March 30, 2009 Tony Morgan

When Names Matter

Last week, I started a conversation about brand names. I tried to make the case (you can judge how successfully) that a name does very little, if anything, to sell a product or service or experience. The value added matters. The quality matters. Whether or not it’s addressing a perceived need matters. The name doesn’t matter…not at least until the brand is established.

On the other hand, I do think that a name can limit the sales of a product or service or experience. Let’s look at some obvious examples. If I’m shopping for food, I’m unlikely to go to a Starbucks Coffeehouse. I’ll go to a Starbucks Coffeehouse if I’m looking for coffee, but the name has limited the potential market. Starbucks sells coffee.

Taco Bell sells tacos and other Mexican food. If I’m hungry for a hamburger, I don’t go to Taco Bell. By putting “taco” in the name, they’ve already decided they’re probably not going to sell food to hamburger shoppers.

Now let me shoot closer to home. How about Anytown Baptist Church? As long as you’re trying to reach baptists, that’s a great name. Just so you know, though, most people that don’t consider themselves baptists (which is more and more people) will assume Anytown Baptist Church is only for baptists.

Here’s the reality, if Taco Bell started selling hamburgers and they were really good hamburgers, ultimately someone might buy their burger. One happy Taco Bell burger-eater might tell their friend to try one out. When that happens, the friend’s first reaction will be “Taco Bell sells tacos.” Taco Bell could dip into their deep marketing pockets and launch a huge campaign to tell people they now sell burgers. If it’s an effective campaign, it might convince more people to try their burgers. But, for a long, long time, people will likely first think of Taco Bell as a taco restaurant and not a hamburger joint.

The problem is that churches rarely, if ever, have that kind of bank. We can’t afford the type of marketing campaign it would take to try to convince people that Anytown Baptist Church isn’t just for baptists. For a long, long time baptist churches will be for baptists. And, whether you like it or not, people who aren’t baptists, have preconceived notions about what baptists are like and what happens at their churches.

So, when I’m asked whether or not a church should change it’s name, my initial response isn’t: “What’s the new name you’re considering?” My first response is: “What’s your mission?”

If your mission is to minister to the families that are currently attending your church, you shouldn’t change your name. If your mission is to reach people who have a proclivity to a specific denomination, then you probably don’t need to change your name. If you believe that God has predestined some people to attend your church and others not to, there’s really no need to change your name. (Which makes me wonder why God let you read this post…but that’s a topic for another day.)

If, on the other hand, the mission of your church is to reach people who are currently unchurched, then you need to ask the name question. If your primary mission is to reach people in our post-denominational culture, then you need to ask the name question.

Names don’t sell a new product. Names do sell an established product. Names also have the potential of limiting your market.

Does the name matter? It depends on your mission…and it depends on your name. Your first job, though, is to agree on the mission.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

Comments (19)

  1. I feel like this is going to get some really interesting comments!! I’m looking forward to it!!

    And Just so you know I loved this post and your thoughts on this!

  2. EST Craig

    Interesting post. I think its important to also say that names also help to narrow the focus and streamline a business or church in the eyes of the public. Taco Bells sells tacos and they want their name to be synonymous with tacos and mexican food, so their names helps to link the two together. A general name that lacks some differential can also hurt. If you say, we are Crossroads Church, people might say, “what kind of church is that?” It is general and open, but also say nothing and too generic for people, but if you have Crossroads Baptist Church, it gives a bit more definition. This could be negative as well as positive. I would say in my context, which is not just post denominational, but post Christian, we needed to put some defining characteristic in our name, otherwise people thought we were hiding something, or that we were some sort of cult. We added the name Christian to our church name and its been very helpful.

    One more point, if we are really trying to reach the “unchurched”, or those who have a distrust of the church, then maybe we should all drop the name church, cause I think that has more baggage than Baptist, Lutheran or even Latter Day Saints combined.

  3. Great post and so true! I almost did not visit the church I have now been at for 13 yrs because it was Southern Baptist and due to stereotypes, growing up in the north and my wife having a bad experience at one, we had no interest.

    It was someone inviting us and saying give it a try because they had (at the time) started a new contemporary service.

  4. Tony,
    When I first started reading this post I was pumped. I thought, alright he’s going to say it…he’s going to suggest that we might need to rethink using the label “church”. Because as we attempt to connect with people we’re discovering their biggest barriers are not denominational affiliation (only Christians or former Christians care about that stuff), it is baggage related to the “church” in general. Most post-Christians lump all churches and Christians together into one group, with little concern for their denominational affiliation. I think the real question is, “do we limit our ability to connect by calling ourselves a church?”

    I’m not suggesting we should drop the tag “church”, I’m only suggesting that denominational tags are not the real issue for those who are truly post-Christians.

    Great post by the way. Especially for follow up on your earlier post on branding.

