someone who has taught mass-comm courses in a traditional Christian content — at a seminary and then in two liberal-part colleges — I realize that we are talking about a classic theological puzzle linked to culture. Traditional Christians believe we live in a creation that is both glorious (as created by God) and fallen (touched by sin and The Fall).

Social media can be wonderful or totally evil — sometimes on the same website in the same thread in material submitted by two different people within seconds of one another. We’re talking about a medium a very high ceiling and a very low floor.

I am starting to hear more debates about the role of smartphones (and addictions to them) in a truly religious home.

However, there is another social-media question that I have expected to read more about; Should pastors be active participants in social media?

That brings me to this weekend’s think piece, care of the progressives at Baptist Global Media. The author — John Jay Alvaro — is a Baptist, in Southern California, with a degree from Duke Divinity School (not a normal Southern Baptist seminary education option, to say the least). Click here to visit his website (yes, he has one) about religion and technology.

The headline on this piece: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” The basic thesis is that pastors need the time to be pastors and that this is, well, an analog, face-to-face calling. This is a pastoral issue, not a theological issue with technology.

Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.

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Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

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Hey Dallas Morning News: Bible contains two books of Timothy, and Peter didn't write them

Hey Dallas Morning News: Bible contains two books of Timothy, and Peter didn't write them

Imagine if a sportswriter covering the Dallas Cowboys (who are on quite a roll!) didn't know the difference between a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

Or if a journalist reporting on the Texas Rangers (my beloved Texas Rangers) failed to understand how a batter could swing and miss at strike three — and still reach first base safely.

Now contemplate this for a moment: What if —  a la Donald "Two Corinthians" Trump — a major newspaper's reporters and editors failed to realize that the apostle Paul wrote two letters, not one, to his "son in the faith" Timothy? Or even that Paul, not Peter, was the one who penned them?

Welcome to the Dallas Morning News of 2016 — a once-great newspaper with a once-unrivaled team of Godbeat pros.

These days, this — referring to Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas — is what passes for religion reporting in the Texas newspaper:

In another video he posted Wednesday morning, Jeffress pointed to the Book of Timothy, where Peter instructed Christians to pray for all leaders. He tweeted that he would have the same message if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency.

For everyone reading this in the Dallas Morning News newsroom (and that's no longer a large group of people, which is part of the problem), those New Testament epistles are known as 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. (Or for president-elects who might ever need to mention them out loud, think First Timothy and Second Timothy.

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Wait a minute! Chick-fil-A backed an LGBT film festival and drew zero coverage?

Wait a minute! Chick-fil-A backed an LGBT film festival and drew zero coverage?

Every now and then, I receive emails from readers asking me about some of this website's ongoing features. You know, the occasional posts with the special logos. Take, for example, our whole "Got news?" concept.

It's valid to ask this kind of question, since there are always new readers who are clicking into the site or readers who have been around for awhile, but don't remember when a particular feature started up and the rationale for why it was created. Should we run a paragraph at the end of these features every time that explains the concept?

Well folks, this one almost explains itself. What we have here is a classic "Got news?" story.

By definition, a "Got news?" item at GetReligion is something really interesting or important (or both) that we see online -- usually in a liberal or conservative denominational news site -- that leaves your GetReligionistas scratching our heads and wondering: "Why isn't this story getting any mainstream news coverage?"

So, you remember the Chick- fil-A wars, right?

There was a time when just about any story linking Chick-fil-A and homosexuality was going to to straight to A1 in major newspapers and it might even show up in evening news broadcasts. Battles continue, from time to time, whenever Chick-fil-A attempts to open franchises in intensely blue zip codes. These stories tend to draw mainstream news coverage.

Which brings us to this headline from the progressives at Baptist News Global: "Chik-fil-A challenged for sponsoring LGBT-themed film festival." (The unique spelling of the company's name is in the original.) Let's walk through the material at the top of this story.

