The Problem With the "What The *Bleep* Church"

Perhaps you saw this photo on Facebook or Twitter: a church had hung three brightly colored banners over its front door that read “Worship”, “Teaching”, and “Friends”. When put together they created that most (in)famous of Internet acronyms.

As someone who graduated with a degree in advertising, and whose day job is at a marketing firm, I’m probably more sensitive than most to marketing — especially marketing that may be beyond the pale, or at the very least, embarrassing and even potentially harmful to the brands with which it’s associated. And as a Christian, I’m doubly sensitive when I see such marketing coming from within the Church.

When I first saw “WTF Church”, I’ll admit, I laughed at the obvious naivete on display. I think my first thought, after my laughter subsided, was “If they had anyone in their congregation under the age of fifty, they’d see what a mistake that was.” And of course, my co-workers and other friends all had a good laugh about it, too. But the more I thought about it, the sadder I became. Here was a church that, for all I knew, loved Jesus with all of their hearts and was being faithful to the Gospel, and they were quickly on their way to becoming a laughingstock — even among Christians — as a result of their cluelessness.

But then came the twist: the “WTF” was intentional:

“We are aware of what ‘WTF’ originally stands for, and that is actually why we chose it,” says Rob James, with Copper Pointe Church, the Albuquerque, N.M., church behind the college and young adult ministry, Wake. “It is something that our target audience is very familiar with. We are a progressive college group located in Albuquerque, N.M., and we know that any college-aged person is a phone-weilding, text-sending machine. So why not use what they are familiar with?”

Suddenly, it was no longer about a church that was simply out of date and/or clueless in their marketing and branding. It was now about a church that was purposefully being irreverent and even crass in their outreach materials in order to be seen as relevant.

The church is, if their blog is to be believed, pretty happy with the results: the “WTF” branding has helped them go viral on Twitter, Facebook, etc. And I’ve read a number of responses that cheer on the church. For example, one commenter over at The Daily What — a blog that helped spread the photo initially — wrote:

[R]ead up on some of the other things being said about them online – they’re redefining something and they’re redefining church. how many college kids would invite their friends to a boring church over one that’s unafraid to take risks like this? i think what they’re doing sounds awesome.

There are a couple of issues at play here. First, there’s the issue that any church in this modern media-saturated age faces: how do you break through the multitude of signals that bombard people every day and convince them to pay attention to your message and subsequently, attend your services, get involved in your ministry, etc? How do you become relevant, for lack of a better term, to the people to whom you feel called to minister and to witness? One obvious answer to that question is that you meet them where they’re at, which is something that Christians have been doing ever since St. Paul ventured onto Mars Hill.

And it seems to me that’s what Copper Pointe is doing here: they’re using terminology that their target audience — college-aged persons — is very familiar with, and they’re using it in a way that is certainly attention-getting and provocative.

But that brings us to the second issue: when attempting to address the first issue, what means are permissible in doing so? We must be careful when reaching out so as not to diminish or dilute the Gospel, nor to associate it with anything that may reflect negatively on it. (Obviously, we’ll reflect negatively on the Gospel simply because we are sinners, but our desire and goal ought to be to minimize that as much as possible.)

And this is where, for me, Copper Pointe’s approach begins raising questions (and I risk sounding like little more than an old fuddy-duddy). Irreverent, post-modern, deconstructionist, and snarky though we may be, words and language do have meaning and do matter. And the simple fact is that “WTF” is, at its core, a profane saying.

We can certainly argue until we’re all blue in the face regarding the relationship between profanity and sinfulness. Do I think that the church is sinning simply because they’re using profanity in their marketing? I’d be the last to cast a stone in that particular case — just ask my co-workers about my language whenever I’m attempting to deal with a particularly nasty programming bug or my wife whenever I have to deal with insurance companies.

It’s not so much the mere existence of the profanity that is bothersome, as it is that said profanity is explicitly (npi) being used in association with the Gospel of Christ. And it’s the hook, the first impression that people have of the church, their message, their priorities, and so on. Is it worth risking a besmirchment of the Gospel in the interests of marketing? In the interests of being hip, edgy, relevant, viral, and all of those other things that are deemed so important in this day and age?

