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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Branding and the Word

Interesting article over at emergingchurch.info entitled No more tea vicar. An interview with Steve Collins, the article discusses branding the church -- summing up the church with an image and aesthetic -- something particularly resonant with me in the midst of my current McLuhan, medium/message kick.

Collins explains:

branding is, or was initially, about selling - making a clear statement in the marketplace, attracting and keeping customers. organisations that don't see their primary purpose as competing for sales [or haven't until recently] don't have brands, and struggle to create them. the national health service doesn't have a brand, nor do most government bodies. likewise churches - all these things have been 'service providers' [no pun intended] for complex needs not reducible to consumer goods. the recent extension of branding into the construction of the self, and into a general symbolic language, means that these organisations have been obliged to develop branding, in order to deal with anti-branding. by which i mean, that everything you do is now read as branding anyway, so if you don't take care it just looks like bad branding. which is what has happened to a lot of the church.

branding is about clarity, communication, recognition. brands are succinct summings-up of what you stand for. most of the church doesn't have clarity, can't agree on what it stands for, is full of dissenting voices and loose cannons. successful branding requires coherence across the whole organisation, so that people receive the correct message wherever they touch it. everyone has to sign up, everyone has to be on-message. which isn't the church! the parts of the church that are successful with branding are small enough or coherent enough or have a single agreed purpose, such as mission agencies.

there's also the matter of design. brands happen because a small part of an organisation has been tasked with creating a brand which can then be imposed across the whole organisation and all its works. rebranding, say, the church of england would require centralised control of a kind which isn't there. you have to stop mrs. bloggs using the wrong font on the church noticesheet! and rebranding a local church requires sufficient expertise [and agreement] within that congregation, which isn't going to happen in most places.

Being an editor and a graphic designer, I love excellent typography, clean design, and so on. Really, there are few things outside of theology that I get more excited about. I agree with Collins in that the church is having a bit of an identity crisis now. But the church, as the bride of Christ, isn't going to sum up her identity in a trendy typeface, better layout for the church bulletin, or even the image of the cross hung at the front of the sanctuary.

Collins goes on:

this construction of identity, or offering of identity, by the church through material means was not something that happened much in protestant countries. here the construction of the self depended on words, spoken and written, and the 'inner' and intellectual was privileged over the outer and sensual.

This is a poor division of the spoken word from the world experienced with our senses. In the beginning God spoke the world into being -- creating the sensual from the oral. For the church, Christ is incarnate as Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church is created and sustained by the invocation of the Word (the preaching of the Gospel), and the administration of the sacraments into which the Word has been placed. (See my post More than words).

Collins talks about branding as being a "succinct summing up of what you stand for." In Word and sacrament, the church not only has a summing up of what she stands for, but the summing up (and gathering together) of what she is.

Wherever Word and sacrament are faithfully administered the church is present. Word and sacrament cannot be administered outside of the body of Christ, because by their very nature they invoke His body.

To amplify, the church is only identified in Word and sacrament. Anything else is merely a lot of tired looking people in the same place at the same time. But see how even the weariest of hearts can be revived in the Gospel. Those who have been given ears to hear by the power of the Spirit are marked with an alien righteousness:

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
- St. Paul, Romans 2:28-29

When the incarnate Word is heard and sacraments received, by the power of the Holy Spirit our hearts are circumcised. If the church is to have any brand at all, it is the sign of the cross upon our lives, the mark of the Gospel of Christ.

Collins has made a valid point when he says the church is full of dissenting voices: When so much of the church loses sight of the Gospel, she loses sight of her identity.

Certainly, good design and sensible color choice are valuable. We benefit from color's use throughout the liturgical year, and good design just makes things easier to read. But the church cannot be another subculture of the world, defined by an image, she must be a colony of heaven, defined by the living, breathing reality of the Gospel of Christ.