Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pew poll raises issue: Which religion are we talking about anyway?

Last Tuesday the Dallas Morning News reported in a headline on its front page (the banner story), "Most say there is more than one path to eternal life, poll finds". The headline was drawn from findings in new research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 

On that same day other newspapers across the country also carried the story with similar headlines.

Two days later, Baptist Press reported "A new Pew Research Center poll result showing evangelicals holding universalistic beliefs regarding salvation may have been skewed at least somewhat because of how the question was worded." 

Two days after that—on Saturday when it almost never publishes—Baptist Press took the unusual step of distributing what it termed "Breaking News", stating, "Study adds doubt about Pew poll 'universalism' claim".

Citing a soon-to-be released LifeWay study, the Baptist news service reported "The LifeWay Research finding adds quantifiable data to growing criticisms that the Pew survey was flawed in how it asked its question and that poor wording was the cause of Pew's counterintuitive conclusions about evangelicals' beliefs regarding the exclusivity of Christ for salvation."

Baptist Press quoted my friend, Scripps-Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly, as saying, "I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I'm a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ." 

So, what's going on here? And what's all the hysteria about?

Several trends are at play all at the same time.

1. Forty years ago most Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics and other members of widely differing Christian groups looked on each other as "not saved". Before Vatican Council II, Roman Catholics, for instance, thought all Protestants were going to hell. Most Southern Baptists as well as some other groups thought the same thing of Roman Catholics as well as members of some other Protestant bodies. 

2. Back then America was basically a Judeo-Christian country.  That means most people who espoused a religion were either Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Protestant.  The furthest thing from anybody's mind then was the possibility of America's becoming populated with Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and Buddhist pagodas as well as an assortment of other houses of worship. The whole idea was just too far-fetched for most Americans in the 1960s to comprehend. When someone like me tried to say in the 1970s that in four or five decades U.S. Muslims would outnumber U.S. Jews, or U.S. Hindus would be inching alongside Episcopalians numerically, people would respond in disbelief.

That was then. This is now.

1. Today, Roman Catholics officially refer to Protestants as the "departed brethren", a major acknowledgement that Protestants are no longer according to official Catholic theology "going to hell".  Roman Catholics are engaged in dialogue with other Christian groups on a varying scale, depending on how receptive various groups are to dialogue and recognition of Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, some Roman Catholics, including church leaders, and some in the more liberal Protestant denominations are starting to say Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do, only they call him Allah instead of Jehovah (Yahweh and all the other names Christians give to God).

2. During the past 40 years Protestants have experienced the most incredible "member swapping" imaginable. Former Southern Baptists populate the Mormon church in surprising numbers. Former Roman Catholics can be found in significant numbers in  Southern Baptist churches throughout the country. Presbyterians have jumped ship to join the United Methodists; Episopalians have become Roman Catholics.  Got the picture? Churches have become more like chicken stew than separate dishes of pure chicken, pure tomatoes, pure potatoes, and so forth. Very few denominations remain "pure" Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, whatever. That mixture has lessened the ability to say "all Roman Catholics believe this, all Southern Baptists believe that, and "all members of the Churches of Christ believe this.". . . and so forth.

2. Today, Muslims are fast catching up in numbers with the U.S. Jewish population. U.S. Hindus really could soon numerically equal the Episcopalians; Buddhists are becoming almost as numerous as Presbyterians.

So, in the midst of this changing landscape, the Pew Forum steps in and asks a question about whether Christians believe others outside their faith will be going to heaven some day.  No wonder confusion reigns! 

The question itself is most legitimate, especially given the changes in American religious life that have been under way for nearly four decades. However, in the context of today's religious world, the question needs to be asked very precisely. Whose faith are we talking about anyway—Christian branches such as Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, United Methodist, and Roman Catholics? Or Christians generically along with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus as well as others? 

summa cum laude seminary degree is not necessary to know that within Christianity, individual Christians—including Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Pentecostal, United Methodist, etc.—are more accepting toward each other than in previous generations. How widespread this tolerance is needs to be determined by some really precise, skilled researchers.

At the same time, on the cutting edge is the issue involving how accepting Christians are of non-Christians. Granted, some Christians today believe Jews will go to heaven; some even believe Muslims will be there, too. But what about Hindus, Buddhists, and so forth? Again, more research is needed into exactly what is believed by whom about what.

Unfortunately, the Pew Forum needed to use a shotgun instead of a rifle in its research on these two issues. It needed to determine the answers to a lot of questions before drawing any generalized conclusion about the bigger issue of how tolerant Christians are today about the faith of others.  In the chicken stew of today's religious environment, one lone question wasn't enough to get at the bigger picture. Regrettably, it only muddied the waters.