  5. One of my first thoughts upon reading the suggestions in the comments that we think about dropping the “church” label was, “but don’t we want to rehabilitate the image of ‘church’ in the minds of our neighbors? How can we do that if we drop the label ‘church’ altogether?”

    Ah… but that argument applies equally well to the denominational labels, doesn’t it? In fact, I have friends who purposefully kept the denominational label on the new work they’ve started in order to change the image of our denomination in the eyes of their community. They know it’s had a negative image, and they want to change it!

    Still… in our case, we left the denominational label off. :)

  6. Tony Morgan

    Craig/Dale, if the objective is to sell tacos to untacoed people, i don’t think Taco Bell necessarily benefits from removing “taco” from their name. In my opinion, the same holds true for churches.

    At some point, we have to acknowledge we are the church. I suppose there may be ways to name a church without using church. But, at some point, it’s all about helping people meet Jesus and become part of a faith community. That’s a church.

    Of course, you have to remember, I’m not in a post-Christian culture. What I’m experiencing in the South may not be the same as your environment.

    Right now, though, I can assure you that being NewSpring “Church” helps attract people to hear the message. In our culture, dropping “Church” from the name would keep people away.


  7. Jim

    Rainer’s book “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched” (2001) includes survey information from people who had been unchurched and then actually ended up staying at a church. The data they collected says that 80% of these folks said the church name was not a significant factor in their decision to try out the church.

    And of the people that said the name of the church was a factor, two thirds of them said that having the denomination as part of the name of the church was a positive factor – it gave the church some degree of credibility.

    I personally tend to be somewhat “post-denominational” myself, and therefore favor church names that don’t include the denomination. But as far as it being a barrier to the unchurched, Rainer claims this is a myth. I still have a hard time buying that.

  8. Jim

    I spent 3 days talking about social media and having a web-presence at a small church conference in OR. We are even
    talking to pastors about sponsoring non-“Christian” events where they live. I’m not sure a lot of brick/mortars consider branding.

  9. Jesse Carbo

    We are planting a church in Central Florida in a really strong “Traditional” encironment of “Baptist” churches. There are alot of people around here that understand the “Baptist” label and the “Church” label. We decided to go with the name, “The Roots Community”. We don’t use the word church because we are not trying to plant a church but the gospel. Yes, yes…I know it’s a symantical thing but truly when we brand ourselves we don’t want the focus to be on the name or the organization we know as the church but that their Roots are founded in the Kingdom…it all goes back to Mission, I believe. A name matters, but here’s a thought: What if instead of just trying to think up the coolest name, how about we Pray and ask Jesus to name our church or better yet, let’s start planting the gospel into peoples lives and just let the community thing happen…the name will come. (Just a rookie’s random thoughts)

  10. I agree that names should describe a church’s core values. However, names for attraction sake just don’t seem to work. I only say this because 83% of Americans don’t attend and the number is trending upwards. It seems like the attraction that is working is by taking people from one church with a not so cool name, to a new church with a cool, market tested name.

    Just a few thoughts, nothing too scientific, except for the 83% number given by David T. Olson and the American Church Project.

  11. Nathan Gagne

    Names can keep you from ever growing. In churches where there was years of scandal and abuse, the next guy needs to change the name and the location. The name is so repulsive to people they just won’t come. It’s kinda of like the fact that I’ll never name one of my daughters Genevieve. The name reminds me of a scary looking girl from 5th grade.

  12. My church was discussing this in a meeting just last month. We have “Church of Christ” in our name, but we’ve been harassed and shunned and God only knows what else Church of Christ folk have said about us, due to our “liberal” ideas like a praise team and female staff…so we talked about dropping the label.

    Ultimately our leadership said that some of our congregation worked at places where they are only allowed to attend a Church of Christ (places where CoC churches funded them, like counselling offices and college ministries), and despite the fact that all the other CoCs in the area looked down on us, at least we were “the right denomination” based on the sign. If we were to drop the denominational label, these people would have to either stop attending our church or lose their job.

    This troubled me a lot, because I know for certain that many people don’t even visit our church due to the name on the sign. This fact, I feel, far outweighs the idea that CoCs would fire a few people based on a sign. By the way, our church also helps fund these ministries, so I wonder if they would stop accepting our money if we changed the name.

    In this scenario, do you think dropping the name would be worthwhile?

  13. If taco bell started selling hamburgers they would have to start thinking inside the bun…

    Taco Bell- “Think out side the bun”

  14. Michael

    i think non-denominational churches also fight against some of the same stereotypes that denominational churches fight against.

    it’s almost like non-denom has become a denomination in many people’s eyes.

  15. Re: Rainer’s book on “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched” — The problem is that he only talked to the people who stayed and connected. He didn’t talk to the vast majority of unchurched people who never darkened the doors of those churches or, if they did, didn’t come back.

    What percentage did Brian say don’t attend? 83%? Let’s talk to those folks instead.

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