The other day, the divine Ms. MZ wrote an enthusiastically depressing post about some of the bad news that we keep hearing about the state of Godbeat reporting in the mainstream press. Grap a box of tissues and head back over there to read that post, if you dare.
Then, you may also want to check out Steve Rabey’s salute to veteran Time religion writer Dave Van Biema, hailing his recent feature story entitled “Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?” It focused on efforts at Willow Creek Community Church to make its many African-American members feel more at home and truly included in the life of that famous megachurch near Chicago.
That is a fine, fine story. Yet several things nagged at me as I read it.
First of all, Van Biema is a veteran on the Godbeat, yet (grab another tissue) he is another example of the wider trend. While he remains associated with Time, the sad news is that he no longer works there full-time. His byline is now a rare blessing, which means that all of his experience and skills (and all of his telephone numbers and other resources) are no longer camped inside the newsroom, helping other journalists to “get religion” when they need to do so on other beats.
Van Biema is a pro and one of the things that pros learn is to be sensitive to their own limitations. They learn to know more about what they don’t know. This is terribly important when you are dealing with a local, regional, national and global subject that is as complex as religion.
To get a feel for this, check out this long chunk of a follow-up interview with Van Biema posted by UrbanFaith.com. There is really no way to shorten this while making the point that I want to make:
URBAN FAITH: What attracted you to the “megachurches and race” story, and to Willow Creek as a model of progress?
DAVID VAN BIEMA: A lot of it had to do with Michael Emerson, the coauthor of the book Divided by Faith. He’s a sociologist who has been something of a theorist of racial reconciliation for over a decade and has written a number of books that have influenced the discussion about race and justice among many white evangelicals. I had heard someone say at a religion writers’ conference that megachurches were “desegregating,” so I followed up on that and that person directed me to Emerson as the foremost academic expert on the topic. I talked to Michael and he said that he thought that multiculturalism was increasing in megachurches but that his evidence was mainly anecdotal. However, he said if I’d be willing to wait a couple weeks, he would be analyzing some numbers from the National Congregations Study from Duke University that might give him a better picture of where things stand. So, I called him back a couple weeks later and he said, “Yeah, the numbers are amazing. I’m blown away!”
The numbers he found were for conservative or evangelical churches that had a weekly participation of a thousand or more, and what he derived from the survey is that the percentage of such churches that had at least 20% minority participation had quadrupled from like 6% to 25%. So, I kept talking to Emerson. I felt very excited to have been there at that moment when somebody was coming up with that kind of breakthrough statistic. Though there had been others who had asserted similar growth, the numbers seemed somewhat stronger in this case.
Eventually, I became interested in Emerson’s own story and what he was doing. This led me to the compelling narrative about how Divided by Faith had been essential to megachurch pastor Bill Hybels becoming aware of race in America as a justice and theological issue. So, I thought I’d try to find out how his church, Willow Creek, was doing in terms of racial diversity and multi-ethnicity in its congregation.
By the time I got Willow’s numbers, which were a combined minority percentage of just about 20%, I had concluded that it would be more interesting to do a story about Willow than to do one about a smaller church that was completely multiethnic and that had been multiethnic from the get-go. First of all, Willow Creek is so big and influential. And secondly, it was a church that was coming from an almost totally white place and was in the process of trying to make a huge transition from monocultural to multicultural. It seemed to me that Willow Creek’s journey, both the positives and the negatives, might be meaningful and instructive to other churches out there.
Note a crucial fact: This is, first and foremost, a story about Willow Creek, a megachurch that is coming “from an almost totally white place.”
Now, read on:
URBAN FAITH: What surprised you most as you dug into the story?
VAN BIEMA: First, I think it was the fact that Emerson had been so blown away by the rapid growth of racial diversity within evangelical megachurches. You need to understand that before tackling this story, I was not a student of American megachurches or race in the evangelical church. I took a crash course on the subject, primarily through Emerson’s books and research. And if you were to read Divided by Faith without any other knowledge of the topic, you’d get the impression that the last places where you would see progress in terms of racial diversity would be in evangelical megachurches. They just did not seem to have that kind of sensitivity or intentionality. In fact, their formation and growth seemed to be built around the idea that people would feel more comfortable going to church with people who were just like them. And if the people the evangelical megachurches were primarily focusing on were white, then it stands to reason that you’d continue to only gather white people. This is what Emerson had been writing about, so I think my initial sense of surprise was a reflection of his. The story seemed to develop a strong statistical peg before my eyes.
URBAN FAITH: As a journalist, did you have any preconceived notions about evangelical churches?
VAN BIEMA: I probably brought to the story a kind of knee-jerk assumption from my Northeastern, non-Christian background that evangelicalism was heavily influenced by a Southern sensibility and so it likely was not the most fertile ground for racial diversity. I should have known better, since I’ve written a lot about evangelicalism, had encountered it all over the country and, for that matter, knew about the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology to African Americans back in the ’90s. But this was my first decent-sized story on evangelicalism and race, and I relapsed into old thinking. Clearly I was wrong.
Once again, Van Biema deserves applause for this piece and for the process he went through to work through this subject and his own preconceptions about it. This is what reporters have to do — over and over and over again.
Yet, as I read the original Time article I was troubled by several things, a few picky facts that reminded me just how hard it is to write about religion in the mainstream press.
First of all, the article treats “megachurches” as a rather recent phenomenon, when, in reality, it is talking about a particular kind of megachurch in mainstream evangelicalism — like Willow Creek. There have been “megachurches” for decades, while many used to call them “superchurches.” I first started writing about people studying this phenomenon — mainly in Southern Baptist circles — in the late 1970s.
Second, I was reminded of what happened when religion reporter Roy Howard Beck wrote a series of United Methodist Reporter articles — in the mid-1980s — documenting that the most racially diverse flocks in American religious life were the Roman Catholics, the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists.
In particular, it was clear that people who were looking for diversity inside individual congregations — small, medium and mega — needed to look in the Assemblies of God and in other Pentecostal flocks.
This reminded me, third, of a major problem on the religion beat in general, yet another sign of how complicated this work can be. The Time article was about “evangelicals.” To what degree does that word include the exploding Pentecostal and “charismatic” scene worldwide? (Click here for that major Pew Forum study on Pentecostalism, which people are still unpacking.) It has been clear from the very beginning, at the famous Azusa Street revivals, that the lines between black and white were going to be blurred in unusual ways in that movement. Today, you would have to include Latinos and Asians in that picture.
Are there white Pentecostal churches and black Pentecostal churches? Of course. Are their Pentecostal churches that are stunningly diverse in terms of race? Of course. Are some of them, well, “mega” in size? Yes, and they have been around for decades.
What a complex subject! Getting religion isn’t easy, is it?
Could Time do a sequel on the ongoing struggle to build racial diversity in Pentecostal churches and megachurches? Yes, and let’s hope that they let Van Biema take on that challenge. He’ll do the job.
One more thing, in this long 5,000th GetReligion post.
GetReligion has an “evangelicals” category in our files, but no “Pentecostalism” category. I think we need to fix that. You live and you learn, you know.
SECOND PHOTO: Leaders of the famous Azusa Street Revival.