It’s time for reporters to face the facts

moses tabletsLet me pause to plug an item or two over at Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s blog, in large part because he has veered totally into GetReligion territory with repeated appeals for journalists to actually cover the doctrinal contents of the current story about Pope Benedict XVI and Islam.

But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized without offending the religious believers involved in the stories (and doing shallow, inaccurate jouranlism at the same time)?

Thus, Rod writes, riffing on a Mars Hill Audio podcast by former NPR producer Ken Myers:

… I’m generalizing, but I’d say that the approach journalists take to reporting on Islam is palliative; that is, it seeks to soothe the public’s concerns about Islam by presenting it merely as a misunderstood faith. Episcopalians in hijabs and kufis. Of course it’s laudable to want to teach the public more about any faith as a way of dispelling prejudice, but when you take that approach, you run the risk of hiding aspects of that faith that the public would find offensive or unsavory. Worse, you yourself become incurious about things that about which you should be curious. And you do both the integrity of journalism and your readers a disservice by refusing to pay attention, and to ask the tough questions.

From there, Dreher leaps over to a weblog at The New Republic (that well-known right-wing rag) that offers a commentary by Jacob T. Levy on precisely the same topic.

Under the header, “Taking religion seriously,” Rod posts this sobering clip from Levy (advance warning to all Unitarian Universalists):

It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it’s serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards “No man comes unto the father but through Me” is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don’t expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don’t think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive; indeed, my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way. This is a bit like the stance of many American lapsed Catholic or many Israeli secular Jews, I incline to say, “I don’t believe in God, but the God in whom I don’t believe is a serious one!” But I don’t quite mean that. Rather, I want to say that if there is a point to religion and theology, then that point is undermined by the reluctance to draw distinctions and take them seriously.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

In other words, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity cannot be both right and wrong. The Ten Commandments can’t be suggestions and still be commandments, for those who practice Judaism. Christians do not believe that Jesus was a nice guy and Muslims do not believe that he was the Son of God. Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic. Islamic teachings about the nature of God, and the role of reason in faith, cannot be reconciled to Roman Catholic beliefs without doing violence to both faiths. Ask the pope. Ask your local imam.

I could go on and on. All of the roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same, unless, of course, they are all wrong and there is no mountain anyway because there is no life to come or there is no such thing as salvation and/or damnation.

So it’s hard to cover stories about traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others if you are not willing to admit that they have a right to their beliefs and that journalists have a professional responsibility to try to get the facts about those beliefs right.

End of sermon. Thanks for the links, Rod. And I hope The New Republic does a cover story on this issue.

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IRS hits home in LAT

render unto caesarCovering a bunch of local stories that evolve into a national trend is difficult for a reporter, but Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times did it quite handily Monday in an article on how the Internal Revenue Service is keeping its eye on religious groups come political season. The article is appropriately timed. In keeping with the Times‘ profile as a national paper, focused little on anything related to New York City. Instead, Goodstein painted in broad strokes and explored trends.

Goodstein breaks little news in this article, but her thorough reporting allowed her to set the national scene that is sure to dribble out into various localities. Also look for the major TV networks to follow this one.

My only issue is that covering this topic from a local perspective is a lot more interesting, but more on that a few paragraphs down.

In a way, Goodstein’s attempt to be bipartisan stretches the article’s premise: both conservative and liberal religious groups are nervous about an IRS crackdown on the political involvement of charities and churches. But the article is quick to rehash the efforts of conservative religious groups in supposedly bringing out the vote for Bush in 2004 and does little to touch on liberal religious groups:

“The stakes for these churches are higher than ever before because of the I.R.S.’s new enforcement efforts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The I.R.S. is taking this very seriously, and I think it’s because the situation was spinning out of control.”

Mr. Lynn said that conservative churches in 2004 had constructed a political machine he likened to “a church-based Tammany Hall.” He said he expected their voters’ guides to be skewed to favor Republican candidates. “It’s absolutely illegal, it’s wrong and it divides churches,” he said.

Clever quotes about Tammany Hall are great, but could we go back to the basics and do a bit of showing and not telling? Otherwise all you have to do to create balance is run one side’s clever quotes against the other’s. That’s style, not substance.

Shifting to the local scene, the Los Angeles Times‘ Scott Glover and Louis Sahagun did a great job reporting on a local church facing an IRS investigation into its political activities. Oh, and the church happens to be liberal. And it gets better. The church is crying freedom of speech and religion. Check this out:

A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency’s request for documents.