So, why are Southern Baptists in a snit about Pew's finding? More on that next time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Local tragedy illuminates the dangers, challenges Evangelicals face in U.S.

Two 20-Something men sharing their faith with two 19-year-old men on a city street late at night. Afterward, two new graves, two ruined lives in the local jail, a grieving young widow, and two precious little children who will now grow up without ever knowing their father.

Over the years I've grown accustomed to hearing, reading and writing such stories about American missionaries living overseas who were gunned down, knifed to death, or tortured unmercifully while trying to witness to non-Christians in other lands. Those situations, of course, are "over there". 

But right here in America? In my own hometown? Only blocks from where I live and work? I can hardly find the words to describe my shock, my horror and my total disgust over the situation.

The key facts were buried so deep in the Dallas Morning News story the average reader who usually stops by the fifth paragraph probably missed them. Everybody in the Dallas area seems to be talking about how the confessed robber-murderers say they only got a total of $2.00 off the dead men. But I read every word in that news story just as I had all the other news stories about the incident. When I got to those incredible words,  I lingered spellbound for several minutes before I completed the final 12 paragraphs. 

Before they were murdered, "the two victims talked for a half-hour or more about their studio and the fact that they were Christians," Jason Trahan reported that the confessed murderers told him from their jail-house quarters.

"So that's what happened," I blurted to my wife, Kay. "Matt and Stephen were trying to witness to their murderers." Having personally met the effervescent Matt only six weeks ago, I could envision him effusing about his Christian recording studio and his faith.

Like everyone else who lives and works in Historic Downtown Garland, TX, we had been frantically searching for every morsel we could find to explain the inexplainable.

Responding to a frightened bicyclist who fled to a nearby fire station after spotting the bloody bodies lying in the street, Garland police about 1:20 a.m. last Friday morning found Matthew Bulter, 28, and Stephen Swan, 26, near Zion Gate Christian Recording Studio, which Matt owned and where Stephen worked part time for his best friend, Matt. Later, police arrested the two suspects driving Stephen's car, which had been stolen in the incident.

Since reading that Dallas News story, my mind has raced over and over about what might have happened that night and what the implications are for Evangelical Christians. 

Were Matt and Stephen so intent on sharing their faith in Christ with total strangers that they just ignored the late hour, their isolated circumstances, and the strangeness of those night visitors wandering our normally empty streets after midnight?

Or did they think that because they talked about their faith, God somehow was going to put up a special barrier to protect them?

Or did they even realize they were in danger until, according the Dallas News, James Broadnax says he suddenly pulled his gun and started firing repeatedly into the bodies of both men?

International missionaries are taught that such incidents can happen to them--even in broad daylight--while overseas.  No one is ever prepared fully for such a thing, but at least they are warned (or supposed to be warned) that such things can happen. They are also told how to take precautions.

But we don't give such warnings in America. We teach correctly that Jesus says we are to witness to our faith wherever we go, to whomever we meet. We know that Jesus and His disciples all suffered for their faith, but we presume that was then and this is now.  After all, this is America. Right?

Nevertheless, I keep wondering: Has our society deteriorated so much that U.S. churches now must add to their evangelism training such warnings as "don't talk to strangers on dark streets late at night even if you think you live in the safest community in America"? 

And if we have to develop such rules, where do we stop? "Don't witness after sundown", "Don't witness to strangers, period"? How about, "Just don't talk to strangers anywhere, any time, any place"? If we did that, soon we would water down Christ's commands about sharing with others to the point only our children and grandchildren would get to hear the Gospel message, and in some cases not even them.

Are things really that serious?  I pray not. But in my mind I'm afraid this local incident isn't that rare. After all, I had to read deep into the news article to find the real story, something I don't usually do with other murder stories.

The banner headline on this story easily could have been about Christians slain while following Christ's commands to share their faith with others. I'm sure this buried fact wasn't lost on many other believers. Now we must decide what Jesus wants us to do in the aftermath. 

Monday, June 23, 2008

Jesus Christ was neither a Democrat nor a Republican (also not a political revolutionary)

The time was late February 1979. Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtela had become Pope John Paul II less than three months earlier. Now he was making his first overseas trip to the Western Hemisphere. 

I was there standing on the tarmac at the Mexico City airport when John Paul's plane landed and he de-planed.  A few days later I followed the pope's limo to Puebla, Mexico to hear some of the most profound words the pontiff ever spoke during his nearly 28-year reign:

"Jesus Christ was no political revolutionary. And His priests are not to be political revolutionaries either." 

Spoken in Spanish but translated quickly in several versions into English, the words shocked those hoping the new, youthful, energetic pope would cast his lot with the Liberation theologians, who were stirring excitement in that day with their talk of blending church and secular politics into a potent political revolutionary force particularly in South America but also worldwide. 

