Dean M. Kelley

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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

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.

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Regarding a 'mainline' slide (yet again), a noted journalist raises questions to ponder

Regarding a 'mainline' slide (yet again), a noted journalist raises questions to ponder

A previous Religion Guy Memo looked at Canada's spiritual landscape as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.

That item provoked an e-mail response worth pondering by journalistic analysts. The writer is Kenneth A. Briggs, a competitor and friendly colleague as religion editor of The New York Times during the Religion Guy’s early years writing for Time magazine’s religion section. Briggs, also an award-winner for his work at Long Island Newsday, later became a college teacher, book author and independent journalist in varied media projects.

Importantly for this context, Briggs is a certified mainline Protestant as a Yale Divinity School graduate and an ordained elder in the largest U.S. mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church (which granted him a “special appointment” for journalistic work).

First, Briggs asks whether the Religion Guy was “suggesting cause-and-effect” in stating that  both Canada and the U.S. “show remarkable losses for ‘mainline’ churches that have floated leftward”? These Protestants’ gradual numerical decline and liberal shifts this past half-century are established facts, but Briggs says the two could be simply “coincidental,” rather than that liberalism caused decline.

The Guy -- yes -- meant to imply that a shift toward more liberal doctrinal beliefs was one contributor to the unprecedented membership losses, with breakaways by local congregations, outright schisms, and individual members switching to other options or forsaking church altogether. Meanwhile, conservatives often held steady or gained adherents (though note the past decade’s smaller, but significant, decline for the staunchly conservative Southern Baptist Convention). 

Briggs calls that scenario -- linking doctrinal changes and numerical decline -- “evangelical boilerplate.”

The Guy must quickly add that factors other than liberalism played into church trends.

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