12/14/2011

Adventist present [media] truth—a vision to be realized



John Hunt is a recognized author and advertising guru.* His claim to fame is being a co-creator of a partner company with the TBWA advertising agency whose international success is driven by the mantra, “Life’s to short to be mediocre.” What he has to say seems at once poignant and challenging to many a Seventh-day Adventist church member, leader and communicator (in that order): “We don’t know what we don't know until we do what we don’t usually do.” (1)
            Mr. Hunt’s comment brings me to an unrealized vision from more than a decade ago, from which some of us are yet to wake up. The vision has to do with an intentional focus (one would hope and assume) on improving the public perception of our church.
            This was rekindled in my mind by the current Mormon public image perception campaign. The thoughts I wish to share are aimed at creating a teaser for a conversation. What may emerge will hopefully assist in self-assessment as to how to approach a need to be seen and experienced as a people who are worth getting to know. The result—the Good News about Jesus Christ will be better known.

Are we actually in the marketplace?

            Seventh-day Adventists may not be as rich as the Mormons, but we seem to be doing rather well in our splendid isolation, seeing some growth in mission, while resorting to moaning about our poor public perception.
            Don’t you cringe when someone mixes your religious affiliation with that of someone else?
            Adventists are nearly absent where others are present in engaging the public with their causes. To start with, by clinging largely on to a view and the urgency that this world will soon end, we are equally timid at considering “shouting from the rooftops.”
            As members of society, all of us have similar communication tools at our disposal. These methods are actually neither sacred nor secular. The content and what propels our communication is different. For Seventh-day Adventists, the apocalyptic in its varied expressions, we argue, is the coin to spend. Yet our communication efforts and the attractive and persuasive messaging required are relegated to the all too often “tried and true” methods that worked before, but are effective no longer. The world and its marketplace continue to move on and old ways of communication are left behind. But how ready is the church to jump into a required notoriety created by contemporary media?
            You and I are participants (or at least observers) in the era of new communication and its technological advancement. Religious words that once were carefully considered, and the name of God, which was held in reverence, now seem to be at best—ignored. The church, when it speaks, is hardly listened to. Religious verbiage is not understood and the fact that one uses many religious words does not mean one is held in awe. Religious media is craving to be relevant, yet, today’s audience says it simply—show me what you believe, but don’t overwhelm me with your talk.
            What is actually needed is to step forward, forsaking timidity and engage with content development with a clear identity and messaging focused on the future. The media is already there. In the marketplace. He who is not present, a proverb says, is not right.

Now, a Mormon story.

            The Mormons support their missionary efforts with ample investment in communication and branding. A recent Mormon communication approach was presented in a well-researched article in the New York Times.(2) The article explained the focus and intentionality of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in launching a media campaign, which connects to the current U.S. Presidential race with two Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman who are also well-respected members of the LDS Church.
            Unlike with Adventists, for the LDS Church it’s not the second coming of Jesus that is at stake here. There may be varied outcomes they are aiming at, among them a need to be known as an OK religious group —“nothing to be afraid of”—but also to be recognized for “whom” they wish to be recognized as.
            I am in support of their campaign. Perhaps at last my church will not be mistaken for being a community of Latter-day Saints!
            Going back a few decades, I recall a meeting in the office of an ambassador whose windows were overlooking St. Peter’s Square. At some point in our conversation he pointed to a difference between the Catholics and the Adventists. He said “Catholics are largely steeped in the past, and with a predictable presence enhanced by the ‘communication Pope.’ But, I see you as a contemporary Christian community with a message the world is searching for. We are all dealing with issues of living safer, better, healthier lives, and we all need hope.”
            Then he added, “But, you are timid about it. Why?” 
            Such was his opinion about a people of hope, which we are claiming to be. His values, which Seventh-day Adventists hold as true and lasting. Among the lessons from that conversation was also that we might just have a problem with our own identity. Moreover, what we have we are largely keeping to ourselves.

Our identity is increasinly beyond Millerite.

