Saturday, November 26, 2016

For Growing or Declining Churches, Do Beliefs Matter? Researchers Say Yes

Mainline churches in Canada are dying. Since 1960, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the United Church have lost half their members. The United Church closes one church a week, on average.

But a few mainline congregations are thriving and growing. Why is that?

That was the question three Canadian academics—David Millard Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne of Wilfrid Laurier University and Kevin Flatt of Redeemer University College—set out to answer. 

In their research paper, titled “Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” they discovered that when it comes to whether a mainline church is growing or declining, what people—and especially what clergy—believe matters.

“We hypothesized that beliefs play a role” in whether a church grows or declines, Flatt told me. “Our research showed that was the case.”

Through the research, which surveyed clergy and congregants from nine growing and 13 declining Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Ontario, the researchers found that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.

Conversely, the more liberal theologically it is, the more likely it is to be declining. 

At growing churches, for example, 93 percent of pastors and 83 percent of congregants agreed with the statement: “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.” At declining churches, only 56 percent of clergy and 67 percent of congregants believed that to be true. 

When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer,” 100 percent of clergy and 90 percent of congregants at growing churches agreed, compared to 44 percent of clergy and 80 percent of congregants at declining churches. 

When it comes to evangelism, 100 percent of pastors and 78 percent of congregants at growing churches agreed “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians.” Just 50 percent of pastors and 56 percent of congregants of declining churches felt that way. 

When asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, people at growing churches most often spoke of evangelism and sharing their faith. Those in declining churches named social justice activities as the main purpose, without reference to religious motivation or outcomes. 

Another item of interest from the survey is Bible reading; 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, compared to 19 percent at declining churches.

Worship style is another interesting factor. The survey found that growing mainline churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitar in at least one of their Sunday services, while declining churches most often used a traditional worship style featuring organ and choir.

What does it all add up to? In a press release, researcher David Millard Haskell put it this way: “If we are talking about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

As for the link between the clergy and growing or declining churches, Flatt added it could be because congregations mirror their clergy over time, or because clergy pull people over to their positions. Either way, he stated, “leadership plays a key role.”

The research suggests a way forward for the struggling mainline denominations, although it might be hard for some to accept. And Flatt doesn’t want to minimize the challenge facing those groups.

“I don’t want to overstate how many growing mainline churches there are,” he said, noting it was hard to find nine growing mainline churches to study—even in the most populated and church-rich part of Canada.

“It took a lot of looking,” he said. “The reality is that the four major mainline denominations are in decline.”

While reading about the research, which will be published in the journal Review of Religious Research in December, I had to think about the controversy raised by Gretta Vosper, the self-described atheist United Church pastor.

In September, a review committee in that denomination recommended that she is “not suitable” to continue in her role because she doesn’t believe in God.

If the United Church needs another reason for why it should part ways with Vosper, who downplays traditional Christian beliefs in favour of a more humanistic approach, the research is pretty clear.

As Flatt noted, “churches that want to go that route will tend not to be growing churches.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Evangelicals and the U.S. Presidential Election: “Donald Trump kissed up to the old religious right and reaped the reward.”

One thing about the recent U.S. presidential election: Nobody can say religion didn’t matter.

By now the story is very familiar; 81 percent of white evangelicals supported President-elect Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton only attracted 16 percent—an important factor since members of this group make up 26 percent of the American electorate.

A slim majority of Catholics (52 percent) also supported Trump, versus 45 percent for Clinton. Seven in ten American Jews, meanwhile, voted Democratic.

Why did so many evangelicals vote for Trump? Well, for one thing, he actively courted them.

Unnoticed by the mainstream media, 
Trump utilized Christian TV, radio and 
online to reach evangelical voters.

According to Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “he [Trump] went after them unapologetically, did faith-based media, and made an ironclad pledge on judges.”

Unnoticed by the mainstream media, he utilized Christian TV, radio and online to reach evangelical voters.

These methods, says Reed, were more important than the Democrats vaunted “ground game.”

Then there was his commitment to being anti-abortion and appointing a conservative Supreme Court judge who might sway the court to overturn Roe Vs. Wade—something important for many Catholics as well.

Something that didn’t get much attention was Trump’s promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations—like churches—from
lobbying or campaigning on behalf of politicians.

If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, pastors will be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do, and also be more active in financially supporting candidates.

Meantime, Christianity Today observed that the Clinton campaign largely ignored reaching out to evangelicals. And who could blame her? The U.S. seems to be getting more secular all the time, and non-religious people seem to vote Democrat.

Exit polls show that the unaffiliated voted 68 percent for Clinton compared to 26 percent for Trump.

