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Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation

Pope Francis is being celebrated for his ability to change the conversation of the Roman Catholic Church. His communication skills coupled with the stature of the papacy have brought a new tone to discourse within the church and captivated those of us outside that communion.

Pope Francis. Photo from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis is reframing the conversation through strategic communicationsPhoto from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons.

Francis has, at least for the time being, put Christians and the Christian faith in a better light in the wider culture as well.

How has he done it? I suggest a few ways:

1. Scripture not subject. Francis frames his comments with Scripture and not with the hot topic of the day. This shift from subject to Scripture places him on a firm foundation to critique the culture without starting from a reference point in the culture wars, a point that is sure to polarize. This frees him to bring Scripture to bear on issues, rather than starting with issues and pulling Scripture into the conversation. He leads with values.

2. Theology not ideology. He refers to theological teaching in past encyclicals. Like Scripture, theology is part of his conversational foundation. This allows for consistency in his teaching, and it integrates the moral instruction of the church with Scripture. Equally important, it gives him the ability to speak without using the language of ideology.

3. Personal not provocative. The pope has personalized those matters that have high cultural sensitivity such as human sexuality, and other matters. He has made it clear he believes in the sacredness of human personality. Identifying people by labels is provocative but not his way, nor the way of Scripture.

4 Future not past. He speaks about what might be. He points to a vision of a social order that includes the poor. He has written about encountering those who are on the margins and embracing those who are left out. He has issued a call to Roman Catholic Christians to reach out and serve. This is not new, but Francis is issuing the call in a way that has not been heard recently, and it points to a vision of God’s preferred future.

5. Inspirational not institutional. He frequently refers to the joy of the gospel rather than starting his cultural analysis with existing conditions. He has spoken sharply about the harmful effects of consumer culture and the unfettered free market economy. His critique, however, is based on the theological precept that we are born to be in community with God and with each other, and in this relationship we find joy and inspiration for life. He says consumer society creates its own form of individualism. The free market economy diverts and isolates us from this joyful and inspired life with God. As a result, we become estranged from others, from God and, tragically, from our own true selves. Francis has reminded us that we are more than consumers, especially in God’s eyes.

6. Compassion not condemnation.Who am I to judge?” he asked when speaking about homosexuality. This is the most divergent path he could take from condemning persons of same-gender relationships. Francis has created an image of humility by speaking compassionately, even as he is the personification of the authority of the church.

7. Communication not exhortation. The pope has used multiple media to encourage the church to evangelize by encountering people in the culture. He is speaking in a communications environment in which we are present and comfortable. He has taken his message to Twitter. His outreach through church media and public media reveals strategic planning. He believes in communicating strategically.

8. Colloquial not complex. His language is more colloquial than academic. He has gotten attention, in part, because people understand him. His personal style has created a sense that he is speaking in the same language that we the people use.

While he has only begun, his communication style is a refreshing change. He is being credited with changing the conversation.

However, it is only a start. Institutions change slowly and resistance from within is great.

Church laws and procedures have not changed, and stories about human sexuality and clergy sexual abuse continue. He cannot control his narrative when these stories capture our attention as well.

Francis, by virtue of his position, is a celebrity. In a celebrity culture there is a pattern. What goes up also comes down. It’s as true for popes as for rock stars, a position Francis attained when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

We can hope that Francis’ papacy does not follow this trajectory. And we can be thankful that he is leading from his values and communicating thoughtfully with strategic purpose.

 

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

In the past four posts, I’ve pointed to how information communication technology and communications strategy have been employed to encourage transparency as we discuss how new media influence us and the practices of the church.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

We’ve seen how the power of social media can unleash giving and provide a way for us to contribute to changing the world.

And we’ve reviewed how strategic use of communication and various technologies can connect us and be used to express how Christians understand our global responsibilities.

Moving forward

I attempted to provide a theological framework for why communication can be viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of the church in the post yesterday. I believe communication is more than a technical support function and when we fail to see it in this more complete role, we reduce our capacity to communicate the Good News of God’s love for the world. Communication is ministry.

From the perspective of the practice of communication, the thread that ties these four posts together is that they are all about communicating with people using the media with which they are familiar (whether that is mobile technology, social media, low-wattage radio or other channels) in an environment in which they are comfortable.

We live in a communications environment that is shaping us and our unique cultures, no matter where we live in the world. For example, messages by global corporations are tailored to different contexts, but the use of media to deliver those messages and our response to the messages affects us in similar ways.

