August 6, 2012
Chick-Fil-A, Boycotts, & the Power of Brands (Part 2)
Becoming a Church that confronts, rather than embraces, brand identities.
It turns out that boycotts are great for business. Last Wednesday Chick-fil-A broke previous sales records as costumers came out it droves to purchase chicken sandwiches and waffle fries in support of the fast food joint. Speaking his mind about marriage may have been the savviest accidental business move CEO Dan Cathy ever made.
Some of the comments on my first post questioned whether there is a connection between the threatened boycott of Chick-fil-A and the power of brands. I appreciate the pushback, but the massive outpouring of solidarity (and dollars) on Chick-fil-A Day makes me think I’m on to something. To recap: when our personal identities become enmeshed with that of a company whose product we love but whose values we come to question, we may experience a crisis of identity. At this point many choose to boycott. Or, in the case of Chick-fil-A Day, others come to the rescue of a corporation they feel represents their values. Either way, the chosen response says a lot about where we find out identities.
More than one comment made the case that supporting Chick-fil-A had nothing to do with identity or branding; rather, it was an opportunity to affirm besieged Christian values. As one person put it, “I don't think we have to find any thing sinister or unhealthy in the Christians who take offense at the attack and react by going to get a sandwich. They are not being commercially ‘branded,’ they are simply expressing themselves in a concrete way on a conviction of deep concern.” Many of Chick-fil-A’s supporters probably share this sentiment but it’s not the whole story.
There have been more than 5,000 murders in my city since 2001. More citizens have been killed here than US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan over the same period of time. These homicides typically take place within Chicago’s poorest and most segregated neighborhoods. I bring this up because any way you look at it this is a situation that cries out for the application of Christian values. Given the devastating impact of poverty and segregation on the lives of so many, it would seem an obvious rallying cry for those concerned with boldly standing up for the Faith.
But it’s not. Instead it’s more likely that we’ll express our Christian vales by purchasing an extra chicken sandwich. We feel more threatened when a favorite fast food restaurant is criticized than when members of our own Christian family are living under the constant menace of violence and death. If only they’d hire a shrewd marketer we might feel more sympathy.
But perhaps this identity confusion is merely part of the human condition. After all, one of the themes throughout the Bible is the constant tendency to find our identity outside of the One in whose image we are made. From the garden, through the Exodus and exile, right up to the churches in Revelation, the people of God are regularly forgetting who we are. Our need for affirmation and belonging is constantly being exploited. Even Jesus, tired and hungry in the wilderness, is tempted to question his identity. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil so skillfully begins the first and second of Jesus’ temptations. If--It’s the word that gets us looking around, doubting whether our identification with Christ is enough.
Add this human tendency to the unique caldron of American Christianity and we’ve got an especially strange brew. A couple of the comments on the first post pointed out how important brand identification is in contemporary Christianity. Denominational loyalty may have fallen off, but it has been replaced with an almost tribal allegiance to particular identifiers. Missional, Neo-Reformed, Emergent, and Progressive are some of the Christian brands one of the comments pointed out, and I’m sure we could add others. Theological distinction has always been a part of the church, but when it’s used to define ourselves over and against our Christian family we’ve crossed from distinction into division.
Into these churches step women and men who have willingly, if unconsciously, been branded. It would seem that our churches would be havens from the barrage of branding but even here marketing prevails. We pastors are not unfamiliar with this world: we speak of target audiences, capital campaigns, and giving units. We borrow from the latest pop culture craze for our sermon series and, as Paul Louis Metzger points out in Consuming Jesus, have turned out attention from the communion table at the altar to the coffee bar in the lobby.
So it is that instead of confronting a branding society where our identities are fought over daily, many churches have simply conformed to the marketing pattern of the world. Is it any wonder that it’s easier to mobilize the faithful to defend Chick-fil-A than it is to address the real and sometimes desperate needs of our neighbors?
As a church-planting pastor I know at least two things. First, I recognize how powerfully the members of our community, myself included, have been formed by a branding culture. Second, I know well the temptation to trust in the gospel of marketing to define and grow our young church. Perhaps I’m the sort of pastor Eugene Peterson had in mind when, in Practice Resurrection, he writes, “There are plenty of people around…determined to remake the church along the lines they have learned from marketers and sociologists. They can safely be ignored. They don’t know what they are talking about.” We’re better off, writes Peterson, to return to the Scripture, “with its God-revealing vocabulary and prayer-saturated syntax and work with the cornucopia of images for understanding church.”
So while I lament that the church has too often succumbed to market forces and done little to form citizens of a different kingdom, it is to the church we must return. But let’s be clear about this. For church to genuinely form men and women whose identities lie with Christ alone we must, as Peterson so pointedly puts it, ignore the people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This means prophetically showing where we’ve sold our birthright for a bowl of marketing mush. It means calling people into a community where differences aren’t glossed over or shown the door, but worked out in relationships marked by confession and forgiveness. It means abandoning any method that treats people as a means to an end. It means borrowing far more from the biological language of the Bible than the technological and industrial language of our society to describe growth within our congregations. It means, as the Ekklesia Project folks recently described it, “abiding in the patient work of God” rather than striving after relevance and hype.
No-label churches. Communities with the vision and patience for a branded people to be resurrected into life together with the only One whose claim over our lives brings genuine freedom. May the Lord increase their number.