Churches that Copyright are not Churches

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.



  1. Thanks for responding to our post about Mars Hill Sacramento and what is happening. I am with you in opposing the way that MH Seattle has carried this out. I do understand that they want to protect intellectual property. I am an author and have faced numerous situations where articles I have written have been reprinted without permission. But this is “branding” and not intellectual property. This is incompatible with all we stand for in the Body of Christ.
    Thanks for weighing in so intelligently and helpfully on this issue.

    Mike P.

  2. Well said Danielle. When churches take other churches to court over names we as Christians all get a bad name. I can understand reasons for copyrighting certain works… documentaries, published books, media & graphics. A name seems to be something people could just get over sharing. Most church names are so simliar anyways… 1st this or Union that.

    As a graphic designer and web developer I understand this all too well. If I don’t charge for what I do I would be out of a place to sleep and food to eat. People like to get things for free and if a church is depending on funds from certain products I can see why a copyright would be prudent.

    I like contributing what I can to open source projects, helping out friends with tech issues and posting some free templates, graphics on my site(s) that I no longer depend on for income. I’d really love to see churches give more to people and needs than to keeping up expensive buildings or lawyers for copyright suits. Some are doing this and others are not. It would also be cool to have more churches release open source graphics, names, teachings to free to the web than they do now.

    I’m rambling. Thanks again for the post and your thoughts.

  3. I imagine that any number of churches located in Mars Hill, NC (the actual name of the city) might have something to say about this….

  4. I think Twitter has something to teach us here. The Mars Hill in Seattle just needs to rename and rebrand itself as “Real Mars Hill.”

    I’m curious how your situation with the church using the same name ended. Was it resolved in any way?

    I also think by way of clarifying that the incident involving the lawsuit was directed at a Mars Hill church in Sacramento, right? Or did all of the Mars Hill churches receive the same letter? It’s all still wrong to sue another church, but just wanted to be clear about that.

  5. Ed- haha! I do think it still sounds pretty arrogant to call yourself the “Real” this or that in relation to a church. Makes more sense for a person.

    The other church in town chose to do nothing. That one meeting for coffee was the extent of it.

    I don’t know if the MH letters went to more than one church. I’ve seen other posts saying it is also about their logo, which does resemble Driscoll’s. But I agree, regardless of details, this was the wrong way to go about it, and I also contend there’s just no reason churches should be in the business of copyrighting.

  6. It is strange to me that a church that prides itself on theological depth can fail to see the theological implications of such a move. It shows how deeply ingrained (yet largely unseen) capitalism has become in theology and ecclesiology in the US.

    Maybe the Apostle Paul should sue Mars Hill Church for copyright, since he was the first to use Mars Hill as a launching pad for ministry.

  7. Scott MillerOctober 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I agree, completely, Danielle. I can understand wanting to keep people from implying a connection to you when they have none, but I doubt that’s what MH is worried about.

    On a related issue, what saddens me is that churches and church leaders so easily fall prey to the same levels of selfishness and disrespect that run rampant in today’s society. If a preacher is so stubborn as to hold on to a name that is being used by an older church in the same area, that isn’t the kind of church I’m looking to be a part of. I’m not saying leaders need to be perfect, but there are some qualities that are make-or-break for me, and that’s simply one I can’t get on board with. We need more strength of character from our leaders.

  8. In other news…looks like Mars Hill Bible Church forgot to turn off trackbacks from their website. This blog post shows up as a “response” to their copyright page.

    Here’s hoping it stays there :) Well done.

  9. I believe you are confusing “copyright” and “trademark.”

    Written materials have been copyrighted for a long time. Considering that copyright is the mechanism to pay an author for use work created by that author, it would be an appropriate application of not putting a muzzle on oxen while they are treading the grain. It would also be a good application creating your own living so that you are not a burden on a local congregation.

    Trademarks are something else entirely. This has to do with trade dress and identity in the marketplace.

    There is nothing in trademark law that stops two entities doing the same thing from having the same name, provided they are not working in the same geographic region. For example, until it recently went bankrupt in the recent financial problems in the United States, I had my checking account at a bank chartered by the state of Washington that had the same name as another much more famous bank in the United States. The more famous bank did not have branches in Washington State when the local bank was chartered, so there was not a trademark violation as long as my local bank did not pretend or imply it was the famous bank.

    The name is only a problem Mars Hill Seattle should have is if they plan to move into Sacramento with another franchise location–like Albuquerque, NM, and Portland, OR.

