Engaging CultureStrategy & MarketingChristian Media

Re-Branding Mainstream Churches – Does it help?

You’ve probably noticed that the Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, and the Episcopal denominations have all launched major advertising campaigns with some others to follow.  I wrote the book on branding in the religious and non-profit space, but I have to admit, this is a real chicken and egg thing.

While I’m all for organizations telling their story more effectively, you have to have a unique story to tell in the first place.  In other words, what has changed about these mainline organizations that have been dramatically losing membership over the last decades?  After all this money spent on advertising, will new members show up and see something different?

Apple’s advertising works because it simply tells the story of great products.  But do these and other mainline denominations really have a new brand / story / vision (whichever word you are most comfortable with)?  The advertising has changed, but has the experience in the pew?  Are they just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

Any mainliners out there who can comment?  What do you think?

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  1. Ultimately advertising campaigns have little to do with branding.  What matters is the actual experience that customers have with the product or service.  The brand only exists in the mind of the customer or the potential customer.  Advertising may influence someone to take a drink, but the brand begins to be built on that first sip.

    Word-of-Mouth is the new mass media.

  2. Going off your Titanic metaphor, i think they’re doing more than re-arranging deck chairs, less than avoiding the iceberg.  Maybe something like "they’re forming bucket brigades to try and keep the water levels down".

    People aren’t going on the United Methodist’s website to find out that the people are judgemental and hypocritical, they’re meeting the people that fit that perception.   

    In my area (Des Moines, IA) there are a number of churches that are currently redefining, reredefining, and trying everything they can to have a wider appeal.  Churches are putting up new signs, updating websites, and getting new hip message graphics.  All of these things are good, but the inner experience at the majority of the churches remains unchanged. 

  3. Hey Phil, I’ve been to a couple "re-branded" churches with new church 2.0 style graphics. The branding continues in the sanctuary on posters/banners/bulletins, but the experience is EXACTLY the same old church 1.0 = Welcome, music, announcements, offering, sermon, etc. The EXPERIENCE has to change as well as the look and messaging, otherwise it feels like false advertising, and you know we can smell that a mile away.

    The crux of what needs to change? It’s not easy, but in my opinion it’s the 1-to-Many communication. There is no interaction, just massive passive participation = boring. They should take a hint from the internet — young people need more interaction, they want to play along and have their say too, not just sit, and telling them to "join a small group" shouldn’t be the only answer — are we serious? You mean, if I want to interact, and have a sense of community, I have to come back on another day, at another location??? Whuut? If people are bored on Sunday, and didn’t get a chance to participate, why would they go even deeper and try Wed night? Isn’t it strange that most people go to church, never talk to anyone except the mandatory "say hello to the person next to you", then go home? But can you blame them? Haven’t we created the environment/service to encourage just that? Just look at the physical design alone: Pews are for observing a stage. Aisles are for exiting, if you try to stop and talk, the crowd frowns cuz you’re blocking them. Foyers are the smallest part of the building, forcing people into the parking lot… encouraging folks to um, get in their car and leave.

    I’m glad churches are trying to be relevant, etc, but rebranding is only half the equation. It would be cool if they put up a projector and show people’s tweets while the pastor was talking. Now that would be an engaging experience. Ok that’s kind of risky, but you have to admit, it wouldn’t be boring. We need to start thinking along those "participatory engagement" lines, and configure both the service and buildings to move toward many-to-many interactions.

    The second problem with 1-to-many is that if today’s theme or sermon doesn’t apply to you, then you feel like the service is not designed for you. What if as soon as you walked in the door, (or after worship and announcements) you could "pick" your experience. Go here if you’re feeling down, go here if you’re trying to find your calling, go here if you’re in financial trouble, etc. Sort of like how there are micro-specific communities on the web (like your blog) or "groups" on Facebook centered around your particular interests. People will say "there aren’t enough pastors for that", well, here’s an idea: Get laypeople who are interested in those topics to lead those groups. Film people help film newbies. CPAs help people do a budget. Everyone will participate in the arena they already have a passion for. Last time I checked aren’t WE (meaning entire body) supposed to be the church to each other? Rather than pastoral staff doing all the "ministering" then begging CPAs and Film People to be parking lot attendants or help in the nursery, which are totally outside their calling/passion area? I don’t know a single pastor who would say "no" to members helping each other a little more, rather than the entire congregation looking to him/her to do all the feeding. We need to structure into smaller communities centered around specific interests — that’s what web 2.0 has given us — the ability to choose to engage with and join what we want/need at the moment.

