In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: December 1998
- Alpha course’s success suggests turnaround in British church
- South Korea’s depression drives churches back to basics
- Current Research: December 1998
- Churches turn to professionals to raise funds
- Child abuse cases target Mormon church
- Mormon social gospel unfolding?
- Tattooing marks believers — from pagan to evangelical
- New crackdown on Muslim activists raises protests of persecution
- Elections signal downturn for religious right?
- Denominations still play role in congregational life
01: Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (University of California Press, $29.95) is an in-depth treatment of the many ways Americans have approached the spiritual life in recent years.
The Princeton sociologist draws a sharp line between the pre-60s period, which was characterized by a “spirituality of dwelling,” as it was tied to congregations, and the post-60s “spirituality of seeking” based on life experiences and experimentation. Wuthnow also examines the attempt to instill a spirituality of discipline, the changing meaning of the “soul,” and the meaning of the angel phenomenon. The author sees the future of spirituality not so much in “dwelling” or “seeking” but in the cultivation of spiritual practices (such as meditation, prayer and other disciplines) that draw on both congregational and personal resources and experiences.
02: Erik Davis’ new book Techgnosis (Harmony Books, $25) goes a long way in showing that occult, Gnostic, pagan, and New Age practices and beliefs particularly lend themselves to computer technology.
Davis, a veteran reporter on the frontiers of technology and alternative religions and cultures, focuses less on specific religious groups’ involvement in cyberspace than on the mystical visions and philosophies that he sees as undergirding the new technologies. Especially interesting are the sections on the techno- religions of the Extropians, who believe in completely transcending the human through technology; mysticism in Silicon Valley, and the “technopagan” use of magic, and UFO “cults” — from Star Trek to Heaven’s Gate.
03: Although the cost of the Encyclopedia Of Religion And Society (Alta Mira Press , 1630 North Main Street, Suite 367, Walnut Creek, CA 94596;$124.95) may be too much for many readers, the 608-page reference book is recommended for most libraries.
The volume, edited by William H. Swatos Jr., serves as a virtual who’s who and what’s what of contemporary religion. Scholarly in tone and written from a sociological perspective, the book provides brief but concise entries on most issues in religion today — ranging from Astrology to funerals to the Salvation Army, as well as biographical sketches on leading scholars and other religious figures.
The expansion of the Alpha course, a popular seminar introducing British unchurched to Christianity, is having a strong impact on moribund parishes of the Church of England.
The Economist magazine (Nov. 7) reports that the Alpha, a ten-week crash course in basic Christianity, was started in the 1970s, but it is only in the past few years that it has shown sharp growth. Organizers say that 200,000 people are currently enrolled in the course at 6,300 churches across Britain.
Veteran British religion commentator Clifford Longley calls the course an “unqualified triumph . . . The reconversion of England is almost believable.” Alpha courses usually begin with a meal followed by a talk and discussion in small groups, and retreats are held for long-term participants.
The course is based around the ministry of Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, a leader in the charismatic renewal among Anglicans. The expanding “Alpha industry” based at the church has a full-time staff of 50, with departments for conducting the course in British prisons. A nationwide billboard campaign is under way. Alpha has been accused of “love-bombing” participants by wooing them with parties, food and friendship.
But the main effect of the course is in how Alpha graduates are encouraged to plant their vibrant faith in “moribund churches, by arriving in packs of 20 or 30 and encouraging a youthful congregation to take root. It is difficult to gauge the effect of Alpha on the Church of England [Alpha is also popular among Catholics], since the church no longer publishes membership statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it “has saved a few churches from closure, and filled pews and collection plates.
Alpha is certainly a powerful medicine for a sickly old church. But it is too early to describe it as the cure.”
After a period of prosperity and rapid expansion, churches in South Korea are undergoing a period of rethinking about their mission in an economically depressed nation.
