As the Fresh Expressions resources point out, an increasing number of people no longer automatically attend church, or even think of attending church. Many young adults have never attended a worship service in their lives. Increasing numbers of people do not even know what the most prevalent Christian brand, or symbol, the cross, represents.
The truth is, the meaning of branding has changed from symbolizing meaning to symbolizing consumer status. Two thousand years ago, the fish was an identifying brand, or symbol of a follower of Jesus. Today, a fish is more likely to be associated with a brand of clothing, or an automobile than Jesus.
In our market-driven culture a brand is a name, term, design or symbol that separates one product or company from another.
Today, brands are for consumers, not Christians.
There is an irony about what brands are most popular. Can you make a guess as to what the top brands are? Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Facebook and Starbucks.
No surprises there. All these brands have been burned into our brains over the last few years via our computers, televisions, and other forms of media.
But these brands are more than simply well-known. The top brands today, like Google, Amazon et al., share one thing in common. As one observer says, "They have the power to connect deeply with people and bring about change. They can influence the direction of larger culture and make an impact on the way others (businesses) think and operate."
The brands that matter most connect deeply with people and bring about change. They possess the power to influence the direction of our culture.
Take Amazon, for example. It has fundamentally shifted the way we buy things, and as another observer said it, "consistently gets people excited about spending their money."
Facebook understands that, in their words, "humans crave connection." Facebook is where increasing numbers of people go to connect emotionally, politically, and, for some, even spiritually with people we have never met in person -- for better or for worse.
And Starbucks is intentionally more than a coffee shop. Beyond home and work, it is a "third place" where community may be created in unexpected ways.
All of these brands connect deeply with people; this is why they bring about change. They exert an influence on the entire world.
This used to be true of the Christian “brand” as well. But a recent marketing survey of 7,000 people across several nations revealed that while 88% could identify McDonald’s Golden Arches, only 54% recognized the Christian cross.
And among those who do, this is not always a positive thing. According to the Center for American Progress, Christianity has become associated with "intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, exclusion, rigidity, stinginess, lack of compassion."
This is not the message we want to be sending; and certainly not the message we or anyone else needs to hear.
In this anxious age and in this unique place God calls us to redefine our brand as followers of Jesus, and to carry this message in fresh words and ministries into a very broken world.
Paul can help us with this. As much as anyone else, Paul helped to establish the Christian brand. He didn't have a cross tattooed on his bicep, but he did present the message of the cross as "the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Paul believed that Jesus died because of human sin, which the scriptures foretold, and that he was buried, and raised on the third day. (15:3-4).
For Paul, the cross is not a sign of weakness: it illustrates the power of God: the power of life over death.
Paul says that is not all. "The one who raised Jesus will raise us also," says Paul in 2 Corinthians (v. 14). This means that we will experience resurrection, too.
As one colleague put it, “Through the power of God, we are part of the Eternity Brand.”
Paul knows that there is no real competition with this brand, since all the things of the world will eventually pass away, everything from Apple to Amazon.
"Our outer nature is wasting away," Paul says, and everything around us will eventually crumble (4:16). But we do not have to lose heart. "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (5:1).
Last week two social celebrities, fashion designer Kate Spade; and chef and television travel host Anthony Boudain committed suicide. Some would say each of them obtained everything that meets our cultural definition of success- money, fortune, and fame. But for whatever reasons, there was not enough power in any of these things to contest with a deeper malaise, the source of which we do not know
Would it have changed anything in these lives or their tragic outcome last week had Kate Spade or Anthony Boudain known this promise or had faith in this claim? I do not know.
However, I do know, as does Paul, that our days are numbered. Almost imperceptibly, they pass by and our years increase incrementally. We look into the mirror and see that our "outer nature is wasting away" (v. 16). And as our own mortality becomes an ever-present reality, moment by moment thoughts of decline can begin to dominate our view of the future in such a way that hope grows faint. Yet in the face of such a choice, the apostle Paul offers an exhortation that refuses to surrender to that bleak outlook "because we look not to what can be seen but at what cannot be seen" (v. 18).
According to Paul his convictions about the future are right "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary but what cannot be seen is eternal [aiwnia]" (v. 18). This is the ultimate destiny for all who have ever lived, now live and will live on Earth. Yet for Paul, God has not and will not abandon us. Even though our bodies decay and die, we will not remain homeless because "we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (v. 1b).
