Well, it is official. The United Methodist Church is “popular.” At least this is what a recent survey from the Baptist LifeWay Research indicates. Americans across the United States — well, 3-out-of-5 of them — claim a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of the UMC. (Does anyone else see “somewhat” as faint praise…?) Isn’t this nice? We’re not seen as “effective.” We’re not viewed as “important.” We aren’t seen as particularly “spiritual.” No, people like us. Isn’t that nice? There is no description of why we are liked, no explanation of what makes us less objectionable than other denominations. Various UM voices are filling in the gap — claiming that the things we have done in marketing our brand are responsible for this happy reputation, though there is no verifiable evidence that this is true. Nope, we are just a likeable church… in decline. People don’t like us enough to join us — they simply find us inoffensive. We’re nice.
We all know about the curse of “nice” however. Nice is dismissable. Nice is ignorable. Nice is innocuous. Nice is essentially meaningless. Nice does not mean “kind,” or “loving,” or “significant” — no matter how desperately we might wish. No, our measure is popularity with no knowledge of why we are popular. Lady GaGa is popular. American Idol is popular. Kickboxing is popular. Gordon Ramsey is popular. The Real Housewives of Atlanta are popular. So is The United Methodist Church. Ah, the company we keep!
What are we doing to deserve our popularity? ReThink Church? Change the World? Imagine No Malaria? Well, no, research shows that outside The United Methodist Church virtually no one knows anything about these things. We are the best kept secret when it comes to our witness. Our position on gays and lesbians? Uhm, less popular and probably not the case. No, here is one of those humbling troubling things. I did a poll a few years ago for The United Methodist Church and discovered that the reason we have a better popularity than other denominations is that we haven’t had as many public screw ups and public relations nightmares as others. We don’t have the stigma of sexual misconduct that has hit the Catholics, the misogyny of the Southern Baptists or the hatemongering of some of the fundamentalist groups. We haven’t taken the same unpopular stands as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Our wimpy, middle-of-the-road, try not to alienate anyone while ineffectually attempting to pacify everyone sets us apart from other churches. These things make us “nice” and “nice” makes us “popular.”
Here’s an idea for the new year: let’s stop being nice and let’s start being Christian. Let’s worry less about the image and popularity polls and instead shoot for the integrity and impact polls. Lets work more to actually change the world and less to promote Change the World! Let’s be known for the strength of our convictions, our commitment to the healing of the nations, and our dedication to caring for those in need. Let’s measure ourselves by our effectiveness instead of our appearance. Let’s make sure that we are popular because we are positively transforming the world instead of because we aren’t currently offending too many people.