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 MSNBC.com 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."

Evangelicals learn to (heart) New York

Pastors have their own brand of insider humor, just like doctors, lawyers, accountants and other skilled professionals. The same is true for the missionaries, researchers and pastors who plant churches. Thus, Ed Stetzer once heard a veteran missions professor tell the following bittersweet joke at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

It went like this: How do you start a new Southern Baptist church in a big city up north? That's easy. You go into local grocery stores and introduce yourself to all of the people who buy grits.

"The point, of course, is that this is what you do NOT want to do," said Stetzer, a native New Yorker who is president of LifeWay Research, linked to the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "If you're starting churches in places like New York City, those churches need to look like the indigenous churches that are already growing there.

"A successful church plant in Manhattan is obviously going to look a lot different than one in Alabama. ... We've known that for a long time, but we've learned a lot more since 9/11."

Stetzer was referring to a faith-shaped trend that has quietly emerged in the Big Apple in the decade since the twin towers fell.

Here's the statistic that insiders keep citing, drawn from a Values Research Institute (www.nycreligion.info) study: Forty percent of the evangelical Protestant churches in Manhattan were born after 2000, an increase of about 80. During one two-month stretch in 2009, at least one Manhattan church was planted every Sunday.

The impact has been big on one scale and tiny on another. According to the institute's research, the percentage of New Yorkers in center-city Manhattan who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants has, since 1990, risen from less than 1 percent to three percent. In other words, the evangelical population has tripled.

While even 3 percent of the people living in greater New York is a significant number, this small slice means that -- from an evangelical Protestant viewpoint -- missionaries still consider the city's population an "unreached people group" when compared with other regions. Thus, in 2003 the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention pinned its "Strategic Focus City" label on New York, initiating a four-year project offering additional funds, volunteers and church-planting professionals.

It's impossible to tell this story without discussing the impact of 9/11, noted journalist Tony Carnes, who leads the Values Research Institute team. Rescue workers poured into New York City from across the nation, including volunteers from heartland churches not known for their affection for New York City.

"For the first time, to a large degree, important evangelical leaders realized that New York City was not what they thought it was," said Carnes. "They learned that you didn't need to walk down the street at night looking over your shoulder, worried that you were going to get shot. ...

"They also learned that there were already many evangelical churches here and that they were not weak, struggling and embattled. Many were strong, vital and growing."

The bottom line is that, while 9/11 was crucial, this story didn't start with 9/11.

Carnes stressed that 42 percent of the evangelical churches in the city's outer boroughs were founded between 1978 and 1999. This earlier surge was, in large part, driven by rapid growth in Pentecostal flocks led by African-Americans and Latinos. Another crucial event was the 1989 birth of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, led by the Rev. Tim Keller. Since then, teams from this Manhattan megachurch -- which has attracted waves of Asian Christians -- have planted 75 new churches across the city.

While it's easy to focus on the past decade, said Carnes, those striving to see the bigger picture need to study ongoing trends of among immigrants, young adults and others who continue, as they have for generations, to rush to New York City seeking changed lives and new opportunities.

New York, he said, remains America's great "unsettling city."

"New York is going to change you, whether you are from Texas or Africa," he said. "This city leaves you unsettled and that bring moments of pain and loneliness, but also moments that offer great freedom. ... Church leaders have started to realize that many of the people who keep arriving in this great city are seeking spiritual freedom, as well. They truly want to start over."

From Texas Baptist to Orthodox saint?

Wherever bishops travel, churches plan lavish banquets and other solemn tributes to honor their hierarchs.

Visitations by Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America were different, since the faithful in the 14-state Diocese of the South knew that one memorable event would take care of itself. All they had to do was take their leader to a children's Sunday school class and let him answer questions.

During a 1999 visit to Knoxville, Tenn., the lanky Texan folded down onto a kid-sized chair and faced a circle of pre-school and elementary children. With his long white hair and flowing white beard, he resembled an icon of St. Nicholas -- as in St. Nicholas, the monk and 4th century bishop of Myra.

