The other day a youth worker friend messaged me while he was sitting through a youth worker training event. These places are where I live and have lived for so many years. Because of my habitual culture-watching default setting, I multi-task while presenting at youth worker conferences. Yes, I do audience ethnographies at the same time. Sorry. Can’t help it.
His humorous message, while initially funny, really got me thinking about our youth ministry tribe and even the church at large. He said, “I’ve never seen so many plaid shirts, skinny jeans, and dark-rimmed glasses in one place.” He was doing an ethnography as well! He didn’t say anything about hair styles, but I’m guessing there had to be an army of “undercuts” in the room. . . hairwise that is! Ten years ago that room would have been filled with shaved heads and goatees.
We’ve always been tuned in to style, haven’t we? There’s nothing wrong with style. But it can become too important, can’t it? We’re. . . all of us . . . nurtured into this by a marketing culture that tells us that if we dress in yesterday’s styles we’re not only so yesterday and so out-of-date, but we’re also irrelevant. Sadly, style has come to determine validity. This was always a bit of a problem in our youth ministry world. But with the growing development and influence of marketing and branding. . . along with the advent and spread of social media. . . it’s gotten even more intense.
The other day I encountered some insightful words from J.I. Packer that I believe are related to all this. Style is not only now an indicator of personal relevance, but even the hinge on which theological relevance and truth sit. Packer sends out a powerful warning regarding the Spirit of the Age (Zeitgeist) and how we in the church have been conditioned by our culture (marketing?) to always pursue, believe, and embrace the latest and the greatest: “The newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.”
Social media (promoting our “brand” and selves), hipsterism (or whatever is the style du jour we adopt to cultivate our “brand” and selves), and our frantic pace of life (too busy to invest in anything too deeply other than maintaining our “brand” and selves) are three of the threads we have to be careful about in the church. In combination, these powerfully nurture this kind of shallowness. When and where I see all three combined, I tread carefully. I’ve come to learn that it’s dangerous groud. Why? Because style is usually overflowing in abundance, while substance suffers and is notoriously absent. Part of the reason for this is that what’s current is the only thing in our field of vision. We believe that what’s current should be the only thing in our field of vision. Consequently, we discount a rich history and bank of accumulated wisdom that we write off simply because it’s from yesterday. . . and then “so yesterday.”
While researching Packer’s words, I came across these related quotes from C.S. Lewis posted by my friend Steve Kilgore. Lewis wrote this about what he called “chronological snobbery”: it’s “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. “
Truth is truth. And as Francis Bacon once said, “Histories make men (and women) wise.” Let’s not sacrifice truth, our rich history (the saints who have gone before us), or even our ministries on what is the well-intentioned yet misguided altar of relevance.
When my friend Rich Van Pelt was honored this last weekend at the National Youth Workers Convention with a Lifetime Achievement Award, he said something incredibly wise to all of us in the room. Rich said, “You take care of the depth of your ministry. Let God take care of the breadth of your ministry.”
Is our obsession with style, social media, branding ourselves, and relevance more about cultivating the depth or the breadth?
(Here’s a great related blog post I found when I googled “Relevant Hipster” . . . thought provoking: “Ageism In The Age of Hipster Christianity”)
Generally, I agree with the premise of your article on style.
That said, you know nothing about branding.
Branding is the expression of the attributes of an organization, product or person. Companies which have existed since J.I. Packer was young have learned that the essential piece to the brand is the product. It is the promise delivered. While promotion is essential to communicate the promise, the product is still the thing. An example: Coca Cola.
Coke better still taste good, or it won’t matter how cool they shape the bottle or what band they get to play in their commercial. Over time, the style of packaging and promotion change, but the brand attributes remain… Coke is tasty and it really it is something friends share when together. It does make people smile (at least it does my son when we let him have one!). Those brand elements reflect the product and the experience of using the product.
The point is that it is the product that matters. Jesus Christ is the best “product” ever. And His brand attributes are clear – trustworthy, loving, engaged, cutting edge, anti-establishment, revolutionary, inclusive… and “the product” works – it delivers on the promise. Salvation, peace, redemption, belonging, eternal life… it (He) REALLY delivers.
That’s why the style doesn’t matter. Hipster, grunge, big hair, new wave, hippie, doo wop, big band, flapper…on and on back to carpenter. Jesus’ brand is relevant in any age or style because the “product” is so good and the brand attributes are so strong.
