Soul
Searching

By Stanley Abell

I’ve been waiting my whole life betting on a change
See it coming getting better getting better now

“Wide Open” ~Sugarland

Sometimes I wish I could return to a state of naivety on a lot of things… not all things mind you, but a lot of things. For instance, I’m clinging to the hope that the people at the local coffee shop really think I’m a great guy and are truly glad to see me.

However, I’ll never forget my junior year in college when I finally got to take the first core class in my chosen area of academic pursuit. The class was Journalism Advertising 301. The professor who taught the class was a guy who had been on the team that developed the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle. Remember that? “My bologna has a first name, it’s Oscar. My bologna has second name is Mayer…”

Right, so this guy was the real deal, he knew his stuff. However, his in-depth, personal research for his work on the Johnny Walker Scotch campaign is what drove him from professional advertising into the world of academics where his embittered personal and worldview pervaded class lectures.

Anyway, one day, the lecture was about packaging we see on the products we buy in grocery stores. Very fascinating—truth in labeling, colors, pictures…the higher the sugar content, the greater likelihood of a cartoon character appearing on the box. Standard stuff. However, toward the end of the lecture, he made a dramatic pause, pushed his glasses down his nose, cleared his throat and said, “Young people (as he called us), let’s talk about new and improved. I want to take this opportunity to disabuse you of any thought that when you see a label on a package that says new and improved, that anything about the product is new, or that anything about the product is improved. The only thing new and improved is the advertising.” In essence, his message was that in marketing, any ad you see is not what the product, person or company actually is, it’s what they aspire to be.

Huh. Since that moment, lo these many years ago, I’ve had to live with this burden of truth. I was better off naïve. I mean, there for the longest time, I actually thought Capn’ Crunch made some improvements over time.

A few years ago the United Methodist Church launched a marketing/advertising campaign with the following slogan: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

It was a very slick campaign with wonderful 30-second spots that appeared on national television, accompanied by billboards and direct mail. Many of the spots brought tears to my eyes. These were very well written and produced pieces. They described a really dynamic, inclusive, loving church I’d like to attend and call neighbor. However, as a United Methodist pastor, I had to ask myself, “I wonder who they’re talking about; there must be some mistake.” In that moment of cynicism, the old professor’s words began ringing in my ears… “It’s what they aspire to be.”

[Disclaimer: As a larger mainline denomination, United Methodist Churches around the country vary widely on theological and social issues. Reflecting the diversity of our country as a whole, there is a right, left and middle. ]

In this very clever marketing campaign the language used to convey “new and improved” was “Rethink Church.” So, let’s unpack that for a second… we say as a church, we want to have open hearts, minds and doors. AND, to try and achieve this, it will require rethinking church.

Here’s the deal though, in the boardrooms to whom marketing companies and advertising agencies are ultimately accountable when they conceive of a campaign to pitch their products, there is general consensus. Something like… “We want to sell more product, have greater market share, or strengthen customer loyalty, etc.” Within the United Methodist Church there is no such consensus (see disclaimer).

For starters, there is nowhere close to consensus or even general agreement on what it means to be an open church. How can we aspire to be it, if we don’t agree on what it is?  Open to whom or what. This struggle transcends time. Historically we have closed our doors to African Americans. We have closed our doors to women in roles of leadership.

Currently we close our doors to persons who are homosexual to positions of leadership. We give pastors leeway to deny church membership to persons who are homosexual.

The United Methodist Church is not alone in this conversation. Every mainline denomination I know of struggles with this contentious issue. However, the difference is no other mainline church deemed to launch an ad campaign extolling a rethought church with open minds, hearts and doors.

Moreover, in a great many Methodist churches, having conversation around homosexuality has been very much like the government’s current conversation over the debt ceiling. It is contentious, it is polarizing and both sides are very passionate about their points of view… and with compromise, nobody is happy.

Rethinking indeed.

At some point the theological, emotional and intellectual chasm that kept African Americans and women in inferior positions in the church was bridged. The church doors were opened. That… really, truly was new and improved.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors… this is the new, new and improved God aspires for us to be. The chasm is wide, and this may sound a bit naïve, but I believe God is counting on us to bridge it.