2019
July
29
Monday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Today we look at the thinking behind a political lane choice, young farmers on the Great Plains, a (perhaps surprising) finding about Americans’ patience, a digital front door for church, and a magical space for storytelling. 

First, small signs of a shift that should encourage anyone reading this: Young adults – and even some future young adults – appear to be expressing a real interest in real news. 

That might not be altogether new. But at a time when “news avoidance” is considered a broadly applied practice, the U.S. generation to which global policies and actions matter most – and whose number is expected to eclipse that of boomers this year – is becoming one that is full of active news seekers. 

A report this month from the Knight Foundation found that 88% of surveyed Americans ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53% who do so daily. More important, many consider themselves attuned to the leanings of their sources, a critical skill for sifting for bias on everything from climate change to mass shootings.

Young newsies may be less brand-loyal and more inclined to do their own broadly sourced curation than others, but news quality is as important to this cohort as it was for those who came before, writes Dan Kennedy for WGBH. 

That’s hardly U.S.-exclusive. In Britain, a 2018 report from the National Literacy Trust found half of young people it surveyed to be worried about agenda-driven reporting. Organizations like NewsWise, supported in part by the NLT, are working with some of those who are next up – students ages 9-11 – on news literacy. 

They have so many questions,” writes Angie Pitt, the organization’s director, in The Guardian, “let’s give them the time and the opportunity to ask them.”

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1. As Democratic Party veers left, Harris steers toward middle lane

Can a candidate message one way before primaries, and another in the general election? For candidates trying to reach a divided nation, the tension in that time-honored approach is deepening.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) makes a campaign visit to the Narrow Way Cafe and Shop in Detroit, Michigan, July 29, 2019.

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As Democrats await the next round of primary debates in Detroit this week, many are wondering if they’ll see another skirmish between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Last time, the California senator’s well-aimed strike against the former vice president over busing gave her a boost in the polls.

Underlying that tactical question, however, is a bigger one: Is Senator Harris planting herself firmly to Mr. Biden’s left? Or is she laying the groundwork to try to topple him as the most viable “moderate” in the race?

On Monday, Senator Harris seemed to gesture back toward the center a bit, unveiling a “Medicare for All” plan that includes a role for private insurance within the Medicare system. Her plan calls for a 10-year transition and would be paid for partly by taxing stock and bond trades, rather than the middle class.

“Right now she’s looking for the center of the Democratic primary electorate, and she hasn’t quite figured out how that matches or doesn’t match with the balance that she did in California, where she was a bit center-right when she ran for Senate,” says Marcia Godwin, of the University of La Verne in California.

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As Democratic Party veers left, Harris steers toward middle lane

As Democrats await the next round of primary debates in Detroit this week, many are wondering if they’ll see yet another skirmish between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Last time, the California senator’s well-aimed strike against the former vice president over his past opposition to busing rocked him on his heels, and gave her a big boost in the polls – though it has since slipped somewhat.

Underlying that tactical question, however, is an even bigger and as yet unsettled one: Is Senator Harris planting herself to Mr. Biden’s left – as her previous ambush seemed to do, implying she is more progressive than he? Or is she laying the groundwork to try to topple him as the most viable “moderate” in the race?  

It’s a critical question, not only for Senator Harris, but for the top tier of Democratic candidates generally. Lately, many political observers have been warning that the party’s overall leftward drift could hurt them in the general election. Remember 1972, they say, when the liberal senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, lost in a landslide to an unpopular incumbent, President Richard Nixon. Or just think back to 2016, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college in key battleground states in the Rust Belt. That could happen again.

Socialism unpopular in swing states

“It’s very dangerous,” says Phil Trounstine, co-editor and publisher of Calbuzz, speaking of the progressive tilt of many of the candidates. Democrats nationally are more moderate than the Twitterverse, the liberal caucus in Washington, and many of the presidential candidates, he maintains. “I don’t think socialism is going to be that popular in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.”

The president is already defining his campaign as one against “socialism.” A top issue among the Democrats’ more progressive candidates, “Medicare for All,” does not poll well nationally, according to a July NPR-PBS Marist poll. Only 41% of registered voters think that a national health insurance program that replaces private health insurance is a good idea, while 54% think it’s a bad idea. Of the leading four candidates, only Mr. Biden does not support Medicare for All.

All hands went up in the second June debate when candidates – including Mr. Biden and Senator Harris – were asked if they supported health coverage for unauthorized immigrants. Yet the NPR/PBS Marist poll shows only 33% of Americans think that’s a good idea, while 62% think it’s a bad one. Some candidates, including Senator Harris, have suggested decriminalizing illegal border crossings. That’s “tantamount to declaring publicly that we have open borders,” Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post.

Last week, the senator showcased her progressive – and prosecutorial – credentials when she said that under her presidency, the Justice Department would have “no choice” but to pursue criminal charges against a former President Trump for obstruction of justice. She supports impeachment.

“It is not surprising that she is now articulating the more progressive policies that she has supported in recent years,” says Dianne Bystrom, a longtime observer of women candidates and presidential campaigns in Iowa. Senator Harris’ critique of the vice president – and its positive impact on her polling numbers – is evidence that moving to the left can create positive results for her campaign, she says in an email.

Mr. Trounstine believes that Senator Harris’ primary strategy is to do “well enough” in Iowa and New Hampshire, try to win in South Carolina, and then attempt to use California as a slingshot to victory in other states. A post-debate July poll by Quinnipiac University saw her overtake the former vice president in her home state, though voters who identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning still said Mr. Biden would be the best leader and had the best chance of beating President Trump.

