The difference between megachurches and mega-parishes

SAN ANTONIO — Do you know how a “megachurch” is defined?

A Protestant church with more than 2,000 members.

Why only Protestant churches? Because Protestant churches — especially evangelical churches — are very different from one another. And megachurches, as a panel of experts are telling us just now, are very different from smaller or more traditional Protestant churches.

Scott Thumma, a leading megachurch expert at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, explained that megachurches have the professional staffs and resources to put their members to work and help them grow their faith. They see their own vast memberships as a mission field.

“Large churches have structures to move people — from a nominal Christian to a committed follower of Christ,” he said. “Smaller churches don’t have that discipleship program nearly as well defined.”

Most of the large congregations in the Lower Hudson Valley are Catholic parishes. But people don’t think of mega-parishes as a different breed because Catholic parishes, great and small, pretty much do things the same.

Catholic life centers around the Mass. There are more Masses in larger parishes. Most parishes have the same range of ministries.

But I wonder if the real big parishes in, say, northern Westchester are adopting any megachurch strategies simply to reach people, so individuals don’t get lost. I think I’ll ask them when I get the chance.

In the rest of the country, meanwhile…megachurches have really transformed Protestant life. They are cities unto themselves that are incredibly focused and organized, like soul-saving corporations.

In fact, the Rev. Ricky Hill, chief operations officer at Friendship-West Baptist Church of Dallas, just said this:

This is a business, y’all. We have the best boss in the world, but it’s still a business…We’re trying to address social services needs and social justice issues.

Hispanic Christians (Catholic and evangelical) struggle with immigration

SAN ANTONIO — We’ve heard a lot in recent years about Hispanic immigrants leaving the Catholic Church for the Pentecostal world.

There’s no doubt it’s going on. But leaders of both communities reminded religion journalists this morning that both communities are growing. And that they have much in common.

Hispanic Catholics and Hispanic evangelicals are generally moderate. Not on the left, not on the right. It’s always hard to generalize, of course, but both camps tend to be conservative on family issues and certain “values” issues, but liberal on social justice issues.

And both communities are struggling with the Great Immigration Debate. Catholic and evangelical churches that serve Hispanic immigrants — documented and undocumented — want to respect the law and the political process, but need to serve the people in their pews, spiritually and practically.

“The biggest humanitarian crisis, and greatest crisis facing Christians, is immigration,” said Father Virgilio Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at Notre Dame, a San Antonio native who is known as the father of Hispanic theology.

Richard Munoz, director of the Immigration Service and Aid Center, a Baptist agency, said that Hispanic churches find themselves in a political, social and religious bind.

“We say the Bible doesn’t contradict itself,” he said. “You can fulfill both mandates. You can be compassionate to the stranger and uphold the law.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals, talked about the growth of the Hispanic Pentecostal/evangelical community in the U.S. Its 15 million people, he said, represent the “browning of the evangelical church.”

He said that 68 percent of Hispanic evangelicals voted for Bush in 04. But the GOP’s stance on immigration, he said, will likely drive many Hispanic evangelicals to vote Democratic — if the Democratic Party can adopt a “definitive faith narrative.”

“Keep an eye on the Hispanic evangelical church,” he said. “You will hear a lot about it as the 2008 election nears. It could be the swing vote.”

Elizondo didn’t sound too concerned about losing Hispanics. There are plenty of immigrants for everybody, he said.

He’s more concerned about what all churches can do about helping immigrants, addressing the growing divorce rate, caring for the elderly, etc.

Elizondo said he’s gone beyond many of the traditional questions that have faced Hispanic immigrants, like whether kids should be told to focus on English.

“Get your children to learn a third language,” he said. “Why not English, Spanish and Chinese?”

In a haunted hotel, Rudy’s support a mystery

SAN ANTONIO — OK, it seems that no one can explain Rudy Giuliani’s appeal to evangelical Christians.

Here at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, we just heard from D. Michael Lindsay, a scholar at Rice University and author of the new “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.”

Lindsay said that Giuliani’s campaign is the “most religiously unmusical campaign” he has seen in recent years. Support for Rudy among evangelicals, he said, is “tepid.”

But Rudy leads the polls. Either he’ll slide when evangelicals and Republican Catholics start to pay attention — or we’ll have to rethink all the conclusions reached in 04 about “values voters.”

Lindsay also outlined some myths about evangelicals, among them:

–That they see themselves as a political force (they see themselves as a cultural movement).

— That theology drives their political agenda. Lindsay said: “Most evangelicals are like most Americans. They don’t know what they believe or why.”

— That they are all white suburbanites (when growing numbers are Hispanic or Asian).

— That “moral values” issues alone drive them. Evangelicals are becoming a force on international issues, he said.

