Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that? There are shrinking a dying Catholic and liberal Protestant churches, but then there are some that are not -- in similar urban areas. There are new evangelical church plants that are growing. It's a complex picture and it certainly appears that there is more to this story than location, location, location. The same is true in urban areas on both coasts and in flyover country, as well.

As I said in my post earlier this week, that final sentence in the Times explainer paragraph:

... hints that there are other issues, even religious issues, involved here. I would also suggest that -- if one contrasts certain types of Jewish congregations -- there are issues linked to birthrates and intermarriage. I can think of some doctrinal issues that might affect conversion and birth rates in Catholic and Protestant flocks, as well.
Now, a story that talks to leaders in growing and shrinking religious congregations is a different type of story. I know that. It would take lots of extra work. It would mean allowing a religion-beat professional, or two, take part in the coverage, too. I know that.
But this is a big, big story. It isn't going to go away.

So what does this story look like at ground level, in day-to-day news terms?

There are thousands of angles. However, about the time we cut the podcast, the following Baptist News Global story arrived in my email program, with a very typical development in the mainline-church world (it concerns the American Baptists, one of the "Seven Sisters" of the oldline Protestant left).

Now, your assignment is to read the top of this story and think how this links to the whole demographics scene, in terms of rising and falling religious movements. Ready?

A zoning crackdown in a Silicon Valley neighborhood has a dozen community groups searching for new venues and threatens the future of a 124-year-old American Baptist church that depends on rental income for about a third of its annual budget.
Recently the city of Palo Alto, Calif., sent letters informing commercial tenants renting space at the city’s First Baptist Church they are not allowed to operate in the neighborhood zoned for single family residences. Officials also instructed First Baptist to no longer allow activities on the premises other than organized worship and religious studies and occasional “conditionally permitted” uses to the satisfaction of a code enforcement officer.
First Baptist Church pastor Randle “Rick” Mixon says that might have made sense when the 800-member church built its facility in 1948, but it is no longer viable for a 100-member congregation located in the affluent San Francisco Bay Area community surrounded by neighbors including Google CEO Larry Page the family of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

So why is the rental income so crucial to this once-thriving congregation? If this First Baptist Church in ultra-liberal Northern California territory doesn't win this fight, and loses that income for good, what might happen to its future? Are we talking "For Sale" sign?

Now, reporters in major urban areas: Open a software program and make yourself a digital map of church congregations in your inner city and in its older, one ultra-prestigious (and probably, these days, increasingly hipster) inner-ring suburbs.

Start looking at websites. How many of these congregations now contain offices for one or more non-profit groups, often linked to progressive social causes? How many are renting space to other congregations, with one or more flocks under the same roof?

More questions! How many of these congregations have, in recent years, actually merged with other churches that were closed by their ecclesiastical authorities? At the Catholic parishes, how many have closed parish schools or are struggling to keep them over? Has the number of children in these parishes fallen? How many priests have they produced in the last decade or two? Might there be traces of doctrinal issues in all of these studies in demographics?

There are all kinds of logical questions to ask. We discuss several in the podcast.

I promise. So, as I write every week: Enjoy the podcast. And please pass the URL on to others.

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