    If the problem is a possible similarity of their logos on their web sites, I would think a telephone call between pastors could solve that. Maybe Mars Hill Seattle could offer a little design help to their friends in Sacramento, just like NBC offered when a new NBC logo in the 1970s looked like the logo of Nebraska Educational Television.

  10. Bob- thanks for elucidating the legal difference between copyright and trademark. I’m certainly not versed in such things, but I do know that Watermark has definitely purchased a copyright. I don’t know the legal reasons behind Mars Hill Seattle’s cease and desist letters, but I agree with you that a call would have been a much better way to go! In both cases, I certainly think there are plenty of theological reasons why this is less than ideal, regardless of the legal issues behind them. Thanks for your comment!

  11. Personally, I think Greece should sue Mars Hill Seattle. I know times are tough there, so the Greeks could surely use the money. Plus, Mars Hills was their idea…

  12. I suggest the following: that any church wishing to copyright their name, logo, etc. should be allowed to, provided that they agree to no longer be considered a not-for-profit, tax-exempt entity. It seems that a central point of copyrighting is to ensure that other entities of the same name are not confused with your own, thus costing you a profit. Ergo, if you are in it for financial gain, you are nothing more than a corporation, and should be taxed. I don’t think that Driscoll (the-man-who-would-be-the-Protestant-pope) is thinking in any other terms besides monetary; he certainly isn’t thinking as a Christian should.

  13. Danielle:
    I am the blog writer who started this discussion on the Mars Hill Name.
    I want you and your readers to know that the two churches have talked on the phone, forgiveness has been offered and received and all legal action has been abandoned.
    I have written about it in one final blog entry: Thanks for your contributions to this discussion.

    Mike Phillips

  14. Danielle ShroyerOctober 24, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Mike- That is fantastic news! Thanks for the update.

  15. This is rather silly post. The dispute was not over the name, but the similarity between the logos. Mars Hill Seattle’s concern is understandable – there is nothing wrong and certainly nothing sinful about a church protecting itself. And the idea that Driscoll waited until Rob Bell left is absurd. “Sickeningly underhanded” is a delightfully sanctimonious way to put it, but still absurd. Again, it had nothing to do with the name – the resolution to the dispute shows that, since Mars Hill Sacramento simply agreed to produce a different logo. The dispute had nothing to do with the name “Mars Hill.” Perhaps certain pastors should learn the facts before they post self-righteous drivel.

  16. Sorry you feel that way Jack. Actually, the original letter did concern both the name and the logo. If you read the follow-up post by the Pastor at MH Sacramento, you can hear the whole story. It certainly was not a matter of one church copying the other. The resolution was a matter of compromise and understanding (and perhaps MH Seattle realizing it was a bit of a stretch to consider any MH-named churches ought to change a name they don’t own to begin with).

  17. I can understand both points of view. As a published author and professional blogger, I have both trademarks and copyrights on my work that prevents other copycats from coming along and publishing my own work as their own. It has happened, and they have even been derogatory towards me in the process of making money off my work and claiming it as their own. In that context, I totally understand trademarks and copyright, and feel that even amongst christians, it is valid.

    But as a young pastor helping to plant a new church, we are of the sharing variety. As we create media and spend our own hard-earned dollars to do so, we are creating everything with the design that other churches might want to use it in the future. Sharing is caring, as we say. We all come from a large church background and understand the desire to protect a brand, but we also understand that sharing what we have learned and developed with newer, smaller churches helps to spread the work of the Kingdom.

    That said, I have been involved in a process with churches where copyright and trademarks can be very useful. The case involved a couple of churches with really bad theology–we’re talking about very harmful to the people involved, not just theology we disagreed with–who were using another church’s name, logos and building their own following based upon the reputation that first church group had already developed. Using that name to hurt others and build their own following. In that case the group of churches were able to go in and have some influence in getting the church to stop certain practices that were hurting others, under threat of removing the right to use the name. Some churches came under mentoring and teaching, healing came and God worked wonders. Others did not and the right to use the name was removed. Some of this happened within the US, some of it outside in the missions field where voodoo and other magic-based practices were creeping into churches. In those cases, trademarks and copyrights were used for God’s purposes, to be able to bring those churches into relationship where correction and healing could occur. It also was used to stop the good name already built from being used for evil, which was damaging that church group’s movement as a whole.

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