As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his donuts plain or with sprinkles. With a straight face, the scholarly archbishop explained that he had theological reasons -- based on centuries of church tradition -- for preferring donuts with icing and sprinkles.

A parent in the back of the room whispered: "Here we go." Some of the children giggled, amused at the sight of the bemused bishop holding up a colorful pastry as if he was performing a ritual.

"In Orthodoxy, there are seasons in which we fast from many of the foods we love," he said. "When we fast, we should fast. But when we feast, we should truly feast and be thankful." Thus, he reasoned, with a smile, that donuts with sprinkles and icing were "more Orthodox" than plain donuts.

Archbishop Dmitri made that Knoxville trip to ordain yet another priest in his diocese, which grew from a dozen parishes to 70 during his three decades. The 87-year-old missionary died last Sunday (Aug. 28) in his simple bungalow -- complete with leaky kitchen roof -- next to Saint Seraphim Cathedral, the parish he founded in 1954. Parishioners were worried the upstairs floor might buckle under the weight of those praying around his deathbed.

The future archbishop was raised Southern Baptist in the town of Teague, Texas, before moving to Dallas. As teens, Royster and his sister became intrigued with the history of the major Christian holidays and began visiting a variety of churches, including an Orthodox parish. The services were completely in Greek, but they joined anyway -- decades before evangelical-to-Orthodox conversions became common.

During World War II the young Texan learned Japanese in order to interrogate prisoners of war, while serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. A gifted linguist, he later taught Greek and Spanish classes on the campus of Southern Methodist University. While training to serve in the OCA, which has Russian roots, he learned Old Russian and some modern Russian.

Early in his priesthood, the Dallas parish was so small that Dmitri helped his sister operate a restaurant to support the ministry, thus becoming a skilled chef who was famous for his hospitality and love of cooking for his flocks. During his years as a missionary bishop, driving back and forth from Dallas to Miami, monks in New Orleans saved him packages of his favorite chicory coffee and Hispanic parishioners offered bottles of homemade hot sauce, which he stashed in special slots in his Byzantine mitre's traveling case.

A pivotal moment in his career came just before the creation of the Diocese of the South. In 1977, then Bishop Dmitri was elected -- in a landslide -- as the OCA metropolitan, to lead the national hierarchy in Syosset, New York. But the ethnic Slavic core in the synod of bishops ignored the clergy vote and appointed one of its own.

Decades later, the Orthodox theologian Father Thomas Hopko described the impact of that election this way: "One could have gone to Syosset and become a metropolitan, or go to Dallas and become a saint."

The priest ordained in Tennessee on that Sunday back in 1999 shared this judgment, when reacting to the death of "Vladika" (in English, "master") Dmitri.

"There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title, 'Equal to the Apostles,' " noted Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge. "I cannot rush beyond the church and declare a saint where the church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than 'Equal to the Apostles.' "

Churches late to Facebook party?

A mere three years ago, Diana Davis published a hands-on book for church leaders entitled "Fresh Ideas For Women's Ministry." When flipping through its pages, she said, one of the first things she notices is a missing word -- Facebook. She needs to rewrite the whole book to cover this reality gap.

"That obvious, isn't it? It's so obvious that we ought to be using Facebook to tell more women about our Bible studies and prayer groups and retreats and things like that," said Davis, who has been married to a Southern Baptist pastor and administrator for nearly four decades, working in Texas and Indiana.

This connection is certainly obvious in America's megachurch subculture and the digital-media pros and market-research consultants who serve it. Davis, however, has focused most of her attention as a speaker and writer on churches that occupy corners in ordinary neighborhoods, not the giant sanctuaries that resemble shopping malls.

Lots of churches, she noted, don't even have solid websites. Facebook? Isn't it that computer thing all the teens use to waste time?

"Many small churches, or even our medium-sized churches, have nothing -- nothing," she said. "There are people who still do not realize that if you're not online, or if you are not on Facebook, you do not exist for lots of people today. Your church simply does not exist."

