In This Issue
- On/File: July/August 1999
- Findings & Footnotes: July/August 1999
- Pop star priests reviving Brazil’s church?
- Current Research: July/August 1999
- Anti-Darwinian critiques find interfaith favor
- Messianic movement continues to divide Lubavitch Jews
- Megachurch regrouping after growth lull
01: Lighthouses of Prayer is a new “low pressure” strategy of evangelism prayer among evangelical Christians.
The movement, led by a coalition of Christian organizations called Mission America, attempts to bring prayer into neighborhoods by asking Christians to pray for their neighbors. Christians participate in the program by strolling the sidewalks and making petitions for particular neighbors without their knowledge of such activity; later, they may invite them to church services. The Lighthouse movement was launched nationally about six months ago and has received the support of the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God and Campus Crusade for Christ.
Paul Cedar, Head of Mission America, says “Churches have become clustered just for Christians . . . [the Lighthouse movement] moves us out into the neighborhoods, out where Jesus’ has sent us, into our schools, places of work.” Testimonials have also come from people walking in malls, and praying for work colleagues in neighboring cubicles.
(Source: Orlando Sentinel, June 17)
02: In June 100 leading theologians, parish pastors and media celebrities signed a major statement, The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.”
Some two years in drafting, the statement spells out a consensus as to what the evangelical movement teaches about Jesus Christ as “the only way of salvation.” Central to the message is the statement, “The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshippers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ.”
While affirming that the Bible is infallible, the statement avoids a detailed analysis of how to interpret Scripture. In an impressive show of unity, the promulgation was signed by Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, Jack W. Hereford,Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, D. James Kennedy, Charles F. Stanley, Pat Robertson, and a variety of other administrators, opinion shapers and congregational leaders.
Observers see the statement as a response to recent revisions of basic Christian teachings as have been published by groups such as The Jesus Seminar. Also, the “Christ alone” affirmation is a response to perceived openess in evangelical and mainline circles to the possibility of universal salvation for all persons. The l999 statement makes clear that a wide spectrum of evangelicals hold to the finality of conservative Biblical theology and are in opposition to inroads from theological currents of the 1990s.
The issuing of the document will be followed by a series of promotional events. “Such documents require adaptation before they influence popular evangelical opinion,” writes historian Edith Blumhofer.
— By Erling Jorstad
(Source: Christianity Today; the document is accessible at ww.christianity.net/ct/9T7)
01: The magazine Skeptical Inquirer usually deals with what is called “pseudo-science” — matters like UFO’s and other cases of the paranormal.
But the July-August issue broaches new territory, devoting itself to science and religion (It seems the readers of the magazine have pressed the editors to address religion as well as paranormal activities). The issue features a diversity of views, but most articles argue that the new attempts to reconcile science and theology must be subject to skeptical scrutiny.
Noteworthy articles include a look at the much publicized “science and religion” movement (pressing for engagement between the two fields) and how it differs from past conflicts between believers and secularists; and several articles by such thinkers as Stephen Gould and Richard Dawkins debating whether there is any basic conflict between belief and science.
For more info on this issue, write: Skeptical Inquirer, 1310 Sweet Home Rd., Amherst, NY 14228 or visit their web site: http://www.csicop.org
02: In the past few years Hindus have been trying to encourage and form ties with the growing Neopagan movement. The July issue of Hinduism Today magazine carries several articles on the common ground that exists between Neopaganism and Hindus, most notably their polytheistic beliefs.
A noteworthy article profiles Christopher Gerard, a leader of the new movement of intellectuals (generally known as the new right in Europe) gravitating to pagan beliefs to revive European culture.
The issue costs $3.95 and is available from Hinduism Today, 107 Kaholalele Rd., Kapaa, HI 96746-9304; the magazine’s web site is: www.hindu.org/ht/.
03: In its June 14 issue, Time magazine rates the l00 most influential people of the 20th Century, including religious figures.
Among the “leaders and revolutionaries…artists and entertainers” are: Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham. The place in history of each is examined in some detail. In the “heroes and icons” section are brief sketches of those in what Time calls “Help Yourself, including: Betty Ford for her work with dependency, Norman Vincent Peale for his positive thinking ministry, and Drs. Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra, practitioners of a new do-it-yourself-kind of self-help for personal health and spirituality.
— By Erling Jorstad
04: Don Lattin, co-author of Shopping for Faith with RW‘s editor, has branched off into the recording business.
We wouldn’t be mentioning that if it weren’t for the millennial theme of his new recording, Why 2YK? The recording is a humorous send-up of apocalyptic Y2K thinking. The song parodies the New Orleans Rhythm and Blues classic Iko, Iko.
Visit Lattin and the Digitones on their web site at: www.y2ksong.net.
The phenomenon of “pop star” priests in Brazil is bringing back Catholics to the fold and posing unexpected roadblocks to the Protestant upsurge in the Latin American nation.
Peter B. Clarke writes in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May) that the “explosion of Pentecostalism has provoked a Catholic response in Brazil which is led by young, charismatic, media friendly clergy who, although part of the Catholic mainstream, are providing a third way between it and the liberation theology.”
