This morning Twitter was all a-flutter with news that Mars Hill Seattle has sent out Cease and Desist letters to other churches with the same name.
For years, I have watched church copyrighting become a trend. Most closely, this has happened at the megachurch that resides just on the other side of the highway from us, Watermark. When they began, copyrighting was one of the first things they did, because they had their eyes set toward the future, which they intended to be filled with conferences and satellite churches and books and other copyright-related things. Before we get any further, let me be perfectly clear: I applaud their desire to think big. I applaud their vision of extending what they are doing as far as the eye can see. However, I have a SIGNIFICANT problem with their assumption that to do so requires legal copyrighting. What that communicates to me is not their desire to be a group of people who are intent on spreading good news and equipping people, but their desire to be a group of people KNOWN BY NAME (and not the name of the One in which they are doing so) who does these things. And that, my friends, is a HUGE, HUGE difference. It is, to put it as bluntly as I can, the difference between a church and a corporation.
Corporations have the goal of expanding their brand. Churches have the goal of expanding the Kingdom. These things do not equal one another, and I would argue, the former prohibits the function of the latter.
But let’s move on to Mars Hill. First of all, I’m disgusted that this move has come only after Rob Bell has decided to step down as Lead Pastor at Mars Hill in Michigan. It’s as if Mark Driscoll was too scared to make this bold move before that, because everyone knows Bell is more well-known (and frankly, more liked) than Driscoll. That to me feels sickeningly underhanded. They have shared a name and a public profile as two churches for over a decade. Why now? (I do know that Mars Hill Graduate School, also located in Seattle, has just undergone a name change to become The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I don’t know the specifics of the process or whether it came from similar legal pressure, but I do know they’ve been debating a name change for years in order to distance themselves from the assumption of affiliation with Mars Hill Church.)
As you can tell from my comments above, I already find it theologically suspect (if not abhorrent) when a church copyrights at all. But this becomes even more odious still when the very name copyrighted is something that has been recognized and shared by people of faith for over two thousand years. What in God’s name gives a church the right to attempt to copyright something that wasn’t theirs in the first place??? Can you imagine what kind of letter the Apostle Paul would write to Mars Hill if he were around?!
“To the church in Seattle called Mars Hill, I appeal to you to be united with believers across your continent whose church carries the same name. For I have heard troubling reports that you have instigated quarrels among you. Was Mars Hill crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Mars Hill? Your boasting is not a good thing. And haven’t you heard me say that when you have a grievance against someone (and do you really think the name of your church constitutes such a grievance?), you are to speak with your fellow believer in person? Do you dare take something to court and seek legal means before you settle it by using the wise among you? You may recall in my first letter to the Corinthians that I declared lawsuits and legal quarrels are already a defeat. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? Why not allow the petty concern over church affiliation confusion to lay at rest rather than seek the glory of raising up your own church name? Do you not know that wrongdoers of such a kind will not inherit the Kingdom of God?”
I pastor a church called Journey. In 1999, I’m pretty sure we were among the first to be named so. As of this morning’s Google search, I found 70 pages of hits showing churches with that name. It’s not ideal, and I do often get people who ask whether we are connected to the Journey here or there. It can be a nuisance. As a matter of full disclosure, one of those churches is located in DFW. We learned of them a few years ago when they had just begun and we immediately began receiving voice messages and emails from people trying to find them instead of us. I looked at their website and realized we shared the exact same name-Journey Community Church. I called the pastor. We met for coffee. We shared stories about who we were and what we were doing. I told him we were very used to being confused with other Journey churches, but it might create a regular headache to share the same exact name in the same exact city. What can we do to alleviate that? He was very emotionally tied to the name and, though they had not even begun meeting regularly yet, he was pretty adamant about not changing the name, even slightly for the sake of differentiation. I will openly admit to being frustrated. (I will also admit that, had it been me, I would have opted to differentiate the name somehow out of respect for a church just miles from ours that had already been around for nearly a decade.) So I understand the frustration of names. I really do. Everything under the sun these days seems to have “Journey” in it (including, I’ll say, a Bible study by Watermark called “Join the Journey” whose massive banner on their church, in the same font as our old font, was so confusing for some people that they wandered around Watermark thinking it’s where we met). I also will say that I have seen other churches use our ideas in all kinds of ways. One church website a number of years ago basically plagiarized half of our website, including our core values statements. (Mars Hill Michigan strictly prohibits such a thing, so they have their own issues with copyrighting it seems.)
I get it. It’s incredibly frustrating, not to mention dishonoring to the hard work and passion we put into it, to have another church come along and just take what you’ve done without asking permission or saying thanks or even sending you a five dollar love offering for the time it saved them not to have to come up with something on their own. Journey would have a far bigger budget if all the people who have gotten ideas from us over the years would have left us a minor monetary thank you before returning to their massive buildings and pension plans. I GET IT. And maybe what we do need is a conversation about how to share things openly and respectfully in a digital world where idea-poaching is so prevalent. Maybe we need to talk more about something along the lines of Creative Commons as a way of respecting one another’s contributions. However, what we DON’T need is lawsuits, copyrights, or cease and desist letters. Never for one second would I consider SUING any of these people to have them change their name, or stop using our verbiage or ideas. Never would I consider claiming that our Journey is the only Journey that can exist, because we were one of the first to employ the name. The very thought is ridiculous, even when our shared name confusion is at its highest.
Because at the end of the day, we are ALL finding inspiration from a story that isn’t ours, and that has been freely and graciously given to us. We have been instructed and even commanded to take this story and to share it and to pass it along. I don’t care how many books you’ve sold, or great church ideas you’ve employed. We all owe our inspiration to the Holy Spirit, and she does not charge.
We are all people trying to be faithful to a story that has been around for far longer than any of our churches or ministries have. NONE of us came up with this song. None of us were original enough to create the ideas we share Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. We each have our own unique perspectives, some may have stumbled upon a way of communicating them that really strikes a chord with a lot of people, but we are all singing along to a song that is much bigger than we are.
The story of God is not a commodity. The church is not a corporation. The Gospel is not for sale. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not carry a price tag. And if we treat them as such (and boy, have we), we need to hang our heads and receive some ashes and repent.