South Korea and other East Asian countries are is deep in the throes of economic depression, as shown by growing ranks of unemployment and currency devaluation. During the nation’s boom times in the 1970s and 80s, South Korea’s churches grew tremendously, with the most notable example being the world’s largest congregation, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul with 700,000 members.
Christianity Today (Nov. 16) magazine reports that where evangelism and a “prosperity gospel” were often key themes in the churches, especially in the evangelical and charismatic congregations during this time, preaching on repentance and against materialism is now commonplace.
There is also renewed attention to the plight of the poor and forgotten — once important themes in most Korean churches — especially as many church members are now among the unemployed. Before the depression, there appeared to be a lull in church attendance In 1994, a government statistical report posted a four percent decline in church attendance. Writer Bo Rin Ro writes that such a decline is continuing, with pastors reporting drops in giving and expansion plans.
The strong involvement of churches in sending missionaries around the world has also been curtailed. Meanwhile, a report in the Associated Press (Nov. 2), in contrast to Ro’s claim of decline of church attendance, find the number of people attending religious services is climbing again, not only among Christians but also among Buddhists and other faiths.
01: American evangelicals’ ability to balance orthodoxy and cultural relevance is one of the reasons these Christians show more commitment than their fundamentalist counterparts, according to a recent study.
The review Books & Culture (November/December) cites research by sociologist Christian Smith suggesting that fundamentalists showed lower levels of religious vitality than evangelicals. Smith’s research, based on surveys and interviews and contained in the book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, shows that greater numbers of fundamentalists than evangelicals were content to attend church only on Sundays (or more rarely) and that the former group sometimes displayed more indifference about orthodox doctrine.
Such findings conflict with the established view that fundamentalists (such as those identified with Bob Jones University) hold stricter stances in doctrine and lifestyle. But Smith maintains that evangelicalism is more successful and generates greater commitment because it helps members maintain the balance between engaging the surrounding culture and being distinct from it. Smith adds that the recent emphasis on political and social change among many evangelicals is not likely to help the movements’ growth.
The ingredients that spurred evangelical growth, such as the sense of being in conflict with the culture, are likely to prevent their large-scale political influence. The evangelicals’ emphasis on change through a “personal influence strategy,”.is more likely to be the avenue of evangelical social impact.
(Books & Culture, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
02: Most Lutherans do not believe church involvement is central to their faith and many have doubts about key doctrines of Lutheranism, according to a survey by Lutheran Brotherhood, a fraternal organization.
The survey, conducted among 2,200 Lutherans from various church bodies, found that a majority (69.8 percent) believe that being a “good Christian” is not tied to church attendance, and that it doesn’t matter which church one attends (62.7 percent), according to a report in Christian News (Nov. 9). However, those most active in church were also the ones most likely to say being connected to a Lutheran church was important (91 percent).
In conflict with Lutheran teaching that people are justified by faith, forty-eight percent of Lutherans agree or “probably agree” that “people can only be justified before God by loving others,” and 60 percent agree that the “The main emphasis of the gospel is God’s rules for right living.”
(Christian News, 3277 Boeuf Lutheran Rd., New Haven, MO 63068)
03: Many black churches have little money for outreach due to serious financial problems, according to a new study.
The study was conducted by the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and surveyed 3,636 members from 141 churches. More than 54 percent of church members surveyed reported serious financial problems in their congregations, according to the United Methodist News Service (Nov. 11).
The least financially troubled were Presbyterian, non-denominational, Church of God in Christ and African Methodist Episcopal churches. The most troubled were United Methodist and Disciples of Christ. A typical black congregation with 250 members devotes 77 percent of its income to maintain basic operations, leaving little left for outreach. The researchers doubt that black churches can fill the gap in their communities left by welfare cuts.
04: News of Ireland’s secularization is exaggerated, at least in the rural parts of the nation, according to a recent survey.
Recent surveys show a steady decline in Catholic beliefs and identity in Ireland [see April `98 issue of RW], but the new survey shows that more than three-quarters of adult Catholics in the largely rural archdiocese of Cashel and Emly attend Mass once a week. The Irish Times (Nov. 5) reports that the poll, conducted by Irish Marketing Surveys, found Mass attendance above the national average of 65 percent.
