Journalism, Opinion

Have journalists misread a moody public? A Faithful & Factful perspective on the question of trust.

*links are highlighted

“Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.” – Hans Rosling (2018), Factfulness, London: Sceptre, pg 165.

One of the most enduring memories I have of starting to study theology as a mature student was how quickly I had to come to terms with my own breathtaking levels of wilful ignorance. My entire Christian journey as an adult has been characterised by a series of successive and gradual realisations that my worldview is fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Just like yours, and more or less everyone else’s. Relax, we’re in good company.

Reading Christian Scripture usually impacts my sense of place, purpose, and calling in this world in relation to God and humanity. Having recently finished Hans Rosling’s masterfully written book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, I am not ashamed to say that every chapter had a strikingly similar effect to my experience of digesting biblical literature. They both breathe fresh life into my curious mind, albeit in different ways.

Although I didn’t read Factfulness in the bathtub, I had plenty of eureka moments as I plunged more deeply into a Factful way of thinking. Little lightbulbs kept popping into my head as I began to ponder the enormous potential of Rosling’s fact-based conceptual framework; this is especially the case when I consider how useful it is with respect to the process of forming and shaping my nascent data journalism skills. As Hans puts it:

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.” – Rosling (2018), Factfulness, 192.

As I wrote in my previous post, the Devil in the Data, rooting out vital public interest stories hidden in the numbers, whilst avoiding an overly dehumanising approach to statistic-led journalism, is precisely what I hope to learn how to do in my PGCert in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. Time will tell if the pandemic will have tapered off enough by September 2020 for me to commence my studies in person.

Facing an uncertain future in the time of Corona has not dampened my newfound desire to pursue journalism as a vocation, although it has chastened it. To survive this pandemic and progress into a new career in investigative data journalism, I will have to attempt to remain steadfast and patient. Such is the order of the day for so many of us across the globe during lockdown.

Thankfully, alongside Factfulness as a preliminary guide to getting to grips with data, as a Christian I need not rely upon the numbers alone. Nor do I have to feel unduly pressured to make perfect sense of them. This is in no small part because I frequently read and believe the multiple reassurances in the scriptures about divine faithfulness, which remains my immovable anchor amidst all the storms life tends to hurl at us; including Coronavirus.

As mysterious and overly simplistic as it may sound, believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whose essence and character are variously described as love, light, truth, and goodness combined with absolute trustworthiness, gives me a great sense of comfort and peace. This is especially important and helpful during a time such as this ongoing pandemic, replete as it is with so much sadness, suffering, anxiety, and uncertainty. Powerless though I am to change the course of history, I do my imperfect best to cling to the kernel of beautifully naive, childlike faith which I have been granted to trust that if my vocation in this brief life is to pursue data journalism, I can rely on divine faithfulness to enable me to succeed. Even in the time of Corona.

A Moody Public?

Yet on the subject of trust, according to some vocal critics of my desired profession, it appears that substantial numbers of people across the UK do not see journalism through the same rose-tinted spectacles I have found myself donning over the past twelve months. A recent, already infamous poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sky News, claimed that trust in newspaper and TV journalists has plummeted over the past month, despite a similar poll in March showing that some forms of journalism (i.e. The BBC and broadsheet publications) were enjoying an uptick in public trust since the 2019 General Election. Within barely a month, the national mood appears to have changed dramatically. So much so, that one tweet captured the alleged zeitgeist as follows:

For clarity, according to the Sky News YouGov poll, trust in journalists has fallen into “net minus” figures: Approximately 72% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of newspaper journalists, versus 17% who expressed varying levels of trust. Whereas 64% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of TV journalists versus 24% who expressed trust. Or, put another way:

Source: YouGov

In either case: the final methodology given in the Sky News article was to subtract the distrust from the trust, which was then described as a “net minus” score. E.g. 17-71 = -56 (in the original article it was -55) and 24-64 = -40. Despite my paucity of knowledge or experience with respect to how statistics are typically expressed, I did feel puzzled by this way of putting it. Nevertheless, hold onto those two minus figures. They’ll be important shortly…

