This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Truth widely perceived

Brands might seem like products of consumer culture. But Mennonites have an image just as much as Apple and Walmart do. Is Anabaptism a strong brand? Could it possibly “go big”?

People who work in church-related media asked these questions at the annual meeting of Anabaptist Communicators Oct. 23-24 in Akron, Pa. One answer was: You can’t sell what you haven’t bought yourself.

A brand is “the truth about an organization or product that is widely perceived,” said Barth Hague, chief marketing officer for Wichita (Kan.) State University. Your brand is what people think of you.

A company doesn’t control its own brand, and neither does a church. Hague remembers someone once saying, “We’re the church; we don’t have an image.” But in fact, the customers decide whether a church’s brand is strong or weak.

To many Americans, especially younger ones, Christianity is a weak brand. Several years ago, a study showed that just 16 percent of U.S. non-Christians in their late teens and 20s had a good impression of Christianity. Many perceived Christians as judgmental, hypocritical and old-fashioned. This wasn’t just a stereotype. Often they based their perceptions on specific negative experiences. So Christians don’t even have the excuse that others just haven’t gotten to know us yet.

The first step to improving any brand is to accept that perception is reality. We might believe we have a welcoming church, but we don’t get to decide that. If others don’t see us as welcoming, then we’re not.

A great brand doesn’t begin with a sharper logo or a catchier slogan. Change has to start from within. “It’s the stuff below the water line” that counts, Hague said. The public sees the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of the ice below — the inner life of a congregation — is where improvement has to happen before consumers see an attractive product.

To “go big,” Anabaptists themselves have to get excited about Anabaptism. To get excited about it, they have to understand it. “Many of our churches are asleep to the identity of being truly Anabaptist,” Hague said. So we have to tell the story. If we tell others what energizes us about the Anabaptist way of following Christ — the beliefs and practices that draw us in and keep us going — a revival can happen.

The story starts with “restoring integrity to our own lives,” said Todd Wynward, a co-presenter with Hague. Wynward directs Taos Initiative for Life Together, an Anabaptist co-housing discipleship community in New Mexico. He believes Anabaptism is “deeply attractive in a disconnected, cynical world.” Twenty years ago he sought a Christian community that refused to conform to the dominant culture’s violence, hoarding of wealth and abuse of the Earth. He found it at Albuquerque Mennonite Church. He believes “the transformation of human beings into God’s friends” is compelling and should be the truth widely perceived about Anabaptism.

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