Sex wars in ‘Mainline’ near end?

We had an interesting discussion the other day in the comments pages after my post about coverage of the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to approve the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals (and potentially cohabitating straights, as well). The discussion focused on the old, old, old Godbeat term “mainline Protestantism.”

A reader commented, with a valid hint of anger:

Will says …

So, does this mean that the Swedenborgian Church in North America is not “mainline”, or, like the Ron Paul campaign, has simply been declared an nonentity?

If the former, then not all members of the NCCC are “mainline”. If so, who is in this exclusive “mainline” club? …

The term “mainline” has always been used, of course, to refer to the historic and once numerically prominent churches that church historians refer to as the “seven sisters” of American Protestantism. The term “mainline” has always been linked to “mainstream,” which is as judgmental as all get out, but for decades or a century or so this word was probably culturally and statistically accurate.

At the same time, the churches listed have long had a strong northern and theologically progressive cast to them, as well. Think Philadelphia “Main Line” and you have the style of this.

Thus, the term “mainline” was a fighting word for the large and powerful churches of Southern Evangelical culture. Northern Baptists were mainline. Southern Baptists were not, no matter what the numbers said.

The question now, of course, is whether the “mainline” has become the “oldline” or even — other than in the halls of Washington, D.C. power — the sideline. Are the Assemblies of God now “mainline”? The Southern Baptists? How about Catholics? Look at the U.S. Supreme Court, which now contains at least three kinds of Catholics, in terms of faith and culture.

So the big question: Is the term officially out of date? I now strive to avoid it, other than in contexts in which I can explain what it once meant.

However, in the wake of the PCUSA decision, the Religion News Service ran a crisp, solid news feature that asked another provocative question: Are the “mainline” battles over sexuality over? In other words, due to decline in some parts of the nation and increases in others — I’m thinking the polity of the United Methodist Church — has the pro-gay theological camp won its last big victory? Here is a key chunk of that:

The momentum of the gay clergy movement, however, may soon grind to a halt.

“There is not another denomination I see on the horizon right now that is on the cusp of this,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and consulting firm.

Officially, the PCUSA’s decades-old barrier will fall in July, after Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to effectively revoke a rule that had barred sexually active gays and lesbians from becoming ministers, elders and deacons. …

But even as gay and lesbian Christians celebrated, some acknowledged that steep challenges lie ahead in other denominations, particularly the country’s largest four: the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those four denominations, whose leaders show few signs of accepting gay clergy or relationships, together count nearly 100 million members. By contrast, the four largest denominations that allow gay clergy together count less than 11 million members. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has about 2.1 million members.

And in one of the few “mainline” churches that remains relatively large?

Gay rights activists in the United Methodist Church, for example, have labored in vain for years to remove a rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and bars the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, just 32 percent of Methodist ministers want to allow gay clergy. …

Moreover, the UMC, which has about 12 million members worldwide, is growing most rapidly in Africa, where Christians tend to hold conservative views on theology and sexuality, noted Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

In other words, as in the Anglican world, this story is becoming local, regional, national and global. And when one thinks about the ancient churches and the global churches, the word “mainline” takes on a completely different meaning.

It’s time to make a sincere effort to shelve this label and simply describe the reality on the ground. Name names. Quote the numbers. Detail the changes in doctrine.

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Oh, come all ye Jihadists!

And now for something completely different.

What we have here is the kind of commentary on the news that GetReligion tries to avoid, since the purpose of this blog is to offer criticism — positive and negative — of actual religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

However, every now and then figures in the mainstream press simply say things that offer insights into what they actually think about religious issues and that, one could argue, offers insights into the coverage offered by their news organizations.

This brings us to an eyebrow-raising exchange the other day on NPR’s “On the Media” between host Bob Garfield and Aaron Zelin, who runs the Jihadology.net website.

The topic of the broadcast was described this way:

Voices of jubilation were heard all across the American media this week following the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. But one voice not likely to be heard in the mainstream media was that of Al Qaeda supporters, who reacted to the news in online forums.

You can listen to the exchange, if you wish:

Or here is a slice of the transcript, in order to show context:

BOB GARFIELD: Was there anything on any of the sites that you frequent to suggest Al-Qaeda and its 20 years of the most violent sort of mischief has maybe come to naught?

AARON ZELIN: I’ve not seen any evidence of that. Those who already believe that bin Laden is dead cite how when the leader of the Arabs in Afghanistan in the ’80s against the Soviets died, the Jihad continued. And then they gave the example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He died, and the Jihad continued. So they still believe wholeheartedly that Al-Qaeda will keep on going and that the Jihad will continue, and that in the end they will be victorious.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some specifics of the rhetoric that you’ve seen?