Shaped by technology and by messages

In this mediated process we are shaped by both the technology and the messages that are exchanged within the process.

More than ever, we in the church need to view communication as an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church. How we communicate–the technology we use and the conversations we engage–is extremely important.

Communication is more horizontal today than ever before. I’m not naive about who owns the transmission towers: large corporations do, and as Egypt proved, threatened governments can shut down these media when the government is under duress. As the NSA story has shown, these media can also be used to invade our privacy, so they come with a substantial downside as well as a positive upside.

But it’s clear that we can work within this corporate/government reality to interact with each other more easily and immediately than ever before. Therefore, we can be better informed and we can act globally with greater ease than at any time in human history. And we should.

The Absent Voice

We should tell our own stories and assist others to tell theirs. A significant change in mainline Christian communions in the U.S. in the past several decades has been their persistence in reducing their capacity to communicate by cutting communications budgets and staff. By abandoning the field, they have left it to others to tell their story.

And some storytellers have an agenda contrary to the well-being of the denomination, while others lack essential understanding and have been less enlightening.

This failure to be in the communications environment with adequate resources, creativity and consistent presence has left them marginalized. It is often said about my denomination, The United Methodist Church, that no one speaks for the church but an elected body that meets every four years. Thus, we have no “spokesperson.”

While that is true, it is also revealing. There are spokespersons by default. They are often detractors who speak about the church and whose critiques, inaccuracies and agendas go unchallenged.

The Default Position

Out of this default position, perceptions are formed and opinions about the church are expressed, but, too often, the voice of the church is absent because no one is sanctioned officially to speak for it. But those who are unabashedly willing to authorize themselves to speak, do so, often presenting a viewpoint that reflects a narrow slice of the church’s full teaching, or worse, bending the teaching to fit a particular agenda.

It has also meant that we have not given attention to communication as a legitimate field for doing theology. Thus, humane values and the ethical and moral witness of the church have been absent. I believe faith is formed in the interactions we have with each other in the world and out of this interaction we deepen our understanding of God at work in the world, and within us.

This is also where we come to terms with the sacredness of life and Creation. When we are disengaged from a significant part of the exchange that is taking place in the public conversation, and cultural and social interaction, we exclude a significant piece of the quilt that makes up the fabric of our lives.

While I’m not an academic theologian, I hazard to suggest we cannot do theology apart from the conditions in which people live, nor apart from the powerful influences that affect our lives through culture, commerce, governance and many other dynamics that shape life. This is the gritty stuff of life that the apostle Paul used to shape the earliest teachings about what it meant to follow The Way, as the earliest followers of Jesus were known.

The Demise of Vertical Communication

Paradoxically, the world has moved beyond the age of vertical communication in which edicts were issued, a receptive audience awaited them, and the edicts were received and followed. While this is much too simplistic, it’s a way of saying that more people are communicating more ideas in more ways than ever before, and top-down communication must compete with the noise and distraction of a media environment that is as participatory as it’s ever been. Several years ago, Jay Rosen made the point clearly when he said “the people formerly known as the audience” are no more.

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New media provide new ways to practice old spiritual disciplines such as Bible study on tablets with online connection for referencing additional content electronically. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

We’ve also seen how the gatekeepers of the old media are being challenged to adapt to the new environment and come up with new ways of delivering information and interacting with the users of the information.

This is the environment in which Christian values can be projected, and where those values can participate in shaping the culture and, hopefully, humanizing the conversation.

The ease with which we communicate today is deceptive. The communication environment is more complex and fraught with risk than it’s ever been. This is why mainline communions should give more attention to strategic communication, and not disengage from the field.

Communication is Ministry

More people are producing and sharing information, and in the process finding their voice. Sometimes this is for good, sometimes for ill. When the church enables communication in places where people are off the grid, it is engaging in an important mission. When the church introduces communication technology to provide spiritual development, education, health information, connection and empowerment, it is offering ministry. Access to information has become a human right and an expression of justice.

I hope that 2014 will bring the development of more communication networks, more use of social media tools to communicate more widely, and a continuing effort to add new technology as it becomes available to build on these efforts started in 2013. While I believe the technology and the messages shape us, I believe that communication rooted in Christian community is not just about tools and technology, but about reaching out to people with concern and compassion as an expression of our ministry.

