Opinion, Thoughts

The Devil in the Data

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“What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it.” – Hans Rosling.

New beginnings await. I have been offered a place on a PGCert in data journalism at Birmingham City University starting this September. Since beginning to explore the possibility of pursuing journalism as a vocation for almost a year, two doors recently popped wide open for me to begin studying the subject part-time. After giving it some careful, prayerful thought, I believe that the time has come to walk through one of these portals and embrace the monumental change it represents.

I have opted to study with Paul Bradshaw on the data journalism program at BCU for a wide variety of reasons. These include (in no particular order): Multiple positive testimonials and recommendations I have gleaned from current and former students; the specific focus on data and investigative journalism; a diverse selection of optional modules should I progress to the full MA program after a year; great industry links and opportunities for work placements at home and abroad; the excellent breadth of expertise and experience offered by the faculty at BCU; and the simple fact that the PGCert will initially have a lighter and more flexible workload than a full MA, meaning I can fit it around work and family commitments more easily during the next academic year.

I have also already had an overwhelmingly positive, encouraging experience when interacting with Paul Bradshaw & BCU thus far. This began before I had even applied for the course, let alone been given an offer. First impressions really do make a difference.

Rabbit holes & Factfulness

I would have written this post sooner, but sometimes life throws unpleasant curve balls in our direction. Having being caught off guard by just such an unexpected occurrence in recent weeks, which has thankfully been resolved for the time being, I was reminded yet again that I have already been blessed from above with an embarrassment of riches. Life is too short, and I want to make the most of every opportunity.

Alongside this broader sense of urgency to cherish each mundane moment I have been given, receiving an unconditional offer from BCU to study data journalism feels like a green light to plummet down the rabbit hole and see where this new sense of calling leads. As my Irish grandmother often said: “Thanks be to God”, for all of the above and more.

As part of my preparation for the data journalism course I have begun, coincidentally, to slowly read two books in tandem: Factfulness by Hans Rosling & The Curious Journalists’ Guide to Data by Jonathan Stray. Both books emphasise the importance of statistics and the art of interpreting them in a meaningful and accurate way in order to develop a coherent worldview. They have already proven to be an eye-opening introduction to the elusive reality behind the often fictitious world we tend to perceive or imagine exists out there (somewhere!).

As a Christian, and a recent MA Theology graduate, I can’t help but see parallels with the kind of epistemology hinted at by the writer of St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, which incidentally inspired the title of my old blog (Cracked looking glass = i.e. At best we see an inaccurate, broken reflection/refraction of reality):

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians ‭13:12‬ ‭(NRSV)‬‬

As partial as human knowledge will always be, I have been struck by the positive aspects of embracing this kind of realism about the limits of our understanding, and how it can be applied to the old fashioned ideal of journalism as the art of truth-telling and holding power to account. Both of these pursuits require data.

To succeed in such a vocation, I imagine any credible 21st century journalist could do worse than to get to grips with facts, figures, reliable statistical analysis, a capacity to read widely enough to be a bona fide jack of all trades who can quickly verify sources, adopt diverse, flexible, and robust investigative methodologies, routinely sharpen their critical thinking skills, and crucially: Blend all this and more together with the ability to accurately interpret and creatively communicate complex data sets and/or concepts to a broad audience. Straightforward enough, no? Time to get to work!

As daunting this path ahead may seem, I feel enormously excited about turning my hand to acquiring these and any other necessary skills to become an investigative data journalist. Counteracting the worst elements of our current post-truth, social-media saturated, fake-news-infused world, which is all too often dominated by a dubious blend of surveillance capitalism, partisan political propaganda, and myriad forces seemingly beyond our control (i.e. Coronavirus/climate change), will undoubtedly require a multifaceted approach. Even if I can only manage to play the smallest of small parts in contributing to this lofty goal, I will at least have done something useful with the gifts I have been given.

A Corona of Stories, Voices, and Contexts

There are so many stories yet to be written, so many voices yet to be heard, and so many ‘explainer’/‘fact-check’ articles needed on a daily basis to demystify panic-worthy social media posts, and/or clarify the reality of any global event in the face of media sensationalism.

