Lessons from Paul About Successful Branding

Personal note:

When people reference your response as an example of overreaction to a proposed change, and you are in covenant with those people, you pay attention. When people in this same covenant show you alternative views of the proposed change, you look it again through their eyes. These things I have done. As to someone who said of complainers like me that we are just angry not to have been consulted, I reiterate that that is the essence of the Radical Reformation: the leaders look for God by listening to the people. But yes, it is probably harder to listen to someone who yells at you.

That said, I woke up this morning with one of my favorite books of the Bible open before my sleep-encrusted eyes. Not a physical Bible. Some words that I treasure, read, preach from — and criticize — so often that apparently they pop up in my dreams:

Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Paul spent his life arguing about the image and form of a religion that was just arriving on its cultural landscape. One of the most amazing, and frankly cheering, developments in my lifetime is that Unitarian Universalism has now arrived on the national religious and cultural landscape. We have outlasted the better branded Unification Church, for which we used to be mistaken. Other liberal religions and interfaith-minded clergy include us without the long debates that mattered so much as recently as the 1980s. So, in effect, we are in the stage that Paul faced after the death of Jesus: a crisis of opportunity. Not “how shall we get started?” but, “which direction shall we go now?”

When liberal Christians talked about following “The Religion of Jesus,” they did not just mean, “not Islam” or “not Judaism,” they also meant, “not the religion of Paul.” But whatever you may think of him, Paul succeeded at what our denomination is trying to do: He stamped his brand on a religious movement in rapid ascent. That doesn’t mean he captured all of it, which was his intent. He did not win unquestioned adoration, either in his time or through the ages. Rather, he proclaimed some particulars that have stood the test of time. Some of his particulars were liberal, expansive, inclusive, and others were particular, judgmental, organizational.

Both sets of particulars have adherents today. We liberals spontaneously cite his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:19-32) when we speak of the “unknown God within… in Whom we live and move and have our being.” Conservatives cite his admonitions placing men above women, particularly in marriage, and try to reconcile his claim that “women should keep silent in church” with his praising salutations to female church leaders of various congregations.

Now THAT is successful branding.

Romans is pretty much the place where Paul established the Cross (‘all have sinned and have no righteousness except through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”) as the preeminent symbol for Christianity. Even today, liberals who prefer Matthew 25 (“you fed me, you visited me in prison”) lift up the symbol of the double fish; you might find this in your congregation’s stained glass sermons. Thre’s a revival these days also of the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s empowering visits to humanity in times of need or crisis. Old Christian tombs also had IHS (“In Christ is Our Hope”) and that fish with IXOYE inside it (also means “In Christ is our hope” but in Greek).

This is what the fight is really about: not whether Unitarian Universalists have a symbol that matters to the small groups who know it, but whether we can establish a symbol that dominates the conversation about the things we believe.  At this moment, the United Church of Christ and even the Vatican are “on top” of liberal religious imagery, with “Christ is still speaking” and the simple garb and life-shaping liberation theology of Pope Francis I. In the political arena to which Unitarian Universalism aspires, we already have launched “Standing on the Side of Love” as our contender in their league.

So who is this new logo addressing? Is Standing on the Side of Love going to be phased out or retired? Is this new logo going to compete with SSOL within our own houses and ranks? I mean, I don’t like SSOL, but I do recognize it, and it does seem to be popular with everyone but me, so I applaud that much, at least.

Although it has not set the world on fire, the flaming chalice has engraved itself on UU congregational culture far more than I ever imagined would be possible. If our current leaders have Pauline aspirations, perhaps they see the flaming chalice as a comforting message for house churches.

Does that mean they are going to keep trying logos on us until they come up with something that works like a liberal “Sword of Constantine,” in James Carroll’s immortal title?

If so, let me be the first to clarify: the problem with Constantine’s  Christian vision wasn’t the logo — which Paul accelerated and Francis is  trying to refurbish — it was the authoritarianism.  When Marxism landed on the trash heap of history, it was because Lenin had made of it an authoritarianism.

So before our leaders march one step further, let’s be clear about two things:

1) When it comes to cultural transformation, we are already far more successful than my generation of UUs ever dreamed would be possible, and

2) We are succeeding by participating in mutually respectful coalitions, not by taking them over.

Which brings us back to the question that plagued Paul’s ministry until the end, the issue his successors have not resolved yet:

How do you nurture, connect, but still coordinate the house churches?



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