Selling God

Once the church of intellectual rock stars and progressive New Englanders, Unitarian Universalism has struggled in recent times to convince people they need it. So the church did what any modern business would: It hired an ad team.
David Ruffin Unitarian Universalism

Photograph by Toan Trinh

David Ruffin, coordinator of the Sanctuary Boston, a “small group worship” aimed at attracting younger members to Unitarian Universalism.

At the beginning of 2012, in a manifesto of sorts that started as a personal journal entry, Reverend Peter Morales announced to his congregations that something needed to radically change. The Unitarian Universalist church was in crisis. In spite of being one of the most progressive churches, with a rich legacy of attracting the sorts of forward-thinking, open-minded intellectuals many of us like to think we are—Emerson was Unitarian, so was Thoreau—the UUs were veering toward extinction. People weren’t coming to services. Those who did come weren’t staying. Forget about growth; many people had never even heard of them.

Examining his small and rapidly diminishing numbers—since its heyday in the ’60s, the church had lost about half of its flock—Morales realized something many modern faiths had already grappled with head-on: People just didn’t think they needed religion anymore.

As president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), with its 1,000-plus member churches, Morales saw that the era of Unitarian Universalism as the thinking man’s alternative to mainstream religion had come to an end. Whereas in the past, the UU church might have had to compete with, say, Methodists or Episcopalians for people’s attention on a Sunday morning, these days prospective members spent the Lord’s Day practicing yoga, pacing the sidelines of their kids’ soccer fields, or brunching. People were fleeing traditional Christianity, but they no longer sought a replacement.

And yet, he thought, so many of the religion-wary were already UUs in practice and principle. Consider the Millennials, whose views on social issues like marriage and income inequality strongly echoed UU’s deeply humanistic message. The church had been built by progressive advocates just like them. Its proud legacy included towering New England intellectuals who’d led the charge for education and prison reform, helping the poor, and abolishing slavery. What’s more, its basic principles echoed Eastern tenets that life on Earth is the one that counts and all people go to heaven. They all clearly shared the same philosophy, so why wasn’t the new generation coming? His conclusion: “Church is becoming a bad brand for young people.”

To battle that perception, Morales had often told the congregations under his charge to “repel fewer visitors.” But maybe even church was too churchy. Perhaps, he thought, the UUA could start presenting itself more like a movement, church optional. They’d always waffled a bit on calling it a religion anyway.

So the time had come for a complete rebrand. In early 2012, Morales began working with Reverend Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s program and strategy officer. Cooley, in turn, called on Kristi Kienholz, a Boston-based marketing strategist who suggested that the UUA come up with a branding strategy.

Getting the word out, she said, would come later.

 

Like many before him, Morales had found the inclusive nature of the church’s doctrine divine and liberating. With roots in the Reformation—the mid-1500s European movement that questioned many of the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church and spawned Protestantism—both Unitarianism and Universalism were products of a nascent, progressive New England. The American Unitarian Association was founded in Boston in 1825 on the principles of rational thinking and free will, offering an alternative to the idea of original sin. Defining God was left up to the individual. The first Universalist church, founded in Gloucester in the late 18th century, was considered the more evangelical and inclusive of the two. As such, it offered an antidote to the heaven-and-hell Christianity that essentially scared people into pews. The key difference between the two sects, according to a quote credited to Thomas Starr King, was that “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” Finding much in common, the two churches banded together in 1961 to become Unitarian Universalism.

Raised Lutheran, Morales had been a Fulbright scholar and worked in newspaper publishing and state government before entering the ministry in 1999. With a passion for social justice, particularly environmental issues and immigration reform, he fully embraced UU’s lack of strict doctrine. “There is a modern Western preoccupation with ‘believe this, this, this, and this,” Morales says. “I believe religion is much more about what you love than about what you think.”

Being open and non-evangelical worked for the Unitarians and Universalists for nearly two centuries; their modern incarnation is now fiercely secular. During his Easter sermon at the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist church in Newburyport, Reverend Harold Babcock said that while he isn’t so sure about the whole physical resurrection of Jesus Christ thing, what we can take from the Bible’s writings about the event is the importance of renewal. Which brings to mind the popular UU joke (yes, there are such things) in which a little UU girl explains why Easter is celebrated: “Jesus rolled back the stone, walked outside, and saw his shadow,” she says, concluding, “so we’ll have six more weeks of winter.”

