How’s Your Church Brand?
Back in Superbowl 2020, Michelob Ultra ran a commercial promising that, for each 6 pack you buy, they will help transition 6 feet of farmland to be organic. When you do the math, the actual impact of Michelob’s commitment seems to be negligible. It’s safe to say they could have had a much larger impact if they had donated the $10 million spent on the commercial directly toward organic farming.
But that’s kind of the point. For companies attempting to appeal to millenial and younger generations, it’s not so much about what you’re doing for charity, or the actual effectiveness of those efforts. What matters is that you are perceived as doing something. Your brand needs to be associated with philanthropy—so much the better if it’s a cutting edge cause, such as spheres of social justice, eco-conservation, or education.
So, how’s your church brand? Are you keeping up? Have you been giving to the right causes? And if so, do people know how much you’re giving and what you’re doing? How are people going to come to Jesus if they don’t see you partnering with a local elementary school, or if they don’t know how much money you’ve given away to feed hungry children on the other side of the globe?
Acts of benevolence, far from being at cross-purposes to the Gospel, flow as natural consequences of the transforming love of Jesus. The Gospel pushes us outward towards Good Samaritan-like deeds. But notice: The Good Samaritan didn’t create a Facebook page, sharing photos of his good deeds as he went along. He didn’t drag the previous robbery victim up onto his synagogue platform the following Saturday to share his testimony. He simply cared for that other man out of love.
We must be aware of two very powerful cultural winds that intersect to create a storm of smarmy, skin-deep Christianity: 1) the pressure to legitimize ourselves through visible social action, and 2) the pressure to publicize our good works. What makes the issue complex is that neither of these pressures can be rejected out of pocket as sinful or unilaterally wrong.
When it comes to legitimizing ourselves through visible social action, one need only look at James 2. Faith without deeds is dead. The appropriate reaction is not to yank the plug on all deed-based ministries. In the Reformed tradition, we should couple our wariness and resistance to cultural demands for horizontal, visible do-gooderism with an awareness of our own tendency to overemphasize the Word apart from deeds.
The pressure to publicize our good works is less defensible. Jesus tells us: “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in Heaven.” (Mt 6:1) This is not a new temptation. Often we act not simply out of love for Jesus, but in order to be seen as "good people." It’s easy to mask or dilute the corruption of this desire when we attach our publication of good works to the church rather than our own individual piety. The church’s purpose, however, is not primarily to make the church look good, but to make Jesus look good. On top of that, we receive assurances that: “good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” (1 Tim 5:25) If a person or an organization truly sells out for the benefit of others, it won’t remain a secret.
This is where the terminology of brand can be instructive. A church’s direction on this issue becomes less foggy when we ask:
What do you speak about the most?
What do you highlight the most?
What do you celebrate the most?
In other words, which brand are you promoting: the brand of Jesus, or the brand of your church?
We certainly want people to see our church’s good deeds, that they may glorify our Father in heaven. The latter half is the crucial part. Who’s really getting the glory? Who’s brand is being built?
I would offer two warnings for those leading or involved in highly brand-conscious churches.
- Your ministry becomes about staying cutting edge. Your relevancy and numbers will be drawn from staying in front of or at least along side of the trends: in technology, in spoken and written communication, and in community action. If you fall behind, then your constituents will be drawn away by competitors who are closer to the tip of the spear.
- You’re missing your reward. Like Jesus says in Matthew 6:1, and like the Pharisees who loved being called Rabbi, you’ve already received your reward. It’s in the accolades of the people whom you told about your good works, and who applauded you for it! But in receiving it that way, you lose it from your Father.
The church should hunt restlessly for the best, most relevant, most meaningful ways to serve and love those in our community, and for that matter, all people throughout the world. But we do this all for the brand of Jesus, because He’s the source of true and lasting good.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
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