Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.
Govans, on York Road in North Baltimore, has been hosting its Sunday night dinners for the poor and helping lead GEDCO, the social service organization it co-founded in 1984.
Brown Memorial Woodbrook, about two miles from Govans on North Charles Street, has been running its busy Sunday school and community garden and working on LGBT equality and other social justice issues.
But with attendance stagnating, maintenance costs rising and the population of Christians from which to draw shrinking, the two have decided to join forces. If the Baltimore Presbytery gives its approval next month, they’ll become one congregation before the end of the year, bringing more than 280 worshippers and 230 years of history together under one roof.

The bottom line: There is no pain-free way to cut a shrinking pie. Thus, consolidation is the best strategy available.

However, here is the irony. As you would expect, the Sun team needed to add a statement summing up what this all means. Here it is:

The merger would be the latest example of an increasingly common phenomenon: faith leaders closing or consolidating houses of worship as a way of adjusting to a culture that has grown less hospitable to their mission.

See the problem? Look at the overture again. Has the culture in liberal Baltimore suddenly become hostile to issues of social justice, gay rights and community gardening, the causes emphasized by the congregations discussed in this opening anecdote?

I would think not. Perhaps something else is going on.

Anyway, the story then launches into a solid summary of what is happening in the oldline world and, note, in Baltimore that includes big problems in Roman Catholic settings as well. Note to journalists: Another relevant way to update this old story line is to take a look at Catholic parishes in your area and focus on which ones are growing and which ones are shrinking. Hint: Look for babies, converts and thriving education programs.

So readers learn that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has closed eight churches in the past decade and another parish is in danger (look at all the gray hair in the article's feature photo). The Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has crunched eight of its small churches into three. The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is hard at work reallocating resources, and you can guess what that means. Two Reform Jewish synagogues are poised to merge.

You get the idea. And in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, church leaders are being asked these three questions:

How much has your congregation grown? how many visitors have you had? would you attend your church if you weren’t a member?

That's an interesting trio of questions. What subjects are missing?

The Sun team should also be applauded for it's candid, but very brief, summary of what is happening at the national level.

Membership at churches and synagogues has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points since World War II, according to Gallup.The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA have lost nearly half their members since 1967. More than a thousand Catholic parishes have closed since 1995. The number of Jews who call themselves culturally but not religiously Jewish is rising sharply among millennials.
A few faith traditions have fared better. The Muslim and Orthodox Jewish populations are growing, and evangelical Christianity’s numbers are holding steady. But more than 20 percent of Americans say they’re unaffiliated with any religion. That’s the highest number ever.

That's promising. However, the story then returns to the oldline world and, yes, stays there.

So how many interviews did the Sun team do with Orthodox Jewish leaders? Local leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? How about leaders -- white, black and Hispanic -- in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area's large evangelical and Pentecostal churches? Might some of these leaders have ideas about what is going on, when it comes to church growth and decline? Perhaps they have tapped into other sources of research?

Apparently not.

Apparently what matters is what is happening in blue pews -- period. Based on my experiences in mainstream news, this leads me to ask a question about intellectual and cultural diversity. How many Sun journalists attend, or used to attend, liberal religious institutions? How many are currently part of growing religious movements and institutions?

Just asking.

Near the end there is this poignant glimpse into local pews, including one church located in the neighborhood, Ferndale, in which my family lived for a decade (while worshiping in a thriving, convert-friendly Orthodox parish nearby).

Each year, the Anne Arundel House of Hope organizes Winter Relief, a program in which religious congregations take turns providing shelter to homeless people.
Eighteen months ago, Glen Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, both in Glen Burnie, and Peace Lutheran Church in Ferndale -- congregations of 25, 60 and 25 people -- were all too small to serve as hosts. But after combining into Rejoice Fellowship, a church of about 150 that averages 90 worshippers per Sunday, the group hosted the program for a week last winter, and plans to do so again this year.
[Pastor Kati] Kluckman-Ault shed many familiar trappings as part of the merger, introducing wheat-free bread to the Eucharist, omitting the word “Lutheran” in the new church’s name and eschewing formal vestments as pastor.

Note that this new label-free flock, with a name resembling an independent evangelical church, is already near a crucial statistical line in church life. It takes about 100 active members to pay the average salary and benefits package of a minister in a mainline church. The three dying churches combined to form a new congregation -- which is currently averaging 90 people in Sunday worship.

If I was covering this story I would have asked these questions: On a typical Sunday, how many children 10 years old and younger are present? Also, how many people are currently in the congregation's class for converts to the faith?

Stay tuned. This story isn't dead, yet.

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