Discipleship and Celebration

Twenty Minutes with Scott Gunn

By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

The Rev. Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest and technophile who serves as executive director of Forward Movement in Cincinnati, Ohio. A native of Iowa, he studied at Luther College, Yale University, and Brown University. He has worked as a parish priest, as an IT director, and as a technology consultant to a variety of for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

Most Episcopalians have probably seen Forward Day by Day, but they may know less about Forward Movement.
Forward Movement was begun in the 1930s at a time when the Episcopal Church was struggling numerically, financially, and in terms of its mission. Unsure what to do, the General Convention chartered the Forward Movement Commission to figure something out. The brilliant insight that emerged from this group is that the Episcopal Church will be strong when its congregations are strong. Congregations are strong when they are filled with disciples rather than habitual Christians. So Forward Movement has existed for almost 80 years to encourage discipleship, especially through daily habits of prayer and study.

What current Forward Movement projects excite you?
This time of year, I’m always excited about Lent Madness, which is a fairly silly way to encourage people to learn more about the lives of saints and to embrace some kind of Lenten discipline, even if it involves laughing. It’s part of our effort to find new ways to draw people into a deeper relationship with Jesus, realizing that traditional methods don’t work for everyone.

We also have a bunch of other projects that are connected to discipleship. RenewalWorks is a way for congregations to benchmark their spiritual vitality — strengths and challenges — and have leaders go through a series of workshops to deepen the spiritual life. Sadly, attention to spiritual vitality is often neglected as congregations focus on institutional survival. We want to change the conversation.

I have heard from lots of families that they want to talk about faith at home, but they’re not sure where to begin. Daily Devo is an email that comes every morning with simple meditations based on the daily lectionary. Every day has a meditation, an action to take, a video, and a prayer. Individuals or congregations can sign up, and we’ve heard a very good response. Many people are longing for spiritual growth, and I hope this can be a way to give people a daily opportunity to grow.

What’s your sense of the future of print media in our common life — not just in the Episcopal Church, but in the wider Anglican Communion and in Christianity? Will there always be room for books? Is technology really a net gain for the current life and future of Christian thought?
I think there will always be books, just as there will always be written manuscripts and oral tradition. New technology might get the spotlight, but the older ways of communicating never completely fade away. Last year I showed up for one parish’s 6:15 a.m. Thursday Bible study. That day every person there was a man, studying Scripture before commuting to work. The rector asked everyone to pull out his copy of Forward Day by Day. Almost every man pulled a copy out of his jacket pocket or briefcase. They all read it on the train every morning. It doesn’t require batteries, and it’s portable. As a bonus, you can give your copy away if someone’s interested. We’re certainly doing things beyond print, but it won’t go away immediately.

From my perspective, technology — even social media, easy to malign — has been good. We are able to connect in ways we couldn’t until now. My Facebook friend who serves a church in Baghdad helps me understand the plight of Christians there every day. I can pray for him and his church. When I was a rector, social media helped me connect with the lives of parishioners in extraordinary ways. Through Facebook, I could learn about a family member’s death, a high school student’s exam, a new home, or a lost job. There are plenty of dangers and cautions, to be sure, but I’m grateful for the gift of technology. I think the church’s resistance to new technologies is at least partly due to our participation in a culture of fear. Ironic, isn’t it, since Jesus kept telling his followers, “Be not afraid”?

What discourages you most about the common life of Anglicans today?
Too often we set the bar too low. We water down the demands of the faith, hoping it will be more attractive to seekers, but forgetting that it is precisely the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus that compels disciples. We give up too easily on challenging relationships, whether in our personal lives or in the Anglican Communion, because we forget that we have the Advocate to help us reconcile. We settle for mediocre liturgy, preaching, and teaching, because we begin to substitute the perceived friendliness of community for the transforming presence of God among us. We think that our task is to renew the Church, when our call is to renew the world. Of course, I think the Church does need renewal, but that is the means and not the end.

What gives you the most hope about the common life of Anglicans today?
Anglican Christianity is perfectly positioned for the hungers of this generation. If we can embrace who we are — rather than trying to pretend we are “relevant,” whatever that means — we will be able to offer the Good News to countless people. My sense is that many of those outside our churches are looking for three things: transcendent encounter with God, relationship with a community of faith, and intellectually engaging teaching and preaching. These things are all in our Anglican DNA, without even trying very hard. Our ancient and reformed liturgy is spot on for many folks.

Your Lent Madness initiative has energized a large group of media-engaged persons, and offered many of us an opportunity to learn about the saints and the liturgical year along the way. What other things do you have on the drawing board?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention 50 Days of Fabulous, a way to remember that the Great Fifty Days of Easter invite us to celebrate for a very long time. It’s a website with daily meditations and conversation. Pretty simple, but my sense is that most of us don’t really live it up as much as we might for the duration of the Easter season. We’ve kicked around some other ideas, and we’re always glad to hear others. In the same vein of light-hearted approaches to liturgical seasons, we’ve also begun publishing Jay Sidebotham’s wonderful Lent and Advent calendar posters. We’re talking about other seasons there too, perhaps Easter or Christmas.

Richard J. Mammana, Jr., TLC’s archivist, is founder and director of Project Canterbury (anglicanhistory.org).

Scott Gunn Interview


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