AARON ZELIN: Yeah, sure, I could give you some quotes.

“Please let them celebrate. They are celebrating their own end. Osama is in the heart of every Muslim, even those who don’t admit it publicly.”

There are some disturbing ones, such as, “I’ll cut the head of everyone who says Sheikh Osama is dead.” And then there’s this one — this is interesting: “Coming, oh, America, coming, oh, Jews, coming, oh, rejectionists” — which they’re referring to Shi’ites — “coming, oh, Kufar, secularists and apostates. Arrivals are coming and they are bringing the coffins with merciless devices.”

BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Come all ye faithful.

AARON ZELIN: Definitely. They believe in this stuff. Even if it sounds a little crazy to us, it’s not crazy to them. It’s completely rational because they have a completely different worldview.

(CUE: Audible sigh)

As the co-founder of this website — the honorable Douglas LeBlanc — put it in his note alerting us to this spew-your-coffee classic: “Why Garfield would cite a line from a joyous Christmas hymn in response to an apocalyptic list of targets — well, it boggles the mind.”

Consider my mind boggled. How do you feel about this, worthy readers?

Consider the comments pages open for interpretations of what, precisely, the NPR star was trying to say with this snarky zinger.

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Ken Woodward colors our world

One of the reasons so many big stories in our mainstream press are “haunted” by religion ghosts is that many reporters are confused about what is and what is not “religious.”

Is religion a matter of doctrine? Yes.

Is religion a matter of culture? Yes.

Is religion a matter of rites, sacraments (even if they are not always identified as such) and practices? Yes.

Is religion a matter of personal choices and convictions? Yes, again.

I could go on and on.

So when believers commit terrible acts while singing hymns or chanting sacred slogans, their actions may in fact be rooted in their rejection of changes in their cultures that have affected them in terms of economics and the nuts and bolts of their religious lives. But that doesn’t mean that their motives are not essentially religious. It’s more than culture.

And the decline in the number of priests and nuns in the modern Catholic church? These changes may, in part, be rooted in the 1960s, birth-control pills and wider career options for women. But all of those cultural realities raise moral and religious questions, don’t they? So why are young women and men these days less likely to hear a divine call to give their lives in service to God and man? To give their lives to His Church? That’s a religious question and a cultural question.

Why am I writing this? In part because these issues come up all the time in this blog’s comments pages. And I am also writing this in response to a new essay by the veteran religion-beat scribe Kenneth Woodward, an articulate Catholic who is best known for his decades of work at Newsweek. It is a meditation drawn from an upcoming book. Here is the start of what he describes as the most personal part of the book, as published by First Things:

On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It’s a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion — more than half the map — are colored more deeply.

At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.

When colleagues stopped by my office they’d often stare over my head at the map. “Where are my people?” was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation’s capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties—all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation’s Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.

For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection — to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded — in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.

Now what jumps into your mind as you read that?

For me? Well, I think of news stories, many of them important, but very hard to cover.

IMAGE: To get closer to the map and others like it, click here.

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Lazy Pat Robertson disease lives on

Right up front, let me note that voodoo simply has to be one of the most confusing, complex and loaded subjects in the wide, wide, wide world of religion news.

For starters, there is no such thing as a formalized, doctrinaire form of voodoo. There is no voodoo canon or hierarchy to which reporters can turn to settle issues of fact, history and interpretation. There is no orthodoxy in this syncretistic, melting pot faith. The voices inside voodoo are legion.

At the same time, the faith’s many critics rarely agree with one another. A traditional Catholic’s criticisms of voodoo will be different than those made by a Pentecostal Christian and a Pentecostal Catholic’s point of view may be different, on top of that. Oh, and there are strategic divisions inside those other camps on how to relate to the intense, foundational role that voodoo plays in a land such as Haiti.

So this brings us to a New York Times report on the renewed interest in voodoo in Haitian communities in New York City after last year’s tragic earthquakes in Haiti.

Like I said, this is a complex subject and it appears that the Times tried really, really, hard to get half of this story right. Here is a crucial chunk of copy early on:

In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake.

But the world of voodoo has fallen under an unwelcome spotlight in recent weeks as a result of two episodes in which the authorities say voodoo played a central role — a fatal five-alarm fire in Brooklyn and the coming trial in Queens of a woman accused of severely burning her daughter.

