In This Issue
- On/File: April 2002
- Findings & Footnotes: April 2002
- Churches playing new role in Madagascar
- Asian Buddhists turn to computer for recruitment, teaching
- Untouchables turning to Buddhism in India
- Gypsy Pentecostals in Europe embrace social concerns
- West shares missionary mandate with third world evangelicals
- Jihad being renounced in Egypt?
- Current Research: April 2002
- Reform Jews dropping dovish views on Israel conflict?
- Individual confession gains appreciation
- Monasteries enjoy boom, with some help from marketing
- Religious far right, militias wane in influence
- Faith-based social service — where’s the research?
01: Eglise Nouvelle Vie (New Life Church), a charismatic megachurch in Montreal, is making a name for itself due to its rapid growth and large size.
Canada has megachurches, but the existence of such congregations in Quebec is far more rare, due to the secularism and predominance of Catholicism in that province. There are only 300 evangelical churches in the province, but the Nouvelle Vie has managed to grow from 60 to 2,200 since its formation in 1993.
Eighty percent of its members are said to be newly converted Christians. The contemporary and short services, ministry to the poor and youth, use of cell groups and lay leadership are cited as factors in the church’s growth (characteristics that are not present in many of the old-style evangelical churches in the province). The church has already begun four new churches with more than 200 people attending each one.
(Source: Christian Week Online, March 19)
02: Western televangelists and other foreign Christian broadcasts (not to mention scores of Islamic networks and shows) have long attempted to beam their messages to TV viewers in the Middle East.
But SAT-7 represents a more indigenous Christian broadcast ministry to the region. The satellite network is based in Wayne, Pa., but its mission is to “provide support to the indigenous Christians of the region.” Programs are created, scripted and produced by indigenous Arabic Christians and the network works in partnership with Middle Eastern churches.
The network is also considered unique because its programming seeks to be politically, socially and religiously sensitive to Middle Eastern society in contrast to Christian programs from the West that are typically dubbed into Arabic. The ministry is endorsed by Campus Crusade for Christ, the Baptist General Conference, as well as several members of Congress and the British Parliament.
(Source: Washington Times, March 13)
01: After spending an hour reading the 654-page Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Westminster/ John Knox Press, $29.95), it came to this reviewer’s mind that this was the kind of volume that should have long been on his bookshelves.
Not only is it a convenient, single volume packed with information, but the entries — while short — are quite precise and often supplemented by a few bibliographical references. Every entry about a person include the dates of birth and death. In addition, it remains readable, the style is not dry. And there is a good reason for that: a single author, Randall Balmer, Professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, has written the book, even if a few other people have helped with drafting entries.
The volume “is weighted heavily toward North America”, admits Balmer, but Evangelicalism itself “is a quintessentially North American phenomenon.”. Entries about key figures from other parts of the world can however be found as well.
— By Jean-François Mayer
02: Sociologist William Sims Bainbridge’s The Endtime Family (SUNY Press, $23.95) provides an in-depth look at the Family — formerly Children of God — by using a survey approach as well as the more standard ethnographic or descriptive method of researching this new religious movement. Bainbridge, who surveyed 1,025 members, notes that this is the only study of an NRM drawing on such a large collection of data. He compares the beliefs and social attitudes of Family members with those of the general public from General Social Surveys and finds that on many social attitudes the group is not marginal or “fringy” in its views
Yet Bainbridge also notes that the ways in which the Family is unique– its “sexual sharing” practices between members, homeschooling, and transient lifestyle — creates too much tension and too little contact with the outside world, making recruiting difficult (the group’s small membership of around 10,000 has held steady for years, mainly due to high fertility).
More controversially, Bainbridge holds that the Family’s increasing practice of channeling spiritual messages from the departed may prove “revolutionary” for future religious life. He also ventures that its sexual practices that prohibit contraception while “promoting positive attitudes toward giving and receiving sexual love” may serve as a model for Western societies seeking to rejuvenate declining family life.
Christian churches are assuming a more prominent social role in Madagascar as poltical turmoil rocks the African nation.
