Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Church brands draw members

From the tennessean.com:

Faiths market themselves by taking on names that define their beliefs, message

By BOB SMIETANA • Staff Writer • January 15, 2008

On Sunday morning, just past the signs for Red Roof Inn and Go USA Fun Park on Armory Drive in Murfreesboro, and in the shadow of a billboard for Verizon Wireless, 110 people met to celebrate the first worship service of Faith Anglican Fellowship.

A temporary banner, with the church's name, stood in front of Integrity House, where worshippers gathered after leaving behind their former home, Holy Cross Church.

Inside, the Rev. Frederick Richardson, Faith Anglican's rector, spoke of the mixed blessings of "new beginnings."

Frustrated that the Episcopal Church's battles over doctrine and sex were turning off newcomers, the former members of Holy Cross decided, in essence, to switch brands. No longer Episcopalians, they were now Anglicans, allied with more conservative believers in Uganda.

Once reserved for consumer products like Coca Cola or Doritos, branding has become increasingly important in the God business. Churches, old and new, are using branding to define their theology, attract newcomers and get their message out.

"There is sadness for what we left behind, for who we left behind," Richardson said. But "God will be faithful," he added.

For Faith Anglican, the brand switch went deeper than a name change, Richardson said.

"It gives us a new identity," Richardson said. "The Anglican Church does not have the baggage that the Episcopal Church has at this time. It speaks of a deeper tradition and a more biblically grounded faith."

Church member John Sorrell of Woodbury, said he was worried about "the spiritual drift" of their former denomination.

"Episcopal has come to mean something other than orthodox Christianity," he said. With the new name, added Gary Warden, the church's senior warden, "people will know exactly what to expect when they come here."

For a group of members at Trinity Episcopal in Winchester, a tipping point came in 2006, when Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori was asked by Time if "belief in Jesus is the only way to get to heaven?" She replied, "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box."

"That's not the faith that I received," said the Rev. Bill Midgett, who had been rector of Trinity Episcopal since 2001. On Jan. 6, Midgett, the church staff and most members voted to leave the Episcopal Church. They formed Christ the King Anglican Church.

"It may sound like a lot of religious-speak," Midgett said, "but for us, it is central to who we are in believing the gospel.''

Branding needn't be slick

Maurilio Amorim, who runs a church-branding firm in Brentwood, says branding is a biblical activity. He points to the parable in Luke 14:16-23, about a man who threw a banquet. When none of the guests showed up, the man sent his servant to invite outsiders in.

So Amorim helps churches creates Web sites, direct mail and other forms of branding to attract newcomers. "Branding and marketing is evangelism," he said. "I don't know what the difference is. You are compelling people, you are giving people a reason to come visit you."

Amorim says that some churches mistakenly believe that branding means a slick marketing campaign. "I hate for people to waste a lot of billboard and direct mail and newspaper advertising that says nothing," he says. Church messages like "Come because we are great" or "We're friendly" don't work, he said. Instead of trying to be slick, he said, a church should find what it does well and promote that.

For Crosspoint Community Church in west Nashville, branding was crucial when the congregation moved to a new building. The church, which started meeting five years ago in a public school, now rents about two thirds of the campus of Park Avenue Baptist Church.

But with its linoleum floors and mauve carpet, the building screamed out "1970s Baptist church."

"And that," said senior pastor Pete Wilson, "is not who we are."

While Park Avenue bills itself as a "traditional church family," Crosspoint services are more rock concert than hymns and prayers.

So, Wilson and Crosspoint leaders set out to brand the building as their own. They replaced carpet, set up video screens and theater lighting in the sanctuary, and transformed the concrete block children's area into something out of Gilligan's Island.

Wilson said he realized the power of branding while watching Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock's documentary about McDonald's. During the film, Spurlock showed children a series of pictures of famous people like Jesus and George Washington and asked the kids to identify them. "These kids didn't know who any of these people were," Wilson said. "But Ronald McDonald … boom, every one of the kids knew exactly who it was."

And for a new church, he added, brands like McDonald's are the competition.

"We are not competing against other churches," said Jenni Carton, the church's executive director. "We are competing for all the other things that are vying for your attention every day."

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