Weekly attendance was highest for older people at 94 percent and lowest for the 18-34 age group at 60 percent. Only three in 10 said recent scandals (involving financial and child abuse) in the church had affected their religious beliefs.
Churches and synagogues are increasingly turning to professional fund-raisers to draw in funds, according to the New York Times (Nov. 18). About 7.4 percent of the members of the National Society of Fund-raising executives work for religious organizations — which is double the number from seven years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s survey shows that the numbers have doubled again,” says society spokesman Michael A. Nilsen.
Among the reasons for the new interest in professional fundraising is the increased competition for philanthropic money as well as the increasing size of congregations, “as temples and churches continue to consolidate parishes into `megachurches’ to serve large geographic areas.”
The growth in fund-raising has caused fear that such campaigns will use high pressure sales techniques or engage in other ethical violations. But few fund-raisers do much of the “footwork” themselves, as they usually recruit members of the synagogues or churches themselves, writes Claudia Deutsch. Fund-raisers more often do the research and develop strategies for locating donors, bring in other professionals, such as lawyers, and are able to discern how much donors will give.
With their technological and marketing savvy, they work with the understanding that “people do not give to budgets, they give to missions and visions.” For instance, Dallas’ Highland Park Presbyterian Church now shows potential donors a video of their colleagues ministering to the poor. The new role of technology in church fundraising was also evident during the recent relief work for the Hurricane Mitch disaster in Central America.
The use of the Internet and toll free telephone numbers for making donations was a first for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Credit card donations were made through the denomination’s Disaster Assistance Web site and through the PrebyTel phone lines, according to PCUSA News (Nov. 19).
The Mormon church is undergoing a controversy involving child sex abuse cases, with critics claiming that the church seriously mishandled reports of pedophiles in its ranks, reports the National Law Journal (Nov. 16).
Although the number of cases might seem small compared with the many cases filed against the Catholic Church, there are at least five suits pending against the church around the country, “seeking huge punitive damages awards.” One of the plaintiff’s lawyers believe there are “hundreds and hundreds of more cases,” although church officials deny that claim.
Rev. Thomas H. Economus, president of The Linkup, a Chicago advocacy group for victims of clergy-related sex abuse, says the Mormon church and the Catholic church have a similar litigation style. “They just circle the wagons and then viciously go after [victims and their families].”
But there are also important differences between the Catholic and Mormon cases. Mormon clergy and church leaders — except the highest officials — are unpaid volunteers who usually have careers outside the church. This makes it difficult to show they are agents of the church. Rather than church leaders committing abuse, the Mormon cases more typically claim that a clergy member failed to protect children from a member of the congregation he knew was a pedophile.
Is a new form of Mormon social activism emerging?
It’s obvious that Mormonism is powerful missionary force around much of the world, adding members daily through an extensive proselytizing movement. In an address to the conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Warner Woodworth of Brigham Young University sees new forms of social action emerging among Mormons that go beyond the traditional welfare programs targeted mainly to fellow members. In the past few years, wards (Mormon parishes) and relief societies have been mobilized by local church leaders to volunteer in soup kitchens, supervise homeless shelters and other similar programs.
More significant has been the creation of a new service missionary program. Although still in its infancy, the program serves as a counterpart to “proselytizing missionaries,” as members spend 12 to 18 months of labor in addressing people’s physical, economic and technical needs. Woodworth says that the other major new effort started in 1996 is the incorporation of a Mormon-based non-governmental organization called Latter-day Saint Charities (LDSC).
As a non-profit group separate from the LDS church, the LDSC will “give church aid programs new legal status as humanitarian enterprises, allowing for relief efforts, development work and other activities to occur independent of ecclesiastical aims,” Woodworth adds. He also forecasts that the growing international focus and social conscience of Mormon business people and the activism of college students will further spur on Mormon social action in the future.
