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A Conversation About Rebranding Christianity

Earlier this year, Chase Oaks Lead Pastor Jeff Jones sat down with two influential marketing/communications executives, Michelle Oh Sing and Mike Hogan, to talk about the concept of rebranding Christianity. They explored what rebranding is (and isn’t), why it matters, and what role Jesus followers have in the process. Read some excerpts from their conversation, below.

MICHELLE OH SING:  Let me set a little bit of context. I’m going to share three stats to get us started. In 1972, 90% of the US identified as Christian. Today that number is 64%. The fastest growing religious group in the US is what is referred to as “nones” (no religious affiliation at all) and they represent about 30% of the population today. And the last stat: when we look at the Gen Z, our youngest set of adults, only 36% are Christians, while 48% are nones. This makes them the first generation in history where the nones clearly outnumber the Christians. I’m just going to lean right into it and ask you a question: Is Christianity in peril? 

JEFF JONES:  Yeah, that’s not an encouraging trend. But does it mean Christianity is in peril? No. Jesus said, “I’ll build my church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” However, within a given culture, at a given time, there are no guarantees. Just see what’s happened in Europe, spiritually.

What you see happening here, now, is this: we’re living and leading in a key inflection point in American Christianity. It will go one of two directions. Actually, I think we’re going two directions at the same time. There’s one segment of American evangelicalism that’s animated by fear and distracted by culture wars and Christian nationalism. It’s creating an “us versus them” kind of approach to culture.

But there’s a growing number of people who are not animated by fear but by love. They are intent on recapturing the way of Jesus, which is not “us versus them,” but “us for them.” They also realize that we are all “them,” sinners in need of a savior. They give me hope.

MICHELLE: How would you guide our thinking in terms of Christianity as a brand?

MIKE HOGAN:  For a lot of people, when you think about branding, you think about used car dealers and high-pressure sales tactics. But when we talk about branding here, we really mean something different. At its core, branding is about making and keeping promises. And what great brands do is make promises about things that are important and then keep those promises. If they do that well, the brand builds trust and it grows. If they don’t, then it declines.

Let’s take Pampers, or FedEx, or Apple. Each one is making a promise. It’s a promise about helping take care of your kids, or about making sure that really important things get there on time, or even about unlocking all of your creative potential. So that’s the essence about branding.

Why are brands important? In a complex world, brands can help us simplify decisions. You can see a logo and you immediately know what’s associated with that in your mind, positive or negative. You say, “Yeah, this is what I want” or “This is what I don’t want.”

That’s important. But on a much deeper level, what brands do is help us to define who we are and communicate that to the people around us. That sounds pretty aspirational. But think of how many people who care that you know what kind of car they drive. For example, I’m an outdoorsy person, so it’s important to me to drive a Jeep. I know a person who cares about the environment, so they need to drive a Tesla. If I want you to think I’m very successful, I might drive a Maserati. Brands help us to badge ourselves and determine who we are.

So it’s in this context that we say Christianity is a brand. And when you think about brands making promises, you know, 30 minutes to get your pizza is a promise. A drug that can save your life is a really big promise. But Christianity probably makes the biggest and most important promises that any brand has ever made.

And forgive me for this analogy, but Christianity is like a hotel or a restaurant in that it’s the people who ultimately deliver the experience. If I go to a hotel and the people there treat me badly, I don’t say there was a rude person at this hotel. I say, the brand treated me badly, right? The experience with the rude person reflects on the brand.

The same thing is true for Christianity. People represent the Christian brand. How we treat other people will impact the world’s view of the brand as a whole.

MICHELLE: Jeff, what’s the Jesus brand? And how did one of the world’s best-known brands, as you put it, kind of lose their way?

JEFF: So the good news is that Jesus gave us the brand 2000 years ago. We don’t have to make it up. During the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is how people will know you’re my disciples.” Like, this is how you’ll roll. This is the deal right here: it’s the new command to “love one another the way I’ve loved you.” You might think, what’s new about that? Jesus talked about loving your enemies on the Sermon on the Mount. What’s novel is the phrase to love one another as I have loved you.  Jesus said, “There’s no greater love than this when a man lays down his life for his friends.” And Jesus literally did that, a few hours later.

Jesus’ brand was that the church would be a movement of radical love that would be an irresistible force for good, that would win over a skeptical world. And that’s the story of the early church. That’s exactly what happened. As they loved people outside of themselves in ways that were beyond reason, they won over a skeptical Roman world. That’s the brand.

I mean, the first thing Gen Z should think of when they think of Christians is, “Wow, they’re crazy how they love people. Like, who does that? Who else is that generous, open, inclusive, and accepting?” We’re known as the opposite of that. You can see studies that ask people in our culture (of all generations, including Gen Z) what they think of when they think Christians. You get responses like “arrogant,” “pushy,” “judgmental,” and “unkind.”

It’s clear the most important brand in the world has lost its way. How did that happen? That’s a complex thing. But in church history, whenever Christians move from a marginalized place to the center, it typically kills Christianity. It becomes self-focused and about protecting our power.

I think that’s what’s happened in American evangelicalism. When you’ve had that much influence, you want to protect it. There’s the whole “we want to take America back to being a Christian nation” thing. But making America a Christian nation—saying that it’s ours and we need to make people agree with us and our morality—that’s never been Jesus’ vision. It’s a distraction from the real mission.

