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. Like I said a week or so ago, I’m still up on the air about the whole “rethink church” thing. I hate that its all about marketing, but in many ways, I feel like it is a call to make church a verb instead of a noun. That is my perception and how I’m going to apply it in my local context – and says nothing about the intents of the powers that be or how the overall church might change.

    But have we talked at all about how the “open hearts, open minds, open doors” slogan has potentially changed with this campaign?

    For me, “together we can open hearts, open minds, open doors” makes a world of difference. It becomes a verb, not a statement of current reality. It says that we need other people to help us become more open.

    • I think you’re taking a very healthy approach to it. I can say this until I am blue in the face and no one will believe me: I think the concept is fantastic. I’m concerned about the execution, and the real underlying values and motivations. To the extent that this is about reaching new people to both benefit them and build God’s family on the earth, hurray!!! To the extent that this is all about us — getting new people in the door to prop up the old structure, not so much. Your lens — which is too rare, if you ask me — is to take the concept seriously, apply it personally and locally, and make it a visionary goal, rather than a stated reality. Through your lens, I am 100% on board.

  2. I went back to the site and looked at more of the materials… and I think I might understand some of the frustration being expressed. In many ways, I think it’s because it is still seeker focused. I’m not saying that we don’t need evangelism materials – but none of it will work unless we rethink the church as it currently is. We can’t invite new people in under new premises unless we are willing to change/grow/transform from the inside out. Otherwise we will have new wine in old wineskins (a problem that I think we have continued to have in each generation)

    I’m not saying that I’m not actively trying to reach people in our local community, but my primary focus in the congregation has to be on rethinking who we currently are as the church…

    • The idea of getting our own house in order before we invite company is a great one. One of my beefs (and I know that it seems like I have many) is that while ReThink Church believes that it is seeker-focused, none of the seekers I am talking to find anything there the least bit appealing. It seems designed for a generic class of seeker that doesn’t really exist in the real world. The students I met with this past week were in agreement that the target audience seems to be a sit-com TV version of a young person (think Friends, Gossip Girl, etc.) but not real people. I can’t exactly respond to that because I passed young adult years ago and am picking up speed on the downhill side. I can only reflect on what I am hearing, and so far the responses to ReThink Church are about 70% negative, 20% uncertain, and 10% positive. It is so early in the campaign that I think some significant changes could be made, but I’m not sure the powers-that-be a) agree with me, and b) are interested in making major changes.

  3. It feels like we have taken a good idea (congregations need to appear welcoming to new people with various life histories) which could be done with the “welcoming congregations” checklist and recognition and moved it into something else.

    Willow Creek, which originated “seeker-sensitive,” has now moved away from it because there wasn’t a deep enough connection.

    We have commercials that don’t talk about God featuring people who seem completely lost. This isn’t a way to get people who are lost to decide that WE are a path to follow to the truth and the life.

    The advertising campaign should not be promising things the “product” cannot deliver. Certainly not if you want the “product” to stick around.

  4. It seems to me that the campaign is promising something that a few UM churches can deliver, but most cannot or will not. I think the problem is that this is a big corporation approach trying to sell the little individual church down the block. I don’t think it has a ghost of a chance.

    I think the whole idea of the UMC advertising like that should be scrapped, and just let the individual churches advertise if they so choose. Perhaps it could even be worked out that the Annual Conference could provide some money to the individual churches to help them with the cost of advertising.

    But let the individual church show themselves off; let them show what they are really like, and that will have credibility.

    • Works for me. And with some real support from the Annual Conference, some powerful regional ministries and special programs could get the kind of promotion they need to improve the old rep of the UMC across the country.

  5. I posted the paragraph below a few hours ago, and many of the responses were comments about the ad campaign — mostly negative. I was writing about the word “target.” I believe that I use words like target and aim at times to express myself without comprehending the destructive origin of those words in my life. At 18 years of age I was unable to aim at the target and hit it in Army basic training. I was sent to a special instructor to learn how to do this. This was not a pleasant experience for too many reasons. I think my comments are more about the words one sees that do not fit the message, but one does not see this for some reason. The ad campaign is, I assume, aligned with paragraph 122 or it would not be done. I am an advocate for putting paragraph 122 of the UMC Book of Discipline into operation and have so much confidence in the actions of individuals to do so. I believe I can see this when I am with people here in Matamoros.

    From The Christian Post about an ad campaign by the UMC: “The Rethink Church campaign, launching on May 5, primarily targets 19- to 34-year-olds who may not be familiar with the church, are concerned about the world they live in, and want to make their lives more meaningful, the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, explained.” I struggle with the word “target” at times.

  6. I remembered from my corporate life 2 decades ago what our marketing vp said. “Under promise-over deliver.” That is about all I know about ad campaigns. He would say that once the folks respond to the ads be sure to respond even more. Peace,larry

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