As The United Methodist Church begins a focus on Abundant Health, congregations around the world are creating new ways to make health a priority.
Sabrina Rodgers, U.S. health program manager for the Global Health Unit at the General Board of Global Ministries, is encouraging churches to do "small things that can make a big impact" on the health of their communities — and their congregants.
"We know that the church is in a unique position. They're in touch with members of the community on a number of levels," she said. "They are in a position to be a change agent."
Abundant Health: Our Promise to Children will engage people in promoting health in their church and community. To that end, Global Ministries aims to unite 10,000 churches in committing to healthy living. These efforts will include implementing health programs locally and supporting others across the globe to promote children's health and wellness, ensure safe births, promote breastfeeding and good nutrition, and prevent childhood illnesses.
Six million children die each year of preventable diseases. Rodgers said the Global Ministries staff hopes this initiative will reduce those "needless deaths" and promote lifestyles that help children thrive.
"In the U.S., this is the first generation of children that has a projected lifespan that's shorter than that of their parents. A third of our children are obese or overweight," Rodgers said. She hopes the Abundant Health emphasis will lead to "healthier communities and a healthier America."
"I truly believe the church, through this initiative, could change children and their families across the world," she said. "Even next year, perhaps 6 million children don't have to die of preventable illness. That number will constantly decrease each year; that's my goal. I hope to see that number down to zero."
Changing traditions, adding ministries
As it seeks congregations to join the effort, Global Ministries is encouraging creative ideas like changing how churches do potlucks, adding a fitness component to vacation Bible school or offering nutrition education.
Fairview United Methodist Church in Danville, Virginia, is among the first congregations to accept the 10,000-Church Challenge.
Kristen Aron directs the church's Caring and Health Ministry. As a nurse, Aron's career motivates her to encourage others toward healthy living.
"Being in the healthcare field, I see sick patients every day," she said. "Some disease processes they have could simply be taken care of by healthy eating, exercise, getting regular checkups."
Fairview Church offers monthly blood pressure screenings, hosts an annual health fair and emphasizes physical activity during vacation Bible school.
On the third Sunday morning of each month, Aron and other medical personnel check blood pressures. The monthly event mainly serves congregants, but it is advertised on the church's outdoor sign to encourage others from the community to participate.
The fall health fair lets health organizations from the community offer information. "It's community outreach in conjunction with the fall festival," Aron said. "We get lots of families and children. It's a way for them to get health information."
At the event, dentists, physicians, physical therapists and other health professionals offer giveaways and free consultations or hand out flyers and answer questions. The church provides a kids' zone to promote activity while adults gather information.
During the vacation Bible school, Aron said volunteers serve healthy snacks and lead physical activity for the kids.
Aron also works to educate church members about health by including articles in the church newsletter addressing topics like cardiovascular health and flu shots. She also published an article mentioning the 10,000-Church Challenge.
"We're trying to get as many people involved as we can," she said.
Creating a healthier community
Greg Henneman is director of Healthy Eating and Living (HEAL) at Church and Community Development for All People (CD4AP) in Columbus, Ohio. He said the United Methodist Church for All People developed the organization when it started emphasizing health in specific ways about three years ago after "listening to the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the community."
"People raised issues of wanting a healthier community, wanting more opportunities for health for their children and themselves," he said.
To meet this need, CD4AP offers one-on-one health coaching, supplies a fresh market for families to buy produce, hosts exercise programs and teaches cooking classes.
The church is located in a low-income urban area. Henneman believes these opportunities are a way to make abundant health accessible to more people.
"I believe that people who live in this community have as much right to have a full and abundant life as someone who has more means," he said. "I believe that's God's will for them."
At CD4AP's fresh market, families sign up for 30-minute time slots to shop for fruits and vegetables.
"Before they shop, we offer health and wellness classes to help empower people," he said. "We also talk about health as a whole – emotional health, healthy relationships, spiritual health. We're not only interested in whether you're eating kale, but whether you're a whole healthy person."
Henneman said Abundant Health is not only about community engagement but also about the church and its members living out their mission.
"Last year during Lent, we did a six-week Bible study that was focused on how we live into our abundant health," he said. "That's something we're going to continue working on all the time. Even our mission and vision statement talk about us, as a whole organization, what we aspire to do is have a healthy, vibrant community. It's not a side project. It's who we are."
Accept challenge, start small
Henneman encouraged churches to join the Abundant Health initiative by starting small.
"It doesn't matter if it's a yoga class or a once-a-month food program or hosting an AA group in your building," he said. "To be a part of the Abundant Health program, you don't have to do a bunch of things. What's one thing you can do to connect to the hopes and dreams and aspirations of your community?"
As Fairview continues to understand the Abundant Health focus, Aron said the Caring and Health Ministry is striving to expand its reach.
"It's definitely making us sit down and think about ways we can encourage church members to be healthier," she said. "I know mental health is a concern. Smoking cessation, that's a good one. Encouraging patients to get their normal immunizations, that's something we can encourage as well."
Aron challenged churches not to be intimidated if they don't have a healthcare professional in their congregation leading the way.
"Everybody should be concerned about their own health, as well as their family or their children," she said. "You just have to have that drive to say, ‘I want to do what's right.' It can start with something simple. Have a doctor come speak at your church. Bring in people from the community to speak or set up a health fair. Take that leap of faith."
Henneman said he views Abundant Health as an opportunity for the church to "reconnect with our neighbors" and return to its identity of meeting needs in all areas of life.
"The history of health and wellness comes from the church," he said. "Not only did Jesus speak about it, but the church was the place hospitals came from. The church was once seen as the social service agency of the community.
"What if the church reclaimed its role? What if each church did just one thing? Then, when people saw the cross and flame, they'd say, ‘That's the place that's bringing wholeness. That's the place that has the recovery group. That's the place that has the yoga class.' I think the Abundant Health program is a golden opportunity to do that."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, January-February 2017.