POSTED ON DECEMBER 21, 2011:
FOR WHOM THE CHURCH BELL TOLLS
SURVEYING THE RELEVANCY OF RELIGION IN A SPIRITUALLY FERTILE CITY
"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." --Saint Francis of Assisi
To understand the religious landscape in Tulsa, one must begin the discussion with the man considered the founder of the city: James Monroe Hall.
According to a 1935 Tulsa World obituary, Hall came to this burgeoning territory in the late 1800s as the building of the Frisco railroad was concluding. Upon completion of the railway in 1882, Hall, along with his brother, Harry, erected the first store building in Tulsa in 1883.
On the steps of the store in the spring of 1883, the Rev. Robert McGill Loughridge preached what is believed to be the first sermon in the city of Tulsa. Loughridge stood on the porch of the shop and preached to a congregation that included professional gamblers who attempted to disrupt the gathering.
In 1884, Hall was compelled to build an additional structure in the area to function as a combined school and church house and by 1885, construction was completed on what is believed to be the first permanent Protestant church in Tulsa. The first ministers of the church were itinerant missionaries with the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America denomination from New York.
One of those missionaries, Rev. William Haworth, would pastor the church until a Pennsylvanian missionary, Rev. Charles William Kerr, accepted the call to be the church's first permanent minister and subsequently, Tulsa's first Protestant pastor.
First Presbyterian Church soon outgrew the Hall store and relocated to an assemblage at 4th and Boston completed in 1899. Hall served as superintendent of the church's Sunday School program for the next 40 years.
In addition to helping form the first Protestant church in Tulsa, Hall would also join with two other individuals -- one a Baptist and the other a Congregationalist -- to constitute an interdenominational program called Union Sunday School.
In succeeding years, Hall's influence on the religious vista of what is now downtown Tulsa is undeniable. In 1887, Tulsa's second congregation was formed, the First Methodist Episcopal Church, and was pastored by Rev. George Mowbray. Tulsa's first Roman Catholic sanctuary, Holy Family Cathedral, was built in 1914.
In the following decade, more churches were constructed in downtown Tulsa. First Christian Church was built in 1920 and First Baptist Church followed in 1927. First United Methodist (formerly the First Methodist Episcopal Church) was established in 1928 and Boston Avenue Methodist ensued in 1929.
"God wants you well. God wants you prosperous. God wants you a whole person." --Oral Roberts
As the city of Tulsa began to grow from the oil boom of the early 1900s, a young Pentecostal Holiness evangelist and faith healer from Pontotoc County, Okla. arrived on the scene, shaping the religious panorama of Tulsa for years to come.
Oral Roberts first began his ministry in Tulsa in 1949 as founder and director of the Healing Waters Revival Ministry. His first headquarters were located at the northwest corner of 17th St. on Boulder Ave.
In the 1950s, Roberts' tent crusades grew in popularity. By 1955, he began to televise the crusades weekly and at one time was broadcast on more than 525 stations, including every state in America, Canada and many foreign countries. In 1957, Roberts changed the name of his ministry to Oral Roberts Evangelical Association Inc.
In 1961, Roberts said he had received a message from God to build a university -- and in 1962, purchased 160 acres at 81st St. and Lewis Ave. In 1965, 303 freshmen commenced classes at Oral Roberts University. Roberts served as the university's president until 1993, transitioning to role of chancellor. The university today boasts of an enrollment of over 3,700 students and is considered to be the largest charismatic Christian university in the world.
Controversy notwithstanding, Roberts influence has reverberated throughout Tulsa, particularly harnessing the city as the charismatic center of the United States. Pastor and author Jack Hayford went even further in his book, The Charismatic Century, and said that without the ministry of Oral Roberts, "the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred."
Among his friends and "disciples" have been some of the most well-known charismatic Christian leaders in the city, including evangelist T.L. Osborn, pastor/evangelist Kenneth E. Hagin Sr., and pastor Billy Joe Daughtery, as well as nationally and internationally-known leaders such as pastor Kenneth Copeland, pastor Carlton Pearson, German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, and Korean pastor Yonggi Cho.
