Outrage

One of the things that I’ve realized for a long time now is that while I’m generally a good fit theologically in my church denomination – the Presbyterian Church (USA) – I’m almost always embarrassed by the quality of our visual communications materials. Whether it’s study guides, bulletin inserts, whatever, the graphic design – and therefore, the effectiveness of the intended message – is almost always stodgy, boring, and frankly, embarrassing. Our denominational website is one of the most poorly designed I’ve ever encountered. The generally low quality of our media has at times made me violate the Tenth Commandment, coveting after the much more pleasing and effective materials that I’ve seen coming from the home office of our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (don’t feel too proud, my Lutheran friends; it isn’t that your stuff is stellar either, it’s just that it looks really good compared to how breathtakingly bad much of our stuff has been). And that’s just one example; I’ve seen great work from a number of other denominations. Sometimes, it seems so bad that I’ve actually wondered if there’s some mutually exclusive thing going on between people who hold to Reformed/Presbyterian theology and those who actually understand graphic communications. There are days when I wonder if Presbyterians are, on some level, simply tone-deaf to effective communication in our current age.

Apparently, there’s a kerfuffle going on in PCUSA circles at the moment that only makes me wonder about that question even more deeply. The denomination sponsors four denomination-wide “special offerings,” which are set aside for specific mission ministries, including disaster relief, assistance to hunger programs, working for peace and social justice, etc., and other extremely valuable and appropriate missional activities that followers of Jesus should be involved in. Participation in these special offerings is optional for local congregations – at present, about half of them receive one or more of them throughout the year. Each year, the offerings are introduced and explained by way of a series of inserts that parishioners receive in their weekly Sunday bulletin. As already mentioned, the quality of these inserts has often been questionable, to put it politely. With the best of intentions, they’ve usually been crammed with way too much text and in general could have been laid out better by a first-year graphic arts major. Actually, I retract that; a freshman graphic arts major of even average talent could do far better.

The point here is that, as anyone involved in visual communications will tell you, you only have a split second to attract someone’s attention with a print piece like that. It has to attract, and hold, a person’s attention long enough to convey the essential, core message; to do it in just a few seconds at most, and to do it in a way that will be retained in the person’s mind. In order to do that, both graphic format and concise, precise, attention-catching text are absolutely essential. Really, this is not rocket science.

In an attempt to increase awareness and participation in the special offerings this year, PC(USA) retained the assistance of an advertising agency to help them design the materials for the 2015 offerings. Two of the resulting designs are featured below:

“Needs Help with Her Drinking Problem. She Can’t Find Water.”

“Needs Help Getting High. Above the Flood Waters.”

They point to programs supported by the special offering – those of providing access to safe, clean drinking water, and of providing flood (and other disaster) relief in many locations worldwide. Two simple messages; two simple images. Simple text in an eye-catching layout. The point made, in ten words or less, and in a way that makes the reader do a double-take and pay attention to the insert, in the midst of all the other things – the opening music, the chitchatting neighbors, squirming kids, trying to hurry and put markers in the hymnal at the right places for the day’s service, peering around trying to see who is and isn’t there, and commenting to your pew-mate that you sure hope this Sunday’s sermon is better than last weeks.

In short, they succeed at doing exactly what they were intended to do, and what they should do.

Unfortunately, a number of people are outraged at these designs. They claim that they’re both insensitive to people battling addictions, and are racist. Individuals and special-interest groups within the denomination have spoken out against them.

I’m sorry, I disagree.

I don’t disagree with them because I’m insensitive to people struggling with addictions, or because I’m racist. I don’t disagree with them because I’m unaware of the issues of white privilege or residual attitudes of colonialism or orientalism, which some critics claim the ads display. On the contrary, I’m very sensitive to those with addictions and the stresses and stigma that they can face in society. Every congregation that I’ve served has robustly sponsored and hosted various 12-step programs, and for a time during my hospital chaplaincy experience, I provided pastoral care to the patient/residents of a detox/rehab facility. I’ve received significant training regarding racial and ethnic sensitivity and work hard to promote the same in Christ’s church. In fact, I’m facilitating an adult education session regarding white privilege and the “invisible backpack” to a group in my congregation next Sunday. I understand issues of prejudice on a personal level, too. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m an openly gay pastor serving in a denomination where doing so has only been constitutionally possible for fewer years than my seminary education lasted, and where there remains significant opposition to ordination of LGBTQ individuals like myself. And as far as answering the question of whether I’m racist, I suppose I could direct you to my boyfriend, who’s a native of Hong Kong.

I don’t disagree with those fellow Presbyterian brothers and sisters who dislike the designs because I’m racist or insensitive. I disagree with them because I believe many of them have missed the actual point.

Of course these designs are meant to catch our attention. Of course they’re meant to make us stop what we’re doing and ask, “Huh? Did I really just read that?”

I suspect that part of their intention is to make us laugh a bit at ourselves and our personal preconceptions that they expose in us before we’ve actually read the tagline – and to permit that bit of self-awareness to open our hearts to participate, or participate more fully, in the special offering.

But I also suspect that his is where part of the problem begins. My guess is that some people, having had their internal preconceptions exposed in that way before they get to the tag line, are embarrassed at having to admit that they – even intelligent, enlightened they – still have within themselves, just like all the rest of us, certain prejudices, biases, and bigotries that they have to work on. And being upset at receiving that discomforting message presented to them, they lash out at the bearer of the message – in this case, a pretty effective, visually and textually well-crafted communications piece.

I like them, and I hope they’re a sign of a more comprehensive attention to better visual communication coming from the denomination. We’re living in the postmodern, post-Christian, 140-words-or-less, 21st century – a world that’s more visually driven and demanding than perhaps at any other time in human history. If we want our messages of gospel and mission to be successfully heard, we’d better make sure we present them in the current language spoken. I hope that the denomination uses the same ad agency to consult on many other projects.

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