As always, I invite your comments, insights, or corrections.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Connecting

UMAC 2012

Wayne Rhodes, General Board of Church and Society, leads a workshop titled, “What You Need To Know About the UM Connection” at the 2012 United Methodist Association of Communicators meeting. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

In this fourth post in the series, I reflect on how communications technologies make it possible to connect with people half a world away, and why that’s important.

Connecting continents

New mobile technologies make it possible to connect with others in ways that were not previously possible. In The United Methodist Church, in which I am ordained, we often speak of ourselves as a connection.

The term is not well understood. It comes from the organizational system in which clergy and laity can conduct ministry and service as part of a global system. It is not a congregational-based organization.

Congregations are connected with each other in a regional organization called a conference. The conference is led by a bishop who is elected from within a larger regional area made up of conferences, called a jurisdiction.

Connection as asset

I believe the connection is one of our greatest assets. It gives us scope and scale that allows us to carry out mission and ministry that is consequential, the kind that can make a difference because of its reach and depth. Often, it is said about some rural parts of the world that the church is in places that even government ministries don’t reach, for example.

By this, it is meant that a local faith community exists beyond the end of the road in places that are not likely to get much attention, places where isolation can lead to poverty, lack of health care, educational services, and basic services. These conditions create stress and suffering that discourage the flourishing life that I believe God intends for all persons.

It means that ideas and resources can be shared in ways that would not happen otherwise. And it means people who might not otherwise be able to do so, can share at a scope that has greater result. This is undergirded by religious values that reflect a commitment to human dignity and belief in the sacredness of all life under God.

Haiti 2013

Teacher Sylné Guerdy works with students in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in Thomas, Haiti. The program is part of a United Methodist Communications effort to use technology for development. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose

It is an outgrowth of our understanding of the meaning of discipleship, to follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the world and for each other because we believe we are connected by the love of God and are responsible to and for each other.

Connecting for the common good

In a world of global messaging and influence by governments and corporations, a globally connected world, the means for people of goodwill to carry out works of religious value is needed. When religion is humanizing and compassionate, it contributes to the common good, and a connectional system that can offer, through its communications capacity and through its organizational mission, a deeper understanding of our humanity, a way to reach out with compassion, and to advocate for justice, is a valuable asset.

As we grow in members around the world, we are having conversations about an emerging understanding of how we are connected globally.

At its best, this connection means that we can do more together than we can do independently of each other, as individuals or as single congregations. It  allows us to achieve scope and scale, as when we give to Imagine No Malaria, which results in the provision of medicines, bed nets and health training that can affect whole regions and nations.

It also enlarges our influence for the common good, which is a direct outcome of our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus to heal the world and reach out to those who are sick and in prison, poor and neglected, no matter where they are.

Connecting through global mapping

About five years ago, Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area and I discussed his concern that there were local churches, as well schools and health clinics operated by the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that could not be identified. Lacking a developed road system or effective communications, these facilities were unconnected.  The options available at that time to map those locations were both limited and expensive.

In the last 12 months, United Methodist Communications initiated a pilot project to map the geographic locations of churches outside the U.S. and add them to a global database available to everyone online. This effort began with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines, and will extend to other countries within Africa, the Philippines, eastern and central Europe and Scandanavia in 2014. (United Methodist Communications began to provide communications tools and training to connect these conferences several years ago. A network of communicators has been created and the networking of conferences is continuing.)

For the first time, people looking for United Methodist churches, schools and health care facilities in Africa, Europe and the Philippines will be able to find them online and learn more about their ministries. This information is being gathered through the use of technologies that reside on mobile phones and take advantage of GPS and software called Ushahidi, an open source project that allows crowd source emergency information to be sent by mobile phones.

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Sam Perales configures link in Tacloban, Philippines to enable communication for humanitarian agencies while UMCOM representative April Mercado, and Randy Baido looks on. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

Ushahidi has never been used like this, so it’s innovation to the max. It’s also easy and cost free.

It’s important to understand where local churches and other facilities are located as we continue to grow into an understanding of ourselves as a global church. It will allow for more careful and informed planning, as well as better opportunities for sharing information, training, resources and personnel.

Global mapping is in its initial stages as I write, but as it progresses, we will have for the first time a visual database that offers a view of the geographic position of the mission and ministry of the global United Methodist Church.

Global connection is essential

There is real value in the phrase “think globally, act locally,” especially for Christians who inherit a theology spread by a global evangelist named Paul and the teachings of Jesus, who broke down regional and cultural barriers  through his actions and preaching.

