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. “First, saying our minds, hearts, and doors were open was arrogant and dangerous unless the claim was verifiably true.”

    In fact, this is why I left the UMC, despite my continued underlying philosophical agreement and appreciation of Wesley and Outler’s quadrilateral. Open minds/hearts/doors is verifiably *untrue*–especially as regards my GLBTQQ sisters and brothers.

    One of my favorite sayings is attributed to Socrates: Endeavor to be what you desire to appear.

    • Indeed — and credibility — like many other things that will “keep” people interested, involved, and breed PASSION — MUST BE EARNED.

      How about a “new” Catch Phrase — “86” ReThink, Open this that and the other things and use a derivative of EARN ??

  2. A lot of this confusion is spelled out here: we do not know what we are about anymore or why we exist. What’s even more of an issue is that at our current state, we’ll never agree on the answers to that question. Heck, 2 churches within a few miles couldn’t agree on that, let alone a group of churches across the country and world.

    What adds visual impairment to this already growing fog is the fact that we try to be about everything. We have denominational missions and special sundays, we have annual conference missions and special sundays, and then our own local groups want to do their own missions and special sundays.

    There is no focus because we are trying to do everything. I know that sounds biblical to “be all things to all people,” but I do not think that was the intent of the message…

  3. I remember the first time I saw one of the commercials. I remember thinking that it was actually kind of a cool commercial, and then being really surprised that it was from the UMC.

    We do all of these things to try and attract “other people,” or “them” but how often have we actually engaged “them” in dialogue? So much of what we do, even though we try to claim differently, is churchy stuff dressed up in pop cultural things, that the people we’re trying to reach see through and dismiss.

  4. Being a Christian should never be a title we take for ourselves, but one that is bestowed on us by those who know us – particularly outside the church.

  5. Another great insight, Dick. This is why many in the missional church movement say that the church’s life, how it incarnates the life of Jesus in the world, is the best apologetic for the gospel. They contrast “attractional” versus “incarnational.” The paradox of this is that when the church is incarnational, it becomes attractional.

  6. One of the thoughts that continues to roll around my conversations in the church is “If I am consistent only when it is convenient for me, am I?”
    Whether I am parking in the church lot, the grocery lot; talking to parishioners or people on the street; wherever I am driving or walking or riding. Am I?

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