In This Issue
- Pope’s visit ignites civic organizing in Cuba
- Current Research: October 1998
- Anti-establishment mood fuels post-denominational Judaism
- Alternative Catholic schools find growing support
- A place for ‘weak’ churches in the religious future?
- New age millennialism forms new alliance
- Children playing new role in charismatic churches
- Televangelists find new audience among blacks
- Minority faiths — finding more tolerance in Europe, less in Russia
Eight months after the pope’s visit to Cuba, there are new advances as well as setbacks in religious freedom in the nation, according to two reports.
The New York Times (Sept. 13) reports that religious vitality and openness in Cuba has intensified since John Paul’s visit last January, with increases in baptisms, ordinations and the formation of church groups involved in social action. There is also a better working relationship between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church. A fledgling Catholic Workers’ Movement has emerged, as well as other Catholic groups that seek to organize farmers and other professionals and to deal with human rights issues.
While the government has cautiously tolerated the new activism, officials have also sought to retain traditional restrictions against religion. Permits for religious processions have been denied as often as they have been granted, and the possibility of independent publications and schools still seems distant.
The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 18) finds that the pope’s visit encouraged the emergence of “civil society — non-political groups, professional associations, communities, and parishes taking action on their own.” Growing incidents of civil disobedience, such as when 55 family members of political prisoners made a pilgrimage to a shrine, are likely to spark broader opposition and the rebuilding of community and trust that has been destroyed by years of totalitarianism, writes Carl Gershman.
01: Presbyteries (regional associations of Presbyterian churches) that voted against a liberal measure on sexuality in their denomination are more likely to have grown and retained members, according to recent research.
While conservative congregations in mainline denominations have been found to grow faster than liberal churches, the Presbyterian Layman (September/October) newspaper of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee finds that the sexuality issue by itself is a strong indicator of church growth. “Amendment A” was a controversial statement making the rounds earlier this year in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that would have eliminated the requirement that ordained officers of the church live in fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness (which many viewed as a gay right initiative).
The overall attrition rate among presbyteries favoring the measure was nearly triple the attrition rate of presbyteries voting against Amendment A. For instance, All 16 presbyteries in the Synod of the South Atlantic that voted against the amendment grew by 1.6 members. Even within the declining Northeast Synod, the 19 presbyteries that voted for Amendment A had a membership loss of 13.2 percent from 1990 to 1996, while the two presbyteries against the measure experienced an attrition rate of less than half that rate — 6.2 percent. It was also found that per-member contributions from 1996 among pro-amendment presbyteries were almost 10 percent lower than among presbyteries voting against the measure.
(Presbyterian Layman, P.O. Box 2210, Lenoir, NC 28645-2210)
02: The clergy of America’s Protestant churches are optimistic about their future and self-described theological conservatives and “seeker-oriented,” according to a recent Barna Poll.
A survey conducted by the Barna Research Group, found that more than four out of five pastors called their church “evangelistic” and “theologically conservative.” Six out of ten (58 percent) claimed the label “seeker-sensitive” (which means tailoring services for the unchurched). Only one out of every three pastors called their church “fundamentalist” (36 percent) or “liturgical” (35 percent). Far smaller numbers embraced the designations “charismatic” (19 percent) and theologically liberal (13 percent).
More than half of the pastors (54 percent) said their worship service attendance had increased in the past year, while only six percent said they saw a decline. This finding conflicts with the actual weekly adult attendance showing a decrease of nine percent during the past year. Finally, the survey shows that in the past year the growth of small groups available to congregants rose from 72 percent of churches with such activities to 85 percent.
(Barna Research Group, 5528 Everglades Street, Ventura, CA 93003)
03: Germany’s largest churches consist mainly of immigrant and evangelical churches, according to a survey published in Quadrant (September), the newsletter of the London-based Christian Research Association.
Of the 25 largest churches in Germany, 15 are immigrant churches, eight are non-immigrant Free (or evangelical) churches, and only two are state churches. Leading the list of the eight largest churches in Germany in 1996, was the 3,000 member Mennonite church in Bielefeld, with mostly immigrant members; the 2,200 member largely Mennonite church in Espelkamp, and the 2,100 Our Church on the Way Free Church in Berlin.
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ UK)
As talk of a “post-denominational” Christianity is increasingly common, the same phenomenon appears to be taking place in American Judaism.
In an overview of non-Orthodox Jewish groups in Commentary magazine (September), Clifford Librach finds a growing convergence between Conservative and Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism is moving to the left to meet Reform’s position on matters such as gay rights, while Reform “may be moving right to meet Conservatism on ritual matters like Sabbath and prayer.”
In other words, traditional denominational distinctions don’t seem to be holding. This is reflected in the new way many rabbis are being trained. Established schools, such as Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary, are now competing against other institutions producing rabbis “for a Jewish public moving into a post-denominational phase.”
