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. Dan,

    The reality, based on the US Congregational Life Survey, is that marketing (which is what this is all about) is not a significant cause of folks who end up attending one of our congregations finding out who we are for the first time or for getting them to start attending it.

    By far, the primary way people hear about any of our actual congregations and then actually attend one is because someone they know in the congregation asked them to. Marketing by any means is about 23 TIMES less likely to generate these results.

    As one GCFA colleague notes, “We don’t have a marketing problem. We have a sales problem.”

    You can see the charts (provided by GCFA) and read my analysis, here:

    • Thanks, Wes. I’m not sure how happy some people will be with my take on this one, but it’s “nice” to know I’m not alone.

  2. It is really nice to be nice and maybe our ads have given some folks a dim awareness of our presence in the community. Our ads, however, may have confused folks even more about what our mission really is within this culture.

  3. Well…there are 2 ways to look at this. One, we need to stand up for our beliefs, for the “strength of our convictions” and….wait. Would that be “our” belief in the equality of gay and lesbian people, or the belief that they are a sin? Would that be the belief that immigrants are a test of our Love Your Neighbor mandate or the belief that being “illegal” somehow invalidates them as MY neighbor and as long as I don’t actively hurt them I am a good Christian and they must pay the consequences for their actions…
    Or, we could see this poll as a signal that the good old UM way of trying to be inclusive and sit in SS or a pew with my neighbor who thinks and votes and lives completely differently than I do is kind of what Jesus tried to tell us to do. Dan, I would love it if we could be a denomination where One for All and All for One means we all KNOW what being a Christian means…try and show me one. Denomination, I mean. Would that be the LDS…the Jehovah’s Witness…the Southern Baptists…the Catholic Church? They all seem pretty sure of what they believe. And Methodist churches are overflowing with people who have fled from that certainty, that inability to see the gray and acknowledge that reason and experience and scripture do not always land us on the same shore.
    I see United Methodism kind of like I see the Bible. It would be nice if it really were a nice, clear instruction manual on what we are supposed to do to find God and live happily ever after. But perhaps the real test is HOW we search for God, not how we all agree to stand up for what we believe in. I love the way the United Methodist Church tries really hard to be inclusive, to LIVE that leave-judgement-up-to-God thing and just…be nice.That’s not really such a bad thing, when it comes down to it. ANY church, any denomination, can be a place where people sit and justify their failure to live the way Christ taught us to live. ANY place can be the resistance to Change the World the way He showed us. I choose to see this poll as a little affirmation of being a loving, inclusive, trying-to-do-the-right-thing United Methodist.
    But then, I usually do see the glass as half-full :0

    • My point is that were we to actually take a stand on the gay/lesbian relationship, we wouldn’t be seen as quite so “nice”. I don’t see us resolving anything without trauma, stress, division and conflict. It is our avoidance of these things that makes us appear “nice,” when in fact, were we to confront these things “nice” would be the last word used to describe our conduct and behavior…

      • I agree that we would not be seen as so nice if “we” took a stand…we also wouldn’t be “we” any longer. On things like LGBT rights or immigration reform, taking a stand on the side of Jesus would absolutely split the church in the way of the Episcopalians. My personal beliefs are more along the lines of the “liberals” in the GBCS and GBM offices than probably 95% of the people I have attended church with in the last 30 years. But I choose to see the Jesus part of “sitting on the fence” about the controversial aspects of life that intersect into politics. Meaning; the fact that we are a denomination that can claim Rick Perry and Hillary Clinton speaks to a willingness to claim a sort of kinship that can not be achieved in any other part of life. I do get that this can be fake, and shallow if you see it from the perspective of opposite beliefs. But I still see an attempt to follow Jesus’ teachings in including such disparate political beliefs in one Faith. Thanks for your blog; it is always a good thing to really think about living our faith and not just doing church as you challenge us!

  4. Well, you certainly won’t ever have to worry about being popular. You are an ass. Why can’t you take a more positive view of the church? United Methodists are among the nicest Christians in the world, and this is merely recognizing that we are not as contentious and divisive as others who call themselves Christian.

    • Yes, you are correct — I am a bit of an ass… which doesn’t change my opinion about our inanity. And I do not think we are superior to our other Christian brothers and sisters — we merely have not been tested as they have. I have little doubt we would “sink” to the level of petty bickering and childish infighting were we to actually confront our differences. If anyone truly believes we have “rethought” ourselves to a better place, they are fooling themselves. We CAN do better. We SHOULD do better. But I don’t think we ARE better.

    • From what I’ve seen, we’re every bit as contentious and divisive as others. We just bury it, avoid it, tell ourselves we have cast it out, then behave as if only our side of it exists. And woe to he who does not do exactly as I do, for I shall make his life miserable – in a Christian way, of course.

  5. The full Lifeway findings have lots of interesting bits and pieces.

    Click to access 111207_FullSBCStudy.pdf

    For instance, 1 in 4 of the 18-29 year olds say they are “not familiar” with the UMC. In other words, they can’t dislike us because they’ve never had an experience with or awareness of us.

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