Warning. What follows is really “inside baseball.” On the whole, it will affect the average Episcopalian, let alone the average any one else, very little. Which is important to remember when one sees all the energy put into this.
Last July an announcement came out that I did not pay attention to; and, as announced, the Episcopal Church is re-branding itself.
You see, the corporate name of the Episcopal Church is the “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society” or DFMS. Back in the 19th Century when Missions and Missionaries were hot stuff, someone realized that we, all of us baptized, are missionaries…not just the people we sent to faraway places. Nice idea. Kinda cool, in fact.
Trouble is that over time DFMS more and more tended to refer to people at HQ (aka “815′) and less and less about the rest of us who are mere Episcopalians.
Someone has decided to fix that by re-branding DFMS to “The Missionary Society.” Maybe to get that old 19th Century mojo back and updated for the 21st Century.
To me, though, it rings hollow. Like when Radio Shack a few years back tried to just call itself “The Shack” because they thought it sounded cooler and because few people knew what a radio shack was and even fewer bought radios there. It didn’t work. Who knows why? McDonald’s may be “Mickey D’s” but Wal-Mart is still Wal-Mart and Radio Shack is still Radio Shack, even if what I am buying there is a cell phone (which, by the way, is a radio…think about it).
Let’s look at what people experience when they come to an Episcopal Church.
They experience worship. They experience fellowship and perhaps even companionship. They experience their faith fed and nurtured. They experience Christ in word, sacrament and baptized community. At least that’s my hope.
I doubt that they experience something called a “Missionary Society.”
Even my most faithful core parishioners, the ones who do everything for my parish from altar guild to stuffing envelopes to serving in our soup kitchen, did not join a “Missionary Society.” They are a part of church, a congregation, a community. Our newest members and the seekers who attend worship or help out in our ministries are not looking for a “Missionary Society.” They seek purpose, hope, and meaning that makes a difference in their lives and in the world around them. They struggle with what it means to be faithful and want to differentiate their experience of the church as an institution with their experience of faith in community.
The early church was not a “missionary society.” It was a gathering, an “ekklesia,” of faithful people. Of the hundreds of images of ekklesia in the New Testament, not one was of a missionary society. Most of the images are organic: the vine and the branches, the body with Christ as the head; the people of God; a holy nation. We are described as married to Christ, ambassadors for him, immersed in his death and joined with him in his resurrection. We are a kind of society, yes; and what we do is mission, often in the most mundane ways, but we are not The Missionary Society.
I wonder what this corporate search for identity is all about? Is it insecurity that we in the pews and pulpits don’t “get” and fully appreciate what the folks at DFMS (as they heretofore called themselves) do? Is there some kind of quest for meaning and direction? Is this an attempt to help us all “get on board” and working together?
A few years back, our Bishop along with the Evangelism Commission of our diocese worked with parishes in our diocese to develop simple, easy to remember mission statements. The statements by themselves changed nothing. Parishes that were in survival mode remained in survival mode but with pretty, easy to understand mission statements.
But parishes that were already focused on Christ and intentional about responding as a community to Christ found that their statements (their brand?) aligned very nicely with their lived mission (their product?) and so strengthened their message. So one church proclaims that they are “learning and doing the work of Jesus,” and if you look at them and that’s a pretty good shorthand for how they live. Another arranges the words “Live God’s Love, Tell God’s Story” into a cross with God at the center. Again, if you go to their community you will discover that they are pretty intentional about their living and telling, so it fits.
My parish’s statement of “Discover, Share, Live God’s Love” is something I hope people see and hear about us way before they ever read the text.
The difference between these successful and failed branding campaigns–and that’s what this really is–is that they succeeded in places which were already intentional about their work and their common life. The statements both focused and reflected a present, lived reality. When they failed, they often masked another reality…not just a moribund or failing parish, but worse they gave lip service to hopes when their lived experience focused on their fears in all kinds of subtle ways.
So who are we? For me, we are the ancient and ever new gathering of God’s people who daily follow Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit. The ekklesia. We are a community grounded in hope and, for all our institutional trappings, we are pretty experimental. When I hear “The Missionary Society,” besides a whole host of other images I don’t want, all I can envision are folks who work in offices, run meetings, and plan programs in some far away place. That may be accurate, but…so?
I know that DFMS is printed on the checks. I guess I am just wondering what problem it is that we are trying to solve.
If we have to re-brand, I suggest this: instead of DFMS or “The Missionary Society,” how about simply “The Episcopal Church?” That at least aligns with the sign out front.