01: A new study of Episcopal parishes finds they are increasing in vitality while experiencing weaker ties to the church leadership and other parts of the national church, reports the newsletter Visions (May/June).
The study, called the Zacchaeus Project, is based on 2,000 group interviews in selected parishes of nine Episcopal dioceses, as well as a short survey distributed to parishes of nine other dioceses. The study’s authors, Thomas Holland and William Sachs, write that “while respondents in local congregations saw themselves increasing in strength, they were also deeply critical of judicatories and other parts of the national church, especially their leaders and structures.”
The report adds that the shift toward “congregationalism” and away from hierarchical structures may be due to newcomers with such non-hierarchical backgrounds and disenchantment among parishes over diocesan leadership and their involvement in controversial issues. One participant in a focus group said about the church’s bishops ” . . . these guys see themselves at the top of some pyramid of power…when they should be at the bottom asking us what we need . . . The local congregation is the church.”
About 14 percent of survey respondents said their parish used national resources, and 40 percent used diocesan resources. Strongly affirmed were Anglican traditions such as the Book of Common Prayer and the Eucharist. Less than a third in the survey said their parish would try new things without worrying about tradition.
(Visions, P.O. Box 94144, Atlanta, GA 30377)
02: New religious movements are finding more problems than victories on the Internet, according to Swiss researcher Jean Francois Mayer.
The University of Fribourg professor presented a paper on new religions and the Internet at the early June conference of CESNUR, a center for study of new religions, in Bryn Athyn, Penn. Mayer found that there has not been a high rate of conversions to new religions through the use of the Internet, although seekers can receive information on unconventional teachings more conveniently.
For instance, the New Apostolic Church in Switzerland had 120 visits on their web site each day, but only two people became members of the church after an initial contact over the Internet. The real challenge of the Internet will mainly affect larger movements and it will come in the form of negative information coming from critics, according to Mayer.
Mayer found that searches for various new religious movements on the Internet often turned up as many negative and alternative groups as the actual movements or organizations being requested from a search engine. For example, a search for the Japanese new religion leader Mahikari turned up rivals and anti-Mahikari factions. This means that someone on the Internet interested in Mahikari’s teaching will have the difficult job of sorting out “authentic” from critical and alternative Mahikari teachings.
Other groups, such as Transcendental Meditation, have been more effective in “clogging the web,” by seeking to replace negative TM sites with favorable ones. Even though many new religions do not appreciate the new attention they are getting on the Internet from critics and rivals (and some, such as Scientology, have resorted to legal means), they are making changes because of this new scrutiny.
A secretive group such as the Two-by-Twos is loosening up strict requirements of members, while The Way is said to be experiencing internal reform because of the information about the quasi-Christian group available on the web. Mayer adds that anti-cultists are probably benefiting the most from the new technology, as it permits them to spread information worldwide and answer inquiries from new religious movement members, ex-members and their families.
03: One of the first large-scale surveys of members of the controversial Family (formerly the Children of God) finds that they are not noticeably alienated from American society.
But the group is espousing mysticism more today and its practices are still far from mainstream. At the June CESNUR conference attended by RW, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge presented findings from his survey of 1,025 members of the Family. Bainbridge finds that the Family members often were similar to other Americans in their degree of alienation and disenchantment with society. On some questions, such as about whether people should bring more children into the world, members rated higher in optimistic and “pro-child” attitudes than other Americans.
Ninety four percent of members said that spiritual experiences were prominent in their faith; Bainbridge noted that the receiving and emphasis on spiritual experiences has grown in the Family during the last three or four years. Although the Family has repudiated some of their more lax sexual practices (such as having sex with prospective members, and dealing with cases of sexual abuse), they are far from traditionalists. While 68.3 percent of Americans think sexual relations between early teens are always wrong, only 18.7 percent of Family members believe that is the case.
04: Recent research shows that relationship between the religious right and American religious pluralism is undergoing changes that may have important consequences for the Presidential election of 2000.
Researchers Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio used extensive American National Election Surveys (ANES) starting in l988 to track a gradual but pervasive increase of antipathy among a growing segment of the American electorate to Christian right politics. Writing in Public Opinion Quarterly (#63), they find convincing evidence that at least twenty percent of the non-fundamentalist public “hold intensely antagonistic attitudes” towards fundamentalists.
They find that culturally progressive, university educated and practicing Jewish voters have stepped up their resistance to the rightist agenda of the fundamentalists. They suggest that this antipathy will move the rightists more directly into the Republican party, a trend that in turn will produce deeper rifts than now exists between the libertarian and conservative wings of the GOP. It might also galvanize cultural progressivists who fear fundamentalist inroads into American religious pluralism.
A contrasting study is conducted by Donald E. Hopson and Donald R. Smith in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (38:1). They find that the Christian Right is flourishing because it is steadily adjusting its once-rigid commitment to religious doctrine to embrace a growing “pragmatic dimension” of its public policy social agenda. The Christian Right is deemphasizing its religious character– a move the authors see as demonstrating increasing “political sophistication.”