During the December elections, disputes broke out about the legitimacy of the process. Opposition leader Marc Ravalomanana claimed that the elections had been rigged and that he had won an outright majority. On Feb. 22, Ravalomanana declared himself president and his followers are more or less in control of the capital, Antananarivo. But incumbent president and ruler for 23 years, Didier Ratsiraka (still recognized by the international community), keeps control over other parts of the country.
The role of the Christian Churches during the crisis has been unusual. Parish choirs and nuns accompany political demonstrations in the capital. Religious services are celebrated before self-proclaimed president Ravalomanana addresses the crowd. A successful businessman, Ravalomanana is also an active Christian and a deacon in the Reformed Church. He enjoys the support of all the major Christian Churches, gathered within the FFKM (National Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar, bringing together the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Church).
Relations between Churches and Ratsiraka had never been good, if only due to the fact that Ratsiraka had a Marxist background. The FFKM and other observers confirmed Ravalomanana’s victory at the December elections. Answering questions from RW, Swiss National Radio journalist Cyril Dépraz, recently returned from Madagascar, explained that Ravalomanana denies any intention of transforming Madgascar into a Christian state or to develop a Bible-based program for running the country.What is taking place in Madagascar is not a “religious revolution,” but a popular protest movement.
The churches have the only really functioning and reliable infrastructure — a trend present in a number of other African countries. The churches have become the major institutions for providing health, education and development aid, thanks to their international networks (Such American denominations as Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently sent a letter of solidarity to their Protestant counterparts in Madagascar). For further coverage of developments in Madagascar visit: http://allafrica.com/Madagascar/
— By Jean-François Mayer
The use of the Internet to explore and study Buddhist teachings is finding favor among Southeast Asians disillusioned with organized religion, reports Tricycle magazine (Spring).
“From virtually no online presence five years ago, Southeast Asia’s Buddhists have recently exploded onto the Web…In Thailand, where 95 percent of the country’s sixty million people are Buddhist, there are now over one hundred Thai-language sites focusing on the dharma,” writes Joshua Kurlantzick. Monks are setting up websites to connect with inquirers and followers. Temples in Singapore and Taiwan host extensive sites and send out e-mails reminding followers of dharma lessons.
All this Internet activity is hoped to revive the interest among the young in Buddhism. Financial and sexual scandals involving Buddhist clergy in recent years have led to disenchantment and non-involvement in the religion’s temples and monasteries, especially among the young. Economic development and materialism likewise have lured many away from spiritual and religious concerns, writes Kurlantzick.
By presenting Buddhist teachings over the computer, inquirers can tailor Buddhism to their lifestyles without having to go to a monastery. Progressive religious leaders hope the Web will also help reform organized religion, making lay people more knowledgeable and less willing to let the monastic hierarchy monopolize the religion.
Although traditionalists fear cyber-Buddhism will be oversimplified, already there are hints that the web presence may also increase actual participation. The attendance at forums held by the World Fellowship of Buddhists, which advertises online, have shown growing numbers of young people.
Untouchables who are protesting Hindu nationalism in India are on the verge of converting to Buddhism on a large scale, although Buddhist leaders are unsure of what to make of the phenomenon.
The Buddhist quarterly Tricycle (Spring) reports that a mass conversion of over one million Indian dalits (those of the untouchable caste) was due to take place in Delhi last November. The government swiftly moved in to prevent the mass conversions by turning back crowds from the scheduled venue, although many did take part in the ceremony.
Just as 500,000 dalit Hindus converted en masse to Buddhism under the leadership of B.R. Ambedkar in 1956, Ram Raj has emerged as a new leader of the dalit middle class. Tapping into the dalit fear that the Hindu nationalist government is removing the fragile gains they have made in India, Raj has stirred wide interest in Buddhist conversion and the right to define oneself religiously and politically. Raj believes that tens, perhaps hundreds of millions will become Buddhists, although many dalits have also expressed an interest in Christianity.
Many of the now established Ambedkarite Buddhists are wary of Raj, but realize he is charismatic and that the mass conversions “may sow seeds for a genuine encounter with Buddhism.”
