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 am 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 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.
Categories: The United Methodist Church