Learning my lines . . .
. . . discovering what it means to follow Jesus, seeing my story swept up into his . . .

Will Smith, Hillsong, Branding. . . and Me. . .

Brand. While it’s one of the most-used words in today’s lexicon, I’m not sure we should like how it’s being used. Or maybe, we should aim to use it properly.

The term brand as it’s most-used these days originated in the world of marketing. . . that sneaky-world where our attention is grabbed, held, and turned into a profit. Investopedia defines brand this way: “The term brand refers to a business and marketing concept that helps people identify a particular company, product, or individual. Brands are intangible, which means you can’t actually touch or see them. As such, they help shape people’s perceptions of companies, their products, or individuals. Brands commonly use identifying markers to help create brand identities within the marketplace. They provide enormous value to the company or individual, giving them a competitive edge over others in the same industry.”

And this is where a red flag was raised by a couple of news headlines of the last few weeks. . .

First, The New York Times ran this headline a few days after the Will Smith – Chris Rock Oscars fiasco: “A Slap Could Sting the Smith Family Brand”. There’s something horribly unsettling about seeing ourselves and our families. . . human beings who are divine image-bearers. . . as brands, or business and marketing concepts. Aren’t we much more that that?

That headline took me back almost 20 years to Alissa Quart’s fabulous book, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. In the book, Quart took on and exposed the savvy marketers who target children, teens, and wallets. Quart’s book was released in early 2004, three years before the release of the iPhone and the expansion of branding into the world of social media. Now, kids not only develop an affinity for brands, but they fabricate, curate, and promote themselves (or at least an image they project. . . real, false, or some combination of both) in an effort to become and build the brand of me, myself, and I. There’s far too much to go into here, but the entire process is dehumanizing. I’ve even heard some in our youth ministry world refer to themselves as brands. . . projects of sorts to be created, built, and maintained. Look closely, and you’ll see it rather clearly on social media. The result of all this branding-frenzy is that we lose our very selves while turning ourselves into some kind of commodity. . .  which then leads to a kind of enslavement which requires the kind of time and attention that, when directed away from the Creator, leaves us bowing down to a variety of idols.

Second, The Guardian reported on messy news coming out of the Hillsong Church movement with this headline: “Brand or Church? How Hillsong is facing a day of reckoning.” I know little to nothing about what’s actually been happening at Hillsong, nor would I ever venture to comment on the details. What I do know is that the question The Guardian is asking is one that’s long overdue for all of us in the church. The article reports on a rift between “the spiritual and business factions of the church.” In years past, I rarely if ever heard someone in the church world speak in business terms, as if the church was being seen and run as a corporation. But in recent years, there’s been a troubling shift where churches, particularly mega-churches and those that want to see that kind of growth, seem to be leaning more and more into the latest business models and trends rather than being about the hard work of preaching, teaching, and nurturing towards spiritual growth. It’s always seemed like a foolish move that will never end well. Think about it. . . we have celebrity pastors who have clearly been curated and branded. . . and yes, even marketed/sold. It’s easy to get caught up in this movement as attention and numbers can grow. “Success” of this type will swallow us up and can quickly morph into commitment to pleasing and drawing the masses, rather than worshipping and glorifying God. In our youth ministry world, I see this spread when I ask youth workers what they’ve been reading. Some, sadly, read very little if at all. Many jump onto the latest leadership book bandwagon. Few mention reading biblical studies or theology.

But let’s be honest. Thinking here solely about Will Smith and Hillsong can divert us away from tending to that which we’ve each been called to tend to: ourselves. Paying attention to Will Smith and Hillsong can be helpful as their stories pull back the curtain on a universal bent that we all share. They serve as warnings regarding our own inclination to leverage and abuse our platforms – regardless of how small or large – to turn ourselves into brands rather than people. There but for the grace of God goes each of us. We can so easily wander down the rabbit hole of using all the technological tools, marketing tricks, and branding strategies at our disposal to further the kingdoms of the world, the flesh, and the devil, rather than aspiring “to live a quiet life” (I Thessalonians 4:11) to God’s glory.

Several years ago I was asked by Youth Specialties to put together a seminar for the National Youth Workers Convention on “Wisdom for a Young Youth Worker.” My qualifications for doing so were 1) my age and duration in youth ministry, and 2) any wisdom I had accumulated as a result of my own foolishness. . . the latter of which has been abundant. In other words, I was old and had made many mistakes. One of my lessons to young youth workers was this: “You are not a brand.” I believe that more and more with each passing day. Those are five words that should be adopted by all of us as a part of our own personal creed. Living out of that reality offers a much-needed bit of guidance for the kids we’ve been given to nurture and care for spiritually.

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