Rapid Rebuttals

Since the original Sky News article, accompanied by a seemingly synchronistic flurry of self-appointed social media spokespeople who were suddenly keen to speak on behalf and express the “mood” of an entire nation, more than a few journalists found storms brewing in their teacups instead of the usual Yorkshire nectar. [1] Masterful responses to both unofficial spokespeople and Sky News were forthcoming from a range of commentators. Data journalism guru Paul Bradshaw pointed out the obvious for anyone who has become acquainted with Factfulness:

“News — aside from the odd human interest story or “and finally” piece — has never been the place to go for hope, optimism, faith, or positivity.

News is also an industry that focuses on facts. And most of the facts right now are not very nice facts.” – Paul Bradshaw (2020), Is the press missing the mood of the country over coronavirus?, Birmingham, UK: Medium.

Data-driven journalism underpinned by Factfulness is not designed to be akin to entertainment. Au contraire, it finds its raison d’etre in confronting and provoking those who might otherwise ignore, suppress, or simply be oblivious to the facts of any given matter. The kind of journalism I hope to learn to do is, at its idealistic best, compelled by an unflinching resolve to seek, find, verify, and tell (or often expose) the truth even if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient for the national mood. Holding governments and businesses to account is an extraordinarily important contribution to any nation’s efforts to survive a crisis like Coronavirus. Democracy crumbles when the 4th estate is reduced to a PR exercise to tow the party line.

Playing with Numbers

Other writers weighed in quickly with various nuanced critiques of the Sky News poll. Charlie Beckett, writing for the London School of Economics, pointed out various issues with the vague nature of how the YouGov pollsters surveyed the nebulous notion of “trust”, and cautioned against missing the broader context of what he otherwise described as a “perfectly reputable” poll. Richard Fletcher, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford university, offered a superbly intricate study into the mix of the wider debate around public trust in journalists and news media.

However the most scathing rebuttal of those clamouring to suggest that trust in the press has plummeted dramatically over the past 30 days was summed up by Will Jennings’ response on yougov.co.uk. Analysing trends in the data around this very question of trust in the media more closely over the past few months, he simply expressed the truth of the matter like so:

“There simply has been no collapse in public trust in news media during the coronavirus outbreak.” – Will Jennings (2020), No, trust in the media has not collapsed because of Coronavirus, yougov.co.uk.

This brings us back to those “net minus” figures from the original Sky News article. Whilst they were actually only presented, quite rightly, as part of a bigger and much more complex statistical picture, even I wondered what was going on in the polling numbers. So out of morbid curiousity, I had a quick glance through the wider dataset and compared some of the other data which sprang out at me with the original “trust” data in the same poll. To my amazement, here’s what I found when I mapped the numbers which sought to gauge the public “mood” with respect to respondents’ perceived levels of increased sadness and anxiety, over their “trust” in newspaper and TV journalists:

Source: YouGov

Did trust in news media figures plummet in tandem with increased public sadness and anxiety brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown? Common sense might dictate that this is eminently plausible. Perhaps journalists really are “missing the mood” of the nation because people are more depressed and anxious than usual during lockdown. If journalists are frequently the bearers of more bad news as the Coronavirus death toll soars, this is surely understandable. The comparison can appear even more fascinating when combined with previous YouGov polls on the question of trust. For example:

Source: YouGov

As others have already explained far more artfully and accurately than I can at present, the broader trend of public trust in different forms of journalism is actually far more nuanced and stable than some self-appointed spokespeople appear to believe. Especially when you compare levels of trust in a variety of newspapers (broadsheets / mid-market / tabloids) over the past 6-7 months. For example (again numbers = % of respondents who expressed some level of trust):

Notice the relative stability of public trust levels throughout October to March. Also the similar ratio of trust between the vaguer categories of “newspapers” and “TV” journalism. Does this point to the seductively obvious picture of a spike in sadness and anxiety during the Coronavirus lockdown being a causative factor in the alleged drop in the public’s trust in news media? What if you plunge further down this rabbit hole and work with another metric, like averages?

