Thursday, July 31, 2008

Watch out churches, the future is now overtaking us!

Forty years ago, if someone had described religious life in America today, that person would have been branded as some kind of kook for thinking such thoughts.
  • The Roman Catholic-Protestant-Jewish culture then couldn't begin to conceive that America four decades hence could more aptly be described as Christian-Jewish-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist with a smattering of just about every other religion known to the human race.
  • The Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal) Movement was just beginning to emerge 40 years ago; its significant impact on almost every Christian denomination in the country, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, was unimaginable to most religious leaders then.
  • The Gay Rights Movement was miniscule and its future impact on just about every American denomination unfathomable; who then could have foreseen large denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, would be torn apart over the issue?
  • The Pro-Life Movement within Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches was so weak, hardly anyone took it seriously. No one 40 years ago could have accurately predicted the role the churches would play in the pro-life movement today.
  • The shrinking size and influence on the church on secular society was not on anyone's drawing board either. Who knew the downdraft would be so significant?
  • The divorce rate was growing rapidly, but who then could have foreseen its impact today on so many churches, church leaders, and American society in general? 
So what about religious life in America 40 more years from now? Besides the trends I've named above, what will be the trends that will mark religious culture in the year 2050? 

Like the past 40 years, the next 40 years will be colored by trends difficult to discern now. Any list viewed in retrospect is likely to seem naive and off-base. Nevertheless, presuming the past is a good indicator of the future, I offer some suggestions for what I think these next trends will be:
  1. For better or for worse, the Green Revolution will make its mark on future religious life. How large its impact will be throughout the next 40 years is yet to be determined. The worse Global Warming becomes and the more the America-Must-Become-Energy-Self-Sufficient movement flourishes, the greater will be the Green Revolution's impact on America's religious life. Could the movements spark a return to neighborhood churches and the demise of megachurches with their massive buildings and long commutes? Will churches and church leaders that scoff today at Global Warming wake up one day and discover that as some of their predecessors did during the Civil Rights Movement that they were on the wrong side of the issue and that their opposition nearly cost them their credibility?
  2. We Baby Boomers won't go quietly into the night. We never have been wallflowers; we won't be in this era, either. Count on us to change the whole image of retirement, the senior years, death, dying, and all the other issues associated with the later-in-life years. Churches and other religious institutions won't be able to avoid us and our aging ways and needs any more than will society as a whole. 
  3. The Internet already has revolutionized America's social, financial, and cultural fabric. It's only just begun to impact religious life. Will the current email prayer requests and church newsletters eventually give way to such things as iChat and video conference/church business and committee meetings? How about Sunday School classes conducted totally over the Internet? And maybe even interactive worship services tailored to individual needs and tastes, forming congregations from literally all over the world?
  4. The end of the white/Anglo male domination of the American culture already spells some serious changes for the U.S. culture as a whole. How will Anglo, male-dominated churches particularly respond to the escalating political, financial, and social power of women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans? Tokenism won't work this time around; neither will the old head-in-the-sand approach. Will white-dominated churches finally find a way to blend all people into a multi-cultural congregation and sing with the children: "Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world"?
Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: change will be its primary characteristic.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Baylor's "palace coup" shows moderates act increasingly like their stereotype of fundamentalists

When during the late 1980s and early 1990s the so-called fundmentalists (also known as the conservatives) opted to clean the Southern Baptist Convention's top bureaucracy of outspoken moderates, hardcore moderates at Baylor University screamed their heads off about the ruthless, vicious way they believed the conservatives were going about their task. Because of those firings, even when good reasons existed for some of them, Baylor's moderates painted the conservatives as people lacking in decency, honor, and just plain good manners. 

So why now—more than a decade later—are Baylor's moderates acting as boorish and ruthless as those they accused back in the 1990s? Somebody needs to pin them to the floor and get them to explain their contradictory actions today.

I say this because on Thursday, July 24, for the second time in recent memory, Baylor's regents fired the university's president.  Of course, they didn't use the word "fired", but that's what they did. Their public-relations staff issued a press release that danced all around the facts.  You had to read deep inside the whitewash to garner the information: President John Lilley refused to go quietly into the night, so he was uncerimoniously dumped, with a regent named immediately as acting president.

I was not a supporter of Lilley's presidency--nothing personal against President Lilley, but simply because he was replacement for Robert Sloan, his predecessor. I've never met the man. I did think, however, that he brought at least a sense of respectable calm and dignity after the storm Baylor's moderates stirred up against former President Sloan.

According to the press release, Lilley was fired to help unite Baylor's warring factions. I'm trying to figure out that one; I thought that was the same reason the regents hired Lilley in the first place. He was supposed to be a peacekeeper and quiet interim, not a lightning rod for moderate anger like Sloan became. 

So who is at war at Baylor right now anyway? Those of us who supported Robert Sloan have mostly sat on the sidelines for the past three years and watched Lilley's benign style with less-than-enthusiastic interest. He seemed to mean no harm, though issues that plagued Sloan also seemed to dog him, too. 

