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The Act of Listening as a Means of Healing

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, troops came home not to the accolades and war heroes’ welcome of days past, but to personal attacks on character based on the condemnation of the war itself.

Today, we face an unprecedented number of troops coming home from what has become the United States’ longest war – Afghanistan – in addition to the thousands having already come home from Iraq. While this class of veterans may not always face the verbal attacks as did those from the Vietnam era, many face a pervasive communal silence in their transition home from war. The silence may not come from an aversion to these wars, but an apathy about them. Returning troops face a nation sublimely oblivious to the intense pain of war, loss of life and disruption of global community.

Contrast the last decade with the era of the Second World War. During “The Good War,” ration books adjusted everyday home front living with staples like coffee, sugar, fuel and more all coming under government regulation. No such costs have been exacted upon us during America’s longest war. War bonds are a thing of the past … grocery lists remain the same … the American automotive industry has survived recession and is coming back in spite of ongoing war.

In addition, while today’s returning troops suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) are added to safety-net programs, many of the same people who herald patriotism call for budget cuts to these very programs. And, unless we live near a military base, we’ve seen little press coverage of the lives lost.

Tobias Wolff, Vietnam Veteran and professor at Stanford University has said,

“The sign of a really decadent civilization is one that sends young people out to do and to suffer the things that soldiers do and suffer in war and not to care about what those things are … not to have any costs laid on them [civilization] even of knowing … we seem to have avoided every other cost … but to avoid even the cost of knowing is an unforgiveable decadence.” (Operation Homecoming)

As a society, we can learn from a past that has resulted in over one-third of our homeless population consisting of veterans. Caring for returning troops is an act of responsibility taken by a civilization that recognizes their participation in sending them into harm’s way. Caring involves not only providing government programs that care for the mental and physical health of veterans, but participation in communal acts that envelop the whole person and empower them to fully return home.

A very powerful communal act is storytelling. In listening to the stories of those who’ve participated in war, healing can eventually come to those individuals and the cost of war can be understood so new ways of resolving global conflict can arise. Unless they speak, veterans may remain captives of war’s demons. Unless we listen, we fail to comprehend the horrors in which we collectively participate. Storytelling is a powerful, ancient ritual that moves people beyond language itself – shaping not only perceptions but also the ways in which we live together in the future. Storytelling provides a means of sharing the cost of war among all people, so we develop an aversion to war, and seek true and just alternatives for resolving conflict.

In January, many United Methodist congregations will participate in America’s Sunday Supper with Points of Light Institute – engaging communities in dialog about the issues that most impact returning troops and working together to address them. Some of our faith communities will provide free screenings of Operation Homecoming, or The Invisible Ones followed by dialog to raise awareness and assist in telling the story. Some congregations may provide job fairs, financial literacy programs, or initiate Habitat for Humanity builds for and with veterans. As important as the concrete results of these acts of service are, they offer more than the help itself. They offer a means of coming home.

Print and video stories that show the many ways United Methodists are involved can be found at and you can learn more about how to get involved.

Security of Appointment Conversation

As I wrote a few days ago, I am taking down the post on the security of appointments because the legislative action on secure appointments has been reported more completely on In addition, The Rev. Fitzgerald Reist has commented here about the conversation that was initiated by his note:


“The message was intended for the Council of Bishops as an alert to the information. It was a statement about the language that remained in The Book of Discipline 2012 and not a statement of law. Decisions of law are made by Bishops and ultimately by the Judicial Council, not by the secretary of the General Conference. I fully expect that the Judicial Council will decide on the degree to which security of appointment has changed.” 

As he writes here his note was intended as an alert for the Council of Bishops. However, when it was released via email it became a public document and the widespread interest in the topic resulted in the posting of the letter on Facebook within minutes of its release. This is to be expected in this horizontal communications environment.

Once released, a story gains its own momentum in this environment. This story illustrates that reality.

From a Baby Boomer Culture to a Global, Multiethnic, Hyperconnected Society

It’s happened. More babies born in the past 12 months in the United States have parents who are Asian, African-American, Central or South American or of ethnic origins other than “non-Hispanic” whites. We’ve reached a hinge-point in U.S. history.

Children participate in a multicultural vacation Bible school in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

In the lead article in the New York Times, demographer William Frey said this represents “a transformation from a mostly white baby-boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming.”

