Thursday, February 03, 2011

Church Campaign Has Unintended Consequences

The United Methodist Church’s “Rethink Church” campaign has apparently been too successful for its own good. Thousands of longtime church members have taken the campaign’s idea that “spirituality—and church—doesn’t have to be confined to a building, or to a Sunday, to be real” far more seriously than the designers had intended. These formerly good United Methodists have resigned from committees, stopped attending worship and even asked to be dropped from the membership rolls.

Edna Scott spoke for the estimated 12,000 who have dropped out of church after rethinking it. “I’d been attending church regularly for 25 years,” she said. “Then I read the web site where it says ‘look around and see what you think.’ I did, and I was appalled. I can’t believe I wasted so many good years of my life sitting in that dusty old sanctuary with all those people I can’t stand.” Edna got out within a week. She severed all ties with her former congregation. Now she says she has time to do more things that really matter, like walking her dog and taking a leisurely coffee on Sunday morning.

Stan Farkleson, one of the many who left the church after exploring “Rethink Church,” described the experience as liberating. “I loved the part about learning to ‘navigate life’ and ‘care deeply about others and their life stories,’ and it suddenly hit me that I don’t need a weak and declining church in order to do that.” Farkleson left his church and joined a book club.

Denominational officials were scrambling for solutions when a commissioned study revealed that while the campaign was driving out thousands, only 6 people nationwide had visited a United Methodist worship service due to the “Rethink Church” advertising and web site. Some employees of United Methodist Communications suggested revising the concept to “Rethink Church, but Don’t Quit” or a similar idea. Unfortunately, because the denomination’s General Conference does not meet until 2012, no significant changes can be made unless the Conference votes to approve them at that time. A member of the Council of Bishops who wished to remain anonymous admitted that the church could hemorrhage another 30,000 members before the campaign could be “retooled with a new paradigm and a new vision.”

The effectiveness study demonstrated that a full 61% of current members who viewed “Rethink Church” literature were subsequently “seriously disturbed” at the state of the church, while 17% checked the category “this confirms we’re lame.” Only 8% were either “moderately pleased” or “tickled pink,” while an additional 11% marked “we’re screwed.” The final 3% of those surveyed could not read.

These results are particularly deflating when compared with those of the target audience, unchurched adults in the age range of 25-45 who have money and/or children. Only one adult of the 2,492 surveyed indicated a positive experience with the materials, adding in the comments section, “I guess I could try being Mormon.” Approximately 59% of respondents either checked “what the heck is this?” or “I think this turned me into an atheist.” Nearly 36% observed the United Methodist logo and wondered why the church believed in the practice of burning crosses. About 5% of the responses were illegible or obscene.

Retired Bishop Francine McWatters said that though the problems with “Rethink Church” are serious, the church has faced—and overcome—such challenges before. “This isn’t the worst of our marketing mistakes,” she said in a telephone interview. “I remember our “Bring a Leper to Church” campaign of the early 80s. We really should have thought that one through more carefully.”

McWatters’ optimism shined through in her concluding comment: “We’re not buried yet. Our obituary may have been written, and our grave might have been dug, but we’re only half in the grave.” Half in the grave indeed.

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