I have vanished this week for a simple reason. My family is hiding up in the Smoky Mountains in a location so remote that we have no telephone and the nearest computer dial-up service is so slow that posting to the blog has been impossible. So I am sending this to the ever-patient Doug via email. It was interesting that I could post from Turkey and Greece easier than from this corner of North Carolina.
Still, I have a question from last week that I would like to ask GetReligion readers.
Last week, I was in Phoenix speaking at the annual North American Christian Convention. This is the kind of religious event that attracts thousands of people, yet almost always draws zero press coverage. Using the slow computer at the Burnsville, N.C., public library, I wasn’t able to find a single news story about this gathering. I didn’t see a story in the local newspapers while I was there. Google this yourself and see if you uncover something. Perhaps the organizers of this convention need to stage some kind of controversy about homosexuality. That almost always attracts coverage.
Meanwhile, the convention provided a kind of microcosm of trends in contemporary North American Protestantism. It is the largest event held each year by America’s independent Christian Churches, which is a loose network of congregational churches located — culturally speaking — in between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on the left and the non-instrumental Churches of Christ on the right. These independent churches insist that they are not a denomination, but this annual convention is where they get together to do most of the things that a denomination does.
So there was a large hall full of thousands of mostly middle-aged church leaders watching modern preachers deliver multimedia sermons with video clips and PowerPoint presentations, while youngish “worship teams” played the latest in the pop-rock worship music. The exhibit hall contained rows of booths for Bible colleges, seminaries and publishing companies, right next to booths for software companies and hip architectural firms that build media-friendly sanctuaries for modern seekers. In other words, business as usual in the post-megachurch age.
But I saw something else that made me wonder: Is this a column? Is this even a news story? If so, what is the story?
Here is what I saw. On one of the quieter halls of the convention center was a small room set aside for private prayer. Since this was a Protestant gathering, the room contained no traditional religious art. Yet there was an icon, of sorts. Over on a low table was a framed portrait of President George W. Bush, with a candle in front of it. The meaning was clear — pause here to pray specifically for our president.
So was this a Religious Right shrine?
Maybe not. A few steps away was another door leading into a larger candle-lit room. This one contained a large prayer maze called “The Desert.” It was based on Native American prayer traditions and, whether its creators intended it or not, is part of a larger movement with branches into all kinds of alternative forms of spirituality.
So was this a liberal, even New Age, shrine? Was it both? Is it OK for modern Protestants to draw on non-Christian artistic traditions while avoiding traditional Christian forms of spirituality? Meanwhile, back in the worship services, is it now more traditional to use rock music and Hollywood film clips than traditional forms of liturgy and hymns?
And is any of this a news story?