Catholic Church still growing; mainlines still not

I’m back from furlough — just in time to catch the headlines from the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

The annual yearbook, published by the National Council of Churches, is best known for compiling membership figures for the 200 or so major denominations in North America.

The new, 79th edition includes numbers that were collected by the denominations in 2009 and reported to the yearbook in 2010, so they’re a bit behind.

The Roman Catholic Church reported 68.5 million members, which translates into growth of .57 percent. You have to figure that much of that can be attributed to immigration. The church’s continued growth seems to belie recent findings that 10 percent of Americans are lapsed Catholics.

Other large groups boasting higher numbers include: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, up 1.42 percent to 6,058,907 members; the Assemblies of God, up .52 percent to 2,914,669 members; Jehovah’s Witnesses, up 4.37 percent to 1,162,686 members; and Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), up .38 percent to 1,076,254 members.

Then you have the usual paragraph about sliding membership in the mainline Protestant world: “Mainline churches reporting declines in membership are United Church of Christ, down 2.83 percent to 1,080,199 members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent to 2,770,730 members; the Episcopal Church, down 2.48 percent to 2,006,343 members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. down 1.96 percent to 4,542,868 members; the American Baptist Churches USA, down 1.55 percent to 1,310,505; the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), down 1.08 percent to 2,312,111 members; and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent to 7,774,931 members.”

The yearbook people do not always get cooperation from denominations. In fact, 10 of 25 largest did not report figures.

You have to wonder why? Why not report figures for a comprehensive yearbook of American church life?

Several of the non-reporting bodies are traditional African-American denominations — the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Baptist Convention of America, the AME Church, the AME Zion Church. These churches,  from my experience, pay little attention to the outside world, especially requests for specific information from people like me or, apparently, the National Council of Churches.

The yearbook also says that 64 groups reported income of $36 billion, a year-to-year drop of $26 million.

Here’s the yearbook’s list of the top 25 denominations by size:

1. The Catholic Church, 68,503,456 members, up .57 percent.

2. Southern Baptist Convention,16,160,088 members, down.42 percent.

3. The United Methodist Church, 7,774,931 members, down1.01 percent.

4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6,058,907 members, up 1.42 percent.

5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no membership updates reported.

6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc, 5,000,000  members, no membership updates reported.

7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,542,868 members, down1.96 percent.

8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

9. Assemblies of God, 2,914,669 members, up .52 percent.

10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2,770,730 members, down 2.61 percent.

11. African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

11. National  Missionary Baptist Convention of America,  2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

13. The Lutheran Church– Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,312,111 members, down 1.08 percent.

14. The Episcopal Church, 2,006,343 members, down 2.48 percent.

15. Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no membership updates reported.

16. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

17. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

18. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, members, no membership updates reported.

19. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., 1,310,505  members, down 1.55 percent.

20. Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1,162,686 members, up 4.37 percent.

21. United Church of Christ, 1,080,199 members, down 2.83 percent.

22. Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), 1,076,254 members, up .38 percent.

23. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ , 1,071,616 members, no membership updates reported.

24. Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 1,043,606 members, up 4.31 percent.

25. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. 1,010,000 members, down 59.60 percent (due in part to a new methodology of counting members).

ADD: A reader asks where the yearbook gets the data from. If I didn’t make that clear, my apologizes. The numbers are provided by the denominations themselves, so, yes, there is room for fudging, wishful thinking and other forms of deception.

In fact…my friend Peter Smith of the Courier-Journal in Louisville noticed that three denominations offered significantly LOWER membership figures than in the past. Apparently, their previous figures were wildly inaccurate.

The Orthodox Church in America, which claimed 1 million members in 2004, is now reporting 131,000. That’s an 88 percent drop.

A church official emailed to Peter that the denomination “has misreported membership in the past based on a different model.”

Difficult days for Conservative Judaism

Much has been said and written in recent years about the challenges facing the “centrist” Jewish world of Conservative Judaism.

Membership is falling. There’s no sense of identity. It’s hard to be moderate or centrist in a culture dominated by “conservative” and “liberal” voices.

Conservative Judaism was once simply Judaism for a lot of second-generation types — very traditional, yet at ease with being American.

But the Jewish community has been spreading out (fracturing?). The Orthodox world is growing, bringing in people who once might have been happy belonging to a Conservative shul. The Reform world has pull for not only liberal Jews, but those who may have dropped observance and the large numbers of interfaith families. Then you have all those Jews who have slipped away or are “post-denominational,” meaning that they’re not interested in belonging to anything.

