On Religious Deserts and the Canaanite Woman

Portland skyline, JPL Designs /

Portland skyline, JPL Designs /

A friend of mine forwarded a link to a recent Huffington Post article about the most and least religious cities in the United States. Interestingly – but hardly surprising – you have to scroll waaaay down the list to find my current city of Portland, Ore.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” he said. He’s right; I’ve met folks here who work in churches that tell people they work at a nonprofit when asked what they do, leaving the bit about the nonprofit being a church until they get to know each other better. And of course, we knew this when we came to the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, that’s part of what made me want to be here.

For some, there is great appeal in coming to an “unchurched” community, mainly because of the notion that this means there are that many more people in need of saving. And while this may or may not be true, there’s a lot of presumption that goes into saving those without religion, while assuming those who claim a faith are the ones to do the “saving.”

How Should Churches Address the 'Nones?'

Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A /

Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A /

OK, church folks. Fasten your seat belts. But don’t hunker down.

There’s a new study out this week that shows that one-in-five Americans has no religious affiliation. Not Baptist, not Catholic, not Lutheran, not Jewish, not Muslim. 

For those of us in the world of organized religion, this just adds more data to a trend we have seen accelerating over the last decade.

In 2007, about 15 percent of the adult population in the U.S. described itself as unaffiliated with any religion. In a comparable survey done this summer and released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number hit 20 percent.  And if you just focus on those under 30, the religiously unaffiliated constitute one third of that group.

Among those of us who are professional religious types, this is the kind of data that can prompt a lot of gloomy introspection about relevance and a lot of finger pointing at those who are not interested in the same kinds of religious expression that we are. 

Let me suggest there’s a less gloomy and less judgmental way to think about this data.

Is the Future of Church in Fantasy Faith Leagues?

Football diagram, Prixel Creative /

Football diagram, Prixel Creative /

I used to be in a fantasy league, but the fanaticism of the whole thing wore me out. The guys would gather online for an evening-long draft event, debate rules ad nauseam, and haggle over trades through the wee hours. I considered myself to be a fan, but these guys had practically made, well, a religion out of fantasy sports.

I was reading a piece today by Bruce Reyes Chow about what we Christians might learn from fantasy sports, and it got me thinking. One of the most interesting things being in the fantasy league did for me was that it totally changed how I watched the games. I would turn on games I never would have had interest in before, just to see how my selected running back performed. I even found myself rooting against my own favorite teams once in a blue moon when it served my fantasy team and didn’t affect the outcome of the actual game.

The whole experience drove my wife crazy, partly because of all the time it took, but also because the way I engaged sports was so different that, even if we were watching the same game, it was as if we saw two completely different things.

We’re in the middle of a similar kind of shift in the west with respect to organized religion. While folks within the walls of church may be intent primarily on keeping the institutions placed under their care alive, a growing majority of people outside the doors don’t really care about the denominational logo over the entryway, the name inscribed on the stone sign by the street or the long, rich history of all the congregation has meant to the community.

All Politics (Should Be) Local

A local Parisian restaurant.

You can tell from its menu whether a restaurant expects to serve tourists, locals or regulars.

At a tourist-centered eatery like those near Times Square, the menu typically is huge: many pages, difficult to scan, sometimes difficult even to hold. There's something for everyone and it's designed to please customers who are strangers.

A restaurant catering to locals will have a much leaner menu, maybe just four or five items in each category. They will all be of a certain type—no words like "Asian fusion" to disguise lack of focus. If the joint is Korean, it will serve Korean. 

A third and much rarer type is the restaurant that offers just one multi-course meal each night. Regulars go expecting to be served the chef's whim of the day, not handed a long menu.

When customers are strangers, the owner must imagine what will please a patchwork of German tourists, Chinese tourists, families from Iowa, young techies on the prowl, and marketers in town for a convention.

The better an owner knows the customers, the more focused the menu can be. If not the actual customer, at least the type of person who will come in.

