From the Editor: Our branding research indicated that many preferred the term “spiritual community” to “church.” Many communities have been considering changing the name of their communities, letting go “church” and/or “Christianity.” The following are notes from a conversation with Howard Caesar from Unity Church of Christianity in Houston, Texas. The ideas offered here are to help ministry leaders who are considering changing their spiritual community’s name.
If a minister and board want to move away from the words “church” and “Christianity” in their community’s name, they need a plan. The leadership of the church needs to come together with the community to discuss and share information about what is emerging in the world in regard to the conscious and sub-conscious reactions to certain aspects of religion today.
Share with your community what our extensive branding research and information shows. It illustrates to us that the images and feelings invoked from the words “church” and “Christianity” often trigger past pain from negative religious experiences. If Coca-Cola was perceived as harmful, the company wouldn’t use it as a logo. Likewise the words “church” and “Christianity” can produce distaste in many who have had painful experiences in the past. There can be distrust for the institutional hierarchy of the religion we call Christianity. Many younger people have a negative reaction because of some of Christianity’s history. Respected people are quoted to say they have rejected Christianity, but still embrace Christ and his teachings. They’ve rejected the “church” of the teachings.
Do we want to create a barrier or a bridge for those who want to find our teachings? Do we want a barrier to our own growth? Often we hear, “I never knew there was a ‘church’ that thought like this.” Some people have to push past the words “church” and “Christianity” to find out what we are. What people want is not a church, but rather an experience. The word “church” often drums up negative experiences of what it has represented or depicted on TV in the past, which is what many don’t want more of.
Realize that large, successful, conservative Christian communities don’t have “Christian” or “church” in their names: Saddleback, Willow Creek, Lakewood, Fellowship of the Woodlands, The Fellowship of Excitement (previously “Second Baptist”), to name a few. These are just examples of how traditional Christian faith denominations have seen this trend as well and responded to it. The changes in their names have not changed who they are or what they believe and teach. Our fellow New Thought denomination, the church of Religious Science has changed its name to “Centers for Spiritual Living,” leaving out “Science,” “church,” and “Religious.”
If ministry leaders want to make a change in their spiritual community’s name, they need to anticipate and address concerns. In other words, leaders need to think through the questions that people will have so they will have a prepared answer. Provide information to help everyone to be aware of what is the growing, collective consciousness of what is developing in the West pertaining to these trigger-words. To address this change within the community, ministers could have an equivalent of a town hall meeting in which a forum is created for talking about the research and discussing why changes are being considered. During the meetings share that “who we are at the core” isn’t going to change. Allow time to hear the concerns and address them as they come up, or simply let them be aired. Emphasize that no decision is being made as a result of the meeting; rather, we are in the discussion stage, giving all the opportunity to share. This topic is being reviewed by churches around the country.
Possible steps for having this discussion with your congregation:
- Present why this is being considered. Hold off on discussions and questions until all the data has been shared. This is a potentially sensitive subject; explain that “we want everyone to have the data, surveys and research so everyone understands the context of this idea before opening to questions.” You might tell the group from the beginning that you won’t be voting. Rather, share that this is just a healthy opportunity to get a reading on how people feel about this possibility. Have someone present the data, research, the video of Chuck Pettis’ presentation at Unity People’s Convention in June 2010 (or excerpts from it), and the reasons a change is being considered. (A CD of Chuck’s presentation was mailed to ministries in June of 2010. Visit www.unity.org/branding for survey result information.)
- Reassure them that the bylaws, teachings, purpose and focus of the community will all stay the same. It’s just what’s on the sign or marquee that may change. Share that there is a sound rationale, backed by research that can’t be ignored. Also share that the meeting is just a healthy, functional discussion and an opportunity to be informed about the latest information regarding the conscious and subconscious reactions to certain aspects of religion today.
- Once as much information as possible has been shared, open up the forum and have people express their questions, input, comments and clarifications. Honor them, hear their ideas and thoughts. Get a measure of the degree of openness and willingness. Make sure that everyone is appreciated for wherever they stand and ensure all views are respected and appreciated. Hand-hold and be compassionate with those who are resisting.
- End by informing them that the minister will be sharing information with Unity Worldwide Ministries and that other spiritual communities are doing the same. There is a sound rationale that is backed by significant research that can’t be ignored. We will work with this information over time.