Sticky Denominations? (by Jennifer Gutierrez)

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

Rev. Jennifer Gutierrez

Why are mainline denominations dying?  I was recently in a trustees meeting for one of these denominations.  The trustees were grilling a representative from the committee that works with campus ministry.  The overall concern of the trustees seemed to be that their investments in campus ministry over the years had not yielded significant returns.  They were experiencing increased debt, and were not willing to continue funding campus ministry.  The campus ministry representative’s main concern was making sure the various campus ministers she represented were able to receive a salary and continue their ministry.  The tone of the conversation made it obvious that neither of these groups understood the other.  I left the meeting thinking, “perhaps the mainline denominations are dying because even people that are working for the same denomination, and supposedly the same general mission, are unable to talk to each other in a constructive manner.”

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath speak about the communication gap they have observed in many organizations.  Corporations will often focus on communicating to the people outside of their agency, their consumers or clients.  But the people that work within that same corporation are not effectively communicating with each other.  According to Heath and Heath, it is this internal communication that determines whether an organization thrives.

The key to constructive internal conversation, and even constructive conflict, is having a simple, core message that defines the mission of the organization.  The Heath brothers focus the majority of their book on how this core message can be communicated in ways that will stick.  These methods include highlighting the unexpected, using concrete images, focusing on credibility, appealing to emotion, and using stories to illustrate the message.  The book itself is full of memorable stories that illustrate their points about effective, sticky communication.

The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Most of the mainline denominations have a similar statement that includes ideas about disciple-making or the Lordship of Jesus.  However, I don’t believe that these statements would pass the concrete test as defined by Heath and Heath.  They tend to be broad enough to include many different definitions of discipleship and a variety of ideas about how the world should be transformed.  These statements are purposefully broad so that a variety of people with different faith understandings can fit inside them.  However, neither the statements, nor the denominations offer a common language the members can use to discuss with one another how the mission should shape their actions.

Both the trustees and the campus ministers could make reasonable arguments about why their positions are the best ones for disciple-making or world transformation.  But what if the mission statement was more concrete?  “We are the church of and with the poor.”  Then, it would be easier to assess whether the campus ministers were working with the poor or encouraging students to engage in this ministry.  What are your ideas for a concrete mission statement for our mainline denominations?

Rev. Jennifer Gutierrez is the Director of Urban Ministry for the California Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.  In this role she has the privilege of supporting church leaders throughout Southern California and the Pacific Islands, helping them start and sustain a variety of neighborhood initiatives, community organizing projects, social justice activities and service programs.  Jennifer may be contacted at

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Jennifer – Thanks for this post. i can’t speak directly to the needs of mainline congregations, since my own experience is different, but I do think your thoughts about the concrete test are important. As someone who is not a mainline Christian, I have always struggled to figure out what the difference between all these denominations is. Mission statements that are more pointed would be helpful in understanding these differences.

  • http://@StudioGSanDiego StudioG

    Without a clear mission statement there will always be confusion. Jesus demonstrated the importance of having a clear mission, “I have come to give life” and gave us examples of what takes us closer to our mission and what can keep us distracted from it. Line up 15 churches on any given street in any given city and ask them their mission statement (if they have one) and they will pretty much look and sound the same. This post is a great reminder of what @LaurieBethJones says about mission, “Mission is the difference between a laser and a candle. They both give light but the laser gives focused light.”

  • Wes

    Great reflection Jennifer! This reminds me of the story of the duo piano advocate in the book. “Why should we care or give money to a duo piano organization? Isn’t that just…like…a piano bar?” (paraphrased) Campus ministry, is in my experience, hugely important in the formation of future leaders of the church in any denomination. It is the pipeline between a congregation and seminaries when young talented students could choose to go a lot of different routes. Communicating that huge importance and getting it to stick would really serve both parties you refer to.