Christian teaching calls us to open ourselves to our place in the world as well as our relationship to God and to each other. We are called to take responsibility for the whole of Creation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be connected through relationship with others and with God. We are called to consider the health of the entire planet and those with whom we share it, and to take action in our own communities and cities as well.

When we use information and communication technologies to connect us, they can serve as tools for ministry, and the outcomes, when they bring positive, transformational change, are ministry. I believe building an understanding of our global connection is important to the work of doing theology in the connected world of the 21st century.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Giving

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United Methodist Church Giving Tuesday logo

In this third post in a series on how communication and technology are shaping life today, I reflect on the unprecedented giving that occurred in the 2-year-old initiative known as Giving Tuesday.

Unprecedented giving

United Methodists, the faith community to which I belong, gave lavishly on #Giving Tuesday, a national day of charitable giving following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The record-breaking total of donations — $6.5 million in one day — was more than notable. The resounding success of this effort leads us to new pathways for considering the value of communications strategy in support of the mission of the church as well as the power of social media.

The people of The United Methodist Church are generous and they have demonstrated that generosity over the years, but social media and the ready opportunity to give online to a variety of causes is a game changer.

Frequently, I hear in The United Methodist Church that people don’t want to provide funding support beyond the local church, but on #GivingTuesday, their willingness to support ministry beyond the local church, and in many cases in other countries, was readily apparent.

Several factors contributed to this remarkable outpouring of giving, not the least of which is the fact that people in this faith community are generous and give to those efforts by the church that they believe will improve lives. Whether it’s for education, health, or economic development, clean water, nutrition, medicines or bed nets, they have shown a willingness to give.

Factors in Success

Other factors in the success of Giving Tuesday included a wide range of choices for donors, direct access to information and an easy process for contributing, buttressed by a social media and print campaign that put Giving Tuesday before potential donors on virtually every social medium they use. This awareness led to contributions.

It’s significant that Giving Tuesday was  promoted in new media and in print. The interaction between the two gave the effort reach. The invitation to give was unavoidable; it was everywhere in the social media world. And it’s notable that people waited to give on Giving Tuesday, perhaps to take advantage of a matching grant that was available up to a limited amount.

There is still much to learn from the success of Giving Tuesday. Assessments and evaluations are still under way. Analytics are being reviewed, tactics assessed, and strategy evaluated.

As I write this, we have more questions than answers. What learnings can we glean from this overwhelming response about giving in the 21st century? What role did communications play in the favorable outcome and how did the various components of the communication strategy contribute to awareness? And finally, is this effort replicable and could it be scaled upward to include other beneficiaries important to the total mission of the church?

But one thing is clear, communication and technology have changed the game, and people will use these technologies to give generously to those things they care about when we communicate with them in the media where they are present.

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Note: Due to a typing error in an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Giving Tuesday is three years old. It is two years old.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Transparent Communication

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A website contains the background papers for a discussion about offering the sacrament of Holy Communion online.

The year 2013 is in our rear view mirror. As we stand on the threshold of a new year, it’s useful to review past experiences and build on them.

We’re in an information age in which technology and communication are as important as they’ve ever been in shaping our lives. Over the next four days, I’ll take a look at events this past year and four big ways I think the intersection of technology and communication is shaping the church.

Transparency

In fall 2013, a churchwide theological conversation about whether Holy Communion should be administered online took place both virtually and amid a gathering of 27 scholars, bishops, laypersons, clergy and agency executives. The conversation followed a proposal from Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to launch an online campus that would potentially offer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The discussion stimulated a thoughtful and constructive dialogue during a 10-hour meeting that took place in Nashville, Tenn., while many people followed along on Facebook and Twitter. The discussion was archived on Storify. The background documents considered during the meeting were widely circulated and posted online.

Everything said was chronicled for public consumption via social media sites. The discussion became a trending topic on Twitter and even caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Social media provided a means for widening the conversation from an academic arena to one that was more about the life of the local church, as social media users reported on the dialogue in real-time so others could react and post their opinions.

The result of the expanded conversation was that it generated critical thinking and a means for education as well. People going into the conversation had some predisposition about whether the sacrament of communion online was good or bad, but those perceptions were somewhat influenced, at least to the extent that many were not quite as sure that the answer was black and white.

The group asked the Council of Bishops to call for a moratorium on the practice of online communion and to initiate a study on best practices for ministry through online means.