For instance, by adding increased levels of anxiety and sadness together and finding the average you would get a figure of (45+49) / 2 = 47. Let’s call this arbitrary figure “negative lockdown mood” or NLM. How does NLM compare to an average of the “net minus” figures we mentioned earlier? (See above) According the Sky News YouGov poll, public trust ended up at -55 (trust in newspapers) & -40 (trust in TV journalists). Add those figures together and find the average and you get (-55+ (-40)) / 2 = –47.5. Notice the potential implications? Eureka! The Sky News Poll shows us that there is a direct correlation between increased levels of public sadness and anxiety and decreased levels of trust in news media, which explains everything, right?

In a word: No. At best, I have stumbled across an interesting pattern in the Sky News data, and manipulated the figures to support an assertion, which is almost certainly of no statistical significance whatsoever (of course, if it is, you read it here first). Hans Rosling would likely be horrified at my presentation of the above data if I was trying to use it in a serious fashion to sway public opinion, or inform any kind of government policymaker. Correlation ≠ causation and confirmation bias frequently runs rampant through the human mind in our search for meaning. Randomness is real, and poll data are very often clumsy numbers to work with. Especially when pollsters conflate diverse categories like broadsheets / tabloids / TV journalism / the BBC etc (or when friends on social media fall into a straw man fallacy by castigating impossibly broad categories like “the media / press”: Who exactly? Which ones?!).

If you felt a hint of persuasion in my argument above, consider that experience carefully before you feel tempted to jump on the next bandwagon careening its way through your social media feed. So much for journalists misreading the public mood. It turns out that a decline in public mood may (or may not) have influenced their level of trust in the media. Yet if you believe that and/or the spokespeople asserting the latter, it might be worth pausing to reconsider whether you (or they) are actually in full possession of the facts.

A faithfully Factful approach can work wonders here. As can a dose of humility in admitting that claiming to speak on behalf of > 60000000 people, or casting judgment on all forms of journalism by denigrating hopelessly imprecise categories like “the press/media”, is a foolish (and potentially dangerous) business. Remember the opening quote in this article by Hans Rosling: Categories can be misleading. If in doubt, better to keep quiet. As one writer in the Hebrew Bible puts it:

“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” ‬‬

Proverbs‬ ‭17:28‬ ‭NRSV

End Notes

Miguel Roca

1. For the uninitiated, I am of course referring to the legendary British brew known as Yorkshire Tea. Peerless amongst black tea brands in the UK.

Journalism, Opinion

Journalism and Truth: A Christian view on the SPAC Nation scandal

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Corruption coupled with clandestine endeavours, all too often enacted by cash-hungry con-artists within the worldwide Church, is hardly breaking news for anyone who is at least vaguely acquainted with modern religious scandals. Even a cursory glance at biblical literature, and the gospel stories in particular, ought to remind us that the human condition has been devastatingly prone to temptation since time immemorial. Take the infamous villain, Judas Iscariot, who shows us his true colours by betraying Jesus of Nazareth with a kiss, for a paltry bag filled with thirty pieces of blood money.

Although the author of Matthew’s gospel paints a mysterious picture suggesting that these events constitute a prophecy fulfilled, one wonders how often history must repeat itself before people begin to take heed (See Matt 26:47-50; 27:3-10). Amongst the many morals such a narrative may evoke, the tragic reality that even those who appear and/or claim to be close to Jesus are not automatically trustworthy is perhaps one of the most uncomfortably obvious options.[1]

Fast forward approximately two millennia, and sadly the love of money all too often remains a prime candidate for being the root of all evil. Imagine my surprise days after taking the plunge back into the Twitter-verse, following more than a year in a self-imposed digital wilderness, only to discover this shocking exposé on SPAC Nation by the Huffington Post’s Nadine White and Emma Youle. Extraordinarily disturbing allegations of flourishing fraudsters, safeguarding failures, rogue pastors, a culture of control, coercion, abuse, and lies form the jaw-dropping litany of charges levelled against this increasingly high profile religious organisation.