The disconnected leaders of these churches should start doing the math, she argued, in a Baptist Press essay offering advice to those who have remained unplugged from Facebook.

First, pastors should request "a show of hands to find out how many church members use Facebook," she said. "The average Facebook user has 130 registered 'friends,' so if just 20 church members use Facebook, that's potentially 2,600 people who could read posts about your church. One hundred members with Facebook could touch 13,000. ... Convinced?"

Once they recognize the potential, religious leaders must learn how to handle life in the parallel universe of social networking. Here are some key rules drawn from work Davis has done with church leaders who have taken their knocks.

* It's crucial to understand the differences between websites, which users enter on their own seeking information, and Facebook pages, which -- through "friends" links -- can send semi-invited messages into someone's personal "News Feed."

"With Facebook," she explained, "you're sending messages to your members, but you're also sending messages to their friends and then, potentially, to their friends and on and on. So it's more aggressive, in a way. You're on offense, not defense."

* Newcomers should proceed with caution in this casual, yet intense medium. Clergy, she said, "know they have to think before they speak. Now they're learning that they have to think before they click. ... For example, pastors are supposed to use the language well. But if you put something on Facebook that has two or three misspelled words in it people are going to think that you don't know what you're talking about."

* It's important to keep messages short, positive and audience appropriate. Facebook, she said, "is a good place to send out a prayer request, but it's not the place to share details of someone's surgery. This is not the place to talk about the fine details of your church's finances."

* Know that even simple amateur videos can help. For example, senior adults are more likely to feel comfortable visiting an exercise class if they can watch a short video showing others taking part. It helps to show newcomers what your flock is doing.

* Social networks cannot replace the human touch of true human networks. Facebook posts cannot replace a covered-dish supper, but they can help bring more dishes and people through the church door.

For example, as soon as news reports began about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Davis said her own church rushed out a message urging members and their friends to attend a prayer event. Then volunteers sent the message to other churches and their small-group networks. In short, the invitation "went viral" at the local level.

The result: Instant prayer service.

"That message went all over the place," she said. "We could have never done that by telephone -- that fast, to that many people outside our church. People came from everywhere. ...

"This is real. This is something that more churches just have to try."

An Orthodox question for 2010

The first Orthodox missionaries to reach Alaska traveled with the early Russian explorers and, in 1794, a party of monks established the Orthodox Christian Mission to America. When Orthodox believers venerate icons of the "Saints of North America," many of the images are of missionaries. One is St. Herman of Alaska, a pioneer monk, and another is St. Innocent, an early missionary bishop. Then there is St. Tikhon of Moscow, who envisioned one united Orthodox body in America, a church without ethnic divisions. He later became Russia's patriarch, but died a martyr in the Bolshevik era.

"Before the 1920s, there was only one jurisdiction in North America -- that of the Russian Orthodox Church, which, as we know, was open to ... the widest variety of ethnic communities," said Archbishop Justinian of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, during last week's Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs in North and Central America.

"Much has changed since that time. The tumultuous events of the 20th Century forced many citizens of traditionally Orthodox countries to leave their native homes and seek refuge in other countries, which led to the rise of large ethnic Orthodox communities beyond the boundaries of corresponding local churches."

But the key to conditions today, he stressed, is the fact that an "increasing number of our faithful belong to the Orthodox Church not as the result of their ethnic background, but of a conscious choice in favor of Orthodoxy's truth."

There's the rub, the source of one of the tensions that pulled the bishops behind tightly closed doors in New York City. Even in the public speech texts, it was clear they were wrestling with this question: Is America best described as a mission field in which Orthodoxy is growing or as a strange land in which immigrants have found shelter during a painful diaspora era?

How the hierarchs answer that question will help shape the future, especially if there is to be a way to unite Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Ukrainians, Serbs, Romanians and other Orthodox believers into one American church, with one hierarchy -- as required by Orthodox tradition.

If America is truly a mission field, that would favor the Russian roots of the Orthodox Church in America, which now worships in English. Its claim to be an autocephalous, or independent, national church is based on a declaration to that effect by leaders of the giant Russian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, a "diaspora" framework favors leadership claims by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, the symbolic, "first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs.