(Tricycle, 92 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013)
The widespread Gypsy conversion to Pentecostal Christianity in Europe shows no signs of waning and there are indications that evangelical Gypsies are having a significant impact in their communities.
Charisma magazine (March) reports that the growth of Pentecostalism has been called the largest revival in post-war Western Europe, although many Christians are still unaware of it. Writers Tomas and Herti Dixon cite figures by Light & Life, a branch of the Assemblies of God pioneering the ministry to Gypsies, that suggests continued growth: 130,000 Gypsy believers in France (a third of the Gypsy population); between 100,000 and 500,000 evangelicals among a total of one million Gypsies in Spain.
This revival has often led to separate Gypsy congregations rather than feeding into the native European churches; there are now Gypsy Bible colleges and missions. As with Pentecostalism in Latin America and other Third World countries, Gypsy Pentecostals are beginning to effect political and social change.
This is most clearly seen in Finland, where the largely Christian (Lutheran and Pentecostal) Gypsy national organizations and politicians have pressed for recognition of a Gypsy nation with its own language and political rights. The writers add that Gypsy Christians are also in the forefront of pushing for integration into the European Union while resisting assimilation.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
A March academic conference on evangelicalism in Paris — actually the first of its kind in France — looked at the increasing strength of Third World evangelicals in missionary activity.
Mark Noll of Wheaton College addressed the growth of non-Western missionaries in general, as well as those working in cooperation with American missions. Overall, the proportion of Americans remain high and the U.S.-based interdenominational groups, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Youth with a Mission, are among the most active. However, only one-fourth of the international mission force of Campus Crusade is American, and no more than one-sixth of the international mission force of Youth with a Mission is American, according to Noll.
What is happening is more than a surge in Protestant missionary volunteers from other countries. There are also increasing numbers of missionaries sent by non-American agencies, with the strongest impetus coming from South Korea (from less than a hundred missionaries in 1979 to more than 5,000 in 1998). The international missionary impulse of Brazilian evangelicalism was examined by Paul Freston, author of Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
While Brazil “is still a large recipient of foreign missionaries,” it is also increasingly becoming a sending country. “In 1989, there were less than 400 Brazilian missionaries abroad, but this number has risen to over a thousand by 1994.” Freston adds that “We can estimate a total of some 2,000 Brazilian evangelical missionaries, nearly 90 percent of whom are sent by missionary societies resulting from Brazilian initiative.”
Only about 40 percent go to other Latin American countries, while the rest go to other parts of the world, including North America and Europe. One should also add the missionary contribution of Brazilian-born denominations, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded in the 1970s and already present in over 60 countries.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
A current bestseller in Egypt, written by jailed members of a militant Muslim group, the Jamaa al-Islamiya, is causing a stir for its renunciation of armed struggle.
The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (March 27) reports that the 600-page book , which explains why the leaders of the movement have decided to give up violence,. has already sold 100,000 copies. The Egyptian government has supported its publication.
Leaders of the Jamaa al-Islamiya had already indicated their willingness to renounce violent actions of the past. But the self-critical book now offers a detailed statement of the reasons for such a move. The authors acknowledge that their past and nearly exclusive emphasis on holy war led to a misrepresentation of Islam, which cannot be reduced to jihad. There are also practical considerations, beginning with the awareness of the obvious impossibility to reach their goals.
Moral considerations are present as well: many victims were fellow Muslims, and killing tourists is now declared to be contrary to Sharia (Islamic law). Similarly, Islam does not allow attacking Coptic Christians (as often happened in Southern Egypt). The real enemy, states the third of the four volumes, is Israel, not the Egyptian government or people. This change of mind is partly the consequence of Jamaa’s leaders getting older. It should also be seen as an indicator of wider developments among a range of militant groups around the Muslim world, which have never been of one and the same mind.