 

When you think about it, religion and marketing have always made a great team—you could even say that one begat the other. The Bible, with its stories and slogans and pop-star figures, is the ultimate branding tool; many consider Jesus and Paul both genius philosophers and genius salesmen. More recently, several organized religions have honed their sound bites to jolt members back into the pews. The relaunched United Methodist Church website features the Friday Night Lights–esque slogan “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” A few years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inaugurated the “We’re just like you!” campaign with messaging and TV spots featuring young, good-looking Mormons, designed to entice new members while distancing the church from some of the more controversial elements of its history, like polygamy and child brides. And though the Holy See, the official website of the Vatican, could use a redesign, it’s updated regularly and includes links to Pope Francis’s mobile app and social media accounts, where His Holiness often posts selfies.

While UU’s intellectual bent had served it well in the past, its constant soul-searching had become, in this century, its biggest liability: There was no clear advertising angle. So Kienholz introduced Reverend Cooley to the Portland, Oregon, branding firm Quicksilver Foundry, which taught the UUA the basics of branding-speak: tag lines, core language, and “core themes” that needed to be addressed.

Quicksilver took a stab at elevator pitches: “Our faith is steeped in reverence, brazen in acceptance and limitless in compassion. We are fueled by community and resolute in our welcome. Wanted: Brave Souls.” Tag lines got at the sell a little quicker: “The Unitarian Universalist Association: Fierce Love” and “Live it. Fight for it. Surrender to it. Preach it. Light a Flame.”

Trying to sum up UU’s expansive nature proved very challenging. “The conversation quickly led us into, well, what’s the mission of Unitarian Universalism? And so we really struggled around that,” Cooley says. “It’s kind of our perennial struggle. Given that we’re such a radically decentralized organization, it’s really hard to know who speaks for Unitarian Universalism.” She added that “[Quicksilver founder Will Novy-Hildesley] has really been able to shine a big light, saying, ‘How does this look for people beyond you?’”

Yet a marketing endeavor risked alienating members. As part of their ethos of acceptance and “finding your own path,” UUs are very averse to evangelism, or anything that looks like it. “One church’s marketing is another church’s proselytism,” observes Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of more than 20 books about religion in America. That’s why religious marketing has many names: proselytizing for a higher calling, evangelism, God’s work. “What in the [secular] world might look grubby, in the religious world would be seen as holy,” Wolfe says. “You have an obligation to do it.”

Everyone agreed that if the UUs were going to rebrand, this whole marketing thing would require visual components—a new website, maybe a new logo—services Quicksilver didn’t offer. To find a firm that also handled design, Kienholz launched a nationwide search, which led to a boutique agency in Boston’s South End. By chance, the name of the firm had a whiff of the spiritual: Proverb.

Cooley liked that Proverb had worked with a range of businesses, organizations, and brands, from Boston Public Schools to the restaurant Myers + Chang to the tooth whitener Luster. “They really stood out,” she says of Proverb.“Being a local group we knew we could interact with them on an ongoing basis and they were, you know, quite interested in the uniqueness of this project.”

Partners Christine Needham and Daren Bascome could relate to the demographic UUs were eager to attract. Needham was raised Irish Catholic and married a Jew; after spending years studying yoga and Buddhism she now calls herself Hindu. Bascome was raised by a “die-hard Pentecostal mother.” He says his father, a musician, considers jazz his religion. Bascome’s wife was raised Confucian. Neither Needham’s nor Bascome’s children have been raised to identify with any one religion. In turn, the two recognized how the UU approach could appeal to families like theirs. “You could almost describe what they’re doing as being sort of an un-church,” Bascome says. “There’s an ability for someone to build what they need inside of the infrastructure of the church, similar to how a software developer would approach open-source coding.”

