I was driving through town and I noticed the logo on a Ford truck and I was impressed by how well the artwork has held up since the 1920s. That made me think of companies that have tried to change their “brand” or image over the years, sometimes with regrettable consequences. Other, however, companies have stayed with their traditional artwork, even if it was not fashionable at a given moment. That artwork has become the fixed image of the company.
Reformed Christianity has a classic brand that has only occasionally been hip. There were a couple of moments in the 16th and 17th centuries when it might have been fashionable, in certain circles, to identify with the Reformed confession otherwise we’ve generally been on the margins.
That living on the edge of the culture, on the edge of the mainstream life of the more socially and religiously acceptable churches, places pressure on the Reformed to try to re-brand, or re-image ourselves, as the consultants say, so as to give potential consumers the idea that we’re what they want.
In the 80s there was a significant movement to re-brand Reformed and Presbyterian churches as “community” churches. Today the fad is to take on an emergent/-ing sounding name. There are several of those in my part of the world. The point of such “re-branding” is to make that which is odd seem a little less odd, to make it conform to the surrounding religious or secular culture.
There is nothing wrong with being appropriately sensitive to the surrounding culture. It is highly insensitive and even foolish for a missionary to preach in English to natives who don’t speak English. When I was a pastor in Kansas City we changed the name of our congregation from Hope Reformed to Walnut Creek Presbyterian. I don’t think that we “sold out.” People in our neighborhood were unfamiliar with the Reformed tradition. Our unscientific research told us that people were confused about what were were. In other words, our name wasn’t communicating what we were so it seemed as if Presbyterian might say something that was true that more folk could understand.
Calling ourselves “community” churches or adopting trendy Emergent/-ing sounding names isn’t just being sensitive, however. “Community” is a powerful religious word in a country like the USA where people tend to be suspicious of “outsiders” making decisions about their church or religious life. Such suspicion is born of the American tendency toward autonomy (a law unto one’s self) and egalitarianism (flatting out distinctions) that has dominated American Christianity since the early 19th century.
To label a congregation “community” signals that a congregation is, at best, only loosely related to others and that control is local and determined by the local community. This isn’t quite the same thing as original jurisdiction. Reformed and Presbyterian churches aren’t truly “community” churches in polity or sociology. Few confessional Reformed/Presbyterian churches are populated by nearby members. Most confessional Presbyterian and Reformed congregations are commuter congregations. In polity, Reformed/Presbyterian churches hold to a connectional arrangement of church government so that no congregation is completely autonomous. They are always accountable to other congregations and to higher or broader assemblies.
Whatever confessional Reformed/Presbyterian call themselves and however much they seek to imitate the more well-populated evangelical churches in the culture few of them are genuinely “hip.” The music is always just a little dated and the presentation and performance is marked by the (sometimes guilty) self-consciousness of people speaking a foreign language or doing something that doesn’t come naturally. The truth is that we aren’t hip.
Then, of course, there is the futility of keeping up with fashion. How long will the Emergent/-ing sounding names last? Isn’t the Emergent/-ing “thing” already sort of passé? I can’t imagine that the folk who were attracted to warehouses and coffee are now going to attracted to otherwise conventional buildings sporting a trendy new name. How often will congregations have to reinvent themselves to stay current?
It seems that Ford has made changes to their brand over the years but in the main those changes seem to have been rather modest. There was apparently a 25 year period where they didn’t use the blue badge on their vehicles but the kept using it on their letterhead and then, in the 1970s they brought it back for use on vehicles. It was a return to form. It might not have looked “space age” in the 1950s and 60s but what looks goofier now that something that says “space age”? The space age stuff came and went and the classic endures.
Maybe we can learn from Ford? Perhaps it’s better simply to be what we are? It probably won’t be hip but if we’re faithful to our confession and convictions we will be genuine and isn’t that what people really lack and need? Have the lost ever come to our congregations to ask where the latest fad is? I doubt it. When Christians tire of the “Church of What’s Happening Now” here we will be: offering Christ, teaching the faith, providing catechetical instruction, praying for and loving one another, ministering to the necessities of the congregation, and seeking to make the glory of Christ known to the nations.