“These people are offended,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court.”

Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.

In this wonderful age of the Internet, readers have choices. While the NYT did a nice job summarizing the issue for its national audience, the LAT nailed the issue to the mat and used its particular local situation to explore the matter in a real-life situation, rather than rehash recent American political history.

Here’s a challenge to you readers: send us articles in your local newspaper that deal with IRS regulations regarding politics. Are the pastors in your area aware? Do they discuss the matter in the pulpit?

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Random thoughts on Veggies, Jesuits, etc.

holmes800x600Here are some random thoughts this misty Saturday morning while I’m reading the free-speech fallout on the wire services.

• I think that all over America, in zip codes blue and red, evangelical megachurches should get organized and have thousands of people pile into church buses and head over to their local NBC affiliates with signs and bullhorns and march around and around in a peaceful, nonviolent manner, chanting: “God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much!”

Won’t that scare some sense into people? Can you imagine NBC letting anyone mention God on television? The next thing you know they’ll be talking about letting Madonna hang on a mirrored cross while singing something offensive, right there on network television! Surely not. It isn’t good to offend people’s religious beliefs. The New York Times says so.

Why do I suggest this? Click here for a conservative editorial on the matter. Or click here for the views of Bob the Tomato, himself.

• And while I am on the subject of ironic forms of public protest, what would happen if leaders of the kicked-off-campus Georgetown University chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship applied to the leadership of the Jesuit school for permission to hold a public forum this week in which students and faculty would be asked to read and then peacefully discuss the text of Pope Benedict XVI’s actual speech text on faith, reason and jihad?

Perhaps the event could be held at the well-endowed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on the campus?

Just thinking out loud, you know. I am sure the campus administration would welcome such a request by the ousted Protestant groups to organize an ecumenical and even interfaith event focusing on the intellectual life of a man that Georgetown must realize is in the mainstream of Catholic intellectual life.

• Question: Does anyone here think that President Bush will say a word about the pope crisis? Just asking.

• Speaking of which, did you hear that the U.S. State Department has decided that Saudi Arabia isn’t such a bad place after all, when it comes to religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is not amused.

“The Commission is simply shocked that the Department removed longstanding and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” said Felice D. Gaer, Chair of the Commission. In July, the U.S. government confirmed a variety of Saudi policies to improve “religious practice and tolerance” — many of which were first recommended in Commission reports. However, the new State Department report shows that such policies have not yet been implemented.

This did receive some coverage, but not much.

Back to reading the wires.

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A Third Awakening?

camp meetingDid President Bush lose the evangelical vote? Is he trying to get it back? Was there ever an evangelical vote for the Texan to corral? The history of the Bush administration’s relationship with Christians is nowhere near being closed, but Bush said something rather significant Tuesday that is going to receive quite a bit of attention — first from reactionaries claiming that he is trying to bring a theocracy to America, and later from historians.

But first, check out this Weekly Standard piece by Marc Ambinder. In it, Ambinder reflects on what Bush’s political strategists (think Karl Rove) are just now beginning to realize:

For that matter, these organizations are not all that influential inside the Beltway. Nationally, the Christian Coalition is near death; in its place, the Family Research Council and other small groups try to keep the embers burning. They claim hundreds of thousands of members. They have access to top White House officials, and they hold events to keep their membership satisfied; but Republican strategists with access to polling know they move the votes of very few Christians.

The current crop of well-regarded evangelical leaders, like David Barton of WallBuilders, a group seeking to rekindle appreciation of the country’s religious heritage, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are better pastors and behind-the-scenes operators than they are political strategists. They are good at gauging the mood of voters in the states; they don’t try to build national movements.

Ambinder cites a rather significant development of muscle-flexing by smaller, community-based Christian political organizations in local races. His conclusion is that evangelicals are driven by national security and not so much by the culture wars. This is why GOP movers and shakers are looking so fondly at former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Ambinder writes.

But does that mean Karl Rove has given up on courting evangelicals or at casting the current political climate as some grand global spiritual battle between the forces of evil and good? Check out this blog post at National Review‘s The Corner, which The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker jumped on in a page A5 story:

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a “Third Awakening” of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation’s struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as “a confrontation between good and evil.”

