March 16, 2011

As Others Don't See Us

Why aren’t Adventists as visible in the American media as other churches are?
The setting was quintessentially Washington, D.C.: quiet, dignified, with the scent of power brokering in the air—a restaurant at the high-class Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon. My host was the president of a division of the Boeing Corporation, one of the world’s largest makers of commercial and military aircraft. His publicist was a former reporter and anchor for a major television station in Seattle, Washington.
These people were well-educated, accomplished individuals. And while we were meeting for reasons totally different from my work for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the topic of what I did in my “day job” ultimately came up, after determined questioning by the Boeing executive (unnamed here, as he has since retired).
“Well,” I said, “it is my privilege to serve at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
His face lit up: “Oh, you’re the guys with the bicycles.”
My countenance fell: this high-level executive, well exposed to the world’s news media, thought we wore white shirts and name tags.
The publicist chimed in: “No, you’re the guys with the magazines that go door to door.”
2011 1508 page18Oh dear, I thought: this person—a former reporter, no less—imagines that Seventh-day Adventists don’t celebrate birthdays.
In the ensuing discussion, I did take a few minutes to clarify things, and now these two people, at least, know who Adventists really are.                                             ...

It’s been eight years since that encounter, and my experience—amplified by the anecdotes of many other Seventh-day Adventists in the United States—tells me that this is far from unique. Of the 300 million Americans walking around today, many, if not most, have no real idea who or what a Seventh-day Adventist is.
Not that we’re not out there: our churches are, by and large, clearly identified. There are plenty of signs along suburban and rural roads pointing folk to our congregations. Our media ministries are active, as are our hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
But when major topics are discussed in the public square, in the media, Seventh-day Adventists are often lost in the discussion. For a community that has given a lot to the culture here (breakfast, anyone?), we are largely unknown, or misunderstood, by vast segments of society.
In this day and age, if you’re not known via the media, an organization may not be known very much at all. Think of how many people know of the small church (Baptist, Methodist, whatever) in your town versus how many know of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Part of the difference: even in bankruptcy the Crystal Cathedral gets in the news on a regular basis. The church on the corner probably does not.
For Adventists, it seems, it isn’t a matter of how others see us—it’s that others don’t see us.                                                                                                                                                    ...

If history and Scripture are any indication, it’s not supposed to be that way.
Ellen G. White, a cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was definitive on the question of whether or not members of this movement should utilize the public media to reach others:

“We must take every justifiable means of bringing the light before the people. Let the press be utilized, and let every advertising agency be employed that will call attention to the work. This should not be regarded as nonessential. On every street corner you may see placards and notices calling attention to various things that are going on, some of them of the most objectionable character; and shall those who have the light of life be satisfied with feeble efforts to call the attention of the masses to the truth?”1
While Jesus didn’t have a “press agent” per se, His ministry was the talk of the town wherever He went. Very little of His work was done in the shadows. As He said to Annas, the high priest: “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said” (John 18:20, 21, NKJV).2
More recently, Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference, emphatically urged members to promote the name of this movement at every opportunity: “Every time you say it you preach a sermon,” he said in an Annual Council sermon on October 9, 2010, adding, “When you share with the public in writing or in speech, don’t just refer to yourself as an ‘Adventist’ or hide behind the abbreviation ‘SDA.’ Every time you say ‘I am a Seventh-day Adventist’ you preach a sermon. Never, never be ashamed of our name!”
So here’s the paradox: we’re supposed to be “out front,” letting people know who we are, and yet Seventh-day Adventists remain largely unknown among the public, or easily confused in the minds of many. Don’t believe it? Go to a big city’s downtown area and ask folk where the nearest Seventh-day Adventist Church can be found. Let me know what you find.
Of course, it’s even more than “name recognition.” It’s that many, many trends in today’s world are passing us by.
One recent example: the forty-second president of the United States of America, William Jefferson Clinton, who in September of 2010 revealed that he had become “practically a vegan,” and shed 24 pounds in the process. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed the former president on the subject, then spent nine minutes of airtime with two physicians, Dr. Dean Ornish, of San Francisco, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Both, in other settings, acknowledge the work of Seventh-day Adventist physicians and researchers in establishing the verities of the vegan diet.
Yet the pioneering work of Seventh-day Adventists in health reform is largely unknown. We are, as Adventist pastor Miroslav Pujic often says, “the people who changed the way the world eats breakfast.” Our pioneers and the Adventist health message moved entire societies from the heavy, meat-based breakfasts of the 1800s to a bowl of more healthful cereal.
How often is this discussed in public media? Not very often, I’d suspect, even though healtful living is one of the most popular subjects for newspapers, magazines, and television news programs.
None of this is to disparage the evangelism, advertising, and media relations efforts of the past, or of the present. Over the past 150 years, Seventh-day Adventists have diligently sought to give voice to our message, and it’s succeeded in many cases. (After all, even if you’re a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist, someone in your family’s past had to be converted to the faith!)
But I would respectfully contend that if we are to reach this generation for Christ with the three angels’ messages, if we are to make an impact in a society that’s increasingly, if not rampantly, secular, some “brand” clarification and distinction needs to be made. Seventh-day Adventists are just that. We’re not the missionaries on the bicycles, nor do we eschew commonsense medical procedures such as blood transfusions when needed. (Most of us even celebrate birthdays!)
It’s time, I submit, for us to truly let our light shine. Let’s be properly proud and promoting of who we are, and of whose we are. It’s time to step out of the shadows—even, and perhaps especially, those of our own devising.
In seeking to find some useful insights, I went to two leaders in media relations for Christian organizations, even for some that are said to be controversial. Mark DeMoss was for eight years the spokesman for the late Jerry Falwell. Whether it was with his Moral Majority organization, the Old Time Gospel Hour television program, or Liberty University, which today is one of the largest private Christian schools in America, with more than 50,000 students enrolled on campus or online, Falwell constantly made news, whether one agreed with his stances or not.
A. Larry Ross is another authority in the public image sphere, and he’s had two clients (of many) whose names are instantly recognizable: Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and Purpose Driven Life author; and Billy Graham, the longtime evangelist who has personally presented the Christian message to more people than any other person in history.
While neither had undertaken an extensive analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist “branding” in the United States, both had some extraordinary thoughts on how Adventists in local congregations, conferences, and institutions can improve our public perceptions, and quickly.
The first, as Mark DeMoss pointed out, is that the idea of a “public relations department” being responsible for image and communications is a bit passé in this Facebook age. Every Seventh-day Adventist, he says, has a public relations responsibility, whether they know it or not.
2011 1508 page18“A department of two or three or ?10 people cannot, by themselves, carry the brand of the Seventh-day Adventists,” DeMoss said. “It’s a big world. In a way, we need to deputize everybody under our influence as public relations representatives.”
That doesn’t mean that every member of every church should start calling CBS News anchor Katie Couric demanding some exposure for Adventism. What it does mean is that we each, and we all, have various circles of influence in which we can help others understand who Seventh-day Adventists are and what we do. As Pastor Wilson said in that 2010 sermon, our very name tells a story.
In a separate conversation, Larry Ross agreed: “There’s an old [public relations] adage: ‘It’s not that people know so much, it’s that they know so much that isn’t so,’” about a given organization. (Very much like the Boeing executives mentioned earlier.)
Ross suggests that a large portion of his media relations work is to “reframe the picture on the ‘ain’t so’ ” perceptions that his clients face. That’s something Adventists will also want to consider, he suggests.
To do that, a “perception audit” might be useful: leaders and constituents in a given congregation or other unit would want to ask themselves these questions, Ross said: “Who are you? What do you do?”; “How are you perceived?”; and “What’s the difference between the two?”
Finding where the gaps are is a good way to discern where and how improvement can be made. A local Adventist church is, of course, a house of worship, but it’s also a place of education (academy or junior academy), a health resource center, and perhaps a Community Services center. Each of these roles can be emphasized when appropriate. For example, when Memorial Day or Fourth of July picnics roll around, call in the media to watch a “veggie” barbecue—it’ll be something different, and would provide an opportunity to explain some of our health principles.
If the late Reuven Frank, former head of NBC News, was right, the fact that something “exists” is not news—something happening is news. As Ross put it, Adventists have “existed, [but] you haven’t ‘happened.’ You have not just an information challenge, but also an education challenge.”
The happening, Ross added, could be a reporter’s discovery of our existence, but something has to happen nonetheless.
And the Seventh-day Adventist Church has plenty of happenings! We had a huge one in Atlanta, Georgia, last July—perhaps you were there. The year before that, 2009, tens of thousands of Pathfinders converged on Oshkosh, Wisconsin—generating a lot of good will and some good local media exposure. Those same Pathfinders will be back, Lord willing, in 2014; our next General Conference session is slated for San Antonio, Texas, the following year. Great media opportunities await both these events—here’s hoping we’ll maximize those chances.
But along with the gigantic events, there are dozens of smaller ones worthy of notice. Every church potluck isn’t likely to make the front page of the local paper, but significant events can generate publicity—and publicity means the chance to tell people who we are.
In dealing with the media—and with anyone “outside the fold,” for that matter—our standard operating procedure, DeMoss said, should be to be on our best, most sociable, and most accessible behavior.
“You’ll meet all over this country liberal reporters from secular media outlets who will tell you wonderful things about dealing with Jerry Falwell. I think that’s a good lesson,” DeMoss said, about how Christians who treat reporters fairly can succeed.
He added, “A lot of Christians believe media don’t like us because of what we stand for. I think a lot of media don’t like us because of the way we behave.”
I think back to that restaurant scene near the Pentagon some eight years ago. How different might it have been if Seventh-day Adventists all over the country had been active in sharing our message just a bit more via the media, taking “every justifiable means,” as Ellen White wrote so many years ago?
No one can say for sure, of course. My dinner companions may still have been confused about who Adventists are and what we believe. But it’s just as likely, if not more so, that they would have had some inkling about us. That would be a good thing.
The situation is, I believe, clear to many of us: there’s a whole world that needs the message this church has to offer. In a day in which religious talk can oversaturate the atmosphere, Seventh-day Adventists need to establish a distinct identity that’s easily understood. And it’s not something the General Conference president can do alone, nor even the entire complement of employees in Silver Spring.
It’s up to each of us—it’s up to all of us. The bright spot here is that we have so many things this present age is searching for. I believe it’s time—even past time—for us to start sharing. The harvest is waiting!
1Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, pp. 36, 37.
2Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark A. Kellner, news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, has been a journalist since his high school days in the early 1970s. He began as a newspaper reporter in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and has been a writer or editor for several national trade and special-interest magazines. This article was published March 17, 2011.