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

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffweese/4140879948/

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.

 

A Saturday Evening Before Palm Sunday Meditation

The blind lady played the tambourine. A man shuffled forward using a walker. A shy little girl stepped to the front. And the lady who seemed a little out of touch came alive and beamed as brightly as an evening star. The impromptu choir at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church had formed and they were ready to lead a rousing rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot on the Saturday-evening-before-Palm-Sunday worship service. And sing they did!

Bodies came alive. Energy filled the room. Folks swayed and some, ever-so-slightly, allowed themselves to dance. This congregation of  people knows hard times. Some live on the street. Most struggle to get through each day. For them, life is not kind.

But when the Rev. Paul Slentz asked for a song request and “Swing Low” was given, the place came alive. He invited anyone who wanted to be in the choir to come forward. Normally there is no choir. And ten or so people made their way, some haltingly because of physical limitations, to the front of the room. The pianist hit the keys and the music gushed forth.

They sang with as much energy as I imagine those who shouted encouragement to Jesus in Jerusalem did two thousand years ago. One lady in particular beamed with joy. It was a transformation from her earlier downcast manner. Then it had seemed as if she were detached from the world but now her face was one big smile.

This morning as I re-read Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, I happened upon this description of her experience in worship when Renola, an African American lady embraced Kenny, an emaciated young man dying of AIDS, from whom Renola had kept her distance.

Lamott writes that during the singing of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” Ranola watched as everyone stood but Kenny. He was too weak to stand. She melted. She went to his side and “lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.”

And Lamott puts into words what we felt last evening at 61st Ave. UMC. “I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

We’re broken and battered, some more than others. Sometimes our wounds show, sometimes not.

Swing low sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. But still my soul feels heavenly bound.

Our hearts beat for that heavenly place we call home. Safety from the storm. Respite from the struggle. Sweet sounds without the noise. Last evening at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church, the noise quieted, hard times were forgotten and tender hearts came home.

 

Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing.

When the story of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin broke, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he had repeated “the talk” with his college-age son. My friend said he had been stopped driving while black, he’s had experiences walking while black, even eating while black. He reminded his son about how to act in case he were stopped by the police while engaging in normal activities.

My friend was troubled by the apparent silence of the churches. In fact, this was a misperception born of the lack of visibility of the leaders in the mainline tradition who had spoken out. For example, the Florida Council of Churches had expressed condolences to the Martin family, called the death of Trayvon unwarranted and said deadly force should not be tolerated in Florida. The council called for justice.

On Tuesday, the president and staff of the National Council of Churches also expressed condolences and issued a statement saying “this tragedy has been compounded by unexamined stereotypes on both sides, and especially by the systemic racism that is pervasive throughout the very fabric of our society, infecting our institutions and individuals alike.”

Also on Tuesday, Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, appeared on the Roland Martin show on CNN and expressed concern about the so-called “stand your ground” laws and the need for us to consider the results of these laws. These laws are, in fact, a moral issue. They sanction deadly force by expanding traditional legal constraints on self-defense. Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.

During the show, Roland Martin called out white evangelicals for not speaking about the sacredness of life in this case. In contrast, African-American clergy appeared on cable television shows, some defending the shooter and others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC program, calling for the resignation of the Sanford, Fla., police chief and for justice for Trayvon Martin’s family.

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing. This was backed by a statement that said, in part, “Youths of color are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, and thus face the constant threat of random acts of violence.”

The importance of media savvy

There are two issues of importance in the muted voice of the mainline groups. The first and most difficult is that because they don’t work in the media landscape in a strategic way, the mainlines are infrequently considered by major media as a source when events of this importance occur.  In contrast, media-savvy speakers were appearing in major media.

The second concern is related to the first and follows from it. Absent media coverage, the mainline groups are left to issue statements and distribute them within their own networks. With the exception of Ms. Butler of Faith in Public Life, the mainline response was very traditional. I applaud the public witness of the mainline groups, but there’s a difference between offering a pronouncement and participating in the ongoing conversation.

The latter requires media savvy and a desire to inject values into the culture. It involves offering interpretation about the underlying values and forces at work in the culture today, forces that are sometimes so subtle or complex that they go unnoticed, such as racism and its multiple coded behaviors.

A tragic absence

I’ve been writing about the absence of the mainline from the media and the tragedy it represents. The mainline denominations are concerned about the moral values that undergird society. They are concerned about race, human dignity and the value of human life. The tragedy is that their concerns are not receiving the attention they deserve, primarily due to this lack of visibility in the communication landscape today.

While Roland Martin was on point, he missed the mark by referring only to white evangelicals. This absence of mainline leaders in the national media is haunting. The nation is having an important conversation, not only on cable television but through newspaper commentary, blogs, radio talk shows and in myriad other ways about fundamental issues of great moral concern (race and justice). An important voice, one that should be helping us come to terms with our understanding of the issues, is missing, and the absence of the mainline churches in the national dialogue is a great loss.

This lack of presence is something that’s been evolving over the past several years, and it renders the conversation less rich, inclusive and substantial. I pray that mainline groups find their place in the media landscape, participate in the conversation, and offer clarifying values and perspective. I believe being present in this landscape today is a necessary part of being faithful.

I also believe it is the media environment in which we do theology. It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are and how we are to live together and flourish as God intends for us all.

And if we are not present, it’s as if we have nothing to say, or worse, don’t care. And that’s not true.

 

Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?

I was reading Frank Schaeffer’s most recent article on Huffington Post and was stopped in my tracks by these statements:

“Why aren’t the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant and noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale?”

“If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I wanted to shout at my iPad, “Yes, and that is what we are seeing happen in The United Methodist Church when we intentionally reach out to people in our communities.”