Some tried to label the Liberation theologians as heroes ushering in a new era of church activism. Others tried to label them as socialists, communists or simply political revolutionaries. Meanwhile some Roman Catholic priests and leaders were enamored with the idea of marching off to political war. John Paul put a stop to it.

Ironically, John Paul II will always be remembered for his impact on secular politics because of the role he played as the ethical and spiritual voice in the downfall of the Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan called the former Soviet Union. But he did it his way--not following the path of the Liberation theologians of his time. He did it by firmly stating over and over his beliefs and positions on moral, social and ethical issues. And he did it in his usual charming fashion. At no time did I ever witness him pander after any politicians, though he seemed to greet and treat them all with civility and cordiality.

The pope's words are similar to a statement I've made often both in print and in person: "Jesus Christ was neither a Democrat nor a Republican." With the race for the occupant of the White House after next January 20 heating up, you'll hear me repeat these words many times over the next months. 

So often we Christians try to re-shape Jesus into our image, like the Medieval artists who fashioned the famous artwork that makes Jesus and His disciples look like Venice merchants in Medieval attire, complete with Medieval hairstyles, Medieval clothing, and so forth. American Christian leaders from both the left and the right have become adept at this same slight of hand. Each wants to re-make Jesus to match his or her own personal political preference.

Who would Jesus have voted for in the presidential primaries just ended?  No one, because he would have found registering as either a Democrat or a Republic—a prerequisite for voting in many primaries—to be difficult.

By their very nature, political parties are born of compromise and political realities in order to win elections. No political party is 100% Christian or reflective of Christ's teachings. Sadly, some on the Religious Right and the Religious Left seem to have forgotten that.

Like John Paul, Jesus stood above the political fray.  Yet His words dramatically impacted political leaders of His day. Jesus' teachings through the following centuries brought about a massive revolution in thought, belief, culture and action that people in His day would have found difficult to imagine.

During this political season in the U.S., may religious leaders once again hear and heed the words of John Paul spoken almost 30 years go. "Jesus Christ was no political revolutionary (and I add "neither was He a Republican nor a Democrat"). And his priests (pastors and other church leaders) are not to be political revolutionaries (party operatives) either."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Whither the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? Don't ignore the glue that binds 'em

Within the past four decades, two major U.S. Christian denominations have been wracked with internal dissension over how to interpret the Bible. One said the debate was over "infallibility" of the Scriptures; the other said the issue was "inerrancy" of the Bible. For all practical purposes the debates were the same. 

In both cases—the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention—each denomination arrived on the threshold of a major division that might have divided each group along 50-50 or 60-40 percentage lines. However, in each case the losing side—in both cases known by the same "Moderate" label—hesitated so long and waffled on what to do that it not only lost the battle but ended up a tiny fraction of what it might have been.

The so-called Moderate wing of the Missouri Synod—once a very powerful and influential force—vanished completely into the annals of church history.  Its remnants were absorbed into other pre-existing Lutheran bodies.

The lingering remnants of the SBC's Moderate wing are scattered and divided—hardly a shadow of what they formerly were—but lurking still like defeated bands of Confederate soldiers roaming the familiar countryside not quite sure what to do with themselves. Fractured and divided, their only common thread seems to be their disdain for the entrenched conservative rulers of the SBC.

  This week in Memphis the largest group of those war veterans—the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—met for its annual reunion. It displayed once again how small, insignificant, and angry the group has become. Its stagnated budget is but a tiny glimmer of the much wealthier SBC and its membership totals remain vague and nebulous--apparently hopelessly intertwined with SBC totals. Remaining passive while a key leader likened their debacle in the SBC to Hitler's Holocaust exposed the group's continuing seething anger.

I find feeling sorry for the CBF members easy because, as one extremely honest former Southern Baptist exec said to me over coffee one day: "I've spent my life swimming in this huge lake called Southern Baptists. I just don't know that I could ever move over and swim in a tiny pond (the CBF). What would I do?"

Many, particularly those with white hair at the Memphis meeting, once were influential in the SBC—often members of its huge bureaucracy somewhere. Now too many of them are crowded on the same ship without enough lay people to lead and not enough denominational money to function like in "the good ole days".

The lingering SBC Moderates have reinforced what I observed within the Missouri Synod: Denominations are made up of much more than just theology and common beliefs that bind them together. This "glue" consists of family ties, friendships, common histories, common ancestries, emotional connections, cultural language, and varied and assorted other things that create bonds between human beings.  

When push comes to shove over tricky theological points, which the vast majority of church members usually never understand anyway, this "glue" continues to bind them together and keeps them from separating.

