This afternoon (May 5) I received an email that really got my gears grinding. It was a personal note from someone of position and influence in The United Methodist Church. I respect the opinion. But three things were said in the missive that I can’t let go of. And so I will try to process my feelings here.
The subject is my recent reflections on The UMC, particularly as it relates to discipleship and our denominational marketing efforts. What follows are the three quotes from the email that I am wresting with:
- “You are taking all this too seriously. The church can’t make such stringent demands on people’s time.”
- “It is naive to think that this (ReThink Church) or any other promotional advertising campaign is going to make that much difference. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
- “Vision is all about saying what ought to be, not what really is. We need to preach a good message, no matter what we actually are.”
Taking It Too Seriously
How seriously is too seriously when we are talking about being the body of Christ? How is it possible to expect too much of people who say they want to commit their lives to Christ? Are “reasonable” expectations “appropriate” expectations? Is it enough to hope the church might be good, or should we be seeking to make the church great? What part of this am I not getting? If we aren’t going to take it seriously, why bother doing it at all? I cannot quite fathom how a leader in our denomination can advise someone not to take seriously the work we do as the church. If this isn’t the most important thing in all the world to do, we ought not be doing it.
Naive To Think We Can Make a Difference
Half the people accuse me of being too cynical while the other half say I am too idealistic and naive. Funny how nobody but me thinks I’m a realist. If we don’t think all this marketing work is going to make a difference, why are we spending millions of dollars, committing thousands of human resource hours, and wasting the creative efforts of artists, graphic designers, and videographers to do it? I gotta believe we can make a huge difference on one of the bishops initiatives if we channelled all this funding in one of their directions. I understand that successful advertising is measured in increments of 2-3 percentage points, but I’m not convinced that’s good enough when it comes to making disciples. If we are not seeing significant benefits, I believe we shouldn’t do it. We should do something else. Is it naive to expect our work to transform the world? If so, we need to edit our mission again, otherwise we’re not simply naive, we’re liars.
Vision Is About What Could Be, Not About What Is
True, to a degree. A vision is what could, should, and with faithful commitment, will be. It should reflect the highest truth — the truth that is emerging by God’s grace and guidance. But vision should be our guiding light, not our advertised product. As we live into our vision, we create what could be, by transforming what is. To just say what we want people to believe about us is wishful thinking. And to make it sound like the vision is our current reality is short-sighted, dishonest, and does more damage than good. If we keep telling the world we are something we’re not, we will destroy what limited credibility we have left. We need a vision that moves us to a new place. If we move with integrity, that will be the very best advertising we could hope for to show the world we’re worth joining.
This whole conversation brings to mind the excellent book by Jim Collins, Good to Great (and the monograph on Good to Great and the Social Sectors). This book, while a little overly-prescriptive, is based in a foundational premise that there is a huge difference between a good organization and a great organization. It breaks my heart that we spend so much time trying to figure out how to be good, when our mission, our faith, our tradition, and our God call us to be great. I want to be part of a great church. And to do that, I think we all need to take it pretty seriously.