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)

Insidious Corruption Destroys Trust

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Government officials and business operators have extracted millions from government coffers in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. This money could have gone into roads, education and health care, but instead it went into private wallets of the privileged and well-connected.

According to a recent report, the re-election of reform-minded President Joyce Banda is in peril because she has been willing to clean up government corruption. Sixty-eight people, some officials in her own government, have been arrested in a scandal known as Cashgate.

Often it is argued that this money circulates through the economy, as if graft is merely another way of keeping an economy running, but it isn’t. A hospital administrator reports that medicines and medical supplies are in dangerously short supply.  She tells of a young woman who died for lack of supplies to administer a blood transfusion after childbirth.

In fact, corruption is not harmless, it’s lethal when it drains funds for health and welfare, education and infrastructure. It undercuts effective, efficient governance. It adds to the cost of doing business. 

Corruption is insidious. It works its way through a society and becomes so seamless that it can seem to be the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. Too often, it’s accepted as the way things work.

It tarnishes the institutions of society, institutions that are designed to enhance quality of life–education, health, government, religion. When the leaders of these institutions accept corruption as inevitable, they work against their own mission of uplifting and empowering people, and they contribute to the on-going injustice and oppression that keeps people down.

Transparency International says “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

Recently, traveling from Blantyre to Lilongwe our vehicle was stopped at an intersection by a smiling, friendly uniformed policeman who asked, “Do you have a small gift for me?” He was smooth as butter, his smile bright and toothy.

We resisted giving him money. After a few minutes, he agreed to another gift, a book. A prayerbook.

Our response was inadequate. It still pricks at my conscience. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been shaken down in Africa. I have more than 30 years of experience with it.

Perhaps that’s why I’m impatient and frustrated. Corruption seems intransigent. And corruption keeps people in poverty. It breeds the diseases of poverty and illiteracy.

The one institution I can influence to avoid corruption is the church. I’ve seen how the church working in partnership with other organizations committed to transparency and ethical behavior can make a difference.

It’s not easy. I know it’s a difficult challenge to confront corruption, sometimes it’s dangerous, especially when corruption has become embedded in the fabric of the society.

But so long as corruption is tolerated, Africa will struggle and people will die, and that should weigh heavily on every person who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Words Matter: Why Obamacare Is A Communications Disaster

Health Insurance InfogramWhen comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked people on the street whether they favored the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act won handily.

This confusion is not limited to Kimmel’s street prank.

Polls show that people don’t know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same. And they react more negatively toward Obamacare than toward affordable health care.

While Kimmel was working a comedy routine, the lesson should not be lost. Words matter.

It escapes me why the Obama administration allowed opponents of the health care act to define it and, ultimately, demonize it. Even worse, some administration officials use the “Obamacare” handle themselves.

This lack of message discipline, in effect, works against the signature legislation of the President they serve.

The lessons in this communications debacle are many.

 How to Do It Better

First, tell your own story. Never leave this to others. Define yourself before others define you.

Second, keep it simple. The complexity of the legislation overwhelmed the simple message that its purpose is to make health care affordable to more people.

While the opposition defined Obamacare as complex, unworkable and economically destructive, the wound is also self-inflicted.

Communications consultant Ann Wylie analyzed four text samples in an online training manual for field workers who are assisting people to sign up for health insurance under the new law. She found the passages difficult to understand.

Wylie shows how to present complex procedures in simple language. Her suggestions:

  • Use bulleted lists
  • Break up long sentences
  • Use active rather than passive writing
  • write to the reader in the second person
  • Use short words (two syllable words are easier to read than three syllable words)
  • Use personal illustrations
  • Ask a question

Most general interest publications are written for eighth grade comprehension level, but studies show that those who can read at a higher level are not insulted by reading downward.

Therefore, simplifying doesn’t lose readers or harm communication, it can enhance comprehension.

Third, communication is a strategic function. It’s not limited to tactics.

Communication is a Strategic Asset

Communicators implement tactics, such as deciding how to package and present information, but tactics come after thoughtful consideration about the key message, or messages, and how to deliver them. This requires strategic thinking.

When communicators start with tactics and don’t give sufficient thought to strategy we reduce our role to a support function and allow others to define us by that role.

I advocate for communication to be viewed as  a strategic function, especially in the always-on, multi-media environment of the 21st century.

Strategy requires thinking about who we want to interact with and how they use media. It involves knowing if the information we’re conveying is important for them and how we will reach them.

Most importantly, it involves developing a clear message and consistently presenting it.

Learning From the Mistakes

I hope the Obama administration is learning this lesson because access to affordable health care is important.

Even before the embarrassing website fiasco, the Affordable Care Act was in trouble because it had been defined as Obamacare, and that’s an epithet to some people.

Lack of strategic communications’ planning and consistent messaging had already created a void filled by negative perceptions. Now this botched communication threatens the most significant policy initiative of the Obama presidency.

Words matter.

 

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.

 

College Debt and the Search for Financial Freedom

I am concerned that the debate by politicians about student loans is actually distracting us from the critical need for financial aid for deserving young people who lack the resources and experience to achieve higher education. The debate focuses on the mechanics of loans, interest rates and what types of educational enterprises should be eligible to offer loans, while it minimizes the need for loans for deserving persons.

Thinking about this takes me back to my own college days and my struggle to survive financially, and it highlights why, for some, financial aid is critically important.

My family made no provisions for me to go to college, much less seminary. If you are the first generation of your family to go to college, no one in the family has any idea what it takes to pay for tuition, fees, room and board, books and other living expenses.

