Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Up/Down Side of Labels

Labels make it easy to offer a quick identification: Christian, atheist, Buddhist, conservative, Republican, liberal, Democrat, evangelical, socialist, Ohio State fan. (O-H!) Labels also make it easy to apply all of our own bias and baggage to that overly simplistic identification - how many of you are still working to get past that Buckeye reference?

Is there a way to use labels well, or are they simply going to undermine our ability to understand each other? Can they ever be a helpful shorthand to help us connect more quickly, or will they always tend to create unfair categories that divide rather than unite us?

I've been thinking about this more often as a Christian in terms of what it means to have a 'brand':
“A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers” (American Marketing Association). 
Businesses want brand recognition. This is often accomplished by iconic images such as the Coke or Apple logos. A brand is a shortcut: we see an image (or hear a jingle), and we are flooded with all kinds of instinctive connections - for better or worse.  There has been a recent push in church circles to more fully invest in purposeful branding so that people build a the kind of connection we want them to build between the name of a church or a church logo on a bumper sticker.

Everything is branded, intentionally or not. Everyone takes away impressions of  businesses, organizations, churches, schools, sports teams, car dealers, and products that build thoughts and emotions over time.

The question isn't if something is branded. The question is how it's branded, and what kind of impact that brand/label has on those who see it.

So, like I said, I've been thinking about what it means to have a 'brand' as a Christian.

What do people think when they hear someone say, "I am a Christian evangelical"?  That's a huge question already, but there are other labels that brand us as well: Republican. Democrat. Libertarian. Conservative. Liberal.

As a Christian, how concerned should I be about whether or not the labels I willingly apply to myself could be a huge roadblock to effective evangelism? I don't mean my identification as a Christian, though I think there is room to talk about the best way to boldly state our identity in a way that carries the least amount of baggage to those around us. (Should I say Jesus follower, for example?) I'm talking about anything else that I don't have to say to be true to my identity in Christ.

What is the brand of Trump, Sanders, Obama, or the Clintons that Christians takes upon themselves, intentionally or unintentionally? What is the brand of a Republicans or Democrats? What is the brand of evangelical? Conservative or liberal? I know what I associate with these people, parties, and labels, but what do others see when they see me branded with this? These are all brands, for better or worse, and it's just as important that I know what I mean when I apply it to myself as it is to know what others think when they see it branded on me.

This question has been haunting me, because it's not just about me. It's about the reputation of the church, and of Christ. I need to get this right. As a follower of Jesus, I am constantly branding myself when I freely choose labels, and I have to remember that what others see in me through their filters, they will project onto the faith community of which I am a part, the church I attend, and the God I serve. It might not be fair, but it's reality.

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Last week, Beth and I talked through this issue - well, we started to talk through it :) You can listen to Etcetera 22: The Up/Down Side Of Labels on Soundcloud or on various podcast apps (such as Podcast Addict or Stitcher Radio).  As always, Beth and I appreciate interaction with you! Feel free to comment on this blog, the Etcetera blog, or on the Etcetera Facebook page.  We value your feedback as well as any ideas for future guests or shows!


Political Labels, Political Identity, and Bias
Read the Label: The new political group No Labels shows why labels exist
Media: Label Whores
Are the labels 'right' and 'left' still useful shorthand for political belief?
Defining 'Evangelical'
No, Evangelical Does Not Mean "White Republican Who Supports Trump"

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