These schools include the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. There is also the phenomenon of “private ordination,” where rabbis across the country are being ordained by three other cooperating rabbis working with standards established by and for themselves. The reason given for these new arrangements is that mainstream schools are too narrow and authoritarian, and “that their singular power needs to be checked by more `democratic’ mechanisms.
The anti-establishment mood is not a passing one, and may become more significant as increasing numbers of congregations puzzled by what many already regard as peculiarities of outmoded doctrinal divisions, begin asking why institutional and “movement affiliations should matter.”
(Commentary, 165 E. 56th St., New York, NY 10022)
Catholics dissatisfied with the parochial school system are leading a rapidly growing movement of independent Catholic schools.
In the last three years alone, the number of such schools have increased from under 30 to more than 100, according to the National Catholic Reporter (Sept. 11). Most of these schools are modest, do-it-yourself efforts started up by parents and other lay people defecting from both the public and Catholic schools.
The rate of expansion in each individual school is “phenomenal,” with enrollment doubling or tripling each year. John Allen writes that the trend is driven by two broad forces: the movement in American education toward school choice and the growth of the “restorationist” or conservative impulse in American Catholicism.
Although these independent schools may not have “Catholic” in their name and receive no recognition from a bishop or diocese, they have a strongly orthodox Catholic curricula combined with an emphasis on classical learning (including Latin). Leaders of such schools argue that the mainstream Catholic school system is compromised by the secular culture and too bureaucratized. Many of the parents who send their children to these schools were alarmed by sex education programs in the Catholic parochial system.
There is a general distrust between the leaders of the new schools and church officials; some don’t even register their school with a larger umbrella group, known as Independent Schools in Service to the Church, because they might attract the attention of the local bishop. Many of these new institutions often serve families that practice homeschooling.
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)
It’s become almost a church growth law that strong, “strict” congregations will grow the fastest in the future.
But in an article in the Christian Century (Aug. 26-Sept. 2), sociologist Peter Berger calls that paradigm into question as he sees congregations increasingly improvising to minister to Americans who have lost much of the old certainties regarding religious belief. Berger argues that certainty about traditional religious truth claims and authority is primarily challenged by the growing religious and cultural pluralism of American society.
In particular, the certainty based on the authority of an institution, such as found in Roman Catholicism, has been challenged by revisionist historical studies. Those who base their certainty on a religious text, such as the evangelicals, have been challenged by biblical criticism. Another kind of certainty based on religious experience, as found among the charismatics, has been weakened by new insights in psychology and the sociology of knowledge.
Berger acknowledges that the congregations attempting to minister to today’s uncertain believers by emphasizing faith more than any type of certainty are likely to be “weaker” and more provisional than more dogmatic faiths, but they can survive and even thrive. He cites the research of Nancy Ammerman, Robert Wuthnow and European sociologists who find signs of vitality in a segment of mainline Protestant churches (which may be evidenced in the more recent stable mainline membership patterns), as well as the continuing growth of Unitarian-Universalism.
Even in supposedly secular Europe, a loosely organized and lively “do-it-yourself” Christian movement exists, often missed by sociologists since it may be expressed outside of established churches. Berger sees the new mood of religious uncertainty as creating a new mission field for mainline Protestantism.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60605)
A movement based on millennial and New Age teachings is finding some unusual bedfellows.
Jose Arguelles, a pioneer New Age leader, has been in the forefront of a millennial movement predicting an imminent period of tribulation and planetary rebirth based on a return to the ancient Mayan calendar. Arguelles is considered a key popularizer of the New Age movement due to his leadership of the Harmonic Convergence, a much-publicized event in 1987 that called humanity to usher in a new era through meditation and visualization.
His more recent themes are also common on the New Age scene, such as restoring the harmonic relationship between humans and nature and attaining a universal consciousness that will wipe out materialism. In an interview with Arguelles in Gnosis magazine (Fall), Richard Smoley writes that Arguelles’ prediction — based on complex calculations — that the year 2012 will usher in this new age is shared by New Age and alternative spirituality leaders such as Terence McKenna and Benjamin Creme.
Arguelles says that his followers are preparing for the “galactic age” by already following the Mayan calendar in groups formed around the world, particularly throughout Latin America, Japan, North America and Europe. In order to form a “Universal Religion” that will promote the “spiritual unification of the species,” Arguelles has made unusual allies.
In the interview, Arguelles announces he has converted to the Nation of Islam. He adds that he has come to a “meeting of minds” with Minister Louis Farrakhan concerning his prophesies and is working with Islamic scholars to “effect radial changes in the Islamic world” based on his work. Arguelles says that one of the reasons for this convergence is that in the past year Farrakhan has recognized the “need to universalize” his faith by embracing all religions.
(Gnosis, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217)
Children are becoming increasingly active in charismatic practices as well as in evangelism and prayer movements, reports Charisma magazine (September).
A notable feature of recent revivals in an Assembly of God church in Brownsville, Florida was the participation of young children in the phenomenon, dancing, speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit.” The role of children appears to be changing in many circles of the charismatic movement around the world.
