12 February 2009

Publishing truth--ethically!

For four very interesting years I worked closely with Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. as a writer and editor for educational and nonprofit marketing programs. Working with such wonderful clients as Calvin and Houghton colleges, the Washington Christian Academy, Catlin Gabel, and similar institutions, I became convinced that marketing, properly understood, is as appropriate for Christian concerns as it is for those in the secular world.

Crane's "values-based" marketing philosophy basically says that ethical marketing equips potential customers (for example, students and their families) to make a decision that is in their own best interest--and that the interests of the institution and the customer are best served when the choice to affiliate with each other is based on shared values. This kind of marketing means that the institution's communication resources can concentrate on the engaging, creative, and transparent presentation of who they really are, what they really promise and can faithfully deliver, and make those presentations to those likely to respond intelligently, rather than wasting resources on futile and unethical exaggerations or scattershot marketing.

Before any creative work was started, our relationship with a new institutional client would begin with a huge research effort--as I knew firsthand, having participated in several such projects as the writer/editor on the team. Using all the disciplines of marketing research, including confidentiality, we did everything we could to figure out what the institution's values were (no matter how deeply embedded or perhaps incompetently expressed), how well they were known, how well they were communicated internally and externally, and how their community and the public judged their success in living by them.

In an earlier corporate configuration, Crane's team worked with a whole Christian denomination--the Church of the Brethren--which is why I first found out about them back in the early 1990's. Later, they did some consulting work with Friends United Meeting's board, and made a national study (article one, article two) of Friends which is still available. I'd still love to see Friends (or at least Friends United Meeting) go a step further and engage this kind of consultation in helping us shape more effective communication with non-Friends. I'm convinced that now we only communicate with a tiny fraction of those who might well see Friends as their spiritual home--or to put it another way, with whom we share important values. I also want those values to be advocated more creatively and persistently, because they are so badly needed.

But however urgent the "marketing" task is, we Friends don't need to add another layer of generic evangelicalism or subtle antiquarian progressivism to the spiritual spam already in the culture. We need to do what the first generation of Friends poured their lives into doing: publishing Truth.

But what is "Truth"? This is where the discussion among Friends often breaks down: some of us probably meet that question with a formula answer based on whether we're from the liberal or evangelical end of the Quaker spectrum. But at the moment I am not asking for propositional truth, no matter how beloved our own evangelical or liberal camp's well-worn phrases might be. Propositional truth is absolutely crucial for shaping and perpetuating our identity as Christians and Quakers, but it has little persuasive power in the wider post-modern market. When, late in his career, Karl Barth was asked to sum up his theology, he said, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." This was powerful language within the community, but for non-Christians, it was made credible (if at all) mainly by the life testimony of Barth himself, not because the statement was self-proving.

Let's take a core Quaker proclamation: "Christ has come to teach his people himself." If "publishing Truth" involved saying anything verbal at all, this would seem to me to be a prime candidate for the status of "Truth." It's the core assertion around which we base our testimonies (that is, our discipleship) and our concentric ecclesiology. But, just as with Karl Barth's summary, the theological importance of naming Jesus Christ, and the theological implication that he is alive and active today, is not self-evident truth to a non-believer. One of the most important Quaker "values" (using that word in the sense we used it at Crane) is truthful speaking, so how do we "prove" that this central Quaker conviction is publicly, objectively true?

This is how I think we do it:
  • By creating and upholding communities where we experience being taught by Jesus;
  • by the way we trust the Holy Spirit to lead our worship (and not pre-empting the Spirit with our own programming to hide our fear);
  • by the way we choose our leaders (by their gifts, not their social status);
  • by the way we pray and sweat our way through the Bible, including its hard teachings on economic discipleship, nonviolence, radical hospitality, and forgiveness;
  • by the way our internal messages to each other are coherent with what our external communicators say to the wider world (as in the diagram above)--for example, we observe the same disciplines of ethical conflict among ourselves that we urge upon the world;
  • by the way we treat visitors with hospitality, neither exaggerating nor minimizing our role as host;
  • by the way we work together in mutual forbearance, realizing that gifts and temperaments and maturity levels vary, so we'll sometimes get on each other's nerves, but we're all needed!!
  • and by the way we hold each other tenderly accountable, even risking being wrong as we try to express the way Jesus is teaching each of us how to live with him at the center.
If we can truly open ourselves and our meetings to being taught by Jesus, we'll sometimes stumble and trip, and we'll certainly not always agree even on what that means. But if that's our wholehearted intention, confirmed by the Holy Spirit in our meetings and by the outward signs--prophecy, justice, evident love--then we really can publish the Truth that Christ has come to teach his people himself. And when new people come to see whether there's a "values match," it's a truth they can verify for themselves.