If the senator’s strategy works, “the danger for the Democratic Party is that Kamala Harris would not have been tested in any of the industrial Midwestern states that one has to win in order to beat Trump,” says Mr. Trounstine.

Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant in Sacramento, does not see 2020 unfolding as a 1972-like liberal trouncing. “This is not the same country that McGovern and Nixon were battling it out over. This is a much different country,” he says. People used to be more “flexible” in their positions. Now, “what you see is a lot less of a battle for the middle, because the middle seems to be shrinking.”

Still, he is concerned about the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Progressives need to do a better job of communicating to working-class voters there that they have their best interests at heart, says Mr. Salazar. They need to focus on issues of affordability and job creation.

Senator Harris proposes giving working families a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year, raising teacher pay, and ensuring equal pay for women.

Is a pivot possible in 2020?

Of course, it’s textbook campaign strategy to run to the left (or right) in primaries to appeal to base voters, and then pivot in a general election to win over a broader ideological spectrum. But can a candidate like Senator Harris pivot? Is pivoting even possible in today’s divided America?

On Monday, she seemed to be trying to lay the groundwork for such a move, unveiling a Medicare for All plan that includes a role for private insurance, as long as it meets Medicare standards and is within the Medicare system. Today, about a third of Medicare enrollees have private insurance, known as Medicare Advantage. Her plan would also extend Medicare services to include, for instance, mental health care, and it would move quickly to universal coverage by immediately signing up newborns and the uninsured. While Sen. Bernie Sanders would allow four years to transition to his Medicare for All plan, her plan would take 10 years. And it would be paid for partly by taxing stock and bond trades, rather than the middle class.

“Right now she’s looking for the center of the Democratic primary electorate, and she hasn’t quite figured out how that matches or doesn’t match with the balance that she did in California, where she was a bit center-right when she ran for Senate,” says Marcia Godwin, of the University of La Verne, in La Verne, Calif.

Some wonder if it’s already too late. “I don’t think there’s room to move back to the center,” given how far left many of the candidates are and the nature of the primary turnout, says pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Even Mr. Biden is moving further to the left, though he is in the best position to tack back to the center later on, says Mr. Madonna.

Democrats retook the House last year by running more moderate candidates who could win in swing districts. But Mr. Madonna points out that Democrats also won by driving up turnout among young voters, as well as with college-educated women. Those cohorts are culturally very liberal, and not opposed to having the government play a major role in many areas of the economy, he says. Add in hostility to President Trump and it explains the progressive shift.

Since Senator Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016, she has built a strong, progressive voting record – if a short one. Progressive Punch ranks her as the third most liberal member of the Senate for her “lifetime” voting record, just below Elizabeth Warren. With many more years under his belt, Sen. Bernie Sanders ranks seventh.

But some question how firm her beliefs are. Over the course of her prosecutorial career in California, for instance, she changed positions on the death penalty, opposing it as the San Francisco district attorney when a police officer was killed, then defending it as state attorney general. Last week she lambasted the Trump administration for resuming federal capital punishment as “misguided and immoral” and called for a national moratorium. And she has stepped back from her controversial policy to punish parents for their children’s truancy, which resulted in a few parents going to jail.

“Her own record is ambiguous,” says Mr. Trounstine. “She can make it sound left, she can make it sound moderate, depending on what she has to be emphasizing at any given moment.”

That ideological flexibility can be useful, but it can also open her up to attacks from other candidates, and it could prompt voters to question her authenticity.

In the end, political observers still expect a desire to defeat the president will override all else for Democrats. And that may be the biggest risk for progressive candidates, says Mr. Madonna. “You can’t rule out that [President Trump] can’t win the electoral college again. So for the Democrats, they’re in a sense trapped in their own agenda.” They don’t want to hinder the enthusiasm of their base voters, but that may not play well enough in the Rust Belt.

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A deeper look

2. Can the Prairie Generation save rural America?

Never mind “keeping 'em down on the farm.” The youths in this story are showing a deep commitment to their region, coming home as skilled agriculturalists and entrepreneurs, and injecting a much-needed dynamism. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hannah Esch stands amid her cows in Unadilla, Nebraska. She’s moved the family business into branded beef, selling directly to consumers. She uses social media to tell her family’s story.

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Taylor Walker was a year away from getting his teaching degree at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte, Nebraska, when his father called wondering if he wanted to start a restaurant back home.

That would be Gothenburg, Nebraska, a city of 3,448 with no stoplights and a big grain elevator just before the railroad tracks. His father had retired and sold his steakhouse in 2016. “Gothenburg got in a panic when it was gone,” says Mr. Walker.

So Mr. Walker skipped the degree and last September opened T. Walker’s on Main Street. Why move back to a rural community, anyway? “I’m not a real fan of the big cities,” says Mr. Walker. And “I had seen how the community of Gothenburg treated my dad with his businesses. If they continue that for me, then I owe it to them to be here.”

There’s a new generation of rural entrepreneur returning to the Great Plains. These enterprising young people are starting small and unconventional operations. And unlike previous generations, they aren’t going off to big cities and then returning after a decade or two. Instead, these young people are often coming home right away. 

It’s not clear how big the movement is and whether it can reverse the population decline that’s gone on for a century in the rural Plains. But if energy combined with business and social media savvy can overcome demographic decline, then perhaps these youthful entrepreneurs – the first generation born after the farm crisis of the 1980s – have an opportunity to do it.

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Can the Prairie Generation save rural America?

Outside Unadilla, Hannah Esch walks into her cooler and pulls out packages of rib-eye, brisket, and hamburger. Over the past nine months her new company, Oak Barn Beef, sold out of meat four times and brought in $52,000 in sales. Over the next year, she expects to double those sales numbers.

