Church Branding: What you WILL get or what you WON’T get?

On a recent visit home to Oklahoma, my dad and I went to a grocery store that catered more towards natural foods for organic, crunchy people. We were looking for baby food and saw a whole section of different types of baby food with different qualities and contents. We poked around for a while and finally settled on one brand for my 15 month old daughter.

As we walked away, my dad remarked on the experience of buying something in a natural food store:

In a regular grocery store, they list the ingredients that their products have.

In a natural food store, they list the ingredients that their products DON’T have.

You can see this by wandering the aisles. Products in grocery stores often “have more bran” or “two scoops of raisins” or “has Belgium cocoa.” On the flip side, health conscious stories or natural foods are “phosphate-free” or “BPA free” or “free of growth hormones” and other icky things. Soon they’ll have Monsanto-free packaging, although that will likely be impossible.

My dad’s observation made me wonder: are churches the same way? In some advertising or branding, it seems that progressive churches focus more on what they are NOT rather than what they are.

  • Progressive churches claim to be free of anti-gay social stances from the pulpit and leadership, so LGBT people can worship without fear of exclusion.
  • Progressive churches sometimes claim to be free of blood atonement theology and won’t be singing “There’s a fountain filled with blood” on communion Sundays.
  • Some churches (not necessarily progressive, but it’s still a progressive value) don’t exclude women from ordination or leadership and make that known.
  • Some churches emphasize “you won’t be excluded” as if they need to point out the list of things that you could be excluded for in other churches (jeans, loud children, etc)

Traditional churches, on the other hand, focus on what they DO have and what people can expect.

  • Traditional churches claim to have traditional family values, which is a focus on what claims they make about family, society, and church. If you are looking for this content, you will find it at this church.
  • Traditional churches claim to have traditional worship content with fall/redemption worship of confession of sins, TULIP, grace, altar call, and benediction.
  • Traditional churches claim to offer a whole package of beliefs that one can subscribe to, not wishy-washy questions like those progressives.

I realize that you can frame any of the above in “we have” or “we don’t have” terms. But like health food and grocery stores, I wonder if people look for certain qualities in their church shopping or if they look for what is NOT there. Do they attend reconciling congregations because they won’t be excluded or because they likely share the bundle of values that they want.

Further, I wonder if Progressives could better frame their values in terms of what they HAVE rather than what they DON’T have. Are people more attracted to what they will find in a congregation or more attracted to what they won’t have to endure in a congregation?

Just a morning musing. Thoughts?

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  1. says

    Long before we get to this, I believe we need to tackle the visceral and negative response many church folks have to the concept of “branding.” I find myself spending some percentage of time during workshops and trainings explaining that “secular” does not equal “evil” and that if the word “branding” makes people squeamish, they should use “evangelism” or “missional” instead.

    As for the main point of your post, sorry to say that for an audience that’s church-resistant, framing in terms of “not like” probably works better.

  2. Robin says

    The absence of a negative does not necessarily correlate to the presence of a positive; just like peace is not the absence of war. Also, claims to what a community “has” or what a community does not “have” are arguments, but I think exhibiting authentic Christ-like living is far more persuasive (and really the point), and living authentically isn’t an argument, it is a demonstration. Be/Do more: argue less.

  3. says

    I think for a number of years the progressive church has gotten pretty good at claiming what we’re not. We’re not like Mars Hill, we don’t believe what ‘they’ believe. As a result, a majority of folks in progressive, mainline denominations probably couldn’t articulate very well what they do believe, or what distinguishes them from even other mainline denominations. Maybe because we wanted to fit in. Maybe because we were too scare to say that we are social justice orientated because Jesus was. For whatever reason, we’ve now found ourselves in a post-congregation not strongly affiliated with any faith community space and we have people asking, “so what do you believe, and why should I join you?” And to that, we’re gonna need to come up with an answer we can believe in.

    • Carolyn says

      Sophia, I have heard many Methodist college students say exactly that: they get to college, encounter Campus Crusade or Intervarsity, and are pressed to say exactly what they believe right on the spot. When they don’t have quick, concise, articulate answers, they wonder, “Do I even know what I believe?” Having been one of those CCC types in my past, I understand the value of having a response on hand when someone asks you about your faith. But I have come into a faith that is much more nuanced and multi-faceted than what I had in my CCC days, so I also know that you can’t cram an entire life of faith into a soundbyte- when you try to do it, what you get is flat and oversimplified. I agree with you that progressives need to hone our 30-second pitch. And I also think we need to emphasize drawing others into conversation, because it’s through conversation that folks come to know who we really are.

  4. Lance says

    I suspect the folk who “read the label” on churches is not only a shrinking class, but a class who can do it without actually “reading” what you say. We know who puts their own on trial.

  5. John says

    Just a couple of reactions… not necessarily related to each other.

    Both traditional (or orthodox) and progressive congregations would benefit from stronger apologetics… even when we DO know what we believe we don’t do well at expressing those beliefs. And Robin is right… authenticity and transparency often speak with far greater clearly than carefully crafted statements of faith.

    Within the larger Wesleyan-Arminian family of churches, the forerunner denominations of the UM Church were considerably later in extending ordination to women than the Assemblies of God, Free Methodists, Nazarenes, and others which are today considerably more theologically conservative than the UMC.

