Having spent my career as a church professional (or in roles that might be called church adjacent), I was drawn to an article that appeared this week about Christian “branding.” The writer, Jessica Grose, addresses the steady rise of the “nones”—those who claim spiritual beliefs but reject affiliation with any organized religious body—and asked whether Christianity needed a “branding reboot” [my term, not hers].
My own somewhat unconventional vocational path began early and led to several pursuits where I was drawn (in clergy parlance, I “was called”) to begin innovative programs as a counterpoint to traditional expressions of the Church. In seminary, I organized three coffee house ministries; in 1970, while still in seminary, I was co-founder of Willowbrook Ministries, a pioneering interfaith storefront ministry in New Jersey’s Willowbrook Mall; after seminary, with my colleague Cliff Aerie, we founded TEAM—the Teaneck Education Artistic Ministry—to reach out to non-traditional families. Later, I was active in the UCC’s groundbreaking work on marriage equality, served as founding director of the multi-faith initiative Intersections International, and while at Intersections, co-founded the US-Pakistan Intercultural Coalition (UPIC).
A key ingredient in all these endeavors (and, explicitly during my time as director of communications at the UCC) has been assessing how the Church is viewed by the wider world. Branding is a fraught concept in the church. Just this week I was in a conversation about branding as we consider how to reimagine my local church’s ministry in a post-Covid world. There are countless stories about how abusive marketing deceives and manipulates with false or misleading claims (although, as one Ad Exec once told me: nothing kills a good ad campaign quicker than a lousy product).
As a practicing Jew, Jessica Grose has an important perspective: as a religious person, she can speak respectfully about spiritual matters, but since she is outside the Christian community, she is not bound to any one faction within the Church.
Grose sees the growth of the nones in historical terms, dating back to the “golden age” of Christianity in the 1950s (I cannot tell you how many times—even now—religious leaders lament that things are not like they were “back then.” And yet, as Grose points out, that particular period was shaped as much by events outside the Church as by those within it.
Citing the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, she points out that the 1950s was a boom time for American religiosity, in part because “religion represented patriotism” during the Cold War against “atheistic communism.” Putnam and Campbell continue: “It was no accident that ‘under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954” and the words ‘In God We Trust’ stamped onto our coins became the national motto in 1956. Not subscribing to ‘Judeo-Christian’ values was often considered un-American.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, it became easier to declare yourself as having no religion which was tightly connected to nationalism. It was then no longer seen as treasonous if you “wouldn’t show up on Sunday at church.”
Grose cites other studies that measure how congregational clergy did not tend to speak about controversial social issues like LGBTQ rights or abortion. Risk-averse pastors did not want to alienate congregants. It is not words from the pulpit, then, that sparked the growth of the nones. Rather, “what moderate and liberal Christians are responding to might not be explicit conservative messaging from pastors and priests. Some may feel their fellow congregants have moved so far right that they no longer feel the sense of community they once did…and rather than staying and fighting and trying to change minds from the inside, they gave up.”
The observation that the decline in a sense of community in the congregation (including such attributes as trust, mutual respect, empathy, the civil sharing of ideas, the willingness to “disagree without being disagreeable,”) reflects the general divisiveness in our society. This factor lies at the heart of the growth in the number of those who choose to disassociate with organized religion.
In its essence, the Christian message is replete with references to the centrality of community in faithful living. For Christians, the biblical narrative itself moves from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the City of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Community matters. We are called, as the early church was, into community. It is in community that God is revealed and that we draw strength to carry on in our weary and fractured world. As the community is threatened (or threatens itself), we can expect that its members will become less committed, and many will eventually flee. If Christian “branding” ignores the joys and burdens of community, more than its brand will fail.
I am grateful for the many words of encouragement I received after last week’s blog. Thank you for your unflagging support! Rest assured that I will continue this weekly exercise for the foreseeable future. B