If fact, I feel so strongly that mainline denominations have lost their voice in the ongoing media revolution that I recently penned a book called “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.

Mainline denominations, each for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from the media in the 1980s, at the same time these media were becoming the most influential shapers of attitudes and values in human history.  Amid a revolution in thought and conversation, many of the mainline churches left their place in the discussion to others.

This retreat has caused faith communities to lose their voice in the ongoing conversations that are shaping moral and ethical values.  The result is disastrous.  It is not merely accidental that an image of God is being projected by some religionists that is judgmental, vindictive and the cause of human suffering.

When the church loses its capacity to engage in conversations about faith, it diminishes its capacity to be relevant in an increasingly secular culture. And we’re seeing how harmful this can be.

The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor.  They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.

The mainline denominations offer that message and the opportunity to act on it, but without a voice in the media landscape, we are destined to obscurity.

In The United Methodist Church, we are reaching out to young adults through a call to Rethink Church, our invitational media campaign.   We are asking young adults to rethink church, not in terms of what it is, but what it could be.  Not just a place to go, or a particular politics, but rather something we do.  By using a variety of media in partnership with local congregations and general church agencies, we are calling young adults to join us in acts of mission.  In 2011, some 4500 churches mobilized more than 500,000 volunteers, serving 4,000,000 people in 16 countries.  Up to 40% of these volunteers were not members of a United Methodist Church, and through this association were more inclined to visit these churches.

Communicating strategically in the global media environment in which we live today is an act of theology. I think we’re answering Schaeffer’s question and a movement is building, but that he is asking the question means we must do more.

For more information on “We Must Speak” and our voice in the culture, click here.

 

White Savior Complex

I think it was 1978 when I first heard African church leaders discuss the “white savior complex” and blame the media for creating images of Africa in perpetual crisis.

We sat in a small, airy, modern building in Dakar, Senegal. It was hot. Dust devils swirled the sand outside. It was my first trip outside the United States and everything seemed noteworthy, even the flat, dry landscape beyond the windows.

This memory was conjured up by the public debate about the “Kony 2012″ campaign and its viral video.

The African church leaders complained to me as if I were representative of the entire journalism profession. They had wanted to unload on someone for a long time, and here I was, so they unloaded. I heard about their frustration that positive stories of Africans solving problems and creating economic progress were of no interest to Western journalists. The journalists only wanted stories of crisis, death, destruction, graft and political corruption, the church leaders said.

They only show up when something goes wrong. They take pictures, shoot video and leave. When they leave, the story goes away until a crisis pops up somewhere else. They don’t get the story accurate. They look only at the things they can see on the surface. They don’t understand the culture or the underlying circumstances that lead to human suffering.

They see drought but ignore longstanding issues that have roots in colonial exploitation, roots that create inequity and injustice and keep Africans in a subservient position in trade relationships, lacking the money to build infrastructure, education and viable businesses to compete globally.

But there was more. The African church leaders were also frustrated with the parade of celebrities who come for a day or two, get their picture taken and speak on behalf of Africans. Then they retreat to the most expensive hotels and leave on the next flight out. I heard about white people who come to Africa with a savior complex, as if Africans don’t have the intelligence or capabilities to solve their own problems.

We lack resources, not resourcefulness,” the Africans told me. We don’t need white saviors telling us how to survive. We’ve been surviving here long before white people came and exploited the people and the land. After they leave, we’ll still be here, they said. I got an earful. Welcome to Africa!

All of these themes have come up in the “Kony 2012″ campaign flap. I was surprised by a blog post by a PR professional in the United States who said Invisible Children had deftly managed the public relations flap. Not from what I have read in reactions of Africans to the film. They raise issues that have been percolating for at least 30 years and the fact that the film steps into these troubled waters and stirs them anew is not a sign of deft PR. It’s a sign of good intentions run aground by lack of historical understanding and context.

In reviewing this criticism, I’m not making a case for ignoring the horrendous human suffering caused by Joseph Kony. The criticism does, however, provide perspective. For as long as I’ve been writing about poverty and its effects globally, which is now going on 30 years, I’ve been concerned about the exploitation of children, especially as child soldiers and through sex trafficking. It’s heartbreaking. It makes me angry. It deserves focused, ongoing attention until we’ve put an end to it.

For me, focus and ongoing attention are key. It’s unfortunate that the “Kony 2012″ campaign’s attention got diverted to the accuracy of its claims and the role the storyteller. 

I’m willing to give great leeway to the young filmmaker and his aspirations to put an end to Kony’s reign of terror. I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s comment in Bird by Bird, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.” I’m grateful that he’s taken on this terribly important issue. And I’m hoping the attention Invisible Children has brought to the issue creates a sustained effort to put an end to Kony and others who exploit children in merciless ways.

This will require a multi-pronged  effort to empower African human rights advocates to press for action by governments in Africa, public support of the kind Invisible Children is creating in the United States and elsewhere to pressure Western policymakers and governments to pursue Kony and others, and to implement aid programs  that include measurable outcomes to protect human rights and prevent exploitation of children, and women who continue to experience rape and other indignities daily in Africa.

It’s been such a long, long time.

Postscript–March 16, 2012: Nicholas Kristof defends the young filmmaker with a compassionate defense. This BBC coverage contains African reaction to the video. David Reiff critiques the advocacy methodology and its outcome (or lack of it) in this article in Foreign Affairs. A tragic turn of events occurred today with the arrest of the young filmmaker. He is in my prayers.

March 20, 2012: Journalist Angelo Izama provides a lucid overview of the political context in which Joseph Kony operates and discusses how this complex context makes it possible for tyrants like Kony to function as proxies for the various political interests that help them to survive.

This collection of posts gives insight into the white savior complex from different points of view.

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