Monday, July 17, 2017

Will Facebook Replace the Church? Mark Zuckerberg Thinks it Can

Will Facebook replace the church? If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future is correct, the answer is yes—it will.

In a speech in June, Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook’s online communities may be poised to replace organizations that used to bring large numbers of people together—organizations like churches.

"Membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter," he said, noting that participation in organized religion has decreased.

"That's a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else."

Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can help fill the gap. But it will need help from people who can organize these new communities.

"A church doesn't just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation,” he said.

To help all those non-churchgoers find new communities, Zuckerberg will use Facebook's artificial intelligence algorithm.

"We started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you,” he stated.

“We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50% more people join meaningful communities."

His ultimate goal is to convince half of Facebook’s two billion users to join Facebook communities.

"If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we've seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together,” he stated.

Bringing people closer together is so important that "we're going to change Facebook's whole mission to take this on."

Zuckerberg isn’t wrong; people are leaving organized religion. Between the “nones” and the “dones,” active participation is falling dramatically in North America and Europe.

But is Facebook the answer? Or does old-fashioned getting together still have something to offer?

That’s a good question to ponder in light of a new study about the health effects of attending a physical place of worship.

According to the study, published in May by medical researchers from various U.S. universities, “increased religiosity (as determined by church attendance) is associated with less stress and enhanced longevity” for middle-aged adults.

The results of the study, they went on to say, “underscore the potential importance of church attendance . . . as a mediator of health and lifespan.”

This latest research stands in a long line of studies that have found a positive relationship between attending religious services and good health. But what researchers don’t know is why. Is it the prayers? The music? The sermon? The coffee time after the service?

Two ideas suggested by researchers are the larger sense of meaning and purpose that religion provides, along with the social connections and support people feel from belonging to a worshipping community.

Of course, not all religious experiences are positive. Some forms of religion cause people to feel judged, guilty, depressed and oppressed. But overall, studies have shown that being religious has produces positive health benefits, both physically and mentally.

Can Facebook replicate what religion provides? I have my doubts. I like my online groups, but they don’t fill me with meaning and purpose. Plus, if I’m sick, or having a tough time, I might get lots of likes, comments and sympathy from my online friends, but who will show up to cut my grass, shovel my driveway, or bring me soup?

That’s hard for someone who lives across town, much more for someone on the other side of the world.

A number of years ago author and historian Martin Marty addressed the then hot topic of people saying they had stopped going to church because they were spiritual, not religious.

That was all fine and good, he said, but he warned: “Spirituality doesn’t bring you a casserole when you are sick.”

The same would be true for Facebook—unless Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for that, too.

From the July 15, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Rise of the Nonverts, or What's Happening to Church Attendance in Great Britain?

If a convert is someone who has been persuaded to change their religious faith, what’s a nonvert?

According to Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in Britain, a nonvert is a person who grew up in a religious home but who drifted away—who once identified with a religion, but now say they have no religion.

In Britain, the number of nonverts who experience what is called “nonversion” is growing.

Altogether, 48.6% of Britons now say they have no religion, according to data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 2014 European Social Survey.

“The striking thing is the clear sense of the growth of ‘no religion’ as a proportion of the population,” Bullivant told The Guardian.

“The main driver is people who were brought up with some religion now saying they have no religion . . . the rise of the non-religious is arguably the story of British religious history over the past half-century or so.”

In his report, titled “The ‘No Religion’ Population of Britain,” he notes that over 60% of the nonverts were brought up as Christians, mainly Anglican or Catholic.

Non-Christian religions have better retention levels; overall, only 2% of nonverts were raised in religious homes other than Christian.

According to Bullivant, the “nonversion” rate was 14% for Jews, 10% for Muslims and Sikhs and 6% for Hindus.

But what about people going the other way—converting from no-faith to being religious?

The news isn’t good on that front; the number of the non-religious who convert from no faith to faith is small.

Just over 5% of what Bullivant calls “cradle nones” report becoming Christians. Only 2% joined non-Christian faiths.

Or, to put it another way, for every person brought up in a non-religious household who becomes religious, 26 people raised as Christians became non-religious.

Other findings from Bullivant’s report showed that 67% of Britons identified as some kind of Christian in 1983; in 2015, it was 43%.

Over the same period, members of non-Christian religions have more than quadrupled.