The plot thickened considerably once it emerged that the metropolitan police, serious fraud office, and the charity commission had each instigated separate investigations into the group, to determine whether or not criminal charges/sanctions need to be brought against them. Whilst the Met recently decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the church, and the the veracity of the above allegations have yet to be established, the fact that such claims existed at all is profoundly troubling, to say the least. What has been going on at SPAC Nation?

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the mounting evidence of so many smoke signals means that fires must be ablaze within their midst. However, from a biblical perspective, the truth is that there are always at least two sides to a story (Prov 18:17). Christians of all persuasions should therefore carefully and soberly consider how they approach a scandal such as this one.

PR & Political deadlines?

For what it’s worth, my thoughts and prayers have been with the many alleged victims detailed in the Huffington Post investigation, and any other shell-shocked, fragile followers of this influential group, who have already been affected by the recent media coverage. Who should SPAC Nation’s rattled congregation trust? The media? Disillusioned former leaders/members? Persuasive preachers behind the pulpit? As an increasingly vivid, yet complex and difficult to discern picture of what has been going on at SPAC Nation begins to emerge, public commentators would do well to resist the urge to assume anything.

At present, official responses from the church have sought to control the narrative, denied the credibility of the alleged victims, and refused to engage directly with what they describe as “hastily put together” media coverage. The organisation promises to purge the congregation of pernicious pastors, cooperate with “meaningful investigations” in order to reassure concerned onlookers, and yet casually dismisses the harrowing claims made by numerous alleged victims in the Huffington Post articles. Surely this behaviour ought to strike Christians as an unusual response for a church? Is everyone involved in the story so far, apart from the “management board” at SPAC Nation, a liar and/or acting maliciously against the church, driven by nefarious political motives? SPAC Nation’s “management board” say that it is actually they who are the victims of a politically motivated “smear campaign”:

Does this religious group not wish to express any concern for, or solidarity with, the alleged victims of fraudsters within their midst? Although the organisation expresses a strong desire to curb wrongdoing and hold bad actors accountable for their actions, are the general public supposed to disregard all of the evidence gathered by the Huffington Post thus far as baseless fake news? Purely because this faceless “management board” say so? I find it hard to understand why a more sensitive public response would not be forthcoming from a church under these circumstances. None of this necessarily points the finger of blame at the church, but as PR strategies go this one leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion.

Journalism & the Shepherd’s voice

Speaking up for voiceless victims whilst listening to the voice of the good Shepherd, and learning how to navigate an increasingly complex, fractured digital realm, is how I would hope to do 21st century investigative journalism. From my point of view as a Christian, seeking the truth and following the one who claims to be the truth, and who also promises that all those who “belong” to the truth, hear and listen to his voice, are not mutually exclusive ways of living (See John 10:27; 14:6; 18:37). Nadine White and Emma Youle have sought to ascertain the truth of a complex matter by investigating the SPAC Nation scandal, and giving the alleged victims a chance to share their stories. I have nothing but admiration for their tenacity, boldness, and willingness to ask difficult questions about the church despite its influential public profile.

Whatever the reality of the situation at SPAC Nation turns out to be, subjecting religious organisations to robust scrutiny in the wake of troubling allegations should never be off limits, especially for investigative journalists. A free press should not fear holding powerful figures and organisations to account, especially those who lay claim to divine authority. [2] As I have been considering investigative journalism as a vocation, I have been dreaming of an idealistic kind of transformative practice which is loosely defined as the pursuit of truth, justice, and the gospel imperative to counteract evil and stand alongside oppressed, marginalised members of society…[thereby providing] a means of speaking truth to power, empowering the poor, freeing those held captive (literally and metaphorically), and bringing light into dark places. Great investigative journalists are already doing a lot of these things, and I would like to join them.

