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God as a ‘Fashion Statement'

In a single generation, the number of people in the United States who label themselves-even loosely-as Christian has gone down 11 percent. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), almost all church denominations have declined since the original study was conducted in 1990.

Although that may not seem like new news to many pastors, this likely will: Americans who claim no religion at all now outrank every major religious group except Catholics and Baptists. These "Nones"-a term coined by the researchers for those who answered "None" when asked about their religious affiliation-currently represent 15 percent of the population, which is almost twice as many as in 1990.

"These people aren't secularized," said Barry Kosmin, co-author of the massive study that polls more than 54,000 people across the United States. "They're not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they're not thinking about it at all."

Indeed, the survey found that 40 percent have never experienced any kind of religious initiation ceremony (e.g., baptism, christening, bar mitzvah), while 55 percent who are married had a ceremony devoid of any kind of religious overtones.

"More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself,'" said Kosmin. In 1990, he concluded that many Americans saw God as a "personal hobby," and characterized the country as "a greenhouse for spiritual sprouts." Today, however, "religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."

So where is God the least fashionable? According to the 2009 ARIS, Vermont is now the least religious state with 34 percent of "Nones," leading all other states by 9 percentage points. Overall, the percentage of Christians in America now stands at 76 percent-down from 76.7 percent in 2001 and 86.2 percent in 1990.

"The challenge to Christianity," concluded the report, "does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion." [AP, 3/9/09; usatoday.com, 3/9/09] Read more...

Generic Beyond Recognition

QUOTE: "There is now this shift in the non-Catholic population-and maybe among American Christians in general-into a sort of generic, soft evangelicalism. ... It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism-mainline versus evangelical-is collapsing. A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States. ... If people call themselves ‘evangelical,' it doesn't tell you as much as you think it tells you about what kind of church they go to. It deepens the conundrum about who evangelicals are." -Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Silk oversaw Trinity's latest American Religious Identification Survey, which found a distinct movement among Christians in the last 19 years: As the number of people describing themselves as "Protestant" plummeted (approximately 17 million in 1990 compared to the current 5 million), those who preferred the "nondenominational" term dramatically increased from 194,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million today. [washingtonpost.com, 3/9/09; usatoday.com, 3/9/09] Read more...

As Pastors Lean Liberal, So Goes ...

Among the driving forces behind our nation's cultural and moral shift, here's one that can't be overlooked: According to one of the most far-reaching surveys recently conducted among mainline Protestant clergy, almost half (48 percent) of all ministers consider themselves liberals, compared to about one-third (34 percent) who say they are conservative.

In a recent study, the Public Religion Research polled a random sampling of 1,000 senior clergy from seven mainline denominations and found that, with the exception of United Methodist and American Baptist ministers, a majority of clergy in every denomination identify as liberal. Though the study also honed in on political affiliations (56 percent of mainline Protestant clergy consider themselves Democratic, compared to only 34 percent Republican), it also revealed several telling statistics among mainline clergy:

  • Two-thirds disagree that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God, both in matters of faith and in historic, geographical, and other secular matters." (Only 29 percent agree with this statement.)
  • 46 percent disagree that mainline churches are declining because they are becoming theologically liberal
  • 65 percent support some legal recognition for same-sex couples
  • 51 percent of all mainline clergy support the legality of abortion in all or most cases
  • 54 percent don't believe creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public school biology classes
  • 10 percent say cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are the most important national issues [publicreligion.org, 3/6/09; christianpost.com, 3/9/09] Read more...

Church Gunman Kills Pastor

An Illinois pastor was killed Sunday morning when a gunman entered the church and opened fire during the first of three morning worship services. Fred Winters, pastor of First Baptist Church of Maryville, deflected the first of four bullets with his Bible, causing pages to fly "like confetti," witnesses said. After four shots, the attacker's .45-caliber handgun jammed, and he stabbed himself with a knife and injured two other church members when they tackled the man. One remains hospitalized, while the other has been treated and released.

