The Christian “Brand” Is Beyond Repair

urlAlready I’ve rankled people who bristle at Christianity being a “brand” at all. Get over it. Jesus commanded us to go into the world, to preach, teach and baptize, which makes our faith a matter of public concern. And the Christian brand is continually being damaged, perhaps irreparably.

Consider the Public Religion Research Institute’s study of millenials’ views of Christianity. Three of the top perceptions were anti-gay (64%), judgmental (62%) and hypocritical (58%).

From church trials over the rights of pastors to perform same-sex weddings, to a pastor who wants to burn the Quran—again—to the bizarre rantings about women and girly-men by wildly popular pastor Mark Driscoll, there’s plenty of anecdata to support those statistics.

Then we have the Stingy Tipper Brigade. There’s been a rash of stories about Christians apparently putting their faith into action… by shafting their waitstaff. First there was the pastor who refused to give 18% because after all, she only gives God 10%. Then a photo started making the rounds of a fake 10-dollar bill tucked into a check holder with the message that “SOME THINGS ARE BETTER THAN MONEY, like your eternal salvation, that was brought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.”

Finally, consider Pope Francis. Wait, what? Francis is awesome! Yes, he is. Look, I’m just as gaga as anyone when Pope Francis lets a child sit in his special chair, or embraces a man with boils, or refuses to hate on gays or atheists. He is receiving almost universal adulation at the moment, and rightly so. But here’s the thing: those are supposed to be basic Christian behaviors. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” He touched and associated with the sick and outcast. And his message was one of love, not judgment. So it’s a sad comment when the pope gets plaudits for simply doing what Jesus asked us to do… and it’s a sure sign that the public’s perception Christianity is on the ropes.

So why is this happening?

I see two things coming into play.

First is the role of the Internet and social media for propagating outrageous stories. Are people jerkier for Jesus than they used to be? Who knows, but I doubt it. The jerks, like the poor, will always be with us. (The Crusades, anyone?) It’s just that now we’re privy to every cringe-worthy encounter involving a Christian.

To paraphrase the old adage, the outrageous story travels around the world before the positive story puts on its shoes. Except that in the digital age, the outrageous story also gets liked, retweeted and shared multiple times over, which makes it hard to get a true picture of what’s going on. Is there really an epidemic of bad tipping, or are the same stories being circulated repeatedly? (On the other hand, the story of the waitperson who got stiffed because she was gay? I actually had trouble googling it at first, because there were several.)

Second: Christians whose lives proclaim a different set of values than the boorish headline-grabbers—values of mercy, humility and service—are people who intentionally do not wear their faith on their sleeves. We’ve got an initiative going at the church this month in which we’re encouraging random acts of kindness. This past Sunday we shared a few of those stories. The purpose is to make connections between what we proclaim on Sunday morning and the “sacred ordinary” of our lives.

The reaction has been interesting and telling. Some are wondering why we’re having a kindness initiative at all—shouldn’t we go out of our way to be kind every day? Yes… but some of us need reminders to look beyond the blinders of our own schedules and responsibilities. (People like me, by the way.)

But the other realization in hearing people’s kindness stories is how ordinary they are. They will not get tweeted or YouTubed. And although these folks are motivated by their faith, in no case did they punctuate their actions with, “And by the way, I’m a Christian.”

Let’s see… a disgraceful, homophobic response on the part of a Christian restaurant patron, versus the hour my parishioner spent helping a stranger fix the wheelchair lift on her husband’s van.

In the marketplace of ideas—in the media landscape we currently inhabit—Christianity doesn’t stand a chance.

I see two alternatives: either some of us need to get a lot louder—something I don’t see happening, personally; it’s not in our nature, and it’s likely to backfire anyway—or we need a different term for ourselves. Has anyone found one they like?

I find the whole thing sad. The haters are just SO loud right now. And they are doubly amplified: by people like me who shake their heads at the mean petty behavior in the name of Jesus, and the atheists and the non-religious who say “See?!? I TOLD you the whole thing’s bogus!”