"I believe that Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin have had a significant impact on the church culture here. These two men have not only shaped Tulsa's church landscape but they have both had a significant impact on the church all over the world," said Brad Farnsworth, lead pastor of Connection Church.
"The western South carved out a vibrant religious system all its own and became the buckle of the Bible Belt." --Darren Dochuk, Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University
Though Tulsa would have to compete with cities, like Dallas/Ft. Worth, Nashville and Charlotte, among others, for the title of "buckle" of the Bible Belt, there is no question that the city rests firmly in this unequalled portion of the country known for its socially conservative evangelical Protestantism.
During the colonial era, the South was a hotbed for the Anglican church but a series of revivals began to slowly morph this region into what was coined the "Bible Belt," by Chicago Tribune social commentator, H. L. Mencken, in 1924. This vast region, dominated by 24 Protestant denominations, is believed to consist of much of the southern U.S. extending west in Texas and Oklahoma.
But what about the Bible Belt today? Does it still exist in its strongest form?
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes it does so to some degree. Responding to a Gallup poll regarding the importance of religion in the United States, Mohler said, "The existence of the 'Bible Belt' is not a myth." But Mohler tempers his conviction, "In the South, being 'raised right' includes knowing how you are supposed to respond to a question like that posed by Gallup... Those who understand the Gospel know that far deeper questions remain to be asked."
And herein lies the challenge of navigating the religious scene in a city like Tulsa. For some, Tulsa remains entrenched as a stalwart conservative religious city in the U.S. But for others, it is an example of a city on the downside of the golden era of the Bible Belt, resulting in three cultures co-existing together: the churched and the apathetic unchurched and discontented de-churched.
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." --Albert Einstein
Pastor and author, Mark Driscoll, clarified what might be happening in major metropolitan Bible Belt cites like Tulsa, when he said, "With the social benefits of professing to be a Christian no longer in place and the social stigma of not professing to be a Christian now lifted, those who were part of Christendom America are simply no longer pretending to be part of Christian America."
Christendom America, according to Driscoll, is comprised of those who have not had a truly transforming experience with Jesus Christ and are living lives virtually indistinguishable from those who are non-Christians. Christian America, on the other hand, is represented by those who have.
In other words, if Driscoll's estimation is correct, Tulsa as a staunch Bible Belt city may be slowly beginning to unravel. While the city itself may be substantially "churched," it may not be as "Christian" as once believed. In fact, it may very well be a post-Bible Belt city of the 21st century whose religious composition is shifting rapidly.
Thought not a direct corollary, this is perhaps illustrated by the katzenjammer surrounding Carlton Pearson, the former pastor of Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa and his departure from orthodoxy in 2002.
Before his divergence from traditional Protestantism, Pearson was at the summit of his evangelical vocation. Higher Dimensions was at one time the fourth largest church in Tulsa, running at its apex around 6,000 weekly.
But in a stunning move, Pearson began to tout a "gospel of inclusion" -- a variety of universalism that believes that all will be saved. Church attendance began to free fall and though commended by liberal Christians, Jews and Unitarians, Pearson's evangelical stock began to plummet.
Higher Dimensions changed their name to New Dimensions and soon became guests of Trinity Episcopal Church downtown before sharing space with All Souls Unitarian Church, the largest Unitarian church in the world. Pearson folded Higher Dimension into All Souls and preached his last sermon there on Sept. 7, 2008. Soon thereafter, Pearson became interim senior minister of the Christ Universal Temple in Chicago -- though he was recently was let go from this role earlier this year.
According to Jeff Taylor, lead pastor of Agora, there is another shift happening in the religious consciousness of Tulsa. He sees a large and growing segment of people in this city that are exploring faith and spirituality outside of its churches. "There is also a large and growing fellowship of atheists and humanists who are organizing and involving themselves in politics, business and social circles. They are 'coming out' in increasing boldness and strength," Taylor said.
Travis Voth finds himself firmly in this camp. Born in Oklahoma and growing up in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition, he attended ORU's seminary and graduated with a Master of Arts in Theology in 2001. While pursuing his academic career, Voth had a religious epiphany: he no longer believed what orthodox Christianity touted.