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln’s strongest supporters were religious people “who saw life in terms of good and evil” and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

“A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me,” Bush said during a 1½-hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. “There was a stark change between the culture of the ’50s and the ’60s — boom — and I think there’s change happening here,” he added. “It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.”

great awakeningSeeing that Baker could not have started writing this article until after 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, he did not have a lot of time to gather facts or cite history. And seeing that he was not included in this meeting of conservative journalists, he did not have the chance to question Bush on what he meant by a “Third Awakening.”

Baker, who should be credited for catching on to a great news story first cited by another media outlet, did a great job quickly tracking down some historical facts on what Bush meant by Great Awakening. There are no doubt going to be many ways to look at it, but I was impressed by his reporting and his insightful note that Karl Rove, among other Bush aides, has read The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel.

Now an obvious contradiction lies in this comparison. The book talks about a Fourth Great Awakening. Scholars have legitimate debates over whether we have had two, three or more Great Awakenings.

But forget for a moment the historical details and debates over numbering, which in this case is pretty insignificant. Bush is citing a historical movement that is near and dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. This is something prayed for in church, at bedsides and around the dinner table.

How radical is it for Bush to say he believes we are in a Great Awakening? What do historians say? In 40 to 50 years will there be a case to be made that the Bush II years were something of a religious revival? After Bush won reelection two years ago, some were saying that already.

Is Bush just echoing the beliefs of his evangelical supporters? He did say that he feels their prayers.

There is the whole issue of how this plays into the war on terrorism that happens to be primarily against Muslims. Baker addresses that in a brief paragraph that says Bush is now careful not to describe the battle in religious terms (such as “crusade”) and an explanatory statement from an aide (who might that be?).

It will be very interesting to see how this statement plays in overseas media, which will have little appreciation for the historical value of the statement. You can forget about Muslim media. Imagine what type of historical misunderstandings would be communicated if the leader of a major Middle Eastern country made a remark akin to Bush’s. Hey, wait a minute

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Don’t mess with Texas evangelicals

03 00008 popLike I said, it’s hard to do a GetReligion commentary about a photo essay.

But here goes. Start by clicking here. Now click here. Finally, click here and look over this new photo essay — taken from the book The Amazing Faith of Texas, by Roy Spence — in the award-winning religion section of The Dallas Morning News. Does anyone else see any connections?

So what is the theological message of this photo essay?

The project conveys the rich diversity of faith in Texas — and shows that “when it comes to religion, what unites us is more important and deeper than what divides us,” said Mr. Spence, the head of GSD&M, the Austin ad agency best known for its “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

“When you ask Texans what they believe in, what they think about spiritually, they don’t talk about politics, gay marriage or anything like that,” he said. “They say, ‘I believe in God. I believe in the Golden Rule. And I’m pretty dadgum tolerant of other people’s beliefs.’”

Wow. I had no idea that Texas was such a National Council of Churches kinda place. But it must be true. Look at these pictures from a company in Austin. There are conservative Protestants in here, I guess. But their only institutional homes are old and empty (First Baptist Church, Dallas, at night) or tiny and funky (think tiny towns in West Texas).

Once again, where are the folks featured in this here article? It’s from Christianity Today and it calls Dallas “The New Capital of Evangelicalism.”

Well, I have known lots of Texans in my day (I am one, like it or not), and lots of them believe in the Golden Rule and still have lots of strong opinions and beliefs about all of that nasty stuff linked to divisive moral, religious and social issues. In other words, there are Texas Unitarians — but I don’t think they’re the folks who have made Texas the megachurch capital of the universe.

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America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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Did 9/11 touch many souls?

911DevilAs you would expect, reporter Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times includes a passing reference to the impact of 9/11 on the spiritual climate in America. I am looking around online to see if other mainstream newsrooms do the same.

Please consider this an open thread on the spiritual elements of the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage today. Please let us know what you see — the bad and, especially, the good.

Here is the passing spiritual reference from Simon’s story. I thought it was especially fitting to include this right after the reference to the high percentage of Americans who now believe, or are willing to ponder the possibility, that their own government played a role in planning the attacks. If the devil didn’t make the terrorists act, then who did?

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed “God Bless America,” it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. “Spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened,” says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

As you would expect, I waded into this church-attendance myth back in 2001. It was a story that had to be checked out, after editors sent waves of reporters to church on the Sunday after the attacks. But, from the beginning, it sounded like a wave of anecdotes, to me.

Cross 911poemFirst you went to church. Then editors wanted the “Where Was God?” story covered. Then there were the stories and polls declaring that one form of absolute truth claim was just as evil as another.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised that the attacks had little or no impact at all. I would not have been surprised if they had had a negative impact on organized religion. But no impact? Here is the column I wrote at the time:

Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it’s something like 41.

