Big story. Small church. Huh?

Bronx2I don’t mean to be snarky about this, and I don’t think that all Godbeat stories must be driven by some statistical formula, but does anyone else think that this major feature story in The New York Times is a little bit strange?

The headline is sweeping: “A Guiding Light Leaves His Church in a Reborn Bronx.”

The opening paragraphs by reporter David Gonzalez are big stuff:

The Rev. Eddie Lopez Jr. always pursued a ministry that went against the currents of politics and popular opinion. Since becoming pastor of La Resurrección United Methodist Church in the South Bronx in 1988, he has started a needle exchange, supported Puerto Rican nationalists, opposed wars abroad and fought for jobs and housing at home.

It was a journey of faith and feet, with a congregation that moved three times as it grew, starting in a storefront and finally settling into a 19th-century brick church in Melrose. That neighborhood was once bombed out, but has been rebuilt.

Then it turns out that this congregation has grown and grown and grown and today is has — 65 members?

I kept reading on to see if one or two digits had accidentally been dropped from that membership total. I mean, in light of recent growth trends in New York City religion — a gigantic story, believe me — surely that was supposed to be 650 or 6,500? The rebirth of the Bronx (the photo with this post is a classic from the past) is also a major religion story. More on that in a minute.

So there is some kind of story here.

A popular pastor of a small, struggling congregation is moving on. In this case, he may even be moving out of one oldline Protestant flock (United Methodism) and into another (the Episcopal Church). We are also told that he is an active leader in all kinds of protests and social movements, but we don’t really get any details. We find out that the tiny church is struggling to pay his salary and benefits, without aid from regional conference leaders, but we don’t find out how that is affecting Lopez’s family or if he even has one.

If this man is a rebel of some kind, what is he a rebel about? What is the story here? Above all, why is this a major story?

Like I said, I am trying not to be snarky. I am really curious. What was it about this particular little church and event that so inspired editors at the Times, in the midst of their efforts to be more diverse and religion friendly? What am I missing in this story? What is the X factor?

It isn’t as if there are not big, inspiring, growing religion stories to be told in the Bronx and in the city as a whole. I mean, click here and check out a recent Christianity Today story on this topic.

Read this CT story and then the Times story and then do the math.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ray from Minn

    I particularly liked this sentence: “He and his congregation merged in 1990 with a five-member Spanish-speaking congregation that worshiped in the basement of a Methodist church off Tremont Avenue.”

    I wonder what the editor of the Business section of the NYT would think about a story reporting that a 7-11 had hired a part time clerk at one of their stores?

    Just musing, I wonder if this was a story that was NOT intended for publication, written by a reporter opposed to the rapprochement with religion by the Times, and somehow it slipped in.

  • http://www.godspell.org.uk/wordpress tony

    I’ve got to say your ‘snarkiness’ looks to a non-American like what we non-Americans think of as one of the less appealing aspects of American religion: the identification of numbers with success.

    Someone who faithfully preaches the Gospel and serves his neighbour and leads his congregation even when it’s not ‘popular’ may well be doing God’s work more than the person who pleases human beings and ends up with a congregation of thousands. I seem to remember Jesus finished up with only 11. So 65 sounds pretty good to me.

  • Steve

    The thing is, if he wasn’t a “radical,” his church would never have been mentioned. It’s not so much about numbers, but the obviousness of putting the political angle before the religious angle.

  • tmatt

    Tony:

    I said, right in the lede, that I do not think numbers alone justify stories. I could not have been more clear about that.

    So what is the other X factor? What is the major news factor here, as opposed to the other trends and religious groups in the Bronx?

    Numbers are not everything. We agree on that. But there are lots of faithful pastors in small, medium and large churches. They rarely end up in NYTs feature stories.

    What was the news here?

  • Michael

    Not every story has to be “big,” even in the NYT NY/Regional section, which often has “in the neighborhood” kinds of stories. This seems like one of those stories. We see varaiations on these stories all the time on Religion beat–the Polish Catholic parish that can’t attract a Polish speaking priest, the Hungarian parish that is being shut down despite being the only Hungarian parish in the archdiocese. They are “slice of life” stories that aren’t about huge trends, big ideas, or political controversies.

    Maybe in the age of megachurches, it’s easy to forget that urban communities are full of these small congregations trying to hang on to the community they have created. They may not have a Starbucks and their minister may not have his own Lear jet, but they are still interesting stories.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    Every once in a while the NYT returns to its roots as a “New York paper.” I think this is one of those instances.

    Honestly, I find this article more compelling than ones about megachurches, if only because you always hear what’s happening in the megachurches (at least around the Sound, with Ken Hutcherson vs. Microsoft and the scandal at Overlake) but you never hear what’s happening at the average-sized congregation, evangelical, mainline, liberal or otherwise.

    What was the news? Maybe he had a far-reaching impact in the community. Maybe he’s UMC in a racial group that until recently was staunchly Catholic. Maybe it’s just an interesting story. I don’t know.

    What I wonder is why the megachurches get the attention, but the mega-sized denominational churches rarely ever do. You barely hear word one about University Pres in the Seattle media, and yet it has 5000 members and could be considered the flagship evangelical PC(USA) chuch in the West. Instead, it’s all Antioch, all the time.

  • Joel

    As a former reporter, I agree with both dw and Terry. The NYT (like the LAT, unlike the Washington Post) has a problem that it often forgets it has local readers hungering for local news, so the editors prod reporters to stop seeking “big” stories and find something local.

    That said, the NYT didn’t publish a story about a small devout orthodox Christian parish, but about the sort of activist that make the Upper East Side liberals feel smug.

    By way of comparison, some feel that the July 14 Metro desk coverage of a conservative religion story — Episcopal Bishop Andrew Smith vs. St. John’s in Bristol, CT — was dismissive of a considerably larger church. http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net/index.php?p=7826
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/14/nyregion/14episcopal.html

  • Michael

    So only stories about devout Orthodox parishes are news, but “old Mainline” churches aren’t newsworthy unless it’s about how they are out of touch and being left in the dust by Megachurches? I realize it satisfies both the “NYT criticism” requirement, as well as the “conservative religious stories” are going untold meme, but I think it’s an unfair conclusion.

  • ECJ

    Follow the audience.

    There are few subjects that create so much angst among the NY Times readership as does insufficiently modern religion. So the NYT locates an appropriately Liberal Church, and writes a story to give its readers hope that there really is a viable liberal religion out there – something that is not so threatening to the Liberal world view.

    Not that they would join such a church being unbelievers themselves. Rather it’s the kind of church they would prefer religious people to prefer. Perhaps it doesn’t exist quite yet, but they have to believe its coming. So the NYT writes a story about what its readers will consider to be an omen of a brighter future.

    ECJ

  • Stephen A.

    While the idea of the NYT returning to its roots as a local paper is an interesting hypothesis, I think ECJ hit a little closer to home.

    That the paper could only find a “success” story in the liberal mainline in a 65-member church is quite sad, and revealing. And they are really forced to stretch to make it happen. But I give them credit in finding one that wasn’t obsessed with the gay sex issue.

    But then again, had the story gone into more depth and we had found out just how “rebellious” this pastor is, I’m sure it would have hit on the favorite “justice” issue of the Religious Left once again.


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