Archive - February, 2008

Seeking Faith–The Pew Research

Folks in the U.S. are changing religious affiliation in substantial numbers according to a Pew research study released this week. As the headline in the NY Times put it, we’re living a “fluid religious life.”

While the Pew study doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation, it documents churning as people move in and out of religious communities apparently seeking more meaningful connection.

This has been called “spiritual grazing” and it refers to sampling religion as if it were a salad bar offering, a little of this, a little of that with no lasting commitment to any of it. This may be too harsh and judgmental. The Pew study doesn’t provide enough interpretive data to make this case.

And there is real pain afoot. Indicators of anxiety, mental well-being, happiness and life satisfaction point to widespread distress at midlife. Rates of depression are highest among people in middle age according to a recent study of people in 80 countries. The researchers offer no simple set of causes but it’s clear that people are experiencing distress and it’s understandable they’re seeking relief through spiritual search as well as in other ways.

Family relationships and community support are undergoing change. The workplace is in transition, jobs are evaporating and the economic base is shifting, all of which add to uncertainty in everyday life.

It’s been clear for a long time that denominational loyalty is not as strong as it once was. We don’t remain affiliated with the religious community into which we were born if it doesn’t meet our needs, and many of us weren’t “born into”any religious community, so we’ve no firm connection.

A recent study by The Barna Group confirms this trend. People are seeking spiritual meaning in settings and with technologies that have never served this purpose before. A significant number are turning to online communities, interactive websites and house churches to meet spiritual needs.

George Barna contends this is creating new religious practices that he and co-writer Frank Viola call “pagan Christianity.” People are finding spiritual places apart from the traditional religious settings and practices that have prevailed since the Middle Ages.

The research also calls into question popular notions about defection from mainline denominations. Some critics of mainline Protestant leaders argue that liberal leaders are driving people away. But the Pew research reveals the Roman Catholic church under two decidedly conservative popes has experienced greater defection than Protestants.

Numbers gathered by The United Methodist Church reveal 285,239 more people chose to join the church between 2001 and 2005 than chose to leave.

Given the substantial changes underway across old-line institutions today, I think this claim about leadership causing defection is suspect. It’s too simple. Something deeper and more complex is happening.

There is another nugget here. Pew does not count attrition resulting from death. That’s the cause of the greatest decline in The United Methodist Church. In fact, if you factor out members lost by death, the United Methodists are replacing those who leave by substantial numbers.

My calculations, based on statistics from the church agency that gathers such numbers, show that the inflow of new members is significantly greater than the outflow if we follow the Pew research model and exclude attrition due to death. In the past eight years, United Methodists brought in significantly more new members than they lost, half of them through profession of faith which is the first-time commitment to the faith. In the period from 1995 to 2000 the church gained 481,268 more people than it lost through all reasons excluding death. In the period from 2001 to 2005 it gained 285,239 more than it lost.

Because the greatest single cause for attrition is death, not defection, the challenge the church faces is stepping up its outreach to attract younger people. But the figures do not substantiate a disaffected, moribund community in irreversible decline.

The Pew and Barna studies also point to a question that needs discussion. What measures should be used to assess denominational health today? Membership does not reveal the range of spiritual practices in which people are engaging. Nor does it capture the involvement of those who affiliate informally but choose to not take membership vows. These people participate in Bible study, prayer groups, educational exposures, volunteer mission events, and many other offerings. But their presence and participation escapes notice in membership records. Is there another way to record vitality and outreach?

In a time of significant cultural and social change, people are seeking spiritual comfort and guidance as they search for meaning and purpose in uncharted waters. This presents great opportunity to offer hope, to heal brokenness and to overcome despair. These figures lay out a landscape for significant ministry if we listen with sensitivity and reach out compassionately.

Four-year-old Pot Smoker

This story of a four-year-old demonstrating to police how to smoke pot caught my eye. It’s from my former hometown, Omaha.

It reminded me of another story from my current hometown. A teacher recently rewarded her third grade class with those straws containing powdered candy. Most of the kids tore the paper top from the straw and poured the sweet and tart powder on their tongues.

One little guy used a different method. He emptied the powder onto his desk, spread it in a line and used the straw to sniff it through his nose.

Social Capitalism vs. Charity

How to end poverty? The question is getting more serious attention today than I’ve seen in several years. Some contend, of course, that the bible says it’s an impossibility. I don’t read the bible that way. The point of Jesus’ often-cited statement (Matt 26:11) was that he was soon to be gone and his disciples needed to hear him and get prepared. It was less about the poor than about the current demands time was pressing upon them.