None of the approximately 150 worshipers attending the 8 a.m. church service recognized the gunman, who police identified as 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek from Troy, Ill. Currently hospitalized and in police custody, Sedlacek suffered from Lyme disease, which family members said had led to him developing mental illness. On Monday, police discovered Sedlacek's day planner, in which Sunday was listed as "death day."

Winters, 45, became senior pastor of First Baptist Church in 1987. Since then the suburban St. Louis church has grown from 32 members to more than 1,200. Winters was also an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a past president of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Winters is survived by his wife, Cindy, and their two daughters.

The Baptist association's current executive director, Nate Adams, said Winters was "a wonderful, gifted, leading pastor in Illinois, and a dear friend.

"Our great God is not surprised by this, or anything. That He allows evil and free will to have their way in tragedies like this is a mystery in many ways," Adams said in a statement Sunday. "But we know we can trust Him no matter what, and draw close to Him in any circumstances. Let's draw closer to Him and to one another during this terrible tragedy, and renew our faith and obedience to His purposes for however many days we have remaining to serve Him." [AP, 3/8/09; foxnews.com, 3/8/09; stltoday.com, 3/9/09]

For tips on how to better protect your church from a surprise attack, click here. Read more...

God's ‘Best Will'

Lou Yuanqi, a Chinese pastor imprisoned in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region before the Beijing Olympics last year, received a verdict of "insufficient evidence" on charges that he used "superstition to undermine the law," according to the Chinese Public Security Bureau (PSB) and U.S.-based persecution watchdog China Aid. Yet despite the court acknowledging that "the facts used in the case are not clear" and submitting a final verdict that returns the case to the PSB, the house-church pastor remains in prison.

Lou, who led a small group along with his wife, Wang Wenxiu, was first detained last May in Xinjiang and thrown in prison. In December, court officers beat his 18-year-old daughter following his trial as she attempted to speak with him while being rushed to a police car. Yet throughout their persecution, Wang and her family, along with other believers, continue to meet as a church. "This [imprisonment] is God's best will," Lou's wife said upon hearing of believers worldwide praying for her family. "It is His promise. It is the grace of the Lord. How could we be worthy of awakening so many brothers' and sisters' prayers for us? The cross of Jesus encourages us to move forward. I am very joyful and full of gratitude for all of the prayer support." [christiannewswire.com, 3/6/09] Read more...

Need Work? Go to Church

With the national unemployment rate escalating, many churches are emerging as networking hubs for job hunters. In Dallas, First Baptist Church is offering extensive help on workforce topics such as creating a standout résumé and excelling in interviews. Through programs such as Career Solutions, Career Link and Crown Financial Classes, attendees can not only improve their chances on landing future employment, but also better manage their current financial situations.

"It is the old adage, ‘Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish he'll eat for a lifetime,'" said First Baptist Church senior pastor Robert Jeffress. "And we think the most important thing the church can do to help its members who are unemployed is help them develop and hone skills that will help them land that next job."

Yet what makes the Texas megachurch-and other congregations following suit-unique in the down economy is its ability to network internally. Through its various programs, many of these churches are matching and connecting employers with potential employees within the church.

"Church groups are a good way to use existing community connections to expand your network of people," said career and business consultant Kathy Robinson. Though volunteer-run church programs can sometimes contain outdated advice for job searching, Robinson says the risk is usually worth it considering the array of industries typically represented within a church. "As long as the members are keeping themselves current on job search techniques it's actually a fabulous resource." [cnnmoney.com, 2/26/09; christianpost.com, 2/27/09] Read more...

Denominational Breakdown

Although membership in the nation's largest Christian communions declined last year, two Pentecostal denominations showed an increase. The Assemblies of God (AG) of Springfield, Mo., and the Cleveland, Tenn.-based Church of God were the only two denominations of traditional Christian orthodoxy among the 25 largest churches in the U.S. to report membership increases, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, an annual chronicle of religious institutions edited by the National Council of Churches (NCC) and published by Abingdon Press. The AG listed nearly 2.9 million members while the Church of God reported 1 million.