Last week's assembly was led by Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and was one of 12 meetings in regions containing multiple Orthodox bodies. However, Demetrios declined Bartholomew's request to exclude Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America. Jonah was seated as a bishop -- but not as the OCA primate. He is a convert to the faith.

At this point, said Demetrios, it's impossible to end the overlapping jurisdictions, which means that bishops from ethnically defined flocks control their own parishes in the same locations. America is both a mission field and part of a diaspora phenomenon caused by immigration, he said. So the new Episcopal Assembly is in control -- for now.

"The vital presence of our churches ... world bears witness to the ongoing work of pastoral care of our flocks who have moved around the globe," he said. "It also bears witness to the continuous preaching of the Gospel that has brought an abundance of converts to the faith. Neither of these realities stands in opposition to the other. They are merely the facts of our existence."

But it's time to see the big picture, stressed Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, another flock affected by thousands of converts. If anyone is living in diaspora, he claimed, it's the tiny Orthodox flocks in Jerusalem, Constantinople and other besieged Old World cities.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox in America, he said, are "no longer little children to have rules imposed on us from 5,000 miles away. Orthodoxy in America has its own ethos. We have our own theological institutions and we have our own theologians, authors, publications and magazines. ... We have been here for a long, long time and we are very grateful to the Almighty God that in our theology and worship, we do express the fullness of the Holy Orthodox faith."

Why God loves New Orleans

Wherever they go, preachers are asked to stand up and pray.

The Rev. Joe McKeever is the missions director for a Southern Baptist regional association, which is rather like being bishop of a flock that doesn't believe in bishops. This means that he gets asked to pray even more than the next guy with a Bible.

McKeever says yes -- on one condition. Before the prayer, he insists on delivering a mini-sermon he calls, "What New Orleans and Heaven Have In Common." McKeever, you see, leads the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

"Obviously, people in heaven and in New Orleans love the saints," he said, reached by a shaky cell-phone link in Mississippi. "Both places love a party, since heaven always has a good reason to party and New Orleans doesn't need a reason." And then there's I-10, an interstate highway that will "get you to either place really quick, if you aren't careful."

But the 65-year-old McKeever always slips in something serious. There's a truth about New Orleans he wants other believers to grasp, especially as many of Hurricane Katrina's victims prepare to rebuild.

The other reason heaven and New Orleans are alike, he said, is a "simple matter of diversity. Both places are made up of people from every nation under the sun. ... Whenever I hear people say they want to reach the world for Jesus Christ, I tell them to come to New Orleans -- it's already here."

Life is a blur right now, which is understandable since McKeever's office address is 2222 Lakeshore Drive and the shore in question belongs to Lake Pontchartrain. Before Katrina, he worked with 77 congregations and 63 missions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes and the thin arc of towns south on the Mississippi River.

Many of these churches are fine since they're in the suburbs and exurbs around the flooded bowl that is New Orleans. But some of the sanctuaries are in bad shape or ruined. It's easy to imagine conditions at the Dixieland Trailer Park Mission. After the storm, McKeever's office spent hours trying to find the pastors of his 60 missions and drew a blank, since they are scattered across the nation.

McKeever said he has been overjoyed at the outpouring of support for Katrina's victims, especially from religious groups nationwide. He is convinced that most of the help and the more than $500 million in charity donations are coming from people who acted for religious motivations. He can't prove that, but he believes it.

More volunteers from a wide variety of churches and other faith groups are poised to rush into New Orleans once they get an all-clear signal to do so. Early this week, Southern Baptist Convention leaders reported that their volunteers had already served about 2 million meals along the ravaged Gulf Coast.

When all is said and done, McKeever believes that New Orleans will be flooded again -- this time with compassion. Many of the walls that have long divided church people in the region were, quite literally, ripped down, he said.

