By Chuck Griffin
Today I’m donning my old public relations hat, the one I wore before going into professional ministry. I feel the need to point out a practical problem with the Council of Bishops’ recommended “One Church Plan,” a problem anyone, liberal or conservative, should recognize.
The problem is rooted in what corporate communications people call “branding.” When I explained branding to my corporate colleagues, I would employ a simple example. I would put an object like this in a corner of the room:
No one ever had trouble identifying the object, even when empty and viewed from the side as far as 30 feet away. That’s because Coca-Cola is one of the best-branded products in the world, perhaps the best. The calligraphy-style lettering, the shape of the bottle, the color of the label—consumers immediately associate all that with what’s inside.
The rules of branding apply anywhere people see a marketable name or logo. Branding doesn’t require a specific product you can hold in your hand; institutions of all kinds need branding.
If people think well of your logo and name, someone did a good job by delivering a quality product and associating it with images and ideas in a clear way. If people are confused about your product or institution, something has gone wrong.
For example, let’s say every third time you drank a bottle labeled Coca-Cola, you found yourself getting a mouthful of Grape Nehi. Confusion would set in. You might decide you don’t trust the Coca-Cola name or logo, particularly if you don’t like Grape Nehi.
The United Methodist Church already has allowed tremendous damage to its brand in recent years as it has offered wildly different theological flavors under one name. Schismatic clergy and entire conferences change the mix by defying the Discipline and our traditional understanding of scriptural authority, and the people in charge cannot or will not stop them.
As Christians, we understand this is a much more serious matter than whether some fizzy brown liquid gets sold. We believe we are engaging with people because their eternal lives are at stake. Competing theological views offered under the same church name negatively impact the basic mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
In three appointments, I have seen how communities can be confused about what the local UM church represents theologically. And yes, the people around us do debate what’s going on in that building marked with a cross and flame. Neighbors may even warn people to stay away, citing the words or actions of a prior UM pastor while not understanding that the next pastor may have a very different theological stance.
People looking for a church home tell me they are unsure what they’ll find when they walk through the doors of a UM building for the first time. Some have heard of the historic Wesleyan movement and how it took people back to the Bible as the basis for living, but they’ve also seen news stories about homosexual marriages and ordinations in the United Methodist Church and think these are approved practices.
I even have known regular visitors who were very comfortable with me as a pastor, but declined to join the church, fearing I would be moved and the next pastor would be liberal. I assume my liberal colleagues have the same problem playing out in the opposite direction.
Some will argue the deceptively named “One Church Plan” will help with branding, but it will only make the branding problem worse. Nobody trusts a “One Size Fits All” label.
Traveling down the bishops’ recommended path, how would we communicate to our key audience what a particular church’s theological stance is? Remember, individuals looking for a church home engage with us at the local level. Would our common name and logo have subtitles for each church sign—”A Biblical Church” or “A Progressive Church,” perhaps? Would we fly little flags to distinguish ourselves?
Whatever the approach, we would be driving our branding efforts to a very complicated level of communication. Complicated brands fail. In a busy world with lots of choices, people don’t have time to parse a brand’s possible meanings.
If the 2019 General Conference takes us down the traditionalist path, with new means of enforcement put in place, I think the United Methodist brand can be saved. We would have a lot of work to do if we are to recover from the damage that has been done, but the brand is salvageable because we can re-root ourselves in our long history.
A traditionalist decision also should give the theological liberals the right to exit, build their own brand and see who blesses it. I personally am very curious to see how an overtly progressive denomination free of orthodox influence would fare.
Chuck Griffin is an ordained elder serving in the Hiwassee District and an acting director of Holston WCA.