I would, therefore, urge all believers to view high quality investigative journalism, irrespective of whether or not the journalists, or the subject(s) of their reports, happen to be Christians, as one of the ways that God may be at work in the world. Great investigative journalists may not consider themselves Christians, but by chasing truth and standing up to injustice they may discover that they are much closer to the way of Jesus than they realise. The global Church does not have a monopoly on truth and justice, and falling into the zeitgeist of rabidly distrusting the media may (ironically) be more in tune with the spirit of the age than the Spirit of truth. Time will tell what exactly the truth of any matter is, even if it is a long time coming; as Jesus promised his followers:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known…” (Luke 12:2-3, NRSV).

Until then, when confronted with a scandal such as this one at SPAC Nation, we can only wait, watch, hope, and pray for the best possible outcome one way or another. After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

M

End Notes

1. Albeit based on a remarkably naive, anachronistic reading of the gospels; it seems at best highly speculative to suggest that the original authors of Scripture intended Judas’ character to be read this way. In my defence, this post is not intended to be a piece of robust theology or scholarship.

2. Ironically, it was another kind of religious corruption that first drove me away from Catholicism and the Church in general. I still remember the devastatingly familiar trope of the paedophile priest from our local Roman Catholic Church, who was arrested and jailed for committing heinous acts against children who attended my school. Although thankfully I was not directly affected, it did set me on a path away from organised religion for over a decade. It also remains a reminder that, unfortunately, it is wise to adopt an innate scepticism towards authority figures, particularly religious ones who lay claim to divine authority.

Journalism, Opinion

Are Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson losing their faith, or their religion?

Links are highlighted.

R.E.M. were on to something when they wrote the hit song “losing my religion” in 1991, back in the dark ages before the internet, i-device craze, and the tyranny of social media took hold of our collective subconscious in the West. Although the song is reputedly not about a crisis of faith, but rather the well rehearsed pop music trope of “unrequited love” and obsession, it nevertheless provides a thought provoking soundtrack for those of us who have suffered from the former at least as much as the latter. Instead of a social commentary about religion, the song actually took its title from a southern American expression for “being at the end of one’s rope”. In that sense, it is perhaps an entirely fitting way of describing the recent public declarations by Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson that they are reaching (or have reached) the end of their respective tethers as far as their experience of the Christian faith is concerned.¹

Deconstructing one’s religious identity and asking pointedly challenging, searching questions which cast reasonable levels of doubt upon any given status quo is hardly a modern phenomenon. From a biblical perspective, the Psalmist illustrates how the rich Hebraic tradition of lament provides an outlet for the often tumultuous nature of the human condition, as we are forced to wrestle with God throughout life’s struggles (e.g. Psalm 22). By contrast, broadcasting our internal woes on social media, for good or ill, is a distinctly 21st century habit for many digital converts and natives alike. Lachrymose lament in search of likes is clearly not so much a religious expression of grief as a socio-cultural one. Sampson and Harris clearly straddle both of these categories simultaneously, which has perhaps exacerbated the reactionary responses they have received from contrasting corners of the western evangelical soap opera elite

To whom am I referring, you might well ask (you should, if you didn’t immediately do so. Clue: it’s not the Illuminati). Since I have neither the time, space, nor inclination to wax lyrical about the state of public discourse within a digital context saturated with popular subcultural commentators, many of whom all too frequently compose, control, and thereby shape (read: dictate) the narrative connected Christians consume on an hourly basis, a straw man fallacy shall have to suffice:

Western Evangelical Soap Opera?

