Seven Sisters

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.

For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.

Thus, it’s important to praise a news feature that includes all the basic facts, when talking about this trend, and then goes the extra mile to include waves of poignant details offering readers a pew-level view of what this decline feels like to the remaining believers.

That brings me to a must-read Washington Post feature that just ran with this headline: “The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

The setting for this story is a dense, mountainous corner of West Virginia, which is home to a wife-and-husband team of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the story even pauses to explain the term “evangelical” in this context). Linked to that, readers are also told that this particular Lutheran body holds “more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.”

How busy is this duo? Here is a crucial summary passage that includes many of the crucial facts:

[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.

That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.

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More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

As the 2020 White House race draws closer, I think I hear a familiar train a comin’. Or maybe it’s this slow train, coming up around the bend. I’ve already bought my new political t-shirt for the months ahead.

Whatever you want to call it, the train that’s coming is more and more coverage of Donald Trump and his white evangelical voters — both enthusiastic supporters and reluctant ones. It’s the same train that so many mainstream journalists spotted in 2016, but never took the time to understand (or were unwilling to make that effort, for some strange reason).

The bottom line: They thought the whole “81 percent” thing was a story about the Republican Party and the Republican Party, alone.

As for me, I keep thinking about all the church-goin’ people that I know who really, really, really do not want to vote for Trump. Yet they hear the train a comin’, since they remain worried about all those familiar issues linked to the First Amendment, abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. (Click here for my breakdown on the various evangelical voting camps in the Trump era.)

So what is happening on the Democratic Party side of this story?

That brings me to a short, but important, essay by Emma Green (she’s everywhere, these days) that ran at The Atlantic Monthly website with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg Takes Aim at Religious Hypocrisy.” It starts you know where:

On the debate stage, Buttigieg gave voice to a view that has become common among Democratic voters: Many of Trump’s policies, along with his conduct as president, do not reflect Christian values. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”

Many religious conservatives, of course, agree with that statement, that Trump’s conduct doesn’t “reflect Christian values.” His policies? That’s a bizarre, very mixed bag, for most religious conservatives that I know.

Back to Green:

This has been a theme throughout Buttigieg’s campaign. The mayor has spoken openly about his religious faith and rallied religious rhetoric to his advantage: This spring, he called out Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, “Your quarrel, sir, it is with my creator.”

This is a departure from the usual playbook for the Democratic Party.

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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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Play the religion-beat game: Trying to parse United Methodist Church's options for future

Play the religion-beat game: Trying to parse United Methodist Church's options for future

During my decades on the religion beat, it's safe to say that I have met very few preachers -- people whose work requires solid pulpit skills -- who were lousy when it came time to crafting one-liners and soundbites.

If you want good quotes, preachers are safe bets.

However, the leaders of major religious organizations -- like denominations -- are another matter. They tend to be hyper-cautious leaders of complex coalitions and they often hide their views in clouds of theological fog.

I remember a U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting long ago in which the men in black were debating the moral status of nuclear weapons and the strategic concept of deterrence. At one point, they released a draft document that was so unquotable that it could have been written in Latin. In a press conference, I asked a panel of bishops if their goal was to "launch a preemptive strike on American headline writers" -- preventing coverage.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered this oh-so-quotable response: "Yes."

This brings me (a) to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), (b) my column this week for the Universal syndicate and (c) the latest strategic moves in the long, long, long war inside the United Methodist Church about biblical authority, marriage and sex.

The global UMC is less than a year away from a special General Conference that is supposed to make history. The goal is to approve a plan for church life in the post-Sexual Revolution world. Think of it this way: In terms of property laws, church agencies and pensions, they are trying to keep the "united" in United Methodism. Doctrine? Keep reading.

The bishops recently produced a press release that described two models that are under consideration. Pretend that you are a religion-beat professional who needs to parse this, as part of a religion-news game:

ONE CHURCH MODEL
The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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

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?

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Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.

It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."

There are several valid news angles here, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.

If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.

Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.

Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:

Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.

Now stop the train right there for a minute.

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