Apr 22, 2014

When churches go bankrupt, blame the leader

Only a very small number of religious congregations file for bankruptcy. In any given year, about 1 percent of American houses of worship close their doors, according to a study in the Missouri Law Review. But only about .00026 percent file legal paperwork seeking protection from debtors.

Churches close, but they don't generally go bankrupt. Even in America, where there are lots of small religious groups and lots of religious debt, bankruptcy is rare. It doesn't happen, except when it does.

Which is not to say it happens for no reason.

Pamela Foohey, of the University of Illinois College of Law, looked at more than 450 congregations filing for bankruptcy over a six-year period. Her study shows that the Protestant churches going bankrupt almost always cited external circumstances, out of the control of the religious leadership. The effect the financial crisis had on giving was referenced a lot in court documents. Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, were said to precipitate the financial problems. 

Yet, while storms both natural and economic surely took their toll, they don't actually explain the religious bankruptcies. The 2008 financial crisis touched everyone, but not everyone went bankrupt.

A common factor among these religious groups, Foohey found, was their ecclesial organization. That is to say, they tended to be churches built around the charisma of one person.

Apr 20, 2014

Chreasters, in one graph

Pew Research Center:
More Americans search for 'church' around Easter than at any other time, with the Christmas season usually ranking second, according to Google Trends data between 2004 and 2013 . . . Easter is Christianity's oldest and most important holiday, during which Christians celebrate Jesus' Resurrection three days after he was crucified. In liturgical terms, Easter Sunday is a moveable feast. Its observance, which comes at the end of a 40-day period of penance, fasting and self-examination called Lent, changes within a range of time each spring.
Yvon Prehn, founder and director of Effective Church Communications, told The Christian Post last year that churches often don't see any growth after big Easter services, even when they put a lot of effort into outreach.

The specialness of the holiday service can actually work against visitors coming a second time. Prehn says:
Some churches have a petting zoo or they have pre-lattes or they have a brunch, they do all this special stuff. Well, they don't do that every week. People bring a lot of friends and kind of the unspoken assumption is that if they like the church and they think we're cool and we really impress them and they love the worship music, they'll just come back next week to Sunday school and bring their kids . . . I strongly recommend something that says 'Here's what we do when it isn't Easter. We've got this for your kids, we've got a single's ministry here, we've got this stuff for women and here's our regular celebration services.' You know, something just really simple and upbeat that says 'When it isn't Easter, this is what we're doing.'"

Apr 19, 2014

Controversy of Death of God theology (full documentary)

"There's a lot of terror involved in this idea, and this is why I think it arouses so much controversy. And I'm not sure we face the terror that is within us, of saying 'God is dead.'"

Apr 18, 2014

Reenacting a terrible day

"It was a terrible day. And Christ was tried, and then he was scourged, and then he was taken to the cross by the Romans." -- Jeffrey Bauer, United Church of Christ pastor in Bethlehem, Penn.

Apr 10, 2014

The inescapability of metaphysics

Francis Spufford, author of Unapologetic, in Christianity Today, on the inescapability of metaphysics:
It makes me think of the joke about reality having a well-known liberal bias: one could also say that reality has a well-known theological bias. I think it's observably the case that our understanding of the world is just not exhausted by talking about our daylight enlightened systems, our best intentions, our codes of law and science, the things that in the bright light of noon we want to be true about ourselves. There's all the other stuff, too, and anyone who is paying attention keeps tripping over it. You get back onto theological ground no matter what your opinions are.

Apr 9, 2014

For the Bible tells me (that human flourishing is) so

The prime example of problematic religious arguments in the pluralist public square: the appeal to authority.

If religious rhetoric or religious arguments are in some way to be disallowed from public debates about public things, this is the most common explanation for why. Public discourse has to be secular. It has to be secular in the sense that it's open to everyone. The arguments ought to be universally available, regardless of faith commitment, worldview, metaphysical picture of ultimate reality, etc. Jürgen Habermas says it has to be secular in the sense of being "post-metaphysical." This isn't supposed to mean that people with metaphysics are barred from the discourse (though sometimes it does mean that people with a minority metaphysics are excluded). It is supposed to mean, rather, that there are certain rules to public discourse. For example, that positions are not to be justified by reference to an ultimate reality not available to all. Arguments are not counted as rational if they make use of special or secret knowledge. 

Appeals to a transcendent good have to be bracketted; only appeals to an immanent good are allowed.

Put another way: the argument "for the Bible tells me so" is not allowed; all arguments must be arguments based on measurable human flourishing.

Apr 4, 2014

Swaggart preaches on atomic bombs

"I'm here to tell you tonight," Jimmy Swaggart says, in this classic bit of Pentecostal preaching, recorded for the radio, "that we've coming down to the end of time."

Swaggart, while making use of communications technology, here, talks about his fears about advancements in American weapons technology, connecting a promise that Jesus would return soon, before humans destroyed themselves:

This is apparently a pretty rare recording. Mark Betcher notes: "this recording was recorded at 16 RPM. 16 RPM was used for radio transcription discs. But 16 RPM commercial records were never widely available, although it was common to see new turntable models with a 16 RPM speed setting produced as late as the 1970s."

Apr 2, 2014

'You should buy these cheap round trip tickets'

One hundred years ago today, April 2, 1914, white Pentecostal preachers and revivalists from across America gathered in a Hot Springs, Arkansas winter resort, and founded the Assemblies of God.

The call that gathered them there was issued to all who "desire with united purpose to co-operate in love and peace to push the interests of the kingdom of God everywhere," with the caveat that that meant it was "only for saints who believe in the baptism with the Holy Ghost with sings (sic) following, Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6; Mark 16:6-18; 1 Cor. 12:8:11."

