Sam Laurent: A deeper look at church branding

Many Christian leaders reject the notion of branding the church. But churches could use brand association as a signifier of identity, thus inviting people to step into mystery and wonder, writes a theologian.

The notion of branding may seem profane to many in the church. I’m deeply leery of anything that would seem to commodify spiritual engagement.

But could there be something of value in this idea of church as a brand?

Duke researcher Gavan Fitzsimons has found that brand identification can fulfill the same social and psychological needs that religion does, offering a sense of identity and community. Religiosity tends to reduce reliance on brands, and conversely, a focus on brands tends to reduce reliance on religion, according to his research.

Disturbing though that may sound, it does make sense.

After all, a feeling of belonging and identification, a way to locate oneself in relationship to the complexity of the world -- these are no small part of what religious communities offer.

Obviously, brand identification (say, being a Diet Coke drinker) cannot offer the spiritual depth of religion. But Fitzsimons suggests that this is no simple win for churches.

“The trouble is, I think that those secondary benefits, the sense of community, are the ways traditionally that churches have brought people into the pews. And once you’re there, it starts you on a path to that higher connection,” he said.

The takeaway: church does run deeper than Diet Coke, but maybe not at first. I wonder how this insight, which seems obvious once stated, might help with churches’ befuddlement about the growing “spiritual but not religious,” or “none,” population.

For many people, a church is a brand, whether they like the word or not. The persistence of denominational jokes among those who go to church bears this out. In addition, the aspect of church life that people encounter most immediately is often its distinctiveness. Who is accepted and who is excluded here? Am I invited to take communion? Is my family welcomed?

We get incredibly -- and rightly -- charged up, and even part ways, over these distinctions. But when they become the first thing we tell someone about our community, we aren’t saying anything deeper about our relationship with God than a beer ad says when it tells you the product is “beechwood aged.”

Quite often, churches use these political or aesthetic (Praise band! Jazz mass! Coffee shop!) elements to sell themselves to church shoppers. Churches play the branding game. If religion functions as a brand, it cannot entirely blame capitalism for that turn of events.

But if, as Fitzsimons’ research suggests, we use brand association as a signifier of identity, then churches may have a unique contribution to make. After all, our sacraments are outward signifiers of a much greater depth, an opening of the sacred that emerges by grace. When it comes to signifying something deeper than we can even fathom, we’ve got some practice.

Perhaps, then, we ought not to be squeamish about the branding, or even about being viewed from the outside as part of a marketplace. Rather, churches can push their depth to the fore in the way they present themselves to the public. It would be rather sacramental to do so.

“Spiritual but not religious” folks are, after all, spiritual. A great deal of the appeal of yoga, meditation and other practices is that they evoke a spiritual experience. We know that such experiences are a core element of Christianity, but it is rarely a part of our branding.

It is not so much the underlying truth of a particular religion that gives it value for practitioners but rather the ability it affords to step into mystery and wonder, and to live a life emboldened and centered by faith.

Beyond doctrine, the experience of God is what galvanizes faith, and that experience cannot be commodified. It is a counterbrand.

I know that may sound heretical. After all, Christianity emphasizes correct beliefs -- quite literally, our orthodoxy -- quite a lot. Competing senses of right belief have shaped our denominations and their various schisms.

But our practices do much, much more than underscore what we believe. In my Episcopal church, we dutifully recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, yet such doctrinal assent makes up a small portion of the worship. Within the framework of the church, the elements of our worship serve as signs to point us toward God, toward covenant.

Held out simply as signifiers of brand identity, our practices can come off as cloying or aloof, for they are disconnected from the context in which they are signs. There must be an attentive artfulness, then, to our branding, not a simple externalizing of sacramental depth.

At its best, worship draws us simultaneously into our center and beyond ourselves, connects us with who we are and with our community. It is no shameful condescension to say that this is a deep value that also obtains in mindfulness practices and yoga classes, nor to say that one need not exclusively choose one such practice. Nor does it cheapen our practices to say that this is what people are looking for. People seek religious experience.

These notions of psychological value and branding may at first seem profane to churches. But I think that upon careful reflection, they remind us that offering a welcome and space to encounter God is the primary thing that churches do for people.

The ultimate truth (if, indeed, such a thing exists) of our claims becomes important later, but meeting the basic human longing for community and transcendence is deeply important work, and if openly offering such depth marks churches as a counterbrand, then all the better.