Religious Brand Loyalty

When I was growing up religion was of minor importance to my family – both nuclear and extended.  While it was recognized that being “politely religious” was something that good people were, it was also true to say that being “politely religious” meant you show up to worship once and a while and expect people to be glad you came.  It’s not that my family didn’t try to find some religious expression, it’s just that they didn’t really know how.

They did try, however, and when an “acceptable” priest showed up at the Episcopal church that my grandfather helped found my family – both nuclear and extended – decided it was time to grace it with our presence once more.  So we went to church.  My sisters, cousins, and I were confirmed (and my younger sister was baptized).  Several of us even served altar.  Yet, the inevitable happened.  Someone said something, or the service went too long, or people were encouraged to live out some discipleship, or some church leader wasn’t accepted the way my family wanted – and folks bolted once again.  I still served altar for a while – but I was actually that last one in my family to step foot in that Church with any regularity (and I didn’t even believe at that point).

It’s not that I blame my family, they had no other ethic with which to work.  In our culture, even 20+ years ago (I can’t believe I can type that), religion is nothing more than the presentation of brands.  A family might be loyal to a particular brand’s product (a denomination’s local church) – but if an executive comes in that they don’t like, or who tries to tweak the product (often it’s the same thing), they cry bloody murder and make sure that everyone hears (or sees) their displeasure, often waiting for the annual stockholders meeting (let’s call annual meetings according to how people act in them) to drop the bomb or cause a ruckus.  If they don’t take that route they will disappear from worship, and if they are particularly loyal to the brand-product they’ll occasionally give money.  After all, the goal isn’t to destroy the product, they love the product, it’s to punish the evil executive.

Churches, in this brand-product world, are expected to act like corporate executives who see their market-share in jeopardy – giving people “what they want” as quickly as possible in an effort to rebuild brand-product awareness and a strong sense of loyalty.  For years, this is what churches did, and families like mine would come back for a while and then inevitably say, “No, no we don’t want this either.” This is a huge problem for churches all over the theological map, for a couple of reasons.

First, churches can no longer bank on either brand (denomination) or product (local church) loyalty.  It used to be when someone left a product, they’d at least search for a product of the same brand.  Episcopalians would look for another Episcopal church, Presbyterians would look for a Presbyterian church, Baptists would look a Baptist church, and so on and so on.  In this way, brands didn’t have to worry so much when people left their products, because they were fairly certain that their consumer base would just shift to another product under their brand umbrella.  This just isn’t the case anymore.  Brand loyalty is dead for Protestant Americans – and in most cases new religious consumers actually see the brand and the product as same thing.  Few seem to care which denomination a product is attached to any more, they only care if they like the local product which is a brand in it’s own right.

The second problem with this mind-set is that it assures that real churches are almost impossible to form in an established environment.  When people see their participation in a church as nothing more than consuming a brand-product the challenge of discipleship doesn’t “sell” very well.  If someone in this climate is asked to sacrifice for the good of the body (often this means nothing more than “not getting their way” in environments like these – the positive sacrifice of spiritual discipline isn’t even on the radar organizationally) then people will simple find a more inviting brand-product to participate in (or boycott until the brand-product they want snaps back into place).

What I find interesting in this environment is that it’s the people who have no “purchasing power” that are most willing to help the church be an actually group dedicated to pursuing Jesus.  New believers, members who aren’t “established” in the brand-product climate, and people who are financially disadvantaged tend to be (not always, nor is it exclusive to them) willing to submit to being in a community for the good of others – after all, they don’t have the “stock” with which to shake the corporation so the thought doesn’t tend to occur to them.

My struggle in all this is how we move forward at Central.  The thing is, the system wants to have nothing more than a brand-product culture. I know individuals will say, “No me,” but really the system subverts those cries like everything else – the reality is that if this consumer culture didn’t create a stability that “works” for this system in the here and now (long-term isn’t on the radar), then we wouldn’t have it.  The way forward is to allow the system to fail and offer people a path forward other than the brand-product world.  I’ve done this for nearly 5 years, and the system is indeed clogging up – but what I’m getting in feedback from people is that the alternate path I’ve been pointing towards isn’t wanted.  People want the brand-product consumer mentality, it’s easier.  So here I am, 5 years in to my pastorate and hoping to start a conversation that will lead away from the dysfunctional structure we currently have – but I’m not sure most folks are willing to even consider dropping the brand-product mentality for something which is healthier in the long run.  Such is the state of my troubled heart.

4 Thoughts

  1. I suppose I like to think of myself as qualifying as one of the “not me” you speak of. Though, honestly other than the group at Stockton I was part of I’ve never known anything else other than the current system. Therefore even thought I’ve been saying and thinking for years now (about mid highschool I’d say) that we need to do something, I don’t really understand what this something is, or how to even start going about moving toward it in any way that will work.

    Could part of the issue be that people are afraid of new things? Or that they have just never been exposed enough? Or are we really past that to the full stages of where folks don’t want it?

    I haven’t answers but am willing to keep at it. The effort to “clog the system” hasn’t been without some good even if it isn’t as stunningly changed as you have hoped. (For example there is a lot less open forum nasty fighting. There is still some animosity but its a lot less harsh. And even if this is because people have left us it’s still a positive)

    God’s making a move here somewhere, so keep heart.

  2. Because I didn’t grow up in any religious environment (extended family being Catholic, but nuclear family rejecting catholic traditions) I have never really been “Brand” oriented. In fact, after we were saved, we spent a lot of time not being connected to a main line church, as we did not want to subscribe to a hierichy group directing whatever congregation we joined. We have never considered ourselves Baptists, or anything else, other than Christians, wanting to follow Jesus as best we can. I know this is a pat answer, but thats what we need, to follow Jesus. We have a lot of people who put themselves and their desires ahead of Jesus. I often think that they have never really known Him, that this has always just been the right thing to do, go to church and roll bandages for third world countries etc. But…..that is not for me to really say, because Lord knows I do not follow Him as I should!
    I think….(and watch out!) for the older generation, they resist change, and lets face it, everything else in the whole world has drastically changed, now we want to change church too? But, in their favor, they have the committment to the causes, the time to committ, and the accountability with each other. The middle people (that would be me!) hopefully have the committment to God, but no time, as they are more caught up in the ways of the world (but with Jesus mixed in) eg. I want to do the best I can in my job (it’s my calling, right?), I want to do best by my children (even though we may no be able to afford that college, or we spoil them with all the toys known to man), I want to do right in the community (partly because we were raised with the idea that we are suppose to leave the world a better place, partly for our own pride), you get the idea. Then there are the younger people, who maybe have a bit more time, or maybe not, with school and little kids and trying to start their careers, get their houses in order (accumulate stuff!) etc. But they are generally more enthusiastic, Jesus maybe saved them from something bad, it is still fresh in their minds.
    I don’t know how to bring them all together, other than letting it all fail, that may just be the catalyst that sparks us to put aside our selfishness, our over involvement, our keeping up with the Jone’s mentalilty, and worship and work for God alone.

  3. Funny thing, Cath, is that “we just follow Jesus and aren’t ” has become a brand in it’s own right! Go to any Christian concert/festival, or large non-denominational church and that’s exactly the line that is repeated.

    That’s not judgment – it’s just an example that “brand-loyalty” is the very air we breath – like it or not. It’s important to recognize this – especially for Churches.

    As for how to spark people forward – I think the “put aside selfishness” is a good place to start – but the trouble is that we’ve even rebranded that and turned it into “a drive to succeed” (with success defined as having all that want). So you’re even hitting a cultural wall there.

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