Such an approach may result in greater attendance — not a bad thing, mind you — but, in the end, what is being attended? What is the mindset of those who attend? Copper Pointe has taken steps to prevent anyone from getting the wrong impression from their branding, but “WTF” is “WTF”. Regardless of how you spin or present it, the “F” word will, more likely than not, be in the back of the congregration’s mind? And is that acceptable?

I would hope this would be obvious, but just to be safe, here’s a disclaimer: I am, in no way, calling into question the faith of Copper Pointe and its leaders, nor am I questioning their commitment to Christ and their desire to share His Gospel with those around them. I am, however, questioning their sense of taste and propriety.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com bethany

    I see where you’re coming from here, but I don’t think the f-word itself is the problem, so much as the association not making any sense. I would hope the worship, teaching, and friendships at this church don’t leave their members and visitors thinking “wtf.” Unless they are so radically loving that it doesn’t compute with the modern culture, I think it’s a mistake to associate your church with an expression that denotes confusion and irrational behavior.

  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    I hadn’t heard that this church came out and said that the “wtf” was intentional… I agree with you – I do think that changes the story from, “Oh, those silly Christians…” to “Seriously?! I’m not sure I’m cool with that…”

  • http://expatminister.org Josh

    It’s just sad they missed out on the opportunity to be “ChurchFTW.”

  • http://www.gaffneyjournal.blogspot.com Sean Gaffney

    I’m with Bethany on this one – more than the profanity is the meaning of the message – they are saying, “Worship, Teaching and Friends? WTF?” Just about the same as hanging a banner that says, “My Lord is clueless.” Would that attract attention? Sure; but then it becomes a message you have to combat once you get people to listen to you.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @bethany @Sean: Good points. I agree that the issue of (potential) confusion is a significant one, and one that’s as problematic as the actual profanity — and I tried to touch on it a little bit in the last couple of paragraphs.

  • Israel

    Well hey, at least they’re trying some kind of culturally relevant evangelism.

    U.S. Church attendance continues to drop.

    Too often I see people just bury their head in the sand and ignore that issue instead of trying something else.

  • http://formulafree.tumblr.com/ Darryl A. Armstrong

    I work in advertising as well. What I’m most – impressed? intrigued? – by is the church’s trust in viewers to “get it.” As you say, you didn’t get it yourself at first, you thought it was a mistake.

    That would have been my first thought too had I just seen the image.

    I’m gonna let the “F” go for a minute and just ask, how does “WTF” tie in at all to the message of the church? Where’s the payoff? I don’t think “Worship. Teaching. Friends.” is a solid enough link for people to make all the connections needed here.

    I guess it worked though, in a way. I just wish it didn’t feel so tacky.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Israel: That’s a very valid point, and as I wrote, the question of how to get people to pay attention to your message is a question that ever church needs to ask themselves.

    However, is it OK for the church — i.e., the Bride of Christ — to engage in marketing methods that are potentially offensive, coarse, confusing, etc. Do the ends justify the means for churches? Is it that simple, or can it be that simple? Should churches hold themselves to “higher standards” when they seek to communicate their services, etc., since those are often so intimately tied with the Gospel of Christ. And if so, what are those higher standards?

  • Israel

    @Jason

    Well one way of looking at it– I’m pretty sure saving a known adulteress from being stoned and then involving her as part of his group pretty much would have come across as culturally repulsive for Jesus in his era. I don’t think that would have been considered high standards then. It can be argued that the Bible is filled with countless examples of X individuals doing what the status quo at that cultural era in time considered distasteful– yet it appealed to the common man or sinner as a way to help them understand.

    Heck look at common Hymns today that people take to be sacred/conservative— a good number of them were former bar/drinking melodies. You can imagine what people thought of that when they were first written. (or go back to when only chanting was considered ok)

    Sure… there’s crossing the line in the wrong way and losing sincerity, and that line can be difficult to see sometimes….. but there’s also the danger of simply using a method of communication that is no longer culturally relevant to the population you’re attempting to communicate to.

  • Lisa

    Israel, good post. The truth is, the Bible is filled with messy people with messy lives who God somehow used, even before he “cleaned” them all up. (Imagine that.) And the Gospel is anything but some nice neat little story that can’t withstand one hint of profanity in a church’s marketing message. Surely we can’t really believe that one church’s marketing scheme can even throw a tiny kink in the power of the Gospel?