But one thing the Democrats seemed to forget was that religious people tend to be very inclined to vote. This turned out to be a significant factor in this election.

But that’s all behind us now; what will the election mean for Christianity in the U.S. in the future?

                                                                        While a majority of evangelicals voted 
                                                                                   for Trump, many others did not.

The first thing to note is that while a majority of evangelicals voted for Trump, many others did not. They were appalled by his behavior, values and positions on various issues, often noting his misogynistic and xenophobic statements.

These were people like well-known evangelical author and speaker Beth Moore, who tweeted after Trump’s comments about groping women: “Trying to absorb how acceptable the objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

Added Jim Wallis of Sojourners: “Most white evangelicals don’t seem to mind they sold their souls to a man who embodies the most sinful and shameful worship of money, sex and power . . . we have never witnessed such religious hypocrisy as we have seen in this election.”

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, promised that he will “challenge President Trump whenever he promotes policies that neglect the poor and favor the rich, disrespect women, neglect racial and religious minorities, and fail to protect the environment.”

As for those who voted for Trump, the big question now is how Christians in that country will be perceived by non-churchgoers following the election.

This was an issue addressed by many, including Thabiti Anyabwile, an African-American Baptist pastor in Washington, D.C.

According to Anyabwile, white Christian support for Trump has created four problems.

First, he says, “they have surrendered any claims to the moral high ground.” Second, they have “abandoned public solidarity” with groups who considerTrump a threat.

Third, they have become inextricably linked to a single political party. And fourth, they have endangered their witness and mission.

The evangelical vote for Trump “creates 
or amplifies a credibility problem.”

Having watched evangelicals and other churchgoers moralize in public for a long time about the sins of others, their vote for Trump “creates or amplifies a credibility problem,” he added, asking why anyone should “listen to their gospel when it seems so evident they’ve not applied that gospel to their political choices.”

This was echoed by Phil Vischer, creator of the popular Veggie Tales cartoon series.

“Church, we’ve got some explaining to do,” he wrote. “How do I share the love of Jesus with a brown-skinned neighbor if I’m supporting their deportation? 

"How do I share the love of Jesus with a refugee family if my fear prevents me from offering them help in the first place? 

"And how do I carry the love of Jesus to ANY of the world’s brown and black-skinned people if I’m enthusiastically supporting a man who deals in stereotypes?”

They have good reason to worry. 

According to Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the rise in the number of people in the U.S. who claim no religion is due, in part, to their “unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided religion is not for them.”

But maybe the last word can go to Mark Silk, Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. “Donald Trump kissed up to the old religious right an reaped the reward.” 

And now we wait to see what happens next.

From the Nov. 19, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Canadian Church Connection to Mel Gibson's New Movie, Hacksaw Ridge

People who see Mel Gibson’s new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, might be surprised to learn that not only Mennonites were opposed to that war. They would be surprised to learn that the movie would never have been made if not for the dogged determination of a Canadian—my friend Stan Jensen.

When it comes to conscientious objection in Canada, Mennonites tend to get the most attention. 

With over 60% of the 10,700 men who did alternative service during the war coming from Mennonite churches, that's to be expected. 

But the ranks of those who did alternative service to being in the military during that war included Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers—groups that also teach against participation in war—together with men from many other denominations.

Unlike those conscientious objectors who served at lumber camps, building roads, or working in mental health facilities, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss, chose a different route. He decided to join the military as a medic.

As he put it in an interview, he was not a conscientious objector but a “conscientious collaborator,” believing that America’s involvement in that war was right and just. He just refused to kill.

Shipped to the Pacific theatre, Doss saved the lives of 75 wounded comrades during the fierce and bloody battle of Okinawa, winning the Congressional Medal of Honour—America’s highest military medal for valour.

It’s an amazing tale of courage, both on the battlefield and in basic training. The movie is the story of how someone could stay true to his conscience, despite being scorned and bullied by the same soldiers whose lives he later saved.

But Doss’ story would never have become a major Hollywood movie if not for Stan Jensen, 63, Communications Director for the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Canada.

In 1974, Jensen read a book about Doss titled The Unlikeliest Hero, published in 1967. “I developed a passion to see it told more broadly,” he says.

In 1996, he left Canada and moved to Los Angeles to manage a bookstore. He hoped being closer to Hollywood would help him meet someone who could turn Doss’ story into a movie.

And that’s exactly what happened. During a special event at his store, one of the attendees was Gregory Crosby, a well-connected screenwriter in the movie industry.

At the time, Crosby was working on a TV series about Medal of Honour recipients.

“I told him, I have the perfect story for you,” says Jensen, who gave him a copy of The Unlikeliest Hero.