That will be a milestone. It will also be when she finishes her last year of college.

Some 150 miles northwest, the Brugger twins, Matt and Joe, show off how they’re diversifying from traditional agriculture. They directly market the beef from the cows they raise and they grow hops for local microbreweries. But the most visible sign of their commitment to the rural Plains is the two-story farmhouse they’re renovating on the family homestead. 

“We’ve just gotten to a point where we can live here,” says Matt, who moved in with his brother in May. It represents free housing, a key attraction for the budding entrepreneurs who have more ideas than dollars. But it’s more than that. It’s the place their great-grandfather bought when he moved here from Switzerland. It’s where their grandfather was born and where they played as children when the house was later rented by people who kept sheep. 

“We always wanted to be back in rural economic development,” says Matt. But it wasn’t clear until college what that would mean, which was going back to the family farm. The twins graduated in May.

There’s a new generation of rural entrepreneur returning to the Great Plains. Unlike those who take over a conventional farm and help make it bigger and more efficient, these enterprising young people are starting small and unconventional operations. And unlike previous generations, they aren’t going off to big cities to acquire skills and then returning after a decade or two. Instead, these young people who straddle the end of the millennial generation and the beginning of Generation Z are often coming home right away. 

It’s not clear how big the movement is and whether it can reverse the population decline that’s gone on for a century in the rural Plains. But if energy combined with business and social media savvy can overcome demographic decline, then perhaps these youthful entrepreneurs – the first generation born after the farm crisis of the 1980s – have an opportunity to do it.

“There is a spirit in these young people that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Tom Field, director of the eight-year-old Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Of the 120 or more of its alumni, “90% of them say their goal is to return – or they choose to live in – a small or rural community. These are students who have had international experiences, had internships on both coasts, but they choose to live and work and play in places where they have a deep affinity with the culture, the people, and the landscape.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Twins Joe (left) and Matt Brugger stand in front of their home in Albion, Nebraska.

It’s not just would-be farmers who are returning. Taylor Walker was a year or so away from getting his teaching degree at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte, Nebraska, when his father called wondering if he wanted to start a restaurant back home.

That would be Gothenburg, Nebraska, a city of 3,448 with no stoplights and a big grain elevator just before the railroad tracks. His father, who had run a succession of restaurants in town, had retired and sold his steakhouse in 2016. “Gothenburg got in a panic when it was gone,” says Mr. Walker. “[My father] thought it might be a good idea” to start a new one.

So Mr. Walker skipped the degree and last September opened T. Walker’s on Main Street. It’s much smaller than his dad’s steakhouse but more centrally located, just between Yancy Insurance Agency and Ribbons & Roses, a floral shop. Employees of the two banks across the street come over to enjoy a menu that runs from sirloin steak to grilled trout. “They’ve got the best hot beef sandwich,” says resident Verlin Janssen.

Why move back to a rural community, anyway? “I’m not a real fan of the big cities,” says Mr. Walker. And “I had seen how the community of Gothenburg treated my dad with his businesses. If they continue that for me, then I owe it to them to be here.”

When the Brugger twins first started thinking about a return to the rural Plains, their initial idea was to do something in business development. Then they met with Dr. Field of the Engler program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He urged them to be role models, instead.

“He was the first one to say, ... ‘The best thing you can do for your community is find what you love to do. Start a business around it and hire people to come back ... and show other young people that you can do what you love in a rural community,’” Matt recalls. “We completely changed our perspective.”

Now, the recent college graduates run their own company, Upstream Farms. They have 50 cows. They market the beef directly, mostly to the training table program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which serves high-quality foods to student athletes. They raise hops for nearby craft breweries, and because the university takes only the best cuts of beef, the twins sell the rest of their meat as hamburger to the boutique beer firms. 

“You grow up and you get to college and it’s all about the industrialization side of [agriculture],” says Matt. “We like to tip our hat to the way that things used to be: this way of life where you had hogs, cows, sheep, chickens. You grew four or five different kinds of crops all on one piece of land. ... We like to say that we’re twin brothers farming the Midwest, putting new ideas on old dirt and connecting our customers back to land.”

Those new ideas don’t always get the support of their father, Norman Brugger.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt and Joe Brugger buy cattle from their father, Norman Brugger, and use his land.

“Two years ago I said, ‘Dad, we need to grow more cover crops,’” Joe recalls. He explained the benefits of raising a crop over the winter to help build up a root system in the soil, which would allow them to use less fertilizer. “Cover crops are nothing new. ... [Grandpa] understood it,” Joe adds. “It was Dad who was like, ‘What! We’re going to plant again after we harvest?’”

Norman agreed to experiment with 80 acres. But in the spring, when they went to kill the crop to get ready for planting corn and soybeans, weeds started sprouting in the field because the cover crop seed had been contaminated.

“It was one of those things where I thought I knew what I was talking about,” Joe says. “And it just fell on its face.” Cover crops have been abandoned for the moment.

Perhaps that caution springs from Norman’s experience. He started farming in 1983, near the start of the worst farm crisis since the 1930s. At the time, farmers were going out of business because they had accumulated so much debt buying land at inflated prices during the booming 1970s. When interest rates skyrocketed and crop prices and land values plummeted during the 1980s, farm lenders could no longer justify the debt that farmers were carrying.

While others were selling out, Norman started buying land. It paid off in the long run but required him and his young family to live frugally while crop prices were depressed. A drought didn’t help. According to family lore, the twins’ older sister didn’t see rain until she was 3 years old.