The way Baylor's hardcore moderates treated Robert Sloan was a disgrace, but Sloan has gone to Houston now. I trust he is continuing to do well and has a happy, good life as president of Houston Baptist University. Many of us who supported him are still exhausted from watching in horror as the children of Sloan's predecessors, Dr. Herb Reynolds and Dr. Abner V. McCall, and their moderate buddies bludgeoned Sloan unmercifully, including slanders calling him a "fundmentalist" (which he was not). Apparently the Reynolds-McCall mob couldn't cope with all the good things Sloan accomplished for the school! 

If Sloan's supporters were not fighting against poor Lilley, then who was? As Sesame Street's Big Bird would say, "Today's program was brought to you by the letter M." The "M", of course, stands for the word "moderates". 

The situation right now gives every appearance that the hardcore Baylor moderates saw their chance to strike down Lilley quickly to set the stage to put one of their own on the throne at Baylor.

For several months now I have heard the rumors that Lilley was "on the way out". Since he was hired so late in his life, I've always figured his tenure as president would be short. Since I've been hearing about this for two months now, I presume what happened today was not a big surprise to a lot of Baylor insiders. My hunch is behind the scenes some political scheming and deal-making have been going on.

But firing the poor fellow? In such a cruel manner? And at an age where he is unlikely to ever get another job in a university administration? Did the regents also lock this Baylor alum's office door and refuse to let him re-enter it to claim his personal possessions? Is this and the scene beforehand with BU graduate Sloan the way an alma mater treats distinguished alumni?

And the moderate-dominated Baylor Alumni Association's response?  Its lack of indignation over the regents' ugly behavior is puzzling. Its less-than-convincing statement about the upheaval makes one wonder what role the alumni organization actually played behind the scenes in this latest palace coup. Sloan supporters also couldn't help but notice that during the past three years the BAA has been rewarding Sloan's critics, especially the Reynolds family and its friends, with seats on its own board. So, I'm not surprised at the BAA's actions at the moment.

What did Lilley do wrong?  Fail to grant tenure to a handful of professors? Did the moderates' beloved Herb Reynolds not do that also? Or was that OK because he only shunned conservatives and truth-telling journalists—banishing even liberals who questioned him?

Baylor students and alumni deserve better than the sorry politics that have engulfed the university during the past decade, thanks to Reynolds and his ilk.  Robert Sloan deserved better. John Lilley deserved better, too.

Next time Baylor's moderates point fingers at the SBC's conservative leadership, somebody needs to tell them to first go look in the mirror. After protesting so loudly for years about the SBC's so-called fundamentalists, apparently Baylor's moderates have now morphed into what they hated so much!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

If an opinion is worth holding, it can stand up in the midst of objective information on all sides of the opinion

Many in the religion world focus on one part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the freedom of religion clause—but overlook or ignore another equally important freedom—that of freedom of the press.

Perhaps this is because they simply don't understand what freedom of the press really is.

For some odd reason, denominational journalists and their superiors seem to think freedom of the press is their right to proclaim their religious beliefs through the written or electronic media.  I see that as part of the "free exercise of religion" guaranteed in the First Amendment. I don't equate that with Freedom of the Press.

I daily receive emails from a host of various religious groups. In my inbox an evangelical denominational press service and a liberal denominational press service are among the most prolific. In so many ways those two represent the ying and the yang of the issue. I seldom find objective, opinion-free, compelling, in-depth articles in either publication. Whatever they do always seems to point to supporting some opinion or position their respective group is hawking.

The popular issue of global warming is a primary example of the differences between opinion-based versus information-based press reporting. Denominational news services, both left and right, tend to round up people who support their position and quote them. I would find these articles so much more appealing if they quoted or at least cited in a balanced and fair manner people with opposing opinions, too. Unfortunately these articles appear more sermonic than they do balanced, fair, and objective journalism from which I and others can draw our own conclusions.

Freedom of the press is so much more to me than just being able to preach one's religion through the printed or electronic media.

I like to think of "freedom of the press" as the "freedom of the marketplace of ideas".

Having worked both in the secular and denominational media, I know my definition is a key reason why secular religion journalism seemed so much more in line with my basic style than did the denominational media. I revel in freedom; I resist control. I found more freedom in the secular world and more control in the denominational world.

The concept of the marketplace of ideas is different from that of people pounding away with their opinions on their pulpits regardless whether they are left, right or in between.

I like to start with gathering information before I make a decision.  That's different than those who start with an opinion and then begin gathering facts to support their opinions. If an opinion is worth holding, it can stand up in the midst of objective information on all sides of the opinion.

Does that mean I believe everything I read in the newspaper or hear on the TV news? Or even on blogs? Absolutely not! I do like, however, to read opposing opinions and even articles that simply provide information and facts without ever drawing an opinion. That's why on some days I watch CNN, then the next day watch FOX network, then other networks on days after that. I like to have a 360-degree view, not a narrow slice of it.

Sadly, too often I find religious leaders—on both the left and the right—too busy with their opinions and trying to control rather than with enabling people to make up their own minds. 

Freedom of the press is freedom from controls. Freedom of the press promotes discussion, openness, and candor. To me, press controls point to insecurity of beliefs. "Tell the truth and trust the people" is an old journalism expression, but it is as appropriate today as it ever has been.

We'll talk more about this important topic as the days go by.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Annual CBA retailer's show illustrates changes under way

At the annual International Christian Retail Show in Orlando, FL, this week, the trends besieging the U.S. economy are self-evident in this large assemblage of companies that supply books, music, and other Christian products.

Ridiculously high gasoline prices appear to have cut into the usually robust attendance. Empty booth spaces and less than booming sales appear to reflect the hysteria surrounding the supposed recession impacting the U.S. economy coast to coast. The absence of huge, expensive advertising banners reflect the credit crunch. 

Or are these things really as they seem?

The wild card here is the role that Internet shopping and online advertising and promotion play in today's sales of books and other items. Is business really slowing down as it appears? Or it is changing and morphing into some new forms?

Fifteen years ago Internet shopping was more like a pipe dream that only a small portion of the population understood. Today, it's as common as bluebonnets in spring in Texas. I rarely venture into a retail store to purchase clothes, books, and a whole array of other products and services; instead I travel to my favorite shopping websites such as and Every time I do this I marvel that I never need to leave my computer. I pay bills, do my banking, read the daily news, and receive and send prayer requests using my computer.

I also marvel how much of my business itself is conducted on the Internet. Five years ago, books-on-demand printing was in its diaper stage.  Today, knowing whether a book was produced one book at a time or printed on traditional presses rolling out thousands of copies an hour requires an expert eye and a lot of luck. On most computers the work of artists and writers travels at the speed of email.

Change is a hallmark of life these days. It seems to travel at the speed of lightning. This means old ways are passing away; new ways are emerging—all this at breakneck speed.

That's what makes assessing this year's show, sponsored by Christian Booksellers Association, so difficult. I asked a fellow participant what he thought of the world's largest Christian retail show. He responded, "I just met a man whose whole bookstore is online. He only purchases books one at a time from the wholesaler after he already has sold them through his online store". He seemed shocked at what he had learned.  I was shocked that he was shocked at what he had heard.

Websites now feature all the new book titles launching into the market this year (a main reason store buyers once attended CBA each year). Even CBA offers online seminars like it formerly reserved only for this annual show. 

I have no crystal ball on the future of CBA's International Christian Retail Show, but I do know that all the hubbub about the high gasoline prices, the so-called recession, and the hysteria of the "credit crunch" caused by the overheated real-estate market earlier this decade will force us to change—perhaps in some very drastic ways.  But change is not always bad. God always can use change for His good. 

Monday, July 7, 2008

Instead of fighting against Pew Forum poll results, see it as a "wake up" call

So why have Southern Baptists seemed more jumpy than other religious groups have about the Pew Forum's recent poll on prevailing religious opinions?

One could argue that Baptists simply are trying to hold the pollsters accountable for their conclusions.

Or one might conclude that their public-relations folks have seen a "great news angle" and jumped in once again to get the denomination's name before the public.

I would contend that no other people—with the possible exception of the Mormons—stands to lose more than do the Southern Baptists if the recent Pew poll is correct and Americans are becoming increasingly universalistic in their approach to religion. Consequently, America's largest Protestant denomination has pounced with all fours on research by the Pew Forum that seems to affirm that a liberalizing approach to faith is under way in this country and even among their own members.

Southern Baptists represent America's leading Evangelical denomination. They represent the biggest, wealthiest, and most politically astute among the church groups that preach a you-must-be saved-to-go-to-heaven doctrine. Southern Baptists got to their bigger-than-thou status because of their approach to evangelism. Universalism undermines this basic doctrine on which the Southern Baptist populace was built.

If many correct paths exist to salvation, then no one belief is better than the others. 

If many correct paths exist to God, then why bother to raise and to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to send more than 5,000 missionaries to every corner of the globe with the Good News of salvation available through Jesus Christ? 

If many correct paths exist to  salvation, then why bother to concern themselves with Jesus' words, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except by Me" (John 14:6). 

If many paths exist to God, then why bother to teach correct doctrine to their children or other church members? 

The seeds of universalism have been planted in the American soil for the past four decades by the rapid rise and growth of so many non-Judeo-Christian religions here and the continuing secularization of our culture. Southern Baptists and other Evangelical groups have led the fight (somewhat unsuccessfully) against secularism; they've mostly ignored  the greater threat of these alternative faiths literally sprouting like Kudzu under their noses. 

Instead of trying to shout down the results of the Pew Forum's findings, Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals would be better served to use it as a wake-up call to the reality that is emerging in their own backyards.

 The reality is, America's religious landscape is changing dramatically; it's spilling over into our churches—regardless whether denominational leaders are willing to face it squarely or not. Quibbling over a few percentage points or some wording in a poll only clouds the real issues. Encountering the real issue headon and deciding what strategy to follow is a much better approach.