After reading it, Crosby was so moved by Doss’ story that agreed to try to make it into a Hollywood movie.

“I never really had the desire to produce anything until Stan Jensen brought me the amazing story,” he said in an interview. “I knew right away I wanted to be involved with the project from beginning to end.”

But before that could happen, they first needed to convince Doss—he didn’t go to movies, and didn’t like Hollywood.

“He was afraid that if they made a movie about his life, they’d change his character, Jensen says—that a movie would show him smoking, drinking and chasing women. “He didn’t want to risk that.”

When Jensen and Crosby assured him that wouldn’t happen, Doss gave his permission.

“You can just imagine how I felt that day,” Jensen says.

It took many more years of discussions and negotiations before Mel Gibson signed on as a director in 2014. The movie was released in November in Canada.

For Jensen, seeing Doss’ story on the big screen is the fulfillment of a dream that goes back over 40 years. He hopes many people will go see it and also be inspired—just as he was when he first encountered it so long ago.

“In this day, when the hero of so many movies is the person who kills the most people, Hacksaw Ridge shows that someone can be a hero by saving lives,” he says.

And what does he think Doss—who died in 2006—would think of Hacksaw Ridge?

“It’s truly a stellar movie,” he says. “I think he would be pleased with how his story has been told.”

From the Nov. 12, Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

During Remembrance Week, Remembering Those Who Served Men and God During War

On Remembrance Day, we pause to remember those who fought and those who gave their lives in war. But one group we rarely think about are chaplains—those who ministered to the troops during time of war and peace. I wrote about them in the Free Press in November, 2014.

On August 19, 1942, Canadian soldiers participated in the disastrous raid on the French port city of Dieppe.

Many acts of bravery took place during the attack, which was a disaster for the Canadians.

This included the actions of John Weir Foote, a Presbyterian chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. 

For eight hours, Foote helped care for the wounded at the regimental aid post, frequently leaving the relative safety of the post to aid wounded men on the beach.

Near the end of the battle, Foote helped wounded survivors into landing craft to take them back to safety in England. 

Offered a chance to return home with them, he declined the chance to escape—the wounded men still ashore would need him, he said.

Along with 1,950 other Canadians, Foote was captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Over the next number of years in captivity, he served as pastor to his fellow prisoners, preaching, leading Bible studies and keeping up morale.

When the war was over, Foote was awarded the Victoria Cross—one of only five chaplains to receive that award, and the only Canadian chaplain to do so.  

Foote was one of 1,400 chaplains who served with Canadian forces during World War Two. During World War One, 524 clergy served. At least 16 died during the two conflicts.

Along with preaching sermons and providing pastoral services, military chaplains organized sporting events, attended to the wounded during battle, and wrote letters home to families of the dead.

Soldiers viewed chaplains who ventured close to the fighting with respect and admiration. They were less sympathetic to those who stayed far to the rear.

Another chaplain who served with distinction was George Anderson-Wells, an Anglican priest who was a chaplain to the Fort Garry Horse in World War I.

Known as the “fighting bishop,” Anderson-Wells also served as a senior chaplain in World War II. He was the most decorated chaplain in the British Commonwealth.

Another was Father Rosaire Crochetiere of the Royal 22e Regiment, who was killed near the frontline in 1918 while helping the wounded.

One of only two Canadian chaplains killed during that war, he was described by the men of his regiment as being like “a father, a brother, a confidant, and a friend.”

Another notable chaplain was Captain Walter Brown of Peterborough, Ont. The first Canadian chaplain to land in France on D-Day, during the battle he attended the wounded and helped bury the dead.

Brown was captured by an SS unit on June 7 and executed by his captors—the only Allied chaplain killed in such fashion during the entire war.

Brown was buried in France, but his communion kit was donated to the Huron College Chapel, in London, Ont. where it is still used today during worship services.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican priest who served as a chaplain with the British army during World War I. In his poem His Mate, he wrote about his work on the front line. It says, in part:  

I remember how I reached them.
Dripping wet and all forlorn,
In the dim and dreary twilight 
Of a weeping summer dawn.

All that week I’d buried brothers 
In one bitter battle slain;
In one grave I laid two hundred, 
God, what sorrow and what pain!

And that night I’d been in trenches,
Seeking out the sodden dead,
And just dropping them in shell holes,
With a service swiftly said.

For the bullets rattled ‘round me, 
But I couldn’t leave them there,
Water-soaked in flooded shell holes.
Rift of common Christian prayer.

On Remembrance Day, it is appropriate to remember all who served and died in war—including those who served their country, and their God.

Photo above: Anglican chaplain Robert Seaborn of the Canadian Scottish Regiment praying over a soldier in France on July 15, 1944.