Further, the experience served as a model for how we might conduct church affairs publicly and accessibly, and opened the possibilities for wider and more transparent conversation about a variety of issues that are of concern to people today.

In South Sudan An Urgent Need for Change

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

As I watched a video news story online this morning about the flight to safety of displaced people in southern Sudan I was struck by a paradox that seems irreconcilable.

The paradox is that the world is changing rapidly for some and for others it seems to never change.

As I watched the Sudan video, I could place myself on the land where the people were gathered, bone dry, dusty, littered with the remnants of plastic bags, the sunburned grass and weeds brown as a cardboard box and even more brittle.

Children sit on blankets on the ground, huddle over wood fires, and women cook in old dented, beat up pots perched on rocks, conditions  I’ve seen before. It seems little has changed despite the birth of a new nation and the opportunity to make great change.

A woman whose meager possessions include a plastic chair and a blue gallon bucket maneuvers in a large boat preparing to cross the river to relative safety. A little girl around nine or ten years of age watches the scene with a baby brother or sister perched on her hip. Women arrive carrying bundles on their heads.

The scene could as easily be Ethiopia in the 1980s, or Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique, or numerous other places across the continent over past decades. The faces, the stories and the conditions are the same.

In south Sudan, people barely surviving in their villages, many of them partisans of neither side, are caught between the guns. They are burned out, shot down, the women raped, and the children, babies and old folks lost in the chaos of an attack.

In the frenzy, the fearful flee into the bush and the vulnerable are left behind to fend for themselves, if they’re not murdered to make a grisly point–if there is a point to such mayhem–that the militia are all-powerful.

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

I wonder how many times this depravity will be repeated, and why such evil seems to pass from one generation to the next and travel from one region to another with depressing consistency? And of course there is no easy answer.

I know that the hard, cold reality is that only Africans can change Africa. Sudanese religious leaders have spoken out against the tribal violence and called for international help.

Their plea is a call for change, and for those of us far removed by geography to be agents of change.

We can assist those who are  easing the plight of those affected, we can press governments and international agencies to seek justice for those left behind, vulnerable, abused, and exploited. We can act to bring change.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18 NRSV)

Online communion sparks questions for digital age

Online communion stirs passions, so much so that a conversation by United Methodists on the subject under the hashtag #onlinecommunion became a trending topic on Twitter this week.

The conversation, including theologians, local church clergy, laity, bishops and staff of general agencies of The United Methodist Church, explored whether the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper could be administered  on the Internet. It was sparked by a proposal by Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to create an online congregation that could potentially share the Eucharist.

A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

To its credit, the Central UMC circulated the proposal throughout the church for comment and discussion. And the proposal is generating thoughtful, critical thinking about the nature of the sacrament, the gathered community, the difference between virtual and physical space, the meaning of incarnational theology and the holy mystery, among a host of other important considerations, such as:

  • What is essential for community, online or face-to-face, to be authentic?
  • Can we worship online?
  • Does even speaking of these questions damage ecumenical relationships, and would serious consideration of online communion precipitate a global crisis in these relationships between United Methodists and other faith partners?
  • If the church is not present in the media, which are influential in people’s lives and shaping culture today, is it relevant to them?
  • Is the subject of online communion a first world affectation, a sign of our media-rich affluence?
  • Is it crazy to discuss conducting this most historic act of faithfulness through a mediated form that is foreign to our historic understanding?
  • Can a local church institute a practice that affects the entire denomination?

Holy Scripture, early church teachings, John Wesley, Martin Luther, papal encyclicals and Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam were invoked.

At the behest of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, papers were requested from a wide range of scholars, clergy and other professionals involved in disciplines related to the topic. These were circulated prior to the meeting. They will be made available online for public reading by mid-November on umc.org, the denomination’s website.

Exploring online ministry

After pointed but constructive conversation, the group agreed to request the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church take up the subject and provide guidance for excellent practices for online ministry. They also called on the bishops to declare a moratorium on all online sacramental practices and to give the matter of online communion attention in its Faith and Order Committee, in conversation across the church and with ecumenical partners.

The participants recognized that “historically, the church has understood a service of Holy Communion to be a celebration within a physically gathered community. The emergence of interactive digital media raises new questions about the meaning of gathered community and requires further thinking about our beliefs and practices.”

They also affirmed the church’s exploration and use of interactive digital media in the fulfillment of its mission.

