Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Churches Work on Their Message


It has long been a challenge for Christian pastors:

To spread the gospel, they must welcome nonbelievers without judgment. Yet they must also make clear that there is but one true path to salvation -- the path they teach.

As the Rev. Mark Roessler of Tucson, Ariz., put it: "The church itself has to be real inclusive -- 'Y'all come!' -- but real exclusive on how you get to heaven."

Tensions about how to achieve that balance have flared in the past decade with the growth of "seeker friendly" churches that emphasize inclusiveness -- in part by going easy on the Scripture, with sermons as likely to quote Hollywood as the Gospel.

Conservative pastors raised fresh concerns about the seeker-friendly approach with the recent release of a massive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey, widely promoted as an authoritative overview of religious values in the U.S., found that Americans believe deeply in God. But when it comes to doctrine, Americans are strikingly flexible.

Some 70% agreed with the statement that "many religions can lead to eternal life." That includes 57% of evangelicals, who traditionally put great emphasis on the Christian teaching that a personal relationship with Jesus is required for salvation.

Another surprise: Nearly 70% of Americans, including 53% of evangelicals, told pollsters that "there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."

What does this all mean?

Well, it could mean the survey is flawed. Respondents had to pick from a multiple-choice menu; there was no room for nuance or qualification. Also, the terms may have been vague: If Baptists agree that "many religions can lead to eternal life," are they thinking of Buddhists and Muslims, or fellow Christians -- Methodists, maybe?

Another potential flaw: Only a quarter of the people contacted for the Pew survey answered the questions. Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, called the methodology "sloppy" for that reason. "Results from any survey with only a 24% response rate need to be considered with extreme caution," Mr. Wuthnow said.

Pew research fellow Gregory Smith said the rate was "not out of line" with other respected national polls.

Despite the critiques, many conservative Christian pastors accept the broad conclusions of the Pew study, because the poll's findings mirror trends they have been observing with alarm for years.

"Most individuals think the truth can be what they want it to be," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading voice on the religious right. "That represents a tremendous challenge."

Catholic priests, too, face a great challenge in retaining and strengthening their parish memberships. The Pew study found that about 10% of Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church; dioceses are experimenting with ways to keep young professionals, Hispanics and immigrants, among others, from straying to Protestant churches.

In the Protestant community, traditionalists object to much about the new wave of seeker-friendly churches: the permissive dress code -- not only jeans, but shorts and flip-flops are often OK. The "messages" (never sermons) jazzed up with video clips and hard-rocking nine-piece "praise bands." The Starbucks cart that often sits in the lobby (and the fact that worshippers can take their nonfat lattes into the pews). Their biggest concern, however, is with the spiritual teachings.

Most seeker-friendly churches -- some of which can draw tens of thousands of worshippers -- are firmly rooted in Christianity. They offer weekly Bible-study classes and make clear in their statement of faith that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But the sermons tend to be buoyant, hip and dedicated to self-help themes, rather than theology.

More conservative, traditionalist pastors say that approach opens the door to a mushy secularism, or a la carte theology, in which worshippers pick and choose from the messages they find most helpful, without ever understanding that Christianity requires obedience to certain inflexible principles.

James Nieman, a professor of practical theology at Hartford Seminary, describes the clashing philosophies this way: A seeker church teaches general "morals for good stewardship and safe living," he said, while the more conservative approach is to instruct followers to "Believe the following things about Scripture."

Scot McKnight, a professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, attends a seeker-friendly megachurch -- and says the stereotype is far from accurate. A worship service can be inviting and engaging without being superficial, he said, adding that "shallow Christians" exist in every church. Yet his pastors at Willow Creek Community Church recently concluded after an internal study that they were more successful at attracting and pleasing new members than in guiding committed Christians to a deeper understanding of their faith. The church has begun an intensive midweek course in theology and Scripture.

The Rev. Ken Baugh, who leads a California megachurch, also plans to put more emphasis on scriptural understanding in a series of sermons and Bible studies this fall. He doesn't think he has slighted the Gospel in the past by sprinkling his sermons with pop-culture references, such as an imagined dialogue between Jesus and teen pop star Miley Cyrus. But the Pew study reinforced what Mr. Baugh had already come to believe: "We as a church have let [Christians] down." Mr. Baugh added: "I feel a great responsibility to equip them better."

This renewed determination to bring the flock more firmly into the fold raises other questions. If pastors hammer home the message that theirs is the one true path, will that encourage prejudice and intolerance -- "will it necessarily bring more finger-pointing attacks?" asked Robert Millet, who teaches Mormon doctrine at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Also, is it even possible, in the age of Google, to clamp a lid on spiritual exploration? Americans are accustomed to second-guessing their doctors, their financial advisers and their daily newspaper by researching topics online. "So why should they trust their eternal existence to the clergy?" asked Doug Wead, who advised President George H.W. Bush on evangelical outreach.

The Rev. Mark Dever considers such questions beside the point. He takes pride in giving what he calls "sermons for adults" -- dense with Scripture, lasting as long as an hour -- in a stripped-down service at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He says his approach builds solid, grounded Christians who hold firmly to their faith.

But he says he doesn't feel alarm that many Christians see other faiths as equally valid. "Jesus promised the church will win," Mr. Dever said. "So there's no crisis. He's going to win."

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