Denominational Identity – A Plus or a Minus?

New church planters and those who struggle to revitalize their congregations often ask whether using their denominational identity in their name, their publicity materials, or their website is a positive or negative thing for attracting new people. New non-denominational churches with names that don’t even sound like a church seem to draw crowds of younger worshipers. But the UCC has spent the last 20 years developing a public identity that tells unchurched people that we are not hide-bound in old traditions but welcoming and progressive. Wouldn’t it make sense to build on that work, rather than ignore it?

Richard Cimino of the University of Richmond and Religion Watch and I have been exploring that question, examining how new congregations use or don’t use their denominational identity, and how that affects congregational growth. Some of our findings were presented recently at the Annual Meeting of the Religious Research Association.

Richard has visited new congregations in both evangelical and mainline denominations, while I have combined results from the new mainline churches in his qualitative study of how new congregations use their denominational identity on their websites with quantitative information on the kinds of people they attract or how much their worship attendance has grown, using data from the Ecumenical Partners New Church Study of six mainline denominations.

We found that, in general for mainline churches, how much a new church emphasized its denominational affiliation made very little difference in whether or not attendance increased or whether it attracted many unchurched people. Churches that had higher proportions of young adults attending, however, were LESS likely to emphasize their denominational identity, although even for young adults, differences were not large. Perhaps young adults who are not already affiliated with a church have a negative view of organized religion in general and are wary of all denominations. So congregations that attract young adults may need to project an image of being new and different, not like those staid old congregations.

When we looked more closely at the results, we did find some patterns that suggest how a congregation might use its denominational identity to help attract new members. For example, new congregations were more likely to emphasize their denominational identity if they were trying to attract visitors who already were familiar with their denomination, such as churches in newly-developing communities in areas where the denomination is strong. They were also more likely to emphasize their denomination if they were trying to distinguish themselves from other, more conservative churches in areas such as the South.

DenomQuoteIn some cases, denominational identity seemed to help attract people who may not have been familiar with the denomination, that is, people who have not been members of the denomination in the past. Particularly in the UCC, congregations that emphasized their denominational identity tended to attract more people who were college educated, perhaps because they took the time to study the website and note how the new congregations differed from their preconceived notions of church.

In general, non-traditional new congregations with alternative worship styles or locations were less likely to grow if they emphasized their denominational identity. Because these congregations may have been different enough from the typical congregation in their denomination, emphasizing the denominational connection may have blunted the message that these congregations were doing a new thing.

In new UCC congregations, significant use of denominational identity was found to be helpful in attracting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) attendees, probably because the language of Extravagant Welcome and the UCC’s positions supporting marriage equality and other LGBT issues reinforced a congregation’s appeal to this target group. In some other denominations, this was not the case, even if the congregation were welcoming of LGBT persons, because the congregation’s and the denomination’s positions on LGBT issues were in conflict.

Richard’s visits to evangelical churches found that, although they tend to downplay their denominational identity, particularly when interacting with new people, they are not necessarily “post-denominational.” They tend to stress their more generic evangelical identity at the front door, introducing distinctive denominational traditions and core teachings later as people become more involved. This irrelevance of specific denominational traditions may be especially true for most new church plants, he says, because they are at a stage of congregational development when the charisma of the founder is more important than formal practices and denominational beliefs.

Richard cautions that, compared to evangelicals, new mainline congregations generally have fewer teaching opportunities – such as small groups or Bible study classes — where denominational identity can be strengthened. The majority of mainline plants that he visited either did not have membership classes or did not even use the concept of membership itself.

This suggests that both new congregations and existing ones need to pay attention to how we transmit denominational identity to members and attendees, especially new ones. Bible studies and small group discussions are one way, but sermon illustrations, announcements, newsletter articles, e-blasts, denominational posters and publications all help explain what the UCC believes and stands for as a denomination, and why we do so.

Years ago, I attended an interdenominational conference with some Quakers. Someone asked one of the Quakers how they transmit the faith without sermons and much formal Christian education. She replied that one of the main ways that newcomers learn about what Quakers believe is by listening to the discussions both during the Quaker meeting and afterward about what stands people feel called to take on social issues and why they do so. We in the UCC can do the same, using our stands on social issues to explain why we believe we are called to take actions for justice and peace. Explaining our denominational identity can be an occasion for faith development.

So, in the end, what is the web-master of a new or an existing UCC congregation to do? In light of all the effort that has gone into building our “brand” in the last 20 years or so, how much should you emphasize the UCC?

Who is your target audience?

Who is your target audience?

First, begin by knowing who your target audience is. Of course, everyone is welcome. But when we try to be everything to everybody, often we end up being nothing that is very compelling to anyone. Who are the people in your community you are trying to reach? Who needs to hear the Gospel as your congregation understands and lives it?

Second, what would catch the attention of that group and give them some clues that your congregation is able to meet their spiritual needs? On the website, do they see people who are like them in some ways? Does the website use language that they understand or does it use church jargon? Does it address their felt needs?

In that process, you need to decide whether denominational identity will be helpful or a hindrance or irrelevant in reaching your target group. How much do you think they know about the UCC? In some parts of the US where every town has a UCC congregation, people may know a lot about us; in others, they may just confuse us with the Church of Christ. Is what they know positive? If so, you will want to emphasize your denominational identity. But if they know nothing about us, just saying that you are part of the UCC may be meaningless; and you will need to tell them what that means.

Finally, does our denominational identity reinforce or conflict with the image you are trying to project? If you are reaching out to LGBT people, providing information about how the UCC has led the fight for marriage equality is important. But if your target group is young adults who may be wary of all organized religion, for example, you may want to emphasize how your congregation is doing a new thing, rather than being part of an existing denomination. Like the evangelicals, once people are part of your fellowship, you can share all the good things about our “brand” of Christianity.

Dr. Marjorie RoyleDr. Marge Royle of Clay Pots Research is a former director of research for the United Church of Christ. She has worked on a number of church-related research projects in the last year, including a study on stress and psychological type among clergy in the Reformed Church in America. She is an active lay leader in both local church and wider church settings and is co-founder of Bridge of Faith, providing assistance to social service agencies in Awka, Nigeria.

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