It's a fascinating document. It says a lot about who these people were and the world they lived in.

Apr 1, 2014

The gift of unsafe thinking

Review: For the Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Theology, by Peter C. Blum

One cannot accept a gift without a certain level of vulnerability.

This is the risk of gifts.

Gifts are dangerous, because accepting a gift means accepting an unknown. There are no guarantees. Gifts cannot be prescribed. It's even possible that, accepting that unknown, you might find that you are changed, and to be open to a gift means to be open to being changed.

In this sense, a gift a can be a useful analogy for the open-endedness of thinking.

Thinking, at least how Peter C. Blum thinks about thinking in his new book, is unsafe. It does not come with guarantees, and is risky exactly in the way in which it calls for one to open up to possibilities that cannot be safely foreclosed in advance.

Blum engages Christian theology and continental or "postmodern" philosophy in For a Church to Come, combining them in ways that reveal this risk. He wants to recover, or perhaps uncover, a certain unsettledness, which seems to him important for Jesus' gospel and a valuable thing to take from the 20th century philosophers who set for themselves the task of "unrelenting suspicion of finality and closure" (21).

In this book, Blum engages in what he calls experiments. He explains, "I mean experiment in Nietzsche's sense of the term, a deliberately unsettling sort of experiencing, a risking of our perspective that may lead to change that we do not foresee" (22).

The true risk of such thinking, for Blum, is not that it might leave one, finally, in the "wrong" position. The fear, rather, is that there will be no finality, no point after which thinking is safely beyond risk.

The challenge of For a Church to Come, at the broadest level, is to become comfortable with the ongoing discomfort of being challenged. Thinking is presented as always provisional, always open to further thinking, open to that which is "to come," even or especially when what's coming is a change for the one who is is waiting. The real work of thinking, as presented here, is also the work of faith. Which is to say, it is replacing the fixedness of idols with an openness to that which is inconceivably transcendent, and problematically so (100).

"I do explicitly intend," Blum writes, "to 'make things difficult'" (47).

This "making difficult" is itself a gift.

Mar 31, 2014

Mourning in private, with rituals but not belief

Rituals have powerful effect on humans. But, according to a new study on the effects of rituals on people in mourning, it doesn't matter what you believe about those rituals. Nor does it matter what specific rituals you do.

Any ritual will work.

Yet, it's curious. While believing that a ritual is powerful is not important, according to this study, believing that the ritual is a ritual, and directing it at the feelings of loss, in a sense, seems to matter.

In the Journal of Experimental Psychology paper, "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries," Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino report:
First, our pilot study demonstrates that people use a wide variety of rituals, indicating that the particular actions people perform when carrying out rituals are not the primary driver of reduced grief. Second, believing in the effectiveness of rituals did not moderate the relationship between performing rituals and reduced grief, suggesting that people do not need to explicitly endorse the efficacy of rituals in order for rituals to increase perceived control and lower grief after a loss. Finally . . .  referring to a set of actions as a ritual and performing such actions are both critical ingredients for rituals to be effective.
It's not clear why it should be the case that thinking of a ritual as a ritual would be more efficacious. What counts as a ritual, of course, is open to individual interpretations. When asked about rituals they had used to cope with the death of a loved one, test subjects described a range of practices. One person described the Jewish practice of sitting shiva and a praying particular prayers over the next year. Another described playing a late mother's favorite song, Natalie Cole's "I miss you like crazy," and crying. A third described washing the deceased's car in the way he did.

The sampling of rituals wasn't representative enough to say anything definitive about varieties of ritual practice in America today, but it is interesting to note that, among those participating in the test, mourning was not generally a religious act. It was not communal either.

There were nearly 250 test subjects, who all volunteered at a Ivy League school. Fewer than 20 percent of them were students, about half male, half female, with a median age of about 36. Among these, only about 5 percent described mourning rituals that were "specifically religious in nature."

Only about 5 percent said they'd mourned a loss, a death or an ended relationship, with rituals performed communally.

About 10 percent said that, with or without community participation, their rituals were in some sense public.

"Most of the rituals recalled," write Norton and Gino, "were private, everyday rituals that were unique to the individual rather than performed publicly."

Mar 28, 2014

Secularization and the siege of the Branch Davidians

Twenty-one years ago, when federal agents with guns and tanks descended on Mount Carmel, the property of a small, Seventh-day Adventist splinter sect named the Branch Davidians, the leader of the group called the local sheriff's office. He was considered a prophet. Specifically, he thought of himself and was thought by the Branch Davidians as an apocalyptic prophet. They thought at the end of the world he would explain and expound the Bible prophecies of the end of the world.

With paramilitary forces surrounding them, it looked a lot like the end of the world at Mount Carmel.

The leader, 33-year-old David Koresh, tried to explain this to Deputy Larry Lynch in the McClellan County Texas Sheriff's Office. The phone call went like this:
Koresh: In the prophecies --
Lynch: All right.
Koresh: it says --
Lynch: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
Koresh: Sure.
Lynch: All right, we can talk theology. But right now --
Koresh: No, this is life. This is life and death!
Lynch: Okay.
Koresh: Theology --
Lynch: That's what I'm talking about.
Koresh: is life and death. 
In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell explores why government agents couldn't understand the Branch Davidians. The 1993 siege ended in tragedy. It seems, from all the information available after 21 years, that it ended in a tragedy that could have been avoided. But it wasn't. And it wasn't, Gladwell argues pretty convincingly, because government agents on every level could not understand the religious motivations of the Branch Davidians for what they were: religious motivations.

That is to say -- though Gladwell doesn't use the word -- secularization.