Defining your church’s brand is about helping people find their place in the body of Christ. It’s an expression of how the passions your people carry collide with the community you inhabit. It’s a physical reflection of the spiritual calling of your church.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell what that actually looks like.
If you visit local church websites, sign up for their newsletters, and remove the church name, can you still tell which newsletter came from which church?
If you heard the church name, would you know what that church is like or how they live out the gospel?
If you walked into their building, would you still answer that question the same way?
The visual elements of your church should be derived from your church’s mission. It’s your “brand”—the face of your mission. The more familiar someone is with your church’s brand, the faster they recognize your identity, purpose, and calling.
Whether you planned to establish one or not, your church already has a brand. It might still be a little unclear—like a statue in the middle of being sculpted, or a rough draft of a book—but it’s there.
“You can’t just embrace what you like and disregard what you don’t like,” says Micah Ellis, design director at Faithlife. “You are who you are.”
Even if it’s unintentional, your church is carving out its brand with every choice it makes. Your mission, your values, who you’re called to reach, and what you care about influence the decisions you make and define your brand identity. Every choice—both the big, organizational changes and the clumsy, incidental choices you make on the fly—shape how your church’s identity is expressed.
Establishing your church’s brand is about aligning all those decisions, providing a point of reference for every new choice, and empowering your people to define what represents you—what you stand for.
But if you’ve ever had a conversation about church branding before, you’ve probably experienced some tension. Should we really “brand” the bride of Christ?
Challenges of church branding
Church designers often have to address perceptions about branding before discussing its applications to the church. Micah is quick to dispel any notion that the church should be treated like a Fortune 500 company.
“The church isn’t a corporation, and it’s not a product,” Micah says.
In the marketplace, brands help us differentiate between the hundreds of companies attempting to solve the same problems and provide the same services. They help companies identify with specific demographics and particular audiences. And it’s completely inappropriate to bring that “marketing” approach to church.
Companies use branding to position themselves as appealing alternatives to the competition. In the dog-eat-dog world of business, a strong brand helps lure customers away from a competitor. But branding your local church isn’t about “sheep stealing.” Your goal is not to position your church as superior to other ministries.
So how do we apply branding to advance the gospel, not project an image?
“The church could take some of it’s cues from nonprofits,” Micah says. “They’re purpose driven, not image driven.”
When people support a nonprofit or ministry, they’re becoming part of a larger story. The people align themselves with the brand, rather than aligning the brand with themselves.
People identify with your church brand because who you are and what you do intersects with who they are and what they do—not because your brand adds something to their image (like a new pair of shoes or a sports car).
And with every person who becomes part of your church’s story, you may discover deviations and improvisations that become part of your brand as well.
Sharing the vision for your brand
Corporate design rules help enforce consistency and create clarity. When you apply them to organizations it means those brands always have the best representations of who they are. But when you’re working within the body of Christ, you have to put those rules beneath the banner of God’s love.
Sometimes you have to double down on basic design principles to keep your message clear and your story consistent. Sometimes you have to let go.
“I could control everything,” Micah says, speaking of a designer’s role at church, “but then you have the volunteer who’s been serving with such and such ministry for years, and she creates a sign that doesn’t quite fit. At some point you just let the church express itself.”
Christine Christophersen, Proclaim’s Pro Media art director, agrees. “Everyone helping your church wants to give their best,” she says. “So sometimes consistency means sacrificing your own design preference for the greater ‘brand’ of that sermon series.”
Creativity and design produced from within the body of Christ should allow for individual expression without becoming about the individual.
“Our church is a collection of individuals with diverse beliefs, opinions, and cultures,” Micah says. “Do all the rules of corporate design need to come to bear on churches? Maybe not, but the mission of the church should help decide that.”
There’s a fine line between calling people to a higher standard and making people feel like they aren’t called.
The role of branding, Micah says, is to empower church staff to say, “Here’s who we are and what we’re trying to communicate, now go with it.”
Visually expressing your church
When everyone is on the same page about what your church wants to communicate, “your best” becomes about making the pieces fit together—not about making your individual piece look really good on its own.
“There are so many different things being communicated on a Sunday morning,” Christine says. “It’s hard to simplify. But if someone only remembers one thing from a service, what is that one thing we want them to remember?”
Whatever it is, that one thing should be the focal point of every role. That’s why it’s important for church design to be a team effort.
“The process isn’t built around one person,” she says. The entire team knows what the big picture looks like, and there’s an objective guide to what fits and what doesn’t—so everyone can appeal to the agreed upon vision for the individual service and weigh each item against your brand standards.
But that shouldn’t feel restrictive to your team.
“I think if churches have put work into their brand and vision and mission statements, which most churches have done that with a lot of care, then those pillars won’t change over time,” Christine says. “But how they’re expressed can change with the culture and with who they’re trying to reach.”
“God created culture, uniqueness, diversity,” Micah says. “That should be expressed in everything from the music you hear to the design that you see.”
A special occasion could be the perfect time to stretch the limits of your brand or express a new flavor of it. Take, for example, Eleazar Ruiz’s church:
“For Christmas at my church, we want to go all liturgical,” he says. “No slides for songs. We hand people candles when they come in. I want you to feel the nostalgia, like you felt when you went to church as a little kid. That bulletin you’re going to get that day is going to be different. The colors we use are going to be different. The stage is going to be different.”
Intentional variations like Eleazar’s help churches connect their personal “church brand” to the rich tradition and history of the global Christian church. These variations should still align with the mission and identity of your church—they shouldn’t leave people feeling like their church has suddenly changed, or there’s a totally-new church staff. Rather, they show that your church’s is capable of a wider range of expressions.
“There are certain things in the church that fall under brand that should be consistent,” Christine says. “But there are a lot of areas where there’s flexibility to reach people with a different look or feel of your brand.”
Finding that balance is tricky, but Christine has seen churches and corporations alike thrive on that flexibility.
“Proclaim’s brand is consistent on the website, ads, etc. Anytime we’re talking about Proclaim as a product, we’re using the Proclaim branding standards,” she says. “And those are broader than the logo—fonts, colors, the ways we use photography and icons, that all falls under Proclaim’s brand. But with Pro Media, we’re solving a different problem and using a wider variety of fonts, visual design styles, and colors.”
Churches have youth groups, ministries, and other sub-groups that are rooted in the church, but may occasionally need to add their own flavor to your brand. That’s okay. Your brand might look a little different in a new context with a new audience. That’s okay.
However flexible your brand is and however intentionally your church expresses it, remember:
Church branding is about defining your church identity and remaining true to it. You’re not peddling the gospel—you’re clarifying how you live it out.