A pastor friend posted one of these stories on FB last week and lamented, “It’s enough to make me give up and play for the other team.” I hear you, bro. But I can’t. I just can’t. This relentlessly persistent and gracious Palestinian Jew won’t let me.

And it’s getting pretty annoying.


UPDATE: A previous version of this blog included a paragraph about a woman who got stiffed on a $93 bill because the patrons didn’t approve of her lesbian “lifestyle.” That story is now in serious doubt, so it has been removed.

17 thoughts on “The Christian “Brand” Is Beyond Repair

  1. Bob Braxton

    You mention the market-place
    of ideas. I suspect the book I have just begun reading
    may have something to say about the market aspect:
    Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets.

  2. Keith Tipton

    Christianity in the USA has, for the last few decades, seemed to me to be either mamby-pamby ineffectual watered down feel-good theology or “I’m ok and all others are heathen” or “god wants you to be rich” televangelist drivel. The best Christianity story I ever heard that I believe was true (not many embellishments):

    More stories like this would redeem Christianity in the USA in my eyes, but I do think that the bad behavior has gotten worse in the past few decades.

  3. Deborah

    I’ve been noticing the same thing about the Pope. Positive? Yes. Inspiring? Yes. A nice papal change? Yes. New Christian behavior? Not really. Absolutely un-revolutionary and back-to-roots Jesus-like behavior — but clearly our tribe has acted and appeared otherwise in recent years.

  4. Zachary McKenzie

    From my perspective, the evangelical push of personal salvation seems to be at the forefront of this issue. Conservative ideals, the so called fundamentals, get in the way of Christians truly living a life worthy of the title. The focus on the self while negating the others is the exact opposite of what was taught. In many ways, many Christians are modern day Pharisees. All talk and no action. This individualist attitude however isn’t just a problem of Christianity but the western world. We have come comfortable and it is hard to shed such comfort. This comfort of course comes on the back of the marginalized.

    Pope Francis may be changing the public face of Christianity for the better, but with that said he still won’t touch women issues. Pope Francis really needs to pick up the issue to truly be accepted by the millennials and beyond.

  5. Constance Marshall

    I gave up on “Christianity” years ago when, as a therapist, I realized that clients asking if I were “a Christian” were not asking if I attended the Episcopal Church. I found this extremely insulting, stopped identifying myself as a “Christian,” and just kept trying to practice the virtues I had been taught in my church.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Yes Constance… Christian has become code for a whole host of things.

      Your comment reminds me of a post by a friend on FB today:

      This morning’s telephone conversation:
      Caller – I’d like to visit your church this morning. How do I get there?
      Me – (I give him directions.)
      Caller – You are an evangelical church?
      Me – Yes, we are an evangelical church of the Presbyterian Church USA. I preach the gospel every Sunday.
      Caller – Doctrinally sound?
      Me – Yes.
      Caller: Good! I’m just visiting and I see all these churches that say they are “gay and lesbian friendly” and garbage like that.
      Me – Well, we are friendly to all people too including gay and lesbian people, and welcome everyone to the Lord’s table.
      Caller – You preach against that right?
      Me – No. That is what it means to be evangelical proclaiming the Good News.
      Caller – silence. (Hangs up the phone.)

  6. Lukewise

    I have a problem with brands and labels in general. It helps that the spiritual path that resonates the most with me is against “naming” oneself, in fact there is language that directly cautions against doing that.

    This reminds me of something that I want to talk to you more about:
    If being a Christian means living in a Christ like way, and Jesus himself was somewhat of a revolution against the prevailing thought of the time he lived, then isn’t the most effective way to be “Christ-Like” is to wage a similar “revolution” against the prevailing thought of the time, even if the prevailing thought is Christianity itself?

    Again, I am seeing this somewhat through the lens of actively avoiding labels as they can be abstractions from the essence of truth and “purpose” that religion seeks to reconcile. Let’s follow Christ as he lives within each of us, and let our actual actions be the inspiration others need to find the path. Jesus himself was not a labeled Christian, why should we be?

  7. Keith

    Had any Christian ever stepped up and been “louder” when Christians were publicly mistreating my non-Christian family, it wouldn’t have taken me another 35 years to theorize that maybe I could find some Christians I could respect, despite their religion, and go looking for them. That’s why I know you.