So when the twins proposed building a distillery, their parents responded, “That’s really risky, guys,” Matt recalls. “They go, ‘You guys don’t know what it’s like to live in really, really hard times.’ And they’re right. We’re privileged not to have [known] that. And so we do take more risks. And I think that maybe someday ... it’ll catch up with us.”

“But maybe not,” he adds.

Starting a business anywhere is risky, but in rural America it’s even harder. That’s partly because a declining population means a shrinking market of customers.

“You definitely have got to pay attention to what the town has to offer,” says Mr. Walker, the restaurateur who’s following in his father’s footsteps. “Gothenburg does a very good job. They brought in Frito-Lay [which buys corn from local farmers]. ... The town has so many opportunities that it helps keep the people here.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Two men chat in downtown Gothenburg, Nebraska, across the street from a steakhouse that Taylor Walker came back to his hometown to open.

Stability is fragile on the prairie. Despite the good times, Gothenburg has lost more than 3% of its population since 2010, which puts it back to where it was in 1980, before the farm crisis. In rural Nebraska, however, that counts as a roaring success.

Many schoolchildren learn about the Homestead Act, the 1862 law that opened up the Western frontier to settlers with the lure of 160 acres of free federal land. But few outside Nebraska know about the Kincaid Act of 1904, which did the same for the Sandhills and the rest of north-central and western Nebraska. Because the land was arid, the Kincaid Act gave each homesteader 640 acres, a square mile of land – four times what the Homestead Act had offered. The western half of the state’s population skyrocketed.

Already, in eastern Nebraska, however, there were troubling signs of decline. In 21 of the state’s 93 counties, the population had peaked by 1900. One of them, Otoe County, where Ms. Esch runs her cattle, had seen its population grow sixfold in the three decades from the outbreak of the Civil War to 1890, but then it went into a long, slow decline. It lost nearly half its residents through 1990 before rebounding a bit.

The rapid surge from the Kincaid Act also began to wane soon enough. By 1940, the population had peaked in more than two-thirds of Nebraska’s counties covered by the law, including Boone County where the Bruggers live. Using machinery that got ever bigger each decade, farmers consolidated their holdings, and towns started to disappear. When the twins’ great-grandfather moved here from Switzerland, he lived in Akron, a small community built in anticipation of a railroad that never came through. The country store, dance hall, and church are long gone. The twins’ address is now Albion even though the town center is 13 miles away.

The decline in population not only crimps the number of people rural businesses can sell their wares to, but also reduces their labor pool. After graduating from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, Jameon Rush stayed on to do video production for a regional bank based there. During that stint, he started his own video-production company on the side and, when he realized it was viable, struck out on his own full time. What he didn’t count on was the lack of local specialized talent. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows graze in a prairie outside Obert, Nebraska, bordered by plowed fields. Many acres of grassland have been converted into cropland in the Midwest.

“I was having difficulty finding the right people,” he says. Instead of finding a dependable No. 2 employee for his company, the position became a revolving door, he says. So this year he sold his company to a marketing agency, which was wanting to bring video production in-house. He now works for the firm and in June moved to Lincoln, the state capital, where the company is based. 

His relocation to the big city is symbolic of a troubling trend for rural Nebraska. Between 2000 and 2010, the typical rural county in the state (one with no town of 2,500 or more) lost nearly half its population of 20- to 24-year-olds, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. That is partially offset by a 16% net in-migration of 30- to 34-year-olds, presumably people who have worked elsewhere and are now wanting to return to the Great Plains.

But it’s not enough to reverse the overall trend of Nebraskans settling in urban and suburban areas. In 2010, the two counties containing Omaha and Lincoln as well as the county between them represented just over half of Nebraska’s entire population; by 2050, they’re projected to account for two-thirds. The state’s rural counties are expected to lose population over that time. 

For Ms. Esch, the future is bright with entrepreneurial possibilities. Her main customers are “moms and old men,” she says. The former are attracted by the beef that’s coming directly from the farmer; the latter want to eat the kind of steaks they remember from their youth. She has the meat butchered and wrapped, then ships it out in boxes ranging from 10 to 25 pounds. She’s gotten so experienced at shipping frozen meat that she’s thinking of doing it for other small beef companies, eventually doing custom butchering as well.

“And then I would love to own a storefront that incorporates something else,” she says, “whether that’s cooking classes at night for beef or a coffee shop in the morning and beef shipment throughout the day.” 

Even if the new generation of entrepreneurs succeeds in their attempts to work the soil, the question is whether they can really help revive the rural Midwest.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hannah Esch, a rising college senior, sells a variety of meat products through her company Oak Barn Beef.

“In my area, I’m gonna guess more [people will move in], just because we are so close to Lincoln and Omaha that people can still live this lifestyle but have the great jobs,” says Ms. Esch, bouncing along a rolling gravel road in her pickup. “How do you go live in the city after this?” 

But the rural parts of Nebraska and other states that aren’t close to a metropolitan area might be another matter. Ms. Esch’s own future is uncertain, because her father is getting out of the cattle business. By next February, even before she graduates, she could be down to 30 cows for her business. And it’s not clear she will stay in Unadilla.

“I think the [communities] that continue to innovate and make it a great place for people to live will have more people,” she says. “But the ones that don’t are going out of business.”

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3. Why wealth and patience appear to go hand in hand

This one was a talker at this morning’s editorial meeting. Patience is often thought of in terms of social interactions. But the ability to bide one’s time also plays into national economics.

Patience may be a virtue, but it could also be a key economic indicator.

Economists are interested in values like patience, altruism, and trust because they play key roles in how people behave. Those individual and collective behaviors can have wide-ranging effects on a nation’s propensity for armed conflict, trajectories of per capita income, and expansion of entrepreneurial activities.