    I have a question: As Christians, why do we do this? We find one–ONE–hint of profanity in a church’s marketing plan, be it smart, stupid or confusing, and we pick it apart and discuss it as if it has the power to bring down the truth of the Gospel.

    I say let churches–let Christians–proclaim the name of Christ and the Gospel and let’s not freak out if they don’t do it as “cleanly” and as purely as we’d like. I read a blog post by my favorite Christian author a few months ago, and he said it spectacularly:

    If Christian leaders got together to write the Bible today, it would look nothing like the Bible we actually have. Because they would clean it up and make it G-rated. But if you look closely, the Bible is anything but G-rated. It’s messy, full of murder and adultery and incest and rape and betrayal–and God STILL used the very people involved in these types of things to accomplish His plan. It’s crazy, but true.

    Whether you like the WTF marketing message or not–well, that’s not the issue. In my mind, if even ONE person walked into that church and heard about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, and he or she is now on the road to discovering that, then those controversial banners were worth it. It’s really not up to us to decide how God wants to work, is it? I’m not a big fan of handing out pamphlets and tracts that explain the Gospel in some nice, neat little 4-page brochure. But I’m guessing people have come to know Jesus through them. So, let people hand them out! If God can use it, then who are we to judge what’s appropriate or not?

    I just think we all need to get off our soapboxes and let God work. Let’s stop judging.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I don’t know if he was being serious or not, but think Josh’s comment hits the nail on the head — this church could have chosen a “text-speak” saying that used the exact same letters and carried a meaning that it wouldn’t have to talk around to explain. And it could be reworked a little so that it wouldn’t only be “Church (F)or (T)he (W)in,” but also “Church (F)or (T)he (W)orld.”

    As a couple of other commenters noted, “f**k” in the acronym might not even be the whole problem, Usually, we use it when we run into something that makes no sense, or is beyond-belief stupid, or something similar. Is that really the best thing to say about the church? Is that really a better way to market ourselves to people: “Worship, Teaching, Fellowship — we don’t get it either?”

    I think the existence of the other acronym and the possibility of using it indicts this little marketing scheme as more scheme than outreach tool. I pray for the ministry of Copper Pointe and for its work in the kingdom, but this is one tool I don’t intend to borrow.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Whether you like the WTF marketing message or not–well, that’s not the issue. In my mind, if even ONE person walked into that church and heard about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, and he or she is now on the road to discovering that, then those controversial banners were worth it. It’s really not up to us to decide how God wants to work, is it? I’m not a big fan of handing out pamphlets and tracts that explain the Gospel in some nice, neat little 4-page brochure. But I’m guessing people have come to know Jesus through them. So, let people hand them out! If God can use it, then who are we to judge what’s appropriate or not?

    I just think we all need to get off our soapboxes and let God work. Let’s stop judging.

    @Lisa: At the risk of sounding facetious, would you think it appropriate if churches started using, or even making, pornography as an outreach tool? Would that be acceptable so long one person came to Christ as the result of viewing “Christian” pornography?

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    In my mind, if even ONE person walked into that church and heard about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, and he or she is now on the road to discovering that, then those controversial banners were worth it.

    Of course, the converse may be as true: count the number of potential believers that such banners would turn away. And they will turn off potential members, just as they might bring some in.

    It may be my generation, but I have a very low tolerance for being marketed to. Attempts to commodify my people group serve only to alienate. I’d much rather attend an event (if we may call church an event) that is put forth in a desperately uncool honesty than in any kind of slick commercialization. The moment I scent out someone trying to make church “cool” is the moment I lose faith in that person’s ability to provide me something of value. WTF church is not the kind of place I’d ever visit simply because I’m too busy being embarrassed by their desperate attempts at being hip.

  • David

    I tend to agree with Isreal’s comments:

    “look at common Hymns today that people take to be sacred/conservative— a good number of them were former bar/drinking melodies. You can imagine what people thought of that when they were first written.”

    The same could be said about Christmas and Easter. Don’t they have pagan holiday origins? I don’t know if it’s cultural, the redeeming of something secular or pagan or just cheesy, but Christians take over pop culture items all of the time.