Query: Is my Friends meeting or church experiencing Christ coming to teach us himself?

Righteous links: Taizé's representatives greet the new Russian Orthodox patriarch--article at Taizé's site (thanks, Mary Kay Rehard) and at the Moscow Patriarchate's site, with photos). ~~ How happy is your country? Check this site and particularly this frame. ~~ An interview with Richard Foster. ~~ Bishops blocked at Gaza checkpoint. ~~ Let's dialogue with the Christian right (this page links to PDF book; thanks to John Lamoreau). ~~ Simon Barrow on being Christian in a skeptical climate. ~~ Those of you who are without sin, apply RIGHT AWAY for jobs in the Obama administration. (A thought provoked by this Frank Rich op-ed.) ~~ Paul Oestreicher, Friend, pays tribute to Sergei Haeckel, Russian Orthodox--scroll down within Issue 4 on this page for the link to the PDF-format article--and browse the other interesting titles as well. ~~ On Afghanistan: Don't say we (specifically Engelhardt) didn't warn you.


SavageDL said...

The bullet points are wonderful examples of how we must "live out" our "truth". It seems that their relationship with truth is the same as Barths final statement with the thing that gave it weight, the way he lived it out. The world will know that we are his disciples by HOW WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Anonymous said...

I like the Crane site you linked to! And marketing thinking can indeed help churches see some of the mistakes they're making. Charts and diagrams like the one you posted can help them find the necessary perspective, and detachment, to agree on some needed changes.

But the difference between what Crane tries to do ("help[ing] you distill and convey your identity, attract your best-fit audiences, define — and capture — your market position") and what Friends are actually about, feels to me very like the difference between a packaged PR message and the free ministry of the Spirit. I have serious doubts about the value of any religious community that thinks in terms of a marketing strategy, instead of simply knowing and serving God and their fellow human beings. And I don't suppose I'm alone in feeling that way.

As far as I know, the most successful evangelist in Christian history was Paul. Paul was sufficiently free of concern about marketing success that he was able to poke a little fun at his own message in marketing terms — saying that it was "to the Jews a stumbling block, and foolishness to the Greeks" — without showing any desire to get rid of either the stumbling block or the foolishness. Can we be like that, here and now? I'd like to think we can.

Your essay raises interesting questions. For instance, if "Christ has come to teach his people himself", might not his teaching include in itself whatever marketing is truly needed? I'm not saying it always does — it may be that in some circumstances Christ does all the work himself, while in other circumstances he leaves something to us. But I think the question is one that ought to be asked in every situation where we feel the itch to "help". There seem to be a lot of times when our well-intentioned efforts to "help" just get in the way.

And we might consider: Christ is intrinsically attractive. We both feel that attraction! And I recall how a mid-twentieth century FUM writer paraphrased Montaigne by saying that there is a God-shaped hole in every human heart. If both those things are so, then I think it is fair to say that Christ, whenever he truly manifests, reveals himself as the One who truly fills that hole.

So if that is so, then what can we do to help? The answer, perhaps, is not marketing but ministry: offering the friendly touch that helps people let go and open to the Sun.