The phenomenon of tattooing and body piercing may be more than a fad and may actually be closer to religious ritual, though one that appeals to a wide range of believers and seekers.
Common Boundary (September/October), a magazine of spirituality and psychology, reports that “growing numbers of individuals are seeking spiritual experiences through embellishing their bodies.” Author Rufus Camphausen views the trend of body decoration, “along with changing sexual mores, the reemergence of goddess religions, rising interest in herbal healing, and the popularity of trance-inducing dance and music, as evidence of a return to our tribal beginnings.” At the recent convention of the Association of Professional Piercers in Las Vegas, a well-attended workshop taught that piercing serves as an initiation rite and is a transforming experience.
The leader of the workshop, Maureen Mercury, holds that the mainstreaming of body adornment is not a return to the tribal as much as a revival of paganism, which uses the body to connect with the divine. But tattooing is not just for pagans, as there is even a phenomenon of evangelical Christian young people practicing such body adornment. Many evangelical youth do not oppose the practice of marking one’s bodies with tattoos, even if they choose not to do it themselves, according to a study of students at one evangelical school presented at the November conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Montreal.
Researchers Lori Jensen, Richard Flory, and Donald E. Miller found that along with such tolerance, tattooing is viewed (and even encouraged) as an accepted form of religious expression among members of such “new paradigm” evangelical congregations as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Fellowship. Often such Christians mix secular and religious symbols, such as a dagger and portrait of Christ with a Bible verse. The new acceptance of tattoos among many young evangelicals may be a sign of growing “worldliness” and adaptation to the culture, or it could be a “symbol of identity and individuality, an extreme expression of an extreme faith . . . religious tattooing among young evangelical Christians embodies — literally — their beliefs in a new and radical way,” write Jensen, Flory and Miller.
(Common Boundary, 4905 Del Ray Ave., Bathesda, MD 20814)
Using new, broad powers of investigation and a much larger budget, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in recent months is targeting Muslim activists for alleged support of terrorist attacks against American lives and property.
Using a 1996 act of Congress with vastly expanded jurisdiction, sharp increases in its budget and anti-terrorism agents, the FBI is cracking down on a variety of Muslim activists suspected of promoting terrorist attacks here and overseas. Individuals such as Mohammed Salah of Bridgeview, Illinois, have been deprived of their bank accounts, their right to private consultations with their doctors and bankers, and in some cases, ownership of their homes.
Admitting that some of the money he has raised from Muslims in America has gone to the political wing of the known terrorist group, Hamas, Salah has become the center of what is turning into a major controversy over religious freedom. According to a story in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition (Nov. 9, 1998) a growing number of civil libertarians and Muslims are claiming that the FBI is using its expanded powers to persecute Muslims who are supporting unpopular causes.
To some constitutional experts, the FBI crackdown raises fundamental questions over depriving suspects of due process and other rights. According to Georgetown University professor David Cole, the FBI is saying the citizenry should trust them but they are “going way overboard.”
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contributing editor
The November elections were widely viewed to have favored the Democrats over the Republicans, but the fortunes of the religious right seems more open to interpretation.
The New Republic magazine (Nov. 23) holds that the election signaled the public’s disenchantment with the social agenda of the religious right. Those Republicans who were elected or reelected, such as Texas Governor George W. Bush, were identified with a “cautious, liberal centrism.” Candidates who tied their campaigns to opposition to abortion, cuts to education, and other social issues were often defeated, writes John Judis. “In many Northern races, and even in a few Southern ones, Democrats benefited by tying their opponents to the religious right.”
The conservative Christian newsweekly World (Nov. 14) concurs that social conservatives suffered most in the elections and that the “clout of the religious right is more suspect than ever.” The magazine blames national Republican leaders for letting the Monica Lewinsky affair cloud over a clear conservative agenda. A poll by the Christian Coalition is cited showing that religious conservatives voted Republican only 54 percent of the time in 1998 — down from 67 percent in 1994. The article concludes that “believers are proving to be picky and restless. With two years of political posturing and legislative gridlock in the offing, will the religious right still form a cohesive voting bloc by the time 2000 rolls around?”
