Godbeat

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good that between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.

If a church's attendance is larger than 250 -- especially if it's 1,000-plus -- visitors will usually see pop-rock "praise musicians" on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics. 

But here's a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the "worship wars." According to a LifeWay Research survey, there's evidence of a "truce" between the "contemporary" and "traditional" worship forces. Then again, it's possible that church leaders have made up their minds and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.

"We're not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease fire," said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. "What I've seen happen in the 20 years that I've been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. … People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other."

This survey (.pdf here) was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.

A key finding was that only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was "navigating the varying preferences of members." A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.

When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don't contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or "praise team" that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents -- not church tradition -- help shape a local congregation's worship "style."

Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said. "We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don't have anyone who is talented on guitar and we don't have a drummer."

There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical "style" questions are linked to church size.

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

When it comes to mainstream journalism, it's hard to imagine a stronger brand than The New Yorker.

This prestigious magazine is, of course, also known for humor and cartoons. A recent satire feature proclaimed: "Chick-fil-A Introduces New Hate Sauce."

"Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce," wrote Andy Borowitz.

"Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. 'It's so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it's on fire -- like a gay couple in hell,' said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando."

Could readers see a short Facebook item about that feature and think it was real? 

How about this headline? "House Democrats Draft Legislation That Would Make It A Hate Crime To Eat At Chick-fil-A."

Is that Babylon Bee bulletin fake news or satire? Then there was this headline at that same Christian satire website: "Trump Announces He Was Born Of A Virgin And Will Bring Balance To The Force."

Babylon Bee writers could -- day after day -- grab "low-hanging fruit" offered by President Donald Trump, noted publisher Seth Dillon, who bought the Bee in 2018.

"All this stuff keeps happening that is soooo outrageous that we just couldn't make it up," he said. "People keep seeing headlines that make them stop and say, 'Wait a minute. Did that really happen?' "

Bizarre twists in the news inspired this recent Bee headline: "Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire."

That was also a shot at claims by Snopes.com researchers that The Babylon Bee was linked to numerous "fake news" claims in which readers confused satire with reality. They said the Bee's work was more problematic than The Onion, a secular satire site. The Bee calls itself, "Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire." The Onion's motto is, "America's Finest News Source" -- without the word "satire."

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Americans wrestling with religious conflicts in the workplace need to start by doing some math.

Right now, about 157 million Americans work fulltime. Meanwhile, a 2013 study by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding found that 36 percent of workers surveyed said they had experienced religious discrimination at work or witnessed this discrimination happening to someone else.

This sobering trend "affects all groups, including evangelical Christians reporting high levels of discrimination. Muslims, Jewish people and people with no affiliation also experience discrimination on the basis of religion or belief," said Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in Annapolis, Md. He led a panel on faith-friendly workplaces during a recent religious liberty conference at Yeshiva University in New York City.It was cosponsored by the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University.

"If you turn that into numbers," said Grim, this means "36 percent of the American workforce is 50 million people. That's a big, big issue."

These conflicts cannot be ignored. For starters, religious institutions and "faith-friendly businesses" contribute $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, said Grim. And while headlines focus on rising numbers of "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- in America, birth rates and religious-conversion trends indicate that the "religiously affiliated population of the world is going to outgrow the religiously unaffiliated by a factor of 23 to 1. … We're going to have a much more religious workplace and much more religious marketplaces."

Meanwhile, some economic powers -- China, India, Russia, Turkey and France, for example -- have increased restrictions on people's "freedom to practice their faith, change their faith or have no faith at all," he said. This often causes violence that is "bad for business. It's good for businesses that produce bullets and bombs, unfortunately."

Corporate leaders in have addressed some diversity issues, such as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, but "religion is the next big issue that they need to be looking at," said Grim. Last year, he noted, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about religious discrimination outnumbered LGBTQ cases nearly 2-1.

Grim asked this big question: "What is the right way to … come out of the closet about your faith at work?"

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

American Catholics may not know all the latest statistics, but they've been talking about the altar-level realities for decades.

Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests and about 90 percent of them were in active ministry -- serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.

The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 -- while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million -- and only 66 percent of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America's priests hoped to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn't have a resident priest in 2018.

It's understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the "Instrumentum Laboris" for next October's special Vatican assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Pan-Amazonian region.

"Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous," stated this preliminary document. These married men "can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life."

The text's key term is "viri probati" -- mature, married men.

"Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed," noted Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist best known as editor of America magazine. He left that post in 2005 after years of conflict with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While Pope Francis has praised celibacy, "he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don't have priests. After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of me' not 'have a celibate priesthood'," argued Reese, in a Religion News Service commentary.

Survey results have shown that many American Catholics are ready for married priests, noted Reese, reached by email.

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

Elizabeth Scalia woke up furious, thinking about scandals in the Church of Rome, Pentecost and a famous courtroom rant in the movie "… And Justice for All."

"It was like Al Pacino was inside my head screaming, 'You're out of order! You're all out of order! The whole church is out of order!' … I knew I had to write something," said Scalia, long known for online epistles using the pen name "The Anchoress."

At Pentecost, she noted, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on the apostles. "I thought: Dear God, why can't some fire fall on our bishops? What's it going to take to wake up some of these guys?"

Pentecost fell on June 9 this year, following months of news about clergy sexual abuse and the drumbeat of scandals tied to the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful church princes in American history.

 Then The Washington Post published a June 5 report about a lurid litany of accusations against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose career was linked to that of McCarrick. Investigators found that Bransfield -- in a poverty-wracked region -- spent millions of dollars on his own comforts, while handing financial gifts to various American members of the College of Cardinals and strategic church leaders. While there were no specific accusations of abuse, the church report cited a "consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestions and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

This was McCarrick 2.0, a sucker-punch that inspired Scalia to pound out a personal letter to Jesus that was published by America, a Jesuit publication. Scalia currently serves as editor at large for Word on Fire, a Catholic evangelism organization.

"Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I'm getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church," she wrote, in her fiery overture.

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.