Viewed in a global context, it’s even more than that. The global population is shifting in a similarly dramatic fashion. A surging youth population in the industrializing nations, declining birth rates in Europe and the rise of a globalized, multicultural and hyperconnected youth and young adult population are changing the world.

This rising tide of demographic change has been occurring over the past 40 years. It’s more than an unexpected tsunami, according to a paper released in 2007 by the British Council, a nonprofit educational and cultural organization.

And the changes are not benign. Demographic shifts will create cleavages across societies. Policymakers and social institutions, including the church–perhaps especially the church–must address them. We need public discourse that is deeper and more substantial than the polarized point-counterpoint posturing that passes for political dialogue in the United States today.

What the British report says of Europe applies to the U.S. in this regard: “At least equally as important is a societal discourse on how we in Europe want to live (with one another) in the future, since the presently perceived roles of the state, civil society, and economy will function only conditionally under the new demographic circumstances. Regional disparities will be more visible than before, since demographic processes will have increasingly heterogeneous effects.”

In the church, we need to look at our theology with deeper consideration for how we speak to these different groups with their unique life concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations. We will need to speak to the desire for inclusion as we speak to the fear of being left out, the demand for equity in contrast to the fear of losing influence, the desire for opportunity as the young and their seniors fear an uncertain future.

“In the church, we need to look at our theology with deeper consideration for how we speak to these different groups …” 

These and a host of other matters are not only about social policies; they are also theological. They will require the church, if it is to remain relevant to this new age, to offer more than pietistic bromides as surely as it will require politicians to go beyond their current level of simplistic, divisive posturing.

They will require us to look at:

  • how we are connected as a global church,
  • how we fund and carry out mission and ministry,
  • how we communicate effectively with various groups as we share the good news of God’s love for all, and
  • how we create communities of faith that offer hope, support, growth and compassion.

Within this global reality we will need to

  • find our voice for justice,
  • assess how we reach out to others as a servant people, and then do it,
  • find new ways to express the faith to new people in new circumstances,
  • demonstrate through our actions that even in this unsettling change, we continue to believe it is God’s world after all,
  • affirm that it is a world of goodness, and
  • live out the biblical teaching that it is God’s intent for all of us to flourish.

I’ll be posting about how I think these dynamics will affect my own religious community, and I welcome your reactions and reflections. Please feel free to contribute to this important conversation.


The Rising Global Middle Class: How Will It Affect The United Methodist Church?

A few years ago at a worship conference in Seoul, I watched a group of young Koreans perform street dances more typical of the South Bronx than South Korea. Ball caps sat crosswise on young men’s heads and their pants precariously hugged their hips. Young women wore brand-name jeans and designer tops known the world over. They might have been from any urban neighborhood in the United States or China, Brazil or the Philippines.

Mfundo Zonke, a delegate from the South African Provisional Conference, speaks at General Conference. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

A rising global middle class is emerging, not only in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries but in parts of Africa as well. I’ve been thinking about this as I reflect on the recent General Conference of The United Methodist Church. United Methodists are members of this global middle class, and I’m wondering how this will affect the church in the future.

According to Brink Lindsay of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the rising global middle class is shifting the economic and political center of gravity eastward and southward, from North America and Europe toward Africa, Latin America and Asia. It’s also leading sweeping cultural change. The 2012 General Conference saw a similar shift with increasing numbers from outside the United States.

Formal education levels are rising around the world in response to a growing need for knowledge workers. Billions of people are moving from meeting basic survival needs to a more affluent lifestyle. It’s estimated that by 2022 those living in poverty will be a minority.

A new generation of leaders

Most delegates to General Conference are white-collar professionals, fulltime church workers and clergy. They have the wherewithal to devote 10 days to the work of the church in an international setting. Assuredly, many make sacrifices–using vacation time, for example, as well as supplementing their allowances for lodging and food. But the ability to do this speaks of a level of autonomy and position worth noting.

Lindsay writes that “the explosive growth of choices and capabilities is ushering in a fundamental reorientation of culture: away from subservience to age-old tradition and established authority, and toward a new ethos of autonomy and self-realization.”

In addition, a generation of young, educated and technically savvy leaders is rising. These young leaders will reshape the church and take it in new directions. They reside in the North and the South; they are more globally aware, multicultural and diverse than previous generations.

“These young leaders will reshape the church and take it in new directions.”

This is already occurring. In hallway conversations, I heard criticism of authoritarian leadership styles, patronage appointments to committees, frustration about not being included in decisions and other expressions of autonomy, as well as desire for participation that reveal change is at hand.

