Igniting Misery

Somehow (it’s not hard to understand…) I have developed the reputation of actively disliking Igniting Ministry/ReThink Church/”Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”  This isn’t actually true, but perception shapes reality.  I united-methodist20logoam critical of our marketing work/branding efforts for a wide variety of reasons, but I have never said Igniting Ministry and/or ReThink Church are bad.  In fact, I think they have great potential, stir up productive and helpful discussion, and point us in the direction we want to go.  But I also believe they are failing to achieve this potential, our leaders are essentially unaware of the discussion being stirred, and many in the target audience are still unclear what our direction is.  Let me explain.

Part of the work I have done in the past number of years is to meet with groups of United Methodists, non-UMs, Christians, non-Christians, and a wide variety of spiritual seekers from every walk of American life to listen.  I listen to their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, their beliefs, and their impressions of the church and all things church related.  I try to listen as objectively as possible — sometimes more successfully than others.  Then I rethinkchurch_logo_try to report (once again, as accurately as possible) what I hear.  What I have heard, both within the faith and without, about Igniting Ministries and ReThink Church  has been a) predominantly indifferent, b) significantly negative, and c) moderately positive.  I report it that way because that’s the way I hear it.  I am not trying to be negative.  The simple fact is that we aren’t reaching who we want, and often those we do reach don’t much like what they see.

For example:  I had the opportunity just this week to meet with seventeen college students and two professors at Vanderbilt University.  We were talking about faith issues, so I raised the question, “have you seen the ReThink church materials online?”  No one had, so one of the professors brought it up on a large screen, and we held an impromptu focus group.  We looked at a few of the video pieces, some of the support materials, and navigated the page for awhile.  The overall response was “meh,” but with an occasional guffaw.  Apart from one or two pieces that people agreed were “okay,” some of the quotes I captured were,

Who is this for?  I don’t want to have happy church people tell me I’m missing out.  It doesn’t even really sound like the church.

This is, like, really lame.  I don’t believe them.  They sound like they’re trying to figure out what to say that I would want to hear, except that it’s obvious they don’t know me at all.

These are plastic people saying plastic things.  Why would I want to listen to them?

I don’t get how this is Christian?  I don’t get how this is even church?  It’s like they go out of their way to act like they’re something they’re not.

This lacks credibility.  There’s not one authentic thing in anything we watched.  It seems fake, and I tend to be suspicious anyway.  If this is the United Methodist Church, I’m not interested.

This is all contrived.  It looks and sounds phony.

That heart, doors thing with the <derogatory> guy looks like he’s trying to tell my parents there’s something good for me in his church.  Was this made in the 80s?  (To which someone else responded, ‘Yeah, but the James Earl Jones guy made it sound like a great spoof.’)

Now, these are Christian young men and women — people who actually like church.  They are a random sample of young men and women, racially diverse, 20-25 years of age.  I would love to share other comments, but the only things said are along the same lines of those above.  These young people did not like, trust, or accept what they saw.  I can’t share anything else, because there is nothing else to share.

Igniting Ministries is a bit more complex.  In hundreds of interviews, I have found a handful of people who were moved to connect with The United Methodist Church because they were attracted by the “open hearts, open, minds, open doors” marketing appeal.  Unfortunately, I encountered a larger group who were initially attracted, but then found that Methodist congregations could not deliver on the promise.  Here are some observations about the “openness” of the UMC:

from a genetic scientist:

There is no place for me in this church.  I grew up Methodist, but I can’t go back.  I’ve tried.  My pastor told me that my work ‘offended’ good Christian church members.  He said that a good Christian couldn’t be a scientist, and that a scientist couldn’t be a Christian.  I have tried a number of churches.  I went back because of the “open minds” campaign.  Don’t kid yourself.”

from a twenty-something Cuban-American woman:

I needed to clean up my life.  I took my kids to the church with the banner.  It was clear that nobody wanted us there.  My kids are a little loud.  People couldn’t wait for us to leave, that’s how ‘open’ they were.

from a lifelong Methodist:

I was the church choir director for over twenty years.  I grew up in the church.  I worked with the youth group since the early 80s.  After years of struggling, I finally got the courage to admit to my church family that I am a lesbian after our pastor preached a sermon on how important it is to be honest in a family, even a church family.  It was the worst decision I ever made.  People left the choir.  They voiced a concern to the pastor about me being with their kids.  When it was a secret, I was fine, but when I was honest, people hated me.  If you think Methodists are open-minded or open-hearted, think again.  My own church family slammed the door on me.  I will never go back.

from a homeless man in Tennessee:

All I wanted was a place to go, you know?  All I wanted was to be accepted?  There’s a church in town that put a sign out — “open hearts and doors” (sic) so I went in.  People wouldn’t talk to me, except a man who said I shouldn’t hang out in the church because I was making people ‘uncomfortable.’

from a young man, multi-pierced and broadly tattooed from head to toe, from the streets of the Bronx:

oh, man, the m*****f***** shirts got all stiff when I came in.  I want to know what the f*** God is all about.  S***, you know there ain’t noplace in the church for me.  I open my mouth and s***, ten big guys descend on me to throw me out.  F***, you don’t care about nobody.  You only ‘open’ to those just like you.

