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Notebook Religion



Attack ad

United Church of Christ produces controversial TV ad

Leaders of the shrinking 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ want gays to know they are welcome in UCC churches. So, they produced a 30-second TV ad to make their point.

The ad depicts two burly bouncers standing guard at the door of a picturesque church ( The bouncers deny entrance to a male couple holding hands, along with two black children and a Latino. Then a message flashes: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." The scene shifts to the interior of a church with a diverse group of people smiling. A narrator says that at the UCC, "no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

CBS and NBC declined to run the ad, while CNN, ABC Family, and some other cable networks, along with some individual major network stations, did run it. In the controversy surrounding the network decisions, network news shows aired all or parts of the commercial. Many evangelical leaders and other church members saw the ad as an unfair attack against them. For example, no one could point out a single church that does what the ad depicts.

Southern Baptist Seminary president R. Albert Mohler told ABC's Diane Sawyer it was a "diabolical misrepresentation of Christianity." He said biblical churches are made up of sinners saved by grace, and that gays are welcome in evangelical churches, where they can hear the gospel proclaimed.

License to leave

St. Luke's Community Church in Fresno, Calif., can keep its church property. The California Supreme Court declined to review a landmark appeals court ruling in August that St. Luke's had the right to retain its property when it left the California-Nevada regional conference of the United Methodist Church in 2000 over doctrinal differences.

The conference had cited a clause in UMC law saying all church property is held in trust for the denomination (even if no UMC funds were used to acquire and maintain it). A number of breakaway churches over the years had lost their property due to trust clauses, but St. Luke's chose to fight.

Under state corporate law, the court said, a church that enters into a trust has the right to revoke it. UMC officials say they are considering an appeal to the federal courts. They warn that not only the UMC but also other mainline denominations with property trust clauses are at risk. In California, scores of dissident churches could start heading for the exits.

Bulletin Board

  • The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, Calif., has agreed to settle with 87 victims of sexual abuse by 30 priests and 11 lay employees and two nuns for a record sum. Terms were not disclosed, but a participant in negotiations said the amount topped the $85 million the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay last year.
  • A church court defrocked Rev. Elizabeth Stroud, an associate pastor of a Philadelphia-area United Methodist Church and a self-acknowledged lesbian living with a gay partner. But she and leaders of First UMC of Germantown said she will continue to perform her pastoral duties as a lay employee of the church, though she said she will abide by church law that says she cannot administer baptism and communion.
  • Radio and TV evangelist Billy James Hargis died in Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 27. He was 79. The chubby Rev. Hargis had fought long, losing battles with the Internal Revenue Service, which stripped his group Christian Crusade of its tax exemption in 1964, and with the Federal Communications Commission. In a landmark decision in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Rev. Hargis and upheld the FCC's "fairness doctrine," which required broadcasters to give free air time to those criticized on the air. Perhaps his worst blow came in 1974 when he was forced to resign as president of the school he founded, American Christian College in Tulsa. He denied having made alleged sexual advances toward two students, but the scandal sent his ministry into near oblivion.

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Troubling trend

Church growth stalls among Southern Baptist churches

A new study of church growth among the 42,000-plus churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, found 70 percent of them have "plateaued" or are declining. It is a 20-year trend that has disturbed many SBC leaders. The study, based on statistics for 1998 to 2003, classified 30.3 percent of churches as growing, 45.8 percent as plateaued, and 23.9 percent as declining-an increase of 6 percent from an SBC study for 1978 to 1983.

But "growing" can be misleading, says study leader Bill Day of New Orleans Baptist Seminary. He said 1,409 churches in the growing category reported no baptisms in 2003, and some others have a member-to-baptism ratio of as much as 1,100 to 1. The lack of conversions suggests much purported growth is really a reshuffling of Baptist members, he added.

Mr. Day proposed new standards for the definitions: a 10 percent total membership growth over five years, at least one baptism a year, a member-to-baptism ratio of 35 or less to 1, and conversions accounting for at least 25 percent of the total membership growth during the final year of the study. Using these criteria, only 11 percent, or some 4,600 churches, qualify as healthy and growing, he said.

No contest

Heads rolled at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquarters in Louisville, Ky. Two high PCUSA executives were fired on Nov. 11 in the aftermath of a controversial trip to Lebanon. Kathy Luechert, the denomination's No. 3 executive, and Peter Sulyok were leaders of a 24-member official delegation whose "fact-finding" visit in late October included friendly talks with members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel (WORLD, Nov. 13, p. 33).