Entering new territory

While there were many dynamics at work, the inability of the church to pass a restructure plan was informative. Restructure ran headlong into the rising expectations and voting strength of the global middle class in The United Methodist Church, expectations that include participation and influence in decision-making.

When debate in plenary focused ever so briefly on the economic participation of jurisdictional conferences and central conferences in supporting the general church budget, it was a sign of things to come. The central conferences (the regions of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe) will be asked to contribute more to the general church budget. And we will likely take a second (or third) look at the Worldwide Nature of the Church study, which calls for more regional autonomy.

Other issues are being discussed, sometimes in subdued voices, sometimes not. These include the role of the episcopacy, lay leadership, equitable representation, unresolved theological matters about human sexuality and other concerns, how we fund the general church budget and what we mean by the phrase “global church.”

How we deal with these questions will affect how different regions of the world church relate to each other and redefine partnerships and missional efforts.

In the near term, these issues are likely to become more acute and require greater attention than we’ve given them thus far. Unlike cultural affectations–the donning of brand-name jeans and rap music–they go to the heart of who we are as a church, and they will require us to have a serious, long-term conversation about how we want to move forward together in a shifting landscape for which there are few roadsigns and the territory is new to all of us.


Finding a Way Forward in a New Global Reality

With the close of a deadlocked United Methodist General Conference, it’s now time to look forward and begin the work the church agrees is before us – revitalizing congregations in the United States, concentrating on recruiting young clergy for the 21st century and developing the church in growing areas of the world.

Elizabeth Soard is commissioned as a United Methodist missionary. The April 29 commissioning took place at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., site of the 2012 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

A framework for this challenge already exists. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference affirmed Four Areas of Focus that are not only serviceable but are directly relevant to the challenges. While some are saying these are dead, I would suggest that, in fact, they are the means for us to move forward with actionable steps to implement outcomes that we agree are priorities.

We did not reject these priorities. We lost focus due to the emphasis on restructuring, which, as General Conference proved, was of debatable significance to achieve the outcomes of renewal and missional vision.

In real practice, the four areas intersect with remarkable compatibility, if we work with them as I’ve seen them implemented in various parts of the world. They provide a powerful means for engaging youth and young adults in the life of the church and for helping us live into being a denomination that is truly global in focus.

A new reality

We are seeing progress in every one of the Four Areas of Focus, and much of the discussion and action at General Conference reinforced — directly or indirectly – their importance.  For example, General Conference appropriated funds to move the leadership focus forward.

In Africa, the focus on global health has resulted in the engagement of local congregations in community outreach, evangelism, leadership development, and addressing the conditions of poverty and disease that compromise quality of life.

In the United States, engagement of local congregations in outreach efforts leads to internal renewal as well as involvement with new people, youth and young adults.

These efforts must fit the context of local communities yet also operate with the understanding that, no matter where we live, we live in a pluralistic, hyper-connected world.  It is a new reality. We will be influenced by a variety of cultural ideas and values, more than we may realize because of his hyper-connected pluralistic reality.

One model doesn’t fit all

This also means that multiple models of local faith communities are necessary. Those who advance a single, simple model should be met with healthy skepticism. With the fragmenting of social structures, the creation of communities of interest, a heightened emphasis on individual fulfillment in the North and the challenge of tribalism in Africa and ethnic and religious  differences in Asia, contextual models of how to be the church are more essential than ever.

Unfortunately, this General Conference did not focus on theological or missional vision. It was about organizational structure. But the vision we inherit from the previous General Conference offers us a comprehensive, future-oriented framework for carrying out mission and ministry. I believe this makes the Four Areas of Focus even more relevant because the context to which I refer is changing rapidly around the globe.

For example, youth and young adults the world over live with different economic challenges than previous generations. This is creating a fundamentally different perspective about hope for the future, meaningful employment and the value of education, all of which inform how they view themselves and their place in the world – in connection with others and as they stand before God.

Creeping secularism, the reshaping of life into consumerism, and pervasive skepticism that results from false promises and manipulation by marketers create a worldview among many youth and young adults that is unlike the worldviews of their elders.

They are skeptical in a way unlike those of previous generations. They demand honest dialogue, truth telling, inclusion, transparency and flexibility. Many see the church as an institution that is inflexible, hypocritical, exclusive in attitude and rife with hypocrisy. They connect differently, using media as a tool for face-to-face community. They are empowered by new media in a way that allows them to voice their feelings of marginalization and organize around them unknown in earlier periods of history.

