A Case of Misshapen Identity

How we see ourselves is often very different from how others see us.  In my “former life” doing research for The United Methodist Church, I often went to “secular” audiences to get their impressions and opinions about our church.  It was very easy to do, because my office was half a block from Vanderbilt University, and every semester I guest taught a class called “Religion in America — Perceptions and Reality.”  Over the years I was able to test students age 18-60 on what they knew, thought they knew, understood and misunderstood about our church.

I remember one time asking the class to write down what they thought “UMC,” “Annual Conference,” and the symbol of the cross and flame stood for.  Fifty percent of the students (approximately 200) knew that UMC means United Methodist Church, but some of my other favorite responses were:

Unintentionally Mediocre Church

Urban-Metro Church

Universal Mennonite Church

Unbelievably Meddlesome Church

Until the Messiah Comes

approximately one-third knew that the cross and flame was the logo of The United Methodist Church, but only one-in-five got flame of the Holy Spirit and cross of Christ.  One-in-five found the symbol offensive, seeing a burning cross and equating it with the Ku Klux Klan.  Only 3-out-of-200, knew that the Annual Conference was the official designation of our corporate structure at the middle judicatory level.  Most simply assume it is a once-a-year meeting — and they found it hilarious and stupid that we call the annual conference of the Annual Conference our annual conference.  Confusing.

When we first rolled out Igniting Ministries, there was immediate push-back from almost everyone on three issues.  First, saying our minds, hearts, and doors were open was arrogant and dangerous unless the claim was verifiably true.  Second, the implication of igniting ministry was an admission that the fire was out and the church was stone cold.  If the church needs to be “re-lit,” doesn’t that say a lot about people’s attitudes and interest — wouldn’t a vital, vibrant church already be “on fire?”    Third, students asked “aren’t subliminal messages at odds with each other?  Who wants to come to a cold church, no matter how open the doors might be?”  The student reactions were not aligned with the church’s intentions.  No one will deny that The United Methodist Church could use some “heating up,” but the overall desire was to communicate that we are a church wanting to change and grow.  Most of the students thought the message was simply, “we want you to like our church enough to come here.”  And that’s not too far off.

One fun exercise we did was to take about forty television spots, including five of the Igniting Ministry ads, remove the sound and graphics, and ask people to tell us who created the ads.  An overwhelming number of people “identified” the five Igniting Ministry ads as coming from 1) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2) Kodak, 3) McDonald’s, 4) the UMC, and 5) Hallmark Greeting cards.  Over 75% of the class remembered seeing the spots; fewer than 5% knew they were about The United Methodist Church.  The audience that truly loves our ads and responds most positively to them are existing United Methodists who are proud and excited to see our church portrayed so glowingly on TV.

ReThink Church brought the same mixed response.  Some thought it was honest and cool that the church would admit it needed to change.  Others thought it was sad that a 225 year old church didn’t know who it was or why it exists.  It wasn’t seen as striving for relevancy as much as cluelessness.  Across the board there was scepticism that the church really intended to change anything, and the cynicism of the age resulted in a “this is just a ploy to get people to join the church,” attitude.

For a long time and a huge amount of money, The General Board of Discipleship caught “branding fever” and attempted to establish brand identity for our agency.  We came up with brown/orange/cinnamon hued “GBOD” as our brand.  In my classes, absolutely no one identified “GBOD” with anything, but a number of people thought it might be an organization that simply didn’t know how to spell “God.”

The point of all this is that it isn’t always easy to communicate an identity by words and images, especially if the actions don’t back it up.  A number of people checked out the United Methodist Church due to the television marketing we did, but three separate studies showed that a greater number of visitors went away vowing never to return than decided to stay because what they found was NOT open hearts and minds, but judgment, coldness, and disinterest.  People hold us accountable to our witness — they want us to do what we say and be who we claim.  People are interested in “brands” when it comes to shoes, cars, laptops, and soda — not so much when it comes to relationships and community.  If the church is a product, we can brand it.  If it is something more, we need to let our actions speak louder than our words.  It is one thing to say, “My computer is better than your computer,” but quite another to say “my community is better than your community.”  Boasting becomes arrogance when we’re not careful.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to promote a healthy and attractive reputation.  But the way to do this is not to “create” the reputation, but to “earn” it.  There must be unimpeachable integrity between who we say we are and who we are.  When the only witness to our reputation comes from the inside, it is suspect.  When our reputation is identified by those outside the church as worthwhile, noble, effective, and good?  Then we have our “brand.”  We need to be doers of the Word, not hearers only; and we need to be earners of our reputation, not “marketers of our brand.”  Actions, by golly, do speak louder than words.  Let’s find ways to live so powerfully the gospel we proclaim that we leave no doubt in people’s minds who we are, whose we are, and why we’re here.

12 replies

  1. Your comments speak to an issue I’ve been pondering lately: What is our (the UMC’s) real goal? Personally, I don’t care whether or not the United Methodist Church survives as an institution. I don’t think we OUGHT to care whether or not it survives. Any virtue it might have is only as a tool in pursuing our biblical goal of sharing the good news. So long as it’s useful in helping us 1) show love to God and others and 2) train others in doing that (making disciples, then by all means we can care for it as we would for any useful tool. But the survival of the tool is not the goal.

    In the same way, the goal is not to promote the survival of any congregation or even my own survival. If we’re truly offering it all in the service of Christ, we will be willing to give up any and all of these things for the sake of serving Christ.

  2. I have a problem with Rethink Church – to me it is just a reincarnation of Igniting Ministries. We really do need to RETHINK church! Church has been in existence for 2,000 years. The Methodists have been around since the 18th century. You have to admit that the church today is nothing like church in the 1st century CE. It succeeds because it changes as the world changes. That is really what I’d like to see – an effort to look at what the church really needs to look like in the 21st century.

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