Saturday, November 30, 2013

FIRST CUP: Some random thoughts on rebranding and the church….

I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that I am not exactly applauding the recent announcement about rebranding the Church of God (now Non-Reformation) Movement. While the church is in many important ways my mother, our relationship has often been more difficult than dutiful. I love her but she’s a difficult mother and I've been a challenging son.

I do want to be hopeful about the future, although I find it harder and harder to believe that anything like the traditional church has much of a future. This won’t be the first time I’ve wondered if God hasn’t already moved on in his constant reimagining of church to something infinitely bolder and humbler. It often feels to me that those of us still connected to the institutional church are filling and stacking sandbags against a perfect storm of cultural and theological change.

The church is in the midst of a massive cultural sea change. This paradigm shift is altering everything around us and we in the church are not at fault for the devastating impact it is having upon our institution. The decline in the church is not primarily the fault of mismanagement, bad theology, or lack of good will. We are caught up in forces much bigger than we can control.

I just want the church to be the church and not some strange hybrid of entertainment, big business, and marketing.

I’m not against marketing; I find value in the processes that marketers manage. There can be real value in the creative process; anytime people are brought together to think about who they are and what they do and where they are going and how to bring greater focus and, thereby, greater energy to their work—that’s good. It is good especially if it is rooted firmly in the historical narrative of the organization as it leads to new/renewed vision.

But I am troubled when the marketing process, as it unfortunately often does, remains pretty much at a superficial level—inch deep and a mile wide. Too often there is a paucity of thoughtfulness and depth—the glossing over of the deep divisions and uncertainties that do exist by the artful use of language and the creation of a new look, a new tag line, and a new web site. And no real grappling with.

I do think it is oddly presumptuous to talk of rebranding the church: brands are about ownership. (I remember at least that much from my Saturday morning Westerns: people got killed for rebranding where a brand already existed.) I don’t think we own the church; I’m not really sure that we have the authority to rebrand it.

I want to be equally clear about this: the future of the church does not rest in the processes and methodologies of marketing and public relations, however useful they may be. The future of the church lies in deep historical, theological, sociological, and epistemological reflection—and actions based on such reflection so long as such work is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus.

The church will not recover its nerve, its creativity, or its authenticity simply by instituting fancy new gimmicks, implementing flashy programs, trying to get more organized, or working harder. The way forward is through the development of meaningful spiritual practices, a renewal of corporate spirituality, and a profound shift of consciousness in the way we do church. These deep inner changes will only be achieved by creating space for awareness of the presence and action of God to emerge in our midst.

I’m out of the loop on these discussions; I don’t assume that I should be in the loop. But it is interesting to me that I am alerted to the new logo, tag line and web site by a friend in Auckland, New Zealand (I love the Internet!).

The announcement of new bold change for the Church of God came, oddly enough, at the same time I received a copy of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. I have to say there is more contrast than comparison.

Church of God—here’s what I found on our new Web site, which I had to look for:

Branding, marketing words—our church as defined and described by a marketing firm, our values color coded, and our mission more ambiguous than ever—although I am sure that marketers would say more open ended and inviting.

Lack of theological reflection—in fact, I have yet to find such. It may be that such reflection exists and that I just haven’t found it, but so far it is missing.

Foundationally ahistorical; we are no longer a reformation—this one, frankly, is pretty astonishing to me and not just a little disturbing. Without the theological reflection, of course, I can’t know what is meant but it seems odd that a church that has described itself as part of the reformation now decides that doesn’t matter anymore.

A tagline as definition, yet a definition that is as ambiguous as it is clever—Jesus is the subject. It has a nice ring, but what does it really mean? It seems to me to raise more questions than it answers.

We are “modern” in a post modern, even a post Christian, era—I just don’t get this. Modernity nearly killed the church; it may be singlehandedly responsible for the understanding that we are now living in a post Christian era and we suddenly want to describe our selves as modern?

A conflation of church and “headquarters”—a dynamic tension in the historical life of the church—how do we do the work of the church without becoming a denomination—is suddenly dismissed, and suddenly it is all one.

I do celebrate the reassertion of a global vision and, certainly, any discussion that doesn’t include Jesus would be simply wrong, but a question is begged: “If Jesus is the subject, which Jesus are we talking about.” The naiveté of the statement is, to me, pretty staggering.

There is a presumption operating: a logo precedes rather than flows from theological reflection.

Evangelii Gaudium—here are my observations after my first read of this letter to the church.

Francis’s “joy of the gospel” resonates so deeply into the roots of the Catholic Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ—I’m afraid the contrasts between the rebranding of the Church of God, Anderson, and the depth of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation are so striking that that they are nearly overwhelming.

His is a deeply theological and sociological and economic and relational reflection. It is, I think, a radical call to be the church; it is radical because it is so focused on Jesus—on a particular Jesus.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”

The result is a striking, even radical, contemporary reframing of historical truth, which calls the church and its leadership to a deeper spirit marked by contrition, humility, and integrity—and Christlikeness.

It names the sins of the church for what they are and calls the church to be better—no, really, it calls the church redemption so that it can be the church founded by Jesus.

There is no question which Jesus Francis speaks of: this is the Jesus of justice and peace and life and dignity and inclusion, unity, holiness, dialogue: Jesus, clearly, for others. Radically crossing nearly ever barrier imaginable to make God real in the lives and systems of his—and our—day.

The word of God also invites us to recognize that we are a people: “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.

I truly believe that every leader of every communion, fellowship, and denomination, especially in the West, should be studying this document: it is a flat out challenge not only to the Pope’s own church (our ancient Babylon) but also to anyone and everyone who claims Jesus as Lord. But it is especially a challenge to any person who assumes leadership roles in any expression of God’s church. I cannot help wondering why we seem incapable (or unwilling) to truly engage each other along the same lines.


The italicized comments are taken from a record of a conversation among eight church clergy, academics, and spiritual teachers that took place in Victoria British Columbia, Canada, during Lent, 2011. There are 12 observations about the “future of the church” that emerged from that conversation. These are two that I thought connected to my random thoughts:

The comments in bold are taken from the text of Pope Francis’s Evangelii Glaudium, which can be found at It is over 200 pages long and not all of it relates to our own story, but if anyone is interested you can download a .pdf of it here:

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