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CULTURE DIGEST: Mixed-faith marriages on the rise; house churches’ popularity growing

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The recent nuptials of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and investment banker Marc Mezvinsky were a high-profile example of a growing trend in America: mixed-faith marriages.

Clinton identifies herself as a Methodist, but her new husband is Jewish, and their wedding included a pastor and a rabbi as well as the traditional Jewish “chuppah” and the breaking of a glass underfoot.

The wedding prompted USA Today and other publications to cite statistics showing that religiously mixed marriages are growing rapidly among U.S. couples. In 1988, 15 percent of couples in the United States didn’t share the same faith, according to the General Social Survey, but by 2006 the number had grown to 25 percent.

For those of nominal faith, this is no big deal, Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today wrote Aug. 2. But for those who are serious about their faith, life-cycle decisions from baptism to burial will loom. Every rite of passage, sacred ritual and holy day will require negotiation, she said.

Gerald Harris, editor of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Christian Index newsjournal, was quoted as saying one of his main concerns about mixed-faith marriages is that teachings or traditions are blended or forsaken.

Harris, a former pastor, told USA Today he declined to wed Christians to unbelievers, and at funerals for unbelievers, he would gently tell mourners that true comfort could be found in Christ.

“It is going to be increasingly difficult for people who hold to their faith firmly and strongly,” Harris said of mixed marriages. “… The idea of absolute truth is what is at stake here.”

A Methodist bishop told Grossman that in premarital counseling he has found that “many religious folks don’t know their own tradition — Methodist or Catholic or Baptist.”

A priest said most mixed couples go one of three ways: They toss all the fun parts of faith at the kids and let them decide a religious path later, or one parent takes the lead, or they shift to secular lives and let it all drop, Grossman wrote.

“Increasingly I hear young adults say, ‘What does it matter? God is everywhere,'” the priest said.

Also, Americans increasingly are getting the support they need outside religious institutions, the article said. For some, religion is no longer something that identifies them in a significant way. Fewer Catholics are opting for church weddings, Grossman noted, and many people don’t feel the need for a religious ceremony at all.

HOUSE CHURCHES GROWING IN POPULARITY — In what is called a throwback to the early Christian church, more Americans are choosing house churches over traditional worship centers.

The Barna Group estimates that 6 million to 12 million Americans attend house churches, and the Pew Forum says 9 percent of American Protestants attend only home services, the Associated Press reported July 21.

House churches are part of what experts say is “a fundamental shift in the way U.S. Christians think about church. Skip the sermons, costly church buildings and large, faceless crowds, they say. House church is about relationships forged in small faith communities,” AP said.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research was quoted as saying part of the appeal of the house church movement is a desire to “return to a simpler expression of church,” and for many, “they just want to live like the Bible.”

The house church featured in the AP article was described as a “lively, sometimes chaotic event, with noisy and mostly happy young children flitting about.” After a time of fellowship, everyone moved to the kitchen table to observe communion, followed by a potluck meal.

In the article, the group sang some worship songs, but “the majority seems averse to a regular offering, preferring to take up a collection only when a need or charitable cause arises.”

House churches, AP said, emphasize shared leadership and lack hierarchy, and some see it as an alternative to paying an educated pastor during tough economic times.

MINISTERS URGED TO REST — Research indicates that members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at higher rates than most Americans, according to The New York Times.

Just in the past decade, the newspaper said, the clergy’s use of antidepressants has risen and their life expectancy has fallen. A simple solution, some say, is for ministers to take more time off.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University, told The Times. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

Cell phones and social media have added new levels of stress, The Times noted, and soaring health care costs have prompted some denominations to launch wellness campaigns urging ministers to get some rest.

“Time away can bring renewal and help prevent burnout,” a 2006 directive from the United Methodist Church said. Other denominations have placed a special emphasis on the importance of “Sabbath days,” weekdays off in place of Sundays.

The Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis, now recommends three or four months off every three or four years.

“There is a deep concern about stress,” Rabbi Joel Meyers, a past executive vice president of the assembly told The Times. “Rabbis today are expected to be the CEO of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every e-mail.”

A pastor in Queens, N.Y., admitted that being too busy is an impediment to one’s relationship with God, and clergy health studies say ministers have boundary issues defined as being too easily overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs, The Times said Aug. 1.

“Larger social trends, like the aging and shrinking of congregations, the dwindling availability of volunteers in the era of two-income households, and the likelihood that a male pastor’s wife has a career of her own also spur some ministers to push themselves past their limits,” The Times said.

A seven-year study by Duke University examined more than 1,700 Methodist ministers in North Carolina and found that compared with neighbors in their census tracts, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Obesity was 10 percent more prevalent in the clergy group, The Times said.

EXHIBIT HONORS CLIFF BARROWS — A special two-month exhibit at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., is now open to honor longtime music and program director Cliff Barrows.

Through the end of September, “Cliff Barrows Tribute: A Singing Faith” will provide a glimpse into the life of one of evangelist Billy Graham’s closest friends and ministry partners, a news release from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said.

Barrows, 87, first worked with Graham in 1945 at a Youth for Christ rally in western North Carolina and was responsible for music at Billy Graham crusades beginning two years later.

Among the items in the exhibit are Barrows’ trombone, which he played at Youth for Christ meetings in the 1940s; his old microphone from radio broadcasts of The Hour of Decision; a set of comic books that were given out at youth meetings in 1951; and several campaign and crusade songbooks, as well as albums, awards, photos and letters.

Since opening in June 2007, more than 400,000 people have visited the 40,000-square-foot library, which offers free admission.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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