    And of course, aside from the service structure, the other piece that’s missing is, well, um, a genuine experience of God??? Hello? We can alter the service and branding all we want but if God’s presence isn’t felt, and his Truth come to bear directly upon our lives somehow, then what are we doing? That’s a subject for another time… cheers, thanks for the great blog.

  4. Hey Phil – great blog subject.  What we have here – (in Cool Hand Luke terms) – is a "failure to communicate." And there isn’t an advertising campaign that will save this ship.

    It’s what I call the commoditization of the faith experience.  Now let’s praise, do announcements, take an offering, preach a sermon – and "get r done" in one hour and fifteen minutes.  There’s an internal clock that tells us not only what’s coming next but how long each element will take.  BORING!

     And for years church leaders have bemoaned the fact that"10% of the people do 90% of the work."  Could it be that we’re not tapping into the awesome potential that generational media gives to us? I really like Dave Kang’s idea of building interactivity into the service.  There has to be a way to do that.  If not – I’m afraid that all of us – not just the mainliners – will loose a generation!

  5. Great questions.  Think you’ve highlighted a couple of critical issues: authenticity, and the power of a unique story. 

    If the story being told isn’t authentic (i.e., it doesn’t apply for a particular churches in the denomination), then the re-branding would only serve to alienate/confuse rather than attract in those cases.  And if the story isn’t particularly unique or remarkable, then it merely adds to the noise and fails to make the desired connection.

    Key questions for denominations: Is the goal to tell your own unique story (emphasizing denominational distinctives), or help individual churches in telling their own?  Do these goals compete, or are they compatible?

  6. It’s always tempting, isn’t it, to think that a sexy ad campaign and a fresh logo (not to mention dropping the denomination’s name from the church sign) will stem declining membership (and revenue!)

    Trouble is that those churches often can’t deliver on the brand promise made by those actions because, as has been said above, the experience didn’t change to match.

    I would argue, though, that traditional mainline churches have value AS THEY ARE (more or less) and would be far more successful with ad campaign that didn’t require a re-brand. In other words, make a brand promise that you an actually deliver on. These churches may not get the Lind of new worshipers they THINK they need – but they just might get the kind of new worshipers that need THEM, just as they are.

    Mainline churches need to tell the story, not change the story.

  7. I’m not comfortable using "story," "branding," or "vision" interchangeably.

    Story happens. Branding is manufactured. Vision is a picture of a preferred future.

    Story happens, it eminates from reality. After crossing the Red Sea, Israel told a story by singing Miriam’s song. They sang it for no one but themselves. Branding is fundamentally different. A brand is manufactured for the purpose of selling and it may have nothing at all to do with reality.

    The impetus behind Israel singing their story wasn’t to manage their image. The impetus was worship.

    The answer for any church isn’t to manufacture a story which they then tell, which is the essence of branding. (I’m not going to join the Mainline pile-on because I’ve seen everything, from house churches to Cathedrals, positioned throughout the spectrum between living and dead.)

    The answer for any church is to carry out its divinely appointed purpose. It needs to worship. A church worships collectively by telling stories of the God who is loving and faithful and thus worthy of being ascribed worth. Here you are correct, there needs to exist active stories of grace in order to tell them.

    But a lack of stories of grace isn’t addressed by advertising in order to bring more bodies in the door; nor is it addressed by manufacturing a unique story in order to bring more bodies in the door.

    A lack of stories of grace is addressed by stopping, noticing and finding stories of grace. God is always moving. It is precisely through telling stories of grace that a church comes alive to its identity and mission. And God wants and uses local churches, whether of 3 or 3000, who are alive to their identity and mission.

  8. Hear, hear. I think that one of the "weaknesses" of the declining mainline church is also its strength: When numbers are low, each person matters and is noticed. When a tragedy struck and my house caught on fire, somehow I completely "fell through the cracks" and off the radar of the large non-denominational church to which I belonged. It was the little traditional church down the block which came to my family’s aid and provided the love and support we needed during those first few days and months. When I attend that little church, I can look around and know, "There’s the woman whose pajamas I slept in that first night, who with her husband put us in their guest rooms for those first few days; the woman who came up to us in the super market and offered to buy us whatever we needed; the pastor who opened the church to us and helped us to navigate the initial dealings with insurance representatives, etc. etc.

    After an extended time away, I do still attend the large church from time to time, but my heart belongs to the little church down the block. I hope that more people might "return to their roots" and help bring life back to the little gems holding on to the traditions of our forefathers…both in liturgy and in loving their neighbors.


  9. Good word Chris.

    We have noticed that they have spent millions on new campaigns.  Did anyone notice if they have spent millions on new remodels, technology, programs, outreaches, staff, etc?

    The commercial hooks you, but the experience keeps you.  That will be the difference here. 

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