The ecumenical NCC reported the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses as the only other church groups to show membership increases, even though most Pentecostals, and many mainline churches and orthodox Christians, would consider those two groups separate religions.

A slight membership decline among Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, according to the yearbook, raised eyebrows because both denominations have typically grown over the years. "Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline," stated an NCC release.

In the bigger picture, the yearbook reported the small less-than-1-percent drop in membership in each denomination was not "earth-shattering" because there are still more than 67 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. and 16 million Southern Baptists.

Churches listed in the NCC yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, the yearbook's editor, said there are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of churchgoers-the GenXers or Millenials in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them. A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and thoughtful inquiry." [AP, 2/25/09; christianpost.com, 2/25/09] Read more...

Mistaking Crowds for Churches

QUOTE: "The biblical New Testament church is vanishing from society today. Anything and everything is acceptable as long as it builds a crowd. Jesus wasn't as interested in building a crowd as He was in telling the truth." -Bob Pearle, pastor of Fort Worth's Birchman Baptist Church and president of the Grapevine-based Southern Baptists of Texas, a conservative state convention. In his latest book, The Vanishing Church, Pearle rails against the growing segment of American churches-particularly nondenominational, seeker-sensitive megachurches-that build their "product" to meet consumer demand based upon churchgoers surveys. "It's a bankrupt philosophy," the conservative preacher adds. "Our responsibility as pastors and leaders is not to give people what they want necessarily but what they need." [star-telegram.com, 2/28/09] Read more...

Changing of the Guard

QUOTE: "There really has been a shift and in some ways, a fragmenting of American evangelism. A new generation of evangelists is blogging their way around the old power structures and challenging many dogmatic ideas that people like [James] Dobson set forth." -Bill Leonard, dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, on the emergence of new leaders within the evangelical movement. Last Friday, Dobson resigned as chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, the ministry he founded in 1977. "One of the common errors of founder-presidents is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority," Dobson said. "Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do." The move was part of Dobson's leadership succession plan, which began six years ago when he stepped down as president and chief executive officer. The 72-year-old psychologist will relinquish his administrative duties but continue to host the ministry's daily broadcast and write a monthly newsletter that is distributed to 1.6 million supporters. [latimes.com, 2/28/09; AP, 2/27/09] Read more...

A Glass Half Full for Parachurch Ministries

Despite the economic recession, ministry giving was higher than expected in late 2008, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). In a survey of 300 member ministries, the ECFA found that 72 percent met, exceeded or came within 10 percent of their fourth-quarter contribution goals. More than a quarter (28 percent) were more than 10 percent below their goals.

"Many of the parachurch ministries we surveyed reported small donations [those between $10 to $100] were relatively unaffected, and in some cases, donations in this category increased," said Dan Busby, acting president of ECFA. "In fact, some of our members had the strongest fourth quarter they've had in years and ended the year debt-free."

The organization said some member ministries attributed the survey results to increased prayer and greater interest in supporting organizations that help the poor and disadvantaged. More than half of member organizations said they increased one-on-one contact with key donors to buffer fundraising during the economic downturn. More than 30 percent said they changed their message to donors about how the ministry was responding to a changing economy.

Despite the good news, half of those surveyed reported that their investments had lost 15 percent to 30 percent of their value. And many ministry leaders are concerned about how the recession will affect 2009 giving. Most ministries are reducing costs, 41 percent have frozen or delayed salary increases, and 38 percent have frozen or reduced hiring.

Conference travel and capital projects have largely been reduced or delayed. Roughly 20 percent are sharing resources with other organizations and businesses. "Most ECFA member ministries expect 2009 to be more challenging, primarily because major donors who made gifts in 2008 have expressed they may not be able to renew their financial commitments because of the economy," Busby said. "But for leadership and staff members, this is ministry, not a job. Despite challenges, most remain committed to making positive operational and structural decisions, including developing contingency plans, which will enable them to continue to carry out God's purpose despite limited resources." [charismamag.com, 2/24/09] Read more...
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