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On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

Godbeat 101: Reporters who cover the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention are well advised to monitor both the official Baptist Press and Baptist News Global, operated by folks who disagree with the SBC’s staunchly conservative administration. Likewise with the Presbyterian Church (USA); reporters should check out the headquarters Presbyterian News Service but also fare from the conservative

The usefulness of such independent partisans is also evident with the Episcopal Church’s ongoing struggles. For example, the official Episcopal News Service has been slow to post an article about the 2014 local reports (.pdf found here) compiled in the annual “Table of Statistics." Has anything been published? Keep checking here.

Compare this reluctance with Baptist Press’s prompt recent report on unhappy annual statistics.

Reporters who carefully follow independent sources already knew about the Episcopal numbers because they’re reported -- indeed, trumpeted -- by from the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, which keeps a close skeptical eye on the “mainline” Protestant denominations. I.R.D.’s  polemical headline: “Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate.” 

The nub: Episcopal attrition continues.  Compared with the prior year, membership dropped 2.7 percent, to 1,817,004. The decline in average Sunday worship attendance was worse, by 3.7 percent to 600,411. The South Carolina diocese’s walkout is a good chunk of this. Other numbers were also down. Consider that as recently as 2002 average attendance was 846,640 and membership was 2,320,221. Not to mention the 3,285,826 members back in 1970; in the years since, the U.S. population has more than doubled.  

Most “mainline” groups have likewise suffered steady losses since the 1960s but, writer Jeffrey Walton notes, the Episcopal slide mostly leveled off during the 1990s.

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Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

As you would expect, I get lots of email about religion- news stuff. That tends to happen when you've been in the religion-columnist business -- in one form or another -- since 1982. All that old snail mail on dead-tree pulp turned into email. Turn, turn, turn.

I still receive quite a bit of material from denominational wire services and independent religious publications, both large and small. That's one of the places that I find all those "Got news?" items about valid and interesting news stories that are out there, but not in the mainstream press.

During the decades since the great Southern Baptist civil war, I kept reading both the SBC operated Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press wire linked to the "moderate," or doctrinally progressive (some would say liberal) Baptist congregations that remain in the larger convention, and a few that have fled. ABP has evolved into a broad, basically mainline-Protestant wire called Baptist News Global. Both Baptist wires are must reading for journalists following the religion beat.

One of the most interesting things Baptist Global News does is offer, in its regular "push" digest online, a selection of links to interesting religion items from other newsrooms. The other day -- right there with retiring Presbyterian leaders, a key Southern Baptist voice calling for more countercultural Christianity and other items -- was a link to a long, interesting BBC report about the fact that America's pop-culture boom linked to barbecue culture seems to have skipped over African-American pitmasters.

 So, as the East Tennessee mountains guy that I am, I dug right into this story -- assuming that it would eventually have an interesting religion hook. After all, why would Baptist News Global have this piece in its news elsewhere list?

I read on, and on. This is about as close as I came to hitting a religion theme:

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People moving around less; Baptist News Global asks what that means for today's churches

People moving around less; Baptist News Global asks what that means for today's churches

"Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" Carole King asked musically

Well, researchers at the Barna Group have the answer: More and more Americans are doing so. And Jeff Brumley of the Baptist News Global operation looks at whether people staying put is a good thing or a bad thing for congregations.

First let me say that Jeff is a longtime friend and a veteran religion reporter. Still, what we have here is what GetReligion folks call a "Got news?" story. It's a trend in a religious publication that is certainly worthy of coverage by folks in mainstream newsrooms. 

Pulling from the Barna survey, Brumley says most people nowadays -- 59 percent -- are certain or fairly sure they’ll never move again.

Normally, that would be good news for churches, which thrive on stable communities. But not necessarily this time, Brumley says, quoting Baptist minister Kevin Collison:

"The church has to realize we are now in competition with other community forces," he said. "CrossFit may be their community, more maybe the microbrewery is their community."
Ditto for coffee shops and farmers’ markets, Collison added. In other words, people staying put may present as many challenges for congregations as it does opportunities, he said.

The Baptist Press story quotes a good variety of sources. Besides Pastor Collison, there's David Hull of the Center for Healthy Churches and Roxanne Stone of Barna.  (However, Stone is only quoted via the organization's website.)

Hull spells out another ramification of people's reluctance to move -- a reluctance of clergy to change venues:

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