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Rebranding the church (a charitable view)

February 25, 2009

So, over on Main Street Plaza, there’s a discussion about how the Mormon church can rebrand itself. I think people recognize that the church has, for most of its history, had some kind of bad brand image with others for some reason. The discussion centralizes around the words of marketing specialist Gabriel Rossi:

Rebranding is a bit more than changing the design of your logo. Rebranding is a long process (usually takes years) and always requires an inside-out response. You need to craft your brand again from the inside-out. It can be quite challenging, tricky and dangerous. Do it quietly and patiently… I advise companies to invest time in sorting internal issues out first of all. Ask your employees what the company represents to them. Do they understand its story and ambitions? What kind of dreams do they have for the future? Where does your organization want to go taking into consideration the current market place?

Now, while I think that there were some good ideas and good perspectives spoken of at MSP, and I think that recently, how the church has been branded hasn’t been the best…but I got this feeling that some of the suggestions were more idealistic and aspirational rather than pragmatic. Actually, I guess if I had to put my finger on it, I guess the general tone of many comments was that the LDS church is a sinking ship that has already struck the iceberg.

I dunno…depending on who you are, you might enjoy that prospect very much. I personally think it’s silly to think of the church as falling apart by the seams. Regardless of the numbers, whether it suggests that more members are leaving than can convert or many members are becoming inactive or whatever…regardless of all those numbers, I don’t think the church can be called a paper tiger. It still has influence; it still has an organization that people trust, and it still has values that people identify with (even if I think some of those values are regrettable.)

So, what kind of church rebranding would I like to see that I think could be plausible (if they aren’t in the works)?

Well, I guess to start, I’m not really concerned about rebranding of gospel (at least, not in this post). There are enough posts about how the beliefs of Mormons might be the weakest link with new members or old members. So I don’t necessarily think that whether the BoM is emphasized or not, or whether history is promoted or correlated or hidden, or whatever, is the issue. So I’m not going to say that what the church needs to do is change its position on gays or intellectuals or women or whatever. That’s just ideology, but it doesn’t really matter in this case because, whether I or anyone else likes it or not, the church’s values have been proven as strengths.

…I do think that the Preach My Gospel system is neat. I think everyone I’ve talked to who has read up on Preach My Gospel has thought it was much improvement over the old rigid system.

What interests me about PMG isn’t so much its immediate effects on church branding and culture, though. The idea is that…over time, PMG will become the ethic of returned missionaries who will apply that to their teaching and leadership, which will filter through the rest of the church.

Next, I would love a re-evaluation of what it means to “live the gospel.” While I guess the standard seminary answers will linger with us for…ever…I have to somewhat agree with those who bring up that the idea that creating a spiritual benchmark based on reading scriptures/fasting/temple work/home and visiting teaching/etc., seems just a bit pharasaical. However, if the church emphasized more service at a person-to-person level, then I think that would really impact righteousness. I’m sure that when people know how much Mormons care (instead of caring how much we know), then that could reap dividends in membership.

I don’t even know why I’m arguing for more service and people-people stuff. I’m not even all that warm and fuzzy of a person, personally. I’m of a mindset that you should leave me alone and get out of my way. Maybe I should be pioneering for rebranding for introverts. (Then again, yikes for introverts in other traditions)

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17 Comments
  1. I agree that the LDS church is still a vibrant and formidable organization. I just think that their strength lies in the existing communities of people who self-identify as Mormon; especially the long-term members with family networks in Mormonism. From a purely pragmatic/strategic point of view, I think they’re currently wasting too much energy on growth through conversion, and it’s coming at the expense of strengthening their core membership.

  2. I think then the issue is whether quantity or quality matters. Which people should realize that quality matters much more.

    And I guess it’s true — the research in business always points to this idea that it’s much more valuable to keep existing people (whether it’s existing employees or existing clients) than it is to gain new ones.

    But I don’t think that a major doctrinal realignment is what is needed to keep members. We are very much abnormalities, so what might’ve kept us in (even if that is “nothing”) doesn’t really reach to the general population.

  3. “I think they’re currently wasting too much energy on growth through conversion, and it’s coming at the expense of strengthening their core membership.”

    I have to point out that Gordon B. Hinckley was saying this exact same thing (only in nicer “churchier” language) for most of his tenure as prophet.

    People who once were in the LDS faith, but no longer are, need to keep in mind that the Church is not a mausoleum that is still exactly the way they left it all those years ago. We do move on and some of the same critiques that applied back in the 1990s no longer apply (at least not as much).

  4. Chris permalink

    chanson –

    “I think they’re currently wasting too much energy on growth through conversion, and it’s coming at the expense of strengthening their core membership.”

    I think that the missionary program, especially the full time mission, is a key component to strengthening core membership. You take young boys just out of HS (surely a low retention group), and you send them far away so that, literally, their only financial, emotional, and social support comes from the group. And the MTC…. I won’t even get started.