Influenced by Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, and German-American theologian and existentialist philosopher, Paul Tillich, Voth would become a self-proclaimed atheist, conceiving religion as not a set of beliefs or creeds but rather an attitudinal response to the world and its fellow creatures. Although groups like OKAtheists.com rally like-minded individuals together, atheists like Voth are emboldened by writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
As Voth examines the religious scene in Tulsa, he believes the mainline Protestant churches will continue to decline because they are replete with middle to upper-class professionals who, at one time, were a part of the 1960s counterculture movement but have since hunkered down and in doing so, not reached younger generations.
Another swath in the religious traditions in Tulsa is found at All Souls Unitarian Church. According to Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at All Souls, the church is "currently the largest Unitarian Universalist Church in the country" at 1800 members. The church recently made a decision to move their congregation downtown to accommodate their recent growth. Lavanhar desires that All Souls "will continue our vision of becoming a vibrant multicultural, multigenerational church with a deep commitment to outreach, the arts, and an openly intellectual culture."
Lavanhar is convinced that people in his church are "looking for ways to connect their values with the way they live everyday. They want to know how to redefine the idea of the good life in ways that are morally, environmentally and economically responsible."
Though practical help is important, Lavanhar says that spiritual practice "is something everyone can benefit from." At All Souls, Lavanhar says, "We offer a variety of forms because we know that not everyone finds spiritual insight and nourishment in the same way."
"The church has it problems, but the older I get, the more comfort I find there." --Bono
The irony intermingled with the changing face of Protestantism in Tulsa is that its population growth is far outpacing the church's growth in the city. In a place where "church" is commonplace, it could be said that Tulsa actually needs more churches.
According to a study by David Olson, between 1990 and 2000, the population in Tulsa Metro grew by 13 percent (approximately 100,000 people), while there was a net gain of only 25 evangelical congregations. To maintain the 1990 ratio of churches to population, there would have needed to be 126 new churches started during that time.
Stained Glass at Holy Family Cathedral.
Additionally, the Association of Religious Data Archives released a study in 2000 showing that almost 44 percent of the population of Tulsa Metro is "unclaimed" -- that is, they are not affiliated with any religious group or congregation. If you apply this percentage, for example, to the three-mile radius around the Cherry Street district of Tulsa, there are approximately 35,000 people disconnected with any church.
Further, Olson suggests that as many as 80 percent of the Tulsa Metro population is not worshiping at an evangelical church on a weekend, though they may be members of a religious group or congregation. Again, if you employ this percentage to the same three-mile radius around the Cherry Street district of Tulsa, the math would indicate that approximately 60,000 people do not worship at an evangelical church on a weekend.
If these statistics bear out, anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 people are not affiliated with a church nor do they attend an evangelical church on Sunday in the Cherry Street district alone. If you include the Tulsa metropolitan area, you can exponentially begin to see that the church may not be as relevant as many would be led to believe.
This data comports true nationally, as well. Warren Bird and Jim Tomberlin of Leadership Network report that roughly 80 percent of the 300,000 Protestant churches in the United States have plateaued or are declining. Approximately 3,000 of these declining churches (1 percent of all churches in America) will close their doors permanently nationwide in the next twelve months.
In spite of the rise of megachurches, no county in America has a greater church population than it did ten years ago. Today, of the approximately 30,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining. Additionally, there are now nearly 60 percent fewer churches per 10,000 persons than in 1920.
James Shaw, Professor of Missiology at Oral Roberts University and lead pastor of Doxa Church, clarifies what may be happening with this decline saying, "The low cost of living is drawing people from around the USA to Tulsa and few of them share the values of a place long seen as the buckle of the Bible belt. Consequently, not enough churches in our city are equipped to engage the new demographic of unchurched people that now make up the Tulsa metro."
"He cannot have God for his Father who will not have the Church for his mother." --St. Augustine of Hippo
While these statistics may reveal the illusion of widespread church penetration in Tulsa, the growth of the megachurch phenomenon in Tulsa is consistent with national trends. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research defines megachurches as those with 2,000 people attending each Sunday. This would mean that the 10 largest churches in Tulsa are all megachurches.