            Designating Adventism as a homemade variety of Christianity in America, Paul K. Conkin, professor of history at Vanderbilt University recognizes a tension in knowing who we are. He writes rather favorably about the church’s growth and mission. Writing about our beliefs, he states that Seventh-day Adventists “seem very close to the Christians Paul addressed in Thessalonica in the early days of Christianity, and close to the apocalyptic expectations of Jesus and his disciples.” (3) But, in his well-researched thesis, American Originals, he describes struggles of the church’s founders to establish Seventh-day Adventism’s distinct identity. He writes, “One tension that has been most basic and enduring involves Seventh-day Adventist identity” (4).
            Far from being conclusive about one’s evaluations, this very issue seems quite enduring for Adventist communicators. Many a church functionary is more eager to connect our identity with what was before us—the Millerites. They do this at the cost of defining us today. In dealing with such questions as “Who are you?” many a communicator will roll out a list of comparisons or differences with other religious groups, thus giving a license to declare that in this or that we are special, unique or distinct. Somehow this distinctiveness has yet to release dividends in image clarity or more interest.
            It is hardly useful to generalize. There are many examples of individuals and communities making a difference, creating change, and responding well to the mission objectives of Adventism. In the area of name recognition and public relations, there are parts of our globe where Seventh-day Adventists go about improving the church’s public perception and they seem to know how it works.
In Australia, we know how to enter the PR game and we begin by engaging with communication experts, as well as by identifying our audience for specific communication. It can be explained that if communication is taken seriously, image building will become an asset to all else we do, like in Poland in the 1980s, when the public-interest issues of social pathologies were taken on board and executed with a communication intentionality required to make these approaches viable and outcome-rich. 
            Just a few years ago in Romania, the church took a topic of a rather poor Bible awareness in this Christian country and used the traffic-heavy streets to invite citizens to discover what the Holy Bible is. Ads were everywhere.
            A somewhat different story comes from Jamaica. There, the church is challenged by the national media to be on top of the game (read: PR game) of being prominent. A known newspaper publisher-editor stated that Seventh-day Adventists graduated from a minority to the largest faith group on the island. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked. “You are now in the driver’s seat and we will be looking toward you to be a leading moral voice,” he added.
            Apart from stressing the apocalyptic themes throughout our history, Conkin noted: “It is worth noting that no other American-based denomination has ever attempted to transform itself so fully into a worldwide fellowship. No other American-based denomination has turned so fully to modern communication technology, including the use of the Internet.” (5)

One thing is to recognize our own importance ourselves, another, when others offer their appraisal of how they see us.

            On the eve of a 100th anniversary of Seventh-day Adventist corporate communication, it may be well, in my view, to recall Ellen G. White’s forceful communication counsel. She seemed to opt for newness in the way the church goes about its communication efforts. She commented that, the character and importance of our work are judged by the efforts made to bring it before the public.  When these efforts are so limited, the impression is given that the message we present is not worthy of notice.” (6)
            This founding leader of the church stressed the relevance and importance of how we should care about what we say, how we say it, and how we listen to the world. “We should remember that the world will judge us by what we appear to be.” (7)
            Our brand may be clear, however, our communication is timid, resulting in part from our lack of clarity over our identity. Our message lacks public relevance due to a preoccupation with communication that primarily focuses on discussing the past, and messaging geared mostly at addressing ourselves rather the general public.
Ellen White also wrote:
            Truth will be made so prominent that he who runs may read. Means will be devised to reach hearts.  Some of the methods used in this work will be different from the methods used in the work in the past; but let no one, because of this, block the way by criticism (8).
            In one of his books, Paul Arden of the Saatchi & Saatchi fame, wrote: “Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.” (9) To translate his comment into Adventist mission, we could simply say—Adventism is the opportunity we already have.
            In Arden’s parlance, “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist.” Today’s generation knows it. This generation is not bashful to articulate it. Just join or check what is on display in Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, those relational social communities. Those who “live” there also seem to be saying: If your present is expressed in the past, it will not be found in your future. 
            Whether a new communication strategy for the Adventist world church will replace the current one (11), there will continue to be a need to try out new creative approaches to improving church awareness in society, globally and locally. The vision statement the world church agreed on in 1995 seems to continue to offer a useful point of reference for any branding efforts or for relevant communication programs of our church: Seventh-day Adventists will communicate hope by focusing on the quality of life that is complete in Jesus Christ.

Our brand—hope.

            Principles of the Adventist faith notwithstanding, is there a present in Adventist identity? Or, is it locked in a formula, which perhaps was never intended to last forever? 
            In the words of Peter Gabriel - "As always, the rest is up to you."

*This essay was also published on the Spectrum Magazine blog. See: http://bit.ly/uX8rSd 

(1) John Hunt, The Art of the Idea, and How it Can Change Your Life, 2009; p. 115. 
(2)  Mormon’s Ad Campaign May PlayOut on the ’12 Campaign Trail” by Laurie Goodstein, November 17, 2011. 
(3)  Paul K. Conkin, American Originals, Homemade Varieties of Christianity, 1997; p. 145. 
(4) Ibid, p. 138. 
(5) Ibid, p. 144. 
(6) Evangelism, p. 128. 
(7) Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 397. 
(8) Evangelism, pp. 129, 130. 
(9) Paul Arden, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, 2003; p. 4 
(10)  Ibid, p. 46 
(11) “Seventh-day Adventist World Communication Strategy—Report” was adopted at 1995 General Conference Session, Utrecht, Netherlands. Implementation of what was to be known as the Hope Strategy, it identified tasks for the church on all levels and through institutions.