The trend predates the events of Sept. 11, but these might well have been an additional catalyst for some to distance themselves from a radical, violent, and losing strategy.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW contributing editor and director of Religioscope (http://www.Religioscope.com), a Website offering religion news and resources
Although there is a lack of hard data, preliminary surveys and other figures suggest that the Catholic Church has a disproportionate number of clergy sex abuse cases.
Observers have claimed that the scourge of clergy sexual abuse is present in all denominations. But the Boston Globe (March 13) reports that the Catholic Church has been “hit with many more allegations of clergy sexual abuse than any other faith or denomination.” Michael Paulson reports that the Archdiocese of Boston has stated that at least 80 priests have been accused of child abuse over the last 50 years, and scholars say as many as 2,000 priests have been accused of the crime in the U.S.
In contrast, Protestant and non-Christian denominations have “had so few reported cases that their leaders can generally count them on one hand.” Paulson cites a 1999 Hartford Seminary study which interviewed 76 ministers who had in 40 years served 532 different congregations in 14 different denominations and turned up no instances of sexual abuse of children in the Protestant congregations studied. In looking at New England, Paulson finds few reported cases of child sexual abuse by clergy in non-Catholic denominations.
For instance, in the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, there were three clergy accused of the crime in the past 50 years and they were defrocked (with two sent to jail). In the Episcopal Church, only three cases have come to light, and two of the perpetrators were jailed, while the other one was defrocked. There has been one case in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Boston.
In a report in Time magazine (April 1), psychologist Thomas Plante writes that the “best data we have suggest that about five percent of the Catholic clergy have had involvement with minors, mostly adolescent boys. That figure is consistent with other male clergy and the general population. In fact, the rate is probably higher in the general population.” The Catholic cases are unique in that there are more victims, due to the pattern of offending priests moving from parish to parish.
Reform Jewish rabbis in the U.S., who tended to be “dovish” when it came to the Israel-Palestinian conflict are adopting more hawkish and pro-military views in the wake of escalating violence in the region.
The Jerusalem Post (March 7) reports that leaders of the Reform rabbinate from the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting in Jerusalem in March agree that there has been a change in many rabbis’ once-liberal views on the conflict.
In the past, Rabbi Martin Weiner, president of the conference (which includes Reform rabbis from around the world), said he was critical of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his hard-line position against the Palestinians. Today, Weiner and many fellow Reform rabbis applaud Sharon’s patience in dealing with Palestinian violence.
Likewise, the once active programs bringing together Jews and Palestinians have all but disappeared. “The dialogue and the meetings have stopped. In the U.S. there is still some dialogue going on, but it is often with Muslims who are not Palestinians,” Weiner adds.
Individual confession is growing as a spiritual practice in Protestant churches where it was once traditionally neglected, reports the Dallas Morning News (March 16).
The newspaper reports that “growing numbers of Protestants now are finding more personal, face-to-face forms of spirituality meaningful.” In recent years best selling spiritual writings, such as Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast have introduced mainline and evangelical Protestants to the practice of individual confession.
More recently, the rise of “accountable discipleship,” where participants confess their sins and talk about their spiritual progress to other small group members, has helped spur the trend. People who have gone through Walk to Emmaus, a United Methodist discipleship program, often continue gathering in “reunion groups,” where they are asked to reflect on the question, “When was your faith tested this week through failure?”
In evangelical circles, Becky Tirabassi’s popular book Change Your Life takes a page from recovery programs in asking people to confess to God, oneself and others their wrongdoings.
Monasticism is growing in the Catholic Church, thanks to a hunger for contemplative spirituality as well as an active marketing and recruitment campaign that has been waged for several years, reports the Los Angeles Times (March 16).
Although the ordained priesthood continues to show numerical decline, monasteries, from California to South Carolina “have seen such a surge in interest in the monastic life that they are renovating or expanding their structures to accommodate new members,” writes Claire Luna. Examples of such expansion include the Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore., where 11 have joined in 2000, leading the abbey to launch a multi-million dollar campaign to renovate its church and college. Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina is likewise involved in a building program due to membership growth and 15,000 tourist visits each year.
