Tuesday, November 20, 2007

God, guns and signs

A Bible scholar she ain't:



Here is what Malachi 1:3 says in its entirety: "but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals."

Sorry, I don't get the connection.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chicken, egg, religion, family

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution has a fascinating essay about the relationship between family size and religion, "How the West Really Lost God." She explains the conventional wisdom of the anti-religious class , that large families result from religious belief and, not quite so explicitly, that the diminution of religion has resulted in the shrinking of the family - especially in Europe, where the birth rate has plummeted in just the last generation or two.

But Mary stands this thesis on its head and posits that the demographic data of Europe and America show just the opposite: that religion is inculcated by large families, and that the decline of religion in Europe generally and in certain American demographic classes has followed rather than preceded shrinking family size.

Southern Baptists are worried about their birth rates, as are other denominations:

It is time for us, as Southern Baptists, to recognize that our success can kill us. As a denomination that once was derided as "redneck" and backward, we're now invited to the Rotary Club meetings. We're being elected to Congress. We're not in the trailer parks anymore. Our young men are successful, suburban, and careerist, and our young women are too. And we think that's a sign of health. Meanwhile our baptisms go down, and our birthrates do too. It turns out keeping up with the Episcopalians can have a downside.

John Ballard has some commentary on Eberstadt.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is Methodism's decline inevitable?

I've just returned from three days of the Bishop's Convocation of the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences of the United Methodist Church. The theme of the convocation was "Restoring Methodism."

I'll not address the content of the convocation in this post except to note that the presenters, Professors James and Molly Scott, offered excellent ideas and processes for a potential restoration, if one is to be done. Their book and CD can be found here.

However, despite my enthusiasm for their ideas, I am pessimistic that anything can be done to reverse the decades-long downward trend in the number of people belonging to the UMC in the United States. (The UMC is a worldwide denomination and is growing outside the US.) In 1968 there were almost 13 million UMs; now there are about 8 million. Of these, we were told, the average age is 60. They didn't say what the median age is, but I expect it's higher. However, for this post I'll assume that the median age and the average age are about the same. The median age for all Americans is 36.4 years (Census tables here).

What the convocation ignored was what the graying of the denomination portends. Once the mention was made of UMs' ages, the subject was dropped and we moved on to discussing how to fix the machinery of the denomination as a whole.

Most demographers say that Europe is in a demographic death spiral, that is, the birth rate has fallen so low that there literally is not enough time left for the declining populations to recover and begin to grow in number. I could not help but ponder whether United Methodism is in the same fix. The thrust of the convocation was that we UMs can reverse the decline if we return to Wesleyan basics. Now, I'm keen to return to Wesleyan basics and think we should do that anyway, but the idea that we can (much less will) evangelize faster than the Grim Reaper reduces our numbers is a proposition that I find highly dubious.

Consider some actuarial facts. If indeed the median age is about the same as the average age, 60, that means that of the 8 million UMs living today, one-fourth, or 2 million, will be dead within 20 years, and another million dead about eight years later. So in less than 30 years, we will lose from death alone three-eighths of our present membership, leaving us at 5 million.

That decline does not include the hemorrhage of our youth who, when graduating from high school, graduate from the church as well (an issue affecting all denominations). I don't have the
demographic breakdown for that age group as a percentage of the UM total, but the church admits that, relative to the general population, people under 35 are underrepresented.

So the decline due to death of our numbers will be amplified by dropouts, mostly, though not exclusively the under-35 cohort.

There is only a small chance, IMO, that the number of people electing to leaved the denomination can be matched by those joining. But the idea that new members can offset losses from both dropouts and death is simply not supportable. If we could do that (or were willing to do it), we would already be doing it. And the losses from death in the coming years will only accelerate.

It goes without saying that with an average age of 60, United Methodists are generally no longer bearing children. Of course there are families in our churches, but there is a very large number of UM churches that have no children. The fertility rate among European-descended, American women is lower than the 2.1 replacement rate. The overall American fertility rate of 2.08 is that high only because non-white women are having more than two children each (on average, of course).

This national trend is reflected in the UMC, so I think I stand on safe ground in saying that, on average, UM adults of childbearing age are not having enough children to replace themselves when they die, much less replace themselves and one or more older members. But no one I know of in the Methodist church's hierarchy or think tanks is addressing this part of the issue.

We might also consider that the median age of UM elders (who serve as senior pastors of churches) is 52, which is my own age. The average age is almost 51. Of the 17,000-plus elders in the denomination, only about 840 are 35 or younger. As a rule, older clergy will not attract younger members, especially families.

Furthermore, with a mandatory retirement age of 72, half of all elders will retire within 20 years (most clergy elect to retire before 70). So in addition to a shrinking membership, the UMC will be faced with a steadily graying clergy and an accelerating shortage to boot.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

In the century and a half since, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," was composed, it has come into widespread use by both Britain's Royal Navy and the US Navy, becoming known as the Royal Navy Hymn in the former and the Navy Hymn in the latter.

William Whiting of England composed the poem in 1860 for a student of his who was soon to sail for America. The music was composed by another Englishman, Rev. John Bacchus Dykes, an Episcopalian clergyman. The music was published in 1861, but I don't know how the lyrics and the music came to be put together.

 The hymn was sung at Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral, as well as the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. And as the 1999 movie, Titanic shows, it was sung during services aboard the doomed vessel the Sunday before she sank. (However, the version sung in the movie was not arranged until 1940.)

Since the hymn was penned, a number of other verses have been composed by various persons over the years. Some of these have been adopted by the Armed Forces Chaplain's Board for inclusion in worship services conducted by military chaplains. These additional verses, prayers for the Marines, aviators, astronauts, the wounded, families at home and others, are included as an addendum on the US Navy's web page devoted to the hymn. Verses for the hymn are easy to write. The rhyming is simply, aabbcc, with each line consisting of eight syllables in iambic tetrameter (which, definitionally, is eight syllables anyway).

The original hymn itself, of course, long ago passed into the public domain, so anyone may use the music or compose a verse thereto. In my church service today, we will sing the hymn in five verses honoring all who serve at sea, on the land or in the air, finished by a verse of prayer for our country, thus:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Lord of hosts, to you we turn
To give us grace we cannot earn.
Our soldiers guard our way of life;
Be with them all in times of strife.
Let courage flow from your command;
We pray for those who fight on land.

Eternal Father, grant, we pray,
To all Marines, both night and day,
The courage, honor, strength, and skill
Their land to serve, thy law fulfill;
Be thou the shield forevermore
From every peril to the Corps

Lord, guard and guide all those who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

Almighty God, whose arm is strong,
protect us e'er from doing wrong.
We pray to always do what’s right,
for justice only be our fight.
Let peace now reign across our land,
brought to us by your gracious hand.
Of the verses above, authorship is as follows:
Verse 1 - William Whiting, the original first verse.
Verse 2 - me, composed for this day as a prayer for the Army Verse
3 - J. E. Seim, 1966
Verse 4 - Mary C. D. Hamilton, 1915
Verse 5 - me again

 You can hear the US Navy Sea Chanters, the service's chorus, sing the first verse by clicking here.