The Deception of Church-Branding

The Deception of Church-Branding August 27, 2019

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In a society largely driven by consumerism, I’ve noticed a trend among churches that consider themselves charismatic, modernist, progressive or a combination of the three. In my church-shopping experiences, I’ve been to a number of congregations that typically displayed emotionally-driven worship services. They were usually accommodated with a loud contemporary worship band, a lights show and an abundance of screens with looped background videos. One even had some kind of bird-mascot lead the kids into Sunday school. In some, the resident pastor would give what seemed more of a TED Talk on stage rather than a sermon from the pulpit. Oftentimes, Scripture citation was either an afterthought or omitted altogether. But what really stood out to me was the use of branding through video and social media, complete with a logo. I remember one church’s logo being simply a lower-case letter ‘g’ — like a homage to Google. No cross, no iconography or anything giving a nod to a saint or biblical figure. A freaking letter ‘g.’ Granted this, it seems like many churches use a style of branding that is almost indistinguishable from what can be seen in the secular business world.

For the record, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with branding in itself. I can understand a church’s need to market themselves just like any other special-interest group. Buildings meant for worship-spaces need money to keep their operation going. Church events need to raise funds for providing food, amenities, etc. Bills need to be paid for electricity, heat, water and sewage. Rent needs to be paid, if not property taxes. Building maintenance and renovations are always imminent due to deterioration from usage.

I don’t believe promoting something church-related (even by means of social media or video) is wrong. However, I do believe there’s a line that can be crossed before church-branding promotes anything other than Christ.

The Meaning of Branding

From a marketing perspective, a brand is the visual and mental impression of a person, place or thing. Organizations and individuals have brands. Heck, even my own blog Coffee & Crucifix is a brand in itself. Though the impression given by a brand can be created intentionally or unintentionally. For example, the way we dress, style our hair and talk a certain way are all methods of expression that leave an impression about who we are as individuals and what we’re all about. It can either attract like-minded people or repel those we don’t identify with. It can either be beneficial or detrimental in both cases. But regardless, branding-impressions are established through various exchanges and perceptions as well as who or what they associate with.

In a conversation I had with Brian Holdsworth, he made an interesting point about how churches, like businesses and corporations, have brands as well — though, the Catholic Church’s brand is perceived quite negatively by many people. The first thing they may think about is misogyny, abuse, pedophilia, suppressed sexuality and individuality, science-denial, superstition, and outdated traditions. Much of this is largely influenced by the negative aspects of the Church emphasized by the tabloids and trending information on social media. But a lack of deliberate attempts to counter those impressions by those who identify as Catholics only reinforces the confirmation biases of anti-Catholic polemicists. This is one of the reasons why many Catholic apologists have their work cut out ahead of them. Usually those specifically tasked by the Church are the ones responsible for improving morale and defending her teachings. But due to negligence (and perhaps a lack of resources and effective communication), people will turn to anyone willing to do it — which is how skilled laypeople like Brian, a professional graphic designer, find themselves where they are.

When Language is Abused

In my article ‘Stop Treating Evangelism Like A Sales Pitch!’ it doesn’t necessarily talk about branding, but relates to what it means to engage in sophistry. Nobody wants to be duped into signing up for something that’s going to leave them feeling used. In the case of the many churches I’ve checked out in the past, it saddens me to see so many go down the path where the draw for Sunday attendance seems more like commercial bribery.

Josef Pieper, an influential 20th-century Catholic philosopher wrote an essay called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. He discusses forms of communication designed to flatter and manipulate a person is to treat them as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Nearly all forms of marketing and media nowadays are specifically groomed for that purpose. Communication should be about revealing what is objectively true, but anything beyond that objectifies a person as a means to an end. And in the case of the misuse of church-branding, a mere consumer.

When A Church Becomes a Business

The brand of Christianity is established by an expression of our faith through love, acts of charity and how we worship. Ironically, things like trivial music, flashy video screens, ‘new highs’ like liturgical dancing or waving banners, and consumerist evangelization methods that pander to popular sentiments leave impressions that cause the rest of the world to not take Christian faith seriously. Such factors are symptoms of a Church that has forgotten it’s rawest, truest identity and will resort to worldly media and marketing techniques to compensate for such insecurities. A congregation that relies on trendy, modern branding techniques and preaching that appeals to ‘my truth‘ (as opposed to THE truth) is crossing the threshold from orthodoxy to narcissistic consumerism.

There’s nothing wrong with branding, as long as it communicates what is true about an organization and it’s actual message. But in the case of church congregations, if their branding leads people to fill the seats through selling a prosperity gospel rather than a conversion of supernatural faith in Christ, then it might as well cease advertising itself as a ‘church’ and start calling itself a ‘business.’

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” — Matthew 6:24 RSV

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