Bubbles, Lutherans and the Wall Street Journal

Bubbles, Lutherans and the Wall Street Journal March 17, 2014

Can colored soap bubbles blow up church attendance? Can giant crossword puzzles spell success?

If you said “Wow, what great ideas!”, not only will you get a big hug from the Lutheran bishop of New York — you just might be Wall Street Journal material.

Yes, that Wall Street Journal. The staid, reserved chronicle of conventional urbanity gets all rah-rah over some of the wilder attempts by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to bring up the numbers in his churches — or at least to stop them from falling further.

The WSJ article could be great for a journalism class on how not to write and report. Much of it is jarringly jumbled. The parts that do make sense don’t always match facts on the ground. And some statements contradict one another.

And the story wastes no time in, well, wasting our time. High up, we get:

… Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo may be the only spiritual leader trying to rebuild his flock with giant crossword puzzles in the subway and interactive art projects involving dye-filled soap bubbles.

‘We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.’

“New York is different from the rest of the country,” said Bishop Rimbo, 63 years old, in an interview from his expansive office near Columbia University, complete with Hudson River views. “The younger demographic wants a religion that won’t divide,” he said, referring to social issues like gay marriage.

“Look at Pope Francis, he’s so humble and he’s removed the trappings of the papacy and made it more inclusive,” Bishop Rimbo said. “We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.”

To that end, Bishop Rimbo has made a point of speaking his mind on several hot-button social issues and has worked with area pastors to create alternative church services throughout the New York City area.

Given the crucial lack of copy editors in newspapers these days, I won’t make a big deal of the repeated sentence about reaching out where they’re not present. It is worth noticing, though, that the topic of social media is brought up nowhere else in the story. So the bishop isn’t following his own advice, or the reporter didn’t ask a follow-up question, or he did and then deleted the answer.

But we have bigger deals to deal with here:

* What metrics make New York different from the rest of the country? Do New Yorkers want their religion packaged in giant crossword puzzles and colored soap bubbles? Or did the bishop mean something else?

* If younger New Yorkers want a religion that “won’t divide,” why does Rimbo make a point of speaking on “hot-button social issues”? Such issues would seem to be divisive by definition.

* If Rimbo considers gay marriage one of those divisive issues, why does he plan to perform one himself, as the article says later? Or are people being divisive only when they don’t approve of something?

* If Pope Francis is a good model for what Rimbo wants, how is Francis doing? American Catholics told a pollster they’re giving more, but another survey found “no statistically significant rise in the number of Americans who identify as Catholic; in frequency of Mass attendance by Catholics; in Catholics going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities.”

Despite the ELCA’s wish to get everyone together, in fact, the denomination has dwindled in New York, as the WSJ reports: falling by 20 percent over the last decade — more than half of that time during Rimbo’s tenure as bishop, starting in 2008.

It’s funny that Rimbo “has styled himself as the right man to reverse that trend,” according to the article. It’s even funnier that the Journal didn’t ask why he hasn’t yet done so.

But you can’t say he and his pastors aren’t trying stuff. Like one Lutheran minister inviting members to use paint and clay to “unleash your theological imagination.” Or a “dinner church” that holds services over meals. Of course, another religion has done pretty well with the latter (see “Seder”), something the WSJ article didn’t mention.

Then comes an incredible remark about resistance to changes:

Such programs aren’t without detractors. “It’s very hard for some of the traditional churches to adapt,” said the Rev. Ruben Duran, director of new-congregational development for the Lutheran national church organization. He specifically cited Southern churches that find the idea of church meetings at yoga centers or coffee houses “hard to swallow.”

Perhaps Duran was thinking only of ELCA churches? Surely not the United Methodist coffeehouse in Texas. Or an indoor skateboard park run by Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale. Or a weekly “Ultimate Frisbee” game by Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod congregation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

The WSJ article shows another glaring lack of religious background when it reports how Rimbo “isn’t afraid of stoking controversy” by stating his support for intercommunion. The ELCA’s own website shows that it already practices full communion with six other denominations — including Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

The article ends with Rimbo’s plan to officiate his first same-sex marriage in June. But a more tantalizing item came higher in the story: In May, he’s up for re-election as bishop — and “could face as many as six opponents.” Another missed question: If Rimbo is such an innovator, why do so many people think they can burst his bubble?

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    If I see one more person touting Pope Francis as an exemplar/model/excuse for their latest loopiness (unless it’s someone quoting Pope Francis on the importance of going to confession which is why they’ve decided to take up monthly confession), I am liable to do something uncharitable.

    As to New York being different from the rest of the nation (or indeed the world), my first response to that was “No, it’s not; it’s full of people with souls to be saved in need of salvation”.

    My second response about being inclusive and “the younger demographic want a religion that won’t divide” was to be reminded of a line from an article by G.K. Chesterton, that making such claims means you’re including in your putative congregations “millions of agnostics, atheists, hedonistic pagans, independent mystics, psychic investigators, theists, theosophists, followers of Eastern cults and jolly fellows living like the beasts that perish”.

  • John Pack Lambert

    If this guy really believed in staying away from divisive issues he would never perform a same-sex marriage. That makes no sense to me at all.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz