20% of Americans are on the Threshold of Religion

New research on American religion

An important trend in American religion has been the rise of the religious nones. A religious none is someone who has no religious affiliation. They are given this name because when researchers survey them as to which religious faith they affiliate with, they check the box “none.”

Current estimates identify about 20% of Americans as religious nones, with the remaining 80% having some religious affiliation.

But this may be the wrong way to think about religious affiliation. This binary portrait—some or none—arises from cross-sectional surveys. These are surveys that are administered only one time. They give a snapshot of people’s religious affiliation, but they cannot measure how individuals’ affiliation changes over time.

As a result, cross-sectional surveys overlook the possibility that some people fluctuate in and out of religious affiliation. That is, they sometimes say that they have a religious affiliation and sometimes say that they do not. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam identified this possibility and termed it being “liminal,” from the Latin word limin which means threshold.

Religious liminals fluctuate between religious affiliation and no affiliation. I’m a liminal myself. Not with religion, though, but with professional basketball fandom. On some days, I say that I don’t really have a favorite team. On other days, however, I say that I’m a Celtics fan. Growing up, my dad was an avid Celtics fan, and some of it rubbed off on me. Similarly, religious liminals sometimes identify with religion and sometimes do not.

Just how many Americans are religious liminals? Michael Hout just published a paper analyzing this question with longitudinal data from the General …

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‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Gets Cosmic Conflict Disturbingly Right

David Lynch’s cult-classic revival is exactly as imaginative—and as uncomfortable—as it always needed to be.

“Should we watch Twin Peaks: The Return?”

Now that all 18 episodes of David Lynch’s long-awaited television series are available for binge-viewing on Showtime, I’m fumbling with insufficient answers to this question. As I formulate replies, I feel myself fracture into three distinct personalities:

(1) The Twin Peaks fanboy who spent a quarter of a century dreaming of new episodes.

(2) The film student who finds Lynch’s movies and television difficult to parse.

(3) The Christian whose conscience is troubled, because the show’s imaginative brilliance is tainted by graphic scenes of violence—particularly sexual violence.

There’s no easy answer.

David Lynch doesn’t mean for this to be a comfortable ride. Twin Peaks: The Return is, in fact, about a man split into three personas—possibly more. While the original 1990–91 series began by whispering “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and then asked “Can law enforcement stop an evil spirit?” this sequel series asks “Can multiple manifestations of an FBI agent be reconciled into one human being, healed and whole?”

This theme won’t surprise Lynch’s fans. In his book of reflections on creativity, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch expresses his desire to see human beings overcome divided minds and pursue lives of integrity. (He prefers the word “unity.”)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who need it, here’s a quick review of what preceded The Return.

The Story So Far

It begins: In the first episode of the original Twin Peaks, a fisherman discovers a popular high school girl dead on the riverbank behind his Eastern Washington home. The resulting investigation leads …

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No Child Left Behind Comes to Awana

The children’s ministry rethinks the competition at its core.

One of the most important symbols in modern Christianity is a circle inside a square, its sides marked red, blue, green, and yellow, divided by diagonal lines. For some Christians, it is a literal mark of orthodoxy, a subtle indicator that a church teaches Scripture authoritatively and rigorously (and usually from a particular Reformed, premillennial, cessationist perspective).

The square has changed little from its origins in the 1940s at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Church youth leader Art Rorheim had been having trouble with traditional two-team games as his youth group grew; his four-team court was designed to let 100 play with little downtime. Now more than 10,000 churches in the United States use it as they host Awana programs.

Some of Rorheim’s early games “were unconventional and even illegal,” according to Awana: God’s Miracle, Awana’s official history book. Boys ran out of the building and around the block, then fought in the halls to slow each other down. “That game was short-lived when the church board heard about it,” God’s Miracle notes. Others continue today, largely unchanged since some clubbers’ grandparents’ day. Baton relay races. Three-legged-races. Balloon volleyball. Four-way-tug-of-war. Throwing bean bags to knock over plastic bowling pins.

As Awana leaders have seen it, the game circle is why kids showed up week after week, year after year, decade after decade. “Game Time surely is the drawing card to the gospel presented in Council Time!” in the words of God’s Miracle (emphasis in the original). And both fans and critics of Awana stress that its competitive streak doesn’t …

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Bible Study Fellowship Rewrites the Rulebook

From denim to downloads, BSF is loosening up and adapting for millennials.

Most Monday evenings for the past two years, Naomi Ruth Jackson has ridden her 22-speed bike uphill or caught a bus after work to Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. She meets there with around 450 women for a Bible Study Fellowship class. The 30-year-old is not the lay-focused ministry’s typical participant, having majored in Bible and theology in college. Her own church offers only unstructured Bible study, and her job as a medical records clerk grants her few occasions to re-engage her skills in scriptural interpretation.

The class lasts two hours. It starts with a time of worship at 6:40 p.m., rolls into discussion and fellowship in small breakout groups, and ends with a 40-minute lecture. But rather than deterrents, the breadth and commitment to the 30-week program are draws for Jackson.

“I think about Scripture a lot, but there isn’t always an opportunity to have an audience or be around people who want to discuss that,” she said. “So for me, personally, it meets that need.”

After singing some hymns at a class on the Gospel of John earlier this year, Jackson and about 10 other women filtered into the church’s “cry room” and formed a cozy circle on rocking chairs and a stray pew. A group leader, in her mid-40s, encouraged everyone to share a few words based on questions relating to each chapter of the book.

Jackson had a lot on her mind. She was worried about her younger sister, who had been in a car accident.

“I was frustrated and angry and praying for her,” she said. “I thought to myself, I need to be an advocate for my sister,” as the group studied John 14 about the Holy Spirit’s role as advocate. “And just as that …

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Gleanings: October 2017

Important developments in the church and the world (as they appeared in our October issue).

Christian ministry fights ‘hate group’ label

After D. James Kennedy Ministries was cited in local media reports as the No. 1 “hate group” in Florida, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian broadcaster became the first ministry to sue the label’s instigator, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), for defamation. The SPLC lists almost 20 Christian organizations—including Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, and the Family Research Council—on its hate map for their “anti-LGBT” stance. The Coral Ridge ministry said the hate group label was not only false but was intended to hurt its reputation and fundraising efforts. The SPLC’s hate map has been covered by CNN, noted by charity researcher GuideStar on ministries’ profile pages, and used by AmazonSmile to block donations to listed groups.

Joel Hunter is done pastoring churches

After more than three decades as senior pastor of the 20,000-member Northland Church in the Orlando area, Joel Hunter announced he was stepping down in order to minister to the “unincluded in the Kingdom.” The 69-year-old, who served as an evangelical adviser to President Barack Obama and prayed at his inauguration, said his “call to the pastoral role in a church is fulfilled.” But Hunter isn’t finished with ministry. “My experience, relationships, and apostolic gifting are at their highest potential,” he told his congregation, “and I will spend them in the most productive way possible in this final season of my journey.” That will include teaching a weekly Bible study where community members can ask questions, helping to address homelessness, and forming networks to “distribut[e] the …

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Shalom, Amigos: The Changing Faces of Christian Zionism

How Hispanic evangelicals hope to become Israel’s best friends.

When Tony Suarez lost his wife to cancer last year, the Passover song he learned at his first Seder meal only months before became his anthem.

Just as the Jewish people sing dayenu—“it would have been enough”—about God saving them from the plagues and leading them out of Israel, the Virginia pastor proclaimed that God’s faithfulness was enough, even without the miracle he had prayed for.

“That song meant everything,” said Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). “And we wouldn’t have known it if we hadn’t been in a synagogue.”

Suarez is helping to lead a movement among Latino evangelicals that aspires to change the face of Christian Zionism in America.

For the past few years, the NHCLC’s Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition (HILC) has brought Latino churches—some with blue-and-white Israeli flags in their sanctuaries and Hebrew songs in their worship sets—together with pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

The coalition has organized seminars, trips to the Holy Land, and sit-downs with Israeli politicians in order to make Hispanics “the most pro-Israel, pro-Jewish demographic.” With arms extended and flags waving, its members pray with their congregations for the peace of Jerusalem and the well-being of Israel.

In addition to events in places like New York, Florida, and Washington, DC, HILC leaders have also advocated across Latin America against anti-Semitism and for the Jewish state. For example, Orlando pastor Carlos Ortiz has joined advocates for Israel in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Nicaragua reestablished a diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state earlier this year after a seven-year …

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Our October Issue: Rooting for Bible Ministries

Confessions of a Bible study dropout.

Apologies if this disappoints, but I was never a Bible genius. Don’t misunderstand: My love for Scripture runs deep. But I’ve always had to work harder than others to write its commandments on my heart, as if everyone else had nice pens and mine was the flimsy kind with dried ink that churches keep giving away because they ordered too many.

I certainly tried. Most recently and probably most successfully, I was a Bible Study Fellowship devotee. My wife and I earnestly sought out classes in various cities where we’ve lived. And I was raised in an inner-city Awana program that embodied the challenges highlighted in this month’s cover story, where volunteers faithfully struggled each week to balance the needs of kids who devoured memory verses like gummy bears with those of kids who could barely read.

But the taproot of my Bible insecurities rises from my short stint in the most competitive of ministries: Bible quizzing. For the uninitiated, youth “quizzing” teams compete in churches and schools across the country in Jeopardy-like matchups, springing from trigger-rigged chairs for the chance to recite verses or answer questions about a given chapter. Teams typically prepare by memorizing entire books verbatim.