    Please don’t try to correlate casual attire with progressive theology or “country-club” dress with traditionalists. They have nothing to do with one another. I’ve worshipped with Fundamentalist Baptists wearing overalls and flannel shirts as well as with radical feminists and process theologians dressed for afternoon tea at the Waldorf. One Dallas Theological Seminary graduate I know goes to great pains to make known how casual, welcoming, and non-judgmental his congregation is (and he’s absolutely right).

    I’ve also visited congregations that advertize how welcoming and progressive they are… yet expect those who are developmentally challenged to abide by a stringent worship “protocol.” (Don’t drool, don’t grunt, don’t groan, don’t fidget in your seat!) I guess you have to fit certain criteria in order for their “welcoming” arms to be opened to you. Any congregation (regardless of its theological leanings) that will not welcome the least of these is not worthy of a second visit.

    There are many churches that are very progressive in their theology but highly traditional in worship form, as well as many that are very traditional in theology but shun traditional forms. So I’ve witnessed eucharistic services full of formal pomp and circumstance performed by celebrants decked out in regal vestments who otherwise shuns all references to Jesus’ blood… seemingly “having the appearance of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:5)

    And the latter has me quite puzzled. Why do so many UM pastors detest teachings of blood atonement when our doctrinal standards (to which all clergypersons have affirmed their support as part of their ordination) clearly support it? Article XX of Wesley’s Twenty-Five Articles states in part, “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone.” Inherited from the Methodist Protestant Church is “Sanctification is that renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost, received through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood of atonement cleanseth from all sin; whereby we are not only delivered from the guilt of sin, but are washed from its pollution, saved from its power, and are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless.” Article VIII of the Confession states, in part, “The offering Christ freely made on the cross is
    the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.” Hebrews unmistakenly portrays Christ both as Great High Priest and as the blood sacrifice offered for the cleansing of sin. Paul declares in Romans 3, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” The message is crystal clear–without Christ’s sacrificial self-offering, no salvation for humanity is possible. None whatsoever. So I hope the progressive churches you speak of who claim to be free of blood-atonement theology are outside of the UM connection, because they’ve positioned themselves outside of our doctrinal standards.

    • Zzyzx says

      I agree. I wish we our churches sang more about blood. That’s why I’m glad that my church uses praise and worship music, so that we can pick good music. My favorite one is called “Reign in Blood.” It’s from a Christian band called… Slayer. I think their name is even a reference to the crucifixion.

      After such great P & W music, I can’t actually sing a song that’s NOT about blood :S

      • John says

        And sometimes we’ll use Steppenwolf’s In the Garden of Eden as an introit. I love it when the predominantly soprano voices soar heavenward.

        I know just what you mean, though. There’s just so much shallow theology expressed in the lightweight hymnody of Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and the like. Why would anyone think there’s any worthwhile message in such drivel as O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Arise My Soul Arise, And Can It Be, Lamb of God Whose Bleeding Love, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Behold the Glories of the Lamb, Not What These Hands Have Done, Rock of Ages, etc.

        And what on earth was Paul thinking when he wrote to the Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”?

        John R. Tyson says of Wesley, “He constantly used the language of sacrifice and the forms of the penal substitution theory of the atonement to convey his theology of redemption. ‘Blood’ became one of his favorite redemption words, appearing nearly 800 times in his later hymns alone! The application had its heritage in the sacrifices of Leviticus, but its primary focus was to be found in ‘the Blood of Christ.’ Throughout the hymnological corpus ‘blood’ stood for Christ’s death and its saving significance.” (Charles Wesley: A Reader)

        Certainly we can’t have that in today’s United Methodism! We’d be so much better off teaching our congregations using the rich theological depth of Kum Ba Yah instead. ; )

  6. Zzyzx says

    When I read your thoughts, I can’t help but think along historical parallel lines. Maybe it’s all the Lutheran theology I’ve been reading lately, but your positive/negative comparison had me thinking of Martin Luther and Reformation history.

    First, Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses. Effectively a “This is NOT what Christianity is or should be” declaration. And that was a good thing! He was protesting against unjust actions and a warped belief system. His words were a major point in getting quite a few Christians to question a lot of “accepted” wisdom. So the “negative” had a very positive contribution. AFTER the Theses sort of blew things wide open, then Reformation theologians in the vein of Lutheran belief started to articulate a positive vision. “This is what Christianity is…” and so on.

    So I think there is some merit of historical continuity and theological reexamination to this negative/positive imagery. Of course the danger occurs when a theological movement fails to move from negative into positive. When the timing is right for such a move is perhaps only knowable in retrospect though. And, of course, the negative/positive split is not quite so clear as either you or I have stated. Even at the very early stages of a negative rejection there is positive re-articulation and reinterpretation. It was so in the Reformation, and it is so in many progressive circles today.

    Likewise, even some of those “positive” attributes you listed still imply a negative rejection. For example a church that claims to represent “traditional family values” has the implicit negative claims that other churches are “compromised” and not really Christian, and a whole slew of other negative implications. Perhaps not always, but very often.

    From my perspective, and to speak only of a general trend of which I may be wrong about, the first effort of “negative branding” tends to be an effort that speaks to those within the Church who may be dissatisfied with how certain things are. And that’s okay. But it takes the second effort of “positive branding” to really pull in people from outside the Church.

  7. Andy M says

    I think that every church likely has a way in which they make clear what they are not. When a church advertises that they have “traditional family values”, I think it is usually implied that they are NOT pro-gay, NOT pro-choice, etc. If I hear someone saying that they support traditional family values, this is what I can most often assume that they mean by it. So, even though they are offering a “positive”, I think it is often an implied negative. I can’t say that is always the case, but I think very often it is.

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