Stitching Up the Hole in the Soul

The United Methodist Church is attempting to
provide ways for people to stitch the hole in their soul.
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the fifteenth installment.)

The Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors training and media initiative of The United Methodist Church has been revealing as a mainline denomination took upon itself to reach out to a broader audience.

The people of The United Methodist Church showed generosity and wisdom that is quite remarkable by funding this campaign for two successive four-year periods, and sticking with it. That’s an unprecedented commitment for a mainline denomination.

The effort includes training to develop welcoming and hospitality skills in local congregations and a media component that includes national cable television buys, local broadcast, theater ads, radio, print and outdoor billboards plus collateral material such as door hangers, post cards and worship graphics.

It also includes an online experience with a “seeker” website as a front door to the church’s denominational website. Several things are notable about the campaign, with which I am involved, just so you know I’m not an unbiased observer. One is that the people of the church have stood behind the campaign even as it does not target them. It targets unaffiliated individuals seeking a deeper relationship with God within a community that cares for each other, seeks to make a difference in the world and provides support for families to explore faith together.

I find it fascinating that the campaign does not serve any interest group in the church and a noted theologian said it is so vapid it serves no one. In a polarized environment I wonder if this or any other promise can survive. The United Church of Christ has taken a strategy in its television advertising that satirizes rejection but it’s unclear to me if this strategy is actually bringing together people of disparate opinions, or not.

One thing is clear. It is much easier for mainline folks to be critical of any media effort than it is to come up with a creative message that communicates to a mass audience. This pattern of critical media disengagement is part of what has put the mainline where it is today–on the outside watching while others with the gumption to try are actually engaging people.

However, when local congregations in my denomination have implemented the welcoming skills they receive in training events in conjunction with a communications strategy, worship attendance has increased for first-time attenders by 17% and sustained attendance increased by 7%. Moreover, the denomination has seen a decrease in its downward slide. If we were a commercial enterprise we would be celebrating figures as respectable as these.

But there is an even more important story behind these figures. In addition to the nasty email we receive, and some of it is atrocious, we also receive powerfully moving first-person stories of messages reaching individuals at critical moments in their lives, life-saving moments. More than one person has written to say they were contemplating ending their lives and saw a message that gave them hope and they sought out spiritual guidance. This is what the messages are designed to do, reach individuals who are searching for spiritual growth and development and extending an invitation to them to seek out a local United Methodist congregation. Therefore, the messages are not for everyone, and they are not delivered across all media.

We conducted research that identified a significant number of people in the United States who yearn for a community in which they can explore questions of faith compatible with the United Methodist tradition. And we are attempting to reach them in a familiar environment.

One person told us, “I feel as if I have a hole in my soul.” The church is reaching out to people who feel they have a hole in their soul and inviting them to be part of a community in which they can stitch together a life that closes this hole. This is what I mean when I write that we must attempt to do theology through media.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image