What the Church Might Learn From Ford

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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12 comments

  1. I have to admit that when I saw the title the first thought I had was “You can have your theology any way you like it so long as it is Reformed”. – re: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

    An interesting corollary to the actual article though is another statement Ford made: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” (Chicago Tribune, 1916).

    It seems to me this is the same error many in the present community church movement are making, deny history for what is shiny and new.

  2. Ford Motors hired graphic designer Paul Rand to update its blue logo in 1966. See the link for the result.

    Henry Ford II rejected the design, saying that as to his family name, what was good enough for his grandfather was good enough for him.

    http://tinyurl.com/636prnz

  3. This sentences is missing something that would cause it to be more clear But I’m not sure what. “In that area there wasn’t any history of Reformed churches and our unscientific research told us that people that we were something other than we were”

    • Tried to clean it up a bit. Just trying to say that people in the neighborhood were confused about what “Reformed” meant. So we changed the name to Presbyterian since it was more familiar.

  4. I saw heading and went thought, how does Found On Rubbish Dump (Ford) relate to Reformed worship, practice and piet? though I see clearly as Reformed worshipers we don’t need to have an identity crises, we just need to stay faith to Scripture and then confession.

  5. When I was a kid (WAY back in the last century), Ford stood for “Fix Or Repair Daily.” I remember when the entire engine fell out of my Fairmont, c. 1980 (Creak, Boing, Thud!) Now, my wife and I have been enthusiastic “Ford people” for more than twenty years. There’s really something to knowing who you are, returning to your roots, and committing to quality. There oughta be a lesson there . . .

    • The late 70s and most of the 80s were a bad time for American auto manufacturers. I started driving in the mid-70s and my parents had a Dodge Aspen and an AMC Matador. The latter has a good car but man was it ugly. The former was a horrible car. It died when the driver hit the accelerator. Then I ended up driving versions of that thing at work. Not good. Have had 2 Fords (Taurus) since. They were fine. Have American car now. It’s fine but that was a bad time. Left a bad taste.

  6. This is great, Dr. Clark. One could say the exact same thing about us Lutherans: we’re not hip, and we should stop trying. We could learn a lot about how to be confessional from you. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Good one. One of the reasons we aren’t always ‘hip’ is because we stick with the same Bible, too. The ‘Message’ and the ‘Street Bible’ were a fad, but the age-old Psalm-23-in-King-James-Version is a comfort, encouragement, and reminder that hasn’t changed in centuries. Praise God for that.

    • Karen,

      For an alternate pov see this brief essay. The Greek NT was not given in archaic language. It wasn’t particularly trendy or hip but it wasn’t archaic. The Bible doesn’t change, amen! but the Scriptures do need to be in the language of the people. When the Geneva Bible (the translation done by and used by Reformed Christians and churches fifty years before the AV) it was not in archaic language and neither was the AV in 1611 (which, eventually supplanted the Geneva Bible). There does need to be continuity in translation, where possible, but even respectful, dignified language in the 21st century is considerably different from that of the early 17th century.

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