Facing the Sexual Revolution, even among 'active' believers in conservative pews

When pastors gaze out from their pulpits, they may want to imagine what would happen if they asked their flocks to respond to this statement: "As long as it's between consenting adults, any kind of sex is fine."

If this were a conservative or nondenominational Protestant church, the active, "practicing" members would be sharply divided, according to a new Barna Group survey. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- would affirm this live-and-let-live approach to sex outside of marriage, while 40 percent would disagree "strongly" and 12 percent "somewhat."

There are the active members, not the people who occasionally visit the pews.

"What is surprising is the way that even practicing Christians are beginning to conform to the beliefs and behaviors that are now considered normal in our culture," said Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief at Barna. "The big story here is that people no longer agree when it comes to the purpose and meaning of sex -- including in our churches. Many no longer connect sex and marriage the way they used to."

When looking at broader trends, this study found the usual evidence that older Americans -- the "Elders" and "Boomers" -- have much more traditional views of sex and marriage than members of the younger "Gen-X" and "Millennial" generations. Rising numbers of young Americans view sex through the lens of self-expression and personal growth, with few ties that bind them to institutions and traditions.

"What people are saying is that sex is about two people loving each other and experiencing intimacy, but you don't really need to have the word 'marriage' involved in this discussion," said Stone, in a telephone interview.

"It's surprising how quickly some of these changes have become part of what is now considered normal. … Normally, these kinds of radical changes in a culture evolve over time. But, sociologically speaking, Woodstock wasn't that long ago."

Pope Francis seeking a Year of Mercy, even in the online land of the trolls

Pope Francis has promoted the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in many symbolic ways, from spectacular liturgical rites to quiet gestures of forgiveness to sinners who have sought his help.

Now, the social-media star @Pontifex is saying that acts of grace, kindness and mercy should even be attempted by believers whose work and private affairs take them into one of modern life's harshest environments -- cyberspace.

"Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart," argued Francis, in a statement marking the 50th World Communications Day. It was released at the same time as a private meeting between the pope and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

"Social networks," wrote Francis, "can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division. … The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. … Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected."

Believers can stand firm in defending the faith, he said, but "even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil" it's essential that they not resort to using words and arguments that "try to rupture relationships."

Alas, there's the rub, especially when "trolls" wreck havoc in online communities.

The young Rev. Jerry Falwell meets the old, high-flying Donald Trump

When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."

Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."

People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.

"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.

"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."

The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.

There's nowhere to turn? When hurting people believe they have to flee the pews

In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.

"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."

The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, S.C., near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. … So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."

To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced an tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on January 6th.

As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."

The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon.

2015 and beyond: So much news about religious liberty battles at home and abroad

The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.

Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.

Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.

Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.

"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.

"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."

Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.

Making the case for a great Christmas comet over Bethlehem

It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.

For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."

"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."

The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."

The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Concerning those British battles about 'Star Wars' and the Lord's Prayer

Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.

Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."

How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?

That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."

"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."

The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."

Last sermon from the police officer/pastor in Colorado Springs -- Time is short

As he began his last sermon, Hope Chapel co-pastor Garrett Swasey told newcomers that if they wanted to understand his point of view they needed to know that he was also a police officer in Colorado Springs. 

Thus, he was used to being surrounded by lots of distractions while trying to focus on life-and-death issues -- like spotting threats to public safety. In this multitasking age, he said, it's easy to let the clutter of daily life hide what really matters. 

"I have been quoted on a number of occasions and I never seem to get quoted on the things that I would like to be quoted on, and I'm quoted on the things that I don't really prefer to be quoted on," said the 44-year-old Swasey, one of several ordained elders at this small evangelical congregation. 

"One of those things -- you've all heard me say this before -- is, 'Give me three seconds and I'll forget the Gospel.' Right? It's like I have some kind of spiritual ADD." 

The congregation laughed as Swasey led them on a witty tour of his own mind, where serious thoughts about sin and forgiveness -- "Focus on the Gospel, focus on the Gospel, focus on the Gospel" -- crash into, "How the heck did Denver lose to Indy?" or visions from Three Stooges movies or nagging concerns about a superstar quarterback in New England improperly deflating footballs. 

It's hard to focus on the eternal, he stressed, again and again. But it's crucial to try, because the clock is running and no one knows how much time they have left. 

Two weeks later, the congregation gathered in mourning after Swasey -- on duty at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs -- was killed after he voluntarily responded to calls for help at the nearby Planned Parenthood facility.