Those who no longer identify with religions are younger on average—35% of the “nones” are under 35, compared to just 6% of that cohort who say they are Anglicans.

If there is any good news for religious groups, Bullivant says that after consistent decline the proportion of nones in Britain appears to have stabilized over the past few years.

“Younger people tend to be more non-religious, so you’d expect it to keep going,” he said in an interview.

“But it hasn’t. The steady growth of non-Christian religions is a contributing factor, but I wonder if everyone who is going to give up their Anglican affiliation has done so by now? We’ve seen a vast shedding of nominal Christianity, and perhaps it’s now down to its hardcore.”

And that may be another source of good news for religious groups, he suggests.

In an article in the Church Times, an Anglican newspaper in Britain, Bullivant noted that while many people have left Christianity, a “creative minority” of committed Christians remains.

This group is strongly committed, he said, and since they are “swimming against the tide” are often stronger in their faith.

This may lead to a rise in the number of people who are committed to religion in the future, he added, since they will be more intentional about bringing their children up in the faith.

What does this mean for Canadian religious groups?

Attendance at religious services is also declining in this country, as is affiliation with various religious groups—at 24% of the population, one of the fastest growing “faiths” is Canada is the nones. But will we reach the same levels as Britain? Time will tell.

In the meantime, one lesson that can be drawn out of the British experience might be for groups to consider pouring fewer resources into outreach and what Christians call evangelism, since it doesn’t appear to be working.

What might be more effective could be putting effort into shoring up current supporters—things like more family ministries, children’s programs, youth groups, creative ways to be relevant and community-minded, and provide more support for religious colleges and universities.

Maybe that way there will be fewer nonverts in the future.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Halo Effect, or What are Places of Worship Really Worth to a Community?

$1.5 billion—that’s how much Winnipeg’s places of worship are worth to the city.

For Steinbach, that figure is almost $134 million. Brandon is $90 million. Morden is $23.6 million, Winkler is $69 million. Portage la Prairie rings in at $31 million.

Those amounts are what’s called the “halo effect,” the value of the social, spiritual and communal capital that places of worship contribute to their communities through various kinds of services, events and activities.

The calculations come from the Halo Project calculator, which calculates the value of places for worship for cities across Canada.

The calculator is proved by Cardus, a think tank based in Ontario. The organization was inspired by studies in the U.S. to do similar research in Canada, starting in Toronto in 2016.

That study of ten congregations found that for every dollar of their direct spending about $4.77 of common good benefit—the “halo effect”—was generated.

Areas where the halo effect was felt included open space, educational programs, magnet effect (drawing people into a community for weddings, funerals, concerts, conferences and other events), individual impact and community development.

Additional value was produced through things such as working with refugees, soup kitchens, helping the homeless, job training, programs to treat substance abuse, programs for children, youth and families, community garden plots, hosting concerts and other events, counselling, recreational activities (gyms and playing fields), operating nursery schools and day cares, and volunteering in the neighbourhood.

"The value of religious congregations to the wider community is somewhere in the order of four to five times of a congregation's annual operating budget,” says Milton Friesen, who is the Social Cities Program Director for Cardus.

“This is money that governments don’t need to spend.”

For example, if a congregation with an annual budget of $250,000 should close, the Halo Project estimates a city or town would need to come up with about $1.2 million every year to replace what was lost to the wider community.

Across Canada, Cardus estimates that places of worship in 19 major cities produce an economic benefit of $19.9 billion. This includes $1.6 billion in Vancouver, $2 billion in Edmonton, $2.2 billion in Calgary, $489 million in Saskatoon, $6.7 billion in Toronto and $2.1 billion in Montreal.

For Friesen, this is a new way for Canadians to look at the value of places of worship. It shows they are “are important parts of the landscape,” and should not be “ignored when calculating the social capital of a community.”

This is especially true for those who think places of worship are getting a free ride when it comes to taxation—that they should pay taxes like any other institution.

“What is not considered is the value to others in the community, and the community itself as a whole,” he says of those who make that argument.

“Imagine what it would cost for cities to replace the value of what churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship are providing,” he says. “They could never afford it.”

Through the Halo Project, Friesen hopes to spark a “wider conversation about the role of religion in Canada,” including what places of worship offer economically, and to ensure “religion is part of the conversation” when talking about what they contribute to the social good in this country.

“We want to put better information into hands of those making decisions” about ways to serve the various needs of Canadians, he adds.

