In a previous article I described contemporary branding strategies and how companies try to generate emotional connections, love, and loyalty for their brands in order to capture profits. Another word for this loyalty is worship.
Creating Our Own Idols
We might define worship as devotion, giving glory, or following something—whether God, a celebrity, our own work, or a brand. St. Augustine talks about worship as love, and the reformer Martin Luther talks about it as trust or faith.
Luther suggests “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God.”
Far from suggesting that we only need spiritual things, this definition of God or an idol reveals how we very often keep God in the spiritual realm and trust in other things for the rest of our lives. For example, do we really trust that God provides for our daily bread, or is it really all down to our work, rational strategies, and investments? A life anchored in trust in the one true God for all things flows into all aspects of our decisions, including our material provision and our identities in the fullness of our creatureliness.
In this light we can see that brands are idols that direct our worship, loyalty, and thanksgiving to themselves for provision of things we need (or think we need)—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. But while a brand’s promises to provide are conditional on keeping up with their ideas, God’s promises are unconditional—God is truly for us and does everything on our behalf.
Limiting the Church Through Targeted Branding
But what about the church? Don’t we want people to be loyal to the church? Proponents of church marketing suggest that cultivating distinctive mission and values creates confidence in a church that does things uniquely, better, or more in line with their values. Therefore, developing a brand will allow you to attract a more loyal group of members. This loyal group of members may help you be more financially sustainable than others since a church marketing textbook also suggests that some targets just “cannot provide the necessary economy of scale to justify being targeted.” If we use these techniques in our modern context we are at risk of directing loyalty to particular values, ideas, people, leaders, or vision of a church rather than following Christ as Lord.
Branding exists as part of a broader strategy of selecting a target audience that a brand will build a connection with. A brand cannot create an emotional connection with everyone, so it chooses a segment of the population that fits with its product and goals.
One church centers their brand on adventure. But is that all the Christian life is? What about people who don’t feel adventurous, or who can’t or don’t want to live out adventure the way it’s depicted in their marketing? Is this church for them? Another church’s brand guide stresses that the correct use of the logo “leaves people with a positive impression of our church.”
Considering Important Questions
Clearly this raises questions regarding the nature of the church. The church is not meant to be a collection of individuals selecting a church based on their preferences (though admittedly we act this way much of the time thanks to our consumer culture). Ephesians 4 describes how each member of the body has different gifts, so that we can build each other up, reach unity and maturing, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 12 says we need all members of the body, and the Spirit dynamically communicates through each differently—especially those we least expect. We cannot be a body without a diversity of members who learn to be human with and on behalf of each other through the Spirit.
Christ exists in and communicates himself through his church, and God calls people with unique strengths and characteristics to local bodies. But the church must distinguish such a reality from a technique designed to differentiate and engender the loyalty of a target audience toward its own ends.
There are many theological questions we could explore, but let’s return to the question of trust and idolatry:
- Who do we as church leaders trust as we lead our churches?
- How does that worship shape how we relate to our congregations and who we encourage them to worship?
Idolatry in scripture and history arises out of responding in ways that seem rational or common sense in our circumstances to meet our needs and secure ourselves. All of our decisions are manifestations of trust in some power or god.
The use of marketing in churches has developed in order to grow and “compete” as church attendance declines.
- What power do we trust to grow and sustain our churches?
- Do we trust in the techniques of marketing, or do we trust that God has established and will sustain the church, even if it doesn’t look how we imagine?
This does not have to preclude the use of any marketing communication at all—but we need to start first by recognizing it is God who sustains the church and communicates through the Word and Spirit to and through a diverse body of people. This trust will shape our actions.
If we trust in God that will also shape how we relate to our congregations. As leaders we are at risk of imposing our own ideas and ends on people and organizations, and marketing techniques like branding can tend toward control and managing outcomes.
- What outcomes do we have in mind?
- Are we truly trying to disciple people, or are there other ends in mind to our communication techniques?
If we trust God to sustain and provide, that opens us up to relate to each other freely in love without the potential of turning people into a means to an end like financial sustainability or shallow church growth.
- Finally, who or what are we encouraging our congregations to worship?
I’m currently participating in a ten-week series of exercises and meditations in the Ignatian tradition. Not far from Luther’s definition, St. Ignatius believed that the goal of life is to deepen our love, service, and praise of God and to recognize things in our lives as gifts God has given toward that purpose. We need to be free from attachments to anything in our lives that gets in the way of that deepening devotion to God.
As church leaders not only should we encourage worship and devotion to God, but we should not put any attachments in the way that hinder the freedom of devotion and the unique vocations that God calls and gifts to each person.
It is critically important to stop and understand what the church is trying to do by adopting a branding strategy. For example, I would argue it’s possible to discern the difference between the use of a graphic logo along with principles for clear communication and a full branding strategy as I’ve outlined in the previous post. Clear communication helps people remember what they see and read.
No church likely intends to direct loyalty away from Christ, but given the nature of branding, its best intentions may often end up creating faithfulness toward particular ideas. While we recognize the need for good communication, we also need to understand that, in our society, brands have power apart from our intentions.
The more we rely on marketing techniques and approach the church as managers, the less we learn to rely on the Spirit. The Holy Spirit arranges the parts of the body and reveals diverse gifts for the common good as we are present with, suffer, and rejoice together. As we follow the Spirit, we can communicate according to how God is at work among our body, trusting God’s provision and care, rather than aspiring to be our own gods who must sustain the body with marketing techniques such as branding.
 Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 386
 George Barna, A Step-by-Step Guide to Church Marketing:Breaking Ground for the Harvest, Regal Books, 1992, p. 160