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Pastors feel the pain as churches hit ‘another low point’ in American culture

(Photo/Max-Leonhard von Schaper/Creative Commons)


Research once again shows that confidence in organized religion remains at all-time lows.

But what the numbers don’t reveal is the toll that the erosion of reputation and relevance has had on churches and ministers throughout the decline. It’s often described as an astonishing and disturbing experience.

“In the early part of my ministry you could go up to a door and introduce yourself as a pastor and you would get a cordial reception,” said Charles Updike, pastor emeritus at First Baptist Church in Glendale, California.

“Today in some neighborhoods of LA you’re asked, ‘why are you coming here?’ or ‘why do you want to pray for me?’” said Updike, who was ordained in 1973.

But it’s not just Los Angeles. A recent Gallup survey reports that respect for churches and other religious organizations has reached “another low point” across the U.S.

“Americans’ confidence in the church or organized religion continues to erode,” Gallup said in a summary of the survey conducted earlier this year. Only 36 percent of respondents reported having either “a great deal” or “quite a lot’ of confidence in faith groups.

The research also looked at other institutions, finding the church in sixth place behind the military, small business, police, the presidency and the U.S. Supreme Court.

That wasn’t always the case. Confidence in churches and other religious institutions reigned supreme from 1973 to 1985. The televangelist scandals of the 1980s and the Catholic sexual abuse revelations of the early 2000s eroded that trust, Gallup said.

“Since then, in 2018 and 2019, Americans’ confidence in religion has been below the 40% mark.”

‘We have blurred the lines’

But that shift in attitudes wasn’t limited to those outside the church, said Danny West, professor of preaching and pastoral studies at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity and previously a senior pastor ordained in 1979.

Danny West

West recalled a church he led in the 1990s where attendance began to dip as members had competing priorities, including youth travel sports teams, on Sunday mornings.

“They were much more affluent and had lots of opportunities to be gone – and they were,” he added. “That was a wake-up call to me that church was not as important.”

The trend stood in stark contrast to his own experiences growing up and even to the earlier part of his career.

“It was then I began to notice church was not as important to people as I imagined it would have been.”

Televangelist and sexual abuse scandals clearly have taken their toll, West said, but so did the “Baptist wars” within the Southern Baptist Convention and the church effort to cater to an ever-pluralistic society.

Changes in worship, embracing politics and watering down theology and Christology have served only to confuse a wider population that needs a clear, hopeful message from the church, he said.

“We have blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular virtually to the point where the two are indistinguishable,” he said.

Legalism hasn’t helped, either.

“Too often we worship the god of the (church) constitution and bylaws.”

‘The culture is more skeptical’

Grief was often present as clergy and church status diminished, said Ronald “Dee” Vaughan, who served as a chaplain and a youth minister before becoming a senior pastor in 1982.

Growing up in the church and attending seminary in the era he did provided no warning that change was coming.

“One thing I remember from my early days was the assumption of credibility” that came with ministry, said Vaughan, the pastor at St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ronald “Dee” Vaughan

“There was a basic feeling that you are a pretty good person if you are in ministry, that you are probably someone working for the good in people’s lives.”

That meant most first-time encounters with people were positive.

“While that is still sometimes true, I run into more situations now where the response is neutral or negative,” he said.

In part, the dim view people have of churches, and by extension ministers, is reflective of attitudes Americans have toward institutions in general.

“The culture is more skeptical of anyone who has any kind of authority,” he said. “There is an overall skepticism in our culture.”

‘More and more marginalized’

Yet, many Christians are in denial about those changes, said Robert Creech, professor of pastoral leadership at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.

Creech previously served as a lead pastor after finishing seminary in 1976.

Throughout the decline some clergy and congregations have perceived themselves as a mistreated majority rather than an increasingly marginalized minority.

Robert Creech

“We think we have a lot larger market share of people’s loyalty and confidence than we really do,” he said.

Suspecting that was the case in the late 1980s, Creech led a group from his Houston congregation to ask local residents about the churches in their neighborhood. The results were startling.

“We might as well have been Buddhist temples – we were not on their radar,” Creech recalled. “Had I said ‘name three donut shops’ they would have done better. We were not in their field of vision.”

Nowadays, seminarians are being prepared for these realities, he said. This includes learning how to handle sexual abuse allegations and how be a minister in a society that doesn’t trust organized religion.

“It doesn’t mean you’re a trusted person, anymore,” he said. “You have to earn that confidence in the congregation as well as in the community.”

‘I can handle it myself’

Charles Updike

But even that is hard to do in a society that’s become increasingly unaware of the church, Updike said.

He witnessed that development as computers, the internet and social media dominated not only American culture, but church culture.

Meanwhile, trends such as destination weddings and the ability to parse scripture-without-context from apps has led many Americans to seek to do the tasks once associated with ministers and churches – such as weddings and funerals.

“What I’ve seen is a shift away from letting church handle it or letting clergy handle it to ‘I can handle it myself,’” Updike said.