The hot spotlight, we are told, is causing some voodoo believers to head underground, which can only make it harder for police and other civic authorities to understand this faith and, yes, to monitor those on its wild fringes.

When it comes to content, a key voice of authority in the Times story is Dowoti Desir, a Haitian-American expert who, readers are told, has a voodoo temple in her Harlem home:

Ms. Desir, a former professor in the Africana studies department at Brooklyn College, says voodoo has been vilified by Western culture going back to 1791, when a voodoo ceremony helped inspire slaves to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution.

Voodoo’s reputation inside and outside Haiti also suffered during the regime of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971 and whose ruthless security force, the Tonton Macoutes, misused the religion as a means of repression. Mr. Duvalier even modeled himself after the Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of death, affecting a low nasal voice and wearing dark sunglasses to hide his eyes and instill fear and devotion.

After last year’s earthquake, some evangelical preachers, including Pat Robertson in the United States, said the catastrophe was related to Haiti’s “pact with the devil.”

This passage raises all kinds of questions.

For example, what authorities are being quoted as saying that the faith advocated by the Tonton Macoutes represents a misuse of the religion “as a means of repression”? This implies that there is good voodoo and bad voodoo. What is the difference, in terms of rites and beliefs? By the way, who is the doctrinal authority that made this good-bad ruling? Is the Times quoting this voodoo scholar (one voice out of thousands on this topic) or did someone in the Times newsroom get to pass judgment on this?

Readers literally have no clue. This is bad.

Also, Pat Robertson — last time I checked — was a Pentecostal leader, not an evangelical, which is important distinction to make when one is dealing with Haiti and its growing Protestant churches.

Also, out of all of the critics of voodoo in the Christian world, how does Robertson rise, once again, to the top of the list? Why is an American from TV land the authority on this complex and emotional subject, as opposed to Haitian Pentecostals or Catholics who are actually involved in these debates in Haiti and in Haitian communities in North America?

Cynics will say that the answer is simply: Robertson is a straw man, beloved by lazy journalists.

This journalistic sin of commission and omission is important since this long story includes literally no other references to experts who are critical of voodoo and its role in Haitian culture. Click here for a sample of one such voice — a calm and solid one — speaking out on one of the hottest of hot topics, which is that voodoo event at the heart of Haitian history.

The story features plenty of voices on one side and — oh joy — Robertson on the other.

This is not a fair journalistic fight. Once again I have to ask: “Where are the Haitian voices on the other side of this issue? Where is the rest of this story?”

Photo: Yes, the second photo is of a Pat Robertson voodoo doll.

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A ‘Catholic’ flight from Mexican altars?

Back in 2006 when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life rolled out its massive “Spirit and Power” survey — a 10-nation survey of modern Pentecostalism — many of the most stunning statistics in its pages were linked to the rising number of Pentecostal Christians who could be found in Catholic pews and the stunningly high numbers of believers who had left the Church of Rome altogether.

The Latin American Herald Tribune recently ran a news feature that shows that this reality is slowing sinking for many journalists. However, this story contains a crucial and sadly predictable hole that makes it hard for readers to grasp the true size and importance of this trend. Here is the top of the report:

MEXICO CITY – More than 1,000 Mexicans left the Catholic Church every day over the last decade, adding up to some 4 million fallen-away Catholics between 2000 and 2010, sociologist and historian Roberto Blancarte told Efe.

Blancarte, one of the nation’s outstanding specialists on religious subjects, said that one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the 2010 census is that Mexico is no longer a predominantly Catholic country and has become a nation of religious pluralism. According to figures from the census taken last year, out of a total 112 million Mexicans, 92.9 million are Catholics, 14.1 million belong to Protestant Christian denominations, and a lower number are devotees of Islam, Judaism and various oriental doctrines.”

This trend has been growing for 60 years, which leads to some amazing long-term statistics:

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic, in 1960 the percentage dropped to 96.47 percent, in 1970 to 96.17 percent, in 1980 to 92.62 percent, in 1990 the percentage dropped to 89.69 percent, in 2000 the country was only 88 percent Catholic, and now that percentage is lower still at 83.9 percent.

This signifies that the last decade has seen a drop of more than 4 percentage points, equivalent to almost 4 million people or an average of 1,300 people a day leaving the Catholic Church. In contrast, the number of Protestants and Evangelicals went from 1.28 percent in 1950 to almost 8 percent of the total population in 2010, without counting Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.

