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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."

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.

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.

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?"

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.

It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.

"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.

In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."

"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote.

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."