For example, on a personal level reading some real healthcare statistics can make quite a difference to an otherwise febrile state of mind when we receive distressing news about a friend, colleague, or family member who unexpectedly finds themselves battling with a serious illness. A Factfulness-led approach can work wonders if we can understand the real world statistics and/or probabilities of what might happen to them. Even the alarming spate of coronavirus epidemics can be helpfully contextualised by crunching and comparing some relevant numbers (e.g. present mortality rates Vs. seasonal flu, or something far more deadly like Ebola; at present, in terms of severity, Corona virus is > flu but considerably < Ebola).

If there is a devil in the deep blue sea, fear is undoubtedly a correlating factor in how it works against our better judgement. A rigorously rational, factful, statistically responsible approach to making sense of the world around us in order to dispel unfounded fears, stave off mass hysteria, and dismantle disinformation whilst helping the general public become more well informed about the partially perceptible reality we currently inhabit, is precisely the kind of data-driven journalism I want to learn to do. I can’t wait to get my teeth into this new discipline at BCU.

After all, to adapt a well known English idiom: The devil is in the data. Time to root him out.

M

Thoughts

Investigating Gothenburg

Staring at a blank canvas can be an unnerving experience. Like muted white noise emanating forth from a carte blanche opportunity, seemingly devoid of an immediately obvious pathway or purpose, fresh starts often feel simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Yet this unexpected invitation of a fleeting glimpse of adventure, security, and comfort, leaked through the cracks of an otherwise formidably opaque vista of incertitude and strangeness as I landed in Gothenburg this week. Such were the sensations I felt as I set foot in a land that feels replete with mystique and allure, doubtless stimulated by my growing fascination with modern Scandinavian society, and old Norse legends. My initial impressions of Sweden made me feel as though I had suddenly been transported into my own private Scandi-noir drama. Subtle shades of grey harmonised the imposing skyline with a groundswell of withered, crimson leaves, and eclectic industrial architecture merging seamlessly with vintage buildings reminiscent of a dystopian detective novel. Facets of Gothenburg felt oddly familiar despite their inherent otherness. Foreign yet familiar.

Lost yet found

I embarked on this trip for the sole purpose of sampling the Master’s course in investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg. With no idea what to expect, I booked myself haphazardly into a hostel that transpired to be within walking distance of the university journalism department. My dastardly plan was unfolding with gusto until I managed to take my first misstep in investigating my whereabouts. After a pointless tram trip across the city and back, I finally realised that the building I needed to be in was, in fact, not the main university building. It turns out that a modern over-reliance on Google Maps is doomed to dampen the much coveted journalistic ability to follow one’s nose.

Far from picking up the scent, I ended up chasing my tail and basking in the fetid aroma of momentary confusion. Imagine the potential memoirs in years to come, as the legendary Anglo-Irish/Peruvian investigator recounts taking his first tentative steps on a thrilling new journey, by wandering aimlessly like a bewildered buffoon around the tram stop nearest to his final destination. Instead of “rat-like cunning” (ala Nick Tomlin), this aspiring journalist exhibited an almost farcical, comedic ignorance as to where he was actually supposed to be going, a good hour before discerning the truth of the matter. In hindsight, at least I now have a broader perspective on what it means to “stumble” into a new career, as my latest mentor put it when describing his own humble beginnings.

A wise man once told me that there are no such things as “failures”, just new learning opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this is a perennial lesson I keep having to relearn. Much like I gradually came to understand when completing my first Master’s degree in Theology, serious, rigorous research of any kind must at least attempt to leave no stone unturned when navigating around a topic. Perhaps library research skills can translate into real life after all. New learning opportunity digested: figure out where on earth you are actually supposed to be going before starting out on an assignment. Moreover, put the wretched smartphone aside when staggering around the streets in a dazed state of befuddlement, whilst struggling to form new neural pathways to adapt quickly and safely to the fact that everyone in Sweden drives on the right (or wrong) side of the road. Point taken, I hope.

