Millions of Americans in more than 35,000 congregations nationwide bowed their heads today to observe the 58th annual National Day of Prayer, even as the Obama administration faced a conservative Christian backlash to his muted observance of the event, plus a progressive uprising from members of his own party who are offended it didn't take place.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced Obama would issue a proclamation recognizing the National Day of Prayer, as presidents have traditionally done for more than half a century, but would not invite religious leaders to join him at the White House.
That contrasts sharply with the enthusiastic reception former President George W. Bush gave to religious figures on the National Day of Prayer.
Christian leaders viewed the White House announcement as an indication that Obama was trying to downplay the event and, indirectly, the importance of prayer.
"We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration," said National Day of Prayer Task Force Chairwoman Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. "At this time in our country's history, we would hope our President would recognize more fully the importance of prayer."
One reason for the administration's muted response: It has joined an unusual coalition led by Republicans and Christian advocacy groups to fight a lawsuit filed in October by the anti-religious organization Freedom From Religion Foundation.
That group wants the day of prayer banned altogether as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In March, the Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case. Supporters of the prayer day launched a Web site in February dedicated to the coming legal showdown, www.SaveTheNDOP.org.
The tradition of a national prayer day that atheist groups want to end traces its historical roots to 1775, when the Continental Congress proclaimed a special day for "prayer in forming a new nation."
The modern observance was established by an act of Congress in 1952. During the Reagan administration, the first Thursday of each May was designated to officially recognize the importance of prayer in American life.
Despite the backdrop of the culture-war conflict that has become commonplace in American political life, National Day of Prayer observances were continuing unabated throughout the country on Thursday.
Among the events taking place: The national observance was broadcast live from the Nation's Capital on GodTV. Some events will air on DirectTV, and there will be cable news coverage of them as well.Tangle.com, formerly GodTV, was attempting to set the Guinness world record for largest online prayer rally. An organization named Prayerflight has recruited pilots in all 50 states to take to the nation's skies and "cover each state capitol in prayer," the NationalDayofPrayer.org Web site says.A Hollywood version of the National Day of Prayer was to be webcast from Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, featuring entertainment-industry figures and leading religious leaders.Congregations around the country organized local events.
Notable contributors to this year's program include Super Bowl-winning NFL coach Tony Dungy, NASCAR giant and current FOX Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip, and honorary event Chairwoman Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof ministries.
The National Day of Prayer also kicked off "Rethink Church," an unprecedented, $20 million United Methodist Church campaign to attract the 35-and-under crowd. Most social scientists and pollsters believe that group is at risk of going through life altogether unchurched.
For Christendom, the numbers aren't pretty. Only 15 percent of 15- to 34-year-olds have a "good impression" of Christians, according to a recent poll the UMC conducted, along with the Barna Group research organization, and the Nashville, Tenn.-based advertising and marketing firm Bohan.
About 87 percent say Christianity is too judgmental, and 85 percent describe it as hypocritical. The statistic of greatest concern: About four in 10 Americans between16 and 29 define themselves as non-Christians.
Combining those statistics with the reality of declining attendance at many congregations, and a laity that is trending older and older, explains why United Methodist leaders believe the time has come for a new approach to appeal to younger Americans.
The research also uncovered major opportunities for the church, if it is willing to reconsider how it presents its mission. Studies consistently show the new generation is much more global-minded, and a whopping 96 percent say they want their lives to really make a difference in the world. Sixty-six percent say they're looking for meaning, and 62 percent describe themselves as spiritual.
Rather than get people into the church to save them, edify them, and somewhere down the line enlist them to help with church ministries, the UMC's new paradigm first appeals to the yearning expressed by many young people to reach out across national boundaries and make a difference in their world.
That mission is a natural for today's churches, religious leaders say. After all, they point out, reaching out to help disadvantaged people abroad has been a central part of Christianity since Jesus first challenged his disciples to go forth and share the gospel throughout the entire earth.
"A part of this campaign is to find other doors, than the front door of worship, to invite people into that kind of relationship and conversation," the Rev. Larry Hollon, general secretary of United Methodist Communications, tells Newsmax. "So we're saying if you want to change the world, here's a way to do it: By providing [mosquito] bed nets to children in Africa. And we invite you as the people of the United Methodist Church to join with us and do that. And there are many others ways."
Providing a way for young people to get involved in the church's missionary activities provides a connection that later could lead to salvation, baptism, and church membership — steps that probably would have preceded participation in ministry in the past.
The new approach is being presented via a national, five-year advertising and communications campaign spanning virtually every medium: television, radio, magazine, and online.
The campaign challenges young viewers' assumptions about religion with probing questions such as: "What if church wasn't just a place we go, but something we do?" and "What if church wasn't just a building, but thousands of doors, each of them opening up to a journey that could actually change the world?"
Jamie Dunham, chief planning officer for the Bohan agency that helped create the campaign, says it encourages young folks to log onto an interactive Web site, 10ThousandDoors.org. There they will learn how to get involved in initiatives ranging from global health needs, building houses for the homeless, literary programs, and social-justice programs in Darfur – all initiatives the UMC is already involved in.
The site even offers visitors an interactive Google Earth tool. You can click and see the UMC ministries now underway worldwide.
"What we found," Dunham tells Newsmax, "was younger people are not necessarily rejecting Jesus Christ. They're rejecting a perception of what they have heard, or maybe experienced in some cases, about what church is. So this redefinition of thinking about church beyond just Sundays in a building, and looking for solutions for daily life, and participation in the world around them, is really the key to this."
And what would Christ himself think of this unique new approach to ministry?
Hollon answers: "I think he would say to United Methodists: 'Where have you been? I've been here all along. Welcome.'
"He engaged people in the streets," Hollon explains. "It was at the wedding feast, it was on the hillside, it was out in the country, it was in fields where he could talk to workers. So I think he would say, 'I've been here all along. Where have you United Methodists been? I'm glad you're finally getting back in the game.'"
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