We’ve got a problem in the Church today with Christian branding as a form of triumphalism, and it’s a charge made often enough about others and almost never about ourselves. I want to contend that it is an unhealthy influence of consumerism. (See the excellent book by Skye Jethani: The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity
So, I’d like to have a conversation about branding as a form of Christian triumphalism to see if my suggestion can gain some traction. I’m hoping we can find a Third Way, one that gets beyond triumphalistic branding to a genuine embrace of the communion of saints. Let’s be warned: those of us who want a Third Way need to beware lest we, in our Third Way of getting beyond triumphalism, get all bent out of shape in a triumphalistic branding of our Third Way. So, in this case, the humble way is the Third Way and the Third Way is non-triumphalist by nature. It’s branding seeks to brand what is true of all Christians.
My suggestion is this: Christian triumphalism is found when there is an absence of “He” (God) in favor of a “We” and a criticism of “Them” in comfort with “We.” (Obviously, I use “He” because it rhymes with “we” and because I fear, well, the triumphalism of those who think using “He” is inherently some form of chauvinism’s defense of an altogether male archetype called “God.”) So, our definition triumphalism, seen in branding, is about distinguishing ourselves over against others and displacing God in that ongoing distinguishing.
Triumphalism always arises out of genuine concerns and good ideas but
always overcooks the concerns and outdoes the ideas so that we get more
concerned about ourselves than God. Furthermore, we get focused on
comparing ourselves favorably over against the “thems” of this world.
My contention is that a “we vs. them” mentality always masks an even
more central concern of “we” over against God. Triumphalism’s fatal
tragedy then is its idolatry. It turns one’s community into the golden
I offer the following as potential examples of branding
and triumphalism in the Church today, and I want to emphasize one
thing: these are potential examples. If you are “glad” to see
something in this list, it might well indicate you are into your own
brand of triumphalism. Let’s all beware.
Megachurches sometimes fall for the trap of branding themselves as the “way of the day” and compare themselves, quite favorably, to others to bolster themselves. They may talk of how nothing happened in the church until they were on the map … I could go on. The point here is not about megachurches, but about how megachurches “sell themselves” by a “we vs. them” mentality at times.
Denominational gatherings: I’ve been in very few denominations that don’t fall into this trap at times. After all, they’ve got a noble history and a good reason for what they are and who they are, but over time denominations are tempted to see themselves as the most faithful and everybody just a cut below — in other words, they get into “we vs. them.”
Local church leaders: pastors can fall for the trap they are the local church or that the church would never get along without them or that they alone are faithful while lay folks are stumbling along as best as they can and “were it not for me” … again, there’s a we vs. them in this. And it builds into a “we (church) vs. them (all other local churches)” mentality and then there’s every reason in the world for the pastor and church to start talking about how they are cut above as a church and no one else is paying the price. Then they “brand” themselves and we’ve got a problem with triumphalism.
I won’t develop this, and my point in this post is not to excoriate, but to see if we can define how Christian triumphalism works itself out in branding. I’m thinking we could talk about schools of thought (anabaptist, Calvinist, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism), parachurch gatherings and conferences where folks get all hepped up about how they’ve found the answer and the secret and the clue. I’m thinking of small group cliques in churches and liturgically-oriented Christians and churches and theologies, and how the liberal vs. the conservative are brands and how deeply ingrained they are … and how evangelicals sometimes get to thinking that they, like Elijah, are the only faithful ones alive.
I wonder if the response to this today is one of repentance or one of “well, I’m glad he pointed out the folks I don’t like”?
One of the articles we confess is the “communion of the saints.” I’m thinking that “communion” as a world is brought to tears and shame by the branding that goes on in the Church today. I’m wondering if maybe we ought not today to invite the pastor of another church to coffee to listen and to pray and to chat and to say “we’re in this together.” I’m wondering if we ought not to tell our kids that the kids next door who go to a different church are our brothers and sisters. I could go on … I’ve made my point.