The Boston Globe shows how to write about church planters

Earlier this month I called a story about a church planter in Brooklyn the worst religion story of the year. I don’t like to write harsh critiques (really, I don’t) but it’s frustrating to have an interesting story mangled by shoddy reporting. While reading that terrible Daily News piece I wondered, “What could this article have done right?”

To my surprise, the Boston Globe recently provided an answer. While their feature is about a group of church planters in Boston, rather than in Brooklyn, the similarities are close enough to show “what could have been.”

Most everything about the Globe article is praiseworthy so let’s begin with the biggest flaw, the lazily provocative title: “On a mission to save godless Massachusetts.” The headline is not only unfair to religious believers in an area once nicknamed “The Puritan State,” it’s unfair to the reporter and the subjects being written about in the article. Many readers will begin the story assuming the Evangelical Christians mentioned in the subhead claim the state is “godless,” when that is nowhere mentioned in the story.

What is claimed, and adequately defended by the reporter, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is not that the state is godless but that it has a low level of religiosity:

Once upon a time, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

Throughout the article, Fitzgerald not only does a good job of providing context for why “church planters are eyeing the region” but he also explains why a trend that has been going on for decades (urban church planting) is worthy of a renewed attention:

I spoke with a pastor who is at the center of the push for new Boston area churches—Joe Souza, who works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. Five years ago, Souza says, 87 percent of new churches trying to reach wayward New Englanders failed. But thanks to a bold rethinking of their top-down strategy, 95 percent of today’s new churches are succeeding. “Basically,” Souza says, sponsoring denominations are “letting the guys in the field call the shots.” . . .

The vision of embedding in the local community distinguishes this latest crop of church planters from those that came before them, says David Midwood, North Andover campus pastor of Free Christian Church and former president of Vision New England, a regional association of evangelicals that will celebrate its 125th anniversary in October. “There has been a radical change [from the past],” Midwood says. “A revolutionary change.”

Under the previous model, church planters hardly ever took the time to get to know their community, Midwood says. “Somebody would come up from Alabama or Mississippi” with three to five years’ worth of funding. “And after five years, when the money dried up, they collapsed and went away.” But the new model—start small and build relationships—is organic, Midwood says. “People love the cultural context that they are ministering in. They eat with them, drink with them, spend time with them, and get out of the bomb-shelter mentality.”

While the feature spends an adequate amount of time covering the “why Bostonians should care” angle, the core of the article is a human-interest story about a group of church planters from Texas: Ross Waddell, Myke and Britney Wilkerson, and Miryam and Brandon Allison.

Rather than offering his own opinion about his subjects, Fitzgerald lays out the reality of the situation and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the church planters. For example, the main takeaway that I came away with is that church planting is a venture that requires an incredible amount of sacrifice. All five adults (along with pair of twin babies) lived together in a three-bedroom apartment, and both Brandon and Myke got jobs working the 4 a.m.-to-noon shift at the Dunkin’ Donuts across from where they preach on Sunday mornings. Donut-making and apartment-sharing probably don’t fit the image most Bostonians have of the clergy. Yet those are the sort of necessary details that help readers gain a better understanding of the realities of vocational ministry and the difficulty of being a modern church planter.

That type of detail is a refreshing change from the usual reporting on church planting. But what was most surprising about the piece is what is missing: the complete absence of snarkiness and condescension.

A story about Southern Evangelicals moving to the East Coast to start a church could have, as with the Daily News example, turned into an occasion for sneering regional superiority. In this regard, the choice of reporters certainly helped. Fitzgerald (who I’ve been acquaintance of for years) is a writer who prizes civility and fair treatment and goes out of his way to be respectful to both his subject and his readers. He showed how a responsible journalist should approach such a story.

And the Boston Globe, to their credit, have shown other large East Coast newspapers how to write about church planters in their midst in a way that is illuminating, informative, and fair. Let’s hope other media outlets learn from this example.

Image credit: Porter Gifford for the Boston Globe.

  • Whispersinthegallery

    I read that article and was impressed with the even-handedness of the writing. I wish all religious journalism contained this voice.

  • Darren Blair

    You might want to double-check the citations from the original article; that many question marks tells me that the coding didn’t quite come out right.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      Thanks, that’s now fixed.

  • Bob Smietana

    Joe – you read the Globe more often :-) Been reading it since I was a kid, and it remains a great paper.

    You have to read Michael Paulsen’s story about another new church from a few years back.
    http://www.boston.com/news/specials/masiss/

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      You’re right. I admit that until recently I didn’t follow the Globe all that closely. From what I’ve seen so far, though, it does seem to offer above-average coverage of religion.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Boston Globe coverage of religion–especially the Catholic religion and Evangelical Christianity–is in my opinion (and the opinion of many in the Boston area) usually quite negative–except when pushing a liberal religious agenda for the Church.
    Thus, to see this story in the Globe and one that appeared today is almost hard to believe.
    This mornings Globe had a story titled: “Anglican priest, flock cross a welcoming bridge.” It was prominently on the front page and given a long spread inside. And it wasn’t snarky toward the problems the Anglican Church is having, nor was it condescending toward those who “crossed the Tiber.”
    The author of the story is Lisa Wangsness. She appears to have become a regular as far as covering religion for the Globe.
    Maybe some editors are carefully looking over their shoulders at the new owners of the Globe.

    • Bob Smietana

      Deacon:

      I think you’ve been missing out on some religion stories.
      Lisa Wangness was named religion writer at the Globe in February 2010. Her predecessor, Michael Paulson, won a Pulitzer

      • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

        Bob–one reason I wanted to praise Lisa W’s latest Globe story is that I remembered she had done some other good pieces. However, I missed the story that reported on her becoming the Globe’s religion writer.
        But using the Pulitzer Prize as an emblem of competence or truth “ain’t what it used to be.”
        One survey of winners concluded: “No Conservatives Need Apply.” Another survey concluded: “The Pulitzer Racket.” (liberals stroking liberals) One Pulitzer recipient (Alice Walker) recently published a book loaded with anti-Semitism.
        And then there was “Stalin’s Pulitzer” –the Pulitzer given to the NY Times writer, Walter Duranty, in 1932. Duranty’s stories from the Ukraine covered up for Stalin the Soviet caused famine that killed possibly millions of Ukrainians.
        It took until 2005 or so for the bologna to hit the fan over that Pulitzer, then the excuses came belching out over why that Pulitzer shouldn’t be revoked–excuses like “Well, he really won it for 3 other stories, not the one’s with the blatant cover-up lies.

  • kmbold

    I blush to admit that I was expecting an account of good and bad landscaping.


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