Much is made of “creating a brand”, “using social media to project a brand”, etc. If the product, organization or person aren’t the essence of what is being communicated as “the brand”, if the substance doesn’t match “the style”, then you might have a flash, but soon, flat.
I think the issue you describe is not a marketing and branding issue. It is an issue of the heart. Yes, chasing style is not what we want from youth ministers. However style is not a reverse indicator of the heart. No one would say, for instance, that plaid necessarily indicates style over substance.
And while your warning is worthwhile, and I appreciate your providing the heads up on cultural issues, don’t blame marketing and social media for a room full of style ministers. Blame it on the issue of every age – the battle of the kingdom of self versus the Kingdom of God. Youth leaders who are vapid plaid haircuts may be cool at a church for a while, but they probably don’t have what you call a “depth” to their ministry. They probably end up in another profession when their hair recedes. Yet hipster thoughtful theologians end up being guys like Packer and Lewis that see beyond the moment and deliver on the eternal. Except they do it wearing Vans.
So ultimately, we arrive at the same conclusion, I just choose not to blame marketing. Marketing and branding are no different than any other human invention… they can be used for self or for kingdom. Advertising is not driving our culture away from God. People who are not followers of God (or believers who value looking cool or making money over being godly) use all elements of culture, including marketing, to reflect their values. If the product is self, then the brand is just self promotion.
All the Best,
P.S. By the way, this goes for your Seinfeld post as well… it’s not the tool, it’s the heart. Exploitation doesn’t happen because of the medium, but because of the one writing the message. Jerry is really criticizing the people’s character. And with that, I agree.
Thanks for your comment. Actually, we might agree more than you think. I do believe it is dangerous to turn Jesus into a brand. It changes our theology, our worship, our communication. . . watering it down, draining it I believe. We could unpack that later. Would love to chat with you about that. Regarding branding, you do mention my main critique of what’s happening in the church and what has happened in the church for years. . . the way that we brand our selves. People are not and should not be brands. When we see ourselves as brands it not only changes where we should be finding our identity (in Christ), but has us tending to, curating, and creating our identity. I’ve watched someone I know do a masterful job of branding self over the course of the last decade or so. . . and to be honest, it’s quite scary. Actually, I hope for “the flash” for that person’s sake. But I would also say that “the flash” plays well in today’s culture. Yes, the core problem of humanity has always been the same. . . brokenness or sin. And I consistently point to the fact that the ugliness does indeed flow from our sinful hearts. I do think that in today’s world, the things I mentioned (social media, marketing, etc) as we know them set the table for us to express our sinfulness in ways that are unique to the times. (I hope you read that my critique is not just of the now). Regarding my blog on Seinfeld. . . read again. . . I did mention that marketing can and should be done with a soul. . . to the glory of God more specifically. In fact, when in the classroom, I actually encourage students to pursue a vocation in marketing in order to do it redemptively. Random thoughts. . . I hope they make sense. Blessings.
Yes, I think we would agree on many things. And we can discuss the brand as expression of self vs what I call the “created” brand, which is a facade in that it’s not a reflection but rather a mirage.
I did read your post on Seinfeld. I guess I infer in that post (not to presume you imply) and from elsewhere in your writings the idea that marketing/SMM and culture “can” be used for good, but they really aren’t. That those rascally advertisers and artists are causing our demise.
I don’t see it that way. Marketing, social media marketing and the tools of culture are being mightily used for good. Whether the online presence of Billy Graham’s ministry (which is an awesome case history waiting to happen), to the average everyday business folks who do most of the business in this country and are not nefarious or scandalous with their marketing communications…they really are trying to help people with their products and services.
That said, you are in the trenches of the culture’s dark side, and your warnings and tools for parents are exceptional.
I guess my point is that its a war. Although you see the enemy using these tools, there are many who use them for the Kingdom or for the good of society.
And as we agree, the real issue is the heart. Our children (and we) are susceptible to culture because we don’t realize who we are, and who we can be.
Keep fighting the good fight… we win.
And do well at Christ Church Friday. My wife and kids are volunteering to help out I believe. I am going to try to stop in if I can.
Good thoughts! I’m thinking your read on my take on marketing is a matter of the words I use. I actually talk to kids about going into marketing as vocation – if called, of course – to do marketing redemptively. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a needed thing that like anything else, “can” and should be done to the glory of God. I hope that clarifies. Blessings.