I’m fascinated by history. It’s my preferred subject. I often think about what history will look like when I’m no longer writing it. One of my favorite things about the Free Methodist denomination is that we made history change in the direction of freedom. We are actually known for being a group of people who lead change. Earlier this year, we dedicated an issue of this magazine to highlight our distinctive freedoms.
Free Methodists are highly motivated people who stand for freedom and liberty to lead and follow according to a lifestyle that calls each person to live like Jesus Christ. We have a responsibility to lead our society and culture. We lead by granting freedom to all people to worship together. We lead by treating women and men as equals and encourage the use of their individual gifts, wherever they are. We treat the poor and disenfranchised with dignity and humanity. We reflect the love of Christ to all people. We empower laity and clergy with equal authority in our churches. We have the freedom to worship God in various ways and encourage the diversity that comes with our various contexts.
What does this mean as a form of our “brand”? The freedoms allow and encourage us to be different in this world. Defining our brand is like a journey of self-discovery. At times, it can be difficult, uncomfortable and time-consuming. To define our brand, we are required to answer several questions: What is our vision? What are the benefits? What do people already know about our brand? What do we want others to associate with our brand?
This is a brand world. You’re carrying a brand whether you know it or not. The distinctive swoosh on the side of your shoe tells everyone you endorse Nike’s brand. The coffee travel mug you’re carrying reveals you’re for Starbucks. You demonstrate your brand loyalty with the shirt featuring a distinctive UA on the sleeve, the blue jeans with the prominent Levi’s rivets, the watch with the icon on the face, and the pen with a symbol crafted into the end.
Jordans and Jeans
When I was younger, I begged for my parents to buy me brand-name clothes. We couldn’t really afford them, but I was “blessed” every once in a while. The first time I ever remember wanting something with a special brand was in the fourth grade. Something amazing, in my estimation, was available on the market. I needed to be part of the elite group that proudly walked the sidewalks and ruled the courts. I wanted Air Jordan basketball shoes — black leather with red, reflective patches and, most importantly, the Jumpman symbol. I grew up in a suburb west of Chicago at the time when Michael Jordan was king, champion and movie star (“Space Jam”). People showed respect — bowed nearly — to anyone wearing Air Jordans.
I begged, pleaded, worked, negotiated, promised and did whatever it took to get the iconic brand strapped to my feet. When I finally got the shoes, I walked with my head in the horizontal position — I wouldn’t dare get a scuff! I protected those shoes like it was my calling in life.
I eventually grew out of the Air Jordan phenomenon and grew into Levi’s blue jeans. You know the ones that have the orange stitching and stamped rivets. The story of denim is a unique one. This simple, ubiquitous fabric is worn by cowboys and models — simultaneously a symbol of the counterculture and the raw material of a major industry. Denim, dating back to 17th century France, is the basis for billion-dollar brands. Icons wear denim with cotton T-shirts, and powerful business leaders wear denim with suit coats and cuff links.
I’m currently into the “skinny jeans” hype. These jeans have a snug fit through the legs and end in a small leg opening. The stretch denim, sometimes containing 2 to 4 percent spandex, allows the jeans to have a slim fit. In high school, before skinny jeans were available for men, I bought jeans from the clothing store’s section for teen girls. I admit it was a strange practice to purchase jeans made for the opposite gender, but, in my mind, the image this “brand” gave me was worth looking ridiculous, buying girl pants and telling the checkout lady they were for my sister when I got funny looks.
Regardless of age, position or vocation, we need to understand the importance of branding. Branding goes hand-in-hand with belonging. The Free Methodist Church in Southern California is known for saying, “It’s good to belong.”
Sneetches and Humans
When I was a child, one of my favorite authors was Dr. Seuss. His “The Sneetches” story describes creatures who desire so badly to be “branded” or “belong” that they make foolish mistakes. You can read the full story at fmchr.ch/dssneetch but here’s a partial paraphrase:
There were two types of Sneetches, star-belly Sneetches whose bellies had stars and plain-belly Sneetches whose bellies didn’t. The stars were not very visible or big, but star-belly Sneetches bragged, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches,” and they had nothing to do with the plain-belly Sneetches. The star-bellies would walk right past the plain-bellies without even acknowledging them. The plain-belly children could not even get into a game of ball. Then one day, while the plain-belly Sneetches were moping around, a stranger — a salesman named Sylvester McMonkey McBean — showed up and said, “My friends … I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy, but I can fix that.” The plain-bellies were intrigued. “My prices are low, and I work at great speed,” said McBean, who put together a very peculiar machine. “You want stars like a star-belly Sneetch? My friends, you can have them for three dollars each!”
