Sunday, July 19, 2009

Brand Jesus?

“People who think they are religious but say things they should not say are just fooling themselves. Their 'religion' is worth nothing. Religion that God accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help, and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence." James 1:26-27 (New Century Version)

An article by Richard Tompkins titled "Christ replaces Coke as the focus of youthful longing" that appeared in the July 30, 2004 issue of the Financial Times caught my eye. The essence of the article is captured in this excerpt:

"Put simply, Christianity is cool. Or at least that is the way it is being marketed...Cool Christianity is the cult brand epitomized, making its customers feel part of a community and instilling a sense of ownership that verges on the fanatical. Old Christianity used to be about serving God in this world with the promise of uncertain rewards in the hereafter. Now, provided you can afford the merchandise, the rewards are up-front: loud music, multimedia entertainment, a cool image and a comforting sense of spirituality...Far from brands being the new religion, it seems to me that religion is the new brand."

It's both good and sad that this is the perception Tompkins has of the church. It touches on the truth but glances off into a gross misconception. We are brothers and sisters in an infinitely extended family. That Christians feel part of a community is accurate and a huge plus. And the rewards that we look forward to in the hereafter are far from uncertain.

But, Christians are not customers or consumers of religion. We are customers of stores and consumers of products. In our "religion," which is better defined as faith, we are adherents to God's laws, disciples of Christ's teachings and examples, and ministers to each other of His grace. Christian faith is about relationship, not retailing.

True, Christians enjoy the privilege of buying products that can both enhance our relationship with God and express to others our commitment and calling. But we also know that any pleasure we derive from purchased goods is temporal and not the "reward" or point of our faith. We know that real spirituality is not found in a cool image, but rather in a true relationship with Jesus that often makes us seem very uncool. Our faith is in a Person, not a brand.

As for the claim that Christianity is being marketed, I must concede that this is true, and it's something I'm not particularly comfortable with. My fear is that wrapping our faith too tightly in the practices and methods of Madison Avenue, instead of yielding new converts or a deeper faith, promulgates wrong perceptions such as that expressed by Tompkins in his article.

Old and now Christianity are both about serving God in this world. It isn't about marketing a cool brand of religion in order to entice a larger share of consumers into churches that are more like malls than places of worship. A marketed, hyped "faith" is nothing more than a transient disposable experience, another consumed cup of gourmet coffee.

Jesus didn't command His church to market His brand; He has called us to build His kingdom through truth, relationship, and service. He said: "… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

And religion? “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:24).

True faith is the true cool.


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