Following Christ in a digital culture

I would characterize the conversation as neither Luddite nor innovation-at-any cost, but rather, as a constructive conversation that began to grapple with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the 21st century, a time in which we are immersed in interactive digital media that are reshaping our understanding of ourselves, our culture, our relationship with one another and our understanding of the sacred. Such conversation is essential today if we are to carry out relevant ministry and effectively engage with people who are immersed in the digital culture.

Equally important was the willingness of the leaders of the conversation to conduct it in an open forum on Twitter. This expression of openness should be a witness to future meetings that transparency today is not a weakness but a strength and a means to engage with those concerned. It was a first step toward an important dialogue about how a mainline communion adapts, evolves and engages people in a new cultural context, not unlike the challenge that faced Paul as he sought to carry the new faith into places far from its birthplace and Wesley as he sought to reach people in the teeming changes of the Industrial Revolution in England.

If you’re interested in weighing in, or following the ongoing conversation go to #onlinecommunion on Twitter and read more on umc.org and Storify.

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Disclaimer: I was a participant in the conversation and participated in writing one of the papers used in the discussion. I am general secretary of United Methodist Communications, which was a sponsor of the meeting in partnership with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Discipleship and Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

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In an earlier version of this report, I omitted the participation of a college chaplain and laypersons. I regret the omission.

 

Sandwich Race and Hungry Kids

Sandwich RaceIt was both fun and inspirational to read the social media posts yesterday from United Methodists in Georgia who had committed to making sandwiches for hungry children across the state. The Georgia United Methodists partnered with major corporations and Action Ministries to provide 200,000 healthy lunches to children in communities across Georgia. According to John R. Moeller, Jr. of Action Ministries, 800,000 children qualify for free or reduced fee lunches when school is in session but don’t get the same nutrition over the summer. As a result, Action Ministries is working in 22 north Georgia communities feeding hungry kids five days a week.

A secondary fun goal in this Rethink Church event for United Methodists was an attempt to break the world record for the number of sandwiches made in one hour as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. In a more serious vein, the church was also demonstrating that Christian faith has an active expression. As Sybil Davidson of The United Methodist Church said, this event was an effort of United Methodist Christians to get outside the walls of the church and meet the needs of the communities through acts of service.

The event brought media focus to an important need that is easily overlooked in the summertime. Mark Hellman of Action Ministries says that social workers tell Action Ministries some of these children return to school 15 t0 20 pounds under weight when school begins and he notes that this can affect their ability to learn. This is the underlying reason for the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids campaign conducted by Action Ministries with volunteers from Georgia churches.

Nationwide, Bread for the World, an ecumenical citizens action group, is calling attention to the on-going problem of hunger in the United States through Preaching to End Hunger workshops by the pastor emeritus of Riverside Church, The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. Dr. Forbes is preaching and leading homiletics workshops across the country to call attention to the problem and provide pastors with resources to address it from the pulpit.

Bread provides a fact sheet on the effects of budget sequestration on hunger and development programs funded by the U.S. government. The fact sheet makes clear that not only children but vulnerable seniors and others are at risk of hunger and related health problems due to Congress’s inaction to address the budget in a more careful and responsible way.

The efforts of Georgia United Methodists to both address the problem of child hunger and call attention to it through the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids partnership carries a message I hope legislators hear. Christian people don’t want to see children go hungry and they are doing what they can in different ways to change this reality. In Georgia on Saturday they took direct action. In meetings around the country they are focusing on how to talk about ending hunger with theological and homiletical training, and through Bread For the World advocacy they are attempting to influence public policy. Each method is needed and provides strong witness to the values of Christian faith.

And by the way, while it’s not yet official, the Georgia United Methodists believe they crushed the existing sandwich record by making over five times more sandwiches than the current record. Way to go!

 

 

 

 

What is a Disciple?

Disciple

There’s an interesting conversation beginning in The United Methodist Church about the definition of “discipleship.” It’s important because the church says its mission is to make disciples. Disciple-making is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, in his final instruction to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has betrayed him), he tells them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. (Matt. 28: 19) In Christian theology it’s known as “The Great Commission” and it’s a basic tenet of Christian teaching. Its importance for Christians cannot be understated.

While the word “disciple,” (or its equivalent in the language of the day), may have been understood more clearly in Jesus’ time, in the modern day lexicon of faith “discipleship” is less clearly understood and according to research by United Methodist Communications, this lack of clarity leads to confusion, lost communication and a weakening of the connectivity of the United Methodist community of faith.

