April 29, 2013

What’s Behind The Brand?


Text: John 13:25: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Not so long ago there were signs out on the roads of Newtonville pointing people toward Saint John’s. There was a flourishing of these signs in the 1950s and 1960s—a way to fly the flag of a denomination in any given town.

The Presbyterians had theirs, and the United Methodists of course had theirs—the cross-and-flame design. Out in the midwest, where I grew up, the signs for Lutheran Churches, with their stylized stained-glass globes, sprouted like weeds.

They all were intended to let you know where to find your people, and at the same time to do a little cheerleading for the denomination. They were, in the parlance we have come to know, branding efforts. They were designed by the central office of each of the denominations, so that they would all look the same; and you had to buy them from that central office.

Our signs used to be down on the corner of Lowell Avenue and Washington Street, and on the corner of Lowell Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue—sort of the two major nodes in our north-south axis. I’m not sure exactly when they disappeared—maybe when the new bridge over Interstate 90 was built.

But when I noticed they were missing, I began looking for other signs around us. And I found a couple—for the Methodist Church over on Walnut Street, and for a few of the other Episcopal churches in town.

So I went looking on the internet for a place to buy replacement signs. Turns out the design of those old signs for the Episcopal Church is still controlled by, you guessed it, the Episcopal Church—the folks at headquarters down in New York.

And it turns out the design for these has changed, not once but twice, since the days we had them up on the street corners. The most salient change that I can detect in the design is that now the single largest word on the sign is “Episcopal.” Because, of course, that is the word that the greatest number of people will resonate too. Somehow the adjective has become more important than the noun. Or perhaps we have, somehow, reversed the two.

•   •   •

But there’s more—in fact, much more—to this. Because the currently sanctioned sign for use by Episcopal Churches is part of an entire branding strategy launched by the Episcopal Church a couple of years ago. We have a brand strategy statement, a set of “general principles for communications,” a palette for primary colors and secondary colors—we even have a required PowerPoint template. As though the world needed more PowerPoint slides!

With all of this helpful guidance telling us how we should look across the entire Episcopal Church, there is a delicious irony in this document, right in the very first sentence of the Introduction. This is what it says: “The Episcopal Church has a long history of local control and is more democratic than many other denominations.” Yes, that is true. Sorta makes it strange they want us all to look so much... the same.

Look, I have no doubt that all of this is useful. And I am sure that, within the terms of what the people who think about things would set, it’s really a good example of the art of a unified identity. But for some reason I can’t quite get past the thought that it’s a profound example of taking ourselves too seriously. Or perhaps focusing our attention on how we are known in the wrong direction.

After all, what is a brand? Is it just a recognizable sign, an image that is faithfully and uniformly rendered whenever it appears? People look at that shield with the red cross and the light-blue field and most of them have no idea what it means; some of them might know it means Episcopal. Oh, that’s an Episcopal place.

Okay. But what else do they know about us? Do they know we’re a church? Do they know we’re Christians? Why? Because of the sign?

Jeff Bezos, the man who started Amazon.com, has a great little quote about brands. He says that a brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. So, what do people say about us when we’re not in the room? What’s behind our brand?

•   •   •

I can’t find any guidance in the Scriptures about typography or how to use our logo or the colors to use on our signs. But in John’s gospel I think we have a pretty solid idea of how Jesus wants us to build our reputation as a community called by his name.

The scene of today’s Gospel reading takes us back to Holy Week. It’s the Last Supper. Judas has already left the room. And now Jesus begins what will become known as the farewell discourse, four whole chapters of John’s account of his life and ministry.

It all begins with the words we heard in the Gospel reading this morning. In these words we find the origin of the Maundy in Maundy Thursday; a new commandment, or in the Vulgate Bible “mandatum novum”—mandatum, Maundy, commandment. That commandment to those disciples, and to anyone who wants to claim the status of a disciple, is that they live in a community characterized by love.

Jesus is a sort of behavioralist here. Instead of just giving people a standard to meet, he gives them a cue for how to measure whether they’re living up to the standard. That cue is a social cue; the evaluation of whether or not we are living up to our commandment will be made by those outside the community. If we follow this new commandment faithfully, people outside the community will know us to be disciples because of the love we have for each other.