Observers note that there are several explanations for the new interest. Most important may be many monasteries’ extensive and innovative recruitment drives, including vocational retreats, Web sites providing virtual tours, and even employing secular “monk headhunters” and monastery “matchmaking” services that line up prospective candidates.
University of Southern California Professor Sheila Briggs says that monasteries are doing better than the parish priesthood because they provide spiritual companionship and community and are untouched by the problems surrounding the priesthood, such as scandals over clergy sexual abuse.
The religious far right, represented by white supremacist and, to a lesser extent, patriot groups, are on the decline, although they are forming new and unexpected alliances.
The Public Eye (Spring), a leftist newsletter monitoring right wing groups, notes that the fall of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations (due to government seizure of its Idaho compound), as well as the mainstreaming of conservative protests through the election of George W. Bush, has diminished the numbers and influence of extremist organizations. The militia movement and the more extreme racialist far right, showed rapid growth in the 1990s, as hard-line conservatives claimed the government was taking away their freedoms.
The militias often drew Christians and others with millennialist and apocalyptic expectations, particularly during the Y2K phenomenon. But the cooling of millennialist fervor and the failure of militias to institutionalize their movement has likewise weakened these groups (There were 858 militia units in 1996 but by 2000, there were only 194).
Those far right groups still existing are more separatistic and are forming an unusual alliance with other anti-Americans, such as militant Muslims. In a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (http://www.splcenter.org/cgi-bin/printassist.pl?page=/intelligenceproject/ip-4u3.html), Martin Lee writes that both the far right and radical Muslims share a fear of globalism, and harbor conspiratorial, anti-Semitic sentiments.
Although the connection between the far right and extremist Muslims is more developed in Europe [see December, 2001, RW], the links with U.S. white supremacists are evident. After the attacks of September 11, a “number of Muslim newspapers published a flurry of articles by American white supremacists ranting against Israel and the Jews,” Lee writes.
In the wake of Sept. 11, several American neo-Nazi Web sites also started to offer links to Islamic websites.
(The Public Eye, 1310 Broadway, Ste. 201, Somerville, MA 02144-1731)
Faith-based social service is a centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s social policy, a subject of national debate, and a growing concern of congregations, and yet there has been little research on its effectiveness. A late March conference at the University of Pennsylvania attended by RW confirmed that while there have been case studies of congregations involved in faith-based social work and glowing reports from ministries on their success rates in comparison to secular agencies, there is a serious lack of quantitative data on the effectiveness of the “faith factor.”
A study released at the conference, which was organized by the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society and the Manhattan Institute, finds that the little research there is (just 25, mainly qualitative, studies) reveals that participation in faith-based interventions is associated with beneficial outcomes.
Researcher Byron Johnson finds that only two of the 25 studies reviewed “concluded that there was no association between faith-based intervention and the desired outcome, and not one study showed a faith-based intervention to be significantly associated with a harmful outcome.” For instance, three studies comparing recidivism among former inmates found that participants in faith-based programs showed lower rates of returning to prison.
Mayors from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were on hand to testify to the increasingly prominent place that faith-based programs play in urban revitalization. Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore spoke of a youth violence reduction initiative where 37 churches partner with the city to provide volunteer mentors for at-risk youth. Since the program was started there has been a 34 percent drop in shootings in Baltimore, according to O’Malley. In Washington, D.C., there is a clergy-police initiative focusing on youth violence and a mentor program run by the city’s Interfaith Council to help ex-prisoners return to the community.
These and other initiatives were reported by the mayors and clergy with little reference to the national policy of Charitable Choice, welfare reform and the ensuing church-state debate. The University of Pennsylvania’s John Dilulio, formerly head of the White House’s faith-based social service office, explained that there is a growing gap between national politicians and the more pragmatic mayors.
The debate in Washington has “grown increasingly abstract,” not having much to do with the practical realities of solving social problems. He added that “There’s more innovation in the cities than state-wide or national. Being a mayor is a practical job,” and marshaling faith-based resources to solve problems is increasingly common in mayoral leadership. Dilulio added that the relationships and funding flows from Washington to the states, often leaving cities and mayors out of the loop.