To make matters worse, many Conservative rabbis have been pretty critical of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the “umbrella” group for Conservative congregations.

Now the USCJ is looking to reinvent itself, both for self-preservation and to help lead a renewal of Conservative Judaism.

A draft letter from a planning commission puts it like this: “…we, the Commission, feel that Conservative Judaism in North America is at a crossroads and serious effort needs to be focused on strengthening and transforming the synagogue, the primary institution of our communal Jewish life.”

At a crossroads…

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive VP of the USCJ, told the Jewish Week: “The motivation of North American Jews for synagogue affiliation has changed and we need to create an organization that operates as an engagement model.”

I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound promising.

Wernick is holding meetings around the country to discuss the state of things and the Big Plans. He’ll be at Temple Israel Center of White Plains on Feb. 22.

Sex-abuse headlines just keep coming for the Catholic Church

During the past week alone:

1. A grand jury simply hammered the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a new report, saying that “not much has changed” in the way officials handle allegations of abuse. An indictment charged three priests and a school teacher with abusing minors during the 1990s and accused a former high-ranking official of the archdiocese with looking the other way. The defenders were arraigned Friday and granted bail.

2. A prominent lawyer for victims of abuse suggested that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee moved tens of millions of dollars off its books to shield the money from victims’ lawsuits. The lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson, has been one of the church’s harshest critics. Archbishop Dolan, who was running the show in Milwaukee during the time period in question, said Sunday that the charge was “ludicrous.” Dolan could be deposed.

3. The NYT Magazine on Sunday ran a sweeping overview of the ongoing crisis in Ireland, where the church is trying to recover some of its former influence and authority. The article, by former Putnam County resident Russell Shorto, notes that regular Mass attendance in Ireland fell by 50 percent between 1974 and 2008.  The abbot of a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick told Shorto:

“Ireland is a prime example of what the church is facing, because they made this island into a concentration camp where they could control everything. And the control was really all about sex. They told you if you masturbated, it meant you were impure and had allowed the devil to work on you. Generations of people were crucified with guilt complexes. Now the game is up.”

No matter what your perspective, you have to wonder where it will end. Will the Roman Catholic Church recover? What would recovery look like?

It so happens that a neighbor of mine was telling me the other day that she has such deep resentment toward her church that she finds herself rooting against the church. She still goes to Mass.

A book aimed at people with Jewish surnames

I’ve had five people over the past couple of weeks ask me about a book they received in the mail.

The book is called “They Thought for Themselves.” The sub-head is “Ten Amazing Jews.”

I got a copy, curious about who was sending it out and why. On the cover it says “Over a million copies in print”

It turns out that the book is about “Messianic Jews,” Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah but seek to maintain their Jewish identity. It’s published by a guy named Sid Roth.

On his website, he has this note to “friends:” “We have found that many Jewish people have never examined the evidence of how to recognize the Messiah. Sending the book, They Thought for Themselves, is our way of presenting the opportunity to know the Messiah. We realize that not everyone will share our perspective. We acquire the names from list brokers and supporters and we will not share your address.”

So there is the answer to the question. I guess Roth somehow sends the book to people with Jewish-sounding names.

That’s a lot of printing costs, not to mention postage.

I wonder how many converts he’s helped convert…

Enjoy the next 3 months (Judgment Day may be coming)

You may have heard that some folks out there believe the world will end in 2012.

It has something to do with the Mayan Long Count calendar ending. There are websites selling “2012: The End” T-shirts and websites offering survival tips.

It turns out, however, that the world may end even sooner.

A veteran Christian “”Bible scholar” named Harold Camping has pegged the return of Jesus — Judgment Day — as May 21, 2011.

That’s soon. There might still be clumps of ice on the side of road. The Yanks and Mets might still be in contention.

Those who aren’t raptured away will see the end of the world on Oct. 21.

His website says this: “This web site serves as an introduction and portal to four faithful ministries which are teaching that WE CAN KNOW from the Bible alone that the date of the rapture of believers will take place on May 21, 2011 and that God will destroy this world on October 21, 2011.”

Camping’s followers have placed some billboards here and there, such as the one in the picture, taken by a friend of a friend who was on an Amtrak train traveling from Rhode Island to NY.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently talked with Camping, who mocked the 2012 predictions as a “fairy tale.” As far as his own prediction, Camping has apparently found a mathematical system to scope out prophecies hidden in the Bible.

Camping is a mighty interesting fellow.

I happen to subscribe to Direct TV for the pro football package. I get a channel that shows something called “Open Forum with Harold Camping” almost around the clock, interspersed with two or three other Christian shows produced by Camping.

On “Open Forum,” Camping sits in an old easy chair, holding a weathered Bible in his lap, reading and analyzing verses or taking calls from viewers. It is as no-frills as a TV set could be. His ties look like they are from 1973.

He says that his media company’s work has been translated into 48 languages.

“How can that happen without God’s mercy?” he asks.

Camping does have a significant red mark on his record, however. He previously predicted that Judgment Day would be Sept. 6, 1994. Dozens of his followers gathered at his offices in Oakland, Cal., to await Christ’s return.

Camping chalked it up to a mathematical error.

Has God made the Super Bowl coverage today?

Last year on the morning after the Super Bowl, I blogged about all the media attention that was being given to the faith of the winning Saints.

Reggie Bush was widely quoted saying that God had brought notorious partier Jeremy Shockey to the Saints.

At the same time, the faith of the losing Colts was ignored — even though Head Coach Jim Caldwell was a devout Christian.

My point was that…to the victors goes the faith (at least in the media coverage).

So far today, I haven’t seen many references to the faith of the Packers — even though the Baptist Press wrote during the week about QB Aaron Rodgers being a serious Christian and many of the Packers attending Bible Study on a regular basis.

The only faith-filled quote I’ve seen is from receiver Greg Jennings: “To God be the glory. We’ve been a team that has overcome adversity all year, and now our head captain goes down. “(It was) emotional in the locker room. Our No. 1 receiver goes down. More emotions are flying in the locker room, but we find a way to bottle it up and exert it all out here on the field. To God be the glory.”

Maybe media people were more tuned into religious storylines last year because of all the spiritual vibes in New Orleans.

I’ll keep looking for religion-themed stories on the winners AND the losers.

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Get ready to hear a lot about Muslim ‘radicalization’

You may have heard that Long Island’s always-outspoken Congressman Peter King plans to soon hold hearings on Muslim “radicalization” in the U.S.

King became the new chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security after Republicans took control of the House on Jan. 1.

His plan to hold hearings is being widely denounced — although is supported by House Speaker John Boehner. King himself  is hyping all the media attention under the “King in the News” section of his website.

The hearings will receive enormous attention, no doubt.

It’s worth pointing out that a sociology prof at the University of North Carolina has just released a study called Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting.

Charles Kurzman writes that since 9/11, 161 Muslim Americans have been “terrorism suspects or perpetrators.”

The number of suspects dropped from 47 in 2009 to 20 in 2010 (with five carrying out plots), he writes.

Kurzman concludes that the media attention given to Muslim suspects creates “the impression — perhaps unintentionally — that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.”

He is identified as a specialist on Islamic movements whose new book is “The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.”

Here is an article he co-wrote for Foreign Policy called “The Islamists Are Not Coming.”

Promoting a private school (that happens to be Catholic)

I wish I had a weather-related post, since that’s all that anyone around here is talking about.

I had to chop away at the ice on my stairs this morning with a garden hoe. It was enough to make me miss shoveling snow.

But I don’t have any spiritual news related to the “wintry mix,” an expression I’ve quickly come to dislike.

So I’ll share a note that reader sent me.

The note was wrapped inside a flyer that Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains has sent out promoting their school.

The flyer notes many of Stepinac’s strengths: 100% college acceptance; SAT scores well above national average; Advanced Placement courses; 11:1 student/teacher ratio; wireless campus; state-of-the-art science labs; championship basketball and football teams; award-winning drama club; new sports complex with artificial turf coming 2011; and others.

But the flyer doesn’t promote or even mention anything about the school’s Catholic tradition or Catholic values.

The fact that Stepinac IS a Catholic school is obvious and the school is not trying to cover it up. The school is, after all, Archbishop Stepinac H.S. and people are asked to contact Sr. Margaret Morrissey for more information.

But, the reader notes, the flyer is not trying to sell Stepinac as a Catholic school but as a strong academic school that could be an alternative for anyone with the money (“only $7,700”).

The flyer states: “For more than 60 years, Archbishop Stepinac High School has shaped the lives of successful men by offering them a highly competitive academic program in a supportive, disciplined atmosphere. The faculty and staff are committed to academic excellence that is designed to prepare students for college and leadership roles. In addition to instilling values in their students, Stepinac offers an outstanding foundation for academic achievement.”

Disciplined atmosphere? Instilling values?

You kind of know what they mean.

“Can Catholic schools make it if they don’t promote that they’re Catholic,” the reader asks.

The Stepinac WEBSITE, by the way, promotes “Christian values and traditions.”