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Thanksgiving – Rev. Susan Sparks –

Hi Y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger!A couple of things. First, life has been a bit busy around here, and as a result, I’m afraid delivery of the Shiny Side Up has been a bit sporadic. Starting today, I commit to sharing the Shiny Side Up with you every other Wednesday!

Second, while the Thanksgiving holiday has officially past, I still want to share this column with you. It talks about the importantce of gratitude which never goes out of season! It was featured as a syndicated newspaper column on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, I’d like to shamelessly sharing a letter to the editor in the Daytona Beach News-Journal about this particular column. I’m super proud of it!

How to give thanks
Susan Sparks wrote a sparkling essay — not a sermon — on the meaning of Thanksgiving and, indeed, on the essence of all that the word “giving” connotes.

Susan Sparks embodies what is best in any minister, rabbi or priest: A sense of humor as she conveys a message of profound significance and a sense of gratitude for what we’ve been given.

As she quotes from The Bible, “God loves a cheerful giver.” It gives a new perspective to what we understand when we think of charity and giving to others less fortunate.

Thanks for publishing Sparks’ heartfelt column.

John P. Stark, Port Orange

Now . . . for the column!

It’s hard for me to believe that New York City (where I now live) is part of the same country as North Carolina (where I was born). Everything is different: food, clothing, the pace at which people walk, and the accents. Oh, the accents.

I don’t mean any disrespect, but New York accents are just wrong—meaning they fall in the wrong place.

For example, in the south the object one holds over one’s head in a rainstorm is pronounced, “UM-brella.” New Yorkers talk about some foreign object called an “um-BREL-la.”

The southern word for the flat screen on your wall that allows you to binge on Netflix is “TEE-vee.” New Yorkers use some alien multi-syllable conglomeration of “television.”

Some may see this to be a meaningless linguistic tussle. However, when you consider the word describing this week’s national holiday, you realize that there is more at stake than you may think.

Unlike New Yorkers who say, “ThanksGIVING,” Southerners call this holiday “THANKS-giving.” Why? Because that’s what the holiday is about! THANKS. Not giving.

The thanks must come first because you can’t truly give FROM the heart, unless you have gratitude IN your heart. It’s as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

This is an important lesson as we begin this holiday season. While loving, joyful giving should be the focus of the coming weeks, giving usually turns into an exhausting act of duty. Like the conviction that you have to make two potato dishes—sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes—for the holiday dinner. Or the belief that you must fight the Black Friday crowds to get a generic scarf and mitten set for a great aunt twice-removed because she sent you a Whitman’s Sampler.

This is not joyful giving. This is giving cause you gotta. And this type of giving rarely produces anything heartfelt. What it does produce is heartburn. It also generates stress, resentment, and the worse of all things: the martyr syndrome.

To break from this pattern, we must put the emphasis on the “THANKS”—in the word for the holiday and in our lives. And the best way to do that is to ask yourself the following question:

What is good in my life?

When you focus on what you have, even if it’s the tiniest of things, you begin to feel gratitude. And when you have gratitude, everything changes: your mood lightens, your heart opens, and your mind starts to alter its perspective. Eventually, you see past the angst and realize that you are surrounded by blessings—blessings that you want to share.

So, what is good in your life?

Maybe you woke up feel physically stronger than usual. If so, find someone who needs physical help crossing the street or carrying groceries.

Perhaps, you have a plant blooming in your house. Take a photo and send it to someone whose heart is not blooming.
Is your blessing putting on a warm coat this morning? Find a way to share something warm, like a cup of coffee, with someone who needs it.

Or maybe you are one of the lucky people with the biggest of blessings: a job. (And please understand, I didn’t say a job you love. I mean a J-O-B with a C-H-E-C-K.) If that’s your blessing, then remember those who don’t have a job this holiday. Volunteer to serve a meal or be like the anonymous donor who recently paid off holiday layaway accounts at a Walmart.

This week, as you make your multiple potato dishes, and shop in the Black Friday chaos, raise thanks for what is good in your life, then share that blessing with joy. Give with a grateful, not grudging heart. Put the emphasis where it belongs. And remember, as we do in the South, that the holiday is pronounced THANKSgiving!

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I decided to make a list: 20 actions to cultivate hope – Mary Hix


Mary HixLast Advent, in the midst of a family crisis, I did not feel hopeful. More like cynical and terrified, actually. But I wanted to find a way to practice or cultivate hope as part of Advent. Is it possible to practice hope when despair seems easier or more realistic?

Turns out there is a good bit of research about the importance of hope. Hope is NOT positive thinking, but changing my mindset was foundational in cultivating hope. Paul claims in Romans 5:4 that hope is the final good that comes from the character that suffering can produce. Huh? Character produces hope?

If character is doing and thinking the right things, even in the midst of terrible circumstances or deep fear, then perhaps undertaking specific actions could foster hope. Maybe this was worth a try.

