Most Christian churches understand that they are to be “in the business” of reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And though some churches turn inward over time and lose their missional focus, others go the opposite direction and become infatuated with creating physical and relational environments that attract people to their brand of Christianity. This is a problem. When a church’s Scriptural commission to make disciples of Jesus is replaced by a secular strategy to attract people to their brand/way, everybody loses. Here are a few reasons why and how this happens.
I have never met a church leader who had evil intentions. I have never read or heard of a church growth strategy that was not birthed from a desire to make disciples of Jesus. Somewhere on it’s journey, a church or leader take a wrong turn. Sometimes the turn is gradual, other times it is abrupt. Gradual turns can occur over time while abrupt turns can result from an awesome conference or groundbreaking book. These are just some of the physical reasons for departure. There are also spiritual reasons.
Pressure to grow the church organization can cause leaders to grasp at straws. This pressure never comes from God. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Every pastor needs to hear this message regularly: “It is not your responsibility to grow your church.” But let’s take this one step further. It’s also not the job of churches or church leaders to attract people to Christ. That is the Holy Spirit’s role through the church as the church “shares the truth in love.” If the enemy can delude church leaders into thinking that they possess an ability which actually belongs to the Holy Spirit, he scores big and the church takes a hit. Though the intentions and motives may be pure, the fallout from assuming the Holy Spirit’s role can be catastrophic.
In Jeff Christopherson’s book, Kingdom Matrix, he compares “kingdom expanders” to “brand expanders.” Christopherson argues that brand expanders focus on attracting people to their particular brand of Christianity. They market themselves as the go-to provider of religious goods and services. Any kind of spiritual transformation is the “licensed property of the sacred space” into which the brand expander invites everyone. Therefore every public plea through marketing urges people to “come to us.” The promise they make: “By experiencing Christianity our way, your life will be forever changed.” One billboard I recently noticed read, “Church the way you hoped it would be.” -Such and Such Church.
That billboard says a lot. It says, “A better brand is what you need.” “Our brand is best.” I’m sure it was targeting people who have been hurt by churches in the past and who may have given up searching for the “right” church. But this is a billboard. The audience is much larger than Christians who have had bad church experiences. It is the world! What message does your church have for the world? What message does Jesus have for the world? Imagine Jesus meeting someone in your neighborhood and saying, “Hey I have they words of life, but I think your first step is to get yourself over to Best Brand Church where they will create a welcoming, inviting, excellent atmosphere for you and your family; they are unlike any church in our city. They are great at creating raving fans; not of Me but of themselves.” Such is the sentiment of the attractional brand expander.
Burgers or Beef?
When churches and church leaders take attractional ministry to extremes, they start to look a lot like a fast-food chain. Take McDonalds, for instance. It can be argued that McDonalds has helped make the hamburger famous in America and around the world. They have expanded their brand across the entire globe. They have been extremely successful in selling burgers. Whatever your personal feelings are about McDonalds, they are VERY successful in making a profit and in expanding their own kingdom.
What cannot be argued (in my opinion) is that McDonalds has made beef famous in America and around the world. One would be hard-pressed to find a friend cooking burgers on the grill in their back yard saying, “I hope I can get this beef to taste like McDonalds this time.” I have never seen on any menu of any restaurant, “we only use McDonalds standard beef in our hamburgers.” So while McDonalds is very successful in selling burgers and being famous for burgers, they are not famous for beef, nor are they making beef famous. But of course, that is not their mission. Their mission is to make their own burgers famous. They have that prerogative. The church’s mission is to make Jesus famous. Not our version of Jesus, nor our version of community with Jesus. Just Jesus! Yet oftentimes we behave as if our mission is to make our own church famous. Jesus never gave us the prerogative to do such a thing. The church is His; bought and paid for by His blood on the cross.
Like McDonalds, some churches while working tirelessly on marketing and reaching their communities, are not making Jesus famous. They are making themselves famous and perhaps hoping that by making themselves famous, they will make Jesus famous in the process. They are simply seeking to popularize their own brand of Christianity. And like McDonalds, the brand becomes addictive. People like it. They like the convenience, the system, excellence in service, etc. They stop caring about the quality of food because the system is run so well and the convenience and service are second to none. Perhaps one of the most frightening things a church leader can realize is that you can be successful at growing an organization without making a dent in the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we must regularly ask ourselves: “What am I and my church succeeding in; brand expansion or Kingdom expansion?”
An Example from the Past
One may argue that by expanding the church brand, the Kingdom is expanded. But it never works this way. As long as the focus is on the expansion of the church/brand, it follows that strategy, language, goals, training, discipleship,etc… all become tainted with brand expansion priority. Many “free” churches today are sending the same signal to the world that the Roman Catholic Church was sending on the eve of the Reformation. “In order to get to God, you must come through us. We have the keys to the Kingdom.” Of course, the Roman Catholics believed that their efforts were noble and that they were the best (and only) brand. Thankfully the Holy Spirit moved on the hearts of a few truth seekers who would ignite a movement of Kingdom focused ministry that spread throughout the world and held no brand loyalty and bore no brand name. They were people changed and motivated by the person and work of Jesus Christ. They considered Christ more valuable to themselves, their message, and their ministry than brand loyalty and organizational influence. May more of these rise up today as church planters, pastors, and church leaders who will put Christ and His kingdom first. Leaders who will not replace the gospel of Christ with the gospel of “my church.”
Much more can be said about the myth of attraction. I want to make clear the difference between attractional ministry and attractive ministry as I understand it. Attractional is a strategy for growing a church organization primarily through event advertising and marketing campaigns. Being attractive is characteristic of a church that the Holy Spirit indwells and speaks through as the church shares the truth in love with their neighbors.