The Church has a Jessica Alba-sized Problem

Jessica Alba’s Honest Company has a problem. It’s a problem many churches can relate to.

Founded by Alba and Christopher Gavigan, Honest Co. has built its brand on the promise of delivering environmentally-friendly personal care items for the home. It has also effectively capitalized upon America’s fixation and trust in its celebrities and our tendency to believe that we can do social good by spending money on ourselves. In a few short years, this young company has minted a “$1.7 billion private evaluation” off of their promises and artful sales of simple products at a premium.

The Honest Co. has built a strong brand around doing what is right and being, for lack of a better word, honest. And that is why The Wall Street Journal’s expose revealing the use of sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) in their laundry detergent product is so damning.  This chemical, commonly found in the products of their reviled (by them) competitors, is defined by Honest Co. as a “known irritant,” and is clearly marked as a chemical their products are “Honestly Made Without.”

Independent studies commissioned by the WSJ to verify The Honesty Co. truthiness found SLS in their laundry detergent (the one product they tested) in amounts comparable to Tide.

So much for honesty…

The Stories We Spin

I’d never heard of The Honest Co. before encountering this story but I can understand the potential problem this counter-narrative may create for them. If your business model requires people to pay substantially more for products they believe to be different, primarily because you tell them that they are, trust is yuuuuuge!

And working in the church, I can relate.

This branding and trust challenge is one all Christian churches face in a meta sort of way. Most churches claim to be communities formed by grace and focused on nurturing disciples who love better than. In contrast, the world is presented with too many examples of loud, arrogant fools who are judgmental of. Churches protest that they care deeply about future generations; the news is filled with stories of broken trust and abuse. Many Christians stand proudly in defense of an abstraction they call traditional marriage; meanwhile they exhibit divorce rates on par with or exceeding their neighbors.

These stories are never complete, and certainly they don’t reflect well a good number of the communities and Christ-followers you certainly know, but they remain ours collectively to carry all the same.

Meta-narratives are difficult to counter but we undermine any chance we have to do so when we fail to match our words with our actions.  

A number of years ago I attended a national training in Texas for United Methodist youth ministry professionals. As a new member of the denomination, I naively believed we all held far more in common than we did.

I still remember a conversation I participated in at a table group about the United Methodist tagline of the day: Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors. Someone misidentified this popular marketing pitch as the mission statement of the church prompting another person to become visibly upset. Red-faced with clear anger, he said, “That is not the mission statement of my church.”

At the time I didn’t understand how divisive and complicated this branding element was. For some conservatives it came to represent their worse fears about a denomination that wasn’t in perfect alignment with their theological bent. For some progressives, it was false advertising offering what they were seeking in name only. As for myself, I was just confused by the anger this statement elicited.

In the intervening years, I’ve grown to appreciate how tragic this particular tagline is. As an aspirational statement of who we might want to be, maybe it has potential. As a promise of what people could expect at any United Methodist Church, it is a dismal failure. Certainly there are churches that really do work to live into this openness but it isn’t anything close to a universal experience.

If you are a LGBTQ member living with the “sacred worth” duplicity, a person of color navigating a sea of unrecognized privilege, a women whose leadership is tolerated, or a young person greeted with desperation, sadly I’m more confident that you haven’t always experienced open minds, hearts, or doors – let alone all three.

Moving Beyond What We Can’t Offer

I don’t mean to pick on The United Methodist Church. I have friends in other denominations, and non-denominational circles, who assure me that the grass isn’t greener.

Where I’m really left is wondering if we have any business marketing the church to anyone in the first place. Do we truly have a promise that we can deliver?

The only thing I am left with is the one thing I need the most.

I believe in its delivery because we don’t produce it; we only have the opportunity to share it.

That one thing is Grace. 

As I was finishing this post, I was also listening to the words of the late, great, George Harrison. They seemed to fit so let me conclude with them:

Forgive me lord, please
Those years when I ignored you,
Forgive them lord
Those that feel they can’t afford you.

Help me lord, please
To rise above this dealing,
Help me lord, please
To love you with more feeling.

At both ends of the road,
To the left and the right,
Above and below us.
Out and in, there’s no place that you’re not in,

Oh, won’t you hear me lord.

(Hear me lord)
(Hear me lord)
(Hear me lord)
(Hear me lord)

Photo Credit: “Jessica Alba and The Honest Company IWIYW Challenge” by Flickr user Earth Hour, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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