Branding church: Does religious service need to be 'hip' to be relevant?

May 30, 2012

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A recent post on Facebook caught my attention: "Doing Church Differently” or “Spare Me the Hip…” It was from Pastor Tim Brown's blog Reluctant Xtian. Brown is Pastor at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago. The blog title itself is enough to grab your attention: you don't expect a Church leader to be so explicit about skepticism for his faith (Pastor Brown shares the story of the title on his "About" page).

Brown argues that adding a coffee shop or rock music to a religious service doesn't make it "hip". It just means that the Church is practicing worship the right way. Brown says that services have always been about community, gathering with people who share tenets of your faith -- and those who question it -- to learn more and worship together. So, calling it "hip" doesn't exactly make it "hip." It makes it right.

There is, of course, an end goal with all these efforts to make church seem more cool. Faiths are trying to get more people in the door, especially Millenials who, according to 2007 PEW research, increasingly move away from their childhood faith. A quarter of them identify by no specific religious affiliation. These efforts are part of branding efforts to get some of those young people back.

The Catholic Church did this when they launched the Catholics Come Home campaign, targeted at inviting those who had previously practiced the faith back into the pews. The campaign features a robust website and TV commercials reminding potential congregants how the Catholic faith can still be relevant in their lives.

Pastor Brown says he sees why churches would want to do marketing and branding but he doesn't like any corporatization. It should be about the community and congregants that the church aims to serve, and less about telling the churchgoers would they should expect. He says he's skeptical of churches that post their "What we believe" missions online. Do those coming through the door believe all the same things, or are those just the beliefs of the leaders who administer the website? Can this exclude worshippers?

Pastor Tim Brown joined Eight Forty-Eight's Tony Sarabia to explain what prompted him to write his blog post about "hip" Church service. Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid of the Downtown Islamic Center also joined to discuss how the Islam faith can better connect with younger faith seekers.

Mujahid jokes that Muslims don't have a lot of flexibility in when they worship; service takes place around lunchtime on Fridays. He does concede, however, that younger Muslims have connected with the faith through sermons that he gives, which offer lessons and points that connect with their current lives. The goal remains the same as Pastor Tim Brown's-making the faith worship relevant to the congregants and less about creating a fence between leaders and those worshipping. After all, as Imam Mujahid notes, the traditional can be hip, too.