Sunday, January 04, 2009

Branding Jesus

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is director of the Two Futures Project. He is an ordained Baptist preacher and author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (Seabury Press). He is featured as the cover story in the latest Christianity Today.

Wigg-Stevenson describes the traps and challenges of attempting to do evangelism in a culture defined by consumerism. In a world where people understand spirituality in terms of life-style and consumer choice then people become "spiritual consumers" who understand their spiritual quest not so much in terms of ultimate questions but more in terms of experience, satisfaction and brand-choice.

Here are excerpts:
This is the issue we confront when weighing the merits of the church's public outreach, its evangelistic task, in a Western culture saturated by marketing. By marketing, I refer to all the activities that help organizations identify and shape the wants of target consumers and then try to satisfy those consumers better than competitors do. This usually involves doing market research, analyzing consumer needs, and then making strategic decisions about product design, branding, pricing, promotion, advertising, and distribution.

While researching Brand Jesus, I realized that the church faced unavoidable questions as it sought to maintain a public witness and evangelistic task in a consumerist culture. One is this: Should we market the church and the church's message? (In this article, I assume that our evangelistic message is about knowing Christ and being incorporated into his body. Thus, whether we are specifically encouraging people to consider Jesus or some aspect of the gospel message or to attend a particular church, we are practicing key aspects of evangelism.) In particular, can we use marketing techniques such as niche targeting and branding? Can we help but do so? Can we change the medium without affecting the message? Or does the medium of marketing itself taint our message, leaving us only to resist to the last breath any accommodation to our consumer culture?

The champions of better church marketing say that withdrawal and resistance are not options for a local church that seeks a public presence. We live in a commercialized culture that accepts that virtually everything is for sale. There is simply no way to be in the public arena without engaging in marketing. Even if you do not intend to market your church, that's how consumers are going to perceive your outreach. They will take it in through market-conditioned filters. If we ignore this fact, we will probably wind up doing bad marketing, and that doesn't do anyone any good.

So, unless we completely withdraw from any kind of evangelism, marketing is inevitable. And if marketing is the language of our culture, we might as well be fluent in it, right? After all, if you were a missionary in a foreign country, you would learn the language. Marketing is just the latest incarnation of classic evangelistic models such as persuasion and example.

Thus goes the argument. At the popular blog, Joshua Cody wrote, "It's a privilege that in a world full of broken marketing and blatant lies, we get to sell the truth." From this perspective, the mistake would be to market the church poorly, which would make the church seem less than it is—like an undesirable brand—to an unbelieving audience....
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...There are indeed similarities. But evangelism and sales are not the same. And we market the church at our peril if we are blind to the critical and categorical difference between the Truth and a truth you can sell. In a marketing culture, the Truth becomes a product. People will encounter it with the same consumerist worldview with which they encounter every other product in the American marketplace.

Thus our dilemma: The product we are selling isn't like every other product—it isn't even a product at all. But if the gospel is not a product, how can we market it? And if we can't avoid marketing it, how can we keep from turning it into the product it isn't...?

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...Unfortunately, most evangelism in a consumerist society will seem like a sales pitch. But when you are marketing a product that isn't, it's important to know the difference between a church-centered mindset and one driven by individualistic market interests.
This requires recognizing the attributes and values of consumerism. The church can then intentionally develop practices of discipleship that cut against them, so that we will not unwittingly bow to the altar of Brand Jesus....

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The consumer who buys our marketing may well make Jesus his or her chosen brand, and the resulting zeal will look like passionate faith. Appearances deceive. Genuinely passionate faith is rooted in recognizing who Christ actually is. Brand zealotry, by contrast, is self-centered, because the supposed superiority of one brand over another depends on the brand devotee's enthusiasm. The zeal of the endorsement masks the inherent arbitrariness of the choice.

But the choice for Christ is not arbitrary. If a disgruntled Chevy man switches to Ford, Chevy loses and Ford gains; if we desert Christ in favor of another god, he is not diminished. Brand superiority is in the mind of the consumer, but Christ's divinity and worth are his own, regardless of what we think of him. He does not need our bumper stickers or T-shirts. These tell the world far more about who we are and what we like than they do about him.

Spiritual shoppers have no reason to think that Christianity is anything but one option among many. But the life of a holy church is a powerful witness to the contrary—perhaps most evidently in our celebration of the Lord's Supper, when we remember that the one we consume has already consumed us. The church reveals the supremacy of Christ in a world that denies his power when—crediting it all to God—we love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable, reconcile seemingly intractable hatreds and rejoice even in sorrow, persevere in hardship and serve to the point of sacrifice, and baptize and teach instead of consume and discard....
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In other words, people who respond to church marketing approach Jesus as another consumer option. This is first and foremost a problem because it is blasphemy: We are talking about the incarnate Logos, not a logo. Additionally (in case blasphemy isn't bad enough), this should concern us because of the problems it creates for discipleship. Consumerism isn't just a social phenomenon—it's a spirituality. And it comes with spiritual habits and disciplines that conflict with the particular practices of the Christian life.

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...Consumerism is here to stay. The habits described above—self-creation, discontent, relativism, fragmentation—will become more dominant, not less, in years to come. That's the way of the globalized economy and ascendant transnational commercial interests. We cannot defeat our situation; we can only seek to live faithfully in it.

In order to do so, it's vital that we remember the true nature of Christ's church. Christians in every age have struggled to define the church, a difficult task because it is, uniquely, a divinely ordained human institution. So we use necessary similes: The church is like a family, a kingdom, a service organization, a lifeboat, a neighborhood, and—in our day—a business.

But problems begin when we define the church as a whole using a comparison that just describes one of its attributes: i.e., treating the church as a business with a brand to promote. And then, even though there are all sorts of ways the church isn't like a business, we begin to employ all the tools of commercial enterprise as though we were paying the body of Christ some compliment by treating it like a Fortune 500 company, with a bottom line, investor returns, supply chain, CEOS, market share, and so on. If we treat the gospel like a commodity, can we fault nonbelievers for thinking that the cross is just another logo?

But we also need to recognize that no matter what we do, consumerism will unavoidably define the context for how people view the church in our consumerist age. All communication will be perceived as marketing. All self-presentation, even church advertising, will be perceived as branding. And all outreach will be viewed as sales. There is nothing we can do to change this context.

All the more reason for us to defy expectations. Spiritual consumers will come to Christianity as do window shoppers at a mall, wanting a spirituality tailor-made to their preferences. They will want this because consumption is the only salvation they have ever known. They will bring all of their riches and perversely be unable to conceive of grace because they cannot imagine a thing that cannot be bought.

They will come before our stained-glass seeking a storefront in exactly the same way that people in Jesus' day came to him, searching for what they expected to find. Then they were looking for a crazy man, a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a revolutionary—and, at the end, a corpse. Today they are looking for a spiritual brand.

In Jesus' time, they found a living Messiah and Lord. They found the God for whom they had not even been looking. The question for us in our time is whether seekers will find the world-transforming body of the Lord, formed by the Spirit—whether, expecting something new to buy, they will instead be surprised by God.

Read the rest here.

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