Because the Missouri Synod was smaller than the SBC—the Southern Baptists are roughly five times the size of the LCMS—this "glue" and its impact was easier to see. Families caught in the crevices of the fight couldn't stand to part with each other; a common Germanic history and sense of identify pulled all but the most stalwart Moderate Missouri Synod members back to the core once the Conservative wing scored a resounding win.

Those same factors that pulled the Missouri Synod back together are still at play within the SBC. Observing it has led me to conclude that while important, theological issues are not nearly as divisive within churches today as theologians, denominational leaders, and pastors like to think.

Whither the former Moderate Southern Baptists? Now that's an ongoing sticky subject!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Clergy often resist retirement, usually to their own personal detriment

With Baby Boomers starting this year to move into retirement, the topic seems to be on the minds of many. Few, however, realize that retirement is truly a modern phenomenon. 

It's also one from which religious leaders have often run. No group has resisted the modern concept of retirement more than the clergy has.

Just 40 years ago Vatican Council II moved the Roman Catholic clergy toward this major lifestyle change. Not only did Catholic cardinals over age 75 lose their votes for the next pope, VCII set the stage for the retirement of Catholic pastors over age 75, too. Before that Catholic priests—as well as other clergy—thought they had lifelong locks on their jobs.

Seventy-five was also a compromise between the modern trend toward age 65 and the priests' view of "never, no never".

As a newspaper reporter in the 1970s as the retirement trend was unfolding, I encountered many tricky situations involving the forced retirement of Catholic pastors. In one case the poor fellow was so angry at the pope, his local bishop, and the church's hierarchy for putting him out to pasture that he spewed venom all over me just because I happened to be standing there with a notebook in my hand. I didn't take it personally, because he and I both knew I had nothing to do with the life-altering decision. I was just merely a scribe trying to report the event and the pastor's curious negative reaction to it.

Even with the concept of retirement more embraced among Protestant churches, the thought of retirement still sends far too many church leaders into a blue funk or a counter-defense trying to ward it off as long as possible.

During my years on the religion beat at the Houston Chronicle I wrote more than my fair share of retirement stories about aging Houston clergy from all denominations and religions.  I eventually developed my own little mind-game called "Guess how long this guy's gonna live?" During the interview, I would ask strategic questions designed to elicit from the retiring church leader how well he had planned for retirement.  I wasn't checking on finances! I wanted to know how the clergyman pictured life without his being in the limelight of leading a church or a religious institution.  

The longer the church leader waited to retire, the more he clung to his image of himself as a "church or religious leader" and the less he had planned emotionally for the reality, the higher I scored him for "likely to die soon". 

Conversely, pastors and other church officials who seemed eager to shed their clergy robes, who looked forward to developing new hobbies and interests, and who seemed to have a zest for living and not just filling a church role scored low on my "likely-to-die soon" scale. 

I often was amazed how my little scoring game was right on target. 

I remember one aging United Methodist leader who twisted and manipulated every church law on the books to stay active as a church leader as long as he could. Finally trapped in the rule-book corner at age 73, he reluctantly agreed to step aside. What were his plans? "Take a long vacation and then decide what I'm going to do with the rest of my life." What did he plan to do in retirement? "I haven't planned anything yet."

I left the interview at the Methodist Building planning to file my notes on this clergyman where I could get to them quickly. No, he didn't tell me of any secret illnesses. 

And yes, I did need those notes within six months of our interview to write his obituary.

I'm no psychologist--only an observer of religious life in America.  I don't know if other professions face the same degree of attachment to their careers as members of the clergy do. But I do believe firmly that over-identification with the ministerial role has a tendency to kill people shortly after they officially "retire". 

With so many Baby Boomer pastors and church leaders on the threshold of this major life transition, seeing how these folks approach this issue will be highly interesting.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Today U.S. presidents meet with Catholic pope and stir barely a ripple

President George Bush's visit to see Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Friday brought back memories of the first time a Roman Catholic pope called at the U.S. White House.  The year was 1979. The pontiff was Pope John Paul II. The president was Jimmy Carter. I was there standing on the White House lawn along with about 100 other reporters who had special press badges allowing us to accompany John Paul on his historic first tour of the U.S.

The papal visit actually began three days earlier when John Paul's plane arrived in Boston for the historic precedent-setting six-day tour of America. The president sent wife Rosalyn to Boston to greet the pontiff and welcome him to America and lay the groundwork for the upcoming White House visit.  Behind the scenes, U.S. protocol officials fretted whether Mrs. Carter should 1. stay airborne until the pope landed, or 2. stay on board her plane until the pope had stepped on Boston soil, or 3. be standing on the tarmac waiting to greet the pope as he stepped off the plane. While amused by that silly drama, I puzzled over why behind the scenes in the press room so many reporters kept making ugly remarks about Mrs. Carter.

Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter did what John and Jackie Kennedy never could have done. During the 1960 election, Kennedy was berated unmercifully with accusations that he, a Roman Catholic, would be subservient to the pope. Kennedy had to go out of his way to distance himself from any thought that the pope would influence his Presidency.

Carter, on the other hand, was a Southern Baptist. No one ever thought he would pay much attention to the pope. When the Carters welcomed John Paul to the White House, the visit was noteworthy for its lack of controversy. With a warm handshake and welcome to the nation's capitol, Carter changed the American political climate almost immediately. He, of course, rode the crest of America's great curiosity over the Polish pope's escalating popularity among Roman Catholics as well as others worldwide.

Because of the Carters, other U.S. Presidents have been able to meet almost casually with the pontiff both at the White House and at the Vatican. Such meetings have proven beneficial for the U.S.

George Bush's visit with Pope Benedict XVI on Friday hardly stirred more than a brief mention in the U.S. media.

Amazing how quickly America's political landscape can change and things once thought controversial can become commonplace! Makes me wonder what other changes we will see in the years ahead.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Al Gilbert's Convention Sermon made significant points

Over the span of the last 40 years I've attended more than 30 annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. Most often I have not found the annual "Convention Sermon" at the meeting to be particularly exciting or newsworthy. Sometimes I've found that "message" to be downright dull.

I wasn't at this year's annual session in Indianapolis—too busy launching my new book, Witness to the Truth, at Book Expo in Los Angeles and doing media interviews in Texas—but I sure wish I'd heard Al Gilbert's "Convention Sermon" this week. From Baptist Press reports, sounds as though he hit some really important nails on the head. Some of his comments sound like some of the messages about church bureaucracy I've delivered in Witness to the Truth and on this blog.

As I've said before, the Southern Baptist Convention has become the nation's Big Bureaucracy denomination—a label the SBC used to try to pin on Roman Catholics. 

Don't get me wrong: church bureaucracies are fine in moderation. But left unchecked they can become self-serving, self-perpetuating institutions more caught up in their own self-importance and well-being than in supporting the local churches they are supposed to serve. 

For the sake of transparency, let me tell you that Al and I are friends. About a decade ago he and I both worked for the same same SBC bureaucracy for a while: the International Mission Board. We even had the same title, but at different times: Special Assistant to the President. 

Al and I didn't communicate about his sermon beforehand. Nor do I believe he would agree with everything I said in Witness to the Truth. But I do think Al is pointing in the right direction in the following quotes he offered in his Convention Sermon:

"Soon, we will be passing the baton to the next generation, and I don't know about you, but they tell me they are not sure they want it. That should make us sad and that should make us ask how we want to hand it off to the next generation."

"Our baptisms continue to fall. We know that we are not impacting the world for Christ. We are not even winning our own sons and daughters like we should."

"We have acknowledged that we have inflated numbers of membership and an incredible number of people on our rolls that are inactive and probably lost."

"Could it be that we have established processes in our organizations that are really bureaucratic barriers, instead of mobilizing us to win the world to Christ?" 

"Can we really defend our bureaucracy to the next generation?"

Click here to read more about what Al, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, said:

All I can say is, Preach on, Brother Al! And may all Southern Baptists take heed to these crucial words.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Know thyself, then find the right congregation for you

Churches have personalities just like you and I do.

Some are like youngsters--full of energy and life; others are like senior citizens waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive.
 Some churches are gregarious and exciting like a square-dance club; others are stodgy and boring, like an old library's basement stacked with newspapers nobody will ever read again.
 Some are engaged up to their eyebrows in politics, either in the secular world or their own denomination. Others are withdrawn and refuse to acknowledge the poorly clothed, starving people all around in their neighborhood.
We tend to think of churches as always being the same, particularly within a certain denomination. From my experience, that's a very wrong stereotype.
 In chapter 10 of my newly published book, Witness to the Truth I describe the wide variety of churches within Houston's Episcopal scene. The four were about as different as east, west, north and south. Yet they all four belonged to the same Episcopal umbrella.
 I could have written that chapter about four Houston churches within any denomination—Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, United Methodist and so forth.
 Often times this diversity has nothing whatsoever to do with the basic theology of the individual churches. It has much more to do with the geographical location, neighborhood, and personalities of the congregation and its leadership.

