Re-thinking Rethink Church

Do all Nike employees Just Do It?

Does everyone at Coca Cola really believe Coke is the Real Thing?

The United Methodist Church is on its way to launching the next step of our marketing campaign that began with Igniting Ministry. This effort, launched, I believe, 9 years ago, generated our now nearly famous tag line, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, the People of the United Methodist Church.”

I’m not sure how this has played outside the denomination; our membership continues to slide.  I can tell you how it has played within the denomination: the majority now believe it is not just our tag line but our Theological Statement.

As you know if you clicked the Igniting Minsitry link above, that site is no longer active.  Instead you find this message:

Old wineskins into new wineskins — striving to honor the past and plan for the future

Igniting Ministry has moved, and with it, we hope, is your support and engagement in the new campaign, RETHINK CHURCH.

We didn’t actually get the web address “rethink church,” but that’s what we are calling our new effort anyway.  Here is the website. It includes a slick, downloadable video featuring the voice of James Earl Jones.

In a continuing effort to brand the United Methodist Church as open, welcoming, and worthwhile, this effort strikes me as well intentioned, but suffering from the following flaws:

  • While branding seeks to link expectations of a particular experience with a brand, successful branding begins with, well, success.  We have now been telling the nation for 9 years that our denomination is open, open, open.  Yet too many of our congregations are anything but open.  Illustrative of this is the congregation I served once upon a time where I was told, “We want new people to come, new members to join… as long as they don’t change anything!”
  • And our organization at the local, regional, and national level is not generally any more open. I once proposed an alternative to a new pension initiative/formula, to which a conference leader responded by calling a meeting of large-church pastors out of concern that the small churches were trying to do something against them.
  • Therefore, if we are going to brand ourselves as open, we had better be ready, on many fronts, to actually present ourselves as such.
  • I am deeply concerned that the word “God” occurs in the video exactly once, as does “spiritual,” yet “Jesus” is left out entirely.  What the world needs to know, if we are to convince them we are open, is that we are open, or learning to become more open, because of the example and by the power of Jesus himself.
  • The line, “What if church was more of an out-of-church experience” sums up the problem.  This indirectly admits that we want to be something we don’t want to be.  For prove, read this statement with any other noun substituted in the 2 places “church” occurs, and try and make any sense out of it.

Now, to be fair, there is some promise in this presentation.  I appreciate the idea, even the vision of church being “outbound, unbound, active,” like it was “originally.”  However, to the vast majority of those inside and oustide the church, “Church” is primarily construed as an institution not as a collection or collective of people.

    Here is where it really has to start: “what if we all worked together to re-assess what it means to be people of faith,” because  the hope is  that we move to the place of understanding, of living church “not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it could be?”

    If we as United Methodists, or perhaps, when we as United Methodists, genuinely work together to re-assess what it means to be people of faith, we won’t need a clever, well-produced ad-campaign to reach others.

    11 thoughts on “Re-thinking Rethink Church

    1. “Illustrative of this is the congregation I served once upon a time where I was told, “We want new people to come, new members to join… as long as they don’t change anything!””

      That’s the prevailing attitude I gather about much of the UMC as well… We say we “want” new people, younger leaders, etc., but we don’t “Want” them enough (notice the upper-case “W”)…aka, “we like the concept of them, since if we don’t get them, we may whither and die”…but we want them to conform to us (I’m not talking theology so much, more “doing it the way we do it”). But “capital-W Want” means doing whatever it takes to make something happen…and I’m not sure many (most?) folks are truly wanting to stomach the sweeping change in, um, “method” that may entail…

      “I am deeply concerned that the word “God” occurs in the video exactly once, as does “spiritual,” yet “Jesus” is left out entirely. What the world needs to know, if we are to convince them we are open, is that we are open, or learning to become more open, because of the example and by the power of Jesus himself. ”

      I too noticed that, of course I’m known in these parts as being the “annoying guy who thinks things like core theology/doctrine/authority of scripture/primacy of Christ” is WAY more central and important than so many I encounter… I remember the quote in the video, “Prove we are what we say we believe”, resonating with me, BUT then thinking, “Yet so many don’t even know what they believe!”

      I’m with ya Steve. I also “in theory” like the thought of this…but hope it just doesn’t become some half-arsed attempt at being “relevant”…with the true goal of trying to not let the UMC die so a bunch of folks will have job security (did I just say that???? oops….). I also am supportive of the CTC youth ministers (aka the meeting last week I was in and you phoned in to) gathering to see how we can model this, but I sure hope we aren’t just putting something together for the heck of it…I don’t think we are, but it could become that if we aren’t careful…

    2. Well said. While I find many of the values expressed in the video appealing, they are left floating in mid-air, grounded in nothing – at least nothing identifiable. But let’s say this effort to rethink church is grounded in the call to fulfill the Great Commission and the ongoing, transformational work of Jesus. What’s the plan? Don’t you need a plan before you launch your marketing campaign? Or did I miss something?

    3. Okay so I am probably not the target market for the branding. I’m an occasional church goer with a highly buddhist slant. Yet, I’ll always be Christian and was raised Methodist. What I want from the church is to be inspired by a good sermon. I’m not interested in a church whose is striving to appeal to everyone. I mean we can be open to accepting everyone, but I look to the ministry of the church to provide some structure to my spiritual practice. I look to ministers to share their knowledge. You folks have spent alot of time studying theology in a way that I haven’t. Make me think, as you do with this blog; remind me of the basics; offer some historical perspective of the Bible.

