Jesus is Not a Brand: The Bad

January 5, 2009 by

This is part one of a two-part post discussing the recent Christianity Today article Jesus is Not a Brand, by Tyler Wigg Stevenson, the author of Brand Christianity. We mentioned the article last week and generated some initial discussion.

“Jesus is Not a Brand” is well-written, and I think the author would find himself largely in agreement with us here at Church Marketing Sucks. I certainly recommend the entirety of his long article for intelligent discourse on some of the inherent problems with brands and the traps that churches can fall into.

He has arguments that are inspirational, eloquent and mostly spot-on, but I’d like to address a few of the article’s fundamental flaws. This is neither an attack on him or Christianity Today, it is simply our addition to a great conversation surrounding church marketing. And moreover, judging by his article, it is largely a discussion in semantics.

All that said, let’s get to his arguments and a few basic misinterpretations.

  • What he refers to as “marketing,” we refer to as “ineffective marketing.” He speaks of “a sophisticated sales pitch” and “salesy evangelism.” These are traditional methods of marketing, and they are often why church marketing sucks.
  • He argues that the gospel is not a product, but he does not explain why it is not a product. I realize it seems callous, but the gospel is a lifestyle with a cost. For the purposes of marketing, the only difference between the gospel and a product is that the gospel is a lifestyle rather than a good or service. Of course the gospel is so much more than a product, which is why we care about communicating this message in the first place.
  • His argument digresses quickly into a manifesto against consumerism and loses focus of churches and their marketing efforts. This just misses the point and detracts from his argument.
  • He assumes that church marketing means meeting every felt need. We certainly would not argue this, and perhaps we should have more to say on this here on Church Marketing Sucks.

When marketing is viewed as simply a sales pitch, we miss out on a lot. Certainly evangelism is an aspect of marketing, but more importantly marketing is communicating the entire gospel. Sometimes that looks like public relations in the form of good deeds. Sometimes it looks like a brand that communicates excitement or simplicity. But it should always look like Christ.

One particularly troubling assertion Wigg Stevenson makes is this:

In other words, people who respond to church marketing approach Jesus as another consumer option. This is first and foremost a problem because it is blasphemy: We are talking about the incarnate Logos, not a logo.

I worry that we might differ on the definition of a consumer option. By my estimation, this means that there are multiple options, and one chooses which to consume. In the case of Christ, it seems that one may either continue in their own ways with little perceived cost or follow Christ at a high cost. These are their consumer options. And this is what Jesus has to say about that:

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ “Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? “Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.
-Luke 14:27-33 (NASB)

Jesus instructs us to look at the world around us–the sin, the rampant consumption, the pleasure–and decide if we want to follow Him instead.

We can’t help but look at Christ as a consumer option; there is such a high price for a life with Him. Each church must communicate that it has a greater value on Sunday mornings than sleeping in. It has to communicate that being a member of their body is more valuable than chasing the pleasures of the world. Going to church on Sunday morning is a consumer option just like sleeping in or going out to breakfast. We know that Jesus is so much more than a consumer option, which gives us the confidence to do what we do, but as we interact with the world we’re just one more option to choose from. This is the task of the church marketer, and it’s much closer to wisdom than blasphemy (we hope).

Wigg Stevenson has a strong aversion to consumerism mingled into churches, and we’re right on board with him. The difference is that we believe churches must help individuals consume Christ in order to escape the consumerism and foolishness of this world.

But this is only half the story. The article has some great lessons for churches, which we will discuss in part two of this article.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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11 Responses to “Jesus is Not a Brand: The Bad”

  • Nick Charalambous
    January 5, 2009

    I think you sum up well when you say “we believe churches must help individuals consume Christ in order to escape the consumerism and foolishness of this world.” There’s an inherent paradox in all critiques of the way we promote Christianity in that what is imagined in some state where the message of Christ would be spread without any work at all. I think the healings and the signs and wonders in Jesus very own ministry were “promotional help.” Faith is always a response to a felt need. We need to help people understand the need and then understand that Jesus is the only way to meet it. Classsic marketing.

