Marketing vs. Mission: On a Racist Ad Campaign Published, then Pulled, by the Presbyterian Mission Agency

In a time when denominations and the Church are having an identity crisis, there are moments when I can pin-point the situations that continue to cause trouble for the stability of mainline denominations. Here is one of them: the PC(USA), my denomination, decided to release promotional materials for the One Great Hour of Sharing (an ecumenical fundraising endeavor) that are racist. You can find the posters pictured in this post and linked here. Another blog post features other posters that are even more problematic.

Many in organized religion scratch their heads and wonder why we’re losing members and are working hard to figure out how to grow and thrive. Well, let me tell you, the posters speak volumes. Those posters represent the tone-deafness of churches. Many mainline denominations still operate as white-dominant institutions even though religious affiliation is fastest growing in non-white populations (Next Evangelicalism, S Rah, Next Christendom, P Jenkins). Also, many people see the church as a place where they feel judgment, not a sense of welcome.

The story I’ve read in Philip Yancy’s “What’s so Amazing about Grace” has always stuck with me. A young woman is sitting at the steps of a church, crying. Philip is passing by the church on his way to work and sees her, and asks what is wrong. She tells him that she is a prostitute who had a bad drug habit. She’s not able to make enough money, so last night she sold her 4-year old daughter into prostitution. She feels awful and that’s why she is crying. Philip tells her, why don’t you go inside and meet with someone who can help you? Her reply? “Why would I go in to the church? I already feel so horrible about what I did; they will only make me feel worse!” Church is already seen as a place where people are made to feel guilty. And these posters? They treat those who have been traditionally marginalized by the church as the butt of a joke!

I got wind of the marketing campaign last week when a friend posted on her facebook feed the link to the article as well as her frustrations over how the person responsible for the ads refused to received feedback from various committees that they were inappropriate. As someone who serves on the advisory committee of one of the beneficiary programs, funded by One Great Hour of Sharing, I was appalled. There materials are offensive to people of color and individuals with drug additions and should not be used as means to raise money for ministry.

Hundreds of Presbyterians (and friends) posted comments, called denominational offices, and wrote emails that highlighted their concerns with the ad posters. Eventually we got a response saying they are being pulled. While that is a good first step, we need to see more being done if our church really wants to thrive and become more relevant. This incident is a great example of what happens when we, the church, become focused on gimmicks: things that sparkle and flash, rather than focusing on mission.

Believe me: people aren’t leaving the church, or not giving to the church because our promotional materials aren’t fancy enough. If, in order to attract more members, we have to support the stereotyping those who have been marginalized by mainline denominations in the past, then we have lost our mission. It’s time to do some real soul searching, Presbyterian Mission Agency.

If you want to add your support/voice to our on-going campaign, please sign on to our Open Letter requesting a more transparent, inclusive, and pastoral process of developing these materials here: 

Image from PC(USA) general press-release; used with permission.

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