church growth

Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

So here is the journalism question for today: Is the implosion of the Church of England, especially in terms of worship attendance, so common knowledge that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned in a news story linked to this topic?

It was news when attendance slid under 1 million, earlier this decade. Then the numbers kept falling. Here’s a Guardian report from a year or so ago. The big statistic reported in 2018 was that Sunday attendance was down to “722,000 — 18,000 fewer than in 2016.”

The story I want to look at did not run on a small website or in a niche-market newspaper. It was produced by the BBC, one of the top two or three most important news organizations on the planet.

Maybe this subject is too bleak to be mentioned in what is clearly meant to be a fun story? Here’s the headline on this long feature: “Why are cathedrals hosting helter-skelters and golf courses?” And the overture:

From giant models of Earth and the Moon to a helter-skelter and crazy golf course, cathedrals are increasingly playing host to large artworks and attractions. Why are buildings built for worship being used in the pursuit of fun?

Cathedrals might traditionally be viewed as hallowed places meant for sombre reflection and hushed reverence.

Vast, vaulted ceilings soar high over whispering huddles of wide-eyed tourists as robed wardens patrol the pews to silence anything that could detract from the sanctity of worship.

But cathedral chiefs across the country have been keen to shake free from the shushing stereotype.

Let’s see. There is a glimpse of the “why?” in this story. Why are these Anglican leaders so intent on opening the doors to let people have some fun of this kind?

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

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