Another important part of the conversation is the value of benevolent giving to support efforts to eradicate poverty on the one hand, and the use of social capitalism to create economic sustainability on the other. Mohammad Yunus is the most well-known and successful social entrepreneur. His Grameen Bank has lifted hundreds from poverty. This article evens points out that microfinance might be a viable investment.

A few months ago I heard Frederick Smith, CEO of FedEx, make the claim that corporate capitalism is doing the same, citing India as the example.

For me, the key is building economic self-sufficiency that results in people gaining the power and capability to change their communities for the better. This kind of development is about more than profit for the sake of profit and more than jobs for the sake of creating more individual consumers. It’s about profit for community change.

Yunus advocates this. Many others don’t. For some, it’s a by-product of the capitalist model, not the rationale for it. That’s where the social entrepreneurship discussion begins to head down different pathways. Profit for the sake of profit, with side benefits of economic improvement; or profit for the sake of community improvement and individual economic benefit.

Yunus works with small groups in their communities. He develops viable community organizations from the ground up. The corporate model operates on a totally different scale and relies on trickle down benefits. Yunus tackles the challenge of working with those who are poor, unskilled and illiterate. Depending on the kind of business and the workforce it needs, the corporate model will develop skills, even among illiterate workers, or rely upon highly educated workers underutilized in the society. But social benefits flow downward from higher paying jobs and more money in circulation, not from helping the poor find their own voice.

The trickle down theory of economic development that held sway during the Reagan years has not notably improved the lives of the millions living in poverty. The claim that globalization has done so is being disputed as often as it is being revered today.

Social entrepreneurs are quick to condemn charity because, they say, it creates dependency and does not result in change. In fact, it undermines real income-generating sustainability, some say.

Those skeptical of entrepreneurial ventures see it as yet another form of economic exploitation encouraging consumption but weak on justice. I recall saying when I came to my present position that non-profits were going to have to become more entrepreneurial. I was cautioned about using the word “entrepreneurial.” It did not fit the culture of the organization at that time.

This has changed. We are in a more entrepreneurial environment, even if there are those in the non-profit community who don’t like it or agree with it. The challenge to traditional fundraising and benevolent giving will continue to loom large in this environment, and so too, will the the methodology most likely to create social change.

Community organizer Saul Alinsky laid the foundation for social change theory and its implementation that sustained the radical change movements of the Sixties. He gave us the lens through which we have viewed social change the past thirty years. He believed grassroots organizing was necessary to achieve social justice. The system would not change enough by nudging and tweaking. Fundamental change required radical intervention often through confrontation.

We are negotiating yet another turning point in the debate about social change theory. Social entrepreneurship and radical social change theory have parted ways. It’s a legitimate question to ask if radical social change can result from capitalist models. Yunus says it can. His experience is that people can move from poverty to economic self-sufficiency with a small loan and skills training.

But the broader question is whether this change can lead to empowerment. Can upward-moving poor folks gain the power to transform their communities? Can they get a voice to influence decisions affecting their communities, build schools, clinics, get basic services and pass laws that protect the weak, poor and vulnerable? Yunus says yes.

Economic well-being is not empowerment and it does not result in community empowerment. As well-paying jobs in the U.S. migrate off-shore or disappear, the ability of those who had enjoyed economic well-being does not translate into the ability to forestall the loss of jobs or community decline.

Charity is built upon an ethical system that at the very least informs us that life is about more than material well-bing. It is about quality and dignity and self-determination. For all its weaknesses as a methodology of change, charity is a reminder that human dignity is intrinsic. It transcends any social order or economic method. It is rooted in the concept that we are all created in the image of God, it isn’t conferred by any government and should not be violated by government.

And it reminds us that justice occurs in a nurturing community in which all are valued and each is encouraged to achieve his or her fullest potential. The conversation should be about how to create the most nurturing and effective community. Absent these values, business at best is benign and at worst very harmful as Human Rights Watch reports. The transition period we are in is about much more than the theory of social change. It’s about how people achieve justice.

Malaria’s Toll Continues

Word came from Zimbabwe this week that the daughter of United Methodist Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa died on Tuesday of malaria. While the disease wreaks havoc among the poor, it’s clear its reach is far wider.

A United Methodist bishop recently told me in Africa he had to step down from presiding at his annual conference because he had an episode of the disease. He also reported the death of a close family member to malaria.

