Marketing experts will tell you that, in business, “branding” refers to what makes your products or services so special … and what sets them apart from the competition.
We call that product, “God.”
In fact, godliness is our byproduct, evidenced by the changes we experience as we grow in grace and increasingly exhibit the fruits of the spirit sown and cultivated in communities of faith.
Churches come in all different shapes, sizes, and … brands: Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran … the biggest and most powerful one, your corner community church, churches that speak in tongues and churches that don’t … churches that believe we’ll be raptured before the great revelation and other churches that maintain Christians will be still here to suffer along with everyone else … there are churches that worship on Saturday, the Sabbath, and those that worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
So, I can’t help but wonder whether the God that all these churches worship is the same One as mine.
For me, it’s important to understand my own brand of faith and to purposefully live it, because it reinforces who I am and what I believe … as well as what attracts others to, come, follow me.
Which is something we’re all called to do as disciples of Jesus, isn’t it?
Come, follow me!
(No, not me … but Jesus!)
So, when I was called to pastor a church in Jacksonville, Florida, it was crucial that I understand what it believes and stands for … to identify its brand.
“A Rainbow Spiritual Community,” the sign outside the church said. That I understood. Yeah – wink, wink – I got it! We know about rainbows and pride parades, unicorns and drag queens.
But, “Innovative Ministry in Service to God,” the church’s vision statement … imprinted on letterhead, envelopes, business cards and brochures? What did that mean? Sounds great on paper; but what do you do with it?
Churches where LGBT people are welcome use “code” words that speak to their audience. People know what words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” and “affirming” really mean.
Saying you’re a welcoming, inclusive, and affirming congregation means more than just repeating these three words and using them as a slogan or mantra. It means that you’ve got to embrace and abide in those words which name qualities of God’s goodness and justice that, as Christians, we’re expected to live.
Welcoming, inclusive, and affirming are vital signposts of the Way of Jesus and the way we are called to be.
How many churches claim in their advertising and on their signs outside, “Everyone welcome here!”? Yeah, right! Everyone welcome, except …. you, and you, and you. Fill in the blanks. It’s not too hard to figure who’s not really welcome and why.
Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? No, it wasn’t a sin of same-sex attraction. In fact, it wasn’t about attraction at all. Quite the opposite. It was about rage and rape, about taking advantage, a lack of hospitality to others. Especially strangers. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t welcoming; in fact, they were totally clueless of the angels in their midst.
That’s why Jesus warns of a worse judgment for those who don’t show hospitality to his followers, when he dispatches us to share the Good News: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” he says in Matthew 10:14-15.
Welcoming churches are spiritual communities that show love and kindness, compassion, friendship and hospitality, to those that they know … and to those that they don’t. People at such churches can actually feel the touch of God’s love tugging at their hearts when they greet each other, pray together, and share the peace of the Lord through word and deed.
Next on our branding list is “inclusive.”
An inclusive church beckons all to come in and be part of its communion. Oh, I know that calling a church “inclusive” is a not-too-subtle euphemism, a clue that it accepts LGBT people. That’s how it should be. But it also should be so much more!
Black and white, old and young, single and married, mentally handicapped and physically challenged, afflicted by all sorts of illness, demons, and distress, people who speak Spanish and English or Pig Latin, those with willing spirits but weaker flesh – whosoever! – an inclusive church should be the mortar that binds us together and to God.
Look at Jesus: Who did he hang around with? Certainly not the religious zealots presumed to be the “good guys.” Nope. He could be found with prostitutes and charlatans, tax collectors and publicans, a Roman centurion who loved his male servant, in every sense of the word. When push came to shove, Jesus called people rejected by others to come and be with him.
For me, that’s a major difference between the Old Covenant and the New: The Hebrew Testament was exclusive; its long list of rules and regulations was designed to keep out all but a few. Those allowed in were to be a nation of priests, a light to the nations. Except that they weren’t. Instead, they worshiped idols and were so self-centered that they put themselves first … even before God … time and again.
All that changes in the New Covenant, where everyone – good and bad and in between – is invited to the wedding banquet to celebrate the marriage blessing between Creator and creation.