Breaking in on the News

I eventually sauntered hamfistedly (read: kindly escorted, despite my tardiness, by the puzzled looking course administrator) into the all day journalism seminar to which I had been graciously invited by the course leader, a distinguished British journalist called David Crouch. The university department was relatively modern, well equipped, and resonated with both industrial minimalism and architectural nostalgia in its overarching design. As I entered the fray, group upon group of highly engaged students were presenting on what I presume must have been an assignment to critically evaluate new forms of investigative journalism, with a particular focus on business models. A substantial proportion of this year’s course intake had prior experience of modern journalism, which added to the credibility of the Master’s degree in my naive, yet rapidly widening eyes. Once I had smeared some of the exploding ink from my shocked fingers, as my fountain pen reminded me that it has serious issues with flying, I scribbled notes as fast as my handwriting would allow me to. Note to self: learn shorthand, fast. Dated it may be, but it remains faster than alternative methods for the informed communication connoisseur.

All in all, I watched nine contrasting talks led by teams of two to three speakers a piece. Pros and cons of each startup were discussed and critiqued, numbers crunched, gaps filled, and cross border journalism featured heavily in several presentations. The atmosphere was relaxed yet serious, as significant amounts of information, and attempts to answer searching questions, were delivered with a marked tone of professionalism and zeal. One student even presented remotely (in a manner of speaking) by pre-recording her power point presentation as a YouTube video, with accompanying audio. Apparently she’s already published a book, so at least the bar hasn’t been set agonisingly high (!?).

I was treated to a dizzying array of stories touching on a variety of issues involving undercover prison guards, niche “Long Play” journalism chiming in with monthly 50000 character articles for highly educated Finnish “elites”, collaborative European journalism funded by controversial donors such as the Open Society (founded by George Soros), an Italian team squaring up to the mafia, local journalism from Gothenburg uncovering toxic spiritual abuse which ostensibly contributed to a spate of child suicides in a purportedly cult-like religious school, awkward questions around how impartial Chinese investigative journalists can be in the face of state sponsored oppression and censorship, and plenty more besides.

A taste of the future?

For a fledgling pre-trainee journalist like me, imbibing a thimble of the heady complexity which characterises the modern investigative journalism sector proved to be an intoxicating cocktail of diverse angles on the same emerging story. Enlightening, eye-opening insights showed how the industry is adapting to overcome a relative paucity of funding in the post-social media digital era. Reassuring flashes of a glimmer of hope that journalism remains a viable career path ricocheted across my field of vision. Whilst considerable challenges and risks remain, there is clearly a market for independent, investigative journalism which could, potentially, become sustainable. Whether such new journalism (investigative journalism 2.0?) survives remains to be seen. If it does, it will surely require sustained engagement with an incessant shape-shifting process in order to cope with the onslaught of sociopolitical and technological flux, shimmering apparitions in the form of latest zeitgeist, forced and/or self-imposed reinvention, market forces, and the prophesied singularity of A.I, to name but a few salient factors. Idealism notwithstanding, reports of the death of investigative journalism are apparently greatly exaggerated, at least for the time being.

An entrepreneurial spirit coupled with boldness, an acute awareness of the ethical dimension robust investigative journalism provides to buttress its role within the 4th/5th estate, and a willingness to experiment shone through as prerequisites for anyone wanting to plunge themselves headfirst into this compelling critical industry. I found myself relishing a brief foretaste of not just what life as a journalism student on the MIJ course at Gothenburg might look like, but what it might feel like to actually work as an investigative journalist in the modern world. My palate remains piqued with more than a soupçon of intrigued fascination, especially by the revelation that long form, slow-news journalism has a place in this new digital sphere. What is more, people can be persuaded to pay for it, which drives a coach and horses through the notion that #TLDR advocates rule the roost in a world suffering from increasingly decreased attention spans.

