Over the last several years, a new wave of books have shown up on the shelves all looking at the question of how do we share Christ in a culture with increasingly no knowledge of Him and more options than ever before? Tim Sinclair’s Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture is the latest to enter the conversation. In Branded, Sinclair seeks to encourage readers in reinvestigating how they’re “marketing” Jesus to those around them. The result is an enjoyable, but often very frustrating, book.
“Branding Jesus is not a change in mission—it’s a change in tactics,” Sinclair writes seeking to alleviate concerns that some might have about compromising the message of Christianity whenever talk of “marketing” or “rebranding” comes up (p. 21). The change in tactics, as he describes them, amount to a higher degree of relational involvement than perhaps some are used to. Sinclair advocates that we have to be able to relate to the people whom we are trying to reach and that we must be authentic. Indeed, perhaps the most personally challenging (in a good way) statement in this book is as follows:
It’s hard to admit sometimes, but Christians (as a whole) are ruining the world’s appetite for Jesus. We are often the ones standing in the way of Christ, despite our best efforts to lead people to Him. (p. 50)
There is a great deal of truth to this statement as it speaks to the issue of what is offensive—us or the gospel. The gospel is an offense to those who are perishing (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-16), but we need not be offensive in our words, attitudes and behavior. We’ve seen it multiple times—heck, we’ve all probably been guilty of it multiple times—and we should do all we reasonably can to not let the stumbling block to salvation be us.
While I do appreciate Sinclair’s emphasis on not wanting to change the mission of the church, only the tactics we use, I wonder if implicitly what he offers doesn’t do exactly that. Perhaps it’s simply the limitations of using marketing language, but because there is such a strong emphasis on the non-Christian’s needs and favorable perception that it risks reducing the gospel to a message that glorifies sinners rather than glorifies God. I agree strongly that there is a personal benefit to the hearer in the gospel and that positive experiences with Christians are extremely important, but they’re not the sum total.
Continuing on this theme, Sinclair offers a series of “what ifs” in a round of green light thinking (a brainstorming exercise designed to put as many ideas on a whiteboard or piece of paper as possible, without any evaluation of those ideas). As a marketer, this is one of my favorite things to do as it forces me to take my critical thinking hat off for a few minutes (I’m not terribly good at that). These ideas are designed to start discussion—they might not be good ideas, nor are many likely to be successful as even he admits. Reading through the list, while I definitely appreciate the exercise, the results were definitely a mixed bag. There are some good ideas (like having your family vacation be a missions or service experience), and others that are extremely unwise. Ideas are ideas, to be sure, but the difference in writing a book and brainstorming on a whiteboard is you can erase the board, but the book is (mostly) permanent. Whatever you publish, you implicitly or explicitly affirm. Sinclair offers a few suggestions that honestly left me scratching my head.
“What if we didn’t read our Bible every day?” Okay, but that’s not going to help you be more authentic. Our biggest problem as Christians isn’t that we’ve got too much learning and not enough application (as the song goes), but that we aren’t learning much of anything at all (indeed, statistically speaking, most Christians are biblically illiterate). If you really want to be a rebel and push the limits of being an authentic Christian, read your Bible.
“What if we invested our time for the next few weeks in being a part of the church without going to a church?” A couple things: First, you can’t be the church by yourself; it requires others. Second, we’re commanded to not neglect gathering together in Hebrews 10:25.
“What if we sold our church’s building?” Our church has never owned a building. We rent a high school and office space. It is astoundingly difficult to do ministry effectively when at any moment, for any reason, your landlord could say, “You’re out.” Buildings are a practical tool for ministry when used properly.
“What if we frequently visited the churches of people who believe differently?” We don’t visit Kingdom Halls, Mosques, Temples or Mormon churches because we don’t worship the same God. Given Paul’s emphatic commands to flee from idolatry and not participate in false worship (see 1 Cor. 10:14-22), I’m pretty sure this qualifies as something that we ought not do, if for no other reason than for the sake of a “weaker brother’s” conscience.
Honestly, I know it sounds bad, but reading Branded particularly in this section, I felt like I was reading someone ‘s flirtations with the popular ideas of 2005. All this stuff has been tried before and it’s all failed. It’s not made Jesus more appealing. But here’s what does: Not simply avoiding watering down the message of the gospel, but by as strongly as you possibly can, emphasizing it. Honest, authentic relationships, yes. But also bold, passionate proclamation and equally passionate prayer, trusting the Holy Spirit to work through the words He inspired to be written. Those are the tactics we need more of. I really appreciate Sinclair’s heart in writing Branded. He’s got some good thoughts to offer, but be prepared to have to dig through some rough patches to find them.
Title: Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture
Author: Tim Sinclair
Publisher: Kregel Publications (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.