    Even the “every member a missionary” thing strengthens the regular members. I’m not a psychologist, but I understand that research demonstrates that saying “Statement A is true” makes people more likely to believe Statement A. I suspect it’s even more powerful in high cost social settings – saying that you believe the church is true among the non-mormons probably impacts your beliefs more strongly than doing so in fast and testimony meeting.

    Furthermore, the whole missionary focus helps maintain the US/THEM mindset. When you meet someone new, your first thought is supposed to be “how can I help this person join the church,” which is the same as thinking “he’s different from me” and “I wish he were the same as me.”

  5. If the Mormon church hired “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” – they might come up with a better “brand” for themselves. Well, they MIGHT have been available to help out the Mormon church, except for that Prop 8 snafu.

    “No makeover for you!”

  6. Chris, while I’d agree that the missionary program is valuable to young men for similar reasons (regardless of effectiveness with conversion, I still think it’s good personal training), I also think that bad missions can crush people and turn them away faster than anything. I’ve heard of RMs who’ve become much stronger in the church and of RMs who became disaffected precisely because of their mission.

    As I get further in your comment, I find myself disagreeing and disliking more. I think that the Us/Them mindset is something that probably should be minimized…after all, if it’s Us vs. Them, Mormons will come off as the marginal groups and will be shunned.

    People shouldn’t think, in my opinion, “How can I help this person join the church?”…but instead, “How can I help this person?” And when people see that Mormons don’t have an agenda…but are just charitable, kind, etc., then that will catch more converts than people fishing for them.

  7. Chris permalink

    Andrew,

    I’m not making a prescriptive argument above. I don’t think the church should have those goals. I simply wish to reply to chanson’s comment and say that the missionary program, for the reasons I described above, strengthens the core membership to a degree.

    As you mention, some people may become disaffected due to bad missions, but I suspect that, on average, those people were less devoted in the beginning. You could think of the mission requirement as a kind of “weeding out” so that the people who make it through are the most dedicated and that the mission experience makes them even more dedicated.

    To clarify my position – I think us/them is bad. I think that seeing people simply as ticks in the missionary journal is neither humane nor particularly christian. I think that a lot of things could be done to make the mission program morally better (increased focus on service, rejection of quasi-deceptive sales techniques, etc.) and there are a lot of things that would make it more effective in actually gaining converts. Some things may even lead to improvements in both directions.

  8. ok, I see what you’re saying regarding your actual position and your response.

    I’m just thinking…what would be a way of taking people who are less devoted (but not in any way “low quality”) members and getting them to become more devoted? I mean, the idea I got in part from your comment about missionary work was that…by statistics, young men in the prospective mission age-group tend to be less devoted…and missionary work is the attempt to change that.

    So, if there are other groups for which that does not work, I don’t think saying, “Oh well, they’ll be weeded out,” is necessarily an answer that the church can accept. If one of the goals is to “perfect the saints,” then weeding out…doesn’t do much perfecting ever.

  9. I was actually planning to write a new post over on MSP on this very subject. As I’ve said before, I think the missionary program should be changed from proselytizing to service. I’ve read (and heard in person) tons of personal narratives of people who had their faith shaken (ultimately shattered) because of the mission experience, and it’s the same themes over and over: the numbers game, feeling pressured to make goals that you can see are totally unrealistic, being repeatedly shamed and berated are a group because of the lack of real growth, questionable tactics to get anyone baptized, etc. The core problem is the congnitive dissonance resulting from spending two years immersed in the task of growing the church when the success rate (in terms of converting someone to being a lifelong member) is so abysmal.

    If the focus of a mission were 90% community service — with no more than 10% of a missionary’s work time spent on meeting with potential converts — it would be so much easier for every missionary to come home with the feeling that his/her mission was a real success, and that — through service to the church and to fellow people — the missionary accomplished something valuable.

    Aside from the missionary program, it’s also a problem to hold up the claim that “Mormonism is the fastest growing church” and say that huge growth one of the things that shows the church is true. Again, this causes massive cognitive dissonance on the part of ordinary members because, frankly, it’s hard to bury your head far enough into the sand to convince yourself that the church is growing by leaps and bounds. And when the brethren fudge the numbers and count membership “differently” than any other church (or statistical/census organization), that doesn’t help — it just encourages doubters to think that leadership is hiding something, and wonder why.

    My point is that the focus on the “Daniel 2 prophecy” about the church filling the whole earth is becoming more of a hindrance than a help in retaining members. They need to “re-brand” and stop centering the Mormon identity around being the “fastest growing religion”. Instead, they should start spreading the idea that the Daniel 2 prophecy means that the church would cover the whole Earth “spiritually”, but that little or no actual growth at this point was what they expected because now we’re moving from the “expanding phase” to the “gathering phase” as prophesied by [if you look around, there's probably a prophecy somewhere in the Bible that would fit this idea].