Removing our blinders

Here’s the stunner. The adaptive challenge, which provided the foundation for the recent effort at restructuring the church, speaks to a global reality, but it was presented as addressing a U.S.-centric reality.

Exploding populations of youth in the South are creating huge paradoxes. On the one hand, young adults are more connected and aware, and some have greater opportunities than previous generations. On the other hand, they are also more aware of the effects of corruption, authoritarian rule, lack of educational opportunities and limited employment opportunities, and many are disaffected and economically marginalized.

In many parts of the industrialized world, young people are coming to an awareness that the opportunities open to previous generations are not as accessible to them. The need for astute clergy leaders from this generation has never been greater globally. The adaptive challenge is not just a U.S. problem.

The church must see this global challenge and remove the blinders that led us to a deadlocked General Conference and set the stage for an even more divided house in four years.

I contend that discussing the decline of the church in the United States and the growth of the church in Africa and Asia is too simplistic and reduces our options to narrow, dare I say, myopic responses. At issue is the relevance of the gospel to changing cultures and social realities in a globally, hyper-connected world of digitally informed young persons. They live in a world that is fundamentally different from the world their elders inherited. And they are faced with problems their elders never had to face.

This is a challenge to our theological understandings of hope, the sacred value of human personality, community, justice and the fruitful life that God intends for all. We need fresh thinking, global thinking that assimilates local context with actions that fit in a more expansive understanding of the role of the church in a global society as complex and multifaceted as the world evolving today.

I also contend that the Four Areas of Focus offer us the most readily accessible pathways to wrestle with this complex global reality and our local contexts. We need to develop principled Christian leaders for the church and world; create new places for new people; engage in ministry with the poor; and tackle the diseases of poverty.

In doing so, we will be challenged to think theologically with missional vision – to think globally and act locally. Let us begin.


Welcome to the 21st century

The 20th century United Methodist Church ran headlong into the 21st century United Methodist Church at General Conference 2012 in Tampa last week.

Irene Innis , spouse of Bishop John Innis from Liberia, checks her cell phone during a plenary break at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The new world of pluralism and hyper-connection met the old world of authority and Robert’s Rules of Order, and the two didn’t mix well. The Rev. Jay Voorhees remarked in his blog that this was the first Twitter General Conference. And so it was.

The discussion about proportional representation was about more than political posturing. It was about the desire of many concerned, faithful United Methodist people to have a voice in decisions about the future of the church. Time after time, delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, women, young adults, LGBT and ethnic delegates spoke of their desire to be included, to be recognized and to participate in the decisions that were before the church.

They were pleading for inclusion. They want to participate in the decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. They care about the church and its future course.

This desire for voice comes as the world is undergoing breath-taking change. New media empower individuals and give them the ability to project their ideas to people the world over. They allow those with similar interests to coalesce around common concerns and speak in a unified voice. They enable protests to be organized and conducted with an immediacy that was unknown in the past.

This desire to be included is as much about the positioning and procedural processes that frustrated so many General Conference delegates as outright political machination. The ability to use media for self-expression, to build awareness and to advocate for one’s ideas has created new, stronger expectations that all the voices will be heard.

The new transparency

At a time when the world yearns for transparency and participation, the willingness of the church to open its proceedings to the world through digital media is a sign of strength and maturity. The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.

These media carry other implications as well. Twitter, Facebook, SMS texting, email, Google Plus and live streaming made it possible to monitor what was happening from a distance, report and comment on it, and to some degree, influence it.

When Bishop Mike Coyner announced a rule that would allow the May 3 afternoon plenary to be closed due to an ongoing protest that was disrupting the proceedings, the feeling of shock and dismay inside the hall was palpable. In the digital world, Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July.

“The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.”

I began to receive text messages and direct messages on Twitter instantly. It was clear that in light of the transparency made possible through live streaming, the threat to close the proceedings to the public was, to put it mildly, not a popular alternative.

A last gasp

Inside the hall, protests were immediately lodged with the secretary of the General Conference. One delegate threatened to organize a walkout if the plenary was closed. Members of the Council of Bishops huddled at the center of the main stage to confer.

After several minutes of deliberation, Bishop Scott Jones told journalists assembled at the foot of the stage that the afternoon session would be open, and calm returned.

