Modern day churches embrace personal branding to stand out. . . The cult of the individual

Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter
A study of Pentecostal churches in Zimbabwe will prove that the majority of them use images of the founding pastor and their spouse on banners and posters. Some have argued that this promotes the cult of the individual and idolatry in the church, while others say it is just branding meant to separate from the rest.

This is the new way of branding by Pentecostal churches, a clear departure from the traditions of protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. It has fuelled researchers to cement their argument that modern Pentecostal churches are making religion a commodity promoting materialism and religious exchange.

“Understanding of spiritual form of payment, pricing in the traditional marketing (tangible price in this regard) and the shift towards a transactional exchange for divine intervention in form of miracle, healing, and provision are examined from being major sources of inner spiritual dilemmas to being principal sources of the desire and inspiration underpinning materialism and commoditisation in various Pentecostal churches today,” reads a paper on how Pentecostal churches project themselves.

Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe general secretary Pastor Trevor Masuku, said while it is now common that churches were adopting personal branding, it was not all of them doing so.

Pastor Masuku said the personal branding of churches is not informed by any biblical scriptures but individual preference.

“It is just a case of people wanting to identify with an individual. That is why photos are there. In some churches you will find that some churches would be having calendars that are also having photos of the pastors,” said Pastor Masuku.

He said pastors should also communicate to their congregants that the personal branding of churches does not translate to them being worshipped.

Pastor Masuku said the personalised branding of churches however, can create dangers in cases of couples splitting.
He located the personal branding of churches to evangelical churches based in America.

“It has evolved overtime and one of the things that we find is that in Zimbabwe, we learn a lot of things from others. The American church was one of the first to go that route and that is where people picked it up and started using it,” he said.
On commercialisation of churches, Pastor Masuku rebuked churches that classify congregants depending on their wealth.

“I can come out categorically and say that is wrong if it is being done. Money or social standing should not determine someone’s position in the church. I can put an example, if a church invites a politician to a prayer meeting, it does not follow that the politician has to speak in that meeting since it will not be a political rally,” said Pastor Masuku.

Pastor Trevor Masuku.

“If it comes to leadership positions, someone should not be elected a leader just because they have money. Because if we do that the consequences of that can be very dire for the church because at the end you will end up having someone running a church as if they are running a business.”

Public relations and corporate strategist Lenox Mhlanga said the personalised branding of churches is a way of marketing the religious bodies.

“The first thing I think is that these pastors use their images as a marketing tool I think it will be prudent for them to use that for branding purposes. They are using the ability of that individual to attract congregants through what they want to call preaching and miracle marketing,” said Mhlanga.

He said the disadvantage and danger of the pastoral personal branding is that a church becomes nothing outside the profile of the founder.

Mhlanga said scandals affecting the pastors can result in churches losing relevance.

“It affects the whole church. We have seen one or two churches where a scandal follows the main pastor, people drop out because of reputational damage. People are repelled from joining that particular church because of the scandal that church leader will be facing. The other thing is that when that pastor dies or is removed a position the brand dies with him,” said Mhlanga.

He said there might be a need to regulate churches so that powerful church leaders do not manipulate congregants.
Mhlanga said some churches, despite branding of their founding pastors, are run by church boards made up of elders.

“In South Africa there is a body that oversees religious bodies. It demands certain parameters to be made before a church can be registered. In Zimbabwe I don’t know any institution that can bring these pastors to account,” said Mhlanga.–@nqotshili

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