Or, as C.S. Lewis perceptively observed, "The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good rapport with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last ... [and reveal] ... a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain." ("The Weight of Glory," in C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975; First Touchstone Edition, 1996], 34-36.)
The characteristics of God's Eternity Brand are not high-tech phones, exotic foods, or luxury handbags, but an invisible power and eternal life grounded in living faith. These are qualities that people crave, and that faith can provide.
Followers of Jesus know the truth of what is said by a character in the novel The Little Prince, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
What is essential is invisible to the eye: Love for family, friends, neighbor and stranger, justice and righteousness in our dealings with others, belief in the power of forgiveness both given and received. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, which Paul lists as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
None of these qualities can be perceived with our eyes. But we see them clearly with our hearts, and we know how essential they are to authentic life. In fact, they are infinitely more important than anything we can purchase, and the quality of our lives would plummet if we were to lose them.
Imagine living without love, in a world without justice or righteousness or the possibility of forgiveness. Sexual abuse, financial scandals and political posturing would be even worse than they already are.
Imagine getting up in the morning without the possibility of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control.
We know we need them, every one of them. Even though we cannot see them.
Fortunately, our faith gives us access to these invisible powers. We are able to love each other because God "first loved us" (1 John 4:19). We act with justice and righteousness because our God is a just and righteous God. We believe in forgiveness because Jesus died to free us from sin. And we are able to show the fruits of the Spirit because the Spirit is always working through us.
"What is essential is invisible to the eye," says the character in The Little Prince. The apostle Paul would agree, which is why he says to the Corinthians, "We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (v. 18).
Our faith gives us assurance. The good news is that our Christian faith gives us invisible powers to face the many challenges of life. But it also assures us of a place in God's eternal kingdom. That's why it is not a temporary brand, like all of the top corporate brands today. It is an Eternity Brand.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (v. 1). This focus on eternal life, made possible by the resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of the Christian faith. It assures us that nothing in all creation -- not even death itself -- can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
We need this assurance, especially with the pace of change, the depth of polarization, and anxiety about the future prevalent in the world today.
Institutions and corporations no longer provide our communities with the stability they once did. Think of iconic companies like Bethlehem Steel, Circuit City, Pan Am, Tower Records and Woolworth's.
All have disappeared since 1989. They may have once been brands that mattered, but now they are gone.
I do not think it is coincidental that as church attendance has declined the rate of death by suicide in America has risen dramatically over the past 15 years. (according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.)
In 1999, 10.5 of every 100,000 people committed suicide. In 2014, that number had increased 24% to 13 out of every 100,000 people. The suicide rates are adjusted for changes in population and age, so this increase is not the result of demographic shifts. In preceding decade, the suicide rate had been dropping. And the most eye-catching increases were among people in middle age.
“It’s very sobering and disappointing,” says Harold Koplewicz, a psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, a non-profit in Manhattan. “We’re not making progress. We’re actually going in the wrong direction.”
In the face of any change, you and I, all people, need hope and faith in what my colleague calls the Eternity Brand, "a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." This brand brings hope about change, inspiring people to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be. And it shapes the history of the larger culture by giving people a vision of God's heavenly kingdom, in which injustice and war are replaced by righteousness and peace.
Without this brand, without this vision- people perish.
I close this morning with two suggested practices, think of them as personal fresh expressions of faith that may help empower and center us in the Eternity Brand:
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists 10 ways to order our world so we can bring simplicity to our lives:
First, buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
Second, reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
Third, develop a habit of giving things away.
Fourth, refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
Fifth, learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Sixth, develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
Seventh, look with a healthy skepticism at all "buy now, pay later" schemes.
Eighth, obey Jesus' instructions about plain, honest speech.
Ninth, reject anything that will breed the oppression of others.
Tenth, shun whatever would distract you from your main goal: "Seek first the kingdom of God."
--Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (Zondervan, 1988), 89-94.
This second practice is a help in authentically and spiritually connecting with the world and other people each day. This resource comes from Rumi Poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more popularly simply as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic originally from Greater Khorasan. Rumi's influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.