This would be remarkable since Southerners have highly mixed feelings about the Big Easy. They consider it a strange, glorious, corrupt and soulful city, a place where demons dance right out in the open and more than a few of the saints, when they do come marching in, are drunk. As former New York Times editor Howell Raines said recently, in highest praise, New Orleans is the "one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled."

McKeever has seen that side of the city. As a seminarian, he volunteered for street-preaching duty in the French Quarter. But he said he has decided that there is more to the Crescent City than revelry, voodoo, alcohol and temptation. There are the believers in a wide variety of pews who have found their place in its unique cultural gumbo.

"Someone told me before we moved here that to be a true Christian in New Orleans was different from the Bible Belt," he said. "They said that sin was so black here that believers shine like diamonds against a jeweler's black velvet. I've frequently thought the Christianity I've seen here, far from being the weak kind outsiders expect in such a city, is actually of a purer variety for this very reason."

No need for Orthodox pickles

Week after week, Eastern Orthodox hierarchs guide their flocks through the incense-shrouded rites that define their ancient faith.

Bishops also become experts at another intricate ritual -- banquets.

So Metropolitan Philip, the Antiochian Orthodox archbishop of North America, was not surprised when he was asked to make a few remarks at the final banquet of the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. He was surprised when Greek Archbishop Demetrios indicated that this was more than a polite request.

"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip.

What happened next caused shock waves that reached all the way to Istanbul, even if the archbishop's words would have seemed mild to outsiders who could not break the Byzantine code.

Philip addressed the delegates as Americans -- not Greeks.

The Lebanese-born archbishop said it was time to challenge the ties that bind the new world to the old. He said what he has been saying since 1966, when he assumed control of a diocese that has grown from 66 to 250 parishes on his watch.

Philip brought greetings from Patriarch Ignatius IV in Damascus and his ancient church founded by Peter and Paul. Then he ventured into an ecclesiastical minefield, offering greetings from the 1000 Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, days earlier, had voted unanimously to approve what many Greek lay people have long demanded -- a constitution granting them control of their own church in North America.

The delegates burst into applause. Philip plunged on.

"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he said. "The hall erupted again. I told them we cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."

That was all Philip needed to say. Nikki Stephanopoulos, the veteran press officer for the Greek archdiocese, described the scene this way: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."

The response was different in Istanbul. According to the National Herald, the Greek-American daily newspaper, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew criticized Demetrios for allowing Philip to "spread his propaganda in favor of establishing an autocephalous," or independent, "Orthodox Church in America!" When Demetrios said that Philip spoke as vice president of the Standing Council of Canonical Bishops in the Americas, Bartholomew reportedly exclaimed: "You should have stopped him!"

Months later, Metropolitan Philip continues to travel from altar to altar and banquet to banquet, offering his own people an even blunter version of the sermon he preached to the Greeks. This past week he was in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The archbishop continues to tell familiar stories about life in the Middle East. He still asks second- and third-generation Arab children if they can speak Arabic.

But Philip said Eastern Orthodox Christians must embrace Americans who seek ancient roots in the confusion of modern times. This will mean learning from converts who are not afraid to use words like "missions," "tithing" and even "evangelism." A symbolic sign of change: One of his newly consecrated bishops once taught biblical studies at Oral Roberts University.

Change will be difficult, but bishops must realize that they are called to spread their faith to others, not just to "to preserve it for ourselves," he said. The heart of Orthodoxy must stay the same, but it is not enough to "put our faith into pickle jar and preserve it. We have enough pickles in America already."

Orthodox leaders will find a way to save the traditions of their homelands, said Philip. But the clergy and laity must realize that their own children and grandchildren are Americans who need a faith that is stronger than old music, familiar foods, folk dancing and traces of an ancient language.

"I believe in Orthodox unity, with diversity," he stressed. "We will not melt into the Greek archdiocese and the Greeks will not melt into our archdiocese. ... But we must have a united synod that speaks to this country. We must speak to America, not as Arabs and Greeks and Russians and Romanians and Bulgarians. We need to speak with one Orthodox voice on the issues that affect our country and our country is America."