Stark cold truth

In his book *What Americans Really Believe*, Rodney Stark also made a critical, crucial mistake in his reading of the data on church attendance and membership. Or, just as important, the Baylor study itself made the mistake, and he followed it to prove his point.

The extremely critical mistake? They asked the respondents about it.

Why is that a mistake? Because even people who don’t go to church want to be seen as if they’re part of a church. Or, they want to see themselves as someone who goes. On image questions of this kind, there’s just too much lying. And they’ll do it even when the information is to be kept confidential; many people don’t trust that, either. So it is not something that is accurately studied by way of self-reporting.

The truth? According to those who look at actual counts, actual church attendance and membership are down overall. Attendance has been dropping noticeably for the last 10 years or so, with a brief interruption for 9/11. (Before that there was about two decades of ‘shuffling’, largely of folks leaving mainline churches for Pentecostal ones.) Many people, even those with strong Christian beliefs, don’t bother with church at all anymore. Being an actual member of an actual congregation or church body isn’t as important to their identity as in past generations. The drop isn’t as large or as deep as the doomsday folks are saying, but it is real, and the churches must take action about it now. They must give a clear answer to the question, “what good does it do for Christians to gather together?

The best way to measure such subjects by surveys? Indirectly. By creating a scale of indirect questions and doing a cluster analysis of them in relation to the other questions on the survey. By running a cross-check on it by looking at an area’s actual attendance counts. By having enough respondents on these specific questions that you can have a high enough number of respondents (Ns) to be in effect a statistically-significant survey for each issue breakdown.

Stark et al.’s sunny analysis about current church attendance has no ground in fact except for the distorted ‘self-reported’ attendance and membership. This is one of the two instances in the book where the Baylor data was, from the start, not what it seemed to be.


More from La-La Land

Went to a number of the local churches this past weekend. (‘Local’ my butt — it’s like driving to Jersey or Connecticut from Long Island, everything’s so far apart and still LA.)

First stop was West Angeles COGIC, Crenshaw Blvd, where two women were gleefully describing what it is to sing worship there. (One of them does solos on occasion, the other’s a choir singer.) Super smiles! It was just a hello stop, but a good one. As always, some spending in the neighborhood, picking up an accessory and lunch at El Pollo Loco.

At night, it was Saddleback Church. Moving stuff about forgiveness, reconciliation, and Rwanda, with a Rwandan church leader speaking. Rick Warren is on message, giving a teaching sermon on the whys of forgiving. I never seem to get used to worshipping in auditoriums, even when they’re called worship halls. (That applies to many old-style cathedrals, too, for some reason.) I had brief chats with people involved in educational ministries. I was a bit surprised how quickly things wrapped up after the service — longer than LI churches, but shorter than they let on, all the special tent areas and such were picked up and the worship building being locked up around 8:30. No hanging here. It was also not much of a ‘worship service’. To me, it was a very good basic seminar class framed by music and dotted with a prayer at the end.

Next up was Sunday morning, which was started at Lutheran Church of the Master ELCA – Lancaster. They were friendly and had a pretty good supply/temporary pastor, but not much membership. Next after that, Mosaic – West LA. They had to fudge their setup; usually, they are at Beverly Hills High, but they had to switch to an elementary school for this one service. Again, not as much of a worship service as I was expecting; basically some songs followed by an Erwin McManus message, then another song and some hanging out. It felt much looser and less rushed, and I got to talk to some more people. None of those emergent-type worship elements like art, ancient practices, questions, rock music, etc., but then this was on the fly.

None of it really felt like worship. Part of that was me (the phone call that took me out of LC of the Master before Communion, and the fact that this is a vacation). Part was the services (songs – teachings – songs is not, to me, much of an act of worship). But at least I was there. I tried not to go in with expectations, but of course I had them anyway. What was more impressive than the worship was how involved these churches are. Each has made commitments to large-scale projects in LA and in other countries. In the case of Saddleback and Mosaic, they took on large projects involving many volunteers, and working with government and other churches. I’m used to having little money and even less volunteers. Time will tell if this will have any impact on such a big place as LA.

Report from Antelope Valley

The second full day here in SoCal. So far, a job interview or two, meeting relatives, and a lot of driving and learning the lay of the land. One of the ‘stretching’ things I’m doing is that I’m using what is for me new technology. For instace, a wireless phone. (Never had one before.) I’m driving a hybrid car (new to me), with a GPS (new to me). Oddly enough, it’s all been easy so far, no bizarre electronic fubbs to report. Too easy. The GPS is doing wonders for getting around a strange city.

I’ve been to the Valley now for a fifth time, but each time is different because each time the place has changed. More houses, more shopping centers, fewer joshua trees. All according to a plan – even if it resembles helter-skelter. (But more of that some other time.) It’s not as dry this time, there’s more moisture in the air. And there’s more fog/smog at the foot of the south mountains. Homes are still being planned, though few are actually being built at the moment. No, it does not yet resemble LA, yet it also resembles its desert roots less and less.

I had a fun time at the Desert Toastmasters tonight, an unplanned pleasure on a busy schedule. I hope I can visit more parts of the LA church scene in the next few days.

More later….

Another look at charismatics, 12 years later

Looking back on the points made 27 years ago by Charismatics at Geneva, I can only feel a great sadness. For I look at the landscape of what had then been the the robust, energetic Charismatic movement, and what is there now, the mainline part of it becoming either spent (Lutherans, for example) or reshaped and tamed in a manner better suited for the powers-that-be (like Catholics and Methodists). The ‘Third Wave’ part of it isn’t in much better shape, for while there are many congregations within it that are better than ever, the overall impression is that they’ve lost their vision, and are being blended into a veriety of new mini-movements, or are being taken up by some larger movements that have little to do with following Christ.

I’ll use the points from Geneva that I addressed 12 years ago as a starting point. When I do this, please remember that I am an outside observer, a mainstream Christian who is clearly not (by nearly all of the movement’s own self-definitions) a charismatic, and never has been. I am simply a believer in Christ who insists on being in dialogue with a movement that, even at this stage, is still the main shaping force for many millions of Christians the world over. A believer in Christ who believes that mainstream Christian leaders are still seriously shirking their responsibility as Christians by choosing not to be in real dialogue with them.

In 1980, Charismatics at one of their many conferences saw a series of marks of the Spirit that they believed were present in their movements. These included :

  • New openness toward the healing power
    and the lordship of Jesus;
  • Renewal of spiritual life of the church in
    local congregations;
  • Spontaneity, openness, freedom and joy in
    praise and worship;
  • New interest in the Bible as God’s living
  • Deeper experience of the reality, holiness,
    and transcendence of God;
  • Deeper interest and new openness in regard
    to the essential doctrines of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his
    death and resurrection, confirmed in experience;
  • Renewal of the service of healing for the
  • Lay leadership;
  • New incentive for evangelization, missions
    and witness in the power of the Spirit.

I’ll be going over these in upcoming weeks.