With many places of worship in danger of closing across the country today—especially ones located in downtown core areas, where some of the biggest social needs exist—the work of the Halo Project shows that if a place of worship closes, much more could be lost than many realize.

Sure, a historic church building might be saved if it is renovated and replaced by condos, but it’s a good bet the new residents won’t include a soup kitchen, youth drop-in or substance abuse clinic in the new building.

To put it another way, maybe the crisis facing organized religion today isn’t just a concern for those who are religious. The Halo Project suggests that all Canadians, including Canada’s politicians, might want to take note.

Find your community's halo effect at

From the June 30 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Islamic Relief Enables Canadian Muslims to Help Locally and Globally

Organization one of the fastest-growing NGOs in Canada today

Mennonites can help the world’s needy through Mennonite Central Committee. Lutherans in the can respond through Canadian Lutheran World Relief. 

Baptists, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Catholics and other groups have their own relief and development arms.

Canadian Muslims can also extend a hand to the world’s poor through their own agency—Islamic Relief Canada.

Founded in 1984 in Great Britain in response to the famine in Ethiopia, today Islamic Relief has chapters in a number of countries, and provides assistance in 40 developing nations around the world.

The Canadian chapter was founded in 2007. In 2009, it received $1.2 million in donations. Last year the figure was over $28 million, making it one of the fastest-growing international relief and development groups in the country.

A lot of the money it receives comes during Ramadan, which took place this year from May 26 to June 24. In addition to fasting and prayer, it’s a time when Muslims especially remember those who are hungry and needy.

“We get half of our annual income that month,” says Reyhana Patel, who heads up media and external relations for Islamic Relief.

For Muslims, one of the five pillars of their faith is the zakat, or the obligatory sharing with the needy. 

Most Muslims tend to give it during the month of Ramadan, since they believe giving during that holy month provides the giver with a double reward.

In addition to giving their zakat, Muslims also give another special donation in Ramadan during an iftar, the meal that breaks their daily fast.

The ancient formula for how much to give was two kilograms of either flour, wheat, barley or rice for each person in the household. In Canada today, Muslims typically make a gift of about $10 per person for everyone at the meal.

Some of that money is donated to Islamic Relief through what it calls Share Your Blessing. 

Through it, Canadian Muslims are invited to sign up to host an iftar with their family and friends, using the occasion to break the daily fast and raise money to help needy people around the world.

Islamic Relief provides a package of materials for each host to share with guests about its work, along with pledge forms so people can make donations. Last year, one iftar in Canada raised $90,000 for the charity.

Once misconception about the organization, Patel says, is where the money goes.

“Although most of our programs are in Muslim countries, our assistance is available to all, not just to Muslims,” she says, noting that the organization provided help after the Haiti earthquake, the typhoon in the Philippines and for people affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires. It also funds a program in Toronto for disadvantaged youth.

“We don’t only help Muslims,” she adds. “We give to whoever is in need, just like other NGOs.”

As well, she notes, “anyone can donate to Islamic Relief, not just Muslims.” All donations are tax deductible.

Current appeals include for the famine in Africa and Yemen, as well as for victims of inter-communal violence in Myanmar and refugees from the fighting in Syria.

Ongoing programs include orphan sponsorship, and health, education, medical and water projects.

In addition to donations, the organization also gets grants from the Canadian government for its work overseas. It is also part of the Humanitarian Coalition, which brings together Canada’s major relief agencies to respond to emergencies in the developing world.

For Idris Elbakri, past president of the Manitoba Islamic Association, supporting Islamic Relief is a good way for Muslims to help those in need.

“Through it Muslims in Canada can realize their obligation to help others both locally and globally,” he says.

Beyond the good work that Islamic Relief is doing around the world, it also means a lot to the Muslim community in Canada.

“The respect and recognition it gets from other NGOs, and the Canadian government, shows how Canadian Muslims are in the mainstream of Canadian values,” he says.

From the June 17 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Weird Religion, or What if Christianity Was Once Again Considered Dangerous and Subversive?

Christianity from the first three centuries might be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith today

“Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a non-believer.”

That aphorism was coined by Jeffrey Weiss, formerly a religion reporter at the Dallas Morning News.

Dubbed Weiss’ law, it explains how weird other religions can look to people who are not a part of those faiths—things that people inside those belief systems view as completely normal.