    I keep trying to make this comment less confrontational, but that’s a little hypocritical, because my point is that yes, if you want the brand back, you need to be confrontational, and quite clearly so—and it needs to be done where those hurt by “Christianity” can see it and spread the word.

    I haven’t studied theology, so this may be a stupid place to go with it, but reading the cleansing of the Temple, it has always seemed to me that Jesus knew when to make it quite clear that he had a spine.

    “A lot louder” isn’t needed. “Taking any kind of unambiguous public stand at all” is. Say “These are not Christians” in as low a voice as you need to. Just do it where some non-Christians can hear you, and do it more than once. Because maybe memory is imperfect and I’m wrong, but in my entire life, either physical in two different cities, or online since the birth of the Internet, not once can I remember any Christian ever doing so.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Wait. You’ve never heard Christians denounce other Christians who are being hateful in the name of Christ? You’ve never heard *me* do that?

      I’m so dumbfounded by this that I must have misunderstood you.

      There’s an entire movement on the Internet doing this, called “Not All Like That.” Clearly they need to get the word out more.

      As for your specific formulation, “These are not Christians,” I didn’t have room in the post to talk about the “no true Scotsman” issues at play. I often quip that I refuse to call Westboro Baptist Church a church. But the fact is, they are a church. I don’t think we get to decide what people call themselves. Just like it bothers me when people gripe over minorities wanting to be “African-American.” People have the right to name themselves, as much as it makes my skin crawl that those funeral-protesting attention whores use the same word as the group of people I serve with at Tiny.

      So, I took a different angle in post and said, in effect, “They call themselves Christians. So be it. Then I’m not a Christian because that word is meaningless. But as a follower of Jesus, WHAT AM I?”

      I don’t care to have the brand back. I just want one that’s descriptive and accurate.

      More to say but I need to get back.

  8. Keith

    Denounce, totally. Criticize, for sure. Say “Those aren’t Christians?” No, and I understand why not. I had Logic 101; I know the No True Scotsman. And yet, the end result of that pilpul is that a needed truth goes unheard by those who most need to hear it. Fairness gets in the way of heart. That can’t help but behave like systemic complicity, even if there’s no personal complicity. (This is a lesson that has come with great difficulty to me, since I’m naturally more fair-minded.)

    *If* the perception of the non-Christian world is what you’re thinking about, which is how I took this, and what I had in mind with my response, then I don’t think a change of terminology is going to do much. If you want a word you just know to be descriptive and accurate about yourself, “Christian” seems perfectly fine to me. But they’re not the same question: Brand recognition can’t be maintained without defining what *is not* that brand.

    That Not All Like That video is, from my perspective, timid stuff and a little confused. (Who’s the “we” in “we are not all like that?” Christians? So you’re saying Christians are like that, just as we suspected, but some of you have gay best friends?) I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for the participants when I watch it. But I’m not the intended audience, and I suspect it might help, since just seeming like you’re capable of possibly being warm and welcoming is more important, at this point, than making sense.

    1. Bob Braxton

      Pepsi / Mountain Dew Coca-Cola is not (ask anyone in Atlanta, Georgia, the South where Pepsi vs. Coke is important as the Recent Misunderstanding – a hundred and fifty years on.

  9. Curtis

    Something far more difficult than jettisoning all the jerks, coming up with a new name, and just hanging out with those who “get it”, is trying to get along with others, even those you strongly disagree with. Did Jesus abandon the Jews in order to reach out to the Gentiles? No, he brought them all together. — “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Not simple at all.

  10. David Ensign

    Thanks for the provocation. I’ll push back a bit on the word “church” with respect to the Westboro folks. If the root of ekklesia means something along the lines of those called out to gather as community (my own riff on the combined Greek roots) I don’t think Westboro counts — there is nothing of gathered community in their clan (or, perhaps that should be spelled with a K) — it’s a single family held together not by any shared calling out but rather by a controlling personality. To give in to their use of “church” strikes me as almost Orwellian. I don’t think evil gets to name itself as good — at least not without meeting all the resistance I can muster.


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