He asked journalists to get the word out through social media as quickly as possible. It was clear in that moment that the conference that had been accessible to the world through live streaming could not afford the devastating possibility of going into a closed session. The cost in public perception was too great. The realities of the digital age superseded the rulebook that allowed those in command to exercise control by shutting people out, even if they were justified in doing so to establish order.

Social media and the Internet had played a role in shaping a crucial decision about the nature of the deliberations. It felt as if we had heard the last gasp of the 20th century and said welcome to the 21st.

The Failure to Communicate

Mike McCurry

My friend Mike McCurry has an interesting viewpoint on communications within the nonprofit arena.  He recently penned the following “excerpt” as part of a foreword to my soon-to-be-published book  “We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.   I am particularly struck by his comments about fact versus opinion in today’s 24/7 media arena.

Most of us remember (at least if we are Baby Boomers) the classic Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” in which the jailer grabs Newman by the scruff of the neck and proclaims, “What we have here is a failure to communicate…”  Much of the work I have done since leaving the White House in the 1990s involves helping nonprofit organizations communicate more effectively because, frankly, many of their efforts result in nothing short of failure.

There are many reasons for this.  Organizations doing good work for noble causes often believe their worthiness is self-evident.  Surely anyone can see the goodness in their labors.  Often an “aw shucks” humility causes an organization to refrain from tooting its own horn, again believing the world will see the merit reflected in its good works.  Then there are the budget issues: Many organizations under-invest in communications in favor of putting more resources where the program can help those in need.

In theory, those are good reasons to put communications lower on the list of priorities.  But they represent bad thinking when one considers the enormous challenge of trying to advance a cause in the public marketplace of ideas and keep it current in the eyes of an ever-distracted public.

We know a lot about the changes that are happening in the bewildering world of technology and communications. “Mass communications” as we once knew it no longer exists. Yes, network television reaches millions with news reports every night at 6:30, but the audience share has contracted significantly in the last 10 years. Yes, daily newspapers still count, but circulation is down and readers under age 35 are far more likely to read the “daily paper” online rather than in print.  We do not gather for “appointments” with those who deliver important content.  We want the content when we need it, and we expect it to be online, available 24/7, and accessible without hassles.

What we are not sure about is whom we can trust to get the story right.  So many sources, so many blogs, so many Internet sites, so many loud and angry voices on cable TV and talk radio tell us what to think. Our heads spin with constant bombardment from messages designed to sell, persuade, incite, provoke, and arouse. We don’t get much comfort. We don’t get much context. We don’t get people helping us put information in a framework that allows us to ponder the important things and choose the right things.

My old boss in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said, “We are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.”  Yet everyone seems to have “facts” supporting the incontrovertibility of their own “opinion.”  And the information is overwhelming and oppressive.  As another friend of mine, Joe Nye, writes: “We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.”  Too much opinion. Too many facts. No one to help us make sense of the mix. That lack is the root of the failure to communicate.

The “failure to communicate” can prove fatal to many a good and worthy cause.  We cannot let the failure to communicate effectively impede the work of The United Methodist Church.  Our cause is just too important.  We are about saving souls.  We are about bringing disciples to Jesus Christ and transforming the world.  We are about spreading the gospel good news, and that sacred trust means we must communicate effectively and relentlessly because everything in our being cries out that the world needs to hear the great, great story of Jesus and his love.

Mike McCurry is former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and an active lay leader in The United Methodist Church.  He teaches Sunday school, serves on the board of governors of Wesley Theological Seminary, and is finishing his graduate work there for an M.A. degree.  He was twice a delegate to General Conference from the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. He is a member of the General Commission on Communication and the executive committee of the denominations Global Health Initiative and its Imagine No Malaria campaign.



The Colors of Small Town Poverty

Poverty in small town America is often overlooked, and the children of small town poverty are ignored. This fact was brought home to me several years ago when we moved back to my old, very poor neighborhood in a small town in central Oklahoma. The move was necessitated by the need among our elders for care as they experienced declining health. We settled into my grandparents home which had for years been the family base. It was a grand old farmhouse, in need of significant repair, that had been moved into town in the early 1900s. (Actually it was the amalgam of two old houses, but that’s another story.) The neighborhood had fallen even further downward than when I lived there as a child and it wasn’t exactly upscale even then.