Singing before supper

A highlight of my trip was the opportunity to pick the course leader, David Crouch’s brains (albeit briefly), and hear a little about his life and work thus far as a journalist. Alongside extraordinary mental images of his time writing news stories in the former Soviet Union, his penetrating insights and questions were perhaps best summed up by a sudden chorus of a cappella singing, which erupted forth on the table next to us as we ate lunch together. It is fair to say that this left both of us staring at the songsters with gleeful puzzlement. I interpreted the event as being at least partially prophetic, in the sense that you never know where an adventure might take you. Taking risks might just lead to unexpected melodies that catch you off guard by their sheer spontaneous beauty. If life as a journalist could look anything like the picture such an occurrence might tempt one to paint, surely it is worth pursuing?

My closing conversations with David, and a subsequent cadre of eager and inspiring students, certainly pushed me closer to wanting to seriously consider taking the leap of faith such an endeavour would undoubtedly require. This is particularly true for me since moving to Sweden to become an investigative journalist would have to be a family affair driven by faith and grit; one which works for both me and my loved ones, some of whom remain very small indeed. Counting the cost, further research, and considering an application will be the next step in the process.

Parting gestures

I have never explored a new city overseas on my own, which makes this short Swedish sojourn all the more extraordinary. After wandering around the historic Haga district, taking innumerable pictures of the locality, and posing for more than one pretentious selfie along the way, I ended my trip with a fascinating two hour conversation. Being of a robustly religious persuasion (though not in a ritualistic manner per se), it felt fitting to attempt to coordinate a meeting with a local church leader who might be willing to give me some idea of how people of faith coexist alongside the general populace within an infamously secular culture.

God willing, I was blessed with just such an opportunity, and enjoyed another fabulously fishy and fascinating lunch with a friendly Swede called Fredrik. I left encouraged that despite the ubiquitous challenges of blending life and faith in the 21st century post-Christian West, authentic spirituality need not be deterred from thriving in what might otherwise seem like as chilly a cultural environment as any typical Nordic Winter. The Spirit, as some say, continues to hover over the waters of Gothenburg, and fishermen like myself willing to take the risk of casting their nets overboard may yet discover that such simple acts of faith can yield all manner of pleasant surprises.

Make of that what you will. Until such time as I may, or may not find myself setting sail with family in tow towards the imposing shores of Scandinavia again, all I have left to say is Tack så mycket (thanks so much, in Swedish).

Miguel Roca

Theology, Thoughts

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

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Global brands, popular music, and evangelical Christianity are products of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990) that facilitate interaction between the “global” and the “local,” in What Roland Robertson (1995) has referred to as glocalization. [1]

For various reasons, I have had cause to consider this uncomfortable topic in recent weeks. It is perhaps entirely fitting for me as a Christian musician, and budding theologian, to reflect critically upon my own experience of how Western Evangelicalism appears to have been influenced by business principles, and marketing in particular. The above quote from Thomas Wagner’s article takes a sober look at how strategies from the sphere of commerce have proven to be highly ‘successful’ at growing a local Church into a global brand. In this case, Wagner focuses on none other than Hillsong, whose substantial organisational growth has been well documented in recent years, and has in some cases been met with suspicion and criticism.

Brand Identity & Sensory Experience

Wagner uses the example of Hillsong to argue for the drawing together of ‘the experience of brand, music, and religious discourse as a gestalt “Sound”.’ [2] As he notes, the Hillsong brand is ‘inextricable’ from the music they produce, which he claims is the driving force behind their growth as a globally recognised brand. Wagner cites (and provides strong evidence for) the manner in which Hillsong ‘focuses on the consistency of its product’, via standardisation and homogenisation, as a key factor which has enabled them to have an ‘outsized influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological) landscapes (Evans, 2006: 87-109)’. [3] In other words, thanks to a savvy marketing strategy and meticulous brand management, the Hillsong “Sound” has proven critical in ensuring that they punch above their weight as a megachurch.

Another important aspect of how Hillsong have achieved this resides in the way they have fused the experience and ‘social imagination’ of congregants in diverse local contexts to ensure that they ‘realise the meaning of the brand as they engage with…its music’. [4] One fascinating feature of this phenomenon was the testimony of a member at Hillsong London, who claimed that their Church’s rendition of the Hillsong “Sound” was typically faster and louder than their Australian counterparts. In reality this was not the case, as songs were played to a metronome at standardised tempos in both contexts. Nonetheless, despite being familiar with both Australian and European versions of the Hillsong brand, the interviewee in question described a different, subjective experience of each context. Participants in this global brand identity thereby contextualise, and relativise their own individual (and presumably corporate) interpretation(s) of the “Sound”. [5]

If nothing else, such a startling example demonstrates the fickle nature of human perception, proving the axiom that reality is fiendishly complex. To what extent can we, as interested observers (in this case of a megachurch context), trust our senses when the perspective we experience is prone to subconscious bias? To ask the most troubling question from a believer’s point of view, are we (Christians) experiencing an authentic encounter with divine reality (i. e. The presence of God, manifested via the Spirit)? Or are we plummeting into the shallow depths of brand driven, consumer-oriented euphoria, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mass hysteria (or perhaps a U2 concert)? Questions of ambition and integrity rise to the surface of such stagnant pools, wherein a conflict of interest between promoting a brand, and the pursuit of authentic biblical Christianity is a genuine danger.

It’s All About (Jesus’?) Mission

My intention here is not to critique Hillsong per se, but rather the model of ecclesial homogeneity that the process of such branding inflicts upon any church. As Wagner points out, efforts to develop a distinctive European sound by Hillsong London were abandoned in favour of standardisation. Instead of nurturing a unique, contextual “Sound” with London based musicians and songwriters, Hillsong Sydney decided to retain control over the aesthetic and artistic direction of the music. Innovation was quashed by centralisation. [6] For the Hillsong brand, uniformity trumped unity amidst diversity. Game changers need not apply.

This leads me to wonder if Jesus’ mission is being best served by ever expanding, glocalized megachurches. Does it follow that Jesus’ mission entails building a global brand like Hillsong, which ‘listed earnings of $64 million in 2010, with total assets of $28.7 million and income from conferences of $6.7 million (McMillan, 2011)’, whilst operating under the auspices of a charitable (read: Income tax exempt) organisation? [7] A very pertinent article with more up to date, albeit unverified financials was printed this month, here.

One could perhaps legitimately posit divine favour as the source of Hillsong’s explosive growth and healthy financials. However faithful or sceptical one may be, this remains a distinct possibility. One could also offer the suggestion that cohesive branding sells, and business can be a rather blunt instrument. Whatever the case, if homogeneity is an effective ingredient within a successful branding campaign, is the underlying motivation for pursuing said campaign, a desire for participation in Jesus’ mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth? If so, is the overall strategy effective at achieving it’s intended purpose? The better angels of my nature would like to believe that the answer to these questions is yes; in which case, homogeneity for the sake of building a brand is arguably justified. On the flip side, naivety is endemic within polite, white, middle class, Western Christianity. Cultural blindspots are always the hardest to see; subcultural ones even more so. What if building a brand detracts from Jesus’ mission, or worse yet, misses it entirely? A word of caution to any ‘thriving’ Christian ministry is hauntingly summed up by Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church in Revelation:

‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
(Rev 3:17-18 NIV)

Riches are by no means a sign of Gospel faithfulness, integrity, or clarity of vision clothed in the garments of purity before a holy and perfect God. Jesus makes it very clear that his people must not assume that abundance and numerical growth in various areas is synonymous with his direct provision and blessing. That is prosperity theology, and as he boldly states, this is fool’s gold.

A Moment of Clarity

To be very clear, I have no desire to repaint every large church with the same brush. Building a megachurch or movement based on homogenous branding isn’t necessarily a sign of divided loyalties, or divine favour. I have no doubt that many large Christian organisations can, and do produce a substantial amount of fruit for Jesus’ Kingdom purposes. I have certainly experienced tremendous blessings, particularly via spiritual and emotional healing through large, well branded church ministries. I celebrate churches that strike a balance between the rock of consumerism and the hard place of confronting contemporary culture with the Gospel call to repentance. No two churches will be exactly the same. In reality, many would be hard to define in terms of where they might fit on a spectrum between pursuing Jesus’ mission, and ending up off course and in the wretched condition that matches the above diagnosis of the church in Laodicea. So to avoid singling out any specific churches which may have inspired this article, let’s consider a purely hypothetical, caricatured, worst case scenario type of example of any congregation which chooses to adopt the Hillsong model, and label it church ‘X’:

The Church ‘X’ Factor

Combine the fruits of aggressive ambition, causality, market forces, branding, and a blinkered theology similar to neo-papal infallibility when it comes to Charismatic Christian leadership, and you have a potent cocktail for flawed ecclesiology and missiology. Numerical growth, both fiscal and human, can quickly be seen as evidence that church ‘X’ is on the right track. Questioning the leadership and strategies of such large, influential congregations is seldom encouraged. In any case, senior leadership in such contexts often operates within a top-down, hierarchical framework which makes them relatively inaccessible. Far from shepherding the flock, and being aware of any stray individuals who are leaving the proverbial 99 behind (Matt 18:12-14, c.f. Luke 15:4), senior pastors of megachurches like church ‘X’ function more like CEOs with a business mindset, wherein the growing masses of people constituting the church’s membership becomes a sea of nameless anonymity. Faces that fit the brand are quickly encouraged to rise through the ranks and occupy key positions as ‘leaders’, whilst the misfits and unlikely candidates are not considered photogenic enough to fit the emerging picture.

Thus, rather than polish the rough diamonds into shining, the ‘awkward’ folk (who might just be the hidden pearls that Jesus has gifted to a given congregation) are left wondering how, where, and if they can squeeze their square pegs through the round, branded hole. Meanwhile on the other side of such an impassible portal, an army of yes men awaits those who might offer informed dissent, ready to quell any unrest. The brand grows, whilst the disillusioned leave. Church ‘X’ is succeeding at building something, which may or may not be consistent with Jesus’ mission, but at what cost?

Incarnational Diversity

The revelation of true divinity within the person and work of Jesus Christ is the most stunningly unfathomable, holistically liberating and existentially challenging event in the history of the created order. One of the many remarkable passages of Scripture which points us to the inherent mystery of Jesus being God ‘incarnate’ (literally: ‘enfleshed’ or ‘in flesh’) is found in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8 ESV emphasis mine).

There are so many things that have been (and could be said) about this short segment of the Bible. Reams of scholarly literature already exist providing detailed exegetical, hermeneutical, lexical, philological, and theological insight into the range of potential meanings to be found therein. My purpose here isn’t to delve into this turbulent miasma, since that may have to wait for a future research project. I do think, however, that Jesus’ incarnation has plenty to say to the subject matter in question, as it shows us how much God values the reality of our very messy humanity. More specifically, it shows us how Jesus eschewed opulent glory in favour of the simple and authentic humility of being present amongst us in the raw, uncensored warp and woof of life as a relatively poor 1st century Jew, who was not initially held in high regard by his contemporaries.

As the Old Testament prophetic imagery often associated with Jesus puts it:

‘…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
(Isa 53:2 NIV)

Quite the opposite in fact:

‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’
(Isa 53:3 NIV)

Indeed, as the gospel narratives show us, Jesus was not recognised for who he truly was. Instead, he was maligned, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, flogged, beaten, and crucified to death by his own people who were in collusion with the Roman Empire. [8] So, it is fair to say that Jesus’ own branding campaign and marketing strategy had adverse consequences. He isn’t portrayed as being particularly image conscious or keen to impress the religious and civil authorities of his day. Instead, he deliberately undermined the dominant cultures of the ancient near Eastern context into which he chose to manifest himself, showing no deference to either the Messianic expectations of his own people, or the power structures of Empire. No light shows, loud music or metronomes here for his triumphal entry as King; just donkeys, palm leaves, blood, sweat, tears and Truth.