That’s all it takes to be invited to feast at the tabernacle of faith and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
But we continue to build fences, keeping people out simply because they don’t believe this or won’t accept that.
How silly is that … and, oh, such a shame!
God wants us all to be one: “Echad,” that composite unity, is like a cluster of grapes or one team with many players. The Hebrew scriptures cry out and testify, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God … the LORD alone!”
Is that so wrong, such a bad thing, to want to have a special relationship – a covenant, if you will – with certain people in given places along God’s way? No, not in and of itself. But, when it excludes people from participating and treats some as better, more holy and righteous than others, then it’s exclusive and contrary to God’s will, I believe.
Asked which of the commandments is the greatest and most important, Jesus was quick to reply: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your mind, and with all of your might.” And then, in the same breath, he tacked on this addendum: “Love your neighbors as you, yourselves, would be loved.” It was at that point in Luke’s Gospel, Luke 10, that Jesus shares the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve all heard it, I hope, and we all know what it means: that even those people we don’t particularly care for or would rather not be around should be treated with dignity and considered our neighbors!
Which brings me to the final word in this holy trinity of words reflecting qualities I believe God would brand our hearts to be: affirming.
Lots of churches claim to be inclusive and welcoming. And I don’t doubt their sincerity. But it’s one thing to invite people into your building, letting them sit in the pews. That doesn’t mean, though, that the churches are supportive and positive about you, asserting and expressing their commitment to you as a truly beloved child of God.
Just as you are.
More than recognizing that we exist and acknowledging that we’re people with feelings, thoughts and, perhaps, something to contribute, affirming churches actually endorse us as made in God’s image and worthy to be celebrated in all that we do!
Affirming means saying “yes” rather than “no” … looking for the positive, instead of the negative … lifting up, not tearing down … accepting not rejecting … believing rather than denying or condemning … seeking and approving the good over the bad.
After each act of creation, what does God say? “It is good!”
It’s there in the Scriptures, friends. We only need to look for it, focusing on the good news in the message instead of the bad. Remember what the Apostle Paul said about love?
That it doesn’t dishonor others and isn’t self-serving … but rejoices with the truth. Patient and kind, love doesn’t boast and isn’t proud. It always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres. In a word, therefore, love is always affirming!
In my humble opinion, there’s way too much bad theology out there, misguided Christianity that nails Jesus to the cross and crucifies him repeatedly, instead concentrating on the more powerful message affirmed by a risen Lord.
The world may have said “no” to Jesus when it rejected and crucified him … but God Almighty said “yes,” resurrecting him – and us! – to newness of life. Now, it’s up to us to spread the good news of God’s everlasting and unconditional love!
Showing hospitality comes from the heart … it’s the desire of our soul to be welcoming, loving and compassionate to others. To affirm the goodness of God and God’s amazing creation.
To be inclusive is to be just and to put justice into practice. It’s a matter of the mind, deciding that we’re not going to show preference for one over another.
So, give somebody a helping hand. A heartfelt hug or embrace goes far to demonstrate fellowship (fillyship?) and friendship. Reaching out and shaking hands is symbolic of greeting someone and using our body language to say, “howdy!” Even putting your hand in your pocket and reaching down deep to provide for God’s Kingdom is a matter of might, of physical effort.
Every one of us is created in God’s image … but, over the years, through socialization and worldly influences, we have lost our God-connection and ceased to act as God would have us do.
Love, compassion and forgiveness can be abstract concepts that we talk about, yet don’t do enough or put into practice.
But by living welcoming, inclusive, and affirming lives, we become more loving, compassionate, and forgiving people transformed into God’s body and image.
Unfortunately, human nature is such that – even in churches – it’s easy to be seduced and fall into the trap of saying “Stay away!” or “Keep out!” rather than, “Come join us; we’ll make room at the table for you” … it’s more comfortable to form cliques and circles around those we know best and longest, instead of venturing outside our comfort zone to get to know a stranger better … we find ourselves more likely to shout, “No, you can’t!” than to echo, “Yes, of course, we can!”
Welcoming. Inclusive. Affirming.
Or: Alien. Self-centered. Denying.
Which three word sets brand your church? Which words brand the church of Jesus Christ?