August 16, 2013

Pure snark as church messaging

UPDATE: TEC reps have changed the content of the linked material to read as follows:

Many thanks to those of you who have given us constructive comments on the billboard and postcard suggestions we had posted.  We agree that the concept needs more work, and we are going back to the drawing board with your ideas in mind.  We sincerely appreciate your feedback and encourage you to keep sharing your ideas and, when appropriate, your criticisms.  We take them all seriously. 

So there's that, for which I'm glad.


Here are some of the roughest-edged messages on offer in a crop of recently launched advertising materials sponsored by The Episcopal Church and made available to churches for use as billboards, postcards, and camera-ready newspaper ads:

The Episcopal Church Judges You. All Are Welcome.

These cards have become the seed bed of an unwitting Twitter meme, #TECPostcardSlogans, and have received blistering reviews at Preludium and Black Giraffe.

As I say, the three postcards above are (to me) the offensive ones, meaning the others (again, to me) are less nose-tweaky. But setting the others aside for a moment, let's consider the key assumptions these three messages have in common:
  • People no longer want for God or forgiveness or transcendence; contacting a divine moment or "aha" moment or simply seeking after a larger truth is not what counts. What counts is showing up, which "you" haven't been doing. If you do show up and we sort of remember you from before, you can count on a lot of mean questions about where you've been; if we don't remember you from before, you should expect to be treated like the outsider you are.
  • Don't expect to be transformed. Like, at all. It's wicked expensive, and we have other things to do. Jesus is inconvenient.
  • Church is the club you thought it was, meaning clergy are the insulated, mouth-breathing, coffee-swilling bores you thought they were, which is why they don't have to take the task of breaking open the Word of God with any seriousness, length, or forethought. Five minutes of platitudes are all you should expect, and you could get that if you stayed home and read your News Feed on Sunday or listened to religious radio. So skip the whole thing and just sleep, then go to Starbucks.

Now take all this and boil it down. What does it say?

We're better than you.
Maybe you could be a better person too ... somehow ... if you tried.
(I dunno; maybe read a book on spirituality or something?)
Anyway, good luck with that. And don't bug us. We don't much care for you.

Snark is the tonal shift that happens when you get weary of the world and want it to go away. You know your place and how things work, and somehow, instead of loving the world anyway for all its faults, you get to thinking you're entitled to coat everything you say with the poisonous attitude of an ungrateful boob. You maintain an arm's-length, ironic distance and don't show everything in your hand. You make caustic jokes that pour contempt on those who aren't In The Know.

In clergy, this is highly problematic. Some develop a pulpit demeanor inconsistent with other arenas of deportment, and the words of the preacher take on a certain, dangerous air: My attitude as your spiritual leader has nothing whatever to do with the truth of Christ. They're two different things. I don't have to show myself as a new and redeemed creature, a pruned vine or an engaged player; I only have to say things that sound like it. I can't be bothered.

That just sounds too much like everything else; it's indistinguishable from the rest of the world. It doesn't rise above. It doesn't inspire or invite. It doesn't reveal God. It just sits there and pokes sharp little barbs at me. It worships its own wit. It plays small when the stakes are big.

In the end, this denominational advertising business is actually a pretty minor thing (although I really hope someone will deign to correct it). It simply leads us, if we are faithful, to the springboard of the Much Bigger And More Important Question, which is whether we are prepared to do an assessment of attitude and experience the attendant gut-check that that assessment will bring.

On this count, there's a lot that needs to be done. I start with myself. That great old prayer for the  Church -- Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it -- that has to be my prayer for myself and for the faith tradition I have come to deeply love. And flying in the face of the heart of all snark, that prayer needs to be earnest and not just words that sound good in a certain order.

And then having done some of that gut check, show me passion, clarity, mission, and drive; show me what you got called to in the first place -- as clergy, as congregations, as a denomination -- and why you need to pursue it to feel fulfilled; for God's sake, show me Jesus Christ; and leave the snark at the altar of the world.

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