— That they are all conservative. The truth, Lindsay said, is that they are all across the political board — but many have been turned off by the Democratic Party’s growing secular camp. Of course, Clinton, Obama and Edwards are trying to change this perception.

— That evangelicals are “poor, uneducated and easily led.” The truth, he said, is that evangelicals are increasingly wealthy and educated. And they know that they use the GOP and the GOP uses them.

At the moment, we are hearing from Guillermo Fuentes, head of San Antonio Paranormal Investigation. He’s on a panel called “Spooks, Spiritualists and things that go bump in our hotel.”

The hotel where we’re staying, the Menger, is supposed to be haunted.

We all need a break from the political talk.

Do we have proof of ghosts? Not yet, Fuentes just said:

We have not been able to capture the full manifestation of a ghost on video or in a photograph. We are only able to capture their manifestations in lights, in smells… I hope to one day prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the existence of ghosts and spirits.

Talking faith and politics, Hillary and Rudy

SAN ANTONIO — Many religious groups appear ready to support a Democrat for president — but they don’t like Hillary Clinton all that much. And they don’t see her as a religious person.

So says John Green, the guru of religious voting trends. In fact, he’s still talking as I write this.

The polls show that Roman Catholics (church-going and otherwise), Hispanic Protestants and church-going mainline Protestants are very divided about Hillary.

“There are groups that are entertaining a change, but they have serious reservations about Sen. Clinton herself,” he said. “One of the keys may be for her allies to change that perception.”

Green also talked about Rudy Giuliani’s ongoing appeal, which I’ll get to momentarily.

A little while ago, the religion writers gathered here got to hear from Burns Strider, Hillary’s chief adviser on faith issues. He’s an affable, funny guy with a real lazy Mississippi drawl. He’s an evangelical who gets the Bible Belt.

Strider knows he’s going uphill, even as he insists that Hillary is a deeply religious Christian and has been her whole life.

“You’re talking about a tough sell,” he said. “I’m not denying it. It’s a challenge. But we’re working on it.”

But Strider insists that Protestants are taking real interest in issues other than abortion and homosexuality, issues like Darfur, AIDS, human trafficking, religious freedom internationally.

“I feel it when I get home to Mississippi,” he said. “And if you feel it there, it’s happening, folks.”

“The realization that she is a person of faith is moving,” he said.

Green noted (about 30 seconds ago) that Hillary has entered a fierce struggle with Barack Obama for the black Protestant vote.

“I suspect it will really heat up as we get closer to the primaries,” he said.

On the Rudy front, Green showed poll results (on a big screen) that indicate that most religious groups like the former NYC mayor. Even black Protestants don’t dislike him that much.

Green asked the question so many are asking: “How is it that a mayor of New York City who is pro-choice and has had a lot of wives — it’s not a judgment, it’s a fact — how is it that he can be so popular?”

The polls show that most people, including evangelical Republicans, still don’t know that Rudy is pro-choice.

“As people become more informed on these topics, the intensity may shift and go the other way,” Green said.

We also heard from Tamara Scott, a prominent social conservative and Republican activist in Iowa. She said that “values voters” don’t love the top GOP candidates, but do like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“The words you hear them say,” Scott said, referring to the candidates, “should fall in line with biblical Scripture.”

Lunch with John 3:16

SAN ANTONIO — Are you familiar with the work of Max Lucado?

If not, you’re probably from New York.

Today’s the first day of the annual Religion Newswriters Association convention — I’m across the street from the Alamo — and Lucado was the speaker during lunch.

He’s sold more than 50 million books and has been called “America’s pastor” by Christianity Today.

Lucado, who actually pastors a San Antonio church, is an incredibly influential figure in the evangelical world. Just about any evangelical church in the heartland (or even in New York) is bound to have piles of his books for sale.

Today he was talking about his new one: “3:16: The numbers of Hope.” The book is about John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

As he told us:

I don’t know if there’s any verse in the Bible more often quoted or more dearly loved.

I often say, if you don’t know anything about the Bible, start with John 3:16. If you know everything about the Bible, come back to John 3:16.

That is an evangelical pastor talking.

Later today, we get to hear from John Green, probably the foremost authority on why people of different faiths vote the way they do. He’ll be one of the most quoted people in America for the next year.

Off to San Anton

I’m leaving in a few hours for San Antonio, where I’ll attend the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association.

It may not sound like a party, but RNA always puts on a thought-provoking and inspiring “show.”:

I’ll start blogging from Texas tomorrow…

Episcopal bishops hold firm

Now does the Episcopal Church break up?

Or the Anglican Communion?

Or both?

