The latest church ranking published by U.S. News and World Report has sent murmurs through congregations across the country.
The report, which evaluates churches based on factors such as spiritual reputation, member selectivity, visitor retention, member-pastor ratio, quality of preaching, and tithing rates, takes up a full issue of the magazine and is one of its most popular features.
"It's invaluable," says Agnes Smith, a second-year law student. "I'm always on the lookout for a better church, and this report makes shopping so much easier. I used to spend months visiting one church after another, cataloguing their flaws and strengths so that I could make a decision. Now, all the information I need is in one place."
Her classmate Zachary White agrees. "The report really opened my eyes to what's out there. I used to think I was getting a pretty good deal at my last church. Then I read the report and saw that just a few blocks away was another church that was more spiritually mature and doctrinally sound, with better music to boot! I switched that very Sunday."
But not everyone is thrilled with the rankings. Main Street Church received high marks for member selectivity (would-be members are carefully grilled on the finer points of arcane heresies before being admitted), but when its anemic preaching, dreary hymns, and declining membership were factored in, it received a low overall ranking. "It's not fair," an anonymous church member complained. "Once we're saddled with the stigma of a low ranking, we can't recruit top talent to revitalize our spiritual growth. It's a vicious cycle."
Like it or not, the report's popularity virtually guarantees its continued publication. The magazine is considering launching a companion website, www.theperfectchurch.com, where you can enter your spiritual profile and be matched with a list of promising churches to try.
Nursery school can be chaotic at the best of times, but Crossworks Christian Preschool faces an extra challenge: three-quarters of the girls are named "Grace."
"Every time I say, `Grace, stop doing that!' a dozen girls will turn to me with confused looks," says David Spencer, a teacher at Crossworks. "It's a real problem."
Baby names have always been subject to fads, but the "Grace phenomenon" seems to be unique to American Christianity, according to Spencer. "It's not easy being a Christian mom nowadays, so they tend to band together for support," he says. "They read the same books, listen to the same music, and even buy the same brands of baby formula. There's nothing wrong with that, but when they all pick the same name for their kids---well, that's going too far. You'd think they're afraid of being `left behind' if they don't follow the trend."
The long-term social and psychological repercussions are hard to assess, but Spencer is not optimistic. "In the short term, it's easier to feel accepted if you have the same name as everyone else. But it comes at a price. Can you say `identity crisis'? I shudder to think what these girls will have to go through during their teen years."
Asked if he thinks the fad will pass quickly, Spencer says, "Maybe, but I'm not holding my breath. At the Christian daycare down the street, half the girls are named `Nevaeh.'" Nevaeh? "That's `heaven' spelled backwards," he explains. "It's the latest thing. All I can say is, heaven help the girl whose friends all have the same name. She's going to need all the help she can get."
Building a sanctuary large enough to hold all its members is a big headache for most megachurches.
Not for Fir Creek Church.
With 80,000 members and counting, Fir Creek is one of the largest megachurches in the country. But rising real estate prices do not concern Rev. Wesley Hacker, the senior pastor. Fir Creek Church exists entirely in cyberspace.
"I started posting sermons on my blog while I was still in seminary," says Hacker. "At first the only readers were bed-ridden patients at the local hospital and a few teenagers with nothing better to do. But somehow word got around and readership just kept growing. When I graduated, I thought, the Spirit is really doing a miraculous thing here. Why not just start an online church?"
The church's website, www.fircreekchurch.org, has evolved from Hacker's modest blog into a full-service site, complete with bulletin boards, live chat, and podcasts. Members can submit prayer requests by email, study the Bible with the help of interactive Java applets, and watch streaming video of other members singing hymns, all from the privacy of their own home or office.
"It's the perfect church for people with no social skills," says Janice Bright, a deacon at Fir Creek. "At other churches, if you're slow getting out of the sanctuary after the service, you might have to, like, talk to someone. At Fir Creek, there's no such pressure. Plus, everybody's so busy nowadays; we provide maximum flexibility. You don't have to set aside Sunday morning to get your spiritual fix for the week; all you need is a Blackberry and you can worship while stuck in line at McDonalds or in a boring meeting at work."
What lies ahead for Fir Creek? "Missions," says Hacker. "Fir Creek is ideally positioned to save souls around the globe. Other churches may take years to train missionaries and raise funds to send them overseas. But every African farmer with a cell phone already has a Fir Creek missionary in his pocket."
A recently published study suggests that churches that are aiming to be "seeker-friendly" should begin worship by singing "Happy Birthday."
Faced with declining membership, many churches have sought ways to make their worship services more attractive to first-time visitors. "We get a lot of folks who have never set foot inside a church before, and are intimidated by all the unfamiliar songs and rituals we have," says Mary Ames, a member of First Lutheran Church, which participated in the study. "So we've made a few changes to make them feel more comfortable. Ever since we switched our opening hymn from `A Mighty Fortress is Our God' to `Happy Birthday,' our visitor retention rate has tripled."
Pastor John Benigno agrees. "In a strange environment, a familiar face---or tune---can make a world of difference. `Happy Birthday' is a song everyone can relate to. And if one of our visitors happens to have just had a birthday---this happens more often than you might think---then what better way is there to say, `Welcome to our church!'?"
The study also suggests other minor adjustments to accommodate newcomers, such as replacing "Hallelujah!" with "Ka-ching!" and "Amen!" with "You got dat right!"