Voting isn't all that different. When politics is local, candidates tend to know their people or at least know their interests, worries and hopes. This is the level at which democracy tends to work best. Leaders know their people, people know their leaders, and known interests are at stake.

Episcopal Priest Under Scrutiny for Nude Photos

RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia/Public Domain

Michelangelo's painting titled 'Last Judgment.' RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia/Public Domain

In the middle of the 16th century, Catholic bishops and theologians met sporadically in the city of Trento in northern Italy to discuss the church's response to the Reformation. Over the course of 18 years, the Council of Trent produced documents correcting abuses like indulgences and other corruption.

In 1564, the council ordered that some naked figures in Michelangelo's massive "Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel be covered up as a result of the council's dictate that "all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust."

It will be difficult for critics to compare Michelangelo's nudes with the ones photographed by the Rev. John Blair. Just after the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri launched an investigation of the St. Louis priest, many of his photos of nude models were removed from the Internet.

And yet the diocese's disciplinary board, whose members will decide if Blair's photography constitutes sexual misconduct, will try to answer the same question as Trent's participants 450 years ago: How does the church recognize the beauty of art that depicts God's creation — the human form — without seeming to condone "a beauty exciting to lust"?

Tony Perkins says Enthusiasm Growing for Romney, Predicts Record Turnout

RNS photo by Chris Lisee

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins speaking at the Family Research Council Headquarters. RNS photo by Chris Lisee

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Sept. 12 that conservative Christians are growing more enthusiastic about GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and predicted they would show up at the polls in record numbers in November.

"When it comes to the values of family, values of faith, values of freedom, Mitt Romney is a clear choice, I think, for value voters across this country," Perkins said at a National Press Club luncheon two days before his organization kicks off its annual Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Perkins, a Southern Baptist, said evangelical Christians have "significant theological differences" with Romney, a Mormon, but he said the GOP nominee, if elected, would not be asked to head a national church.

"We don't want a national church. We want religious freedom," he said. "I think someone who has been a part of a persecuted religion is going to be even more sensitive to the issue of religious freedom."

COMMENTARY: It’s Time for Baby Boomers to Cede Control

Photo by iQoncept/

Speedometer control illustration. Photo by iQoncept/

As baby boomers start clicking the senior citizen box on travel fares, I want to say a word to my generation and to the one that preceded us. 

It is time for us to get out of the way.

I don't mean easing into wheelchairs. For the most part, we're way too healthy and energetic for that. I mean the harder work of relinquishing control.

I see that need most clearly in religious institutions, where I work. But I see it elsewhere, too, from taxpayer "revolts" led by seniors against today's schoolchildren to culture wars that we won't let die.

Why the Church is the Best Place for a Pussy Riot

On Aug. 17, three members of the Russian feminist punk band/performance art group Pussy Riot received the verdict in the criminal case against them: Guilty of "hooliganism" motivated by "religious hatred." Each was sentenced to two years in prison.

As a faith-based community organizer, I spend a great majority of my time trying to get political issues into the church so that the gospel can be relevant to the reality of those on and off the pews.

Therefore, I believe the best place for a “pussy riot” is the church. Although this may seem sacrilegious, here's why:

1. When the church ignores social and political issues it silently blesses injustice. (See slavery, the Holocaust, lynching, and child sexual abuse.) Testimony Time is a set time in many Black Churches when  congregants can speak of their pains and triumphs and how God brought them through.

Testimony time is democratic and a time of raw honesty. I call what Pussy Riot did protestifying because they protested by testifying about the political conditions of their country.

Church No More: Part 6 — Back to Church Again

"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.

"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going.

They say you can never go home again.

The thinking is that, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again necessarily will be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.

In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This coming Sunday (Sept. 2) will be my first Sunday back.

The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Tom Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again. It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly.

So, you can't go home again? Well, I'm going to try.