Houston, we have a Presbyterian ‘evangelist’ problem (correction)

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Correction: The Houston Chronicle’s coverage was much more extensive than reported below. Read our apology to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson.

In her recent “State of the Godbeat 2014″ report for GetReligion, Julia Duin noted that the Houston Chronicle once had two full-time religion writers. These days, that big Texas paper has one writer covering religion, along with some other beats, Duin reported.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a major religion news story in the nation’s fourth-largest city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — generated 262 words in the Chronicle. That’s a glorified news brief, folks.

I was pleased to see that The Texas Tribune gave about three times that much space to the story, although I found the headline and lede paragraph a bit misleading.

The Tribune’s headline:

Houston Church Opts Not to Defect From Denomination

The lede:

HOUSTON — An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body. The vote stands in marked contrast to a slate of wealthy Texas congregations that have left the denomination over a disagreement about biblical interpretation and homosexuality.

Here’s my question: At this point, wouldn’t most readers assume that a majority of members voted to stay in the denomination?

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that we learn otherwise:

The results were tight. Of the 1,681 members voting, 1,085 cast ballots in favor of leaving PCUSA. That was just 36 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds to align with the new evangelical denomination.

So, in other words, 65 percent of the church supported leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the total fell just shy of the supermajority. Yes, that’s far below the 89 percent of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas members who voted last fall to leave the denomination. Still, the actual vote breakdown is a crucial detail that belongs in the first sentence, not the fourth, if you ask me. To the Chronicle’s credit, its short report did just that:

A hard-fought effort to move one of Houston’s iconic Christian churches from its long-standing denomination to a new, more conservative group narrowly failed Sunday, with the congregation voting heavily in favor of the move but falling short of the supermajority needed for approval.

On the positive side, the Tribune avoided the tendency of some media reports to make the dispute all about sex. From the top, the writer attempted to provide a fuller picture of the issues at play, even if the descriptions still seemed vague:

Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s “theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield led church staff in a unanimous call for the denominational switch. In a January meeting before the congregation, he expressed concerns about First Presbyterian’s ability to attract younger members, who he said would respond to the church’s focus on orthodoxy.

Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”

And on the opposing side, see if any phrase in here makes you go, “Hmmmmm”:

Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to. They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision, and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further isolate young members from the church.

Stricter evangelist views?

Is that a term specific to Presbyterians (and obviously one of which I am not aware)? Or perhaps did the reporter mean to write “evangelical” views?

Houston, we may have a terminology problem.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • wlinden

    Or they would start turning out evangelists with stricter views?

  • wlinden

    Since “evangelical” was already used at least once, that seems to rule out a spell-checker “correction”.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good point.


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