Levels of patience, for instance, vary widely from country to country, according to an analysis of survey data collected from 80,000 adults in 76 countries. Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States topped the list, with Nicaragua, Rwanda, and Georgia at the bottom. 

Patience, it seems, is associated with factors that are key for upward mobility. Patient individuals, for example, not only were more likely to save but also had higher education levels, researchers found. 

It may not be a coincidence that some of the wealthiest nations in the world rank as the most patient, says Armin Falk, a professor of economics at the University of Bonn and lead author of the analysis.

“The more patient people are and the more they save,” Professor Falk told the German newspaper Handelsblatt, “the more they can invest in equipment and education – and they become that much more productive and rich.”

While individual choices combine to shape national landscapes, the inverse is not always true. Professor Falk and his colleagues found wide variations within individual countries. – Danny Jin

SOURCE: Falk, A., Becker, A., Dohmen, T., Enke, B., Huffman, D., & Sunde, U. (2018) "Global evidence on economic preferences," Quarterly Journal of Economics; Our World in Data
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Too busy for church? There’s an app for that.

Should the experience of church be convenient? As online services and Bible apps expand, some people are finding an expanded definition beyond just a building. But others worry community is being lost.

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It’s church, gone mobile. For many, digital tools are the latest innovation in church history, no different than cathedrals or the printing press – “the new front door of the church,” as Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, puts it.

This digital shift comes at a vulnerable moment for U.S. religion. Gallup reported that church membership fell 20% in the past 20 years. A 2016 Pew study found that just half of Americans attend church once or twice a month. “Nones” are America’s fastest-growing religious group.

At the same time, Pew found that about half of those attending less frequently cited “practical difficulties,” such as work or travel. If some shrinking congregations stem from busyness rather than lack of belief, the convenience of church online could help boost attendance.

Some see a downside. “In an age where people tend not to interact with other people as much ... I think putting church on our phones can be a dangerous thing,” says Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based writer. But supporters of online ministry argue that in-person attendance doesn’t always promote community and that the anonymity enabled through the internet actually allows many to better connect online. The executive pastor at one church app, for example, says he’s been able to reach people digitally who were struggling with divorce or debating suicide – people he’s never met in person and likely never will.

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Too busy for church? There’s an app for that.

Dallas residents Lincoln and Natalie Redmon spent two years bouncing from church to church. After marrying and moving to the city, they just couldn’t find the right fit. So late last year Mr. Redmon wrote down a goal: “Find a home church or have God answer that prayer in a different way.” 

Two days later, he saw an Instagram post from Judah Smith, lead pastor of the Northwestern multisite ministry Churchome. “We have a new location,” he said in a video post. “And that location is everywhere.” Mr. Smith announced Churchome’s new app, bringing pulpits and pews into pockets and palms.

The Redmons logged on. Soon, they started a local watch group – now with almost 60 members. Every Sunday, about 25 people visit their house and livestream a service together. 

“It makes you feel like you’re still a part of a local church even though you’re using technology,” Ms. Redmon says, adding that the app changed their definition of church itself. “When we wake up every day we think everything is church. So if we’re going shopping at the grocery store or if we’re driving our car and we’re singing worship music, all of that means church.”

The Redmons’ experience is increasingly the norm: Call it church, gone mobile. For many, digital tools are just the latest innovation in church history, no different than cathedrals or the printing press.

“When we think of the Great Commission – and going and making disciples – this is a different way of going,” says Lori Bailey, communications director for Oklahoma’s Life.Church, which has one of America’s largest online ministries. “There might be some people who go with their feet, and there might be other people who go with their keyboards.”

A “new front door”

Like the rest of society, church leaders initially thought digital technology would change everything, says Tim Hutchings, professor of religious ethics at England’s University of Nottingham. But when the internet grew banal, so did online ministry. “The ways in which the internet has most changed society are the hardest to see,” he says. “They become an invisible part of how we do everyday life. You kind of forget that there was ever anything else.”

A 2016 study from Pew Research Center said nearly 60% of adults under 30 used the internet while searching for a new church, compared with just 12% of adults older than 65. Life.Church’s online services alone have recorded more than half a million unique visitors, says Ms. Bailey. Their Bible app, YouVersion, is approaching 400 million downloads. 

“The online is the new front door of the church,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center.

This digital shift comes at a particularly vulnerable moment for U.S. religion. Gallup recently reported that church membership fell 20% in the past 20 years. A 2016 Pew study found that just half of Americans attend church once or twice a month. “Nones” are America’s fastest-growing religious group.

At the same time, the Pew research found that about half of those attending less frequently said their biggest obstacle was “practical difficulties,” such as work or travel. If some shrinking congregations stem from busyness rather than lack of belief, these churches hope, the convenience of church online could help boost attendance.

A real connection?

Online churches are not without their critics, many of whom worry that technology allows people to keep religion at arm’s length. Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based writer, recently criticized the impersonal aspects of online churches last year in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

“A lot of churches seek growth at all costs,” she says in an interview with the Monitor. “For a lot of these churches, they’re trying to expand their imprint – and almost their brand – by creating apps, by putting services online, by counting their online campuses. And that comes, I think, at a real cost of having in-person community.”

If Christians find themselves too busy for Sunday service, Ms. Turner says, they shouldn’t change how they attend church – they should lead a less busy life. 

“In an age where people tend not to interact with other people as much, where it’s a lot easier to sort of arrange our lives so that we don’t have to interact with people ... I think putting church on our phones can be a dangerous thing,” says Ms. Turner.

Others, like Mr. Stetzer, support online ministry but still think church is done best in person. “My avatar always looks happy,” he says. “On my Instagram, I’m living my best life every day. So the challenge is if that’s not true, we need someone to weep with us and to laugh with us.”

