Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Like all historic private universities, Baylor University -- chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas -- has its share of beloved traditions.

One of them is that public prayers during graduation ceremonies are given by Baylor staff members, faculty and, when possible, ministers who are the parents of graduating seniors. That's why the Rev. Dan Freemyer of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth stepped to the microphone on May 18 to deliver the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites.

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

It's crucial to know that Freemyer serves as the "missional engagement" pastor at Broadway Baptist, a progressive congregation that in 2010 voted to leave the Baptist General Convention of Texas in a dispute over the moral status of homosexual behavior. Baylor retains BGCT ties, but -- for many decades -- has had many connections to Broadway Baptist.

Ending his prayer, Freemyer stated: "God, you are doing a new thing. Praise be! … It springs forth and we can feel it."

This prayer drew scattered applause, in part because it came days after Baylor regents declined to meet with leaders of the campus LGBTQ group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which has been seeking formal recognition from school administrators. This policy change would give the group, once known as the Sexual Identity Forum, access to student-fee funds and, more importantly, this would indicate that Baylor leaders believe its work is in accord with the school's "unapologetically Christian" mission.

The Freemyer prayer yanked years of conflicts back into the open, igniting debates during graduation events and then on the Internet.

Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

The word "conversion" has been at the heart of Christianity for two millennia, with missionaries and evangelists urging sinners to repent and change their wicked ways.

Jesus also needed to be converted from his "bigotries and prejudices," according to Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky region. Consider the New Testament passage in which Jesus seems to rebuke a Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her daughter. The woman persists and, seeing her faith, Jesus performs the miracle.

"Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? … Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him," wrote Oliveto, in a 2017 online essay that was later taken down. "The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. … We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God."

In this case, Jesus changed his mind, noted Oliveto, who is the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop and is married to a deaconess. The global United Methodist Church has repeatedly affirmed its Book of Discipline bans on same-sex marriages and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy.

 Jesus, she added, "is meant to be a boundary crosser, and in the crossing over, reveals bigotry and oppression for what they are: human constructs that keep all of us from being whole. … If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his life too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to others and closer to God, then so can we."

This doctrinal approach inspires many in the UMC's Western Jurisdiction, a vast expanse stretching from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. While this region's population has soared in recent decades, 2017 reports found only 295,308 United Methodists. The Southeast Jurisdiction, meanwhile, reported 2,668,806 members.

While 40 years of fighting over sexuality have grabbed headlines, a recent online survey by United Methodist Communications and Research NOW suggested that these fights have been signs of deeper doctrinal cracks in what is now a global flock.

Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

It was one of those General Conference debates in which the regional accents of the United Methodists at the microphones were part of the drama.

Times were tough and national leaders had struggled to raise enough money to cover the Church World Services budget. Thus, a delegate from the Bible Belt requested a budget increase smaller than the one sought by agency leaders.

Then someone from the urban Northeast "rose and spoke against his motion in a fervent, angry plea for more commitment and compassion for the needs of the poor and downtrodden. Her enthusiasm carried the day," noted "The Seven Churches of Methodism," an influential report on regional divisions in the United Methodist Church.

"Later, the delegate whose motion was defeated noted that his opponent's enthusiasm for the poor would be better exerted in her own annual conference, which had paid only part of its World Service apportionment."

That was in the early 1980s, just before decades of acidic battles over the Bible, sex and marriage began making headlines.

Methodists were already struggling with this reality: There's no painless way to cut a smaller pie. And it already mattered that conferences in the most liberal parts of the United Methodist Church were shrinking, while numbers were relatively steady or rising in more conservative regions.

Cracks detailed in that 1985 report are even more relevant today after repeated General Conference wins by a coalition of U.S. evangelicals and growing UMC flocks in the Global South, especially Africa. The denomination's top court has approved parts of a recently passed "Traditional Plan" that would strengthen enforcement of existing church disciplines banning same-sex weddings and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy. It also approved an "exit plan" for congregations seeking a way out.

"The Seven Churches of Methodism" was written by the famous Duke University sociologist Robert L. Wilson, who died in 1991, and William Willimon, now a retired bishop. It focused on life in seven U.S. regions between 1970-82, including church-school statistics that suggested future problems with active members and the young.

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Va., near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country, "The Place That Wants Donald Trump Most."

But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn't fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."

 "Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence," he wrote. "Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews."

But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire's rise -- that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?

"There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don't actually have any greatly held morality," noted Carney, in a recent telephone interview. "The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political -- not religious."

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry.

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"