The Re-branding of Christianity
I ran across a recent blog entry by someone who I’m sure has thousands more followers than I do. I was a little shocked at the first few lines of the blog only because I thought we were past this trend in Christianity. This isn’t the first place I’d run into this notion, so I thought it was about time that someone write about it. So yes, this is a bit of a soapbox entry, if you don’t want to hear it get out now.
the big idea
The basic premise is that real Christians shouldn’t call themselves Christians because that title has been marred by non-christians, extremist groups, the media and so-called christians who don’t act like Christians. Therefore we have to abandon that name and call ourselves . . . something else. I’ve heard at least two alternate brandings of Christianity. One is ‘Jesus People’ and one is ‘Christ Followers.’
I get what these people are saying – I mean I’ve always been passionate about branding. Even as a kid I perfected my signature because I wanted it to have a recognizable and unique look do it (It still looks pretty cool, I’m not going to lie.) So I understand taking pride in your name and the stigma associated with it. I also know as well as anyone that it’s tough to kick a bad brand image – think about the airlines that have had to shut down because of one crash or the hit that Peter Pan peanut butter took after they found one shipment that had Salmonella. (BTW, you should support Peter Pan, it’s a family company and is run by Christians – err - Jesus People . . . whatever.)
But here’s the thing, Christianity is more than a name – it’s a calling.
From a Communications viewpoint.
Many of you know that I’m a communicator, not a theologian. If I appear to have any advanced knowledge of the Bible its because I have internet access. So I come at this from the standpoint of a communicator and from that perspective rebranding is a tricky and often fruitless exercise.
Let’s take a look at a few really well known brands: Coke and Pepsi. In the 1980s the CocaCola company thought it would be smart to shake up their image – to become more like Pepsi, who was marketing to the younger generation. They devised a marketing scheme whereby they created ‘New Coke.’ Anyone who’s ever studied marketing or business knows about ‘New Coke’ because it is widely regarded as one of the biggest marketing mistakes in the history of modern business. Coke stock plummeted and Coke struggled to reverse their bungle – rereleasing the original formula as ‘CocaCola Classic’ which we all still drink today.
Pointless? Yes. Destructive? Totally. Okay this may have been more than rebranding because they made a fundamental change in their product. But what about Pepsi? You may have noticed that they did an enormous overhaul of their brand a few years back. It cost them 1.2 billion dollars. That’s a pretty big hunk when the company’s net value is around 16 billion. Read a quote from an entry on graphicdesignblog.org
There are no figures of ‘out of the blue’ sales jump or consumer liking about the rebranding reported. On the contrary, Pepsi has received far more censure than any other brands for its directionless rebranding.
So it hurt Coke, it didn’t help Pepsi, but could it work for Christians? Well the trouble begins with a simple fact: Christianity is not a company operated by a CEO. It’s made up of millions of different factions, sects and denominations. Montgomery alone has 1.2 billion churches. That may be an exaggeration, but really there are a lot. The point is that no one can make every Bible-believing, God fearing, Christ-following church change their name from ‘Christian’ to something cooler so you’re not really going to succeed at this rebrand. At best you’re muddying the waters.
The other thing to think about is that unlike commercial brands, Christians have people who are always going to fundamentally disagree with and despise us. Evangelical atheists, outspoken agnostics and members of religions who don’t believe in a God of peace and love are always going to hate us. There is no denying this – I won’t even bother pulling out the numerous scriptures wherein we’re told that we will have people who will persecute us.
So think about it – if there’s a group with whom you principally disagree (I’ll let you think of your least favorite band of extremists) – and a group within that group gets together and they decide that they want to distance themselves from their brand because they believe that the mainstream members of the group are getting away from their roots – how much would you, someone who doesn’t like the group anyway, care about the re-brand? Would you care that there are actually hundreds of different subgroups within the group, all of which have different varying purposes and beliefs? No? Honestly, to me it’s all a group of people with whom I disagree fundamentally, so I don’t care what they call themselves – they’re still the same people I’ve thought were crazy for years and years.