I was no quizzing star. My turn in the ring was always a sweat-soaked bout of quiet prayer for quick mercy. I never uncovered the secret for motivating myself to large-scale Scripture memorization. Which is why I’m so grateful for tiny Bibles and phone apps that have leveled the playing field for the recollection-challenged like me.

Despite my scarring, I’m a big fan of all these Bible ministries. And I am rooting for them more than ever as they adapt their approaches to the …

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Benny Hinn Is My Uncle, but Prosperity Preaching Isn’t for Me

As part of the family empire, I lived a life of luxury. Then doubts began to surface.

Almost 15 years ago, on a shoreline outside of Athens, Greece, I stood confident in my relationship with the Lord and my ministry trajectory. I was traveling the world on a private Gulfstream jet doing “gospel” ministry and enjoying every luxury money could buy. After a comfortable flight and my favorite meal (lasagna) made by our personal chef, we prepared for a ministry trip by resting at The Grand Resort: Lagonissi. Boasting my very own ocean-view villa, complete with private pool and over 2,000 square feet of living space, I perched on the rocks above the water’s edge and rejoiced in the life I was living. After all, I was serving Jesus Christ and living the abundant life he promised.

Little did I know that this coastline was part of the Aegean Sea—the same body of water the apostle Paul sailed while spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. There was just one problem: We weren’t preaching the same gospel as Paul.

Lavish Lifestyle

Growing up in the Hinn family empire was like belonging to some hybrid of the royal family and the mafia. Our lifestyle was lavish, our loyalty was enforced, and our version of the gospel was big business. Though Jesus Christ was still a part of our gospel, he was more of a magic genie than the King of Kings. Rubbing him the right way—by giving money and having enough faith—would unlock your spiritual inheritance. God’s goal was not his glory but our gain. His grace was not to set us free from sin but to make us rich. The abundant life he offered wasn’t eternal, it was now. We lived the prosperity gospel.

My father pastored a small church in Vancouver, British Columbia. During my teenage years, he would travel nearly twice a month with my uncle, …

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The Mainliner Who Made Me More Evangelical

How Frederick Buechner changed the course of Russell Moore’s life.

Years ago, I found myself sitting at the dinner table of one of my literary heroes, Wendell Berry, on his farm in Henry County, Kentucky.

At the end of the evening, Berry made it clear it was time for me to go by saying something along the lines of, “Well, it’s been good to have you.” I couldn’t leave, though, without telling the agrarian novelist and poet how much his writing had meant to me—while attempting to sound like a Christian academic rather than a giddy fanboy. His response was less a thank-you than a benediction.

“Isn’t it something, how we get what we need at just the right time?” he said. “The right book comes along at just the right time. The right friend comes along at just the right time. The right conversation comes along at just the right time. It’s grace.”

His words left me bursting with gratitude, but not only—or even primarily—for Berry. As I left his farm, I couldn’t help thinking of two authors who came along right when I needed them: C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner.

Lewis won’t come as a surprise to most of my fellow conservative evangelicals (even though we occasionally disagree with some of his theological positions). Many of us have the same story—of walking through the old man’s wardrobe into mere Christianity and an intellectually defensible Christian theism. But Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is a little harder for some in my tribe to get. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like one of us. He came to embrace his Christian calling not at a Billy Graham crusade, but in the Sunday services of New York modernist George Buttrick. Buechner studied for ministry at Union Theological Seminary, haunt …

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I Never Became Straight. Perhaps That Was Never God’s Goal.

Why I embraced the Bible’s sexual ethic before I understood it.

This is not a story of being gay and becoming straight.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to the beginning. My parents met at a gay nightclub in San Francisco. My mother just wanted a safe place to dance. My father was the security guard. He abandoned my mother and me after abusing both of us physically. I didn’t even know he existed until I was 10, by which time my mother had remarried.

Growing up, I had no bedtime I can remember. I was allowed to watch horror movies at a young age. When it came to sex, nothing was hidden. There were jokes and stories and, when I was 10, I helped my mother clip images from an adult magazine for a bachelorette party.

At 14, I met my first boyfriend. We laughed at each other’s jokes, watched similar shows, and got along easily. But before long he and I broke up, as teenagers do.

A year later, I met my first girlfriend in an AP European history class. She was a senior, beautiful and popular. Since I excelled in the class, she asked me to come over and help her study. When we met at her house, something was different. Conversation flowed easily, rapidly, unexpectedly. I was struck by her beauty. The attraction felt like what other girls described feeling for a boy.

Over the next week, I began wondering, “Is it okay to feel this way about a girl?” I was vaguely familiar with the notion that church folk condemned such things, but as I tried puzzling out why, I came up empty. Little could I imagine ever understanding the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, let alone submitting to it.

The First Kiss

I set myself a goal: Before this girl went to college, she would kiss me. I lied about my sexual history, placed myself strategically in her path, and …

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