Now, it should be noted that Blancarte goes on to blame this decline on the usual factors — most of them complaints made by Catholic progressives about the church’s need to change its teachings on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He also complains about “boring liturgies,” which is a swipe that could come from those influenced by Pentecostalism and modern Protestant megachurches (or television).

So what is missing?

You guessed it. The story does not offer a shred of information about who is departing the Catholic fold, in terms of whether the faith is losing people who are active or inactive, Catholics who attend Mass daily or those who rarely if ever attend at all. I have seen anecdotal evidence that Protestantism is winning the hearts and minds of many people from Catholic families that were, in fact, highly active in their parishes. Their departures will be felt much more than the departures of those who have not darkened a church door in decades.

So the exit numbers are there in the data and in the story. That’s step one. But what do they mean? To what degree are they changing the face of Mexico and its long dominant faith?

Once again, it is the practice of the faith that matters the most. Are we talking about lapsed Catholics? Easter Catholics? Sunday morning Catholics? Catholics who go to confession? Who is leaving the fold? This is, of course, the question that needs to be asked in order to make a serious attempt at reporting the “why” in this story, as in “why” are they departing?

There is no way to answer any of these essential questions, based on this story.

Photo: From Marilyn’s Gallery of Mexico, located at Picasa Web.

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Gentlemen prefer Jane Russell

The first time I ever heard about Jane Russell’s Bible studies was here at GetReligion and I could hardly believe it. I imagined the star of Outlaw and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes pouring out of her blouse rather than poring over Scripture. Russell died on Monday and it was interesting to see how obituary writers handled it.

The first piece I read was over at The Hollywood Reporter. While it included great lines such as something about most of her roles being “designed around her towering physicality and frontal amplitude,” the most it said about her religious views was that she had remained active in “her church.”

Thankfully there were obituaries with more information elsewhere. The Associated Press had a great one written by John Rogers. Immediately after a poetic lede, we learn:

Although she had all but abandoned Hollywood after the 1960s for a quieter life, her daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield said Russell remained active until just a few weeks ago when her health began to fail. Until then, she was active with her church, charities that were close to her heart and as a member of a singing group that made occasional appearances around Santa Maria.

“She always said ‘I’m going to die in the saddle, I’m not going to sit at home and become an old woman,’” Waterfield told The Associated Press on Monday. “And that’s exactly what she did, she died in the saddle.”

The phrases “voluptuous,” “stunningly beautiful,” “scandalously sexy” and “provactively dressed,” “sultry, sensual look and hourglass figure,” appear along with a ton of details about her movie career. (And we can’t forget those Playtex bra commercials from the 1970s!) Then we learn:

She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and the family later moved to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Her mother was a lay preacher, and she encouraged the family to build a chapel in their back yard.

Despite her mother’s Christian teachings, young Jane had a wild side. She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, “My Paths and Detours,” that during high school she had a back-alley abortion, which may have rendered her unable to bear children. …

She was the leader of the Hollywood Christian Group, a cluster of film people who gathered for Bible study and good works. After experiencing problems in adopting her three children, she founded World Adoption International Agency, which has helped facilitate adoptions of more than 40,000 children from overseas.

She made hundreds of appearances for WAIF and served on the board for 40 years.

We learn about some of her personal tragedies, including a bitter divorce and long struggles with alcohol:

She was able to rebound from troubles by relying on lessons she learned from her Bible-preaching mother.

“Without faith, I never would have made it,” she commented a few months after her third husband’s death. “I don’t know how people can survive all the disasters in their lives if they don’t have any faith, if they don’t know the Lord loves them and cares about them and has another plan.”

The funeral service will be held at an Assembly of God church in Santa Maria. Donations are requested for the Care Net Pregnancy and Resource Center of Santa Maria. All very interesting.

The New York Times also had an interesting obituary, albeit one more focused on social or political issues than religion. The first religion mention there was that “The Roman Catholic Church was one of the movie’s vocal opponents.” Not entirely sure what that means. Late in the piece we learn:

Ms. Russell was very public about her religious convictions. She organized Bible study groups in Hollywood and wrote about having experienced speaking in tongues. In her memoir, “My Path and My Detours” (1985), she described the strength she drew from Christianity.

A higher power was always there, she wrote, “telling me that if I could just hold tough a little longer, I’d find myself around one more dark corner, see one more spot of light and have one more drop of pure joy in this journey called life.”

If you’re interested in this facet of Russell’s life, this interview over at Christianity Today is full of good questions and answers about the role religion played in her life.