The adjacent lot where our neighbor–one of the town’s more colorful characters–lived was overgrown with waist high weeds entangled around a half dozen rusted hulks of old cars, tractors, pickup trucks and assorted farm implements, all beyond any hope of restoration. Rusting skeletons. Just down the road, the first elementary school in town, abandoned and partially caved in on itself, was used by another town hermit as a residence. Across the street in mid-block an abandoned house was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A 1930s era pickup truck sat in the yard on bare rims, rusting away. Across from that lot an old city fire truck, driven there perhaps forty years ago by a collector who had long since moved away, sat in a collapsed garage with a full grown elm tree thrusting through its bed.

Our neighbors to the north kept a hog for slaughter and our neighbors to the south hunted deer in season and fished, not for sport, but for food. A block south was a 1950s motel with individual one room cabins. Located on Route 66, it now served as short term rental accommodations for those who could afford no other.

This was small town poverty. Its color is rusty metal red and weed brown.

The Stresses of Poverty

At the end of the workday in early evening I would go out on the front porch and often I would hear shouting and screaming from different places in the neighborhood. The police were frequent visitors as the shouting sometimes turned into fighting. Mostly domestic violence. Sometimes late at night it would awaken us from sleep. The sound of poverty is yelling and shouting. People stressed to the breaking point. Day in, day out and especially at the end of the month.

This remembrance occurred as I read the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on children living in poverty. It says concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent or more households fall below the federal poverty threshold, is on the rise. The 2010 federal poverty threshold is $22,314 per year for a family of four.

The report estimates 7,879,000 children in the U.S. live in poverty, and the number has increased from 9% to 11% over the last decade. The number in concentrated poverty has risen 25% since 2000. These statistics make my heart ache. As the Casey report says, families with children living in poverty “are more likely to face food hardship, have trouble paying their housing costs, and lack health insurance than those living in more affluent areas. Children living in areas of concentrated poverty are also more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall.”

For the nearly 8 million children under age 18 living in areas of concentrated poverty in the United States, critical resources for their healthy growth and development – including high-performing schools, quality medical care and safe outdoor spaces – are often out of reach. The chance that a child will live in an area of concentrated poverty has grown significantly over the last decade. — Data Snapshot on High Poverty Communities, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Going to the Mountain

I was talking to a little boy who lived next to the firetruck with the tree growing through it and he told me his grandmother was taking him to “the mountain” to ride his bike that evening. We were in central Oklahoma where there are no mountains, so I was curious. I questioned him, “What mountain?”

“You know, the one down by the big lake at the bottom of the hill in the woods,” he said.

After a few more descriptive tidbits, I realized the mountain was the rubble from city excavations dumped alongside the city sewage treatment facility at the edge of town. This was his playground. And, in fact, I recalled having played there myself at his age. But things should have changed for the better since then.

And that’s what make my heartache. Things, apparently, haven’t changed that much, at least not for the children who live in neighborhoods trapped in poverty. They are invisible. And in the inflamed rhetoric so prevalent today, they are viewed with disdain, not with concern. Added costs, a burden.

For me, the church was a way out of that neighborhood and the debilitating conditions it harbored. The people of the church encouraged, nurtured, supported and provided opportunities that helped me to see a world beyond the “mountain” by the edge of the sewage plant. But today in my denomination we’re talking about small local congregations as ineffective, inefficient and a drain on resources. And it makes me worry about the children who know the local police officer better than they know the local pastor. They know the angry words and violent behavior better than they know lovingkindness and peaceful living.

Ways to Move Forward

Overall, the poor are overlooked in our society. The rural poor are invisible. The Casey report makes several proposals for addressing poverty. Mostly it refers to urban poverty, but never the less these are steps in the right direction:

  • Promoting community change efforts that integrate physical revitalization with human capital development through public/private partnerships to create mixed-income communities;
  • Leveraging “anchor institutions” to build strong, supportive communities for children and families such as hospitals, universities and other “anchor institutions” to create cradle-to-career pipelines that improve opportunities for disadvantaged children;
  • Promoting proven and promising practices in the areas of work supports, asset building and employment with intensive, employment-focused programs targeting working-age public housing residents through United Way, community colleges and other organizations for integrated delivery of education, employment training, work supports, financial coaching and asset building services;
  • Connecting neighborhood improvements to citywide and regional efforts. Increasingly, families must look to the surrounding metropolitan region to access opportunities;
  • Increasing access to affordable housing in safe, opportunity-rich communities for low-income families, particularly families of color. Strategies for achieving this goal include inclusionary zoning, tenant eligibility guidelines that prohibit discriminatory admission practices, marketing to attract a diverse applicant pool, and housing mobility programs for families with Section 8 vouchers.