As Proverb saw it, the challenge UUs faced was one that consumer brands dealt with all the time: how to sell people something they didn’t know they needed. And so while the team considered how other religions had approached rebranding—the Mormons, in particular—they focused much more on approaching the prospective UU from a consumer perspective. They spent time examining how non-churchgoers in their South End neighborhood spent their Sundays, and how they chose to make a positive impact on the world. Their research led them to consider the popularity of yoga, cause walks, and campaigns that combined consumerism with altruism, like (Red), rock star Bono’s campaign benefiting the fight against AIDS in Africa.

They also considered how much spirituality had seeped into the corporate world. Yoga-clothing company Lululemon, for example, had commandeered high-minded sloganeering to leverage its brand, imprinting its iconic red-and-white shopping bag with dozens of uplifting to-live-by quotes: “Friends are more important than money; breathe deeply and appreciate the moment; creativity is maximized when you’re living in the moment.” Through such quasi-spiritual messaging, the company had created a community (albeit consumer-driven) based on practicing yoga in expensive spandex.

“If you see a Lululemon bag walking down the street, you read one of those quotes, that might actually change your outlook,” Bascome says. “We wanted to begin to build something that had a certain kind of dexterity and utility, where even if someone never actually buys in, the quality of their lives or the quality of their day could be improved.”

Like Morales, he and Needham agreed that UU was stronger as an idea than as a specific place and time. You didn’t even have to go to church to feel its benefits. You didn’t even have to be UU. Though eventually, you might. Eventually, you might start to think, Wow, what’s so special about those pricey pants everyone’s wearing? And then, maybe: Do I need them too?

 

In past times, ambiguity had been the driving force behind Unitarian Universalism. But in the 21st century, the prospective audience for the religion would demand more: They’d need sharp logos and catchphrases. So Proverb worked with Cooley and the UUA Board of Trustees to establish some “key messaging.”

Their insight-and-strategy document—“sort of ground zero from where the brand launches from,” says Needham—now outlines the five parts of the conversation about UU: Who We Are, What We Believe, What We Are Doing, Why It’s Important, and How to Get Involved. Proverb also worked with the UUs to shorten their seven core principles, making them easier to remember, and has suggested putting them into “some sort of acronym form so that they’re easier to pull up quickly in your brain,” Needham says. “We don’t know if that will fly.”

A forthcoming advertising campaign celebrating UU’s radical roots, meanwhile, will aim to underscore what Bascome calls “the unique range of needs that Unitarian Universalism can address” in, of course, digestible bits—short videos and a heavy social-media push. It will look at what Bascome calls “real-igion,” the idea that religion can look different for different people. Concepts being tossed around have included priests, tightrope walkers, and “someone with a little bindi,” Needham says. “The message is that it doesn’t have to look one way.”

Though everyone at the UUA seems to be on board with the proposal, Needham admits the process has been a little unnerving. The feedback has been positive, she says, but there’s been a lot of it. True to form, the decentralized UUA solicited input from some member congregations and other key UUs, and there are a lot of decision-makers who want to be heard. Says Cooley, “There is no such thing as a nationwide directive. Ever. Never…. We don’t speak for all Unitarian Universalists. We have influence because we’re leaders and there are ways in which our staff and our officers have made some significant shifts in the culture by virtue of standing up for certain ideas, but there’s no way we’d tell people how things are going to be.”

Which means everyone gets at least some say, “which is very different from if we were branding a corporation,” Bascome says. Consequently, he says he has adjusted his firm’s approach to build in such lack of control. In search of branding that functions across broad platforms, they looked at political campaigns and the work that’s been done around breast cancer. “You catch more flies with honey,” he says. “So what we’re trying to do is make anything that we create as compelling as possible.” His hope is that their branding becomes so enticing that the congregations adopt it, voluntarily.

In February, Proverb and the UUA unveiled a bolder and more modern logo—a play on UU’s most sacred symbol, the flaming chalice. A new website (currently under design) will be easier to navigate, more interactive, and feature the abridged seven core principles right on the homepage, instead of buried on page who-knows-where. “We’re competing for time and attention,” Bascome says. “Most people aren’t looking for more things to do.”

But after all is said and done, Bascome says, “Organizations tend to approach branding or marketing as being ‘How do we take what we have and figure out how to sell it?’ It’s a whole other thing to figure out how to make something that people actually want.”