A grumpy, melancholy pastor produces a somber church.
 A congregation situated in an arts community is more likely to produce a creative ministry.
 A church based in a poor, ethnic neighborhood is more likely to have a heart for people in need of physical support.
 And a high-brow pastor preaching to an affluent audience is much more inclined to produce a church with aristocratic overtones.
 Finding the right church for you is easy if you know the kind of person you are and the kind of individuals to whom you best relate.  
 If you don't like chatty people, stay away from a socially outgoing congregation.
 If you don't like social do-gooders, find your own water level elsewhere.
 Know your own personality. Then figure out the personality of the church you are visiting. 
 Don't base your decision on a few people from a congregation or a few acts of kindness extended by individuals chosen to recruit for the church. 
 If you are the creative type, look for creativity.
 If you are the structured kind, look for organization.
 If you are outgoing, look at the church's social interaction.
 An interesting twist to this observation is when the church bears the title "First". You find this in many Protestant denominations across the country.  In my book I talk about "The First shall be Last".  A "First" church usually means the congregation has a history dating back to a city's beginnings. As such it is tied more to the "old guard" and "old establishment" in a town and reflects that group's characteristics.  Sometimes but not always this means the church is locked into tradition and not open to new ways of seeing and doing things.
 Many pastors wring their hands about their church's "back door" (new members who either stop showing up or who quickly exit). What they seldom realize is that once affiliated with the church, new members may figure out the congregation's personality and recoil at it, finding it's not what they expected.
 I contend that much of the turnover on church rolls could be stopped by better church shopping upfront.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

After snickering at others, SBC now faces its own decline

During the 1970s when the so-called Mainline Christian denominations began their incredible shrinking act, Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics looked on with puzzled amusement, because both America's Roman Catholic Church and America's largest Protestant denomination were growing at robust speeds.

Thanks to their opposition to birth control (practiced by some RC's but not by all), and rampant immigration of people from south of the U.S. border (who were predominantly RC's), the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. knew the two trends would bode well for its future and keep it growing in numbers and influence.

Because they perceived themselves as an evangelistic denomination reaching out in all directions for new converts, Southern Baptists believed their future to be one of unstoppable growth. Somehow they believed they were immune to the realities that were engulfing other Protestant groups around them. Some even scoffed about the Episcopalians, United Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians and their loss of evangelistic fervor.

Now four decades later—in the first decade of the 21st century—Roman Catholics continue to grow (as do U.S. immigration woes and many Roman Catholic families), but Southern Baptists are for the first time since the Great Depression reporting their first membership decline after several years of declining baptism rates. The situation was predictable and inevitable but is proving to be very painful for the SBC. 

This SBC nosedive may be just a blip in history (as some convention leaders are trying desperately to forecast), but it also has the potential to turn into a major rout and thus an embarrassing headache for the denomination.

At the annual Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis, the topic is likely to spawn much attention and probably a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. The Washington Post reported recently that Convention President Frank S. Page said that without decisive action soon, the number of SBC churches could decline significantly by 2030.

Watch out for glib explanations about the decline. Expect a lot of pep-rally talk about evangelism but little focus on the underlying issues.

What has caused the problem?

1. Birth control. Smaller families mean fewer children to baptize. Like all Protestant denominations, Southern Baptists have faced this problem all along. The numbers are just now catching up with them.

2. Roll-cleaning. Southern Baptist leaders for years have joked about their 16-million member denomination that is really about 10-million strong at best.  During the 1970s and 1980s Southern Baptists failed to follow the trend of major roll-cleaning, which resulted in the Mainline denominations arriving at more realistic—and honest—numbers. Once Southern Baptists realized their rolls were not accurate, they failed to develop a comprehensive policy to quietly let the air out of their numbers and slow the denomination's growth while baptism rates were at historical highs. Now with some church rolls so obviously overstated and some actually getting a much-needed cleansing, Southern Baptists face the double whammy that makes the situation all the more painful.

3.  A graying Southern Baptist population. Like the rest of America, Southern Baptists are statistically growing older. That means more people with gray hair, the group least likely to reach out to win new converts, particularly among ethnic and minority groups that are growing so fast. 

4. Failure to spot—and work against—the flight of young blacks to the Muslim faith. Since 1970, Islam has grown dramatically in the United States. Some of it has been the immigrants from Muslim countries. A sizable chunk of the growth, however,  is from converts made in prisons, where young black males are disproportionally represented and in African-American neighborhoods where Southern Baptist churches are too few. The chapter, "Wrong (or Right?)-Way Corrigans" in my new book, Witness to the Truth, explains this development further.

5. Too many refugees from other denominations.  Some SBC churches are packed to the rafters with members who did not grow up Southern Baptist but instead sprang from the exodus in the Mainline denominations over liberalism. Consequently these new members, who kept the growth going during the 1980s and 1990s, did not experience the evangelistic training that was so much a part of the denomination earlier. As the exodus from the mainline denominations levels off and actually begins to stop, these new Southern Baptists may not even know the importance of sharing their faith with others.