I thought about Weiss’ law while perusing Larry Hurtado’s most recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.

Hurtado, a professor at the University of Manitoba from 1978-96, writes in the book that what we consider normal Christian belief and practice today was once viewed as strange and subversive in the first three centuries—the time before Constantine made Christianity legal and acceptable in the Roman Empire.

Or, as he put it, it was a time when there were features of early Christianity “that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of that time.”

Back then, the Romans considered the new Christian faith not only weird, but also repugnant.

“There is a group, hated for their abominations, called Christians,” wrote the historian Tacticus.

Added another historian, Suetonius: “The Christians are a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.”

Said a third, Lucian: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves they are going to be immortal and live for all time.”

And what were these superstitions and abominations? The idea that a man could die and rise from the dead, of course.

The practice of the Eucharist also caused concern—to the Romans, eating Christ’s flesh and blood sounded like cannibalism.

But there were other reasons, too. Christianity was seen as a threat to the state. By refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the emperor, as adherents of other religions did, Christians appeared disloyal and threatened the stability and legitimacy of the Roman Empire.

The new faith also upended behavioural norms. Christians were expected to live by high moral standards—men, for example, were required to be faithful to their wives at a time when it was widely accepted they could have one or more mistresses.

Another radical idea was how Christianity based its identity not on ethnicity or nationality but on a shared religious belief. As well, the new faith elevated the role of women, and rejected the practice of child brides and the killing of baby girls.

The result was that life for the earliest Christians was very difficult—including persecution and death. And even without that, “becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage,” writes Hurtado. 

“Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass,” he adds.

For Hurtado, Christians today might do well to learn how the church before Constantine engaged the world.

“Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was,” he wrote. “Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others. So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.”

Sometimes I wonder: What would it look like today if Christians around the world put their faith first, before their nation?

What if they all practiced unconditional and non-judgmental love for any and all who cross their path?

If they lived by the highest ethical norms?

If they actively celebrated and promoted women as leaders?

If they were once again considered dangerous and subversive by the state?

I don’t know about you, but that would just be weird.

From the June 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Misogyny in Religion, or Things Only Christian Women Hear

Considering how they've been treated, why do so many women stick with religion?

Some days I am amazed that women who believe in God bother with religion at all.

For centuries they have been told by men to shut up, cover up and put up with countless rules and regulations governing how, where, when and why they may—or may not—participate in religious roles or rituals of one sort or another.

I honestly don’t know how so many of them managed to keep their faith. If the shoe were on the other foot—if men faced the same limitations and restrictions based on out-of-context interpretations of selected verses from ancient texts—most of us would be out of there in a minute.

But somehow, and for some reason, many religious women have hung in there. All I can feel is awe.

What got me thinking about how women have been treated by religious groups was the hashtag #thingsonly Christianwomenhear, which was popular on Twitter in April.

The conversation about the sexist and toxic things Christian women hear was started by popular Canadian Christian author and blogger Sarah Bessey.

According to Bessey, who is author of the book Jesus Feminist, it was just something she wanted to talk to her Twitter followers about.

But it quickly went viral, amassing hundreds of responses from women sharing things they had heard in churches or from church leaders.

Examples included: "You are an amazing leader! You'd make an excellent pastor's wife someday!"

“Women are too emotional to be leaders and pastors. It would never work."

"OK, you can teach this, but there has to be a male leader in the room when you do. We'll send someone." “

“Your clothes can cause boys to sin.”

“You have tremendous leadership gifts . . . it's too bad you weren't born male.” “

Wrote Bessey on her Facebook page: “This hashtag is pulling back the curtain on the everyday lived experiences of women within the church.”

She added that the responses were “illuminating, sad, infuriating, ridiculous, funny . . . we still need to speak about freedom and expose the lies and amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced.”

In an interview she went on to say that “I love the church but I also know that we can’t fix what we refuse to acknowledge . . .I look forward to the day when women with leadership and insight, gifts and talents, callings and prophetic leanings are called out and celebrated.”

In a subsequent tweet, she stated: “Nobody is attacking the church. We're attacking the patriarchal spirit that has a death-grip on the throat of the beautiful bride of Christ."

There was pushback. Author and speaker Rebekah Lyons urged women this week to avoid making the hashtag a "megaphone for bitterness."

That prompted Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty to respond: “I don't know . . . it seems to me when men name structural problems it's prophetic. When women name structural problems it's bitterness?”