There is a growing prayer movement, as represented by the Children’s Global Prayer Movement, and the National Children’s Prayer Network, where youngsters pray not only for their own needs but for such goals as world evangelism and national lawmakers. Children are also being put to use in mission organizations, such as Youth with a Mission, to witness to unbelievers.
Likely to be most controversial is the new participation of young children in charismatic practices. Children in Pentecostal churches have traditionally been “separated” from adults in children’s services where there is not the strong emphasis on speaking in tongues and other emotional elements as found in the main service, says Mark Harper of Joy Christian Center in St. Cloud, Minn. But today, new Christian education material is emphasizing the “gifts of the spirit,” and such participation is being viewed as a sign of revival to the whole church.
In Our Lords Academy in Tarpon Springs, Florida, a revival broke out among 40 children last year, and today children are leading preaching and healing services for adults. Writer Cheri Fuller adds that kids do not seem to experience the charismatic “manifestations” differently than adults.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
Televangelists who fell from public favor a decade ago are having a second life as they buy time on cable television and “repackage” themselves for a largely African-American audience, reports the Washington Post (Sept. 3) Such televangelists as Robert Tilton and Peter Popoff, who lost much of their followings in the 1980s due to financial scandals and charges of fraud, are among the most popular preachers on the Black Entertainment Television network.
Only a few years ago, televangelists, particularly those preaching a prosperity gospel, were a disappearing breed. But now, such preachers are “turning to what they see as a reliable audience for the prosperity gospel: the black community. And by selling themselves as men who have suffered, who have been unfairly punished by the system, they hope African-Americans will identify with them,” writes Hanna Rosin.
Popoff and Tilton were investigated for fraudulent and unethical fund-raising and practices and were the subject of major investigations on television, although both were not convicted of crimes. Among the dozens of other preachers on BET is Don Stewart of Phoenix, whose ministry also collapsed after investigations for financial misdoings.
Steve Winzenburg of Grand View College in Iowa says that these televangelists’ appeals are still close to the prosperity gospel message that brought them attention in the 1980s (that giving money in faith increases the givers’ prosperity). An informal survey of viewers of BET’s televangelists by Rev. Imogene Stewart found many of the most devoted followers were elderly women to infirm to go to church.
Such viewers may “figure the prosperity they never got from a lifetime in the black church they can get from half an hour with the white preacher,” says Stewart.
A number of European governments appear to be taking a more neutral and balanced stance toward new religious movements, although religious freedom in Russia is in serious jeopardy.
Those were some of the conclusions of scholars at a conference, organized by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) on September 10-12 in Torino Italy. The CESNUR meeting drew 300 participants who heard some 120 papers presented by scholars from around the world on a variety of topics.
In the opening plenary session, Massimo Introvigne, the head of CESNUR, analyzed the various reports on cults and sects that have been produced by governmental bodies in Europe in recent years. New religious movements, and not so new movements, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the evangelicals, have encountered considerable opposition in the past few years from various European governments seeking to restrict allegedly abusive “cults” and religions.
Introvigne said that these government reports fall into two categories, and that they differ significantly in terms of their degree of sophistication and attention paid to scholarship on new religious movements. The first category includes the 1996 French report, the 1997 Belgium report, and portions of the Swiss Canton of Geneva Report of 1997. These reports are basically anti-cult documents that ignore the vast scholarship on minority faiths, and instead paint with a broad negative brush all smaller and newer religions, viewing them as dangerous both to members and the state.
These documents are driving policy in these countries, with some severe repercussions for religious groups and for religious freedom. But more recent government reports (making up the second category), such as a 1998 Swiss document on Scientology and a 1998 German report, and this year’s European Parliament Report, although far from satisfactory from the view of most scholars, are much more moderate in overall tone. These documents take into account scholarship that would, for example, question making a distinction between “valid” religions and non-religions such as “sects” and “cults.”
Some important political figures who attended the gathering included the Hon. Domenico Maselli, the leading expert on religion in the ruling Democrats of the Left Party in Italy. In a dinner speech he announced new “intese” (a sort of concordant agreement establishing relationships with recognized religious groups, making them eligible for public funds, among other things) with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Italian Buddhist Union, as well as the opening of discussions for intese with Muslim and apostolic (Pentecostal) communities in Italy.
Also, a member of the European Parliament from Naples, the Hon. Ernesto Caccavale reported on the EP debates on new religions, stating that the involvement of CESNUR and other scholars testifying at EP hearings had made a significant difference in moderating the stance of the EP on these matters. At another session, however, papers were presented on the problematic new law governing religious groups in Austria which has established several levels of religious groups, with each being treated differently by the State.
Other highlights of the conference included a session on minority and new religions in Russia. This session included analysis of what happened in Russia leading up to the dramatic change of the laws that would put more restrictions on non-Orthodox religions, and also examined some of the major legal cases involving minority faiths there.
The upshot of this session was that the sentiment fueled by anti-cult materials and personnel from the West, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and the political structure, has carried the day in Russia, and that minority faiths may be in for a bad season.
— By James Richardson, professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno