Thursday, February 10, 2011

And Episcopalins Too

The opinion piece by Russell Moore is rich with all sorts of material--on Baptists, church growth, denominational loyalty, and what constitutes vital tradition. However, there is one part I would like to focus on today, although there may be more later: what denominations and, especially, Episcopalians do at their best.

Moore expresses this thing in summary. He says "[denominations] represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about--personal conversion, discipleship, mission, and community." I may choose a different vocabulary and some slightly different emphases for these expressions, however, I largely agree, with at least one addition. Denominations also express catholicity, our connections through the body to each other, present and past. Otherwise, congregations run the risk of being disconnected "ecclesial communites," and disconnected generational narcsists.

The Episcopal Church emphasizes this catholicity through its continued practice of the sacrments, its commitment to the ancient creeds, its organization and expression around common prayer, the use of a lectionary that routinely takes the church through all of the books of the Bible, and its ordering according to the threefold ministries of deacon, priest, and bishop.

There are other aspects which I am certain to have missed in this summary, but the need to guard against isolationism and egocentrism (i.e. becoming the "church of what's happenin' here and now) is the special trust of the denomiations, with their indiviualized but corporate empahasis.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

WSJ article: Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone?


Are we witnessing the death of America's Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?

This trend is a natural extension of the American evangelical experiment. After all, evangelicalism is about the fundamental message of Christianity—the evangel, the gospel, literally the "good news" of God's kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ—not about denomination building.

The post-World War II generation of evangelicals was responding to congregations filled with what they considered spiritual deadness. People belonged to a church, but they seemed to have no emotional experience of Christianity inside the building. Revivalists watched as denominational bureaucracies grew larger, and churches shifted from sending missionaries to preach around the world to producing white papers on issues like energy policy.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters.

The revivalists wanted to get back to basics, to recover the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. "Being a member of a church doesn't make you a Christian," the ubiquitous evangelical pulpit cliché went, "any more than living in a garage makes you a car." Thus these evangelical ministries tended not to talk about those issues that might divide their congregants. They avoided questions like: Who should be baptized and when? What does the Lord's Supper mean? Should women be ordained? And so on.

The movement exploded. Before 1955, there were virtually no megachurches (defined as 2,000 people per worship service) in the country. Now there are between 850 and 1,200 such churches and many are nondenominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Evangelicalism wanted to open its doors to all believers and it often lacked roots in the traditions of particular congregations. So many evangelical churches have a generic identity. This has changed the feel of local church life.

Where hymnody once came from the spontaneity of slave spirituals or camp meetings, worship songs are increasingly now focus-grouped by executives in Nashville. The evangelical "Veggie Tales" cartoons—animated Bible stories featuring talking cucumbers and tomatoes—probably shape more children in their view of scripture than any denominational catechism does these days. A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they've been denied service at a restaurant.

But there are some signs of a growing church-focused evangelicalism. Many young evangelicals may be poised to reconsider denominational doctrine, if for no other reason than they are showing signs of fatigue with typical evangelical consumerism.

For example, artists such as Keith and Kristen Getty and Sojourn Music are reaching a new generation with music written for and performed by local congregations. Yes, prosperity preacher Joyce Meyer sells her book "Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes," which encourages Christians to "lighten up" by eating cookies and buying shoes (seriously). But, at the same time, Alabama preacher David Platt is igniting thousands of young people with his book "Radical," which calls Christians to rescue their faith by lowering their standard of living and giving their time and money to Church-based charities.

And though nondenominational churches are growing, the Southern Baptist Convention—the nation's largest Protestant group—has over 10,000 students studying for ministry in six seminaries right now.

If denominationalism simply denotes a "brand" vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.

Mr. Moore is dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

So David, what do you think?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Idea

One of the very important facets of the Christian life is community, and by community, I don’t mean a mere social function. I mean something more substantial, a group of fellow travelers treading the path of discipleship, who are open to one another along the way. I mean small groups really working on faith.

One of the best parts of my week is lunch with a friend and colleague in ministry. My friend David is rector of a neighboring parish and he knows what it is like in the trenches of parish ministry. Once a week, we meet, eat and share our successes, failures and challenges. Our conversations cover a wide array of life.

Last week, we decided to share some of that on this blog. We will pose questions to each other and answer them, much like we do at lunch. The idea is that we might loop more people into the conversation.

So watch this space and welcome David!

Finally, This is the text from Isa 58, that I am praying of late.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is a church worth?

A study asks: What's a church's economic worth?

Posted:02/01/2011 8:04 PM
By David O'Reilly
Inquirer Staff Writer
What is the dollar value of a marriage saved? A suicide averted? An addiction conquered? A teenager taught right from wrong?

In short: What is a church's economic worth to the community it serves?

Last summer, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a national secular research group based in Center City took up that seemingly unanswerable question. With a list they devised of 54 value categories, they attempted to calculate the economic "halo effect" of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia - 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.

They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools, elder care. They tallied the salaries of staff and the wages of roofers, plumbers, even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, too, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible.

They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.

The grand total for the 12 congregations: $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.

The valuation for 300-member Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was a middle-of-the-road $1.65 million. By contrast, the figure for Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic parish in Kensington, with 7,000 congregants, a parochial school, and a community center, was $22.44 million.

The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, "just blew us away," said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places.

The study is not yet published. When it is, the robust sums are likely to be challenged, predicted lead author Ram Cnaan, a Penn professor of social policy.

Some valuations were drawn from existing academic research, such as $19,600 for pastoral counseling that prevents a suicide and $18,000 for an averted divorce. Cnaan himself arrived at other values - for example, $375 on "teaching pro-social values" to a young child.

"Look, it's quite possible that someone will say we calculated all wrong" in some categories, he said. But, he added, he welcomed scrutiny.

He and the 21-year-old Partners have well-established reputations in the valuation of houses of worship. In 1998 they began a landmark research series on urban congregations' services to the poor (worth an annual average of $140,000). It led George W. Bush in 2000 to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which continues in the Obama administration.

If there are challenges to the "halo" study, they are not likely to come from churches, which stand to benefit.

"Equipped with such measurements," the report said, "a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence."

Among the churches in the study was 150-member Summit Presbyterian in Mount Airy, where last week the Rev. Cheryl Pyrch stood in the snow and pointed to a row of DayGlo orange dots climbing the stone bell tower.

Each spot marked where masons soon would drill iron reinforcing rods to keep the tower from cracking further - a job that will pump $50,000 into the economy. Summit's century-old slate roof is also "coming to the end of its useful life," Pyrch said. The estimated cost of replacing it is $250,000, a windfall for a contractor.

Summit's operating budget is a modest $265,000. But the study calculated its "halo" last year at $1.47 million.

It is home to a remarkable array of community organizations, including a day-care center, a chamber orchestra, a synagogue, a dance and drum ensemble, a computer company, a dance school, a martial arts program.

It also rents space to the Adult Congenital Heart Association for its national headquarters. "It's almost as if this [church] is a small-business incubator," said Tim Clair, an association director.

On the other side of the city, the Rev. Bruce Lewandowski said the study changed his perception of his Visitation BVM parish.

"You might think of your church as an employer," he said, "but not as an engine driving the neighborhood economy."

Founded in the late 19th century for Kensington's Irish population, it now serves primarily Latinos and Vietnamese. He discovered that many of his congregants stay in the neighborhood long after Sunday Mass, patronizing Asian stores and restaurants.

Lewandowski thinks of Visitation as three institutions: the church, the 480-pupil school, and the Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua Community Center. "Our mission is not just to get people into heaven," he said, "but help them maneuver through the trials and troubles of life."

The community center is home to dozens of sports teams and civic groups. At night, it becomes a refuge for prostitutes plying their trade along Kensington Avenue.

If he can acquire a vacant bank building nearby, the pastor said, it will become a 60-unit senior housing center.

In West Philadelphia, Calvary Methodist Church reported helping 100 people find employment last year. With each job valued at $14,500, the category alone added $1.45 million to its $2.6 million halo.

Not all the categories proved net positives, however. The researchers found, for instance, that crime rates near eight of the churches were higher than in tracts several blocks away.

And measuring the congregations' impact on property values backfired for St. Luke's and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church's presence, the category put St. Luke's halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.

Tuomi Forrest, Partners' associate director and a coauthor of the report, said he and Cnaan were pondering how to make real estate a more accurate metric. But he defended the overall findings: "No one in any field has ever tried to compile so many ways to calculate" the value of congregations."

The study shows the contribution of religious congregations "to be 20 to 30 times bigger than we knew," said director Jaeger. It "will give congregations dozens of new ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow."


The 'Halo' Effect

The economic "halo" effect of 12 Philadelphia congregations:

Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary, Kensington $22,440,382

Congregation Rodeph Shalom, North Philadelphia 7,969,884

First Baptist, Center City 6,090,032

Mother Bethel A.M.E., Center City 3,188,685

Calvary Methodist, West Philadelphia 2,597,359

Arch Street United Methodist, Center City 1,871,621

Shiloh Baptist, Center City: 1,656,456

Gloria Dei Episcopal, Queen Village 1,646,469

Summit Presbyterian, Mount Airy 1,465,327

Jones Tabernacle A.M.E., North Philadelphia 1,126,231

St. Mary's Episcopal, University City 750,244

St. Luke's and the Epiphany, Center City -225,595

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or