Brand awareness in the church

I have never had much time for brand awareness. There is something that sticks in the craw when people are evidently working very hard to make sure everyone and everything is on message and all things point back to whatever brand we are trying to build. I find it very hard to shake the feeling that much brand management amounts to making much of, or for, ourselves.

Of course, in the world of business, that is precisely what is going on. All things must recommend and praise the brand we are pushing. The more people hear and see the benefits of the brand the more they will buy our stuff. The more they buy our stuff, the more money we make. The more money we make, the greater our reputation. Ergo, making much of the brand equates to making much of, and for, myself.

The problem is when the same principles are applied to the church. We are not in the church to make much of ourselves. We certainly aren’t there to sell anything. But all too often, brand awareness becomes less about commending the gospel and more about commending our particular church or organisation. Far too quickly it becomes less centred on Christ and more directly centred on a particular personality (often the pastor of the church, or director of the organisation). Brand awareness in the church so often boils down to making much of ourselves and keeping everyone on message, less so the kingdom will grow, and more so our church, organisation, or network will grow.

One way this works itself out is that we generate very corporate churches. Everything must be as slick as possible. All people at the front must appear respectable and everything said must pass a test of credibility. No mistakes or oddities can be tolerated in services. What is God-honouring is very closely tied to the highest quality presentation.

The problem with this is that much hand-wringing goes on when we hit passages of scripture that perhaps don’t tally with whatever passes as credible in the eyes of secular reason. Things like miracles and some of the harder OT passages become a bit embarrassing. Given that everything must be ultra-slick, we are extremely careful who will have anywhere near the front of a service. Anybody who doesn’t fit the mould will not be given any opportunity to grow in those areas. Indeed, if highest quality presentation is deemed most God-honouring, training people to lead and preach won’t happen from your pulpit because the quality will inevitably dip from time to time. The brand-aware corporate church becomes something of a show that must be maintained and presented to the highest standard.

But the corporate church isn’t the only church brand. Instead of corporatism, we can try to sell the deprived church. It is easy to make badge of honour out of where we live. We can try to sell the edginess of deprived communities. All people at the front must come from broken backgrounds and speak exclusively in casual register. Everything said from the front needs to pass the bluntness filter, it may not be “respectable” but we tell it like it is. Slickness is valued far less than the sense of community and family and all things must point to this as being apparent among us, even if it is somewhat staged.

The problem here is that we can end up over-emphasising the reality of the places we live. We play up the deprivation and play down all the fairly ordinary, often quite pleasant, aspects of where we are. We can also inadvertently end up doing the very thing that many middle-class churches are accused of; treating those who are different to us (usually middle-class people; sometimes those of different ethnic origins) as though they don’t belong. The “telling it like it is” can end up bordering on, if not running headlong into, rudeness and sinfulness and when we reach passages of scripture (and particularly points of application) that require sensitivity, bluntness is not always helpful.

Otherwise, our brand may not so much be our church itself so much as the guy leading it. It’s the one who has become known as an able theologian, who writes books, or has built up a sizeable following on Twitter who is the brand. People are drawn to the church more for the personality of the guy running the show than for anything else. Whether the guy is styled as an intellectual theologian, a cool hipster, an edgy lad or a charismatic visionary (or some combination of that) the brand is the man.

Here, the issue becomes starker still. All that goes on must emphasise the brand and if the brand is the bloke then the man must become what is glorified. Those who come, come for the man, and so the man must be central or we have no USP. When we plant, we make it known that it is so-and-so’s plant so that all who might join are drawn to the same brand.

Now, in none of these cases would anybody claim they are doing anything other than wanting to do the best for Christ. We want souls to be saved and we want the gospel to be made known. Few would want to say they are making much of themselves, these things are vehicles to honour and glorify Jesus. These are the ways and means the Lord might use to win disciples. Don’t we accept that the Lord does work through personalities? Of course, he does. And who in their right mind would want to make a case that being purposefully rubbish is glorifying to God? Nobody thinks that.

But as RC Sproul was fond of reminding us, none of us ever have wholly pure motives. Sproul claimed he had never had a completely pure motive in his entire life! It can be hard to distinguish at times between the Lord’s work through a personality and a ministry being built around that personality for self-serving ends. It can be hard to distinguish folks doing their best for the Lord to glorify him and folks controlling everything because they don’t trust the sovereignty of God and fear any sub-optimal things reflects negatively on them. Whilst we no doubt want to honour and glorify God, it does bear asking ourselves whether there is at least a chunk of us being motivated by our own glory and how far our ministry is serving that end.

  • How diverse are the people you allow to speak, lead and serve in your church? Do the people you push fit a particular mould or are there a broad range of styles?
  • How do you react when things in your service do not go as planned? Do you have a very low tolerance for what you find cringeworthy?
  • Do you cringe when the gospel is dishonoured or is it other things that cause you to cringe? Is the cringeworthiness as people being off-message and tarnishing the brand or is it when Christ is dishonoured?
  • Are people being drawn to the church (or sticking around in the church) because they are hungry for the gospel or because they are drawn to a particular personality?
  • What does your online presence say about how far you are trying to cultivate a brand? Are you pushing messaging, and purporting yourself, so that people will be drawn to you?