    Some other thoughts – could it be people at their church having a bit of fun with their job? Or as in the case with words like ‘suck or ‘screwed’, they get so over used and adopted that their use doesn’t carry the same shock and meaning as they once did. WTF could very well lost its meaning already.

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com bethany

    David, I think you’re right that wtf has lost some of it’s association with the profane meaning of the f-bomb, but you also wouldn’t win people over advertising “come to church — it sucks!” I’m with Josh and others, they missed an opportunity to be FTW! and I’m left thinking… wtf?

  • Jeremy

    Nice article. However, given that it’s a pet-peeve of mine, I feel compelled to point out that WTF is not an acronym. It is an initialism.

  • Lisa

    @ Jason: Of course I wouldn’t view pornography as an acceptable means of drawing people to the church, and it’s a little bit insulting that you even suggest I would view banners with the letters WTF equivalent to “Christian” pornography. Really? The use of of the letters WTF could be considered a gray area–were they justified in using it or not? I don’t know and it’s not my place to judge whether or not they were. But obviously pornography is not a gray area, so it’s silly to even compare the two things. There is black and white, yes–but there’s also that gray area that lies between where churches and Christians are going to disagree. All I’m saying is, let’s agree to disagree . . . without judging each other.

    @Seth: Thank you for your post. That was very honest and intelligent and I totally get what you’re saying.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Lisa: Please forgive me if you felt insulted. That was not at all my intent.

    I was simply trying to figure out what, exactly, you meant by “If God can use it, then who are we to judge what’s appropriate or not?” To me, your question implied that everything’s a potential grey area, that discernment isn’t possible and/or necessary so long as God can use it (which assumes that we are capable of discerning whether or not God can use something and is doing so — an interesting topic in and of itself).

    Based on your response, you don’t believe that’s the case, so thanks for the clarification. But to me, that begs the question of how do we discern what are grey areas and what are not? Pornography is not a grey area but the use of a confusing and potentially offensive initialism (thanks Jeremy) is a grey area. Why is that so? How and when does something cease being a matter of black and white, and become a grey area?

    Also, please understand that I’m not judging Copper Pointe as a church (hence my disclaimer at the end of the article). I’ve no reason to question their commitment to Christ. If that was unclear, then again, I apologize. However, I do question, and disagree with, their marketing tactics, and I hope it’s possible to do so in a spirit of charity and grace.

  • Erin

    Offensive? A mixed message? Compromised means? -I hope offended do not have flags in their sanctuary. That seems far more compromised.On the scale of:

    [killing /demanding allegiance]—————–[funny internet meme]

    I’ll take the clever ad, thanks. The church misses the bigger picture of relevancy by ignoring justice.

    (To be clear; I wasn’t referring to any above posts with my comments. Carry on :) )

  • Pingback: Transpositions Tidbits « Transpositions

  • http://www.coregeek.net Seijornec

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand I want to say what’s the big deal? On the other I want to shake my head and wonder why the church feels it has to work so hard to be relevant. I get what their trying to do but I think it sets an example that is dangerous. It’s dangerous for the church to embrace pop culture to a point where it looks like the world. We are called to be salt and light we should look and act differently.

  • Johnny Vanderwell

    Re-arrange the banners, have it say FTW (for the win) – problem solved

  • http://formulafree.tumblr.com/ Darryl A. Armstrong

    Johnny’s comment FTW.

  • Chester

    What’s exciting to me is that we are not talking about a new hip, seeker friendly church here. This church has been around a long time. I grew up in this church, went away to college got married, had children and am now enjoying my own daughter going to college as well. My parents still go to this church. And this church was well established when we first started attending over 44 years ago.

    So the reason I find it exciting, is that a church this old could easily become like so many others and play it safe. They could pay off their building(pretty sure they have), and hire a minister who won’t shake things up too much and have a nice building with a congregation of grey haired (me now) folks sitting around talking about the good ole days singing hymns. Instead this church is taking a risk, they are trying new things, they are trying to reach college students and they use lighting and loud music in the services (my Mom doesn’t care for that but accepts what the church is doing). The church is growing and looks alive as an established force in the city. Most people don’t realize it has been around so long.

