"Open"... to what?

Have you seen those United Methodist Church (UMC) commercials on TV? I never have. But I have watched most all of them online. With a couple of exceptions ("Letter from God" or "follow the signs") I really loathe them. I think it has more to do with our "motto" than anything else: "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." Not that I am against any of those things, but as a blanket statement, I really don't know what it means, and am disturbed at what it could mean. I guess this is designed to sound enticing to "seekers" and not actually to describe our churches? Because if it is supposed to be descriptive of us, this raises all sorts of problems.

First of all, it seems like it can mean pretty much anything. We are "open." Open to what? To homosexual practice? Not according to the Book of Discipline (our "canon law"), which is one reason that some liberals complain that our "motto" isn't even true. Are we open to pedophilia? What about greed as a way of life? Racism? Nope, we are not open to these practices. We don't practice absolute inclusivity. We call these and other practices "incompatible with Christian teachings" which is just a polite and fancy way to say "sinful" without using the "S-word" (apparently, we'll leave that to the televangelists). So it sounds like we have a case of false advertising (literally). We may as well run commercials claiming the people of the UMC have all been to outer space. It simply isn't the case.

This issue has been on my mind for a long time. A while back I read a critical commentary for UMNexus (an independent church news group) by the well known and respected Wesley-historian, Richard Heitzenrater, who teaches up at Duke Divinity School, one of our seminaries.

Heitzenrater sees the adds as a symptom of a larger loss of theological identity among the Methodists. He notes having a conversation with someone who had seen the commercials who said essentially, "It's really neat that you don't have to believe anything to be a Methodist." Now there may be some who rejoice at this (though, I doubt it). I do not. For one I have been told time and again that it is the churches that expect much out of their members that are growing churches. Low expectations is a huge problem in the UMC in terms of beliefs and in terms of personal and social holiness. We too often expect little and get just that. We aren't too likely to capture anyone's passion by simply being 'open' to everything, with a low bar of membership for inclusion's sake.

A related problem with the "slogan" that Heitzenreiter also hits on is that it implies a disregard of sound doctrine. I strongly suspect that a church that is undecided about EVERYTHING (that is, open to anything, since to make a decision is to be less open to other possibilities) will be most easily "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine and deceitful scheme of men" (see. Eph. 4.14).

This issue came back to my attention a week or so ago when I read another commentary, this time for the UM Reporter from a young pastor, Andrew Thompson of http://www.genxrising.com/, that I actually met that same weekend in Texas (he was performing a wedding).

Rev. Thompson argues that the "Open" motto may (or may not) be good advertising, but it is not good theology, and was probably designed to please the marketing department, not the theologians. How about something more theologically sound - how about something that actually HAS some theological content at all? After all, our media motto could be as easily - or more easily - adopted by an atheistic group, as by a church.

So as we begin to ponder how to reassert our own theological identity and raise the bar of discipleship in our churches - please everyone: let's change the basically terrible "motto"! How about something that at least mentions God or something intrensically religious, or (gasp!) that mentions Jesus?

On my link to the UMC website (on the right sidebar) I replaced the motto with "Loving God's world in the Spirit of Jesus." This seems to me vague and happy-sounding enough to be acceptable as a motto and, (depending on how it is interpreted) could be embraced by an Orthodox Trinitarian on the one hand or Joseph Sprague on the other (it kinda depends on what "in" and "of" mean - those elusive English prepositions, bane of Reformed theologians!).

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Blogger Nance said...

my personal favorite motto would have to be Student Life's Love God Love People, or LGLP for short. they put this on everything, and, while certainly this is a bit vague, it sums up the meanest point of the church(any church) in my mind.

1:08 PM, July 31, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

1. I believe the "open" series wasn't so much theology as marketing which may or may not work. (I am not a marketing person, as I commented about in a previous comment on here :))

2. The Open Commercials are left overs from the 90s. I think that igniting ministries has or should move on to a new theme. Have you seen what they look like on TV? The production looks like the 90s and the marketing reflects the 90s.

3. You can see how much the church is lagging behind when it comes to updating their stuff.

4. I believe our slogan/motto/mission statement for the United Methodist Church is "To make disciples of Jesus Christ" which is a far better theologically based representation of the church than open.

5. I find one of the fallacies that i combat in the church is that we don't believe anything or are free to believe anything. I have led to studies at my present appointment about what we believe and why. So maybe the problem lies in perception versus actual fact?