Let me be very specific about what this means. First, it absolutely means that you can’t do this alone. It makes no sense to say you’re living out the commandment of loving one another if you’re trying to be Christian on your own.

Second, the commandment that we love one another does not mean that you have to like everyone here. There may well be some people here that you’re not so wild about. I may be one of those people. And that’s okay; as far as I’m concerned, you may be one of those people.

We are not called to be a monastic community. We are called to be a gathering of people who place value on investing in the creation of an intentional community of mutual support oriented around the message of Jesus Christ.  The incredible gift of this beloved community is that you can come here pretty unlikable on some days, and it does not matter.

What matters is that we love each other; we look out for each other, we care for each other, because we need each other to do the work of ministry. We may rub up against each other the wrong way sometimes, but my individual experience of any single person in this place is less important than the immense benefit I receive from being a part of this place. That is what it means to be part of a loving community.

And that is what makes us so different from anything else on offer out there—maybe even a little strange to people. Because fewer and fewer people grow up with any skills for being part of such a community. They have been raised with the notion that the only way of estimating the value of something is how it makes them feel about themselves. Back to the first principle: You can’t be in community alone.

There’s one important consequence here.  This really does mean that what you say not just to other people here but about them is a matter of living out our call to discipleship. If we just love people who love us back, what profit is that to us? But if we show ourselves to be a group of people who get along with each other even when we press each other’s buttons, then people who come here for the first time will see that and be amazed by it.

Last, and most important: if people see in us a community of people who are living out this commandment, it does not necessarily mean they will want to be part of it. Because what we are doing here is dangerously countercultural.

Our culture is headed in a pretty dehumanizing direction. Most of the cues we receive, most of the cues our young people receive, have to do with a stringent, relentless evaluation of your worth as a person. We are more and more becoming the kind of class-stratified society that most of our grandparents or great-grandparents came here to avoid.

That ranking isn’t just about money, although money drives a lot of it. It’s also about fame, or influence, or connections, or education. This past week someone sent me an invitation to an online thing called “Klout,” which claims to tell you how influential you are on social media.

Here’s a modern-day heresy for you: I don’t care how influential I am on social media.

If we choose to be disciples, if we choose to limit our freedom by living up to this standard and being in a community of people trying to love each other, then we will be confronted immediately by another choice. How is it that we will go about standing up for our kind of community when it is so different from what else is out there? How will we bend our whole society just a little bit more toward a community oriented around the idea, not just of tolerating each other, but of loving each other?

We can do it by complaining about the way the world is. That is often our strategy, and it is often the strategy of the church. I can’t tell you how many diocesan conventions I’ve attended where the principal order of business was the passing of resolutions laying indictments against the way things are. We can complain about taxes or wealth inequalities or the prison on Guantanamó or the salaries of bankers.

We can do that, and quite frankly we sort of luxuriate in it. And it accomplishes pretty much nothing. It reminds me of the old line from the prayer book that asks for protection against the “luxury of hurt feelings.”

The world needs unreasonable people to make change—there is no doubt about it. But the most unreasonable thing we can do is to redirect our energy from complaining to building an actual, real community of mutual support and compassion. Because that itself is an indictment of the world as it is, one that gives the world hope instead of guilt.

So—are we doing this? Someone who recently started coming to Saint John’s, but who can’t be here today, wrote me a note when he saw the title of this sermon. This is a slightly redacted version of what he said:

“As someone very new in my exposure to St. John’s, I feel that it is a strong brand. From the first visit to the website, I sensed a community theme that was conveyed in a thoughtful video.... It became even more vivid on my first visit to the church and was reinforced when I met many of the parishioners that first Sunday. ([Someone] even sent me a welcome email).”

That is our brand. That is the thing we want people saying about us when we’re not in the room. The signs and typography and color palettes may help, but they are empty and meaningless without content. The content is compassion; the content is care; the content is this place of people who actually care about you whether you like it or not, whether you like them or not. That is what others find when they come here, and by the grace of God we will help them find their way here where every week we gather around the table with Jesus. Amen.