  10. Chris permalink

    chanson –

    I think an important point to make is that the vast majority of missionary time is actually wasted or even counterproductive. There are a few people that genuinely want to meet with the missionaries and discuss religion. The rest are just being harassed. If missionaries only spent 10% of their time teaching (as you suggest), they would focus on these interested people – the ones who are actually likely to convert. I suspect that convert baptisms would not decrease much, and probably not at all in Western countries (where there’s not much room for decrease, anyway). Things might even improve because of the positive image and community membership the missionaries would legitimately gain as actual servants.

  11. Chanson,

    I know that a lot of non-Mormons would be happier with us if our Church would simply confine itself to bake sales and hip urban renewal projects.

    Problem is, we actually BELIEVE in our religion.

    Hard to get around that problem.

  12. Seth, I understand what you’re saying.

    But I will tell you something vital — bake sales and hip urban renewal projects raise more interest than door-to-door peddling.

    Don’t put bake sales and actually believing in your religion at opposite ends, or you only hurt your chances. And that’s the same for ANY organization or ANY movements.

    Bake sales rock.

  13. Chris permalink

    Andrew –

    I agree with your response to Seth 100%. You have to remember, though, that if you really believe in mormonism, you believe that it is governed by a very high level of direct revelation. I suspect that most faithful mormons believe that the missionary program as it stands is largely god’s design.

    How could it be possible that internet apostates know more about how to run missionary work than the apostles and prophets, or could even have something useful to add? Indeed, the mere fact that apostates are suggesting it must mean that it’s what Satan wants! (I’M JUST KIDDING! MOSTLY!)

  14. Andrew, I don’t disagree necessarily. But it’s a mixed bag. I served a mission where we did both service and proselyting back in the early 1990s when it was still a pretty radical concept.

    I can tell you one thing here – you run out of things to do. You try spending 90% of your mission doing service and you’ll find yourself soon becoming obnoxious to the locals. Almost as much as if you were knocking on doors – where it’s a lot easier to get rid of you.

    One place I think that the missionaries could help a lot is focusing the time allotment on:

    1. Inactive members
    2. Member referrals
    3. Service projects
    4. Maybe a 10% allotment going to missionary-initiated proselyting.

    I do agree that the service component is a good idea.

    The first area I served in in Japan, we had a pretty tight community outreach system going on due to some highly proactive missionaries (I don’t consider myself one of them).

    Trying to strengthen and support members was crucial. We’d even show up occasionally and ask them if there was anything they needed help with. We’d help a farmer take down his melon greenhouse after the growing season, watch a young mom’s kids for an hour, visit with lonely older people, teach free English classes (lots of those), help an investigator family with their shop, one investigator young lady was the adult daughter of a couple who ran a small fresh produce shop. We’d go with her once a week to help her collect fresh goods at the farmer’s market (lots of stuff to lift). We picked up trash, went to local festivals just to wander around and enjoy the festivities (and maybe proselyte, but not really). I even got drafted into playing a samurai escort for a Japanese princess in a town parade.

    We also had an ongoing weekly appointment to play basketball with the high school basketball team across the street from our apartment. I stunk, but was about a foot taller than everyone else so it didn’t matter – and my fellow missionaries all played in high school themselves and were, therefore, pretty much gods. The coach thought it was great, because we’d foul the other team a lot and he thought his Japanese kids played too much “sissy ball.” We showed up for their games too and cheered for them – loudly.

    We’d drop by to say hi to investigators at their workplace (if appropriate – which we were sometimes a little sketchy on), spend time at the local civic center, and just generally spent as much time out and about as we could.

    Everyone knew who we were, we got smiles all over the place. Not that people were converting, of course. But we were certainly welcome in town and people didn’t dislike us anyway.

    But it’s a little much to say that you can do that stuff 90% of the time and still actually be a missionary.

  15. I mean, I understand where Seth is coming from too though.

    After all, the call of the missionary isn’t to do community service or do bake sales. It is to teach. They are teachers.

    It is the goal of every member in a ward to fellowship new members or prospective members. Missionaries actually shouldn’t be counting on door-to-door tracting for the majority of their contacts — really, members should be talking with their friends and referring them to the missionaries (and that way, the friends should [ideally] be more receptive to the message). Bake sales and urban renewal projects *should* be for the ward and the missionaries should teach the gospel.

    So, I mean, as far as that being the “design” of the program…I can UNDERSTAND that. I think my ideas could fit in that model (and in fact, I think the church IS pushing for that model). Have the missionaries keep teaching, but then emphasize that it takes a village to raise a new member — the entire ward needs to get involved.

  16. I’d also say that missionaries get a lot more free reign out in places like Japan, or Australia, or Panama than they do in the USA.

  17. Re Seth:

    haha, you got in right before I posted. Thanks for the personal experience. Like I said (missing your last comment), I do understand (and try to temper what I think) with the fact that, when things get down to it, the missionaries job is to preach. So if they are doing 90% community building (which could and should be done with the ward as a whole) and just 10% proselytizing, then I mean…it’s a redefinition of what they even are.

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