Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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That faceless, mysterious flock of atheists in Guitar Town

One of the rules here at GetReligion is that we really, really try to understand the limitations that shape the work of many mainstream journalists in this era.

After all, we have been there and done that. We have had editors cut stories. We have been told to write 500-word daily stories on subjects that, to do them justice, would require 4,000 words and a month’s work of research. We feel your pain, fellow journalists.

Thus, we try to avoid criticizing a story by saying that it should be twice as long. If we spot a massive hole in a story — a religion-shaped hole — we try to propose ways that a time- and space-strapped reporter could fill it with a sentence or two or, or maybe a paragraph or two, of content. All journalists yearn for more reporting time and more inches of type in which to display the results.

However, I am about to break that rule.

Maybe it’s because I love the city of Nashville and know a thing or two about the people there, but that short news story in The Tennessean about the new atheist congregation in hip East Nashville — “Sunday Assembly’s atheist gathering looks a lot like church” — really needed more content. Yes, this is another localized story spinning off all of the coverage of the small Sunday Assembly on the other side of the big pond.

Launched in London just over a year ago by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the group has grown to 37 Sunday Assemblies across the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Of the 16 in this country, Nashville is arguably the most unlikely location. The group meets a few miles from the headquarters of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Organizers say they’re tapping into the “nones,” what religion demographers call the one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. That group is on the rise, Pew Research Center data show, and includes atheists and agnostics but, in larger numbers, people who simply don’t identify themselves with any particular philosophy.

Sunday Assembly began meeting in Nashville in November and has faced little criticism from locals, even the most religious.

The news hook for the story? Jones the co-founder was in town for a filming session for a CNN show. What a shock.

Otherwise, the whole story — this is valid, methinks — focuses on how this non-church looks like a church once you walk inside the doors. Has anyone seen a story about one of these groups in which this was not the case?

All together now:

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ESPN spots a ghost in the Seattle-Russell Wilson lovefest

Some GetReligion readers may have noticed that there is a big football game later today.

One of the teams involved in the Super Bowl this year is the Seattle Seahawks and, as always, the team’s quarterback — in this case second-year starter Russell Wilson — is getting quite a bit of attention, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, Wilson is short by NFL standards, standing only 5-foot-11. Second, he is one of those guys who walks into a room and is instantly recognized as a leader, sort of like my all-time sports heroes Bill Russell and Mike Singletary.

Finally, Wilson is rather open about his Christian faith and beliefs, although his style is more subdued than a Tim Tebow.

To no one’s surprise, ESPN produced a major feature on Wilson this week, running under the headline: “The adoration of Russell Wilson.” As is common with this kind of story, it opens with a long anecdote telling how Wilson quietly got involved in the lives of Kristina and Dave Quick and, in particular, their five-pound newborn son Franklin and his “imperfect, broken heart.” After one crisis, there is a tense, risky 10-hour surgery.

This leads to the transition into the body of the article:

The weeks and months to come would be critical. A few days later, Quick was half asleep next to his son when a stranger walked into the room. For a moment, Quick wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or imagining things. But then the stranger, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, did something the Quicks will never forget.

He hugged them. He told the Quicks he and his wife, Ashton, had heard about Franklin, and they’d been thinking about him a lot. They’d been praying for him every day. They just wanted to stop by and let the Quicks know they were pulling for Franklin.

“I think I probably experienced about 10 different emotions,” Quick says. “Shock, disbelief, but most of all, pure genuine joy. For someone of his stature to do that is just amazing. For 20 minutes, he enabled us to not think about everything we were going through. He greeted us like we were family. I’d heard about these visits, that it was something he liked to do, but you see him walk through that door and you know he’s the real deal. He is truth.”

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays? It’s a complicated question, and the truth is, the answer varies depending on the market and the athlete.

Here’s the key to this story. I assumed this would be a pretty basic God-card story about an athlete who — like a Robert Griffin III — has consistently tried to express his faith through public service. I expected the ESPN team to somehow deal with the obvious subject, which is Wilson’s Christian faith.

However, I wondered if the article would take on the other religious issue in this story — Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

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NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as “low-hanging fruit” in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don’t dare call them “holiday parties.”

One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal‘s online opinion section, specifically his daily “Best of the Web Today” feature, coined the phrase, “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” to describe writing that’s obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times‘ crime reporter who incredulously once noted, “Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates.”

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  ”During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate.” You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let’s begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit — “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light” — but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, “Is this really news?” If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

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Mainline killed the local church star — paper blinks

The death of a congregation is never pleasant, and the closure of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey was no exception. Sunday, Nov. 3, was to see a final worship service at the 117-year-old congregation.

According to The Bergen (N.J.) Record, simple demographics are to blame:

“It’s going to be a good farewell,” said Bob Ryder, president of board of trustees for the Presbytery of the Palisades, which oversees nearly 50 Presbyterian churches in North Jersey.

West Side’s closure is part of a national demographic shift away from mainline Protestant churches. Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and Orthodox Jewish families.

Another factor is that an increasing percentage of people are not joining any church. About one-fifth of Americans and one-third of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

In the Presbyterian denomination alone, 86 churches disbanded last year after national membership dropped by more than 100,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Presbyterian Church USA. The Presbytery of the Palisades has closed five churches in the past 10 years, including two in Hackensack and one each in Garfield and Edgewater, Ryder said.

Now, it’s entirely possible that shifting demographics and the “rise of the nones” that caused the closure of five churches in the Presbytery of the Palisades. It’s possible, but I have to wonder if the 2011 actions of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, among other moves away from historic Presbyterian positions, might have had something to do with the departures as well. Surely not all 86 PCUSA congregations disbanded over demographics alone, did they?

We get only that demographic logic from the story, but as Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal notes:

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