6. A house divided against itself. Read the questionnaire Baptist Press recently published with answers from the six SBC presidential candidates and you'll quickly note the large numbers of areas in which Southern Baptists are battling. Some of the fractures are deep and dangerous divides for the denomination. I discuss this more thoroughly in the chapter, "Reborn Again!", in Witness to the Truth.

This year's convention will be filled with calls for renewed evangelism efforts and plans for overcoming the quagmire. Most ideas are not new. Anybody remember former SBC President Bobby Welch's goal of reaching 1 million baptisms in a year? I have yet to see anything from anybody this year that hasn't been proposed previously or in a different wrapper or that addresses head-on the issues above that are pulling down the denomination's roll numbers.

Steering the rough waters ahead for the Southern Baptist Convention is going to take some mighty creative leadership and not just pep-rally talk.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Yes, I coined the phrase Baptistdom

You won't find the word in your Webster's Dictionary, but you will find it in my new book, Witness to the Truth. You'll also find the word many times on this blog, "Louis Moore on Religion". 
Yes, I coined the word. I have been using it for nearly 20 years now, ever since I first moved to Nashville, TN, almost 20 years ago to join the Southern Baptist bureaucracy.  Some of my friends still laugh when I use MY word; other friends have started to pick it up.
That word is BAPTISTDOM. It's a compilation of the word Christendom and Baptist. 
My definition of the word, however, is more akin to the word Curia. The word Curia refers to the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church, centered at the Vatican in Rome. The Curia is notorious for its slippery, passive, courtly, overtly religious style.
Baptistdom is my label for the highly unusual Southern Baptist way of life we encountered in Nashville and later in Richmond. Baptistdom was like a peculiar and alien culture—something far, far different from "normal" life we had known in Houston and elsewhere. This wasn't because of Baptistdom's expressed faith in God nor because of its theological orientation so much as because of its unique small-town, Southern , bureaucratic, passive-aggressive style.  
Over the years I realized how much Baptistdom was like the notorious Roman Catholic Curia. Both are bureaucracies with their own social codes, political agendas, and unusual way of conducting business. Gossip and behind-your-back, cutting remarks seemed to be written into Baptistdom's genetic code; people often joked that the walls of the SBC's Sunday School Board building (now LifeWay) at 127 9th Avenue North, Nashville, would physically fall down if gossip in that structure ceased. I would suspect these characteristics are also written into the genetic code of the Catholic Curia as well.
Baptistdom is much, much larger than most people, including most Southern Baptists, ever begin to fathom. Part of that naivete is because early Southern Baptists tried to thwart the development of a Curia-like Catholic bureaucracy by locating various denominational services strategically throughout the South. Thus, Nashville got the publishing operation and the top executive offices, Atlanta got the North American missionary operation, Richmond got the foreign-missionary operation, Dallas got the retirement-funds center, Birmingham got the Woman's Missionary Union, and Louisville, Fort Worth, Kansas City, New Orleans,  Wake Forest, and (later) San Francisco each received one of the denomination's graduate schools in theology (called seminaries). Today, that diversity helps conceal the true size and wealth of Baptistdom. Diversifying to keep down a Curia-like bureaucracy worked fine until after World War II, when prosperity struck the SBC; its finances blossomed like its founding fathers never could have imagined.  Suddenly each of these tiny entities grew large and wealthy. Today, Baptistdom is more like a corporate-minded Fortune 500 company than poor church people struggling to pay the rent.

The massive size of Baptistdom does not even begin to count the staff and receipts of more than 40,000 individual congregations throughout the country. Nor does it count the large state and  associational staffs, nor the thousands employed by Southern Baptist-related colleges and university—and all of their budgets.
For more than a century, Southern Baptists have held to the myth that Roman Catholics are the large, bureaucratic denomination in America.  When they finally look honestly into the mirror, Southern Baptists will discover that they—not the Roman Catholics—are truly America's big-bureaucracy denomination.
Please feel free to adopt and use my word: Baptistdom. 

From the Darkness into the Light

Churches maintain they have much to offer—to teach—"the world".  And well they do. Jesus tells us Christians that we are to be "salt and light." in the world.  That means we are to preserve our world against the decay of sin and bring the light of Christ into the hearts of every man, woman and child of every tribe, people group, race, and so forth on the Earth.
But the world has some things it can teach churches as well. Or, put another way, Christians and churches can learn some things from the world, too.
My dear mentor, friend and hero Don Pickels, former managing editor of the Houston Chronicle and also prior to his death a very devout Episcopalian, helped to create an amazing legal legacy for the people of Texas. It was called the "open-meetings law". It was passed by the Texas Legislature under pressure from the Houston Chronicle management and others. It was adopted in the wake of the Sharpstown Scandal, which occurred in the early 1970s and rocked the State of Texas dramatically after evidence surfaced that public officials were meeting secretly and making financial decisions that should be made only publicly. 

