On The Branding and Selling of Christianity

The rise of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) in the late 1960s, and its cultural ascent in the early 1990s, represented a massive capitulation to the broader culture, though not in the ways its initial critics imagined. During the worship wars CCM was criticized by the “traditionalists” as borrowing too much stylistically from the godless secularism in American rock. But what was really at play was a mass commercialization of piety and authenticity.

The Jesus Movement of the 60s was all about authenticity, breaking out of rigid forms that were merely going through the motions. CCM thought of and presented itself as doing that successfully, but instead ended up selling a polished package of faux-authentic pop music baptized in Christianese. There were a number of counter reactions in the early 200os to this culture (synthesis becoming thesis, meeting new antithesis, after all), the least of which was not the rise of the Young, Restless, and Reformed.

But one of the reactions was the rejection of institutional Christianity in favor of edgier, realer faith. The emerging church probably captures this sense well. While it should have been obvious, as someone who grew up in that milieu it seemed to be something different, but was really just selling the same old schtick.

I listened to [Derek Webb’s album] over and over again, enticed by the call to what felt like a deeper faith, a rawness and authenticity that seemed to be missing in so much of the evangelical culture around me. The music was artistically good, but not overly polished. The lyrics were reverent (enough), but not stripped of human honesty.

I knew my salvation was secure, but I wondered if perhaps the hollowness I’d sometimes felt in the conservative evangelicalism of my childhood could be filled by the fresh air this singing provocateur was breathing. Maybe this was the missing piece.

Seven years later, my husband and I sat in a small group Bible study on a Sunday afternoon. We were working our way through a video series on Song of Solomon taught by Mark Driscoll. He, too, was “edgy” and seemed to be offering something new…Driscoll seemed so certain that what he was saying was godly. Maybe this was the missing piece.

Just four years after those Sunday afternoons in Bible study, an article by a man named Tullian Tchividjian came across my computer screen…But Tchividjian, for that brief moment, seemed to be straddling both worlds. Maybe he had it figured out. Maybe I wasn’t going to be left out after all. Maybe this was the missing piece.

Abby Perry’s reflections on these men and the trends they represent is helpful and enlightening.

Over the past few years, Driscoll publicly departed his church and the Acts 29 Network amidst allegations of harshness, verbal abuse, and plagiarism. Tchividjian and Webb both engaged in extramarital affairs that led to the ends of their marriages, as well as Tchividjian being deposed from his pastorate…

Driscoll joined Patheos, pastors a church, and has a slew of new internet content.

Tchividjian’s freshly branded website features “A Word from Tullian’s Pastor” that reads like an endorsement.

Webb released his latest album, Fingers Crossed, which includes a song reminiscent of early 2000s worship music that turns out to be about alcohol, lyrics full of anger toward people from his former church, and heart-piercing longing for his children…

Driscoll, Webb, Tchividjian, and others like them have all benefited immensely from Christian product industries. Albums, books, sermons, and swag abound with their names permanently affixed (even in the case of Driscoll, who did not write a great deal of what has been peddled as his). As their products and messages evolved into oxygen in the evangelical air, these men became brands to the Christian public as much, if not more, than they were actual people.

Their careers show that they were always peddling a brand, one that is resilient in face of sin and devoid of repentance. Their success came from the stark contrast to the prevailing CCM culture, just as CCM’s success came from the contrast to the pre-Boomer era. But like CCM, they were just selling a product with an edge and to an audience captive to the spirit of the age. Perry’s article focuses on the missing pieces in our platforms, and is well worth the read.