When I share these quotes, UMs far and wide want to argue that, of course, a few people will feel like this.  Yes, I guess, but it is worth noting that I have over 750 such quotes from only 4,181 interviews (113 positive quotes).  I can’t report that I think this campaign was well received when 18.4% of the responses are negative, and only 2.7% are positive.  Sure, we don’t want to dismiss the 2.7%, but we absolutely cannot dismiss the 18.4% who are turned off, offended, or alienated by the message.  This doesn’t even speak to the 75+% who aren’t even aware of it after eight long years.

Some will say that “Open Hearts, Minds, and Doors” is a goal, not a descriptor.  That’s both dishonest and disingenuous.  We advertised what the people of the UMC are, not what they wish they were or what they’re trying to be.  In short, seven times as many people think we lied as think we told the truth.  And perception shapes reality.

My advice is that we need to be very careful with ReThink Church — learn the lessons that our culture tried to teach us about Igniting Ministry.  If we aren’t willing to truly change — to rethink, restructure, recreate, and redeem, we shouldn’t say we will.  A lot of people are skeptical.  We, as a denomination, lack credibility, trust, and respect.  It needs to be earned, and we can’t allow another ad campaign to further damage our reputation.

That means we have got to really change.  To become something we have not been before.  We cannot preserve the old institution and expect people to think it’s something innovative.  We need to challenge the status quo, tackle the hard questions, and be ready to become, oh, I don’t know… maybe a transformed church in a world we seek to transform.

36 replies

  1. Responding to Peter Wells I would disagree wholeheartedly. I am amazed at how much material you post and the breadth and depth you offer. I can only speak for myself, but I find most of what you write to be challenging and interesting. Maybe it is because I agree with you so often, but you are talking about things that the whole church should be discussing and you regularly say what other people are too timid to say. I think you are corageous, and I note that other people say it is no wonder the national church got rid of you. You must drive the old style thinkers crazy.

    Have you thought about doing podcasts? I think it would be great to hear some of your essays and interviews “live.” I would love to have heard the actual conversations you had about the Rethink church website. I think it is awful — hard to navigate and not very well done, but like you I am “an old guy.” I would really love to hear what younger people are saying in their own voices. Consider doing podcasts.

    • Haven’t ever even given podcasts a thought. If there is something that would work well, I’d certainly be open to it. I really like the idea of letting people speak in their own voices.

      • Thank you for sharing this information. It is valuable to hear. One thing your article suggests is that we need to change the church so that it is more open. We need to get the people inside the church to rethink what being a disciple means.

        As a communicator and Christian educator, I want to help in the interpretation of this message. My post in facebook is part of that. I would be happy to work with you in getting the podcast idea going and even including some of the other voices that you mention in this post.

      • Blast from the past. You ARE the Andrew Schleicher who worked at UMPH and came to the Sunday School class that my wife Barbara and I led at Belmont UMC, right? I will email you directly to talk over the podcast idea. I think that would be fantastic.

      • Yep, we really appreciated the retreat you two did for us. I’m no longer at UMPH or Belmont, but I’m still living in Nashville and doing communications consulting work for various church agencies. I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Great post. I’m 29 years old and attend a United Methodist Church. Thus far I’m unimpressed by the “Rethink” materials for many of the reasons that you have cited. I’m more concerned with imparting a message to those within The United Methodist Church that inspires their faith, rather than marketing a message to outsiders that will eventually prove hollow.

    The heavy emphasis on social ministries does not impress me. I can do any of those things by volunteering with a non-profit.

    I want to be part of a church that is on a quest for truth and actively inviting others to come along. Unfortunately, it seems many churches do not find such a quest appealing. They would rather treat God (and church) as a product, a commodity, nothing more than a sales game.

    I’m tired of being sold.

    • “The heavy emphasis on social ministries does not impress me. I can do any of those things by volunteering with a non-profit.”

      THANK YOU! That’s been my gripe with the overarching UMC advertising and presence for the past decade. If I wanted to just go help the community, there are plenty of secular organizations I could join that allow me to sleep in on Sunday. If we are not being the Church – if we are not offering Christ in a real and tangible way – if we are not offering people something more than simply just feeling good about themselves, then what’s the point?

  3. Wow. What a great article. You have hit the nail on the head but don’t be surprised if the hammer gets ticked off.

    A voice of prophecy is a needed voice in the UMC. Unfortunately, the prophet’s voice is seldom the one we want to hear. Keep speaking to the fat cows of Bashan. We need the voice!

  4. Hi, Dan. It’s Cynthia Astle, formerly of the UM Reporter, now a freelance “godscribe.” I’m writing on Methodism for a new site, Examiner.com, and I’d like to quote the results of your survey in a commentary I’m writing on “Rethink Church.” Would you be OK with that, provided I include your URL? FWTW, you’re not the only longtime skeptic about “Igniting Ministry” and its successor, “Rethink Church.”
    Grace and peace,
    Cynthia

  5. I had given up any hope of anyone in The United Methodist Church having any integrity. Thank you for writing this and telling the truth. I know this campaign cost a lot of money. I know we staked our reputation on it. I know some people liked it. But no one (until now) has had the guts to be honest about its shortcomings. I hope and pray that people in power listen to you and don’t try to shut you down. This is so important, and I am sad to see us continue to keep doing it with our new campaign as well.

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