The sign that says Trinity Baptist Church in Maplewood was taken down last month and replaced with “LifePoint.”
Maple Grove Evangelical Free Church just converted to “The Grove,” advertising “Same Church, New Name.” First Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake is now “Community of Grace.”
If Easter is the season of rebirth, it’s a fertile period for Minnesota churches.
Rebranding, long a strategy in the world of business, is taking off in congregations hoping to attract new members, update their images, and shed any negative perceptions of their denominations.
Some critics scoff at the trendy names, arguing they sound more like country clubs or condo developments than houses of worship, but the makeovers are on the rise. Religious leaders hoping to attract young adults and families recognize that many don’t have a clue about the difference between a Lutheran and a Baptist — but they do want community and a spiritual home.
“Denominations mean different things to different generations,” said LifePoint pastor Peter Vogt, explaining why his church dropped “Baptist” from the church’s name. “For an older person, it’s more comforting. To a younger person, it’s more suspicious.”
Vogt pointed to a recent survey by Grey Matter Research, an Arizona marketing firm, that found churches with denominational names were almost three times more likely to be viewed as old fashioned and rigid. Creating a fresh name, he said, is part of removing perceived barriers.
Evangelical churches have been at the forefront of the trend, with two-thirds of those surveyed by the National Association of Evangelicals saying their names no longer include their denominations.
The Baptists are a case in point. About 160 of the 253 Baptist churches in Minnesota and Iowa don’t have the “Baptist” on their doors, said the Rev. Dan Carlson, executive minister at Converge North Central — previously called the Baptist General Conference.
Likewise, about 60 percent of the 251 Assemblies of God churches in Minnesota don’t mention the assembly, said Clarence St. John, district superintendent. For example, Bethel Assembly of God in Richfield became “Bethel’s Rock.” Mount Olivet Assembly of God in Apple Valley is now “The Mount.”
The rebranding is so frequent that mailing list keepers struggle.
“It’s a challenge to keep up with 2,000 churches when they are frequently changing their names,” said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota — the rebranded name of the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals.
Memorable names, ones that reflect a church’s mission, are important, said Nelson. He added: “We need to refresh our vision … Sometimes a new name does that.”
Minnesota Lutherans are less likely to rebrand current churches, but more likely to add zip to the new ones, such as Tapestry in Richfield or Shobi’s Table in St. Paul, said the Rev. Deborah Stehlin, a director at the Minneapolis synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Catholics, so far, have resisted the renaming urge, remaining loyal to their saints, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity and significant faith events such as the Nativity and the Ascension. Most mainline African-American churches also have not joined in.
The shift to more trendy names started in the 1980s, with the rise of suburban megachurches such as Eagle Brook, River Valley and Woodland Hills. Over time, other older churches switched to more colorful names.
The names often referred to a geographic feature, or something suggesting this was a not-so-ordinary church — such as “Relevant.” Early on, some leaders would even ask local developers what other names they had considered, “since they already did the market research,” said Joel Nelson, director of church expansion at Converge North Central.
“You want a name you can turn into a verb or noun,” said Nelson. “Meadowbrook, Meadowbrooker. And you want a web domain available for it.” Then comes the new logo, letterhead and signs.
Some churches just want names reflecting who they are. The Rev. Steve Turnbull of Community of Grace Lutheran Church said being the “First Lutheran” church in town didn’t matter anymore.
“The culture we are trying to reach with the Gospel has changed dramatically,” Turnbull wrote to his congregation before it changed its name.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said rebranding is important for outreach.
“That doesn’t mean they are abandoning their distinctive denominations,” Anderson said. “The International House of Pancakes doesn’t use that title anymore, but they sure do specialize in pancakes.
“The point is, it chose a name that goes beyond serving pancakes. That’s what churches are doing.”
But changing a name can be a sensitive task, and churches proceed with care. At Trinity Baptist in Maplewood, it began with a 2015 decision to forge closer connections to neighbors. There were congregation focus groups and many discussions, and a door-to-door neighborhood survey that indicated a full 57 percent wouldn’t consider attending a Baptist church.
“One woman said, ‘I’m not a Baptist. I go to Eagle Brook,’ ” recalled Vogt, noting that Eagle Brook indeed is part of the Baptist family. “That cinched it for me.”
Church members voted to become LifePoint last November, and made it official in March.
“We wanted to have the name change done by Easter,” said Vogt, “so we could advertise ‘Easter at LifePoint.’ ”
Earlier this month, the social hall was bustling with congregation members and friends celebrating the launch. Toni Mennell was among those drinking coffee, visiting friends and checking out historic photos of the 143-year-old congregation.
At one point, the oldest member, 93-year-old Mae McDonnell, pressed a key on a laptop that fired up the new church website. The past and the future melded at a poignant moment.
“There are many people with mixed feelings,” said Mennell. “There wasn’t a lot of dancing in the streets. It felt like, ‘If this is needed, let’s give it a try.’ ”
Bonds to the past pose one of the wrenching challenges pastors face in changing a church name. Some members’ grandparents may have laid the cornerstone for the church, or helped build the congregation. Erasing that history in the church name is a personal loss for them.
The entire denominational history can get lost over time, as even church websites stop acknowledging their affiliation.
Religious leaders stress that abandoning a long-held name needs to be part of a larger growth strategy.
“I don’t care so much about the name as much as, ‘Are you doing something?’ ” said St. John. “If the church closed, would anyone know it?”
And so this Easter Sunday, at least three Twin Cities churches will be celebrating their own christenings. LifePoint has leafleted the neighborhood, inviting folks to attend. A few new visitors already have come by, said Vogt, saying, “We saw the sign, got the mailing.”
Grace Community Church is looking forward to its new public image. Said Turnbull: “We want to communicate to people on the outside, what we are on the inside.”