The “results”: of the closely watched House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans were, it seems to me, pretty predictable. Which is not to say that the bishops didn’t hash out the “gay question” with all their might and do their best to come up with a statement that the Anglican Communion can live with.

But it was pretty clear from the start that the Episcopal bishops would not offer the Anglican world a definitive, black-and-white guarantee that they would not name gay bishops in the future. And they were not about to demand that Episcopal priests not bless gay couples.

Instead, they reiterated their previous positions: that bishops would be asked to “exercise restraint” when choosing bishops the Anglican world might oppose; and that they would not authorize a rite for same-sex blessings.

Of course, these were the very positions that Anglican bishops were not satisfied with.

So now it appears that Episcopal dioceses will break off one by one, beginning what could be a long, slow change to Episcopal life in the U.S. The “conservative contingent”: may be fed up.

But the liberal and gay-friendly Diocese of New York, as I’ve said before, will be largely unaffected. Life goes on…

Americans still baffled by Islam

Six years after 9/11, 58% of Americans still don’t know much about Islam.

That’s among the interesting findings from a new national religion poll by the “Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.”:

43% of Americans say they have a favorable opinion of Muslims; 35% unfavorable (in 2004, it was 48% to 32%).

It appears that the choice was either “favorable” or “unfavorable,” a pretty blunt pair of options. What if you have a generally favorable view of Islam as it’s practiced by your American neighbor, but a less favorable impression of how the faith is practiced in other parts of the world? What is your answer?

Also, 45% say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence. 39% disagree.

Not surprisingly, the main influence on how people feel about Muslims is the media (32%). Then comes personal experience (18%) and education (18%).

The poll also deals extensively with American views of Mormons. Only 53% view Mormons favorably, with 27% choosing the unfavorable option.

Similar results: 52% say that Mormonism is a Christian religion; 31% say it’s not.

And on the pope…

73% of Americans who are familiar with Benedict XVI have a favorable view of him. But only 68 percent had an opinion on the pontiff (up from 55% in 2005).

Here’s some analysis from Pew:

A plurality of Americans (46%) who have heard at least a little about Pope Benedict say he is doing only a fair or poor job of promoting good relations with other religions; 38% say the pope is doing an excellent or good job. Though Catholics give the pope higher marks for building interfaith relations (54%), even many among this group (40%) say he is doing only a fair job or a poor job in this regard.

There are substantial political differences in views on this issue, as in overall opinions about Pope Benedict. Conservative Republicans are the only political group in which a plurality believes the pope is doing an excellent or good job in promoting positive relations with other religions. Moderate and liberal Republicans are evenly divided over the pope’s performance in this area, while roughly half of independents (51%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (47%), and 61% of liberal Democrats, say he is doing only a fair or poor job in dealing with other religions.

Football-crazy nuns and other blog items

Did you see the nun, in full habit, cheering on the Saints last night on Monday Night Football? She must be tired — and bumming — this morning.

As soon as I saw her, I thought that I would mention the cheering nun on my blog. I’m always looking for material: big and small, important and goofy, hyper-local or far far away.

I started this blog a year ago today.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I’m still not really sure.

I guess I try to flag interesting and important items in the world of relig, items that I think will be of interest to a New York audience.

It’s not an inclusive list by any stretch. But it’s the best of what I hear and read and see.

It took me a while to become comfortable writing in the first person. But now I kind of like it. Doing the blog is very rewarding, overall, but time-consuming for a full-time reporter.

Anyway, more and more people I run into on the beat tell me that they read the blog. I hope it continues.

For some reason, though, I don’t get many comments posted. My impression is that the folks who read Blogging Religiously — some of whom email me directly — are not the sort of folks who get combative with strangers.

But feel free to write.

On to year 2. I wish I had a picture of that nun!

From Kennedy Catholic HS in Somers to the cathedral of Baltimore

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who will be installed Monday as the 15th archbishop of Baltimore, was at “Kennedy Catholic H.S.”: in Somers on Saturday for his 50th class reunion.

He celebrated Mass for seven deceased members of his class, the Class of ’57. Then he toured the school with 21 classmates and their spouses. And he attended the reunion hosted by the Rev. Stephen P. Norton, president of Kennedy Catholic.

I’m told that the future cardinal made a significant pledge to the school and challenged his classmates to do the same. O’Brien actually graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Katonah, which was replaced by the larger Kennedy Catholic.

Below are pictures of O’Brien mingling with classmates and their spouses and of him celebrating Mass (Thanks to Alex Malecki at Kennedy Catholic for getting them to me. Vice President for Advancement Anthony Casella took the pix.).

A lot of New Yorkers will be leaving this weekend for Monday’s 2 p.m. Mass of Installation at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.