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When the secular becomes sacred

These days, more businesses are “churchier” than churches

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today 

LOUISVILLE — I still remember the furrowed brows of saints in my rural church when I suggested that rather than ask for donations to feed the children for an upcoming event, we should pay local food purveyors to cater the meal instead.

“Imagine purchasing sandwiches from a mom-and-pop deli, baked beans from the beloved hole-in-the-wall café and a gooey dessert from the generations-old chocolatier,” I said.

“Am I hearing correctly, pastor? You want us to take what little money we have and buy what we need rather than get the items for free?” asked the treasurer, who was skilled at keeping the church purse strings tightly drawn. That’s exactly what I was proposing. After all, what is a church if it is not a body of believers investing in the community in which they live?

“Why do we always pull the ‘we are a struggling church’ card?” I countered. “Didn’t Jeremiah say that God has plans for our future, one in which we prosper?” And there lies the problem with that oft-quoted verse found in Jeremiah 29:11. God wasn’t talking about individual prosperity — mine or yours. God’s plans are for the good of the community.

While I, too, once took this Scripture to be just about me, I now lovingly correct that misconception whenever I can. I have also come to realize that the prophet’s ancient cry is quite hip as it recalls the modern trend known as “cause marketing.” Cause marketing is where not-for-profit companies align with nonprofits, rallying around a cause to raise awareness. Cause marketing also generates goodwill, which leads to brand loyalty, which, I will be honest here, hopefully boosts profit margins. While cause marketing is not new — I remember writing stories in the early ’90s about this — it is back and growing stronger.

For example, last spring Ralph Lauren took a step in dismantling systemic racism by creating a line of clothing inspired by two historically Black colleges: Morehouse and Spelman. The company stated that it wants to tell the untold story of these educational institutions through fashion. They went beyond just storytelling by hiring an all-Black creative team.

Recently I learned that Brooks Brothers, another iconic fashion house, has stepped up to advocate for gender equality, creating a line of clothing where the proceeds will go to an LGBTQ+ youth organization.

Personally, I have been intrigued by a California designer, Christy Dawn, who creates with environmental and economic justice in mind. Her “farm-to-closet” dresses are made from deadstock fabric, that is, fabric left unsold by a textile mill. You can also “grow your own dress” by investing in the farm — the money goes to farmers’ salaries, seeds and organic fertilizer — that grows the fibers for fabrics. The company even eases the sticker shock one might have to its high prices by providing “transparent pricing,” which breaks down the cost of each dress, showing that the seamstresses receive fair wages and medical benefits.

I was sold and opened my wallet to give generously to a company that is trying to care for Creation and the creatures who inhabit it. As I did, I wondered: “When was the last time I gave so willingly to a church because I felt the same admiration for its mission that I had for a clothing company’s mission?”

And when my dress arrived, I had the extra surprise of finding a packet of seeds from a farm where developmentally challenged adults live and work together, collecting and sorting seeds to sell. I was touched as I had visited this organization back in 2019. It’s no wonder a study by Porter Novelli, a global communications consultancy, found that the $2.2 billion generated by cause marketing in 2020 isn’t showing signs of slowing down as more consumers said they want companies with both a mission and a heart.

Which brings me back to our churches: We might have missions that we engage in, but do we have generous and trusting hearts? Do we continue to ask for donations because that’s what churches do, or do we dare take what little funds we have and invest them in our communities?

I know of a church that years ago had a food pantry, had opened its doors to help others connect with much needed social services and even welcomed children to a haven after school.

Today, the town’s library has taken over helping connect people to social services. It even has a fridge inside to share food with others, which is good because the church’s food pantry ceased operating. And what about the children? An art gallery on Main Street now provides a place for children to go after school.

What happened to the church being the beacon of hope in its community? Did it not understand Jeremiah’s words that its future was tied to the community’s future? Did it spend so much energy on self-preservation that it failed to see how to truly survive and thrive? I am not sure. All I know is other businesses in that town are stepping up and being the church more than the churches are, and … sorry, I have to go.

The UPS driver just pulled up with my new “farm-to-closet” dress.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. Have you seen this trend emerging in your community? Email her at donna.jackson@pcusa.org 


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