Humans, like Sneetches, can be influenced. There are two ways to influence behavior: manipulate it or inspire it. The good news is that everyone has a chance to stand out, learn, improve, build up their skills and belong to a brand worthy of observation.
The brand we represent is one that people desire to be a part of. We stand for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). We fight for people to have equal value without limiting leadership to one gender. We have a posture of honor for those who multiply and become fruitful in their ministry. We reflect the love of Christ to all people.
Our need to belong is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we have a feeling of belonging, we connect and feel safe. As humans, we crave such a feeling, and we seek it out.
Instant bonds are part of what makes us human. We travel across the country and see someone wearing a T-shirt with our home state brand, and we feel an instant connection. We are likely to speak with strangers if we recognize the accent from our home region.
I traveled across the globe a couple of years ago with my pastor, Shane Bengry, looking to build partnerships with Free Methodists in West Africa. After a week, Shane flew home, and I traveled to East Africa. Near the end of my trip, I had one day to recover before my trek home. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, I felt alone in a different part of the world with no one around me like me. Shortly after my food arrived, I heard a voice in the distance that sounded familiar. The voice itself was not one that I knew, but I heard an American accent. I went over and struck up a conversation with fellow Americans. I immediately felt connected to them. We could speak the same language and understand the same slang. As a stranger in a strange city, for a few moments, I felt like I belonged. As a result of our connection, I trusted those strangers in the restaurant more than any other people around us.
Macs and Moses
Our deep desire to feel like we belong is so powerful that we will do irrational things, go through great lengths and often spend a lot of money to get that feeling. We want to be around people and organizations that are like us and share our beliefs. Our natural sense to belong also make us good at spotting things that don’t belong.
I love Apple’s “Get a Mac” series of commercials that ran from 2006 to 2009. The series is a perfect representation of brand belonging. We have a young, relaxed, good-looking, jeans-wearing “Mac user” with a sense of humor. The “PC user” is older, stuffy, boring and easily irritated. The campaign appealed to people from all walks of life, but it suggested that you will fit in with a Mac if you behave like a Mac.
We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. They inspire us by making us feel safe, special and not alone — like we belong. The most brand-loyal companies continuously put effort into placing identifiers into the hands of their people. Apple gives you a sticker of its brand with every product for you to place the sticker in a visible location and create an entry for others to feel common ground and belonging.
But we do not always see ourselves reflected in society’s brands, and followers of those brands may not accept us. Someone in history who was “outside of the brand” is Moses. If you recall, Moses was born in an era of oppression. According to the book of Exodus, the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (1:16). But the midwives were disobedient to the king. So he gave the order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (1:22).
Moses was born, and his mother was able to conceal him for several months. They made a basket, and she placed him in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Moses’ sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Pharaoh’s daughter went to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. She saw the basket, opened it, saw the baby and said, “This is one of the Hebrew babies.” His sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered.
The girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” Moses’ mother took him and nursed him. When he grew older, his mother took him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became like Pharaoh’s daughter’s son (2:1–10).
Think about the challenges Moses lived through as a person who carried a different brand. As a boy, he may have seemed too Egyptian for the Hebrews and too Hebrew for the Egyptians. As an adult, Moses ran away to a land far away and married the daughter of a priest in another land (2:11–3:1). Once again, Moses was in a strange place with no one like him.
What’s Your Brand?
Perhaps, like Moses, you may feel disconnected from the brands around you. To find your brand, start by identifying the qualities or characteristics that make you distinctive. Ask yourself: What do I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished and distinctive value? Find a place in your community to contribute your gifts and abilities.
For those of us who identify with the Free Methodist brand, I ask the questions again: What is our vision? What are our benefits? What do people already know or think about our brand? What do you want others to associate with our brand?
At our core, we are committed to love. We are called to live holy lives. We are expected to engage in a needs-filled world. We are empowered to serve without restrictions. All of our structures encourage our priorities. We believe the Great Commission requires the transformation of individuals and societies by God’s power and love for His glory. The result is wholeness – whole people bringing the whole gospel of freedom to the whole world. In the church, this wholeness is displayed thought healthy, biblical communities of holy people that multiply steadily. Our brand is anchored in a life transformed. Our brand image is to shadow the Imago Dei, which asserts that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.
Jay Cordova is an ordained elder who serves as the director of communications for the Free Methodist Church – USA. He previously worked as a startup business entrepreneur and coached small businesses in a Michigan incubator.