Should their interpretation hold out, it would point to Christian rightists’ acceptance by the broader conservative public, a trend supportive of traditional American religious pluralism.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 872 SWKT, Sociology Dept., Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-5388)
— By Erling Jorstad
05: A study on the impact of black theology on African-American church members finds that its influence has been minimal.
In the Review of Religious Research (March) Allison Calhoun-Brown finds that black theology, which used African-American concepts of God and Christ and closely linked salvation and overturning racism, did not strongly affect church members view of God and other traditional teachings. The study finds “no relationship between the image of Christ and racial solidarity,” and only two-thirds of respondents ever heard of the debate concerning the color of Christ.
Of these, only 30 percent imagined Christ as black. Sixty-three percent believe Christ was beyond color and “either are not exposed to [black theology] or do not embrace its major tenets.”
(Review of Religious Research, Texas Tech University, Sociology Dept., Lubbock, Texas 79409)
06: In the often elusive quest to find the “Catholic vote,” a new survey suggests a more politically conservative segment of American Catholics are emerging while a generally “liberal” stance is on the wane.
The conservative Catholic magazine Crisis (June) sponsored a poll of 1,0001 randomly selected Catholics and found that “social justice” or liberal Catholics are now a minority in the church. In a breakdown of the various kinds of Catholics uncovered in the survey, 35 percent have a social justice orientation, nine percent are “hard-core” social justice Catholics, and a majority (65 percent) stand in opposition to the social justice agenda. This agenda includes support for hiring practices based on race and gender and self-identification as a “liberal.”
Steven Wagner writes that the new majority, whom he terms “social-renewal Catholics,” tend to see a crisis in personal morality in the country, believe the federal government is adding to such a problem, and do not identify themselves as liberal. Wagner adds that, unlike the social justice orientation, affinity for the social-renewal agenda is more prevalent among religiously active Catholics than among the inactive. This new agenda is embraced by 71 percent of weekly Mass attenders versus 53 percent who attend Mass less frequently.
(Crisis, 1814 and 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036)
07: Small communities are growing and serve to strengthen American Catholics’ participation in parish life, although such groups are also graying, according to recent research.
For several years, Catholic University of America sociologist William D’Antonio and other researchers have investigated the growth of small groups and communities in or on the periphery of American Catholicism, and he has recently issued a comprehensive report on the phenomenon, according to the National Catholic Reporter (May 28). Between 750,000 and 1 million Catholics are involved weekly in over 37,000 communities; there are at least 14,500 small Christian communities associated with religious orders.
The study finds five main groupings: general small communities connected to parishes; Hispanic groups; charismatic small communities; the liberal Call to Action groups; and communities that celebrate the Eucharist.usually in private homes. Among the other findings of the study are: friendship is the most satisfying part of belonging to such communities; the majority of the participants are over 50; a strong majority said they became more involved in parish life since joining these groups; and more than three-quarters of Hispanics said participation had “strengthened their attitude toward the pope and the Vatican.”
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)
08: People who participate in churches feel stronger ties to their community and are more likely to join community groups and efforts, according to an Iowa State University study.
In the survey of nearly 9,000 residents in 86 small towns in Iowa it was found that church involvement spurred on participation in other groups ranging from the PTA to political groups (and even organized sports), say the researchers. Although living in a town longer does effect joining in local activities, it has less of an impact than church participation, according to a news release by the National Institute of Healthcare Research.
(NIHR’s web site is: www.nihr.org)
09: Missionary doctors were once an important part of missions, but this vocation may well become a relic of the past.
World magazine (June 12) cites surveys showing that this once prominent field of Christian ministry is falling victim to the growth of short-term missionaries and lack of commitment to this vocation. Citing a report in the magazine Today’s Christian Doctor, there are now 30 missions organizations without a single doctor or nurse on their staffs in 33 hospitals worldwide. One survey found that of a hundred young people serving who felt called to medical missions,, only 12 completed training for such work, only two actually went on to this type of missionary work, and only one stayed.
The high cost of medical education and the imagined work and call schedule in mission hospitals is one deterrent to joining up. But it is suggested that short-term missions, initially meant to build interest in missionary careers, may be missionary doctors’ death knell. “In some ways, short-term service and short-term teams have killed long-term service. The question may be asked: If I can fulfill God’s requirements for my life for world evangelism by a two-week commitment per year, why should I consider a lifetime commitment?”
(World, P.O. Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802)
10: Christianity in Africa continues to grow at a higher rate than in any other part of the world.
That is missions researcher David Barret’s conclusion in an updated version of his World Christian Encyclopedia. The number of Christians in Africa is increasing at a 3.5 percent annual rate, or six million Christians each year. Out of the six million new Christians, 1.5 million are adult converts. Barret’s recent research confirms reports of massive gains in the entire Third World.
An estimated 15.4 percent of the total number of Christians in the world are found in developing nations.