Perhaps you saw this photo on Facebook or Twitter: a church had hung three brightly colored banners over its front door that read “Worship”, “Teaching”, and “Friends”. When put together they created that most (in)famous of Internet acronyms.
As someone who graduated with a degree in advertising, and whose day job is at a marketing firm, I’m probably more sensitive than most to marketing — especially marketing that may be beyond the pale, or at the very least, embarrassing and even potentially harmful to the brands with which it’s associated. And as a Christian, I’m doubly sensitive when I see such marketing coming from within the Church.
When I first saw “WTF Church”, I’ll admit, I laughed at the obvious naivete on display. I think my first thought, after my laughter subsided, was “If they had anyone in their congregation under the age of fifty, they’d see what a mistake that was.” And of course, my co-workers and other friends all had a good laugh about it, too. But the more I thought about it, the sadder I became. Here was a church that, for all I knew, loved Jesus with all of their hearts and was being faithful to the Gospel, and they were quickly on their way to becoming a laughingstock — even among Christians — as a result of their cluelessness.
“We are aware of what ‘WTF’ originally stands for, and that is actually why we chose it,” says Rob James, with Copper Pointe Church, the Albuquerque, N.M., church behind the college and young adult ministry, Wake. “It is something that our target audience is very familiar with. We are a progressive college group located in Albuquerque, N.M., and we know that any college-aged person is a phone-weilding, text-sending machine. So why not use what they are familiar with?”
Suddenly, it was no longer about a church that was simply out of date and/or clueless in their marketing and branding. It was now about a church that was purposefully being irreverent and even crass in their outreach materials in order to be seen as relevant.
The church is, if their blog is to be believed, pretty happy with the results: the “WTF” branding has helped them go viral on Twitter, Facebook, etc. And I’ve read a number of responses that cheer on the church. For example, one commenter over at The Daily What — a blog that helped spread the photo initially — wrote:
[R]ead up on some of the other things being said about them online – they’re redefining something and they’re redefining church. how many college kids would invite their friends to a boring church over one that’s unafraid to take risks like this? i think what they’re doing sounds awesome.
There are a couple of issues at play here. First, there’s the issue that any church in this modern media-saturated age faces: how do you break through the multitude of signals that bombard people every day and convince them to pay attention to your message and subsequently, attend your services, get involved in your ministry, etc? How do you become relevant, for lack of a better term, to the people to whom you feel called to minister and to witness? One obvious answer to that question is that you meet them where they’re at, which is something that Christians have been doing ever since St. Paul ventured onto Mars Hill.
And it seems to me that’s what Copper Pointe is doing here: they’re using terminology that their target audience — college-aged persons — is very familiar with, and they’re using it in a way that is certainly attention-getting and provocative.
But that brings us to the second issue: when attempting to address the first issue, what means are permissible in doing so? We must be careful when reaching out so as not to diminish or dilute the Gospel, nor to associate it with anything that may reflect negatively on it. (Obviously, we’ll reflect negatively on the Gospel simply because we are sinners, but our desire and goal ought to be to minimize that as much as possible.)
And this is where, for me, Copper Pointe’s approach begins raising questions (and I risk sounding like little more than an old fuddy-duddy). Irreverent, post-modern, deconstructionist, and snarky though we may be, words and language do have meaning and do matter. And the simple fact is that “WTF” is, at its core, a profane saying.
We can certainly argue until we’re all blue in the face regarding the relationship between profanity and sinfulness. Do I think that the church is sinning simply because they’re using profanity in their marketing? I’d be the last to cast a stone in that particular case — just ask my co-workers about my language whenever I’m attempting to deal with a particularly nasty programming bug or my wife whenever I have to deal with insurance companies.
It’s not so much the mere existence of the profanity that is bothersome, as it is that said profanity is explicitly (npi) being used in association with the Gospel of Christ. And it’s the hook, the first impression that people have of the church, their message, their priorities, and so on. Is it worth risking a besmirchment of the Gospel in the interests of marketing? In the interests of being hip, edgy, relevant, viral, and all of those other things that are deemed so important in this day and age?
Such an approach may result in greater attendance — not a bad thing, mind you — but, in the end, what is being attended? What is the mindset of those who attend? Copper Pointe has taken steps to prevent anyone from getting the wrong impression from their branding, but “WTF” is “WTF”. Regardless of how you spin or present it, the “F” word will, more likely than not, be in the back of the congregration’s mind? And is that acceptable?
I would hope this would be obvious, but just to be safe, here’s a disclaimer: I am, in no way, calling into question the faith of Copper Pointe and its leaders, nor am I questioning their commitment to Christ and their desire to share His Gospel with those around them. I am, however, questioning their sense of taste and propriety.