“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” - Mahatma Gandhi
Christianity’s Brand Position
Before we look at the current brand position of Christianity, it’s important to understand what constitutes a brand. There are many divergent definitions, but the one that makes the most sense to me was one I heard from Arlene Dickinson of CBC Television’s “The Dragon’s Den” who defined it as “your company as experienced by others”.
If we apply this to Apple, for example, all of the various ways Apple is experienced by others constitutes its brand. This could include seeing the Apple versus PC commercials on TV, hearing the buzz about the iPhone5 on Facebook or Twitter, observing the design of Apple’s products as trendy folks use them at the local Starbucks, or listening to one of Apple’s raving fans expound about how much better their life is since they got their Macbook. Every snippet of this information gets recorded in our brains and forms our perceptions about Apple. Whether positive or negative, it will undoubtedly play a role in our decision-making the next time we buy a computer, smart phone or MP3 player.
So if we apply the definition to Christianity, we must look at how Christianity has been experienced by others. Here are a few possible experiences that may have shaped the Christianity brand for you:
- A visit to a church or a childhood memory of going to church
- Observations of people who define themselves as Christians
- Hearing about a Christian charity building a well in Africa
- Watching a televangelist while flipping through channels
- Learning about the inspiring story of Mother Teresa
- Reading local news reports about church-goers debating over which church buildings in a town to close and which to keep open
- Walking past a Salvation Army kettle while Christmas shopping
- Hearing about scandals involving child abuse by members of the clergy
The net result will be subjective depending upon each individual person and their personal experiences with Christianity and Christians. For some, their overall experience may be positive, but for a growing number of people, according to research, the net result is certainly negative.
David Kinnaman of the Barna Group and his co-author Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project conducted detailed market research into the perceptions of non-Christian youth and young adults in the United States for their eye-opening book unChristian. The chart below summarizes the most common perceptions of Christianity as cited by this age group.
Overall, of the top 12 most common responses in the survey, 9 of them were negative. While these perceptions may not be held as deeply by older generations, the findings are a serious indictment of Christianity in America. These perceptions are likely similar in other western countries.
Interestingly, survey participants stated that their perceptions of Christianity were shaped by their experiences of attending church or through relationships. The vast majority of non-Christians have been to church and most have attended at least one church for several months. Therefore, these perceptions of the Christianity brand have been mainly shaped by a direct experience with the faith. It may come as a surprise to some, but such things as media coverage of child abuse scandals that have rocked the church have likely added to the negative perceptions, but did not create them.
While not scientific research, in CRAVE: The Documentary, Erwin McManus interviewed non-Christians in Vancouver about Christianity and spirituality. In part of the interview, he gave his interviewees a series of words and asked them to respond with a response of positive or negative. Words like ‘religion’, ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’ were overwhelming rated negative. However, words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘prayer’ were viewed positively.
Erwin reported that sometimes ‘Jesus’ evoked a positive response and sometimes negative; however, he makes this observation: “What we found over and over again was that it wasn’t something about Jesus that causes negative reaction. It wasn’t something Jesus did. It wasn’t something Jesus said. Every time, it was an encounter, an association, an experience with a person who is identified with Jesus.”
In another survey by the Barna Group, they report that 26% of Americans have changed their faith. The largest group of these individuals is ex-Christians who now reported being atheist, agnostic or followers of another faith. When asked why they changed faith, respondents stated:
- Life experiences, such as gaining new knowledge or education
- Feeling disillusioned with church and religion
- Feeling the church is hypocritical
- Having negative experiences in churches
- Being in disagreement with Christianity about specific issues such as homosexuality, abortion or birth control
- Feeling the church is too authoritarian
- Wanting to express their faith outside of church
- Searching for a new faith or wanting to experience other religions
Source: Barna Group
The research clearly demonstrates that Christianity as currently being presented is becoming less and less appealing to many people.
This is a situation that has been capitalized upon by a growing legion of atheists. Books by such notable atheist writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been huge sellers in recent years. And with a history that includes the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, residential schools for Aboriginal Canadians, sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, and other dark spots, these writers have plenty of ammunition to state their case.
Just as Erwin McManus observed in CRAVE, many of the arguments made by atheists point to the actions and statements of organized religion, its leaders and its followers. Their criticisms are generally not associated with Jesus, but with things that people who claim to be followers of Jesus say and do (or do not do) in His name. Just as with the Gandhi quote that opened this section, it appears that many people have the perception that most Christians are unlike Christ.
The result? While author, Anne Rice, made a very public announcement when she recently quit Christianity, many other lesser known people have been quietly showing their discontent and disillusionment by simply walking away from the church. Traditional churches are seeing fewer and fewer attendees, particularly among youth and young adults, forcing them to consolidate congregations and find ways to operate with less.
The writing on the wall is clear – the Christian church, at least in the western world, is largely in decline. If Christianity were a business, shareholders would be dumping the stock and employees would be desperately searching for new jobs. There is no doubt – the brand is in crisis.
The State of the Church in America
Only 15% of churches in the US are growing.
Only 2.2% of churches in the US are growing by conversion growth.
10,000 churches in the US disappeared in a five-year period.
Only 45% of Americans attend church regularly.
The number of Americans that do not attend church doubled over the past 15 years.
Source: Andy McAdams, Church Dynamics International
I strongly encourage you to read unChristian for yourself to learn the full extent of these issues.
Photo from http://matthewpaulturner.net/ – I highly recommend his blog.