Because the word discipleship and the work of making disciples is so central to the mission of the church, lack of clarity about what it means is a crucial issue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote definitively on the subject of discipleship in 1937, but his work is not widely known today.

In response to a report on this research that I gave to the Connectional Table yesterday, Bishop Michael Coyner of the Indiana Episcopal Area offered a definition the Indiana Conference developed that’s an excellent overview.

“A DISCIPLE is a person who

experiences the

forgiveness and acceptance of God,

follows the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,

demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit,

AND WHO

shares in the life and witness of a community of disciples,

including Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,

serves in some form of ministry every day,

participates in God’s suffering and transformation of the world,

anticipates a future life in the presence of God,

AND WHO THEREBY

yearns to lead others to become disciples.”

Do you have a definition? Does the Indiana Conference definition capture your understanding of a disciple and the work of discipleship?

 

An Overlooked Issue in the Boy Scouts Debate

Boy Scouts LogoThe debate about allowing gay leaders and scouts in the Boy Scouts has under-played a critical issue. I’ve been told that in some troops upwards of half the scouts are from single parent families, the vast majority of those headed by mothers. And these young people are from the neighborhoods in which local churches exist. They often walk to the building for troop meetings.

My colleague, Gil Hanke, General Secretary of United Methodist Men, which relates to Boy Scouts of America on behalf of The United Methodist Church, tells me “in a typical scouting program, 25% are from the sponsoring church, 25% are from other churches, 50% are from un-churched families.”

Scouting offers these boys interaction with a male figure, provides them with opportunities for learning and for skills that they likely would not have otherwise. Scouting is about values education, the development of a sense of personal responsibility and service to others. And, it brings young people inside the church building on a regular basis.

In my experience as a scout, this range of activities, contacts and values are exactly what I needed growing up in a family that was, at best, dysfunctional. As we moved about following oilrig locations in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming one of the constants in my life was Scouting. Scout troops were always located in a Methodist church in the small, dusty towns where we temporarily settled.

We moved every six months until I was thirteen and chose to go another way. This nomadic existence was simply a way of life for itinerant oilfield workers and their families, and for me, Scouting was part of the glue that held this transient life together.

It was also a window on the world through which I could peer and see a wider field of opportunities and a future beyond the hard labor of the oilfields. I went on camping trips, floated down rivers, worked on merit badges, and even went to the state capitol and met the governor. These activities expanded my life in significant ways.

Without Scouting it would have been a more difficult, less hopeful existence. I interacted with adults in a different way than in my family setting, which was not altogether positive and certainly not constructive.

A place of haven

When I hear local church leaders, especially pastors, say they will drop Scouting for the modest change that is proposed to allow gay men and scouts to participate at the will of the congregation, I’m perplexed. The church should be a place of haven for youth who are struggling with their identities. They should have the opportunity to come to know they are loved by God and by others. They should be provided the support necessary to see new horizons, have meaningful experiences and envision a newer, brighter future. Scouting provided this support for me.

Moreover, given the fact that Mainline denominations are in decline, it’s ironic that congregations would turn away from a program that serves needs of families within walking distance of their buildings; families experiencing hardship; families with young people in need of positive interactions with adults. Scouting is not designed to be a tool for evangelism, but it introduces young persons to values-oriented civic responsibility that is complementary to the teachings of the church, and it invites young people into the church building. Referring to Gil Hanke’s data begs the question: What church would not want to host a meeting each week in which half the folks present do not have a church home?

While attention is focused on churches that might leave Scouting if the ban is lifted, it’s also possible that churches that have not sponsored troops because of the ban might reconsider and make Scouting even more inclusive.

A modest move

There are ways to monitor adult interactions, conduct due diligence when selecting adult leaders and safeguard children. These are issues for all congregations regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of adult leaders. They’re pertinent for Sunday School, youth groups, choirs and other activities involving youth. So it’s difficult to understand why a congregation would consider banishing children in scouting from the building when it’s the mission of the church to reach out to them, especially when it’s so explicit in the teachings of Jesus that we are called to bring the little children to him.

The decision the leaders of Boy Scouts of America are considering is not a radical leap forward. It’s a modest half-step toward inclusion. But it’s one that should be supported and affirmed, for the sake of the children, boys and young men for whom Scouting is a helpful guide to a better adulthood.

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