“Selling God” or Doing Church Well?

June 4, 2014

So about a week ago, UU’s were buzzing about the article “Selling God” in Boston Magazine:  http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/05/27/unitarian-universalism-selling-god/

I chose not to share it because it made me pretty uncomfortable, and I felt like it required a longer and more thoughtful response than I could offer on Facebook.

The article describes an attempt to “re-brand” Unitarian Universalism with the help of professional marketing consultants. Pointing to a decline in numbers, the author implies that religion, itself, has become a ‘bad brand,’ and shares the attempts of recent seminary graduates to be religious in new, experimental ways, as well as the work done by UUA leadership to create a new logo and, perhaps, a new slogan for our faith.

Several other UU bloggers were faster off the starting blocks than I was. The Rev. Tom Schade at “The Lively Tradition” (http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html) and the Rev. Cynthia Landrum (http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) both shared their responses and reactions. Sometimes I wait a while to see if what I have to say is going to be said by someone else. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Here’s the thing. I am an institutionalist, and will likely embrace whatever logo, slogan or ‘branding’ they come up with– mostly because I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference one way or the other. What drives growth isn’t advertising, or slogans, or cool logos. That might get people through the doors, but it doesn’t lead them to stay.

People stay when they find what they need.

Media coverage being what it is, I have hopes that the conversation which the article reports on isn’t really about marketing strategy, but an attempt by our national leaders to thoughtfully discern what people need from us as a faith. It’s good and appropriate for the folks at headquarters to be asking the question, “Who does the world need us to be” on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, every congregation needs to ask itself “Who does our community need us to be?”

The folks who have joined the congregation I serve in the past two years talk about appreciating the music, the sense of community, and the way we step up to the plate and work to make the town we live in better for everybody. They appreciate the fact that we give our plate offering away to local organizations, write letters to the editor, show up at demonstrations and forums, and generally live our values in the wider world.

My folks are proud of the way we accept a wide variety of beliefs and choices, and don’t judge one another. They like having support in being good parents and good people. One member says she comes on Sunday for her “hit” of good energy, inspiration, and love.

In other words, people are looking for places to be healthy, kind, human, and aware together. In a time when any number of things are falling apart, our job is to hold on to what is good and valuable in religion and the wider culture, and to lift those things up, sort of like finding jewels or time capsules in the rubble of building that is being demolished. The world needs us to be honest and real, and to respond compassionately and pastorally to the challenges of being alive in this era.

Several of the folks who have found a home at our congregation report leaving other congregations, unhappy about conflict, dysfunction, and having to deal with people who don’t practice what they preach. And yes, some have complained about former ministers; apparently, we have some mediocre ministers in our denomination. I believe that the folks at the UUMA are working hard to provide resources to help with that.

There is a strand of UU lay identity that comes across as, “This is a church where I can do whatever I want, and no one can call me on it.” This is not attractive. There’s an equally unattractive strand of UU clergy identity that is defensive and unwilling to do the work necessary to answer our calling with skill and excellence. I had to pluck that strand out of my own identity, so I know how difficult it can be. These are deep issues that won’t be impacted at all by the work with the marketing consultants. Until we address them, our numbers will continue to decline- so perhaps another question worth asking would be, “How do we hold both dysfunctional congregations AND mediocre ministers accountable?”

I say this as the (I hope) non-mediocre minister of a healthy congregation. We are not in decline; quite to the contrary, the place feels alive and vibrant, and we’re starting to have crowding problems in the sanctuary on Sunday. Not only that, but a large portion of our new members are Millenials, who seem to appreciate our fairly traditional protestant-type worship service. It’s not that I don’t appreciate experimentation and new forms of religious gathering. When it comes to healthy religious community, the more the better. But I am saying that it’s the function, and not the form, that matters.

We need to stop focusing on growth and just do church well. Do community well. Do worship well. Do religious education well. Do social justice work well. Do governance and stewardship well. Do fun well. Do church well, and people stick around. They want to be a part of something that works and feels good and makes a difference.

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3 Responses to ““Selling God” or Doing Church Well?”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hallelujah! And thank you. I could not agree more.

  2. Donna Holmes Parks Says:

    So true. Flashy branding can’t cover up a “product” that’s not working… Thanks for the great writing.


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