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  • Brian Yamabe
    January 5, 2009

    In a future article I think you need to define what you mean by gospel. When you say the gospel can look like a good deed, or a brand that communicates excitement or simplicity, I don’t know what gospel you’re talking about.
    There is only one Gospel and that is that Christ died for you, a poor miserable sinner. That is what is to be proclaimed by the church, not the cost or benefits of the Gospel. It’s when you put forward this cost/benefit approach that it is seen as marketing.
    Churches don’t help individuals consume Christ. They are the means which Christ uses to grow and sustain his body. Nick mentions the imagined state where the Gospel is spread without any work. God could have used this method by directing the Holy Spirit to act directly, but he chose to use his church through which the Holy Spirit works. In either case, it is not the churches work it is the Holy Spirits.
    Re: Faith
    It is never a response to a felt need. It is always a gift from God, unmerited by the recipient. (Bad paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-9)

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  • Tyler Seabolt
    January 5, 2009

    I feel that Stevenson’s article, though long, just seems to dig a shallow trough in a subject that needs a more thorough digging. I’m sure I don’t need to convince CMS of that.
    I think Stevenson in a way attempts to simplify a subject that isn’t to be simplified. It should be complicated…
    All to often we venture out in Christian mission/outreach/evangelism/program without careful thought. I think the greatest “sin” we commit is assumption.

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  • Alex
    January 5, 2009

    I agree, this article did seem to miss the point of the good discussion that i thought it was going to have. The Gospel is not a commodity to be sold, but in today’s media driven culture, in order for it to be heard over all the chatter, i think it is our responsibility as Christians to speak it as loud as we can, and this includes marketing it as best we can.
    When we here speak of the “cost” and “selling” the gospel, i think we are speaking in semantic terms that just allow us to have a logical conversation about this. its the end result that matters.

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  • seanPdesign
    January 5, 2009

    I think both the magazine and this website are getting it wrong.
    Kevin D. Hendricks in a comment on the last post about this topic was right on the money IMHO, but CMS is still not portraying that knowledge and understanding of what Church marketing should be.
    Church marketing is out of hand, no one is doing it correctly save a few tiny churches, and no one is really teaching it correctly either.
    I always say, if you can’t do something right, you shouldn’t do it. The Church needs to start marketing correctly, or stop trying and focus on just being good at church.

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  • Brit Windel
    January 5, 2009

    Can I say that this is a great review and one of the most articulate things you guys have ever put out. so thank you
    my only quarrel would be the ease of applying directly marketed term definitions towards things theological and ‘gospel’. I totally see your points and would agree with them purely on definitions… but my big question is that with all things faded and fashion filled….when with the marketing talk be the past like modern, postmodern, charismatic, emerging, traditional ministry are all if not all ready faded becoming so

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  • Melissa
    January 6, 2009

    Something not mentioned here is that the medium is the message, as Wigg-Stevenson points out (top pg.22). The simple fact that the gospel is presented in a marketing fashion will automatically send a message to consumers, regardless of the actual content of the message. How you say something means more than what you actually say.

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  • Brett
    January 6, 2009

    Tyler speaks of the danger of churches becoming overcommercialised. Whilst the danger is real I believe what Tyler is really pointing to is bad church, bad theology and bad church marketing.
    I think the key to marketing external to the church is to strike a chord with the recipient, whilst remaining authentic to the Truth of the gospel message. (Albeit this is challenging, in a western world increasingly cynical of all marketing, and where there is much underlying negative sentiment towards Christianity). I might be naïve but I think this is achievable without being salesy and false.
    And when they go and have a look, then they can hear the Gospel in full, in a loving church community, which creates an opportunity for the power of the Gospel to transcend that shallow consumer mentality, and allow God to change lives.

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  • Bradley Cochran
    January 10, 2009

    Thanks for writing this response. I was trouble by the article, and post my thoughts on my blog.
    I also just downloaded a new podcast at that was done before this article came out, which addresses some of the key issues which he raises in his article. I have six more of similar podcasts on marketing and the gospel which will be downloaded at the same website, and I hope these will provide an alternative perspective to the article in CT.

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  • Bradley Cochran
    January 10, 2009

    Oh yeah … and the cool thing is, the podcast is only 8 minutes long, and the others are all under 15 minutes long, so it won’t take you long to check them out (

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  • Sheila Branscombe
    February 9, 2009

    Referring the cost-benefit approach. Really? The institutional church has been using this approach for years. “Follow Christ or burn in hell.” That’s a cost benefit statement. And it doesn’t work anymore. I agree heartly with Joshua Cody’s comment, and if you don’t like the word consume, how about be surrounded by Christ?
    Frankly so many churches are so deeply navel gazing that they have forgotten to be the church. And whatever “advertising” they do, only appeals to other christians, creating impetus for transfer growth and transfer death.

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