9:33 AM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, Stephen: perception as opposed to fact. A perception that is of course reinforced by the TV commercials. But if it leads to more studies in our doctrine and Wesleyan theology, maybe its a good thing?

About lagging behind, a pastor friend of mine in Dallas had a theory I thought interesting: "those folks at the General Boards have been working there for 20 years, isolated for the normal appointment and review processes, and then we wonder why everything we do is out of date"

I don't know much about those general board people - so that makes it easy to blame them for everything; after all - what ARE they doing up there (someplace - presumably in the Nashville-atican)

10:26 AM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger ~c. said...

The Open campaign does not exist in a vacuum. Whenever I see/hear the slogan it has been in the context of an ad with a succinct and thoughtful message..."It takes a thousand hands to rebuild a human being," etc. You mentioned the journey ad...the Open slogan, to me, is clearly represented as good news to those in the various situations presented (screaming lovers, the crippled, those in the rat race). The campaign is certainly marketing first, but to say it has no theology, or even to say it has an 'anything goes' theology is simply untrue.

5:27 PM, August 04, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Dear ~c
well, of course, you're correct. The creators of the commercial no doubt attempted to embed some message in the commercial that could be conntected to the Christian message (if one were inclined to make such a connection). My point is that if you ask "what is that theology" (for in a general sense ALL advertising does put forward SOME theology, though it may not regard the THEOS of the Bible) - if one asks that question it is immediately clear how many potential answers - contradictory answers might be given.

And we have been groomed to respond to advertising and slogans in our commercial culture - so it is dangerously possible (in my opinion) that the slogan can become a sort of lens through which the understanding of the Church's theology (or lack thereof) will be seen (that is after all what slogans are for: to boil the whole thing down to the basic point). I believe Dr. Heitzenreiter's essay substantiates that this concern is not without warrant.

The message of the slogan has little or no content and can be easily molded to fit the expectations (or desires) of the viewer. That is why it is (supposed to be) good advertising. Everyone hears what they want - everyone is left feeling good (because we have also been groomed to be a people who act upon feelings - thus we will more likely buy things we don't need and keep the wheels of society turning).

I watched a video recently on YouTube that illustrated this. There were several Methodist panelists watching and commenting on the "follow the signs" commercial. One of them, an African American woman as I recall (though I admit it has been some days since I watched it), began talking about how clear it was (I believe that "clear" or "obvious" was the sort terminology she used - it was not in her mind ambiguous at all) from the add that the UMC was devoted to social justice vis-a-vis racial issues. I nearly fell from my chair in laughter. Was it all that clear? That wasn't at all the message that I got. But it was clearly something she really cared about - in any case that's what she saw.

Now that I think of it, this corresponds very well with postmodern understandings of engaging a work of literature that are currently in vogue (anything from the Constitution to a movie) - author's intent is peripheral at best - it's really all about the meaning that you the reader experience when you engage the text (in this case, the video add).

So in those forms of "communication" even listening becomes actually a form of self-expression (because damnit, even when other people are talking, it is really all about me). Ours is a sick (I mean this diagnostically more than disparagingly) culture.

Well, I'm ranting a little bit now about philosophical issues that I know only a very little about. So I'll stop. Thanks for reading!

9:36 PM, August 04, 2007  
Anonymous Lorna (see through faith) said...

Open hearts is as good as any, because unless we live out our Christian faith it's all a waste of time anyway.

What is the good news? How did it radically change my life. Go out and engage real people (rather than preaching to the converted!) and change their lives too. Not to get them into church - but to reveal God in their midst.

I'm tired of playing church - aren't you?

1:41 AM, August 06, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me for being overly cynical, but I believe the Open campaign is full of sweetness, of little substance and even still a poor marketing ploy.
As an anesthesiologist, all of the "open" hearts I've seen, are non-beating hearts.
An "open" mind, would fail to retain anything of value. Let us please retire this motto ASAP!


12:12 PM, August 06, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

you know Joseph, that reminds me of something that G.K. Chesterton once said, that is only moderately connected to these comments (it uses the words "open mind," but in a very general way), but its worth sharing nevertheless (I mean, c'mon - it's G.K. Chesterton!): "The point of having an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close it on something solid."

I don't think that would be a good slogan either for a church commercial, either, wonderful as it is.

4:26 PM, August 06, 2007  

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