I came up with a list of items and asked my family to help me stay accountable in practicing hope. I wrote down a list of action steps on the glass of the French door by the breakfast table. We each chose an item every day to practice and agreed to talk about our experiences.

This activity didn’t eliminate my fear, but I did feel hopeful that I was doing something. Maybe I could tweak my feelings. Maybe I could experience Advent in a new way. Maybe I could lighten my darkness. Maybe I could celebrate the coming of the Light of the World with a new appreciation for both light and darkness.

Maybe you can, too.

  1. Read a positive story about someone helping others.
  2. Call a friend who is hopeful or will make you laugh.
  3. Do something kind for a stranger.
  4. Give a compliment to every coworker today.
  5. Think of a different thing you are grateful for at every stoplight or stop sign.
  6. Journal about ways God has helped you in the past.
  7. Reframe one automatic pessimistic thought about a specific situation or person.
  8. Write a positive post card or note to someone.
  9. Reconnect with nature by taking a short walk, watching the clouds, listening to the birds, counting the stars.
  10. Adopt a positive breath prayer in the form of a simple, memorable phrase or sentence, and say it 10 to 20 times throughout the day.
    A few examples:  My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.   Abba, I belong to you.   Holy One, heal me.   I am God’s beloved child.   Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
  11. Decide on one goal for 2020. Write it down and think about action steps for that goal.
  12. Watch a funny cat or dog video on YouTube – really!
  13. Pray a sentence prayer all day for someone else.
  14. Visualize a happy image, place or situation for 30 seconds.
  15. Keep a list of all the positive things that happened today.
  16. Fast from TV, radio, or Internet news.
  17. Make Romans 15:13 your prayer just before sleep.
    May the God of hope fill me with all joy and peace as I trust in him, so that I may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  18. Engage in conversations about what gives people hope and what practices cultivate hope.
  19. Plant a winter bulb that will bloom inside and watch it grow.
  20. Tell someone a specific prayer need and ask them to pray for you.

A year later, my family crisis has passed. But in a world that seems dangerously out of control, I have other compelling reasons to commit to cultivating hope. Maybe you do, too. After all, as Paul points out in Romans 5:5, “hope does not disappoint.”

May we all find the truth of the power of hope during this Advent and throughout the coming year.



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Skip the Stores on Black Friday; Share Your Family’s Stories

By Mitch Carnell  – November 27, 2019 –

As we were walking from the parking lot to his office, I heard my mother say to my dad, “I’m not sure I want Mitch to get new glasses. He has always said that I was so pretty. I am afraid he will find out the truth.” Dad just laughed.

This is a tiny sliver of my family lore, but if I do not write it down somewhere, it will be lost when I die.

There are thousands of events big and small in my family’s history. Hardly any of them important to anyone outside our family, but are significant in telling the story of our family. They are important in making me who I am.

The same is true for your family. If you do not record your story and your family’s stories, they will be gone forever when you are gone.

Bob Hudson, a former senior editor at Zondervan Publishers, said, “Our story is a part of God’s story.” When our stories are considered part of God’s story, they take on new meaning.

This was a new idea for me. I had never thought of my story in that way until I heard Bob say it. Think of how encouraging your story could be to others.

StoryCorps created a National Day of Listening, encouraging people on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) to sit with other family members to tell and record those family stories.

The benefits of such a day are enormous. You don’t have to join the mob of those pushing and shoving to buy the latest “must have” gadget.

There is nothing to buy and most important of all, you will be left with a treasure chest of family lore.

When I was to receive an honorary degree from Lander University, I walked out on stage to deliver the commencement address and spotted my Aunt Norma and Uncle Jim, my mother’s brother, in the audience.

They had never attended any event in which I was involved, but my father had died and my mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They had come to support me. They could never imagine the depth of my gratitude and joy.

That too is a part of my story and God’s story. It illustrates how important small gestures can be.

My late wife, Liz, was well known for her creative abilities but also as a great procrastinator; consequently, I was astounded when she insisted on making our daughter’s wedding dress.

As Suzanne was about to descend the steps from the dressing room in the church, her mother was hastily pinning up the hem of her dress. Mercifully, everyone focused on the beautiful bride without noticing the pins.

Suzanne only remembers her mother’s love that created the dress. Although Liz died 30 years ago, who would want this story to be lost?

While my sister and I were growing up, our dad was an impatient person. When we were assigned a task by him, he expected an instant response. – “Don’t make me tell you twice.”

After my mother contracted Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer communicate verbally, this same impatient man sat by her side, held her hand and talked to her for hours at a time. Theirs was a love that was stronger than any disease.

Is that an important story? He showed me by example what love really means. I thought of him constantly when my late wife suffered from the same horrible disease.

Don’t let your story die. Don’t allow your family’s stories to die. They are important both to you and future generations.

Get together with whomever you consider family and tell the old stories. Start with a single incident. The rest will come.

Mitch Carnell

Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at

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