For the second year in a row, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is asking its members to go without alcohol for this Lenten season and to donate the funds they would have spent on it to charity.
The campaign is meant to inspire an "international discussion" among United Methodists about the dangers of alcohol, which, studies have shown, kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis and is the top health risk factor for middle-income people, more than obesity, inactivity, or tobacco.
"The world has changed drastically around us as it relates to alcohol use," Jim Winkler, top executive for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, wrote in a blog last week. "A lack of awareness to the implications and consequences of normalizing alcohol use is an ongoing concern and threat to public health that begs the question: 'If a society integrates alcohol use into its regular activities without awareness to its impact on the health and well-being of individuals and communities, what are the consequences?'"
The nationwide campaign, which last year spread to 50 churches in 22 states, started locally with a Charlotte, N.C. congregation's idea for a "Spirit Fund." The program urged church members to donate small amounts of cash that they would have otherwise spent on evening or party drinks. The church eventually raised nearly $26,000, which they donated to a local recovery project. The UMC is hoping that this year's campaign will reach even more of its members.
"Everyone must grapple daily with the influence of alcohol on our lives, whether we drink or not," said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of the Board of Church and Society's work on alcohol. "Frank conversation is unlikely to happen, however, without bold action such as this initiative that calls us to take a dramatic step, to make a personal or corporate statement about alcohol and its impact."
While the UMC does not prohibit its members from using alcohol recreationally, it does strongly recommend the practice of abstinence, as stated in the group's Book of Discipline:
"We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons .… Since the use of illegal drugs, as well as illegal and problematic use of alcohol, is a major factor in crime, disease, death and family dysfunction, we support educational programs as well as other prevention strategies encouraging abstinence from illegal drug use and, with regard to those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as a guide."