America is overwhelmingly Christian and always has been, but what a difference 200-plus years makes. Christianity in America is stunningly diverse. It ranges from tiny house churches to megachurches, from the strictest fundamentalists to the most liberal Protestants, and from the neatly ordered worship of all-Anglo churches to expressive multicultural services that draw on dozens of ethnic traditions. The United States is home to hundreds of Christian denominations and traditions. Some arrived with the earliest settlers. Others, such as the Pentecostal movement and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are homegrown. Many more have been imported or adapted from religious traditions rooted in nearly every corner of the globe. Some advice:
|Ups and downs
The percentage of Americans who say they’re Christian is falling, and the number who say they are not aligned with any organized religion is rising.
BE CAREFUL WITH LABELS. Christianity is incredibly diverse, with deep differences among denominations. Don’t assume that the label “Christian” carries with it a long set of beliefs; people’s beliefs vary greatly, even within a denomination. Ask what tradition people follow or describe their specific beliefs and practice.
AVOID JARGON, BUT LEARN WHAT IT MEANS. Journalists must contend with a dizzying array of structures, hierarchy and titles among Christian denominations. Then, they must translate the jargon into understandable language for readers/viewers and listeners. Some denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church, have a strict hierarchy, ranging from the head of the church (the pope or a bishop) down to the congregational level. Many, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or United Church of Christ, are congregationally governed, with a national body that issues guidelines but can’t enforce them. Most journalists bypass denominational meetings in favor of enterprise reporting or issue stories. Occasionally, denominational gatherings make big news. If you cover one, learn the issues and the jargon so you can clearly interpret the impact or importance of the event.
THE MAJOR HOLIDAYS and observances in Christianity are Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Advent and Christmas. Religion journalists generally cover these in some way, whether through enterprise stories, photography or daily coverage of events.
The 10 largest denominations in America
SOURCE: 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches
1. Roman Catholic Church: 67.2 million
2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.4 million
3. United Methodist Church: 8.2 million
4. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 5.5 million
5. Church of God in Christ: 5.4 million
6. National Baptist Convention USA: 5 million
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.9 million
8. National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million
9. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): 3.2 million
10.Assemblies of God: 2.7 million