(Original release date: February 21, 2013) 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, but this also makes them feel more uncertain and wonder whether the church is trying to hide its beliefs.
Study findings just released by Grey Matter Research (Phoenix, Arizona) among a demographically representative sample of 773 American adults examine the impact of including or excluding a denominational reference in church names. Most churches that are part of a denomination include a denominational reference in their name, but some avoid such references, selecting names such as Saddleback Church or Community Church of Joy. But what impact does that have?
In the study, Grey Matter Research asked both the unchurched and people who regularly attend a denominational Protestant church about the impact of a church including a denominational reference in its name. Interestingly, there are only a few places where churchgoers and the unchurched disagree. The research reveals that the decision to include or exclude a denominational reference in the name is a two-edged sword, with advantages and disadvantages to both choices.
On one hand, when people see a church with a denominational reference in its name, they are over four times more likely to perceive that church as formal than if it has no such reference. Denominational references are also three times more likely to make people see that church as old-fashioned, and almost three times more likely to make them feel it is structured and rigid, than if there is no denominational reference in the name. The lack of a denominational reference is also three times more likely to lead people to feel that the church is open-minded.
On the other hand, including a denominational reference is more than twice as likely to help people feel the church is honest. Excluding a denominational reference is more than twice as likely to give people feelings of uncertainty, and almost five times more likely to lead to thoughts that the church may be trying to hide what they believe.
On all of those measures, people who currently attend a denominational Protestant church and those who don’t regularly attend any sort of worship services have very similar perceptions. But there are a few areas where the churched and the unchurched differ, or where perceptions are less clear-cut.
People who attend a denominational Protestant church believe (by a margin of 33% to 20%) that a church with its denomination in its name would be more welcoming to visitors. But the unchurched, by a very similar margin, have exactly the opposite perception (30% to 19%). In each case, about half feel the name will not impact how they perceive the church.
Which one sounds like “a church for people like you”? According to people who are already part of a denominational Protestant church, it’s the church with a denominational reference in the name (40% to 20%). But the unchurched are split over this, with 21% saying it’s the church with its denomination in the name, and 18% saying it’s the one without it.
The story is much the same when it comes to a church they might consider visiting. People already attending a denominational Protestant church say they’re more likely to consider a church with the denomination in its name (39% to 23%). But among the unchurched, it’s a split decision, with 24% opting for the denominational name, and 20% preferring a church without a denominational reference.
One thing to consider in all of this is that reactions to denominational names differ significantly by age. 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%).
Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, noted that churches take some risk either way, but this research will help them understand the potential impact of each choice. “Would you rather take the chance of being seen as rigid or old-fashioned, or would you prefer the risk that some people will feel uncertain or wonder if you’re trying to hide your beliefs?” Sellers asked. “That’s really what it comes down to. Churches will assume some risk either way, but it’s critical to understand what that risk is in order to deal with it.”
For instance, Sellers suggested that 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, 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. He said, “There are ways of dealing with these perceptual issues as long as you know what they are.”
Sellers also pointed out that the choice of whether to include a denominational reference in the name is not as obvious as some people may think: “There is some belief out there that the unchurched run away from anything that says ‘Baptist’ or ‘Lutheran’ or some other denomination, but the fact is only a minority of the unchurched have negative perceptions about denominational names in general. For example, 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. Even younger adults often are not coming down strongly on one side or the other. Churches need to take a lot of different things into consideration in this decision – it’s not as simple as ‘Give it a non-denominational name and it will be a lot more attractive to young people and the unchurched.’”
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Grey Matter has extensive experience in research related to religious issues. The sample of 773 adults is accurate to within ±3.5 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.
The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, education, household income, geography, racial/ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked and weighted to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.