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How Church and Ministry Branding Went Wrong and How to Fix It

In 2008, Baker Books published my book “Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t.” As far as I know, it was the first book to take a deep dive into the concept of branding for churches and ministry outreaches. While I took some heat from more traditional leaders convinced that branding was from the devil, for most pastors, it was a revelation to understand the power of perception.

Shortly after, social media was introduced to an already changing culture, and 3 years later, in 2011, I updated it to a completely new version called “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.” In both books, the concept of branding is pretty simple.

As branding veteran Dawn Nicole Baldwin says, “A brand is a promise of what to expect and how consistently you deliver on that promise.”

It’s also executed in partnership with what we call “positioning,” which is simply the story that surrounds your church or ministry. In other words, what do people think of when they think of you?

The point is, in a world where research indicates people see an average of 10,000 media messages per day, where people engage mobile devices hundreds of times a day, and we’re being overwhelmed with competing messages, that story becomes critical.

After “Branding Faith” was published, the idea of branding for churches and ministries launched magazine articles and conferences, and people started getting excited about engaging their communities with a powerful and compelling story.

But before long, there were countless church branding agencies and experts on church branding. For many, to justify their existence, they created multiple processes, complex techniques, and certification programs. At some point, church branding almost became a religion itself.

Back in the thick of it, I had one major ministry call to let me know they had spent almost $250,000 on a branding project, and the result was a 600-page document they had no idea what to do with.

What so many of those branding “experts” seemed to forget was that the benefit of a brand is to help you stand out, get noticed, and, most importantly, get people in the door.

After that point, it isn’t about the brand. They didn’t seem to understand that the true purpose of a church’s brand is to point people to Jesus.

But too many were caught up in the excitement and kept on branding. They branded the pastor, the worship band, the youth director – even their missions outreach. One church asked me to create a brand around the pastor’s son (no thanks). At some point, many churches were more focused on their brand than they were on the people they were supposed to reach.

Around that time, I had a friend in New York City who was an enthusiastic member of Hillsong church. He loved everything about Hillsong – the music, the videos, the conferences, the pastors, and the friends he developed there. But oddly enough, back in those days I never heard him talk much about his relationship with Jesus, his love for the Bible, or his desire to share his faith with other people.

A few years later, when the pastor was forced to step down because of a moral failure, my friend was shocked, to say the least (and rightly so). Then, for a number of reasons, the crisis expanded, other Hillsong churches left, and founding pastor Brian Houston eventually stepped down.

At that point, my friend was devastated. It wasn’t long before he left that church, then left Christianity entirely, and the last time I heard, he was studying to become a Buddhist.

From my perspective, it seemed that, in his case, the commitment was to that church’s brand, not to discipleship or the actual purpose of the church. And it’s actually understandable. When everything becomes about the brand, it’s not difficult to see how easy it is for the congregation to focus on exactly that.

By contrast, another friend at that same church saw beyond the Hillsong brand and focused on becoming a disciple. So when the church imploded, while she was heartbroken, she understood it wasn’t the capital “C” Church that failed; it was individual leaders, and it was the brand.

Since then, she and a core of other members of the church have been working to rebuild that community of believers and make sure they understand where the focus really needs to be – and I wish them well.

The point is that the conversation about branding for churches and ministries I and a few others started more than 20 years ago has gone off the rails, and we need to right the ship.

So how do we fix it?

Let’s put branding back into perspective. I contend that a brand still matters, and your perception in the community matters. After all, if people don’t have a positive perception of your church, they’ll never walk in the door or engage online.

Back to Dawn: “A brand’s purpose is actually to give direction & guide your efforts so everything is headed in the same direction. It’s how your vision is expressed. If you say one thing but do another, the brand is out of alignment. This is what happens at a lot of churches that plaster young people on their website when, in reality, everyone in the congregation is over 80. Many churches have prioritized the execution of the brand over the purpose of the brand— which should be just an extension of the church’s purpose of helping to connect people with God.”

Dawn’s right. Branding is important, but it’s not some kind of complicated mystery. And remember, no matter what, not everyone will be interested in your church or ministry, and that’s OK.

Branding is a tool, not an end in itself. A business can spend millions on their brand, but if they produce an inferior product, they’ll have wasted the money. However, other companies have discovered that a compelling brand linked to a great product creates an army of committed customers. And with churches, because there are different churches/worship styles for different people, brands and experiences will look different. But we’re all different parts of the same body with the same ultimate purpose.

So, let’s get our priorities straight once again. Let’s make sure that we’re delivering inside our doors first, so that when our brand story brings them in, their lives will change – forever.

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