The perennial problem of growing toxicity levels within online debate has seemingly metastasised throughout our social media echo chambers, and is fast approaching a terminal prognosis. Bolstered by ignorance, group think, mob mentalities, celebrity culture, a temptation towards adversarial rhetoric, virtue-signaling, sensationalism, and the potent, habit-forming, dopamine dependency all users of the digital drug smorgasbord (aka social media) end up hooked on, the popular postmodern mantra of “joining the conversation” has become an ominously loaded term.

The “Western Evangelical Soap Opera” is a term I coined to describe both:

a) the hordes of Christians, often with some kind of platform to shout from, who seem to feel the need to publicly tear strips out of their brothers and sisters in Christ whilst stoking up faux outrage amongst their followers, thereby playing from the same rule book as all the other, allegedly more worldly, unbelieving participants of this digital danse macabre;

and

b) the troubling, all too human tendency to develop an unhealthy appetite for scandal and controversy involving Christian public figures, organisations, and ministries, usually giving rise to a raft of new reason(s) to disagree with them and vent self-righteous indignation at any given opportunity (and sufficient click bait: hence back to the first definition in a cyclical fashion).

The Western Evangelical Soap Opera is exactly that: a form of perverse entertainment for (un)discerning consumers who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, [and] craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14, NRSV). It turns out that people of all faiths and none are not immune to the overwhelming centre of gravity generated by such an agitated environment. So much for the popular evangelical recourse to Matthew 18 as a model of settling disagreements within the body of Christ (See Matt 18:15-22). Airing disputes on Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally the Christian blogosphere, all too often masquerades as a modern day form of godly, biblical confrontation (which of course it’s not!). Consider James, chapter 3, by way of counterpoint: tame the tongue or it causes wildfires to spread.

Pocket Slot Machines

Small wonder then, that the daily dramas taking place in this febrile context frequently end up being blown way out of proportion, and disconnected from lived realities. Storms and teacups spring to mind, except that would be to minimise the acute anxieties so many of us face alone in our increasingly solitary online worlds. Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are real people, not avatars or ideas to be debated, maligned, or dismissed by legions of blue screen-toting social media junkies who regularly perform the modern day miracle of navigating blindly around vast metropolises, whilst seemingly not looking where they are going; eyes glued to their shiny i-fondle-slab task masters.

The phrase “a slot machine in your pocket” speaks volumes about any audience of self-appointed judges, jurors, and executioners, who see fit to publicly ponder the deeply personal, emotionally traumatic journey that Harris and Sampson have found themselves on. Addicts rarely display sound, sober minded reasoning whilst getting their daily fix.

Casting stones or grace?

Against this dysfunctional backdrop, and particularly inside the distinctly Evangelical Christian subcultures within which Harris and Sampson find themselves wrestling with their faith, is it not understandable that they have both finally reached the end of their tether?

Have they lost their faith, or are they merely losing their religion? As someone who has found themselves unexpectedly wrestling with God, faith, the Church, and what it means to be religious throughout my life so far, I sympathise far more than I expected to with Harris and Sampson. Of one thing I am certain, as I attempt to stay close to Jesus, the Good Shepherd of my soul: If certainty is a prerequisite for receiving divine grace, even Jesus Christ himself would have been a failure when he cried out on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, c.f. Psalm 22).

I believe Jesus would extend grace and love to Joshua Harris Marty Sampson. Even if they have finally lost their religion. I’m not convinced that the best way to extend that grace is necessarily in public, via a pocket slot machine.

Anyone care to cast the first stone?

End Notes

1. I make this nuanced distinction between the Christian faith, and one’s experience of the Christian faith, to highlight the reality that what we experience in our complex, messy lives, particularly within Christian subculture, is not necessarily indicative of the truth, who is of course a person (i.e. John 14:6).

2. Perhaps there are some subtle parallels between biblical lament, and openly sharing the sadness of inner religious confusion and conflict, which get overlooked by the legions of (non)expert analysts who feel qualified to cast judgement on the likes of Harris and Sampson.

Theology, Thoughts

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

*Links are highlighted.

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.