Leading these priests is the popular Father Marcelo Rossi, who features dancing he calls “aerobics of the Lord” at his packed crusades, one of which drew about 130,000 people.. The 31-year-old priest is joined by other “stars of the altar” such as Father Jose Luiz Janzen de Mello Neto, who has become a national phenomenon through his CDs and his surfing exploits.
Clarke finds that about 70 percent of Rossi’s audience are women who are said to enter a form of trance during his services. After Rossi conducts a conventional Mass, he dances on stage while singing and playing his guitar, occasionally throwing out buckets of holy water to the ecstatic crowds. Rossi’s following may also be due to the way he preaches Catholicism as a vocation taken up voluntarily rather than as a family tradition or heritage.
While the hierarchy and mainstream Catholics support Rossi (seeing how he fills churches), conservative and radical Catholics disapprove, the former fearing he desacralizes the Mass. While there are few statistics so far, Clarke’s informants speak of a “substantial numbers of erstwhile Catholics who had turned to Protestantism returning to Catholicism” after attending Rossi’s Masses.
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Centre for New Religions, Department of Theology, King’s College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS, UK)
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.
Criticism of Darwinian evolution and modern science is finding a hearing among non-Christian groups far beyond American fundamentalist and evangelical creationists.
Postmodern philosophers and scholars involved in the new field of the sociology of science question notions of objectivity that hold that scientific fact is independent of subjective interpretation and the influence of culture, ethnicity,and class, while feminists are also increasingly criticizing Darwinian biology [See July-August ’97 RW for more on this subject].
This “anti-science” mindset has brought such sociology of science scholars into close proximity with creationists and conservatives, in some cases defending the teaching of creation in the classroom, writes Walter Olson in Reason magazine. More recently, these postmodern critiques of science have become popular among believers in the less developed world. Hindu nationalists have been attracted to the Western multiculturalist concepts proclaiming the superiority of “local ways of knowing.”
Such ideas have aided the Hindu rightist Bharatiya Janata party in gaining support among intellectuals for reforms of curriculum aimed at “awakening national pride,” such as in promoting a distinctly Vedic mathematics and downgrading algebra with its Islamic-Western associations. Meanwhile in Pakistan, proponents of “Islamic science” and “Islamic epistemology” are citing the work of Western feminist critics of science in their campaign to purge many Western ideas from their schools. In turn, feminist scholars favorably “cite the Islamicists right back” in their own work, writes Olson.
(Reason, Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034)
Five years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the messianic movement that had formed while he was the head of the Lubavitcher Hasidim is expanding.
The Washington Post (June 20) reports that when Schneerson died in 1995, many predicted that the movement would crumble without him, and that the messianic beliefs would fade with time. Neither has happened. The Lubavitchers are divided between those (mostly the official leadership — who insist that the promotion of observant Judaism throughout the world is the heart of Schneerson’s legacy, and the messianists, “whose passion is preparing the world for the coming of Schneerson himself.” The movement has also divided families, with some marriages being arranged according to one’s stance regarding Schneerson.
The messianists have generated a loyal opposition, led by Brooklyn College historian David Berger who sponsored a resolution in the Rabbinical Council of America to condemn the group and their beliefs. “We belong to a significantly different religion than the one we belonged to five years ago,” but most modern Orthodox Jews have been silent on the matter, he adds.
Lubavitch spokesman Zalman Shmotkin says the messianist movement is steadily diminishing and points to an increase in Lubavitch religious institutions and 400 new “emissaries” (or missionaries) since Schneerson’s death. But the messianists are now actively spreading their message via a billboard campaign and ads in national newspapers, as well as a low power radio station in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
With the realization that after two decades of outreach their ministry is markedly slowing down, several of the flagship megachurches in America are making major changes in their programs.
The Los Angeles Times (June 7) reports that.pastors of these churches with over 2,000 members are finding growing numbers of dissatisfied members, unhappy neighbors, and an inability to connect with younger congregants. Among the several re-inventions underway are new training programs aimed at bringing Gen-X you into leadership positions, replacing pews with tables and chairs to create more connectedness among worshipers, and reformulating small group ministries to where, observers suggest, they will soon replace the once a week central worship service as the center of the congregation’s program.
The planners are also finding that younger seekers are increasingly turned off by the large churches that have deliberately cut ties with known religious traditions and rituals.
The changes, according to megachurch experts Eddie Gibbs of Fuller Theological Seminary, and Scott Thumma of the Center for Social and Religious Research (CSRR), are more than momentary reactions to unexpected dips in attendance and giving. The reforms are aimed at finding new ways to attract younger seekers and to hold on to older ones who are looking for more than upbeat music, mini-dramas, and experiential teaching.
Such acknowledged megachurch leaders as Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, and the flagship Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago are holding training sessions for congregational leaders from around the country. Observers note that Saddleback, for instance, is attracting religious entrepreneurial innovators using more sophisticated business techniques to create a spiritual products for upscale suburban consumers. Thumma of the CSRR concludes the current post baby boomer generation is searching for more authentic personal experience, one with more visible ties to earlier church ministry, but using the best of electronic technology.
As churches become too large, today’s innovators are planning “daughter churches,” of a quasi-denominational character, much like the nationwide Calvary Chapel network first started in Costa Mesa, Calif. Hands-on research among the new generation, experts agree, points clearly to the need for more attention to small group dynamics occupying a much larger, perhaps central, focus in local congregational worship and outreach.
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contributing editor.