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Monday, February 19, 2007

5 reasons why the Connecticut press keeps doing profiles of evangelical churches

The New Haven Register recently profiled Kingdom Life Christian Church and its lead pastor, Bishop Jay Ramirez. (See article here.) There seem to be a lot of these stories lately in various papers, and I have some thoughts as to why this might be so.

1. One reason is curiosity. Evangelical churches (using the term broadly) still present something out of the ordinary for the typical Connecticut resident. The ARDA website reports that Connecticut only had some 80,000 Evangelicals in the year 2000. I take those numbers with a grain of salt, as (1) historically African American denominations were not included and, (2) independent charismatic churches were listed as having only 1,800 people.

In any case, the largest religious group by far in Connecticut is Roman Catholics. In this regard, although we don't often think of it this way, Connecticut is somewhat different from much of the country. We have no reason to doubt the commonly accepted figures to the effect that Catholics make up some 40% of the State's population and nearly 70% of the State's religious adherents.

So there's a natural curiosity factor at work: who are these strange animals in our midst?

You can also see this played out in reporting which always takes note of new buildings, high-tech trappings, contemporary worship music, non-traditional expressions of worship, informal dress on the part of clergy, etc. These things are novel or even odd to most of Connecticut. Here's the Register:

They come in droves twice on Sundays, filling every space in the sprawling church parking lot.

They enter the ornate lobby, with its glittering chandelier, pristine waterfall and plush purple rugs, make their way into the sanctuary and joyously sing with a choir and professional five-piece band.

Each of them hears Bishop Jay Ramirez preach passionately, sometimes whispering, sometimes thundering, always captivating his audience, with many of the faithful responding "Amen" or "Praise the Lord."

The polished quality of the church extends into all elements— from the quiet, elegant piano music as a background to Ramirez’s many prayers, to security guards donned in crisp, black suits wearing tiny earpiece microphones.

I wouldn't describe the tone as exactly patronizing, but there is a sense in which the reporter is clearly trying to open a window into a world that's unfamiliar to most Connecticut residents. (It's almost like National Geographic!)

2. A second reason is testimony. Nothing beats a good story of "personal transformation," and enough people have come to evangelical faith in the past 20 years to create lots of stories. Most people in our State may not be "born again," but almost everyone knows someone who has started going to one of "those churches." Eventually reporters come to see what all the ruckus is about...

Vincenzina Civitillo, 32, of Milford, said she started coming to Kingdom Life in 2001, when she "hit rock bottom." She was addicted to cocaine and the state Department of Children and Family services threatened to take her children away.

She said God spoke through Ramirez at her first service.

"Bishop was preaching that your body is a temple," she said. "I knew I was supposed to be (there) that day. I believe God puts you in places for a reason."

After that, Civitillo said she dropped her drug habit without experiencing any withdrawal symptoms.

3. A third reason is visibility and impact. This comes in different flavors, to be sure.
  • Yes, it's hard to ignore the big buildings (or big building plans) of a First Cathedral, a Walnut Hill, a Kingdom Life, or a Black Rock. But megachurches (and not-so-mega churches) also get noticed in the community for their outreach as well.
  • There's also the phenomenon of Christian concerts with the very top acts hitting our State thanks to people like Rock the Sound.
  • We also have seen evangelicals and charismatics coming together to pray - some 4,300 last year in one meeting alone.
Add it all up and it means that the theologically conservative church is more visible than anyone could have guessed it would be just a few years ago.

4. Another reason is politics. Most people in the press probably view evangelicals and charismatics as a conservative faction in society, and so they are quick to explore the question of whether their heightened visibility will influence the politics of our State in any way. This part of the article on Bishop Ramirez was almost obligatory:

Anne Stanback, executive director for activist group Love Makes a Family, said she’s not aware of Kingdom Life’s role in fighting same-sex marriage. She said her organization is only seeking civil marriage and churches that do not favor same-sex marriage would not have to perform them.

"I think we shouldn’t put into law a religious position of one church and ignore that of another," Stanback said, noting some churches sanction same-sex marriages.

Ignoring the sophistry of Ms. Stanback's argument, it's obvious that the call of any church will create "political" activity, as people now understand "politics." Because morality has become political in American life, we can expect to see this type of reporting continue. Like it or not, when your capital city is one of the "gayest" in the country, the Bible is unavoidably political.

5. A final reason is favor, as in God's favor. The increased interest in evangelical churches in our region gives us a chance to interact with many people who previously did not know we existed or were at best apathetic. Favorable coverage allows churches which people see as non-traditional to attract new visitors by removing or lessening people's prejudices.

And that's a good thing.

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