Jack Spong

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

About six years ago, the Rev. Rob Bell was -- in terms of mainstream news -- hotter than hell.

In other words, lots of reporters thought he was totally cool because he was turning the world of megachurch celebrity culture inside out with his headline-friendly attacks on centuries of Christian doctrine about heaven, hell and salvation (plus some other predictable topics linked to faith, culture and politics).

It's all part of a news-media equation that is familiar to all public-relations professionals who promote religious books to the mainstream. If an evangelical writer wants great press, all he or she has to do is attack the core beliefs of evangelicalism. The same works for Catholics, Anglicans (Newark Bishop Jack Spong wrote the book on this), Mormons and pretty much everyone else.

The bottom line: Rebellion against conservative orthodoxy is almost always news. So Bell's "Love Wins" book was a big deal, for many.

So Bell took his post-congregation revival tour to Atlanta the other day and CNN.com was all over it, producing a long, long, print feature with this headline: "Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt."

Let me stress that an update on Bell is a valid subject for a feature story, even if the former megachurch pastor is no longer making headlines. Also, there have been lots of interesting responses to Bell's redefinition of heaven and hell, some of them book length (see "God Wins"), which means that it would ultra-easy for CNN editors/reporters to find articulate responses -- from a variety of theological perspectives -- to what Bell is still saying.

No, honest. Don't laugh. It would have been so easy for CNN to produce an interesting, complex, accurate, balanced news feature on this Bell event.

Want to guess what happened?

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Memories of Jack Spong (as opposed to hagiography)

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

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