      Yes community is important too. But, I think the point is how to create authentic community. And, to create a community of value that knows what it stands for. I am more inclined to join a church when I see the members listening to different pespectives and thinking about what it means to be Christian. I’m far less inclined to join a church if it is over the top with being welcoming. I’m addressing the emphasis in the video of being welcoming.

      You raise good points Steve. I know branding has its place. I wish the church good luck with this mission. I know this is a long comment. But, it does seem like you are gathering perspectives here.

    4. One of the key dimensions to the “Rethink Church” campaign, as I understand it, is the transition from understanding “open” as an adjective to understanding it as a verb. And it is a verb over which, by God’s grace and guidance, we have (or can have) control.
      We can choose, empowered by grace, to “open doors,” open hearts,” and “open minds.” The campaign is really directed at those of us who are already part of the denomination, for better or for worse. A sentence in the closing paragraph is really on target. This campaign is intended, among other things, for us “as United Methodists, genuinely [to] work together to re-assess what it means to be people of faith.”
      And, by the way, the voice is not actually that of James Earl Jones, though it certainly sounds like it!

    5. I really like your comments Steve as well as Ben and Alan’s. I always wonder what different people mean by “Open” though. Steve, you seem to indicate an openness to new philopshies of ministry and ideas for efficiency etc… These I would applaud, but I wonder how many see open as open to new theologies not grounded in scripture, open to other religions etc….I’ve heard more confrontation about people who don’t agree with infant baptism than I have when people in Methodist churches say Jesus isn’t the only way to Heaven.

      Like I mentioned to Steve earlier, there is a lot of emphasis on “church involvement” as if someone is a Christian by osmosis from being in a church. And don’t get me wrong church involvement is great, when its a Christian who wants to be in fellowship with others. But we need to be careful that others do not think church involvement is the same as being a Christian. As someone who has been charged with ministering to young adults in the 18-30ish age range I am first concerned with people being or becoming Christians and loving Jesus than I am about them becoming a member of a local church. If someone is part of the Universal or invisible church as Luther might put it, they should naturally want to be part of a local church. However just because someone shows up to a local church does not mean they are truly part of the body of Christ.

      I like that there is some sense of, “Hey let’s get with the times.” But this doesn’t seem to be a well -executed as it could be.I always say proclaim the Gospel, love people as defined in scripture, and let God sort out the details. If we were actually more like the true early Methodists and worried more about proclaiming the Gospel to unbelievers and to growing in holiness within the Church, I think things would be better. We talk about missional mindset and Wesley truly was missional in that he didn’t sit back and expect people to come to him. He went out in society and proclaimed the Gospel. To young men who would preach he would ask of them “Did anyone get saved?” and/or “Did anyone get mad? he believed a sermon would either lead a soul to Christ or the truth would anger them. With that mindset, is the denomination ready to go out with that spirit?

    6. Perhaps I shouldn’t jump in here since I technically am no longer Methodist. But I didn’t leave the denomination because of the denomination per se, but because I found a different local church that I am happy in. I do think that there is something to the question, “WHY do we want to grow?” Is it because we want to maintain the organization for the sake of the people already there? People who are not already Methodists, and certainly those that are not already Christian, don’t care about coming into an organization so that the organization won’t die.
      Is there a unique contribution that the UMC organization, purpose, and tradition has for the world, and for the United States? In my interactions with my C of C brethren, I came across an article that suggested that the Churches of Christ tend to be dogmatic about theology because there is an underlying fear that the fine points of disagreements with other churches is the only justification for the C of C at all. Whether or not that particular criticism is true, I think all threads in the Christian tradition need to ask themselves: Why are we here? Are we the only ones doing what we do? Are others doing what we do, better? Could I personally do what I do better if I were somewhere else?
      When we start obsessing over self-perpetuation, we are entirely too inbred and enmeshed and it’s no wonder few are interested in joining us in our little pity party. What difference does it make if the UMC lasts as an organization? The truth is, that the Church will go on whether or not the UMC (or the Church of the Nazarene, or the Churches of Christ, or the Roman Catholics) do. Because as we like to say in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints …” and that will go on even after our familiar logos and habits have faded from the collective human memory.

    7. I am begrudgingly waiting for a late lunch with my son … so if the above comments sound harsh or tactless, can you please just chalk it up to low blood sugar? I usually try to couch my comments in friendlier terms.

    8. What if money was more of an out-of-money experience?

      What if chips-n-salsa was more of an out-of-chips-n-salsa experience?

      What if gas was more of an out-of-gas experience?

      What if good ideas were more of an out-of-good-ideas experience?

      What if time was more of an out-of-time experience?


      I see what you mean.

      I also see what Kim means.

    9. I understood this campaign in a very different light. Let me say up front that I’m 26 ( in that target 18-35 range of the video campaign) and a UM pastor. I hear many concerns but want to say that while In fact, while it doesn’t explicitly say that it’s grounded in the ideas of early Wesleyan societies, that is exactly where my mind went.

      I believe that this campaign is rethinking church in that it is shifting the focus from the institution to the body of Christ, just as Wesley shifted focus from the institutional CofE to the societies. What if church didn’t happen in a church building but in all of the other places in the world where Christ is also present? What if the soup kitchen was the place where someone began their faith journey? what if the global effort to fight malaria was not only part of what we did in response to Christ, but also where we re-presented Christ to the world?

      Now, I agree, that there was little mention of God or Jesus in the film… but let us remember that the book of Esther also doesn’t mention God at all – and yet that doesn’t mean that it fails to demonstrate faithfulness.

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