Top officials at the PCUSA, including Ms. Luechert's boss, John Detterick, had earlier ordered the leaders to cancel the visit, but they refused. The visit, which included an American theologian's remarks critical of Israel, severely disrupted relations between the PCUSA and Jewish groups. Ms. Luechert, Mr. Sulyok, and Mr. Detterick had no immediate comment about the sudden departures.

Legal Briefs

• The latest religious survey of the U.S. Congress, conducted biennially by writer-researcher Albert Menendez, shows a record 67 Roman Catholic Republicans in the incoming House. Catholics still account for 86 Democratic members of Congress, but the gap has narrowed steadily in recent years. Six of the nine new Catholic members are Republicans, including Nebraska's Jeff Fortenberry, who holds a divinity degree from Franciscan University.

• The new broad alliance known as Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., which includes the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, mainline Protestant denominations, and a smattering of other churches and religious groups, will start out mainly as a yearly discussion and bridge-building forum, according to some of its leaders. They say CCTUS will avoid taking stands on most controversial public-policy issues and will make decisions only by consensus. Few, if any, evangelical churches are expected to join.

• More women and older adults are showing up at rescue missions than a decade ago, an annual study of 20,500 homeless "clients" at 154 missions by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions shows. In 1994, women made up 18 percent of clients; this year, it's 23 percent, and would be higher if missions had more facilities for women, an association spokesman said. Half of all clients in 1994 were under age 35; now, two-thirds are over age 36, and 35 percent said they had never been homeless before.

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Religious differences

UCLA researchers surveyed 3,680 college juniors and found that about one-fifth were "highly religious" while another fifth ranked very low on religious interest and activities

Want to know what college juniors are thinking? UCLA researchers surveyed 3,680 of them on 46 campuses. The study found that about one-fifth were "highly religious" (the majority of them women) while another fifth ranked very low on religious interest and activities.

Findings include: On politics, 50 percent of those who called themselves politically conservative showed high levels of religious commitment, compared with only 18 percent of political liberals. On the death penalty, 38 percent of the highly religious opposed it, but only 23 percent of the least religious.

On sex, just 7 percent of the highly religious thought it was all right if people who've known each other "a very short time" had sex, but 80 percent of the least religious said it was OK. On abortion, 24 percent of the highly religious wanted it kept legal, as opposed to 79 percent of the least religious. On homosexuality, 38 percent of the highly religious said they would support "laws prohibiting homosexual relationships," compared with 17 percent of the least religious.

Remaining nameless

The "usually conservative" 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late last month ruled that invoking Christ in prayers at the beginning or end of public meetings is unconstitutional. The ruling banned specifically Christian prayers given at meetings of the town council of Great Falls, S.C.

"Public officials' brief invocations of the Almighty before engaging in public business have always . . . been part of our nation's history," wrote Judge Diana Gribbon. "This opportunity does not, however, provide the Town Council, or any other legislative body, license to advance its own religious views in preference to all others, as the Town Council did here."

Reacting to the ruling, Hashmel Turner, a city council member and pastor in Fredericksburg, Va., last week stopped saying prayers at official meetings after other council members asked him to allow another member to pray. Mr. Turner, who said he would not omit references to Christ in his prayers, acceded to their request. He said that he didn't want to burden taxpayers with a prolonged and expensive lawsuit.

Bulletin Board

  • A court of appeal in the German state of Hesse in Frankfurt on July 29 upheld an earlier ruling that parents must send their children to state-sanctioned schools. The case involved Sigrid and Michael Bauer, homeschool parents who contend that some school subjects are incompatible with their evangelical faith and that public schools undermine biblical standards of decency and obedience to parents. They served notice that they may appeal to the German Supreme Court. At least 500 German children from 200 families are homeschooled, according to homeschool advocates and press estimates.
  • Nearly 2,000 young Christians from across the world are descending on Athens and the Olympic Games this month to take part in FLAME 2004, a witness effort by a variety of Christian organizations. Targeting athletes, support staffs, and spectators, their activities range from extending a smile, a cup of water, and a helping hand where one is needed to street evangelism. One of the many public "festival" programs includes a "True Love Waits" rally, emphasizing sexual purity and monogamy. It is scheduled for Aug. 22 at a theater near the Acropolis.
  • The Anti-Defamation League condemned a vote by delegates to the national meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that supported divesting from companies that do business with Israel. Delegates likened the action to the divestment campaign against South African apartheid two decades ago. ADL officials said in a letter to PCUSA leaders that they were "offended and distressed" by the vote.

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