In case you missed it, the Washington Post recently published an article stating that a $100 million marketing campaign has been launched in an attempt to “redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by some of his followers.”
The marketing effort, known as the “He Gets Us” campaign, is funded by The Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas. For the next several months, billboards will be posted in major U.S. cities. In fact, according to the Post article, some billboards already have gone up in New York City and Las Vegas.
There’ll be an online component to the campaign as well, including an updated website and online store where people can “get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger.” The campaign will culminate with an ad during the upcoming Super Bowl.
As heartbreaking as it is that people are launching a marketing campaign to redeem “Jesus’ brand,” what the campaign found in market research is even more tragic. In their research, they split Americans into one of four categories: 16% of their sample identified as non-Christian, 20% as spiritually open, 34% as Jesus followers, and 30% as engaged Christians.
The majority of those in the first three categories said they view Christians’ behavior as a barrier to faith, with more than two-thirds of them saying Christians are known for saying one thing and doing another. A majority of respondents in those first three categories also said Christians care only about stopping abortions rather than caring for mothers and their children.
“Christians see their faith as the greatest love story, but those outside the faith see Christians as a hate group.”
However, the most damning line in the article comes when the author, Bob Smietana, recaps his interview with Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm in Grand Haven, Mich. Smietana summarizes the interview: “Vanderground said Christians see their faith as the greatest love story, but those outside the faith see Christians as a hate group.”
While I’m no branding expert, I have a hard time seeing how a marketing campaign can fix this, even if it does spend $100 million. Because while the campaign’s market research is heart-breaking and tragic, it isn’t surprising. You’d have to have been living under a rock for the last few decades to think the church has a sterling reputation with non-Christians in this country.
Research has been telling us this for years. Where I find hope, however, is that despite the fact that the church has had an image problem for a long time, our past teaches us exactly how we can overcome it. In fact, you could argue that the church has had an image problem since its inception.
The early church didn’t have to worry about marketing or social media campaigns, of course, but it did have to combat Rome’s imperial propaganda and disinformation. And while such propaganda and disinformation were low tech, they remained highly sophisticated. By nature, Romans viewed new religions with suspicion, and that was certainly true for Christianity.
The fact that Christians were known for refusing to participate in Roman society at large didn’t help combat their skepticism either. And in that vacuum, all sorts of rumors about the early church arose. Similar to some of the outlandish QAnon conspiracy theories of today, some claimed early Christians drank the blood of children and engaged in cannibalism — all because of a misunderstanding of or willful ignorance of the Christian practice of Communion.
It wasn’t just rumors and whisper campaigns, though. Early Christians also experienced Roman propaganda by simply going to the marketplace to buy and sell goods. As Neville Morley writes in his book The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism, “The user of Roman coinage, for example, motivated solely by its practical utility (or, in some cases, compelled by the demands of the state or his landlord for payment in cash), was as a result constantly exposed to imperial propaganda in the images on the coins; moreover, the regular use of coins or official weights emphasized and entrenched the claims to legitimacy of the ruling power, expressed through its definition and enforcement of such stands.”
Simply put, the Roman Empire used even its money to convey claims of superiority. Thus, to live in the Roman Empire as a Christian was to be constantly bombarded with the claim that Caesar was Lord. To live in the Roman Empire as a Christian was to regularly hear others not only impugn your faith, but call you unpatriotic, ungrateful, barbaric or even downright evil.
Thus, the church always has had an image problem, and the problem it faced at its inception was arguably even bigger than the one it faces today. The only real difference is that our problem today is self-inflicted.
While we may point to a myriad of things that helped improve the early church’s image problem, one thing in particular was most impactful. Fortunately for us, it’s the one thing I believe will most help us address our problem today, too: Effective Christian witness.
“To combat negative perceptions of the church, we don’t need a marketing campaign.”
To combat negative perceptions of the church, we don’t need a marketing campaign. We don’t need to focus on branding either. As beneficial as good websites and a strong social media presence can be, those things are not going to fix what ails us, regardless of how many times we update our church Facebook page.
What made the biggest difference for the early church and what continues to make the biggest difference for us today is people sharing their stories, telling others how their encounter with Christ changed their lives. And then, most importantly, it’s Christians developing meaningful relationships with other people so they can see those God-inspired changes for themselves.
Seeing it with your own eyes, that’s what’s always been most convincing. Hearing others share how Jesus changed their lives and letting others see that change, that does something marketing never can. It provides people a tangible example of what salvation can look like. It provides people a tangible example of what they still need.
The way to fix the church’s current problem is going to take more than marketing. It’s going to take more than efforts to redeem a brand. It’s going to take us doing what we’ve already been commanded to — personally telling others about Jesus Christ and letting our lives reflect the difference he makes.
With the Spirit’s guidance, that’s the only thing that’s ever really worked. And I remain convinced it’s the only thing that ever will.
Kristopher Aaron is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Bristol, Va. He is a graduate of McAfee School of Theology and Brite Divinity School. He is married to Clary Gardner Aaron, and they have two children.