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The Biggest Mistake Church Leaders Can Make

Since writing my book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media,” I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of experts in the field who have significant things to say to church leaders about the power of a great brand.  One of those experts is Denise Lee Yohn, author of the book “What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles That Separate the Best from the Rest.”  I asked Denise if she could share one message with pastors and ministry leaders today, what would it be?  Here’s her answer.  It’s counter-intuitive for many, but from my experience, worth considering:

Church leaders tend to make the same mistake as business leaders do. When it comes to deciding who their organization is for, they try to appeal to everybody. It’s the same mistake ministry leaders make when it comes to recruiting volunteers. And many non-profits make it in their fundraising.

Some pastors think they can and should be a church for all people. They want to reach as many people as they can (all for God’s glory, of course.) They don’t want to be exclusionary or unwelcoming — or even appear to be. They don’t want to miss out on helping people who come to them with needs or lose people who have been in their church for years.  So they spread their resources across so many different ministries and programs that none have what they need to thrive. They make their worship services so generic that they end up being unmemorable. They try to include everyone in everything but end up with congregations that are connected only superficially. They preach so many different messages that no one is clear about what the church believes is really important.

Eventually they experience the same fate as businesses that chase customers — they fail to attract people, don’t make much of an impact, and sometimes end up wondering if they really have a reason for being.

You don’t have to take this path. You can make a wise and disciplined choice to stand for something clearly; to be for some people and not necessarily for others; to adopt a mission, values, personality, and scope of influence for your church that reflects a real point of view and specific calling. You can do what great brands do.

When you decide to be clear about your uniqueness and attract people with shared values instead of chasing everyone, you:

achieve greater resonance and impact — like Red Bull, the energy drink brand that has become a legendary brand by adopting a somewhat alienating brand personality that appeals to rebellious students but turns off their teachers

are better able to serve the core people of your community — like Sweetgreen, a fast-growing fast casual restaurant chain that decided it would no longer accept cash payments in order to speed up its service for those more profitable customers who pay with credit or mobile app

operate with greater integrity — like CVS, the much-admired drugstore company that decided it was willing to lose $2 billion in revenue by removing tobacco from its shelves in order to achieve its mission of helping people on their path to better health

Great brands don’t chase customers; great churches don’t chase people.


Blending a fresh perspective, twenty-five years of experience working with world-class brands including Sony and Frito-Lay, and a talent for inspiring audiences, Denise Lee Yohn is a leading authority on building and positioning exceptional brands. Denise is the author of the bestselling book, What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles That Separate the Best from the Rest.  Follow her on Twitter: @deniseleeyohn.  

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  1. I have been actively involved in church leadership for my entire adult life and I have seen the truth of this post play out in reality. I was involved in a stalled, suburban church that decided to make a shift. The church had experienced growth at times, and was on the large side compared to national averages. But they weren’t focused. They were trying to be (as it says above) “a church for all people.” We took active steps to accomplish 3 main things. 1) make room for new people, 2) be more focused and intentional about who we were trying to reach, and 3) be clear to all about our “reason for being” (a clear direction that we called people to).

    It took about 3 years of ground work with only a small amount of growth, but then the church doubled in the next 3 years. And now, 2 years later, the church has tripled and is working towards quadrupling. Their limiting factor has become physical space.

    Being focused and intentional about who we were and who we were trying to reach made decision making so much easier! But it did take some time to shift the culture and make physical changes (make space for people).

    I now live in a small town in a rural area (more like where I grew up). The dynamics are very different.

    I think these principles still hold true, but I wonder if a rural church can be as focused as a suburban church? I’d be curious to know what others think.

  2. Wonderful! I think this works in family, especially in Parenting too.
    Parents today are a confused lot, more so in my country of India.
    We live in a transition mode, a paradigm shift and an unstable society. There’s a tussle between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern or postmodern and the past and the present.
    The ones who are really caught in this dilemma, more than anyone else, are the Christian believers, who are yet to recognize the gap between Indian Christianity and Biblical Christianity.
    Add to this their own unwillingness to change and the usual generation gap that exists anywhere and what do you have?
    Parents, though sincere,yet, appear to be either outdated or hypocrites!
    Choosing not to be everything to the kids, but standing for the Biblical principles that are supra cultural, constant at all times for all people everywhere, will bring stability and poise to both parents & progeny!

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