January 4, 2007

World News

Study Says Conflict, Race
Influence Church Growth
BY G. JEFFREY MACDONALD                                                                       ©2006 Religion News Service
capCongregations interested in growing weekly attendance would do well to make a plan for recruiting new members, become multi-racial, and make sure serious conflict doesn't take root.
That's the message of a new analysis released this month (December) by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. The "FACTs on Growth" report, based on data collected in a 2005 survey of nearly 900 congregations, found that congregations reporting growth in worship attendance between 2000 and 2005 tended to exhibit certain common attributes.
Multi-racial congregations had a better chance of growing than those predominantly consisting of one racial group. Sixty-one percent of multi-racial congregations said they had experienced growth, while just 31 percent of predominantly Anglo congregations said the same.
But even more important may be whether people in the pews, no matter their race, actually get along with one another.
"Whether or not a congregation finds itself in serious conflict is the number one predictor of congregational decline," writes C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church and author of the report. "This finding points out the need for conflict resolution skills among clergy so minor conflict does not become serious, debilitating conflict."
Conversely, congregations were most likely to grow if they:
    -- had a clear mission and purpose as a congregation
    -- conducted "joyful" worship services
    -- adopted a specific plan for recruiting new members
    -- had changed worship format at one or more services in the past five years.
What's more, congregations were likely to grow when men comprised the majority of active participants. Among congregations where at least three out of five regular participants were men, 59 percent of congregations reported growth. But among churches where no more than two in every five regular participants were men, only 21 percent said they had experienced growth.
"As American congregations become increasingly populated by women," the report says, "those congregations that are able to even out the proportions of males and females are those most likely to grow."

Massachusetts Marriage Amendment
Overcomes Opposition, Passes
BY MICHAEL FOUST                                                                                ©2007 Baptist Press

In an action that surprised even some conservatives, Massachusetts legislators on January 2 passed a proposed constitutional marriage amendment just hours before it would have died as the session ended.

The amendment, which would protect the natural definition of marriage statewide, now must pass once more in the next session if it is to appear on the 2008 ballot. If adopted, it would reverse a landmark court ruling from 2003 that legalized "gay marriage."

Just days ago the amendment appeared doomed. Legislators met in a constitutional convention three times in recent months but recessed each time without giving the proposal an up-or-down vote. Many observers thought the same thing would happen on January 2, the last day of the legislative session. Instead, the amendment received 62 votes--12 more than required under state law. Voting against it were 134 members. Under state law the proposal needed the support of only one-fourth of legislators in the 200-member chamber.

"It was a miracle," Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told Baptist Press. "We did everything possible that we could do over the last year and a half to get to this point.... Nobody gave us a plugged nickel's chance and yet God made it happen."

A record 170,000 Massachusetts citizens signed petitions to qualify the amendment for legislative consideration, and Mineau and other amendment supporters were confident they had the 50 votes for passage. But when legislators met in November, opponents of the amendment--knowing it could pass if given a chance--voted 109-87 to recess until Jan. 2.  Amendment supporters, led by outgoing Republican Governor Mitt Romney, subsequently filed a lawsuit against legislators in state court, asking the court to issue a decision laying out the state constitutional responsibilities of legislators. Two days after Christmas, the state's highest court unanimously ruled legislators had a "constitutional duty" to vote on the amendment.

To read the complete story, click here.