But supporters of online ministry argue that in-person attendance doesn’t always promote community.

Mark Venti, executive pastor of central ministries at Churchome, says people can easily slip in and out unseen in stadium-sized buildings. The anonymity enabled through the internet actually allows many to better connect online. Mr. Venti says he has used the church’s app to reach people struggling with divorce or debating suicide – people he’s never met in person and likely never will. 

The internet allows the elderly or people with disabilities to attend without discomfort. People in countries where Christianity is banned can worship more safely. Those with weekend shifts can use online church to keep their job and their faith. 

Making church “addictive”

In order to grapple with declining attendance nationwide, Mr. Venti and others at Churchome are trying to make their ministry “more addictive.” He wants to give church the same accessibility that makes him buy too much on Amazon. But that goal, he says, brings a new entrepreneurial mindset. Pastors listen to God; startups listen to the consumer.   

“We’re not in Silicon Valley nor are the people that we’re partnering with developer-wise, but it’s definitely changed our world,” says Mr. Venti. “And so we’re going to [ask] how can we use that mentality and those tools to help the church too.”

Around the turn of the century Life.Church’s most advanced technology was air conditioning, says Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor and the church's innovation leader. Their growth since then has come in part from one of their aligning values: “We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ.”

Mr. Gruenewald says the best thing they ever did for YouVersion was add a streak counter – à la Snapchat – that tracks the consecutive number of days you read scripture. With this focus on habit formation, he isn’t afraid that Life.Church is distracting people into their ministry. The Bible, he thinks, will change you no matter why you read it. 

“It’s trying to compete against the other bazillion apps that they have on their phone that have all the same kind of noise that’s vying for their attention,” Mr. Gruenewald says.

Same service in New Mexico and New York

The Redmons say they use Churchome’s app at least once every day. On family trips to the West Coast, they’ve visited in person just to see what it’s like. But even in Dallas, Churchome is still their home church.

One of the first to embrace a multisite structure, Life.Church now has 33 locations, but only one pastor – at least only one who preaches. On Sundays, each Life.Church from New Mexico to New York streams the same prerecorded message from Pastor Craig Groeschel, based in Oklahoma City. 

The branch in Albany – which Barna Group listed as America’s sixth-least Christian city this year – can attract more than 60 congregants even on the fourth service of the day on a Sunday. 

Walking inside, visitors meet a T-shirt-wearing welcome team and Christian pop on the radio. Pre-service worship resembles a concert more than a choir. Hands raised and eyes closed, congregants sway and spotlights circle. Projected onto three screens, “Pastor Craig” interacts with the crowd from afar. Albany members laugh at his jokes. 

Their web-based Church Online offers 10 services a day – complete with worship, preaching, praying, tithing, and volunteer-staffed chat rooms. Many of the songs are similar. Mr. Groeschel preaches the same sermon. You can leave with a left-click.

“Church should be a little bit like ‘Cheers,’” says Mr. Stetzer, “where not maybe everyone knows your name, but at least several people know your name.” 

That, or your username.

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. At Grimm & Co., teaching kids to believe in stories – and themselves

“Making learning fun” is pretty much a cliché at this point. But in a faded English town more defined by its past than by its future, one bookshop really leaned in – and made magic.

Courtesy of Grimm & Co.
Jeremy Dyson, a British screenwriter for TV, film, and theater, looks at a comic book drawn by an attendee of a storytelling workshop at Grimm & Co. in Rotherham, England. Mr. Dyson is a trustee of Grimm & Co., a nonprofit that opened a magic-themed store in 2016 in Rotherham.

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Rotherham, England, is a town better known for postindustrial decline, not literacy events. But that is why it is home to Grimm & Co.’s Apothecary to the Magical – an imaginative space that helps kids in Rotherham believe in stories and in themselves.

Deborah Bullivant founded it as a nonprofit in 2014. It offers free writing workshops at its store and in schools, including after-school and vacation programs, serving close to 3,000 children a year.

It does so with a Harry Potteresque facade of magic and whimsy that gets kids engaged. The three-story Victorian department store that Grimm & Co. occupies is a spot-lit space with wooden floors and blackboard displays, but its wares are unconventional: goblin mucus soap, secret spell books, and sacks of mixed curses.

Ms. Bullivant’s broader goal is to anchor art and creativity in this former steel-and-coal town of 258,000 that isn’t on Britain’s cultural map. She dreams of making it a storytelling capital for children that builds on the success of Grimm & Co., which is already looking for a bigger space.

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At Grimm & Co., teaching kids to believe in stories – and themselves

On a rainy Saturday morning, 11 young teens gather inside a downtown store. It’s a spot-lit space with wooden floors and blackboard displays, but its wares are unconventional: goblin mucus soap, secret spell books, and sacks of mixed curses.

Welcome to Grimm & Co.’s Apothecary to the Magical, established in 1148 but until recently only visible to its exclusively immortal clientele.

There’s a fairy tale-writing desk, a meat cellar for dragons, and a bookshelf with bound volumes and potion blenders. On its bottom shelf is an inverted bottle that opens a secret door to a writers’ den for the Saturday morning club, whose members are waiting to go inside.

Before they can pass through the portal, however, Sarah Christie, a staffer, poses a question. “What would you consider to be humanity’s greatest achievement?”

Several hands go up. Computers! The internet! Not so, interjects Connor, a 10-year-old boy with a serious expression behind his shamrock-green glasses. “Magic is humanity’s greatest achievement,” he says. “As well as octopuses.”

