Still a Good Brand

Most mainline clergy feel alarmed and threatened by discouraging trends in our denominations. For example, we’ve experienced numerical decline for decades. The median age of most mainline churches is nearly double the median age of the United States population. Young adults, more than ever before, are forgoing congregational participation, especially in mainline churches. We have a hard time attracting competent young people for vocational ministry. These and other dismal trends show no sign of abating.

In his book, Remember the Future: Praying for the Church and Change, Bishop Robert Schnase, author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations says:

If the only statistic we could fully comprehend about The United Methodist Church in the US is that our median age is approaching 60 while the median age of our culture is 35, we would see with stark clarity the missional challenge we face. There is an age gap of nearly two generations between the average US United Methodist and the local mission field. And across that gap lie significant differences in perception, spirituality, musical tastes, community, life experience, use of technology, and cultural value. (p. 16)

I do not discount any of these troubling trends in the UMC and other mainline churches. As a UMC pastor, I’ve spent many years dealing with mainline challenges including numerical decline, financial strains, facility problems, dated worship and programs, lack of new members, and seriously aging congregations. I know first-hand the struggles that most UMC and mainline pastors face.

However, I do not harbor an attitude of despair. Even with all our problems, the UMC (and other mainline denominations) still have a good “brand” that we can build upon. For example, two years ago, The Southern Baptist Convention engaged in a nation-wide study of how favorably or unfavorably Americans view different faith groups including Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Muslims. They found that 62% of Americans had a favorable view of United Methodists. This was the highest favorability rating among all faith groups in the survey. The study also discovered that United Methodists had the lowest unfavorable rating of any of the faith groups that were surveyed. People in America like United Methodists (and other mainline churches) for many reasons, including our emphasis on grace instead of judgment, our reputation as an orthodox yet open-minded church, our balance between faith of the head and faith of the heart, our combination of evangelism with social ministry, our affirmation of gender equality, and our efforts to be an inclusive “big tent” church both theologically and politically. In short, people are impressed with a denomination that tries to live out its motto of “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.”

I know this not just from a national study, but from years of pastoral ministry in the trenches. In three of my previous appointments, my congregations shifted from serious decline to vibrant growth, more than doubling in worship attendance. Although numerous factors played a role in our revitalization, including a strong emphasis on worship, small groups, community service and evangelism, the key factor was branding ourselves as a vibrant, centrist, mainline church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

For example, several years ago a young family visited my congregation. After attending for several months they scheduled an appointment with me to discuss baptism and membership. I asked them, “What first attracted you to our congregation?” They said, “The sign.” I said, “What sign?” They said, “The sign out front that says, ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.’ We thought all churches were narrow-minded and judgmental. So when we saw your sign we decided to visit. When we discovered that the church inside lived up to the sign outside, we wanted to become members.”

Like that couple, many people in American today are hungry for a viable alternative to arrogant, closed-minded, negative, judgmental religion. Today, more than ever before, people are receptive to vibrant, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life-giving faith. For those of us in the mainline tradition, that is our strength and our brand. We have a compelling story to tell. We just need to do a better job telling it.

It’s beyond the scope of one article to comprehensively lay out all the ways my congregations have branded (and currently brand) themselves as a vibrant mainline congregation. However, I’ll briefly review a few of the primary strategies that we utilized.

Embrace It: It’s not uncommon for churches to distance themselves from their denominational affiliation. Many churches have dropped their denominational connection from their name. The congregations I have served, however, reject that model. Instead, we fully embrace our identity as a mainline United Methodist church. For example, my current congregation recently created a “Foundations” document organized around seven crucial questions. Under the question, “Who Are We?” we affirm our core identity as a “Great Command Church in the United Methodist tradition of Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” Under the question, “How Do We Want to Be Known?” we include things like “We want to be known as a place where grace rather than judgment is experienced” and “We want to be known as a place where honest questions and doubts are welcome.”

Reinforce It: Throughout my years as a United Methodist pastor, I have constantly reminded my congregation and community that we are a church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” We put the motto on our sign out front. We publish it in every bulletin we produce. It’s highlighted on our website and in our newsletters. We teach it to our current members and our new members. Over time, people throughout the community catch on, and refer to our congregation as the church in town that has “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.”

Advertise It: Although we never spent a lot of money on advertising, the congregations I have served occasionally placed ads in the local newspaper highlighting our brand. Every month we send postcards to new residents in our community with our motto prominently displayed. In my current appointment we are experimenting with one minute radio spots that communicate our brand. Each spot begins with an introduction, followed by a brief message that communicates mainline culture, and ends with an invitation to visit our church “where our hearts, our minds, and our doors are always open.” An example follows.

This is Martin Thielen, senior pastor at Cookeville First UMC. Years ago, when I pastored a church in Honolulu, Hawaii, I met a young woman named Mary, who was working on her Ph.D. in biology. On the one hand, Mary felt drawn to Christianity. But on the other hand, she struggled with the issue of science and faith. She told me, “I want to believe in God, but I cannot forfeit my mind in the process.” She then asked me a question I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Thielen, can I be a scientist and a Christian?” Sadly, some people say that science and faith don’t mix, that a person must choose between the two. However, those of us in the United Methodist Church reject that idea. We believe in an open-minded religion that affirms both science and faith. If you are looking for that kind of open-minded faith community, we invite you to visit Cookeville First United Methodist Church, where our hearts, our minds, and our doors are always open.

Encourage Members to Share It: In all my appointments, I have constantly encouraged and challenged our members to invite people to visit us, making sure to unapologetically communicate with them that we are a centrist, grace-filled mainline church. We print business cards for our members to hand out to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers that include our motto, website, phone number, address, and worship times. We regularly send our members emails about upcoming sermon series or special worship events that they can forward to others or share on Facebook or other social media—along with an invitation to join us for worship. This word of mouth and/or social media promotion is the most powerful and effective way that we share our brand with others.

Preach It: In all my UMC pastorates, I have preached our “brand” to the congregation. For example, at every appointment I have served, I preached a four week series called “More Than a Motto” around our UMC brand of “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors,” which can be ordered from the sermon section of this website. I once preached a series called, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” The series, inspired by an actual question I was once asked, affirmed mainline faith and culture. It reviewed several things Christian don’t have to believe—such as women can’t be preachers and must submit to men and it’s OK for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious. It then turned to things Christians do need to believe—focusing on the example, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. On another occasion, I preached a series called, “The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion but Good Religion” where I challenged unhealthy faith and affirmed healthy faith.

Not long ago, I received an encouraging letter from a woman named Shelly. I’d like to conclude this article by sharing part of that letter with you:

… I was raised in a religious-right fundamentalist church. Suffice it to say that my experiences were such that by the time I finished college, I was totally estranged from religion. Twenty years later, I realized that I was neglecting an important part of my life, and I began searching for a church home. I attended a few churches and was so discouraged. I wondered whether it was possible to find a church where my children would not hear hate and intolerance preached. Then one day my family and I visited your congregation, and were filled with joy to find a church that embraces grace instead of judgment. So here we are, a year later, and I actually look forward to Sunday services each week. I feel God’s presence in my life for the first time in many years, and I want to thank you for your part in this process ….

People in your community, like Shelly, need to experience grace-filled, life-giving faith. This is our brand as a mainline church. It’s our job as mainline pastors and churches to offer that gift to our community. May God help us to do so boldly!