For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that’s about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.

Then came the events of Sept. 11.

“Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country,” said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network … has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.

“It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. … We immediately started calling churches and asking, ‘What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?’”

Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll … came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.

Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. “People have a heightened sense of alertness,” said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: “We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order.”

The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.

Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.

“I’m not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues,” he said. “I’m not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that.”

By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.

Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking “spiritual solace.” But the data suggested that they were flying solo.

The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group ( did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups “remained static.” Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.

“After the attack,” said George Barna, “millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention.”

These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in “moral truths or principles that are absolute,” meaning truths that don’t change with the circumstances, actually declined — from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

“Our assessment,” said Barna, “is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.” The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to “be the healing and transforming presence of God in people’s lives, but that … has now come and gone, with little to show for it.”

It seems that the larger story is the growth of radical individualism, with a secondary trend in which very traditional forms of religious faith survive and even grow among those who are counter-cultural. Of course, few things are harder for journalists to cover than trends that roll along at the level of individual choices that are not linked to movements and institutions. How do you cover an anti-movement movement?

Please help us watch the coverage today. Please use the comments pages to pass along headlines and URLs. Thank you.

Update 1: If you want the straight existentialist angle, which is a kind of spiritual viewpoint, check out this feature in today’s Style section (of course) in the Washington Post. Most haunting detail? The mourning mother’s desire to buy a Leatherman utility knife, just to know what it feels like in her hand. For a strange suburban form of existentialism, click here. How did the Post find the totally faith-free street?

Update 2: Back to the Los Angeles Times for a really cynical spin. Why face the reality of 9/11? Why change, when you can change the channel? That’s entertainment.

Update 3: As you would expect, the New York Times has produced another massive update on its stunning package of mini-portraits of those who have died. I have been reading through some of them at random and, I must say, they are amazingly faith free. Have I just had bad luck? Anyone else want to help me search?

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Getting rid of parishioners . . . on purpose

Rickwarren 01Rick Warren, who pastors the Saddleback megachurch in California and has sold a gazillion copies of Purpose Driven books, is frequently named a top evangelical by a variety of publications. He advocates using business practices to drive church growth and his teachings are widely followed by fellow Southern Baptists and folks from all denominations who want to increase their church rolls. He encourages pastors to preach about day-to-day problems rather than the historic Christian themes of sin, redemption and atonement. Warren could not be more popular.

Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline came up with an interesting angle for her story on the Warren empire. She spoke with evangelicals who disagree with Warren’s business-minded approach:

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country’s more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals . . . say it’s inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools, including concepts such as researching the church “market” and writing mission statements. Others say it encourages simplistic Bible teaching. Anger over the adoption of Mr. Warren’s methods has driven off older Christians from their longtime churches. Congregations nationwide have split or expelled members who fought the changes, roiling working-class Baptist congregations and affluent nondenominational churches.

Last summer, the evangelical church of onetime Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers split after adopting Mr. Warren’s techniques. That church, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, wanted to increase membership and had built a huge sanctuary several years ago to accommodate hundreds of people. Church leaders adopted a strategic plan built around Mr. Warren’s five “fundamental purposes”: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. One goal was to make sure more than 19% of the church’s members were adults in their 20s and 30s, says the pastor, the Rev. Barry McCarty.

The Rev. Ron Key, then the senior minister, says he objected to the church’s “Madison Avenue” marketing. “I believe Jesus died for everybody,” Mr. Key says, not just people in a “target audience.” He says the leaders wanted church that was more “edgy,” with a worship service using modern music. Mr. Key was demoted, then fired for being divisive and insubordinate.

purpose driven booksWhen President Bush made his curious Supreme Court selection a year ago, it seemed like the story of Ms. Miers’ church split would be interesting. I wouldn’t have suspected it had to do with Rick Warren.

Anywhoo, Sataline looks at several churches whose experiences with Warren’s methods have had varying degrees of success. I liked how she explained the core beliefs and rituals of this modern American Protestant approach:

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs and pews. He and his followers use “praise team” singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how conflict is considered part of change management. Difficult customers are expected, and you may be surprised how they are dealt with:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church … and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that splits occur in congregations that adopt his ideas, though he says he opposes efforts to expel church members. “There is no growth without change and there is no change without loss and there is no loss without pain,” he says.

I don’t know how Sataline got those quotes, but they confirm that she had a good story on her hands. Baptist Press had a complaint, though.

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