Mainline churches

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.

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.

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.

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."

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

Next year, delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference are supposed to consider a full-communion plan with the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"We seek to draw closer in mission and ministry, grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order and assisted by interchangeability of ordained ministries," states the current text for "A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

This is not a merger proposal, but: "We see this relationship of full communion as a step on the journey. … We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church."

However, events in the United Methodist Church have given some members of that flock -- especially LGBTQ clergy and laity -- a strong incentive to go ahead and investigate nearby Episcopal parishes.

A special General Conference recently voted to reaffirm current doctrine that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The historic gathering also passed pieces of a "Traditionalist Plan" requiring UMC clergy to follow those laws in their Book of Discipline.

So far, leaders on the United Methodist left haven't announced plans to leave. But that doesn't mean that Episcopal clergy and other liberal Protestant leaders shouldn't be prepared to help United Methodists who come their way, said the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wis., a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.

"We have to start with the fact that lots of United Methodists are really hurting," he said, in a telephone interview. "What we should be doing is providing a safe harbor. Our primary motivation shouldn't be to grab members from other churches. … If we do that then we're not being a safe harbor. We can't go around saying, 'United Methodists hare having trouble, so let's recruit them.' "

Thus, Simmons recently posted an online essay entitled, "How to Deal With Methodists at your Red Church Doors" -- referring to the front doors at most Episcopal parishes. His subtitle was even more blunt: "Don't be a Jerk."

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.