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The Mars Hill Seattle “Cease and Desist” Letter: Why Branding Is the Ultimate Anti-Missional Act

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The part of the story I know goes like this: There was a church in Sacramento that named themselves “Mars Hill” several years ago. It is the same name as the well known Mars Hill church led by Mark Driscoll in Seattle Washington. A couple weeks ago the “Sacramento congregation received a “Cease and Desist” letter which came from attorneys representing the Seattle Mars Hill Church.  They were told that the Seattle Mars Hill had copyrighted the name “Mars Hill” and they demanded that the Sacramento California Mars Hill church stop using the name and any logos with similar lettering.” These events were made known by a blogger/pastor in the area (see here). A storm was stirred up. Then the Mars Hill Seattle pastors contacted the Mars Hill pastor in Sacramento. There was some good discussion, apologies and reconciliation. Sacramento Mars Hill agreed to change its logo so there would be less confusion surrounding its identity with the larger Mars Hill church in Seattle. (These events are reported here, here and here)
So everything seems good. I’m glad this is over. Nonetheless I think there’s something that remains left for all of us (including Mars Hill Seattle) to think about. It is the question of branding. Should a church ever be concerned about its own branding? Is branding a sign that the branded church has now morphed from being a participant in God’s Mission to now becoming a builder of a church empire?  When a church expands beyond its immediate locale and works for its recognizability across cultural boundaries and broad ranging markets, is this a sign the church is no longer about reaching people outside the gospel, but rather about attracting people in who already know the gospel, but now want a particular brand? IS BRANDING THE ULTIMATE ANTI-MISSIONAL ACT?

I offer this post as an opportunity to discuss this question. I think it’s an important discussion to have. I think a lot of us face this question regularly in one way or another every year. To start off this discussion then, here’s three reasons why I believe branding is the Ultimate Anti-Missional Act and Mars Hill Seattle (and the rest of our churches) should CEASE AND DESIST all branding.

1.) Branding Is Consumerist Attractional  The cease and desist letter, despite the apologies etc., reveals that Mars Hill recognizes itself as a brand and wants to protect that brand name.  It seems to me you brand a name in order to communicate to a “market” that when you go to Mars Hill you get such and such. A brand name in this case is useful in helping those who do not know you or your church understand through advertising and media what the church is, who the speaker is, what kind of specifics about this church differentiate it from other churches. It therefore enables already existing consumers of church to select your church over against others fro personal reasons. It seems to me once you do this you are openly admitting you are seeking to attract Christians from other locales, other churches, Christians who are moving, or discontented with their present church. Because after all, aren’t these the only people that would get up on a Sunday morning and “shop” for a church via the brand.  Branding therefore admits you not seeking to engage those outside the gospel. It is the ultimate anti-missional act.

2.) Branding Promotes Competition: Branding differentiates one church from another. It says we offer preaching like this, we offer this kind of celebrity speaker, we offer this kind of worship, this kind of theology. Over against other church choices “We’re better at this”? I contend we should not be competing with other churches. Instead of counter branding, we should instead enter each context humbly, seeking cooperation, wisdom and guidance from/alongside other churches.  We should work in cooperation with each other for the same Mission from locale to locale. We should be grounding the body of Christ in each locale for life with God in His Mission. In that church-branding works against this, I think we should consider once again how branding is the ultimate anti-missional act.

3.) Branding DeContextualizes: Based on 2.), the act of branding differentiates a church for a religious consumer. It brings a brand of church contextualized somewhere else (Seattle Washington) and lands it in a different locale (like say Albuquerque nm) and assumes the context is the same as the one it came from. It assumes this church, its message, its pastor’s sermons piped in via video screen, can respond to the contextual issues presented by a context  hundreds of miles away.  Branding therefore decontextualizes the church and the gospel. It assumes one size fits all. It does not listen to the context. It does not seek to understand what God is already doing in this different context and how to join in. In other words, this kind of branding is the ultimate anti-missional act.

Summary

I think we have to discern carefully how to name our churches. Yes we need to name churches, we need to make them identifiable. We are here to make the works of God made manifest known (1 Peter 2:9). We need a public presence (not in the sense of the private/public distinction political theologians talk about). But we must discern carefully when doing this so as not to cross over the line into branding. Based on the above, I call upon Mars Hill Seattle (and the rest of our churches) to CEASE AND DESIST all branding!! Your thoughts?

P.S. Just a question. Does anyone know if I can get sued for using Mars Hill church’s logo on this post? 🙂

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