Remember Michigan J. Frog? He was the animated singing frog from a Looney Tunes cartoon. In the cartoon, Michigan J. Frog is discovered by a hapless man during the destruction of a building. In the cornerstone of the almost destroyed building, the man finds a metal box and in that box is, Michigan J. Frog, who jumps out of the box with his top hat and cane, singing “Hello my baby, hello my darlin’,” and dancing vaudeville style.
The discoverer believes that he has found a jackpot. This frog is going to make him rich.
The man’s head is so full of dollar signs that he fails to notice that the frog won’t sing for anyone but him. Despite early signs of failure, the man boldly rents out a hall to show off Michigan J. Frog’s amazing talent. The man puts out a sign, “Singing Frog! Appearing Tonight! The wonder of the world. He sings! He dances! Opening tonight.”
But no one is interested.
So the man tries a new sign: “Free Admission.” Still, no one.
There’s a strange sort of kinship between the man with the singing frog and churches like the one that I serve. We put out our signs of welcome, and await the trampling crowds, yet they never come. We certainly have something much better than a singing frog, but there’s a strange kind of disconnect between the love of God we are touting and the lack of interest from those who walk on by, uninterested in what we have to offer. How do we get their attention?
A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture given by Robert Putnam, who was speaking at Colby College about his book, American Grace, which focuses on religion in America.
One of the interesting things that he found in his research was that, while people in the U.S. tend to be involved in churches that are very clear that their way is the only true way, and pastors preach that those who follow alternate paths are not bound for heaven, the average person in the pew is not likely to subscribe to these hard-line views. The people in the pew possess a much more broader perspective on God’s love.
After the lecture, I asked Professor Putnam why he thought that people continued to attend churches that preached such a narrow view with which they were uncomfortable, instead of churches (like mine) that take a less harsh view of God’s love? His answer was, basically, that we have a problem with marketing.
I’ve been wondering about that a lot. For many in the mainline, the whole concept of marketing sends a shiver down our spine. How do we “market” what we do? How do we “sell” the extravagant welcome of God?
These are uncomfortable and difficult questions.
According to Professor Putnam, those people who attend those harder-line churches, especially the young, may begin to look elsewhere. And, that presents an opportunity for the old mainline.
But, we’ll need more than gimmicks, it seems to me, and we’ll need to get our message out in new and different ways. The question is: are we up for this challenge?