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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A baby baptized in the Stanley Cup: What kind of person does that? And why?

A baby baptized in the Stanley Cup: What kind of person does that? And why?

I don't know if Peter Smith, the all-star religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a hockey fan.

If he is — and even if he is not — I'd like to request his help on a story.

Here's what I'm curious about: A Pittsburgh Penguins player had his son baptized in the Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup — for those not familiar with it — is the championship trophy awarded annually to the team that wins the National Hockey League playoffs. Traditionally, each player on the winning team get a private day with the cup. 

The Sporting News notes that the Cup "has held lots of babies, but it has rarely hosted a baptism."

USA Today points out:

The Cup has been partaking in a wide variety of activities this summer. It visited a children’s hospital, enjoyed some spaghetti, briefly went to college, practiced water safety and has spent a lot of time on the golf course.

And oh, there was a pedobaptism!

From a Post-Gazette sports writer, the brief story that sparked my interest:

Josh Archibald is taking the spiritual experience of winning the Stanley Cup to a new level. 
The Penguins winger had his son, Brecken, baptized in the NHL’s championship trophy during his day with it Wednesday in Brainerd, Minn. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Philip Pritchard captured the moment on Twitter. 

Alrighty! You definitely grabbed my attention.

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Elephant in the cathedral: Why are so many Anglican holy places empty and, thus, low on funds?

Elephant in the cathedral: Why are so many Anglican holy places empty and, thus, low on funds?

Anyone who has followed religion news from England knows that church attendance has been a huge story for some time now and the sobering headlines are only going to increase as the side effects -- demographics is destiny, and all of that -- become more obvious.

Yes, the statistical rise of Islam is part of this story, but only one part of complex drama. As in America, the rise of "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- is a trend that is changing how the English view their nation. That's part of the urban vs. rural divide at the heart of Brexit. It's kind of like America's red vs. blue zip-code battle.

Then there is another obvious question: Is the Church of England still the church of England? Note this headline from last year, care of The Guardian: "Church of England weekly attendance falls below 1m for first time." Here are some of the details:

The number of people attending Church of England services each week has for the first time dropped below 1 million -- accounting for less than 2% of the population -- with Sunday attendances falling to 760,000.
The statistics ... reflect the C of E’s steady decline over recent decades in the face of growing secularism and religious diversity, and the ageing profile of its worshippers. Numbers attending church services have fallen by 12% in the past decade, to less than half the levels of the 1960s.

The story included two other numbers that would catch the eye of careful reporters: "The church conducted 130,000 baptisms in the year, down 12% since 2004; 50,000 marriages, down 19%. ..."

I bring this up because of a sad, but interesting, Religion News Service piece about another side effect of these numbers. There is no way that this rather dull headline captures the emotions many Brits will feel about this topic: "Endangered Anglican cathedrals prompt Church of England review."

The bottom line: How does one keep the doors of cathedrals open (even for tourists) when the faithful rarely kneel at the altars or bring children into the pews?

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News in the 2015 Southern Baptist statistics: Baptisms, babies and crucial ethnic churches

News in the 2015 Southern Baptist statistics: Baptisms, babies and crucial ethnic churches

As you would expect, reading the Religious News Service story about the continuing decline in Southern Baptist Convention membership statistics is rather different than reading the Baptist Press feature on the same trends.

This is exactly as it should be, since one is a secular wire service and the other is a denominational press office. However, it's interesting to note that neither of these stories buried the bad-news lede and both included interesting secondary issues that could point toward important news angles in the future.

Truth is, the slow decline of the SBC is several news stories rolled up into one.

Let's look at the very short RNS story first, starting with the hard-news lede:

(RNS) The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, but it continues to lose members and baptize fewer people each year.
The latest statistics, compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources from church reports, show membership has dropped by more than 204,000, down 1.3 percent to 15.3 million members in 2015. It’s the ninth year in a row there has been a membership decline. Baptisms, which have declined eight of the last 10 years, totaled 295,212, a 3.3 percent drop, researchers said Tuesday (June 7).

So what is happening here? For starters the RNS report notes that another doctrinally conservative denomination -- the charismatic Assemblies of God -- experienced some growth in 2015.

This raises questions about the "Why?" element in this news story.

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Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

The big Catholic news out of the Archdiocese of Chicago -- the nation's third-largest diocese -- has become shockingly normal, perhaps so normal that journalists aren't even asking basic questions about this trend anymore.

The Chicago Tribune put one of the big numbers right up top in its latest report, noting that the Chicago archbishop -- a man closely identified with the tone of the Pope Francis era -- is now facing a crisis that will literally cost him altars. How many churches will he need to shutter? The current estimate is 100.

It's hard to keep Catholic church doors open without priests:

A radical overhaul in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church's houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church's chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage -- an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese's 351 parishes -- could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

So what are the basic questions here? Yes, obviously, there is the question Catholic leaders have been asking for several decades: Where have all the seminarians gone? Why is a larger church producing fewer priests?

Looking at the hard-news coverage of the Chicago crisis, other questions leap to mind (or to my mind, at least). People keep saying that the "demographics" of the church have changed. This is true, but that only raises more questions that link demographics and doctrine. Hold that thought.

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