 

Which is why some people wonder if new tag lines and some TV spots address what some consider UU’s most pressing problem: not getting people to come, but getting them to stay. “Most congregations that I’m familiar with actually have a healthy, steady flow of new members; indeed, many are composed primarily of people who have become UU in the past five or 10 years,” says Dan McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. “What UUs are not so good at is retaining members.”

Dave Ruffin would agree. A recent HDS graduate, the 33-year-old ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist First Church in Boston says that while branding is nice, UUs really need to focus on their product, likening the whole thing to ice cream. “Whatever you say in advance to get people in the door, what’s important is what happens there,” he says. “Like, Ben & Jerry’s had great packaging but it became the rage because it’s f’ing good ice cream, you know?

“What I’m concerned with is, for all the people that are already stumbling into our congregations, what is it that’s making so few of them stay? And my answer to that is that we are not actually delivering the goods. The goods being the experience that people are after. Going into a church is a very vulnerable and scary thing to do in this liberal, modern world where religion seems like the outlier thing to do. But people keep going, and looking.”

What UU needs to survive, he believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

Previous generations of UUs seemed to think that the congregations wanted less religion. Ruffin is convinced they now want more. “I mean, that is why they’re going to spiritual-guidance studios,” he says. “That is why Oprah and Dr. Phil are as popular…you know, I think there’s some radical discontent out there, and that’s really good. We shouldn’t be happy with the state of our disconnection and Facebook-universe, disembodied way of being.”

Figuratively, at least, Ruffin is the new face of UU. He was raised Episcopalian, but found UU during a rough period in his early twenties. “I was very clear that I didn’t believe the things I understood the Christian church to stand for,” he says. “And then to find this church where the feel is really much more spirit-filled, enthusiastic, heart-centered than a lot of our more rationalist-leaning churches…I didn’t know how unique it was at the time in our tradition, but I had a spiritual experience right off the bat. At the same time I was given the gift of not having to name that in any particular way. And that was very meaningful to me.”

With a background in acting, he says, “What I was really longing for was the possibility to use the arts to nurture community.” At HDS, he formed a gospel-style choir with a Baptist friend, which they called ’N Spire. When asked if he was the Justin Timberlake of the group, he admits that “yes, I suppose I probably was.” He studied alternate forms of worship and began to imagine a world where people would be willing to shell out as much for the experience of church as they would for yoga. “Yoga is $15 a class,” he says. “In the church world, we’re glad when they throw three dollars in the basket.” Right now, even he would opt for yoga over most UU services (he prefers Bikram), saying, “I do not go to church for a talk. I can go to TED talks for a talk.”

This outlook is what inspired Ruffin to found, during his third year at HDS, Sanctuary Boston, a small-group worship community rooted in UU with a focus on creating a place “for non-churchy types, spiritual but not religious.” He wrote grant applications, pulled together a team, and got space and support from the First Church in Boston and First Parish in Cambridge. His group meets twice a month on Wednesday evenings, and then has dinner together after. Ruffin and his core team of twenty- and thirty-somethings—some raised UU, but most raised with some other religion or none at all—take turns leading reflections that range from traditional texts to Rumi to Katy Perry lyrics. There is a lot of singing, and some dancing as well. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he may be the Justin Timberlake of UU, too.

 

When people join religion at all these days, they tend to go all-in and all-God. Evangelicals are among the most successful religious motivators, with clear rules and firm ideas of heaven and hell. That’s a spirit that people like Ruffin are tapping into, but without the strict doctrine. The majority of UUs, on the other hand, are perfectly content to keep their religion—which one could argue is basically atheism with a little spirituality thrown in—all to themselves.

Morales hopes his fellow UUs can learn to share their church a little more zealously—for the sake of the church, of course, but for humanity, too. “I’m still convinced that people need community,” he says. “I mean, they do. This is not news.” And although he’s turning to marketing to save his religion, he hopes religion can save us from marketing. In a classically dry UU manner—no exclamation point, no flourish—Morales says that this culture of ours, the one he and most religions are scrambling to offer an antidote to, is “ultimately very unsatisfying.” So maybe more spirituality, more religion, more something is the answer? In a way: “People need something that’s deeper than the banality of consumer culture.” Amen.




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