Monday, May 6, 2013
The recently concluded Masters Golf Tournament is acknowledged as the most prestigious golf event in the entire world. Only the British Open which is played on a different course each year, can begin to challenge that claim. The logo of the Augusta National is instantly recognized anywhere in the world and here in Augusta the appearance of the distinctive Masters green and yellow colors on anything and everything heralds the approach of the golf tournament just as the appearance of daffodils means that spring is near. This international recognition attaches to Augusta itself, known around the world as the home of the Masters.
The instant, global recognizability of the Augusta National logo is arguably the epitome of successful "branding." Branding is the term that is used to name the process by which an organization, an institution, or a business is recognized and identified as distinctive among others engaged in the same business or enterprise. A brand is a corporate entity’s most valuable asset. It not only identifies, but it may also communicate corporate personality as well as values like trust or reliability. The word "brand" is derived from an old Norse word which means "to burn" and its most common association for us is the marking of cattle so that their rightful owners are easily identified, much like the marking of the newly baptized with the sign of the cross upon the forehead identifies them as "Christ’s own forever." If you don’t think branding matters, consider the controversy in our community about the branding of the new Georgia Regents University!
What can the Masters teach us about serving THE Master?
First, the Augusta National is focused passionately on one thing, and that is hosting the finest golf tournament in the world. In other words, they are clear, crystal clear, about their mission and bring a single minded focus to this task that is constant. They innovate carefully from time to time and over time as their audience changes and as the world changes. Their two newest members are examples of how they will make adjustments so that nothing interferes with accomplishing the primary mission of hosting the world’s greatest golf tournament. If Masters patrons are an older and graying audience presenting a long term challenge to the vitality of the tournament, no problem. New initiatives are undertaken to cultivate among today’s children, tomorrow’s Masters patrons. Is the church listening?
If you have tickets for practice rounds or tournament play you will notice the thoroughgoing hospitality that is extended to guests. Signs, services, and structures are clearly designed for the benefit of those attending the tournament. Everything from tee times to viewing suggestions to scoreboards, even the scoring system is to facilitate the patrons experience of the play, the course and the experience of being present at the Masters. Intentional in their welcoming of patrons, they are equally clear that there are higher expectations of behavior expected from a Masters’ gallery than that of the fans at other tournaments. And by the way, if you close your eyes for even a moment, when you open them there will be no doubt about where you are for the National logo and colors are everywhere and on everything!
What can the church learn from this?
First, we must be clear about our mission, our reason for being, which is to offer life changing, purpose giving relationship with Jesus Christ to anyone who seeks it. We must bring the same single minded focus to what we are about in the world. We also need to be responsive enough to make carefully considered adjustments so that nothing interferes with our witness to the redemptive work God is doing in God’s world. Things that are important to us cannot be allowed to become the most important thing themselves or to distract or detract from the main thing or the mission of the church.
What can The Episcopal Church learn from this?
The Episcopal Church does not have a single message or mission - it has a dozen! And some of them are completely inconsistent with some of the others thereby compromising the primary mission of the church. This, despite the fact that the Book of Common Prayer is clear that the mission of the church is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." Our public voice appears to be a purely partisan political voice and it seems there is never any clear witness to the Gospel in the public square. Public pronouncements are made first on the assumption that people understand that the church responds out of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. That is a gigantic asumption if there ever was one in today’s culture! And, secondly, they speak on the assumption that politicians and public policy makers are listening or even care about what Episcopal leaders, purportedly speaking for the Episcopal Church and not just for themselves, have to say. It may be that to these policy makers, the only value of our church’s efforts in the public square is for its usefulness in rebutting the claims of other Christians on the other side of an issue. James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, posits in his book, To Change the World, that the over involvement of both the religious right and the religious left in partisan politics has left the whole Christian movement discredited in the public eye. Time to concentrate on "faithful presence" he writes, being salt, light and leaven in the world for a generation or two and then we might possibly regain the priceless credibility required to speak effectively to the public again.
What about Good Shepherd?
We have chosen the path of getting clearer and sharper about what it means to follow Jesus Christ as a parish and more importantly as individual Christians in this very different cultural context. We recognize that the Christian "brand" is damaged and that speaking effectively in the Babel of competing voices and messages will require us to hone a clearer, less ambiguous message about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is yoked with an already considerable effort of offering caring service in the community. Outreach ministries too, are being sharpened and evaluated for their effectiveness in actually trying to change the circumstances of others struggling in our community.
Increasingly we understand that the first thing we were sharing with others is transformed, renewed, purposeful life in Jesus Christ. Next, we do that as the particular local community known as Church of the Good Shepherd, which has its own "brand" in the community to create, sustain, and to improve. People who become part of our parish, do so because of what they sense, perceive or feel about the dynamics, the values, the culture and the ethos, that is the brand, at Good Shepherd. Lastly, we are a parish whose life is shaped by the Episcopal Church’s traditions of Prayer Book worship, compassionate pastoral care, humility and gratitude.
But lets be honest, while we can learn from them, the Augusta National is not a church, at least not in the sense of the common use of that word, though visitors there almost universally hold a reverence and awe for the place and what occurs there that borders on the idolatrous and that frankly, the church envies. If only we could produce that effect for God’s glory in our churches! Factors unique to Augusta National give them leverage in their pursuit of excellence and control of their brand that the church simply does not possess.
The love, grace, mercy and goodness of God are not ours to possess but are freely given to all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because they are freely given we may easily make the mistake of assuming that this gift is not costly to give and therefore, is not of great value to us. But, for the one who has come to know and understand this, there is no prize the world has to offer, not even a green jacket, that comes close to the privilege of knowing Jesus Christ.