Is it time to do away with “church”?

Nathan Campbell —  March 6, 2011

I was sitting in church this morning wondering why there wasn’t anybody new there. Wondering why it is so hard to get people who aren’t just transfers from another church out the door on a Sunday morning and into the Christian community that goes on in often uncomfortable buildings with a bunch of weird counter-cultural trappings.

I’m wondering if we need a rethink. Not so much in the mechanics of what goes on around the globe on a Sunday morning – I think there’s a pretty Biblical picture of what Christians should do when they gather that most churches are trying to emulate. I’m thinking we need to rethinking our branding.

In the broader non visual identity context, your branding can be defined as “the reaction people have in their head when they think about your product” – it’s like a word association game. And I reckon say the word “church” to most Aussies and you’ll get something like “child abuse cover up”, “money hungry”, or in more positive cases “boring” or “conservative”… I’m guessing an invite to “church” on the weekend is likely to result in a negative response from most people’s friends. And lets face it, nobody wants to invite friends to church these days anyway. Any evangelism I do is more likely to take the form of apologetics with friends who are hostile to Jesus already, or conversations when people find out I’m studying at Bible College. This might be my failing, but I’m pretty sure most people aren’t inviting their friends to church every week. And because I think like a marketer one of my first responses is to question our branding strategy. If people are thinking bad things about church, but still, according to the Gruen Transfer, thinking good things about Jesus, then perhaps we need a change in terminology. It seems like a bandaid solution – but at some point a word just becomes too tainted by negative associations to reclaim.

The whole “marketing Jesus because people still love the idea of him” idea has it problems though. See what happens when people try to make Christianity cool in this article from the Weekend Australian.

“Jesus comes with a large production crew these days. If you doubt it, simply Google churches like Planetshakers, in Melbourne, or Paradise Community Church (Adelaide), or the grand-daddy of them all, Hillsong, which now boasts a global reach to cities like London, New York and Cape Town from its base in Sydney’s Hills district. (And if you don’t know what Google is, good luck understanding this phenomenon; like most of their peers, hip young Christians frame much of their day and establish much of their identity via the internet). Lined up beside each other, it is hard to ignore the similarities between the churches’ websites. From their home pages, each promotes a funky, urban feel with sophisticated graphics, high-quality video clips, stadium-style rock and pop music, and an emphasis on connection not just through Sunday services but an array of smaller social groups and through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

Harder still is any attempt to locate the churches’ denomination on the traditional spectrum, such as that used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As it turns out, all of the churches named above belong to the Assemblies of God tradition, a Pentecostal group which renamed themselves the Australian Christian Churches in 2007. But if their websites are any indication, affiliation with an overarching denomination is far less important these days than cultivating your individual church identity – or brand.”

Now, unlike the Australian I don’t think Megachurches with ridiculously good looking pastor couples, are the answer (but if you want to plant one here’s my guide).

“Another striking finding was that a majority of all denominations agreed it was “OK to pick and choose your religious beliefs”. Among those Gen Yers who do identify as Christians, this openness about specific beliefs – what some critics would call moral relativism – might go some way to explaining the new fluidity around church attendance and the related reluctance to affiliate strictly with any particular church.

In the US, this trend has been tagged the “Love Jesus, Hate Church” syndrome; a disenchantment with old-style churches that lock followers into “us-versus-them” mentalities, both internally, in the form of ancient hierarchies dividing the clergy and laity, and externally, in sometimes bloody rifts with other Christian denominations. In Australia, it manifests among Christian Gen Y-ers as an overwhelming focus on one’s personal connection with Jesus Christ, with attendance at a bricks-and-mortar church seen as only one of many means of honouring that connection. Actual denominations are seen increasingly as irrelevant – if they are recognised at all.”

There’s some truth in this last paragraph, and we’d do well to rethink how we do church in the more conservative and reformed circles I move in. But the start of that quote is problematic. What we can’t do is sell out the truth, and our exclusive claims to truth, in order to be more palatable to the masses. I’ve written previously about a problem I have with only focusing on God’s love in our marketing (the John 3:16 as theme verse thing). That was one of the problems I had with the Jesus All About Life campaign, and it’s a possible problem with any “rebrand” of the Christian message – see the recent hoo-ha about Rob Bell’s decision to sell out hell in the name of a palatable gospel (though read Arthur’s post about how it may not be a good idea to jump in and judge this before Bell’s book actually comes out)

So I reckon the language of church needs to change (and the way we do church, but that’s something I need to think about more, the Total Church model is one idea, this Messy Church concept is something I heard about during the week that also piqued my curiosity). Both of these models clearly have problems. Baby and bathwater problems. But there are some core concepts to them that are good. Ultimately we want people to meet Jesus and have their lives radically transformed. It seems to me that calling what we do “church” may increasingly become a barrier to that. So I vote we change it.

But what to call it? At QTC we’re big on the notion of “family of God” as the basis for our ecclesiology. But that sounds a little bit like a cult. I like the word “community” – but that’s because I’m currently thinking that one connecting point between the church and our culture is creating (or recreating) community for people living in an increasingly individualised society. What do you reckon? Am I barking up the wrong tree? What’s the point of staying attached to a word that etymologically comes from the Greek “House of the Lord” anyway? Gathering, or community, is more biblical.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

4 responses to Is it time to do away with “church”?

  1. Definitely seems to be an issue that is gaining traction. But, I wonder if just a rename/rebrand isn’t getting to the core of the issue.

    I really like Ravi Zacharias’s saying: “You can put a baked beans label on a tin of spaghetti, but it doesn’t make it baked beans”.

    I wonder if we identified the “problems” people have with the church, see if they are biblically justified or not and then work out how to bridge the gap for people without compromising integrity. Could be an interesting experiment.

    Who’s up for a market survey!?

    • Nathan Campbell March 7, 2011 at 7:59 am

      I think part of the problem is that there are churches out there doing good stuff, stuff that people who may be inclined to investigate the God question might be interested in doing, but the word “church” is becoming a barrier – so I think in those cases rebranding might help.

      I suspect the market research (and I thought about doing a little word association game survey and making the results into a tag cloud would be fun) would produce initial responses like the ones I mention in the post. I think the child abuse thing, the money hungry thing, and the boring childhood memories thing are a potent combination that render the brand pretty poisonous. It can be overcome. Obviously, because people do still find their way to church. But I’m thinking that we should switch to promoting being part of a community that loves one another, rather than coming along to our weekly Sunday event – and I think the market thinks the latter is what church is (there are plenty of churchgoers who think the same. Even if it’s not.

      • But, wouldn’t the stigma just follow the new brand? I think it would work for a while, until people cottoned on to the fact that we were “disguising” church as something else.

        • It depends who comes with the new brand.

          Here’s my syllogism…

          1. Your “brand” is the response people have when they think about your business.
          2. “Church” has a (I’m guessing) negative brand image.
          3. “Jesus” has a positive brand image.
          4. If we want to get non-church people who don’t like “church” to meet with the family of God we need to either salvage the brand “church” or scrap it.

          I’d say the megachurches are doing their bit to salvage the brand (but I’d say they’re often guilty of selling out the substance of Christianity too in order to get style points).

          So if we don’t want to be a pentecostal megachurch we either have to join their brand resurrection efforts – maybe run an honesty campaign like Dominos have been – or scrap the “brand” and start again.