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Pod people: Alabama governor & a divine vision

No, we’re not breaking news here. The Alabama governor and the vision from God referenced in the title are separate items. Smile.

In the latest Crossroads podcast, I discuss two recent posts.

The first post concerned media coverage of newly inaugurated Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s eyebrow-raising remarks at a church:

Bentley, who for years has been a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, later in the speech gave what sounded like an altar call. “There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said.

“But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.” Bentley added,

“‘Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

On the podcast, I share my concerns about the lack of context on Bentley’s religious beliefs that accompanied most initial media reports. However, I note that we saw improvement in some of the later coverage, as my fellow GetReligionistas highlighted here and here.

The second post related to a Chicago Tribune story on a pastor who says God told him in a vision to buy a large church building:

Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.

He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo’s pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.

Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.

Robledo’s nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can’t afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.

On the podcast, I talk about what worked about the story and what didn’t and even opinionate a bit on shrinking news holes.

You can click here and listen to the podcast or head over to iTunes and subscribe to the feed that will put it right in your computer, iPod or smartphone. The podcast is free, and so is the Oklahoma accent.

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A vision from God

OK, I admit it: The video with this post is a stretch.

I needed an art element and couldn’t find anything quickly to illustrate a vision from God. So, child of the ’80s that I am, I just knew you’d appreciate Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Right?

The Chicago Tribune ran an interesting story this week on a minister who says God told him to buy a large church building:

Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.

He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo’s pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.

Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.

Robledo’s nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can’t afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.

Here’s what I like about this story: It simply reports Robledo’s impossible-to-verify claim and lets him explain it in his own words.

Readers can decide for themselves whether to believe the pastor’s story or not:

Robledo, a former bank manager, was well-versed in the practicalities of business before becoming a minister. But that experience didn’t matter when he received his vision in 2005.

He was looking for a small place in downtown Elgin to host services when one evening, he said, he received a heavenly summons to go to a building just west of the Fox River that was being sold by Grace United Methodist Church.

He arrived in the middle of the night, he said, and as his vision foretold, there was a man outside working on the building. The man showed him around but, upon learning that Robledo had no money, said the minister would need a miracle to acquire the church.

“Sir,” Robledo replied, “I believe in miracles.”

After that, he said, everything fell into place. He ran into a church acquaintance at a picnic and pitched the idea of buying the church.

Here’s what I don’t like about this story: It’s shallow and leaves too many obvious questions unanswered. Admittedly, part of that may have to do with the length: It’s only 830 words, and given shrinking news holes, that may be the upper end of the space available for this particular report.

Still, I couldn’t help but think as I read this report that a Godbeat pro would have filled in some of the blanks.

For example:

– The lede describes the pastor as “ordained,” but the story never explains who ordained him. That might go a long way toward helping understand his theological and denominational background — another hole in the report.

– His congregation is described as “nondenominational,” which could mean any number of things. But no insight is given whatsoever into the theological leanings of the church. In other words, is this the kind of church where visions from God occur on a daily basis or was it a rare thing for this pastor to report a vision?

– The story reports that pastor Larry DeSantis of Aquila Christian Ministries signed the mortgage. Again, readers are left clueless as to the beliefs of DeSantis’ ministry, but its website says:

We may be called full gospel, word of faith, pentecostal, apostolic, holiness, evangelical, non-denominational or what ever! It does not matter to us, as long as we are known as the people of God!

– Mention is made of an “internal schism” and an associate pastor leaving to start his own church, but no explanation is given of what caused the split. Theology? Personalities? Finances? What exactly precipitated the decline from a peak of 200 members to 30 worshipers on a recent Sunday?

– No purchase price is given on the church that this pastor bought. The building is for sale for $590,000, but is that more or less than the purchase price?

– Finally, the story attempts to make the case that trusting in God may lead to unwise financial decisions:

While the particulars of Lighthouse’s struggle are unique, they reflect the financial trouble many churches are suffering: An analysis by Reuters found that church foreclosures have tripled since the recession began in 2007.

Church business matters are often complicated by spiritual concerns, an expert said, creating friction within congregations and sometimes leading to risky decisions.

“Depending on a person’s spiritual commitment and mystical propensities, he may look for divine authority and weight that greater than sound business principles,” said Richard Hammar, a church tax and legal expert based in Missouri.

I wish the writer had found another expert — perhaps a Dave Ramsey type — to discuss what the Bible says about money.

All in all, this is one of those stories that you read, scratch your head and wonder what’s really going on.

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