Thursday, April 11, 2013

Under a Bushel

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger is promoting a book called Contagious:  Why Things Catch On.  Here's a morsel that we heard him share on NPR, and now at HuffPo:

New York City is a tough place to open a bar. Competition is fierce and it's hard to cut through the clutter. ...
But a few years ago Brian Shebairo launched a place that's been packed since the day it opened. In fact, it's one of the most sought after drink reservations in the city. Bookings are only available day-of and people frantically hit redial again and again hoping to snag a spot. Yet he's never advertised the bar. Never spent a dollar on marketing.
How did Shebairo do it?
He hid his bar inside a hot dog restaurant.
Walk into Crif Dogs in the East Village, and you'll find the most amazing hot dog menu you've ever seen. ...
In one corner off to the side is an old-school phone booth. One of those rectangular numbers that Clark Kent used to morph into Superman. Walk inside and you'll see a rotary dial phone on the wall. Pick up the phone, and just for fun, dial the number 1. Someone will pick-up the other line and ask you if you have a reservation. And if you do, the back of the phone booth will open and you'll be let into a secret bar called, of all things, Please Don't Tell.
Has Please Don't Tell violated traditional "laws of marketing?" Sure. There is no sign on the street and no mention of it in the hot dog place. In fact, they've worked hard to make themselves a secret.

If it were that simple, the ELCA would be the hottest, hippest, fastest-growingest church body in America, if not the world.  Because no group of human beings on earth is better at keeping itself a secret than we are.  Compared to Lutherans, the Illuminati are as zealous for fame as the Kardashians.

We build ugly churches on out-of-the-way streets; we greet visitors with a handshake (maybe) and a "bulletin" full of paper that falls all over their laps and confuses more than it clarifies; we offer serious inquirers a confusing mishmash of doctrine and worship, usually filtered through the accumulated mini-traditions of the particular congregation or, worse yet, through the personal sensibilities of the pastor.  Nobody knows who we are or what we are, much less where to find us.

Sadly, mere self-effacement is not the whole of Berger's strategy for spreading the word.  The real secret, he says, is something called Social Currency, and which sounds a lot like old-fashioned bragging rights:

People talk about things that make them look good. Sharp and in-the-know. Smart and funny rather than behind the times. If people go to a place like Please Don't Tell ... they tell others because it gives them status.
Social Currency isn't just about hidden bars. It's why people brag about their thousands of Twitter followers or their kids' SAT scores. Why golfers boast about their handicaps and frequent fliers tell others when they get upgraded. ... 

Ouch.  That's a big problem for the ELCA, and for many of our sister churches:  we don't like to brag.  It isn't merely a matter of Scandinavian reserve, either.  We are wary, theologically, of the pride that goeth before a fall, and of the hypocrites who pray to be seen by others.  The thought that we should ourselves be something about which our members boast is problematic, both culturally and doctrinally.

Of course, there have always been churches that manage to make members feel special because they are members, while still maintaining at least a semblance of personal humility.   Episcopalians used to be geniuses at it, although in recent years they have seemed showier and correspondingly more desperate.  Likewise Presbyterians.

The worst case scenario, of course, is that you create a cult:  a community which makes its members feel special because they are not like Them -- not, in other words, like the aliens, the outsiders, the impure, however broadly or narrowly defined.  In the form of exaggerated claims to doctrinal purity over against the rest of world Lutheranism, this has been the Missouri Synod's strategy from the beginning.  It worked well enough, up until recently, but has certainly left them with few friends outside the kraal.

We in the ELCA, however, have no gift for this.  Making, or even allowing, people to feel special is unsettling to us.  The closest we can come, and this on our best day, is to offer them coffee and some green jello after an otherwise unremarkable hour of worship.  Coffee and jello are lovely things, but they offer no cachet, no bragging rights, no sense of having discovered a rare and marvelous treasure.

Most painful of all is this:  we at the Egg believe that Lutheranism, particularly as represented by the ELCA and its LWF partners, is indeed a rare and marvelous treasure.  It holds, deep inside, gems both spiritual and intellectual, tools which, properly understood, can critique modernity without denying it, and lead the soul toward God without compelling it.  But, at least if Berger is right, we have no real hope of ever going viral.

Maybe we should ask the Methodists if they have a phone booth we can hide behind.

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