Jesus’ Motley Crew

Jesus stooped to conquer his enemies, choosing instead to intimately associate himself with the unclean, outcast, morally suspect, and marginalised people of his time. He embodied authentic, unfeigned love for the lowly and downtrodden, whilst frequently rebuking and condemning religious insiders for their pretense and compromised loyalties. Worldly success was apparently not part of his game plan, since his Kingdom is not of this world (e.g. John 18:36). Yet despite his subversive intent, Jesus took time to be with people in person. He chose to honour and make time for those whom society had forgotten, despised, considered untouchable, and deemed to be of no material benefit to maintaining or building the status quo. [9]

What is more, at no stage did Jesus or the early church in Acts seem concerned with preserving aesthetic homogeneity for the sake of cultural accommodation within their evangelistic strategy. The first Christians didn’t mimic the world around them by presenting a sanitised version of the gathered church wherein only the prominent, privileged, well educated, photogenic, young and ‘gifted’ (using the term gifted in a narrow, worldly sense) members formed the vanguard of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission. Rather, the early church was a ragtag bunch of common, uneducated, uncouth miscreants (see Peter & John in Acts 4:14), reformed fundamentalists (Paul in Acts 7 & 8), tax collectors (Levi in Luke 5:27-32), formerly demonised women (Luke 8:1-3), sorcerers (Acts 8:1-9-25), Roman soldiers (Acts 10), and other, generally unlikely candidates.

All told, Holy chaos might be a better way of describing life with Jesus’ original crew of misfits than the kind of well planned, branded stage shows being disseminated by Hillsong/church ‘X’. The early church were more a band of sanctified rascals led by the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, than they were an army of affluent social climbers hell bent on ‘changing the world’ with skinny jeans and self-help sermons. I doubt the apostle Paul felt any need to keep tickling his congregations’ ears with a fat feather of prosperity theology, relentless positivism (read: hear no evil, see no evil..), cinematic visuals, surround sound, and visiting stand up comedians dressed as gospel preachers who charge a princely honorarium for their rendered services. I should say at this point, that I have no issue with talent, skinny jeans, Gospel contextualisation, big worship meetings, loud music, large congregations, or well produced multimedia content in the pursuit of global transformation per se. I do however have a problem with the glorious incarnational diversity of Jesus’ Kingdom people being overridden by a callous branding strategy, in a way that misses the diverse Gospel nuance of the vision presented in Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Rev 7:9 NIV)

Jesus’ Kingdom revolution promises us that ‘many who are first will be last’, and that those who desire to be great amongst his people must be servants, with childlike faith (e.g. Mark 10:13-14, 31,35-45). Such words ought to make us question how we choose which faces fit with our particular style of church, and what our choices say about our value systems.

I could go on of course, but for the sake of brevity I shall end by asking the obvious question(s): Do our churches model brand driven homogeneity verging on elitism, or Kingdom driven humility where the usual suspects don’t end up taking centre stage? [10] Does the well marketed, expensive, slick, consumer-oriented, comfortable, pop-music driven brand epitomised by the Hillsong model look like Jesus? Would church ‘X’ sum up his strategy?

Following on from this, a final question linking back to the title: What can discerning believers do when confronted with the reality that their own church may be heading down a broad path, wherein their trajectory has far more in common with Hillsong/church ‘X’ brand, than the narrow, Kingdom-oriented life modeled by Jesus? Assume that divine favour must be at work, as the branding builds momentum? Remain indifferent and carry on, business as usual (pun intended)? Stay and fight for change, or run and trust God for the details? Another option? What do you think?

Personally, I would tread very carefully indeed.

End Notes

1. Wagner, Thomas, in Stolz, Jörg, & Usunier, Jean-Claude, Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, Ashgate Publishing Surrey, England: 2014, 59.

2. Ibid, 60.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 64.

5. Ibid, 65-67.

6. Ibid, 67-70.

7. Ibid, 62.

8. e.g. Matt 13:53-58, 26:1-27:55, c.f. Mark 6:1-6, 14:1-15:40, Luke 4:16-30, 22:1-23:49, John 7:25-31, 11-19:30.

9. e.g. Matt 8:1-13, 28-34, 9:9-13, 18-34 12:9-14, 15:21-28, Mark 1:40-45, 5:1-34, 7:24-37, 10:46-52, John 4:1-44, 5:1-17, 7:53-8:11 etc.

10. I realise that this is a massively oversimplified contrast, which may in fact be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think it’s a question every church should routinely wrestle with.