So to an outsider that doesn’t like Christianity, it doesn’t matter if you call yourself a ‘Christ Follower’ a ‘Jesus Person’ a Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or non-denominational – they think we’re fundamentally wrong and that is the thing that has to change – not what we call ourselves.
Now, I know in the commercial world that if your brand is truly outdated that an update can save your image, but the name ‘Christianity’ is not, has never been and never will be subject to the fads that drive the culture. You can rename your church fellowship the Edge,the Village, the Pointe, the Loft or the Toaster – those are strategically chosen names that were picked to attract people who would otherwise not darken the door of a church. That’s fine – that’s your fellowship and you can call it whatever you want, but no one has the right to sit down with a focus group and rebrand the church that Jesus started.
the Bible is the biggest problem
Here’s the biggest problem with this whole idea of moving beyond the name ‘Christian.’ The name ‘Christian’ is one of those wonderful and rare things that the modern church DID NOT invent. It’s actually what the people were called IN THE BIBLE. Some will be quick to say ‘yes, but in the original Greek I’m sure it says something totally different . . .’ NO. The word is actually basically the same – it’s Christianos – which actually has Roman roots. Here’s what’s crazy – there are even records of Christians being called Christians in the writings of first century historians outside of the Biblical texts. Tacitus (A.D. 96) says (Annals xv. 44), “The vulgar call them Christians. The author or origin of this denomination, Christus, had, in the reign of Tiberius been executed by the procurator, Pontius Pilate.” (huge thank you to GreatTreasures.Org for that info) I should point out that ‘vulgar’ in ancient roman times simply meant ‘common.’
Since the first Century – the people who claimed salvation in the man known as Christ Jesus were called Christians. If that’s not enough for you check out Acts 11:26 – talking about the the early church’s beginning in Antioch.
“. . .and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Acts 11:26 (NIV)
It says the same thing in every translation commonly used today. Go ahead check your KJV, NRSV, TNIV, ESV, NASB, CEV, ISV, NLT and your B-I-B-L-E. They all say that the people in the church were called ‘Christians.’ If that’s not enough for you then you should also listen to what Peter has to say:
but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 1 Peter 4:16
You are not to be ashamed, but you are to glorify Him in THIS NAME.
Folks, I know. I know, I know I know. I know that there are people who call themselves Christians who are not. I know that people have done terrible things in the same of Christianity. I know that people have abused this name – dragging it through every bit of mud and fire and refuse. I cannot overemphasize how much people have done wrong to the name ‘Christian.’ But that doesn’t change the truth of what a Christian really is. That doesn’t change the truth of what a Christian is called to be.
You probably already know that ‘Christian’ is a diminutive form of the word ‘Christ’ – meaning that it actually means ‘little Christ.’ That is why I believe that these other names are inadequate in describing what a Christian is. The name ‘Jesus People’ doesn’t tell you what your beliefs regarding the man are. The name ‘Christ Follower’ is not intimate enough. We’re not simply called to follow Christ – we’re called to be Christ to a dying world. A Christian isn’t a ‘Jesus Person’ a Christian is Jesus to everyone around them. The only translation that doesn’t say ‘Christian’ in Acts 11:26 is Young’s and he interprets the name Christian to mean “Divinely Called.”
There is a trend that troubles me in our post-modern world. This trend is one where if something doesn’t work for us personally we abandon all use of it. We call it old, outdated, useless, inaccurate. I wrote a little about this in another blog post about ‘being so over old stuff’ so I won’t rewrite it all here. The problem is that much greater when it creeps into Christianity – have we come to the point that we no longer have a use for this word that the early church called themselves? Have we no use for the phrase that every Christian leader has called his or herself since that year in Antioch? John the Disciple, John Wesley and John Calvin all called themselves Christians. C.S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, Corrie Ten Boom and Eric Little all called themselves Christians. Have we advanced passed these brave souls? Are we beyond this great cloud of witnesses?
No, I’m a Christian – I don’t care what others have done to the name.
It’s not just what I’m called, It’s what I’m called to be.