    When I was a youth at this church we were taught that Christ at the end of it all wins!!! We were taught to not let the world win any of the fight until then either. Why do I say that? Well to me giving three letters of the alphabet to the enemy is a mistake. Why not take them, redefine them, and make them our own? Copper Pointe (not what the church used to be called but it has gone through 2 name changes since I’ve been associated with the church) is taking ground from the enemy while many sit back and criticize their tactics. It’s easy to sit back and analyze and we need people to do that, but somehow we should learn to support people on the front line or in the trenches. This “Wake” college ministry is reaching hundreds of college students. The banners were hung at the student union building on the UNM campus. The banners were not hung at the church I don’t believe, in fact when I told my parents about it they hadn’t even heard about them. If they were an old folks church people wouldn’t even notice what was going on there and no body would be critical (they probably should be).

    I’m proud of my home church and it’s pastor (who started out as a youth pastor in the church over 30 years ago). It’s so nice to see that if I still lived in Albuquerque I could actually take my kids to a church they would think was cool. To tell you the truth I was shocked to hear that they were doing this and getting so much attention. I sort of expected them to grow old gracefully. It’s been a couple of years since I have visited but looking forward to my next visit.

    I respect the discussion I just thought I would stand up for the church I grew up in.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Chester: Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to get an “inside” perspective, if you will.

  • Brittany

    I can’t help but wonder if such desperate marketing for the CHURCH would even be necessary if we were fulfilling the Great Commission in our individual lives. If we were all following Christ by loving God and loving others, people would in a sense “see” God through us, and our actions speak louder than our words or marketing signs. Whether or not this church’s marketing tactics are honorable or not, I think everyone should be more concerned with whether or not the people inside are solid Christians who love the Lord and love others. Nice, you got people to come inside. Now are you putting as much effort into keeping them there and discipling them as you are into just growing your church numerically?

    I may not even be right but I think people should look at us and say “there is something different about them.” I think we need to meet people where they are yes. But I also think that we are supposed to sort of go against the current in a sense. Jesus met people where they were and he understood His culture, but he taught in parables and healed people and forgave people and loved them unconditionally. How did Jesus get people to listen to him? I have a hard time believing He would have intentionally posted a sign that said “WTF” in order to draw people in. He spoke truth that contradicted what they thought they knew…that is what drew them in. His actions are what drew people in. I think we care too much about “drawing people in” sometimes. Build real relationships. Get to know the people you come in contact with every day and live Christ. That will draw them in. Let’s not make church a project where we see how many people we can get to “join us” or “walk this way.” Let’s love people into the church…like Jesus did.

    We waste so much time arguing over these issues. Love God and love people. Don’t complicate it.

  • Karl

    “Believers” who support this kind of junk Christianity by claiming it to be “culturally relevant” are clueless about the true Gospel. The Gospel will never be relevant to any culture, American or otherwise, created by fallen man. Most of today’s churches are simply saying, “Look at us! We’re cool! We’re relevant!” They are doing everything they can to get the world to like them. Yet Jesus said that Christians would be despised by the world, just as He was despised! If your “church” is focused on growth by attacting the world through their relevance to the current culture, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as to whether you should really be there.

  • Chester

    I can appreciate what Karl is saying, but the one issue I take is that everything we do in churches today is a response to the current culture. I haven’t found anywhere that the Bible mentions how we should do church. It doesn’t say that you must start with a prayer, have a music portion with certain musical instruments present, then announcements, offering and a sermon. Those all come from a current culture. The change of which musical instruments to use has caused major problems in the past believing that we were trying to act like the local saloon.

  • http://www.vairenpoint.com Joshua

    In my little town of Waverly, Iowa, there is a college, Wartburg, whose Track & Field team use the same acronym. A little bit different, yes, but considering it’s a Lutheran school, not entirely.

    Anyway, while I think the example you’re sharing is a poor acronym (I’d prefer Follow the Word or Love Our Lord or the Lord’s Majesty Free And Open), we can own the language. A word or a group of letters’ good or bad connotations come through repeated use. I think this is entirely fair game, and from the looks of it, a successful move.

  • Richard

    WTF is religion coming to these days?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X