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COMMENTARY: A new church movement requires an idea, passion Eric Van Meter, Dec 12, 2011
Eric Van Meter
By Eric Van Meter Special Contributor
Sometimes a good idea is enough. And sometimes it isn’t.
When Blake Mycoskie went to Argentina as part of the CBS television show The Amazing Race, he noticed how many children lacked adequate footwear. As a result, kids were getting sick or injured. And no one without shoes could attend school.
So Mr. Mycoskie had an idea. He would find a way to provide shoes for poor children across the globe.
But a new non-profit would only get lost in the cacophony of worthy causes begging for donations. If he wanted to reach his goal, the idea was not enough. He needed to think and act differently than everyone else.
The result was not just a business, but a movement.
People—particularly the coveted “young” demographic—flocked to stores and websites to purchase TOMS shoes. The simple styles had a countercultural feel. And since TOMS donated a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold, they were also a statement. Anyone who wore their products was not only fashion conscious, but a good enough person to overpay for canvas shoes for the sake of a child overseas.
It’s a particularly American way to help, this philanthropy via consumerism. But it has worked so far, to the tune for more than a million pairs donated. And it illustrates an important principle: Starting a movement means not just having a good idea, but inspiring others to action around it.
Could such a principle play out in the United Methodist Church? Absolutely. In fact, at least in one corner of our denomination, it already has.
Several years ago, the UMC ratcheted up its involvement in the efforts to combat malaria. The idea quickly became a movement within our ranks. As of today, virtually every United Methodist body at every level has somehow helped with the initiative.
But why malaria? We UMs also fight cancer, AIDS, famine and thousands of other health threats. Why did malaria capture our attention?
Because need met idea, and idea sparked inspiration. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote a piece in 2006 drawing attention to the United Nations Foundation’s fight against malaria and challenging his readers to donate to the cause. The NBA jumped on board. So did we Methodists.
Out of that idea grew Nothing But Nets, which provides mosquito nets and training on how to use them to people in at-risk areas. Realizing that nets by themselves were not enough, UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) later launched Imagine No Malaria, a comprehensive program for fighting the disease. Countless celebrities and corporate sponsors have lent support to the effort. Need. Idea. Inspiration. Seeing a pattern yet?
When we focus on a need outside of ourselves and develop a good idea for addressing it, we can do amazing things together. This, I think, is a key point for those of us who pray and work for a new Methodist movement. And it begins with the discipline to avoid worrying about ourselves.
That’s easier said than done, of course. And our natural inclination to worry about our own survival is probably the reason we spend so much time trying to recapture the revivalist spirit of the past, or to find the next magical “evangelism” program to bring people into the church.
But equating evangelism with church recruitment is not an idea that inspires. No one on the outside of the UMC gets jazzed about the idea of helping to save a struggling denomination. For that matter, very few of us on the inside want to do that either.
If we want ideas that inspire us—much less anybody else—we need to keep before us goals that are beyond ourselves. That’s what Nothing But Nets and Imagine No Malaria have done for us. They’ve saved thousands of lives, and given us reason to believe that we can accomplish things that seem impossible at first glance.
So what now? Which idea will we rally behind to start our next movement?
I couldn’t tell you. No one could.
That’s the frustrating thing about movements. They are unmanageable. Blake Mycoskie can start TOMS, but customers have to buy them. Rick Reilly can write about mosquito nets, but ordinary people have to text in their donations.
Movements can be sparked and coaxed, but they need more than a little Internet buzz and a slick ad campaign to really take off. They need meaning, which can only be created by those who adopt and share the movement.
What does that mean for us? Unfortunately for our usual way of doing things, it means that any well-managed campaign by the UMC is almost certainly doomed to underachieve.
On the positive side, however, recognizing our lack of control frees us to follow our passions. Perhaps others will catch on, perhaps not. Either way, the ideas that inspire us—from world health to disaster relief to campus ministry to whatever else we can come up with—have a far greater chance of becoming movements than any program handed down from on high.
Who knows what the next inspiring idea will be? And who knows what we can do as a result?
We might even start a new Methodist movement.
The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at email@example.com.