From Rural to City Life

These do not fully address the dilemma of rural poverty. As we rush headlong toward urban, suburban and exurban living, the rural poor, as rural life in general, becomes less visible and more neglected.

I would add:

  • strengthening regional community colleges and expanding their training to include technical skills;
  • installing broadband into rural areas and making it accessible through public schools and libraries;
  • strengthening public education.

The rural and small membership churches are, or can be, local anchor institutions that make a difference. Considering a more expansive role for small membership churches could move them from being viewed as liabilities to assets. This, too, is discounted in much of the conversation about how and where ministry should be carried out today. And it begs the question that Jesus was asked by some of his followers when he told them how he wanted them to behave: to care for the sick, ill, imprisoned, thirsty, and poorly clothed, those who are overlooked. To care for them is as if they were caring for him, Jesus said. But his followers asked, “Lord, when did we see you?”

I’d hazard a guess he would say to me, “When you spoke with the little boy who was going to play near the city sewage yard. That was me.”

Faith in Crisis and Easter Hope

“Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “Ignore them,” he says, “and embrace Him.” His provocative essay appears in The Daily Beast and Newsweek.

Another commentator writes that politicians have reduced the evangelical tradition to a “pathetic caricature,” subordinating a “rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda.” Michael Gerson writes in his Washington Post column that politicians are giving religion a bad name.

E.J. Dionne, also in the Post, adds his voice of concern: “I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry.”

The Changing Nature of Faith

On one hand, it’s notable that this discussion about the nature of faith is occurring in public media. Only a few years ago, it would not have happened. It’s also notable that the commentators are not professional theologians but persons of faith writing about faith and culture as they experience it in their daily lives.

Sullivan’s claim is deeply compelling, especially in light of research by the Barna Group and United Methodist Communications that confirms that young adults are turned off by the captivity of the faith to dogmatism and judgmentalism. Faith has been co-opted and collapsed into political and economic ideologies, and this causes people to turn away from the church and even to reject the faith.

And yet, as Sullivan notes, we yearn to understand the mystery of the universe and our place in it. At the root of this yearning is a search for the holy. We are asking why we are here and how we find meaning and purpose. These are faith questions.

Religious Truth Expressed in a Reasoned Way

As I have been writing these past few days, I believe this presents not only a challenge to the mainline denominations but also an opportunity. The mainline groups have long expressed values that are born of faith, in ways that appeal to people of different faiths and no faith. The mainlines have an ability to express religious truths in a reasoned way that translates to the secular culture. They are concerned for the common good.

United Methodists have discovered that providing people with a way to act on their desire to serve others encourages those outside the church to reflect on the meaning of faith and how they might relate to a faith community. Doing this also results in outward bound mission for those in the church and gives them a way to actively express their faith.

When this is done in a strategic way, communicating in a way that interprets the faith and the faith community, it serves the wider culture and energizes local congregations as well. It provides a way for the church to demonstrate active, meaningful faith absent dogma or politics. It’s about service and the common good. It’s about being present in the culture.

Pessimisim vs. Hope

There’s a lot of pessimism afoot today about the church and faith. I even sense in some quarters panic and desperation. It’s true that Christianity in the United States faces a crisis for all the reasons these commentators list and more, but I’m not pessimistic about the future. Not, that is, if the church embraces its place in society to seek the shalom of God and to be the servant people God calls us to be.  The message of Easter is a message of resurrection and hope; it is a message of renewal and new life.

As Christians consider the dark day of suffering that is marked by Good Friday, looking toward the hope of Easter morning, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Philippi:

Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night… (Philippians 2: 14,15)




Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century

I have been concerned about the growing absence of voice of  the church in culture today when communications has never been more integral to our lifestyle.  My thoughts around this subject have spawned a soon-to-be -published book called We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century.

I see this book as a call to the leadership of the mainline communions and to my colleague communicators to rethink communications within the mainline denominations.  Is there a loss of voice?  Should we elevate communications to a strategic level?

I invite you to download a preview of the book here.  I welcome your thoughts on communications as an integral strategy for the church.

You can also view a short excerpt from a webinar here in which  I recently participated with fellow communicators.


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