American religion

Baptists in an age without safe labels

Journalists have been known to jump to premature conclusions if a denomination has the word "Southern" in its name. Consider this paragraph in an report about efforts by Southern Baptist researchers to shed light on the pros and cons of changing the name of America's largest non-Catholic flock. Southern Baptist Convention leaders have been discussing this prickly issue off and on for a generation.

This new LifeWay Research survey was conducted, noted MSNBC, after SBC leaders created a task force to "consider the impact of the convention's name on the denomination, which has been associated with such polarizing political figures as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, convicted Watergate conspirator-turned-Baptist minister Charles Colson and television evangelist Pat Robertson. Just this month, a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky voted to ban interracial couples, a controversial decision the pastor later overturned."

Alas, this ban on interracial couples had been approved by a Baptist church that happens to be located in the South -- not an actual Southern Baptist church. There is a difference. The tiny Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church quickly overturned its decision. MSNBC editors corrected their error, as well.

Nevertheless, this journalistic train wreck perfectly symbolized the cultural baggage that has become attached to that awkward and now inaccurate "Southern" label.

Truth is, it's getting harder and harder to pin simple labels on Southern Baptists and other religious believers. This reality is especially important in an age in which Americans are increasingly hostile to labels.

"The trend you just can't miss is the continuing rise of the non-categorized, the non-labeled forms of Protestantism," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "You used to be able to look at religion in America and you could put most people into their appointed categories. Now we are seeing more people who just don't want to be put into a category or they don't want to stay put."

It will be impossible, he said, for Southern Baptist leaders to downplay some of the negative numbers in this survey -- numbers that are sure to make headlines. For example, while 53 percent of Americans reported having a favorable impression of Southern Baptists, 40 percent of those polled said their impressions were negative. The SBC's image was especially bad in the West (44 percent) and in the Southern Bible Belt (40 percent).

One eyebrow-raising number in the survey is that, in terms of favorable impressions, Roman Catholics (59 percent) fared better in the South than Southern Baptists (52 percent). Southern Baptists, ironically, fared better in regions in which they have had a lower profile, such as the Northeast and Midwest.

The news was also sobering on a question focusing on the convention's name and its evangelistic efforts. LifeWay researchers asked: "When I see (fill in denominational affiliation) in the name of a church, I assume it is not for me." Nationwide, 35 percent of those polled "strongly agreed" that a Southern Baptist congregation would not be a good fit for them -- higher than for Catholics (33 percent), generic "Baptists" (29 percent), Methodists (26 percent) and "community" or nondenominational churches (20 percent).

In other words, the mere presence of the word "Southern" cost SBC congregations six percentage points in head-to-head comparisons with other Baptists. In another question linked to decisions to visit or join a church, only 10 percent of those polled said that knowing a "church was Southern Baptist" would have a positive impact.

Meanwhile, the SBC fared worst among Americans who rarely attend church, Hispanics, many urbanites and young Americans. In all, only 17 percent of Protestant adults agreed that knowing a congregation was Southern Baptist would have a positive impact when it came time to decide whether to visit or join. The number among non-Protestant adults was a mere 2 percent.

The clear evidence that nondenominational churches -- churches without labels -- fared significantly better than Southern Baptist churches was especially significant, said Stetzer.

"People increasingly see religion in terms of silos and categories," he said. "It seems that they look at churches and then quickly decide, 'That one's for me' or they decide, 'That one's not for me.' ... The irony is that they will find many of the same beliefs in nondenominational evangelical churches that they find in our Southern Baptist churches -- but people don't know that.

"It seems that people will give a church a fair shot, but only if the label doesn't scare them."

Orthodoxy in an American elevator

There is nothing unusual about a priest who is dressed in clerical garb having a stranger ask him a religious question during a long airline flight. "You ask a guy where he's from and what he does and then he asks you the same thing. Many people just want to talk," explained Father John David Finley, a missionary priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

The man in the next seat recently asked the priest a question he has heard many times: "What is Orthodox Christianity, anyway?"

Ironically, Finley was -- at that moment -- writing some comments about a contest in which participants prepared a 30-second "elevator speech" response to strangers who asked that very question. The contest was organized by the archdiocesan Department of Missions and Evangelism, Finley's home base.

This particular man was a convert to Buddhism, although he was raised in a home that was Christian, to one degree or another. He was interested in how different churches interpret scripture and how Eastern Christians pray.

"He wanted to talk about icons," said Finley. "He thought they were beautiful, but he also knew there was more to icons than wood and paint. He said, 'They're not just pictures, right? There's more to icons than art, right?' ... What you hear in questions like that is a search for beauty and mystery and spiritual power."

The term "elevator speech" comes from the business world and describes a punchy presentation of what a company does and "what it's all about," said Howard Lange, administrator of the missions and evangelism office. The idea of a national contest emerged from discussions in his parish, St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, near Santa Barbara, Calif.

"The idea is to convey the essence of your organization to someone in two or three sentences, in the short time that you're on an elevator or maybe in a grocery store checkout line," he said.

This is a hard task for all religious leaders in the increasingly diverse arena of 21st century American life. However, this challenge is especially hard for Eastern Orthodox leaders in a land shaped by Protestant history and culture, as well as the rising influence of Catholics from around the world.

Americans know, or think they know, what people believe in Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal pews. But for many, the first word that comes to mind when they hear "Orthodoxy" is "baklava."

When Protestants talk about church, they usually jump into discussions of their preacher's pulpit skills, their children's programs, the excellence of their classical, gospel or rock musicians and other selling points. The Orthodox (I know this from experience, as a convert) need to back up a millennium or two and cover basics. Then there are the complicated -- literally byzantine -- histories of the churches in Palestine, Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and, yes, even in lands such as North America.

The goal of the "elevator speech" contest, said Lange, was to focus on broad strokes, using language outsiders could understand -- while not oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. The winning entry, selected through an online ballot, stated:

"Orthodox Christianity is the authentic and original Christian Faith founded by Jesus Christ," wrote Valerie Ann Zrake of New York City. "As an Orthodox Christian you can experience heaven on earth through the Divine Liturgy which is mystical, spiritual and beautiful, with it's incense, icons, and sacred music. You can transcend time and space while you meditate upon the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It's the most pure form of Christianity -- nothing artificial added. It's the real deal."

Even in this simple statement, it was hard to avoid nuanced language. "Divine Liturgy," for example, is the Eastern rite name for what, in the West, would be called the Mass. That reference would stump many seekers.

The bottom line, said Lange, is that there is no one ideal "elevator speech" to introduce faiths that are as ancient and complex as Orthodoxy. What works with a next-door neighbor who is already a churchgoer would not work with a skeptical graduate student who walks in the door ready to argue.

"You have to be able to relate to the person who is standing in front of you," he said. "If this contest got Orthodox people to start thinking about that, then it did some good. It's a start."