For school-age scribes in this faded English town, Grimm & Co. might rank as its greatest achievement. It offers free writing workshops at its store and in schools, including after-school and vacation programs, serving close to 3,000 children a year.

To Deborah Bullivant, who founded it as a nonprofit in 2014, its success in inspiring kids like Connor is confirmation of academic research she developed to improve literacy in Rotherham, a town often defined more by its past than by its future.

Her research showed that disadvantaged schoolchildren can be guided to think and write creatively, even when they doubt their own ability to do so. “It has to be real and it has to be playful,” she says.

“Someone’s got to do this”

While Grimm & Co. targets children in deprived communities, its workshops are open to all and it blends students with learning disabilities with their peers.

The effect can be liberating. A mother of an autistic boy thanked Ms. Bullivant for giving him the confidence to write. “Everywhere else in the world everyone thinks I’m weird because of my autism. At Grimm & Co. everyone is weird,” the boy told his mom.

Ms. Bullivant’s broader goal is to anchor art and creativity in this former steel-and-coal town of 258,000 that isn’t on Britain’s cultural map. She dreams of making it a storytelling capital for children that builds on the success of Grimm & Co., which is already looking for a bigger space.

Courtesy of Grimm & Co.
Grimm & Co. founder Deborah Bullivant is helping children create their own stories.

The apothecary, which opened (to mortals) in 2016, has become a tourist attraction, and Ms. Bullivant recently hired a retail manager, her ninth staff member. With an annual budget of £360,000 ($440,000), it relies on more than 100 volunteers to mentor children and support a range of projects, from radio dramas to concerts where children’s poems are set to music.

Ms. Bullivant is a former educator. In 2009, she was hired by Rotherham Borough Council to develop a strategy to improve literacy in its primary schools that lagged in reading and writing. Her approach, which paired mentors with disadvantaged children in an imaginative setting, led to an 18% gain in test scores among 11-year-old boys over two years.

Then the funding ran out. Ms. Bullivant realized that her research would sit unused unless it was put into action, and she was angry. It was anger, she says, that led to Grimm & Co. “Someone’s got to do this. No one else is prepared to do it so I’ve got to do it,” she says.

The storefront concept came from watching a TED Talk by Dave Eggers, the bestselling author and founder of 826 Valencia, a pirate-themed store and tutoring nonprofit in San Francisco. Mr. Eggers explained how the store, which had inspired 826s in other U.S. cities, had become a gateway that children could enter to uncork their imagination.

“It was what I was thinking about. It meant I wasn’t the only person who was doing this,” says Ms. Bullivant.

Changing Rotherham

Indeed, an 826-inspired store, the Ministry of Stories, had opened in London in 2010, backed by bestselling British authors. But that was London, not Rotherham, a town better known for postindustrial decline, not literacy events.

In 2014, Rotherham’s reputation took another hit: A national inquiry into the organized sexual abuse of around 1,400 girls over more than a decade severely criticized police and social services for failing to investigate the ethnic-Pakistani perpetrators. Far-right groups showed up to protest and sow more divisions in a town that had recently absorbed a wave of European immigrants.

Undeterred, Ms. Bullivant found a three-story Victorian department store that had been converted into a grimy pub and set about creating her apothecary. It wasn’t enough to be good, she reasoned. It had to be amazing, an imaginative space that would make kids in Rotherham believe in stories – and in themselves.

This is the power of narrative, according to Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England, which is one of Grimm’s funders. In February he told an academic conference on creativity that Grimm had given young people the narrative tools to reshape their world.

“Rotherham’s postindustrial neglect and the painful history of child abuse are facts. But why should the town and its young people be always defined by this history?” he asked. “That is not what it is. This is not who they are. Their storytelling explores how the individual imagination can change the world around it.”

Before the launch, Ms. Bullivant discussed her ideas with Mr. Eggers and sent him photos after the store opened. Last December he went to Rotherham to visit what he calls “one of the most elaborate, anarchic, and wildly creative spaces” for young writers he’s ever seen.

“People around the world have adapted the [826] idea to their own communities. But no one has taken it further than Grimm & Co.,” he says in an email. “Kids really do respond to spaces like this. They get it.”

Writing a better future

Upstairs in the writers’ den, Ms. Christie warms up the children with a word association game before pulling out her phone.

She’s just received a message from herself in 2039, she tells them. Apparently the future is a big mess, so the club has to imagine an ideal world so as to divert the course of history “in a non-time-warping way.”

The children, ages 10 to 14, break into groups, or work alone. Using markers on poster paper, they draw and write the rules of their imaginary worlds, which lean toward green energy and space travel.

Connor sits alone at a table sketching in a book. His future world, Cephalopod City, is ruled by octopuses and squid and cuttlefish; it’s illegal for humans to eat seafood.

When he grows up, Connor says he wants to be an astrophysicist and to write part time. He’s already written one book at Grimm, he adds. That puts him in a minority at his primary school. “A lot of people in my class don’t like writing,” he says. The first time he came to Grimm, “my mind was like, pow!” he says, miming an exploding head.

With 10 minutes to go, Ms. Christie gathers the group members and asks them to present their worlds. Children ask questions and give feedback. Then it’s time to descend to the store and out to the ordinary world of a rainy lunchtime in an ordinary English town.

There’s an elevator, or a green playground slide that ends near the door where parents are waiting and where magic goods are for sale. But for these kids the magic is in their minds.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the ethnicity of the perpetrators in the sexual abuse cases.

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The Monitor's View

Puerto Rico’s liberation moment

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Almost every peaceful protest has an iconic moment. In Puerto Rico, where two weeks of massive demonstrations against government corruption and other misdeeds have led to the ouster of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, that moment occurred when many protesters read the U.S. Constitution aloud to the police.