The attention the disease has gotten in the past few months is positive but the short attention span that we in television-saturated Northern societies hold tends to lead us to quickly turn to other more current causes.

Such a shift in attention could be a fatal. A sustained effort is necessary to get this disease under control, if not eradicated. Any loss of momentum can give the parasite time to adjust and become even more resistant to residual sprays and medications.

It’s also common to assume that mere coverage translates into progress against a disease. It doesn’t, of course. Sustained efforts an all fronts–vaccine research, clinical trials, net distribution, education, water management, environmental cleanup and health care access all must be attended to if the disease is to be reduced. We are a long way from that desired state.

The news and personal testimony of those who live in areas where the disease continues to take its toll makes this clear.

The End of Malaria

About two years ago I had a conversation with a physician who cautioned, admonished might be a better word, to not call for an end to malaria. It was a call destined to fail, he said.

Knowing he was well-informed about global health, it caused me great caution. His perspective is shared by veteran workers and malaria researchers. They know that the world made great progress toward containing, if not eradicating, the disease thirty years ago only to see it come back with vengeance when abatement measures were scaled down. They fear a repeat with even worse consequences–a resistant strain of malaria than cannot be effectively treated with known medicines.

There is plenty of reason for caution here. But a new report by the World Health Organization cites progress containing this disease in the past two years and makes the projection that malaria’s toll could be reduced by 80 to 85% in five years with widespread distribution and use of bednets coupled with other prevention measures and better treatment. Dr. Arata Kochi, a malaria expert at WHO says, “we can reduce the disease burden 80 to 85 percent in most African countries within five years.”

If this assessment holds, a global push to control malaria may be what is needed next to achieve a tipping point. But the caution remains. Progress today does not guarantee long-term reduction. The risk is real that a reduction in aggressive prevention and treatment could result in catastrophic reversal. It will take willpower, long-term commitment and consistent determination to put this diease in the background.

But with a disease that claims a life every thirty seconds, millions of debilitating episodes a year and at least a million deaths, shouldn’t we give it our best effort? For the first time in a long time we have the means and the capability. Caution should not overtake commitment.

The Gospel of Wealth

The gospel of wealth, about which I wrote in the previous post, presents a case for religion as upward mobility. For those who have been left out of the material economy it has a magnetic attraction. But the lifestyle of extravagance typified in the globetrotting television evangelists in private jets that supposedly proves the point is, in fact, a blasphemous contradiction.

The Jesus who said he had no place to lay his head and who rode into town to his death on a donkey is unrecognizable in the gospel of wealth.

And those who have been most faithful in following his lead have likewise not been persons driven by economic gain. They have sought faithfulness through service to others and fidelity to a relationship with God.

I am reminded of John Wesley’s concern about his own movement. He feared his followers, whom he admonished to earn all they can, save all they can and give all they can, would ultimately become prosperous and lose their spiritual authenticity to their wealth. His concern was well-founded. Wesley probably would find it difficult to adjust to those who are in his movement today. It has moved from attracting people on the economic margin to the midst of the establishment.

Wesley said that when he died he wanted only enough in his pockets to pay for his death shroud and his pallbearers. He wanted to leave no estate and to accumulate no wealth. He gave it away to the poor and he was successful in carrying out this life plan, leaving no earthly wealth behind.

But Wesley did not call people to poverty, he called them to serve others, especially the poor. He also was progressive in recognizing that those who had given up careers to engage in preaching ministry needed financial support in their later years when they were “worn out preachers.” So he started a pension fund from the proceeds of books sold by the fledgling Methodist publishing concern. To this day proceeds from the publishing house in The United Methodist Church are divided and given to annual conference pension programs.

At the root of this concern was human dignity, not economic luxury. And this, it seems to me, is where the gospel of wealth goes haywire. It focuses on the economic gain that comes with frugality by putting on display lavish living. Jesus, Wesley and others taught that human beings as creatures of God are entitled to live in conditions of basic dignity and these include a economic well-being. Poverty is an indignity.

But excess was seen as symptomatic of a distortion of one’s relationship to God–a relationship that should rightly result in concern for the poor–and one’s relationship to the Creation. It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get to heaven was a statement about the human spirit and its capacity to hold to faithfulness when blessed with excess. It’s harder to give up comfort and excess than to give it all away as an act of faithfulness.

For Wesley, life took its meaning from service to God and others. There was no gospel of wealth for him, but a call to divest oneself of wealth in the quest for faithful servanthood.

Jesus or Wesley living in a mansion or flying the world in a private jet? I don’t think so.