To get to college in the first place, I worked summers at all kinds of jobs. I’ve hauled trash, mowed weeds on the roadside, been a lifeguard.  When I got to college, I sold subscriptions door to door to make ends meet. These jobs did not provide a reliable source of income.

Church aid makes difference

In those days, I was hungry a lot of the time. I gave up my meal ticket in college because I couldn’t afford it.

If I went home on the weekends, I would bring back whatever food I could, but in those days before there were dorm refrigerators, I would buy a bag of cinnamon rolls and try to make them last all week, allowing myself only one in the morning and one at night.

8.19.13infographic-design_1After my freshman year at a private university, I had to transfer to a less expensive public university. I took an appointment as a supply pastor and commuted 50 to 60 miles a day so I could live in the parsonage and save on room and board.  I’d leave at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t get back home until 10 p.m. And later, when I attended seminary, I took a position as a student intern with a paid salary.

But the critical difference came in the form of United Methodist student loans and scholarships that helped my wife and me to get by. A United Methodist student loan was the most affordable loan I could get, and it filled in the gap between the individual scholarships I received and the income I was able to earn.

That loan made it possible for me to get an education. The term of the loan was long enough and the interest rate low enough that the payments were manageable on a pastor’s income after graduation.

Education must be affordable

The United Methodist Church has a long history of helping students reduce college debt through scholarships and low-interest loans.  In fact, the 146-year-old United Methodist Student Loan Fund is the oldest student loan fund in the United States.

In a sense, this track record is a prophetic public witness to the need for accessible financial aid for deserving but resource-limited persons. The scholarship and loans were vitally important to me, and I’m deeply grateful that I was able to get them. They made all the difference for me, but the church can’t do this alone.

In the current debate about financial aid and student debt, my hope is that we can find ways to make higher education affordable for all, especially for young people who lack resources and whose families lack the experience of higher education and its costs.

 

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

Malaria battle is not lost, but we must redouble our effort

The BBC story “Bed Nets for Malaria: Losing the Arms Race?”, which aired on NPR, created a flurry of questions about the progress against this persistent disease.

Are bed nets continuing to be effective? Are bed nets the solution? Are we in danger of falling back and giving ground to a more virulent form of the parasite?

These questions are important and deserve a careful response. They are especially relevant to United Methodists who are closing in on raising $75 million for the Imagine No Malaria campaign.

Feliciana Domingos and her daughter, Sarafine Lorenço, take shelter beneath a mosquito net at their home near Malanje, Angola, in 2006. Forty-six percent of all the deaths in Malanje are related to malaria. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Feliciana Domingos and her daughter, Sarafine Lorenço, take shelter beneath a mosquito net at their home near Malanje, Angola, in 2006. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

From the outset of the current initiatives against malaria, it was clear that bed nets would be effective for a period of two to three years. It was also clear that resistance to existing medications and pesticides is one of the most frustrating capacities of the malaria parasite.

So the questions raised by the BBC story have been anticipated by malaria specialists for a number of years.

However, in my view the story emphasizes the importance of continuing to raise funds for several angles of attack against this resilient parasite. Bed nets do need to be replaced. Therefore, continuing to fund the manufacture and replacement of nets is part of the whole approach necessary to continue the fight. It’s not the only part but one of the multiple steps that need to be taken.

Research and education are needed

In addition, it’s important to continue to fund research into various prevention methods. Research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and facilities in Seattle among other places must be continued and strengthened. These approaches range from finding ways to alter the reproductive abilities of the female mosquitoes that carry the parasite, to altering mosquito DNA and even to immobilizing the parasite itself through creative genetic manipulation, which goes beyond my layperson’s understanding.

It’s also necessary to continue to educate people in malaria-affected regions to keep their environment free of standing water and trash that serves to catch rainwater.

It’s important to educate children (and adults as well) about wearing clothing that will protect them from mosquitoes when the insect is most active in the morning and evening. This, along with environmental cleanup, is known in the malaria world as behavior change communication.

Those who are fighting this disease have been addressing behavior change for many years, reinforced by the communications efforts of United Methodist Communications. The task is ongoing.

It’s important to continue research into more effective pesticides because the parasite has shown an amazing ability to adapt and resist. This may be the greatest challenge.

Artemisinin resistance was identified by the World Health Organization in some regions several years ago. The agency warned of the spread of the parasite into new areas and called for increased containment efforts.

Health workers in the field need to continue their efforts at quicker diagnosis and treatment of those suspected of contracting malaria. The sooner appropriate medications can be provided the more likely the worst of the disease’s effects can be addressed.

And research must continue into effective drugs for treating the disease. These efforts, as others I’ve listed above, are taking place in many locations around the world.

Lives are at stake

One of the reasons this disease has persisted is its ability to adapt, but the effectiveness of these various inputs from the highly sophisticated to the most rudimentary have resulted in significant progress in reducing deaths and suffering in recent years. But the battle is not over, and it certainly isn’t lost.

We must continue the fight, keeping our eyes wide open to the challenges the BBC has accurately identified.

And we must not lose heart and yield to the thought that the disease cannot be conquered. To do so is an invitation to an even greater calamity. The world experienced that about 30 years ago, when progress against the disease was made and the fight was abandoned prematurely.

The result was that the parasite came back even stronger and was more difficult to contain, causing many more deaths and posing a challenge that was far more difficult to treat.

The fight against this disease is challenging, but what is at stake are human lives. We have seen many places around the world, the United States and Panama for example, where malaria once claimed lives with impunity but is now under control.

This is not the time to let the challenges cause us to hesitate. It’s time to redouble our efforts to enjoin the fight.

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?

 

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