And when you war against the people that you’re supposed to be reaching instead of loving them, they don’t appreciate it. We’ve lost a culture because we’ve lost our brand. You talk about a brand promise? We’ve got a lot of work to do.

MICHELLE: You’ve mentioned an interesting quote from Mahatma Gandhi that says, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And I think that sums up nicely what you just described. So I want to go back to the stats I started with. Clearly over the last 50 years or so, Christianity seems to have been on a downward spiral. Why now? When did you start thinking about Christianity or rebranding Christianity in this way? And what about this moment has led to you investing your time to write a book about it?

JEFF: It started about four or five years ago, but COVID was a massive accelerator to what was already happening in our culture. It’s unfortunate because pandemics in church history have been a huge boon to Christianity. This one was not. We weren’t seen as the most loving people on the planet; we were seen as the opposite—as fully entering into the politicization and the polarization happening in culture.

 So I sensed God stirring in me but resisted it because I’m like, who are we? We’re one church and I’m one leader who is talking about rebranding Christianity in America. But we’ve got a big issue, and it’s not just a perception problem. I wish it was just we’re not perceived well. But that’s not the issue. The issue is we’ve got a product problem as well as a perception problem. So we’ve got to restore to Christianity what our core essence is supposed to be.

It’s urgent. When I went on sabbatical last year, what I sensed God saying to me for our church is that for the next five years, this is it. This is an opportunity to recapture our essence, our brand, our identity, and hopefully to recapture a skeptical world that’s written Jesus off.

There are other people thinking about this. God’s working in multiple places. He’s stirring people in a similar direction to say, let’s lean into this, let’s follow Jesus into a course correction that’s much needed. It’s not something we can just sort of hope will get better.

MICHELLE: You mentioned Gen Z earlier and I’m curious if you have a point of view here, since they drive so much brand love these days. What about Gen Z values? The digital environment we live in is another accelerant in terms of the challenges with the ways Christians are perceived.

MIKE: Sure. I think Gen Z does have a different set of expectations. They’ve grown up in a world that’s media saturated. They’re used to being able to see everything in a transparent way, and they’ve probably been disappointed a lot. I think we can all agree that the digital age has driven transparency, both for good and bad. A lot of things that were covered up in the past are now apparent. And as bad as some of them might be, it’s better to know about them than not. At the same time, it puts everybody under a microscope.

So now, whatever everybody does, even the smallest thing, is out there. We have some generations that have a lot of trust in institutions and authority. And we have generations that expect to see everything, and they expect to see it now. And they don’t have a lot of trust in institutions.

So ultimately, we’re under a microscope, and our actions and words are going to reflect on the brand in a way that’s unique in history.

MICHELLE: We’ve talked about trust building and keeping promises. People say earning trust is the hardest thing to do, and losing it is the easiest. How do brands restore trust that’s been lost? What hope do we have for doing that? What does that look like?

MIKEA lot of brands have lost trust over time. The good news is that some of these brands have actually regained trust. My favorite example here is probably, believe it or not, Domino’s Pizza. Granted, they don’t have the biggest brand promise in the world. A number of years ago, Domino’s Pizza was known as pizza that you can get in 30 minutes. But it wasn’t known as good pizza. Even their own customers famously compared the taste of the pizza to the cardboard box that it came in.

What they did in response was remarkable. They ran national TV ads with clips of their own customers talking about how bad the pizza was. There was a radical authenticity to what they did. People were like, well, we knew their pizza was bad, but we never expected them to admit it.

And then people thought well, if they’re willing to admit that it’s bad, maybe they’re actually willing to do something about it. And they completely re-engineered everything. They changed the ovens in their stores and all their ingredients to make the pizza better. And so now, ten or 12 years later, Domino’s Pizza as a company is worth 200 times what they were worth in 2006. It’s unbelievable how successful their rebranding was.

And I think it’s a great model because it involved not denying but instead acknowledging the problem—being transparent and authentic about that—and then setting in to say from now on, we’re doing things different. Once you lose trust, it’s really hard to get it back, but it’s certainly not impossible. It requires a lot of humility, authenticity, and hard work.

MICHELLE: Domino’s had a success story. I want to believe that we have that prospect as well. So what role can each of us play? And what does success look like to you?

JEFF: My hope is that we will help contribute to other voices that will speak into this too. God is stirring. You know, the Holy Spirit is at work. I think it’s the opportunity for American Christians to recapture our brand.

And the New Testament talks a lot about how to engage culture in a compelling way. It’s on us to do that well. The good news is everything people crave in our culture can only be found in Jesus. That hasn’t changed. That’s what you see in the first century. You know, what the early Christians faced was way harder than what we are facing. They had the whole Roman system and the whole Jewish system against them. But they won over their world simply by doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. If we can return to that, then I have huge hope for a world that is hungry for what only Jesus can offer. It’ll be awkward for a while because there will still be a group that goes the other direction out of fear.

But what I see is a movement of people with humility and love who want to do better. Who say, “We’ve got to get back to what Jesus told us to do. We’ve had mission drift and kind of lost it. Let’s get back to the mission.” I see that happening in the emerging generations of Christians, so that gives me great hope. I think we’ll be able to win over a world that we’ve lost.

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