Tulsa's biggest church, Church on the Move, is led by its founding pastor, Willie George and boasts of up to an average attendance of 11,000 per week. In 1999, Church on the Move had 9,000 attending on a weekend -- that is a 22 percent increase; 14 percent higher than the national average. Victory Christian Church, the second largest megachurch in Tulsa, led by Sharon Daughtery, had a 33 percent increase in attendance from a decade ago -- now up to 9,612 that attend weekly.
But some have expressed concern over the megachurch phenomenon. "Malls are monuments to consumption -- but so are megachurches. Both places celebrate the coupling of the appetites of consumption and religion... But in neither place are the tendrils of human connectedness very substantial," said David Wells, professor and author.
Ed Stetzer, missiologist, researcher and author, sees things differently. "Smaller, niche churches don't have a monopoly on missional. People are drawn by the authentic Gospel lived out through both large and small bodies. You don't have to wear Birkenstocks to be about God's mission -- you can even do it from a very large church."
One of the newer developments in Tulsa in the last decade has been the evolution of the "multi-site" church. A multi-site church is considered one church that meets at multiple locations. This is best exemplified by the three video-venue campuses of Lifechurch.tv in Tulsa. The weekly combined attendance of these sites, led by senior pastor Craig Groeschel, is 4,600.
Other churches that have incorporated the multi-site model in the Tulsa area are First Baptist Tulsa in Sand Springs and South Tulsa, Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian in Jenks, The Church at Battle Creek in Midtown, and Guts Church in Skiatook.
Recently, the merger of Sanctuary Church of Tulsa, led by Ed Gungor, and Life Connection Church, led by Brent Sharpe, and the "shared-space" model of Garnett Church of Christ, led by Greg Taylor, and Connection Church, led by Farnsworth, highlight a trend that Bird and Tomberlin believe will be on the uptick in the decades to come.
In their book, Better Together, slated for release in April 2012, they anticipate church leaders at all levels will need to understand the issues, develop strategies, and execute a variety of forms of merger and renewal to give churches a second life.
Shaw cautions us as we look at these trends when he says, "...numerical growth may in fact mask the reality that many of these churches are growing broader at the expense of greater depth...there remains some serious questions as to whether the majority of this growth is healthy or unhealthy."
Melding of Faiths
"We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone" --Martin Luther
Perhaps a measure of the church's vitality in Tulsa can be found by exploring its impact outside of its four walls. At Christ the King Parish in Midtown Tulsa, Monsignor Daniel Mueggenborg believes their primary contribution to the social fabric of Tulsa is in the field of education. "Our largest ministry is Marquette School. We have 500 children from toddler to eighth grade that come from all over the metro area."
Christ the King also partners with the Tulsa Department of Human Services each Christmas season to reach out to the children of inmates and their families through the giving of Christmas gifts. In addition, a Meals on Wheels office is housed in their parish. The church allows them the use of their kitchen to prepare meals that are delivered to the homes of people in need.
Trinity Episcopal Church houses one of downtown Tulsa's longstanding mercy ministries, Iron Gate, an outreach that has been serving the hungry in the city since 1984. Tanya Moore, Social Services Coordinator for Iron Gate, says they serve an average of 600 hot meals a day and will have served 240,000 meals this past year.
For 27 years, Iron Gate was a ministry under the umbrella of Trinity Episcopal Church but recently became its own 509(a)(3)in 2010. In many respects, they are still a ministry of the church as their offices are headquartered there, the majority of the regular volunteers are parishioners at Trinity, and Father Stephen McKee, Trinity's rector, sits on the board.
A grassroots ministry run out of First United Methodist and Asbury United Methodist churches is helping individuals find jobs in a difficult time. Russ Knight, coordinator for the Employment Transition Ministry and Overcoming Job Transition programs, is convinced that this is a crucial time to offer assistance to those in need. "In the midst of an economic downturn where people are underemployed and unemployed, we want to provide help and hope."