Those who read the document were not pointing to the half-million people in the streets of San Juan. Rather, they were citing the moral law of unalienable rights – for themselves as well as the police. After a decade of hardship – recession, debt, Hurricane Maria, federal intervention, and then a scandalous governor – Puerto Ricans are transitioning from feeling like victims to being free agents in a constitutional democracy. They could unite and clean up their own government, first by demanding a new governor and soon by demanding better political parties and candidates in the next election.

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Puerto Rico’s liberation moment

Almost every peaceful protest has an iconic moment. In 1989 China, it was a lone man facing down military tanks. In Sudan earlier this year, it was a woman singing a folk song about equality. In Puerto Rico, where two weeks of massive demonstrations against government corruption and other misdeeds have led to the ouster of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, that moment occurred when many protesters read the U.S. Constitution aloud to the police.

Those who read the document were not pointing to the half-million people in the streets of San Juan. Rather, they were citing the moral law of unalienable rights – for themselves as well as the police. Guns are not power, they were saying. The mass of people is not power. Instead, power resides in an objective moral order that allows people to give their consent to be governed – or to withdraw it.

“When people realize that you’re not just the employee, you are the employer, that you get to decide who is on top, this is what happens,” one protester, Luz Torres, told the Miami Herald.

After a decade of hardship – recession, debt, Hurricane Maria, federal intervention, and then a scandalous governor – Puerto Ricans may be transitioning from feeling like victims to being free agents in a constitutional democracy. They could unite and clean up their own government, first by demanding a new governor and soon by demanding better political parties and candidates in the next election.

“You have a population that has discovered they have a power they didn’t think they had,” former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá told The Washington Post. “Politicians have to be ready to be accountable and transparent because there is strong distrust for the traditional institutions.”

The effect of this historical empowerment could be broader than the island’s politics. It might also influence the future status of the territory. If more Puerto Ricans now understand their rights are not conferred by government but derive from the natural principles of self-governance, they could finally decide whether to achieve independence, be granted statehood, or maintain the status quo as a commonwealth.

The choice may not be easy, but it has been made easier by the way the protesters stuck to peaceful tactics and by reminding officials – and themselves – of the constitutional principles of democracy. Sometimes those principles must be read aloud.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Resolving conflict by recognizing God’s goodness

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A stubborn refusal to budge can be disastrous to relationships and progress. But when we put willfulness aside and instead let God lead the way, solutions naturally and harmoniously emerge.

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Resolving conflict by recognizing God’s goodness

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“Compromise” is not a dirty word, though it’s often seen that way.

A stubborn refusal to budge can be disastrous to relationships and progress. On the other hand, solutions emerge when we are willing to listen to others rather than lumping them into negative categories simply because their viewpoints are different from ours.

In my efforts to do better at this, I’ve found inspiration in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry taught respect for honest hearts. Christ Jesus emphasized the inclusive nature of God’s love through a story of a lost sheep. From a large flock, one sheep had strayed. The shepherd wasn’t about to lose even one animal, so he searched until he found it and joyously returned the sheep safely to the flock (see Matthew 18:11-14).

From the shepherd’s standpoint, each sheep was of value. If we think of God as our loving Shepherd, as in Psalm 23, this means we are all embraced in the all-loving universal intelligence of the Divine. No one is unimportant, unworthy, or not good enough to be heard. God’s goodness, peace, and intelligence are expressed in His entire creation.

During my teen years, a time of great spiritual growth, a project my dad wanted to undertake clashed with a village ordinance. He was called before the village officials to discuss it.

I remember my dad as a patient, kind, and thoughtful man. He also had a fiercely independent streak. So when the day of the meeting came around, my mom, concerned about my dad’s “stubborn streak,” asked me to go to the meeting specifically to pray for harmony.

It touched me deeply that my mom felt my prayers could make a difference for good, and I went.

After the officials stated their case, my dad stated his view, and there followed a thoughtful silence. I saw by my dad’s quiet demeanor that he was praying. I had been praying too. I had learned in the Christian Science Sunday School that another name for God is Mind, and that God is infinitely good and loves all His children. I reasoned that that would include everyone present. I trusted this one divine Mind to show us all a solution.

Then, as I prayed, I thought of a compromise that could resolve the conflict. It seemed so obvious that I waited for someone else to mention it. No one did! Responding to what felt like a gentle mental nudge, I asked to speak, and then explained the idea that had come to me.

The village officials agreed that this proposal would work for them. My dad was so surprised. He agreed that it would also work for him. And everyone went home relieved and grateful that a conflict had been resolved.

“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, who founded The Christian Science Monitor, tells us, “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; … annihilates … whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes …” (p. 340). Although today’s times may seem far from gentle and world problems considerably more serious than a small-town project, that same all-knowing, active, wise, and universal divine Mind still governs. Yielding to the oneness and unity of this Mind brings that divine government to light. Doing so is natural for the man of God’s creating – that would be all of us.

In this way, letting our wise and loving divine Shepherd lead us, each of us can step up to the opportunity to daily devote our prayers, conversations, and decisions to making a difference on the side of good for everyone – one prayer, one conversation, one decision at a time.

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Viewfinder

A somber end for a festive weekend

Noah Berger/AP
Police officers escort people from Christmas Hill Park following a deadly shooting during the Gilroy Garlic Festival, in Gilroy, California, on July 28, 2019. Some 100,000 attend the festival each year.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 30th, 2019 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. To stave off evictions, San Francisco is launching an effort to offer legal aid to every tenant, regardless of income. Landlords aren’t too sure about that last part.

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 29, 2019
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