I was reminded of this law two years ago when I was asked to serve on my home city's Plan Commission. As soon as I was officially elected by our City Council, our City Attorney called to tell me that I must spend about an hour watching a video created by the Texas Attorney General about the law.  He even cracked that the law had something to do with pressure from the Houston Chronicle. I knew immediately to what law he was referring.

In simple terms, the video told us public officials that we must conduct our business out in the open, not secretly behind closed doors. As I sat for an hour and watched the video, I marveled how clear and precise the law was.  Only an idiot could not understand the plain language and terms of the law and the video explaining it as well as the penalties for violating the law. Afterward, as I began my tenure on the public commission, I was grateful that I was schooled so quickly in such matters.

What I liked most was that the law is non-partisan, meaning it applies equally to Democrats and Republicans as well as Independents and other party members. I'm sure some politicians—being the personalities that they are—have tried to circumvent the law, but to my knowledge it has been administered fairly and equally in the State of Texas.

Regrettably, I know of no church bodies that have a similar law or policy. Texas' laws do not apply to churches, only government bodies.  The same is true of "open-meeting" laws in other states. I've known a few people to argue that their religious organization has an "open- meetings" policy or rule, but on further investigation discovered that what they were referring to was nebulous, vague and filled with all sorts of loopholes—or in some cases was just the figment of the person's imagination.

Today in too many churches and denominations too much church business is conducted in the dark. Whether it is couched as a "forum" or "private dinner for trustees", a "deacon's meeting for deacons only" or a "closed church business session", it's all the same thing: God's business conducted in darkness.

On pages 250-251 in Witness to the Truth, I describe in detail the closed-door, unhealthy situation in the Southern Baptist Convention that I found when I arrived there to work in the early 1990s. Closed meetings remain the order of the day in the SBC, both in the denomination as well as in local churches.

In the wake of Vatican Council II, Roman Catholics learned to be more open and public, but they still have a long way to go to overcome their long history of conducting business in the dark.

Many other denominations have the same problem. 

I know I'm an idealist, but I'd like to see all churches and denominations take a cue from the Texas Legislature and change this closed-door situation by adopting clear and unequivocal open-meetings laws or rules.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Denominational elections often need a strong dose of honesty

I often find denominational elections a frustrating game of passive-aggressive lingo.

When they ruled during the 1960s and 1970s, Southern Baptist moderates honed the lingo into an amazingly beautiful Southern waltz. No one ever "ran" for election to one of the Southern Baptist Convention's top elected posts. Instead, their friends orchestrated their campaigns for them.

I could write the announcement for these moderate candidates before their news releases ever appeared on my desk: "My dear friend, Brother so-and-so, has asked me to allow him to nominate me for president (or first or second vice president) of the Southern Baptist Convention," the candidate would say. "After much prayer, I've decided to allow Brother so-and-so to do this."

These words seemed so sanctimonious except for one fact: they seldom matched the reality of what was occurring behind the scenes. Sometimes rumors had circulated wildly for years that the candidate himself had been behind the scenes twisting arms like crazy to build the resume and reputation and network that would propel him into one of those top jobs.

Southern Baptists moderates weren't the only ones who had this skill down to a well-choreographed script. One of my all-time favorite books is Charles Merrill Smith's How to be a Bishop Without Being Religious. A Christian bestseller in the 1960s, the book was a spoof on Methodist elections of bishops based more on images created by clothes (dark colors and loosely fitting), cars (small with dark colors and very non-sporty and traditional), and wives (neither shapely nor beautiful) than on faith in God and spiritual gifts. Smith paints the picture of clergy leadership more prone to testing the wind direction than on commitment and dedication to theological principles.

Other Christian groups also played similar silly games. I could always spot the "comer" among Roman Catholic priests. A dead giveaway was always in the way he spoke of and courted "THE Holy Father" (the pope). This signaled to the Curia (the church's bureaucracy) that he was a "team" player.

Now that Southern Baptist conservatives are returning to an era of multiple candidates for the convention presidency--after far too long rallying around only one candidate who was allowed to run at a time--they appear to be falling into the same trap their moderate forebears fell into: "Brother so-and-so has asked me to allow him . . . ."

Listen next week during the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, IN, for these semantic word games.

I personally wouldn't vote for a single candidate for any church office who tried to act as if he is being forced into the race because of friends or even because of The Big Friend Himself. I much prefer open and honest communication and politics in which people say what they mean and mean what they say about their intentions for church leadership posts.