This article appeared in the June '08 edition of Advance! from Leadership Network
When Tim Ahlen became pastor of the struggling Forest Meadow Baptist Church (Dallas, TX), the congregation's outreach-minded mission statement and logo were prominently displayed in the church's hallways. In spite of plans the congregation had made, many of the 30 active members were ready to close the doors.
"They were discouraged, ready to quit," Tim recalls.
Tim was the full-time pastor at the church while also working as director of church planting for the Dallas Baptist Association. When he accepted the job as pastor, he saw it as a church planting opportunity.
"I looked at it like a church plant core group that had seven acres and a debt-free building," Tim says. Church members didn't change their mission statement, nor did they follow the one hanging on the wall. "No one paid much attention to it then," Tim admits.
But the church did make changes. "We are surrounded by the largest and densest multi-family housing in Dallas. We went to work," Tim says.
Today, the original church building houses 33 different congregations representing 28 different people groups. Each church meets in the same building.
"We have flags surrounding the auditorium representing countries that are affiliated with us," Tim says. "That's the first thing we've displayed that says who we are. Our purpose statement is clear. It's the Great Commission."
As members of Forest Meadow Baptist Church discovered, a church's brand is more than a professionally designed logo and an impressive website. The brand is the reputation a church has in its community. It's what the church does, who the church is at its core.
While branding a church may sound corporate and business-like – and it does take a marketing strategy to do it well – it's no less than communicating an eternal truth to a lost community.
In one sense, churches are already branded, says Jesse Palmer, owner of The Very Idea Group in Birmingham, AL. "Whether we like it or not, the name 'Christian' is a brand and a label. Much of my work is helping churches and faith-based organizations ultimately develop a brand that fairly and favorably represents the vision, values and virtues of the organization. That isn't always easy."
Jesse notes that a church's brand is, first and foremost, connected with the label or name of the organization. Sometimes those labels are suffering from negative stereotypes.
"For instance, what do you conjure up in your mind if I say something about First Baptist Church of some county seat town or, perhaps, The Greater North Gardendale Apostolic Holiness Church of God in Christ?," Jesse says. "Since for most of us perception is reality, we'd better recognize our responsibility as stewards of the mysteries of faith."
A church has a brand, whether the leaders know it or not. The decision to brand a church is the decision to take control of the way a church is perceived internally and in the community.
Chip Riggs, missions pastor of six-year-old Hope Baptist Church (Las Vegas, NV), found himself working to define the church's brand as the church grew from 3 to 1,600 people.
"The leaders began to realize we were becoming programmatic, which we felt at times was diverting us from the main task," Chip says. "We wanted to define the one thing we were about."
Although the church already had a vision statement, a purpose statement and nine core values, leadership realized that no one could quote them. "There were buzz words, but there was no clarity," Chip says.
The church hired an outside branding company to help develop a logo and a "look," but Chip soon realized that wasn't what the church needed most. Along with a look and a logo, clarifying the church's vision was the most vital branding step.
"The group we hired helped us boil down what we are about," Chip says. "We connect people to live the life of a Jesus follower. People know what that means. Everything we do can be brought into that statement: We connect people to God, to each other and to the world."
The process of defining the church's mission wasn't easy, Chip admits. Church leaders reduced their nine values to four. "That was extremely painful," Chip adds. "But now our mission is so simple, you can draw who we are on a napkin.
"Our goal is for people to come into our church and see clearly the path that the church is walking. If people encounter a hodgepodge of 'Here's a mission trip' or 'Here's an opportunity,' it's too much to process. At the heart, it's not what we do, it's who we are. Along the way you discover specific opportunities for service."
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