The Nice Curse

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.

22 replies

  1. I’m not sure this survey tells us much at all. It would be otherwise if respondents were asked at least a little bit more about why they have a “favorable” or “somewhat favorable” (or, why those who do not don’t). As far as your point that we be more about stated goals and much less about how we appear, I would wholeheartedly agree.
    I am very uncomfortable with some of our communications efforts. A family member of mine, raised in another denomination, upon seeing on of our advertisements told me she thought it was unseemly self-promotion. At first I was stung by this criticism (I must apologize as do not remember exactly which advertisement it was) but then it struck me that her criticism might be right on, so to speak. Are we primarily promoting ourselves? Why can’t we simply point to Christ and leave the chips to fall where they may?

  2. As I thought of this post, of “being nice”, I was reminded of Revelations 3 – the message to Laodicea. I think the problem of being “nice” is that we are lukewarm – we will neither burn you nor freeze you – we are nice. We are not ardent for the Gospel and doing God’s works on earth, nor are we totally disobedient. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Rev 3:15-16

  3. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being nice. Given a choice, I would rather attend a church that is nice than one that isn’t.

    I had my fill of not-nice Christians in my childhood and they kept me out of church and basically very much disliking Christians in general for 3 decades.

    I get the attraction to being radical and not nice, but I’m just not sure I’d want to hang around with people who were determined to be edgy enough to provoke confrontation.

  4. FWIW, I grew up in a denomination that left the SBC ’cause those folks were too liberal. When I went searching for a denomination, several things led me to the UMC.

    1) The emphasis on reason in Outler’s reading of Wesley.
    2) The big tent. At the time, Dubya was a member of a UMC church, as was (and is) Hillary Rodham Clinton. This gave me a real peace, because my beliefs were in flux, and I wanted a safe place to explore them. The UMC was that for me.

    So at least in one example, being “nice”–or, more accurately–being tolerant of diverse views–actually did get someone’s allegiance.

    • I wish I could equate “nice” with authentic embracing of those who are different. Even “tolerance” means “putting up with” instead of truly accepting. But without actual welcome and acceptance, I guess nice and tolerant will have to do.

      • “Nice” and “tolerant” *are* preferable to “completely unwelcoming” and “dogmatic.” I wouldn’t necessarily assume that nice and tolerant automatically equate to Laodicea.

  5. As with all surveys done by denominational departments, there has to be some awareness that the researchers were expecting to find some particular results. Looking at the SBC reporting on their own survey, it appears the research team wanted to make clear that the SBC has a very negative overall perception out there at the moment, not all that different from the negative perception of Muslims and Mormons (groups the SBC isn’t exactly on friendly terms with), and maybe worse in some instances. I also tend to think the UMC was chosen as the only “mainline Protestant” representative in part because we’re the largest one and in part because we really did have fewer “PR issues” than just about anyone else at the moment. At least, people don’t tend to single us out for special hate.

    As a former SBCer myself (I was raised in the SBC), I’ve remained at least somewhat in touch with what has happened in the denomination since the “takeover” or “resurgence” (depending on which “side” of the massive change in leadership and direction one might have been on as these things happened from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.

    All along there have been anecdotal statements about SBC getting a bad name from its increasingly narrowing theological and social agenda and its purges of various seminaries and other church leadership that wouldn’t sign on with “The Cause” (The Cause was actually to get rid of all perceived “liberals” and replace them with “godly, Bible-believing men”– and yes, they meant adult males.) Trouble is, just having these anecdotal stories out there meant each one could be easily dismissed as some sort of exception.

    This report actually documents the reality of the “bad name.”

    So while by comparison the UMC looks pretty good, at least in terms of positive perception, that may well be more of a “side effect” of the story some in SBC leadership were trying to convey to their own constituencies about where things are for them.

    This takes nothing away from the fact that we are fairly positively perceived by comparison to the others tested (Roman Catholic, LDS, Muslim, SBC). I think that is generally a good thing for us– at least there aren’t as many strikes against us when folks think about churches.

    But it also doesn’t change the fact that what gets people INTO congregations, by and large, is personal invitation from laypersons they know. Good marketing might prevent a few more of them from saying no, but it rarely causes any of them to say yes.

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