The Battle Over Lift Church is Nothing But a Downer

Two pastors are duking it out in a courthouse outside of Dallas at the moment over — wait for it …. a church name.

Shanté Buckley had trademarked the name of the church she founded in West Dallas several years ago, LIFT Community Church. But recently, Grant Diamond launched Lift Frisco in a suburb approximately 30 miles away from West Dallas, with plans to open new “Lift” churches in the immediate future.

Buckley claims trademark infringement, believing that people will be confused by the names of the churches. Diamond claims otherwise, and thus far, the courts have agreed.

In today’s Dallas Morning News, columnist James Ragland laments that these two pastors simply can’t get along as fellow Christians. He asks,“What would Jesus do? … something tells me this isn’t it: Two pastors unable to go shake hands, look each other in the eye or hug each other on a day like this.”

Yeah, that’s true. I hear you, James.

But what is most troubling about this story is the fact that nobody seems to be bothered by the idea of church branding itself! Ragland appears to be resigned to the fact that this is what churches are doing now: “building brands and, in some cases, franchises.” 

Apparently that doesn’t bother him. But two pastors having a tiff does? Why doesn’t the idea of shamelessly promoting one’s own church as a “brand” disturb us? Why have churches and pastors bought into the idea that we have to endlessly market, advertise, position, and polish our brand in order to attract customers?

This is the inevitable result of American free-market, consumerist Christianity, in which churches see themselves as competitors in the dog-eat-dog world of congregation-building. Marketing becomes everything, because, quite frankly, how different is Buckley and Diamond’s message? To anyone who is not a non-denominational Protestant, very little. 

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I am a clergy in good standing in a Protestant denomination which does its own marketing — the United Methodist Church, which has been using the tagline, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” for a number of years. We have a recognizable and ubiquitous logo — the cross and flame, and yes, it is trademarked. I should also point out that Buckley was a part of the United Methodist Church for some years before branching out on her own to start LIFT.

However, I have always felt a little uneasy about the intersection between church and marketing. This case, in particular, raises all kinds of theological red flags.

  1. Diamond’s church hasn’t even opened yet. The first service starts tomorrow (Jan. 22, 2018), and already, he touts plans to start a second Lift church in five years, and a new one every three years afterwards. This sounds to me like an extraordinarily arrogant statement, relying on demographic studies and marketing plans rather than the Holy Spirit, which used to be the primary instigator for planting new churches. Diamond can’t wait to even open the doors on his first church before planning for more? How does he know it will “work”? Where does he leave room for God to change his mind, to mold and shape him? Frankly, where does he allow for failure and heartbreak and pain?
     
  2. One of the great moves of God’s Spirit in the twentieth century was the effort at greater church unity, often called the “ecumenical movement,” resulting in the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, understandings and agreements between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, and countless local collaborations. Christians around the world, particularly in America, began to desire unity rather than fragmentation. Even the Methodists went through two major unions, reversing harmful divisions and schisms from the previous century. But the desire to trademark a church name so that others can’t use it betrays a remarkable callousness to the ecumenical spirit.
     
  3. When a marketing angle becomes a legal fighting topic, then there’s something seriously wrong with the Protestant church in America. It means we have lost sight of Jesus’ own vision of the Kingdom of God, which is here now, and which calls us to love, serve, and do justice. If we want to be known for something, for anything, let’s be known for that. Nothing else.