Knight said these ministries provide hands-on, practical aid in the forms of workshops, special speakers and networking to help individuals find jobs. Through Agora, Taylor is pursuing the same goal, albeit in a different way, "Agora has started several entrepreneurial ventures, including our coffee house, a catering arm, and meeting room rentals, in order to someday pay for the ministry as well as employ people in our community. What better way to help our neighbors than to provide jobs."
Rabbi Charles Sherman of Temple Israel in Tulsa speaks of the disproportionate impact the Jewish community has made to the social framework of the city, "Each year, during the High Holy Days, [Temple Israel] partner with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, to provide backpacks for children. This year we provided 250 backpacks, the most of any congregation in the city."
A year ago, Temple Israel congregants partnered with Boston Avenue Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of Tulsa to build a home with Habitat for Humanity, bringing together Protestant, Jewish and Muslim parishioners under one outreach project -- a feat Sherman says is unrivaled to the best of his knowledge.
Spencer Smith, pastor to Young Adults at Asbury Methodist explains most clearly why this outward focus is important, "Churches are going to have to learn that the gospel has to be related to visible ministry to the community. We will have to learn to get outside our doors and offer real hope to those in need -- both evangelistically and in terms of service."
"Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, there a church of God exists, even if it swarms with many faults." --John Calvin
Determining the relevancy of the church in Tulsa today is a complex issue. By visual standards, the old adage "a church on every corner" is an actuality in Tulsa. This would lead one to believe that the church is in upstanding shape.
Brent Kellogg, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Sand Springs, does not think that is necessarily the case. "I think the church in Tulsa today is in a really tough spot. I think the easy believe-ism has convinced people that as long as you prayed a prayer, you're good. I think that is eroding away at the foundation of the church."
In his book, Spin Off-Churches, Rodney Harrison says that familiarity may also be an obstacle to the church's significance when he said, "Most...adults know the church is out there. It's just that the traditional church (as they understand it) has been a part of the cultural background for so long that they are turning to what they perceive as new and exciting spiritual expressions."
Harrison's use of the word "traditional" should not go unnoticed. For most, what is understood as a conventional church is a congregation that meets in a stained-glass sanctuary on Sunday mornings, is associated with a denomination, and its ministry is geared towards its members. The relevance of this type of church is what is waning in involvement in Tulsa.
The significance of "new and exciting spiritual expressions" may be what holds hope to the spiritual future of Tulsa. But in order to do so, new churches in Tulsa will need to engage two generally untouched segments of our city: the unchurched and de-churched.
In a recent UTW article, Matt Nelson, lead pastor of City Church, called this de-churched of Tulsa the new "megachurch" in Tulsa. Nelson continued, "Some have had bad experiences and others have come to associate the church with words such as irrelevant, boring, hypocritical and unnecessary... This has led many people to a spiritual isolationism or a sort of privatized Christianity where God is pursued or discovered outside a community of faith."
The vitality of religion in Tulsa is dependent on churches being able to reengineer for those who have never stepped into a church community -- or those who left and never came back. Nelson concurs, "I think Tulsa needs a revitalization of fresh, new approaches of reaching people in our city."
Some will find this "reengineering" in organic expressions of the church that author Reggie McNeal calls "post-congregational" - such as new monasticism, missional communities, or house churches -- while others will continue to plant churches or campuses in unreached pockets of Tulsa. Smith says, "You could argue that Tulsa has enough churches already. I disagree. We need new churches to repopulate the city because old churches aren't going to be able to make the jump." Smith continues to say the church is going to have to be much more relational within the church and less focused on institution.
Regardless of the model, Kellogg believes this is an important time for the church in Tulsa to ask itself some hard questions: "I think the churches in Tulsa who will grow will have to stop doing church the way we did it in 1987 and 1993 and engage this new culture."
Taylor agrees, "In order to be relevant once again, we will have to do what foreign missionaries do every day. Learn the language, seek to understand and know the culture, contextualize the message of the gospel according to the language and culture of the host, form strong relationships, and let the indigenous reach their own."
"If the church can make the jump to seeing itself as a missionary to Tulsa it will remain relevant," Smith said.
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