A new study by Grey Matter Research suggests that both churchgoers and the unchurched largely agree on whether or not Protestant churches should reference their denominational affiliation in their names.
Most Protestant churches reference their denomination in their name. A prominent counter-example: Rick Warren's Saddleback Community Church, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
The SBC recently debated changing its name to remove potential obstacles to people attending new church plants, particularly in the Northeast. Instead, it decided to allow the use of an unofficial moniker, Great Commission Baptists, which LifeWay Research showed less than half of churches intend to use.
Grey Matter surveyed a representative sample of 773 unchurched and churched adults in all 50 states and found risks in both approaches.
"When a church does not reference its denomination in the church name, unchurched people tend to see that church as less formal, rigid, and old-fashioned," notes the Phoenix-based market research firm in a news release. "But this also makes them feel more uncertain and wonder whether the church is trying to hide its beliefs."
The most interesting findings:
1) Churches with denominational references (vs. none) in their name are:
Four times more likely to be perceived as "formal."
Three times more likely to be perceived as "old-fashioned."
Almost three times more likely to be perceived as "structured and rigid."
Three times less likely to be perceived as "open-minded."
2) By contrast, churches with no denominational references in their name are:
Less than twice as likely to be perceived as "honest."
More than twice as likely to give people "feelings of uncertainty."
Almost five times more likely to be perceived as "trying to hide what they believe."
3) The perceptions of Protestant churchgoers and the unchurched only differ on a few matters:
Churchgoers believe a church with its denomination in its name would be "more welcoming to visitors" (33% to 20%).
The unchurched believe the opposite: that such a church would be less welcoming to visitors (30% to 19%).
Churchgoers believe a church with its denomination in its name would be "a church for people like [them]" (40% to 20%).
The unchurched are evenly divided. Approximately 1 in 5 pick churches with denominational names, and almost 1 in 5 pick churches without denominational names.
Churchgoers say they're "more likely to consider" churches with denominational names (39% to 23%).
The unchurched are more evenly divided. Almost 1 in 4 are more likely to consider churches with denominational names, while 1 in 5 pick churches without denominational names.
4) The main caveat is age, concludes Grey Matter:
"In general, older Americans are more comfortable with denominational church names than are younger people. People age 65 and older are especially likely to see non-denominational names as the church trying to hide what they believe (55% to 3%) and as making them feel uncertain (51% to 7%), as well as to see denominational names as welcoming new visitors (38% to 18%) and as a church they might consider visiting (48% to 14%).
On the other hand, adults under the age of 35 are much more divided over this issue. For instance, while they agree with older adults that non-denominational names are more likely to make them feel uncertain, the split is only 34% to 22%, and it's noteworthy that 22% say a denominational reference is what would be more likely to make them feel more uncertain. Younger adults are also more likely to see non-denominational names as welcoming to new visitors (36%, versus 27% who say this about denominational names), as a church for people like them (27% to 18%), or as one they might consider visiting (27% to 19%)."
5) Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter, offers advice on how to mitigate risks associated with either choice:
"A church with a denominational reference can have a contemporary and friendly logo and sign to help deal with any perceptions that it's rigid," he writes, "while a church without the denomination in its name might use a catchy tagline to communicate something about its beliefs, to help overcome any uncertainty people may feel."
6) Denominational names are not a widespread liability as often thought. Grey Matter found that only a minority of the unchurched have negative perceptions about such names: "Eight out of ten unchurched adults do not feel a non-denominational name would make them more likely to consider visiting a particular church, and six out of ten do not feel this signals a more open-minded church."
An extension chart of Grey Matters findings can be found here.