In U.S News & World Report (Nov. 23), John Leo writes that the religious right was far from a “paper tiger” in the elections. For instance, religious right activism was responsible for striking down measures supporting homosexual marriage. Leo thinks that Democrats and the media are deliberately portraying the religious right opposition as outside the mainstream of political discourse by focusing on the “most extreme people in the movement at the expense of the stable and praiseworthy.”
At the recent conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Montreal, political scientist and religious right specialist James Guth told RW that the religious right did well on “localized issues,” and that it’s “very hard to put a central theme on off-year elections.”
“Not since the civil rights era, political analysts say, have Democratic challengers so aggressively and openly used religious language in their campaigns,” writes Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post (Oct. 29). Many Democrats laced their campaigning on such issues as health care and education with religious themes, and not only as a defensive reaction against the Christian Coalition. In a Washington Post poll, Democrats were found to be just as religious as Republicans, with almost as many Democrats attending church and praying regularly as Republicans.
“The battle for the loyalty of religious Democrats has already begun. In addition to the usual signposts of family values — images of candidates with their children . . . political strategists say Americans can soon expect to see snapshots of mainstream candidates from both parties at Sunday morning worship, and hear emotional testimonies of their personal conversions and relationship with Jesus.”
The polling data also suggest that religion may even be less divisive among Democrats than it is in the Republican party’ (as seen in the battle between moderates and social conservatives). This is because the “most religious Democrats are disproportionately women and African Americans, two constituencies embraced by the secular left wing of their party.”
(World, Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802)
“Postdenominationalism” has become a popular term for describing the religious situation today.
Polls and other studies have shown that Americans, especially the younger generations, no longer have deep loyalty to denominations, as shown in the many who have switched churches or find their spirituality outside of institutions and “brand name” religions. Yet recent research suggests that congregations still value the connections and resources that national and international religious bodies provide. Scholars at the early November conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Montreal presented evidence that denominations will be with us for the foreseeable future, even if they are decentralized and take less familiar forms.
A new nationwide General Social Survey of Religious Congregations, headed by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona, found that denominations still hold an important role in most congregations. In the survey of 1,240 congregations (in which 19 percent claim no affiliation), it was found that 80 percent regularly give funds to their denominations. Sixty three percent of congregations had denominational representatives speaking at services. Whether a denomination was strongly centralized or not was not significant in determining a close relationship with congregations. The degree of closeness has not changed among congregations in the last decade, except in the Assemblies of God, where the relationship has become more distant.
Another paper presented at the conference by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby surveyed congregation leaders from 29 Protestant denominations and found that most still rely on their denominational publisher for resources. The congregations wanting a denominational emphasis in their literature spanned the spectrum, such as the conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans (89 percent), Nazarenes (82 percent) and the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (79 percent) and United Methodist Church (73 percent).
Yet most congregations wanted “some” emphasis on denomination rather than viewing denomination as highly important. Bibby adds that “A number [of respondents] suggested that what the data reflect is the fact that many people . . . do not especially value their formal denominations as such. However, they do value various theological, historical, and cultural components of their denomination — beliefs, distinctives, ways of expressing faith.”
Gen. Xers and younger baby boomers, long considered the most institutionally disenchanted of generations, even show a high level of denominational attachment, at least when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Researchers Dean Hoge, William Dinges, Mary Johnson and Juan Gonzalez surveyed 800 Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics, age 20 to 39, and found nine in 10 who were confirmed have kept the faith of their youth.
Three in four of respondents say they could not imagine belonging to any other church. In a report on the study in the National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 20), Dean Hoge is quoted as saying that “I went into this study . . . with the idea that the Catholic scene is going to replay the mainline scene [of denominational identity declining]. It took me by surprise.”
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)