Of course, this isn’t true for every Christian denomination; many church groups are welcoming of women as leaders. But I bet some of those women also have experienced sexism while trying to follow God’s call in their lives.

And it’s not just a religious issue—women hear similar things in many parts of society. Another Twitter hashtag started about the same time was titled #thingsonlywomenwritershear. And women in Canada only make 87 cents for each dollar made by men.

About the same time this hashtag was getting traction, A Handmaids Tale was beginning its run on Netflix.

In the series, based on the book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, men in the future theocratic country of Gilead use religion as a basis to subjugate women.

Just fiction, right? In fact, Atwood based her book, which was published in 1985, on real-life events throughout history such as the 17th century Puritans, the experience of women in some Muslim-majority countries, and the rise of the religious right in the U.S.

One can only hope that we have moved on from those experiences, that the imaginary country of Gilead will remain, in fact, a fantasy.

But as the comments some religious women hear today show, we still have a ways to go.

From the June 3 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Spiritual Care Helps Patients, Saves Money

Illness is a spiritual experience for most patients

Shockwaves rolled through Canada’s spiritual health care community in March when the government of Saskatchewan eliminated pastoral care services in that province.

While increasing the overall health care budget very slightly (by 0.7 percent), the province cut several services it considered non-essential—like spiritual care.

“In recognition of the fiscal situation we’re in, it’s about trying to get to the core services of health,” Health Minister Jim Reiter said. “The services that we cut, while they’d be nice to have . . . they certainly wouldn’t be what we’d consider the core services of health.”

The cut to spiritual health care services will save the province $1.5 million a year.

Following Saskatchewan’s decision, there was concern in Manitoba that something similar might happen here as the province tries to maximize efficiency in the healthcare system.

“We are imagining that many (or most) of us are concerned about the upcoming provincial budget,” the executive team of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care wrote to spiritual health care providers in Manitoba in March, before the budget was tabled.

The news from Saskatchewan, “is concerning,” the letter continued, “and we are aware of the stress that some are carrying because of this.”

As it turns out, their fears were unfounded. 

The Manitoba government did not cut spiritual care services, although a decision to reduce management jobs means at least one spiritual health care director position will be eliminated at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

Altogether, in 2016-17, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) budgeted $3 million for 46.75 full-time equivalent spiritual health care positions. An additional $600,000 was raised by religiously-based institutions such as assisted-care homes.

That’s not a lot out of a total budget of $2.8 billion a year. But with pressure on from the provincial government to trim $83 million in 2017-18, why should scarce resources be used for spiritual care? 

That’s the question I posed to Adel Compton, Regional Director of Spiritual Health Services for the WRHA.

For Compton, spiritual care is an essential part of whole-person care in the health care system.

“Each of us tries to make sense of life,” she says. “But when we end up in hospital, that sense of meaning can be challenged, especially if we are very ill or facing death.”

Spiritual care, provided by trained spiritual health care providers, “can help people understand what’s happening to them, and what choices are available to them that fit into their life and values.”

Providing these services is also an aid to nurses and doctors, who are often very busy and have not enough time to spend with patients.

“We have the time to listen to people, to calm them down, help them make informed decisions for treatment,” she says.

“We help people connect with whatever it is that gives them the strength” so they can cope with their medical situation, she adds—and make it easier for the medical team to do their jobs.

All of this not only helps patients and staff, but it saves money, too. “There are numerous studies that show that spiritual health care results in better patient outcomes,” she says.

A quick Google search shows she is right. Over 400 studies have found that religion or spirituality helps patients cope better with illness, and deal better with the stress caused by health problems.

The studies also show that religion or spirituality promotes hope for recovery, and provides rituals and behaviors that helps people ease anxiety, lessen depression and promote greater overall well-being.

“Illness is a spiritual experience for most patients,” especially those with serious illnesses, says Tracy Balboni, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Balboni, who has been conducting research into how spirituality affects the experience of patients in hospitals, adds that “patients want to be seen as whole persons, not just as bodies affected by illness.”

Through her research, Balboni has also has found when religious or spiritual needs are not addressed, it reduces a patient’s quality of life and satisfaction with care, and doubles or triples healthcare costs towards the end of life.

So while the Saskatchewan government’s decision to cut spiritual care services might save a few dollars now, maybe it won’t turn out to be such a good move in the long term.