In Amish Country, `Christian Broadway' is Big Business
By DAVID N. DUNKLE                                                                                 ©2007 Religion News Service
Few signs beckon pilgrims seeking the Millennium Theatre. They know the way, or at least their bus drivers do.
"Our audience doesn't have any trouble finding us," public relations manager Pamela Evans said, explaining the paucity of billboards along the Lancaster County roads leading to the 2,000-seat Millennium and its older sister, the 700-seat Living Waters Theatre.
Most patrons have traveled far, and from the east, to see "The Miracle of Christmas" (which ran through January 6) at Millennium on a bright recent afternoon. By day's end, more than 4,000 will have watched two performances of the 2 1/2-hour show about the birth of Christ. The production, which cost more than $1 million to mount, features dozens of actors, spectacular sets, banks of laser lights, live animals, and heavenly angels hovering by wire above the 300-foot wraparound stage.
By year's end, more than 800,000 people will have paid to see one of the several shows staged by Sight & Sound Theatres, the for-profit corporation that operates the two theaters. That annual total makes Sight & Sound the nation's largest faith-based theater, as well as tourist-rich Lancaster County's No. 1 ticketed attraction.
Visitors to this "Christian Broadway" near Strasburg are mostly white, mostly senior citizens, mostly middle class and overwhelmingly Christian. Eight in 10 are from East Coast cities, including one in four from the New York-New Jersey region.
Many pay $250 or more for an overnight bus trip that also buys them a motel bed, a Pennsylvania Dutch buffet, outlet shopping, and a visit to another of Amish country's attractions. These people are part of a trend in the travel industry. Industry insiders call it affinity-based tourism, or less formally, "togethering."
Faith-based travel is the fastest-growing segment in the "togethering" marketplace. Millions of the faithful, Protestant and Roman Catholic, pool their recreational clout to demand cruises, theme parks, and live shows that reflect their values.
"People want to get together with people of similar interests, whether it's traveling to the Holy Land or the Philadelphia Flower Show," said Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association, which next month will launch the first magazine devoted to faith-based travel.
"We're talking about a billion-dollar industry," Wright said. Sight & Sound, already a seasoned player, is well-positioned for the evolving market. Founders and owners Glenn and Shirley Eshelman have seen their vision of Christian entertainment mushroom since they first offered slide shows set to music 30 years ago.
"I really saw the potential this had for ministry purposes," said Glenn Eshelman, who grew up on a Lancaster County dairy farm. "We get so many people here you could not get to walk through a church door."
In 2008, Sight & Sound will open a theater in Branson, Missouri, a tourism center with demographics similar to Lancaster County.

Graham Cited `Most Admired' in Gallup Poll for 50th Time

BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                                                ©2007 Religion News Service
Evangelist Billy Graham has been named in the Gallup Poll's top 10 "most admired" men list for a record 50th time. In a poll taken in mid-December, the 88-year-old evangelist came in fifth. Ranked before him, in order, were President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
The men ranking behind Graham, in order, were former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Pope Benedict XVI, former South African President Nelson Mandela, former President George H.W. Bush and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Graham has been ranked in the poll almost every year the question was asked by The Gallup Organization since 1955. The only two years when he didn't rank were in 1976, when the question wasn't asked by the polling firm, and in 1962, said Jeffrey M. Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.
Other frequent top 10 poll finishers are Carter (25 times), the elder Bush (17), Clinton (15), Powell (15) and Mandela (15). The latest results are based on telephone interviews with a random national sample of 1,010 adults from December 11-14. They had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Swedish Church Introduces Burial Rites for Aborted Fetuses


BY SIMON REEVES                                                                              ©2007 Religion News Service
Bishops of the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden have issued instructions for burial rites for aborted fetuses, called a "pastoral ceremony" that does not include a worship service. The instructions were contained in a bishops' letter published on December 13.
Bishop Erik Aurelius, one of the authors of the document, told Religion News Service that the instructions were issued because "there have already been reports of a small number of cases of such burials."
He said the church envisions a pastoral ceremony for fetuses aborted in late pregnancies for medical reasons. Priests will not question why the abortions were conducted, even if fetuses aborted in early pregnancies, for non-medical reasons, were presented for burial.
Late-term abortions for medical reasons are always very difficult for the parents, Aurelius added. "There are a lot of sorrow and guilt and these burials will be a part of the pastoral care that a priest administers to grieving couples," the bishop noted.
"There will be no rituals for such ceremonies. We leave it to the pastor and his or her wisdom," he said.
The letter also called for the holding of funeral services for deceased church members even if there are no relatives and the only person in attendance is the priest.
"The church has the responsibility to at least try to have a burial service for every member, and this will not be anything less than an ordinary service with relatives present."