By Fred Koenig
The Light at Joplin is drawing a big crowd for a new church start in the middle of a town that already has several outstanding churches. I don’t think it’s because of the name. When I did an internet search for The Light in Joplin, my browser took me to several different web pages dedicated to “The Spook Light”, a mysterious phenomenon. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Cars, you’ve heard the Sheriff warn Mater of the Ghost Light. Apparently the Joplin area was the source for this legend. In these stories, The Light seems to be something you run away from, not toward.
So if it wasn’t the name, what was it? I posed the question to the pastor, Rev. Andrew Moyer. He thought about it for a bit, then said that he thought the video testimonies that the church did helped them gain some traction. He advised me to check them out on their Facebook page.
I dutifully did so. The first one I randomly watched was a bit shocking. The second one matched it. The third one topped it. I think there are more than 30 of them, and most are jarringly honest in people telling stories of pain and brokenness in their lives. There are numerous accounts of being abused, neglected, addicted and cast out. Most were very young children when the world became a very hard place for them. Life was something to be endured, not lived to its fullest. Some people also talk about how these experiences shaped them in such a way that the way they conducted themselves toward others was only perpetuating pain and self-destruction.
Talk to any marketing agency, and they will advise that these aren’t the images that you want to have associated with your brand. I binge-watched all of these videos, and had a pretty difficult time making it through them. The brokenness expressed is visceral.
Yet ... the man who has the best shot at being in the know on this one seems to think that these videos were bringing people in the door. Why is that? I think church administrator Lauren Hall nails it with another word that doesn’t often make the church marketing list: vulnerable. I guess the first couple of people who told their very personal stories set the tone, and the next ones must have said, “OK, if they can put it all out there, so can I. Here we go…” It was all very brave storytelling.
A lot of our churches are filled with people who are very put together. They are leaders in the community. Many have achieved top-ranking positions in their professions. As a pastor told me many years ago, in some places the “UMC” of the United Methodist Church gets translated to Upper Middle Class.
No matter how nice the people are, it can be very intimidating to walk into any room, even a sanctuary, if you feel that everyone in there has it all figured out, and your life is in chaos. Our Bishop Bob Farr has been all over Missouri during his first year, making it his personal mission to do a methodical immersion in Missouri, both inside and outside the church. During that time he has seen a lot of communities that are struggling. One of the takeaways that he has been sharing is that a critical part of the future of the United Methodist Church is for churches to be able to reach across perceived class barriers and come together in communities as a united people of Christ. May we continue to learn from each other as we share in the diversity and the unity that makes up the Missouri Conference.