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My View

Words to brand by

By Christopher White

Our congregation is in the early stages of a branding process. In the beginning, I thought that it was just about a logo and a mission statement. But it’s much more than that. It’s about our essential identity as a community of faith and how we deliver that throughout every sector and moment of the church experience — from when you first walk in the door, through to worship and even governance. It’s about understanding, telling and integrating our story.

Branding is something that the private sector takes very seriously, and there is much that church people can learn from it. In fact, if you read business literature these days, you will notice something quite interesting: writers are using the language of faith, values and evangelism — just as we seem to be moving away from it.

In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz writes that the company’s mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time.” The book uses terms such as “full of humanity,” “human connection,” “respect,” “dignity” and “being a force for positive action.” These words are part of our church lexicon, but Schultz is referring to a cup of coffee. For Schultz, coffee is the means and metaphor for creating community and a third place between work and home. The place that church used to fill.

And it’s not just Starbucks. Banks such as HSBC have made global sustainability part of their corporate mission. They have trained 1,400 employees to work directly with Earthwatch and the World Wildlife Fund, and have been carbon neutral since 2005.

American author and theologian Leonard Sweet has noticed this as well. In his book The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion, he points out that corporate America has appropriated the language of faith. He believes that as a church, we are losing our language because we “don’t know what to do with our own stuff.”

This was illustrated to me very clearly at a Presbytery meeting where the mission strategy was presented. When the suggestion was made that a statement about “making disciples” be included, the meeting erupted in dissension. I spoke to Sweet about this and asked why the church seems to be moving away from its own language just as business is embracing it. He responded, “I simply don’t know; it’s a mystery to me.” Part of it, he asserts, has to do with the church “not liking the mission that Jesus gave it and wanting to create a different one.”

For the church to thrive in the future, Sweet believes it needs to answer just one question: “How resonant is your story?” Do our churches’ stories connect and resonate with the communities around them? If businesses can articulate their story, so can the church.

Call it branding, call it telling our story, call it anything you like. But if we are no longer invested in making disciples, if we believe that we have nothing to offer those outside the church, then I think Howard Schultz would be interested in our locations. He wants to make disciples every day.

Rev. Christopher White is a minister at Fairlawn Avenue United in Toronto.

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