You bring up the fact that the early Friends thought of themselves as "publishers of Truth", and that they "poured their lives into doing" so. That is another interesting point. Perhaps we should take a careful look at what they published —

Early Friends were only gaining converts in significant numbers up to around the 1680s. After the Toleration Act 1689, most of the English-speaking world moved with a great collective sigh of relief into a period of irreligion; those who did not become irreligious in that time were the hard-core members of one religious community or another who had no interest in converting to something else. So if there was any Quaker publishing that actually made converts in significant numbers (and this, I believe, is debatable), it would have to have been in the first thirty-five years of Quakerism — the 1650s, 1660s, 1670s, and early 1680s. Alas, that rules out all those wonderful Quaker memoirs and journals. We are left with the tracts.

I've read a number of those tracts; I suppose you have, too. The idea that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" is really only one part of their message. The message as a whole can't be summarized in any single point; it is a constellation of points, knitting together a variety of testimonies, a way of relating to scripture, an attitude toward human authority, and a sense of the availability of sanctity, perfection, and miracle, in addition to the idea that Christ has come. In combination, those points map out a specific way of being human, one that many non-Friends were halfway into even before encountering a Quaker tract.

I think, therefore, that the tracts won converts, it was because (1) they validated that different way of being, and (2) they proved useful to non-Friends in trying to answer the questions that held them back from giving themselves over fully to that way of being. That's a somewhat different thing from marketing, or so it seems to me. I'd be rather more comfortable calling it part of an ongoing conversation between Friends and seekers, than calling it marketing.

Like David, I like the bulleted list you provide at the end of this posting. It puts an emphasis, not on marketing, but on servanthood, faithfulness, and integrity: good virtues, all.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Marshall! You never fail to deepen any discussion you join.

If I didn't know you better, this time I'd accuse you of "spiritualizing." Yes, Jesus is intrinsically attractive, and his teaching doesn't need our embellishments. But what I call "marketing" is simply a set of disciplines intended to help us do the work we're supposed to do--serving as ambassadors of reconciliation, as messengers of Good News. These disciplines do not let us off the hook of applying prayerful discernment.

Jesus and his teachings are a lot more attractive than you'd guess from Quaker membership numbers. Are we to conclude that our relatively stagnant situation is because we have too much integrity to sell out like the Vineyard or Pentecostals or other rapidly growing groups? Or do we (as I believe) have some self-defeating communication inhibitions that we need to address? Or do we send out unintended messages that sabotage the values-based messages we actually want to send? (Classism is a "classic" example.) Or have we simply not honored the calling of being public communicators and advocates of Friends faith and practice, therefore putting a subtle wet blanket on those of us who are gifted in that way?

(Or are there other explanations?)

The disciplines of marketing that I learned at Crane are not a method for neatly packaging anything. The amazing intellectual and spiritual heritage of Calvin College, for example, could hardly be represented fairly by a tagline, graphic identity, and signage guidelines. But those disciplines help us be more creative and more attentive to audience and culture as we try to shape a more welcoming, more inclusive doorway into our little corner of the Church. In the meantime, elders like you can discern when creativity decays into form, and into sterility.

You're right: no one "line" summarizes all Friends insights, even "Christ has come to teach his people himself." (Although, just as Anthony Bloom asserted in the case of the Jesus Prayer, it packs a lot of meaning into an amazingly few words.) But much early Quaker evangelism actually did consist of very pithy, provocative statements or actions. The use of plain language or plain dress in the public arena, for example, was not just self-gratifying fastidiousness--it provided occasions for urgent communication about what really matters; it offered a chance for dialogue beyond the immediate message or occasion. No one communications piece, no one channel, was expected to say everything that could be said about us or about Jesus.

Anonymous said...

I do like your phrase "ambassadors of reconciliation", Johan! And I wasn't suggesting that the marketing disciplines were wrong because they "let us off the hook of applying prayerful discernment".

We're also in agreement that "we have some self-defeating communications inhibitions". This was one of the points I tried to make in my last comment, stressing the phrase ongoing conversation.

Truly, some of us have served as wet blankets to quench the spark in others. Not all of us do this, and even those who do, don't do it all the time. But it's a terrible thing whenever it happens. I find it significant that Fox so often advised his followers (quoting, of course, I Thessalonians), not to quench that spark. (Fox, letters 35, 150, 169, 264, 270, 271, 275, 291, 360, 364; also in his doctrinals.)

It is always a pleasure to discuss these things with you, Friend!