The Rev. Mike Lotzer became pastor of a Burnsville church in 2017, and he quickly discovered that its Facebook page was wildly — and strangely — popular.
"There was a steady stream of people [posting] who wanted to connect to the Illuminati," said Lotzer, referring to an ancient secret society that remains a hot topic among conspiracy theorists.
"They would say, 'I've been trying for years to get into the Illuminati,' " Lotzer said. "At one point we had to turn off our global settings because it was such a nuisance. But then we were having trouble connecting with our global missionary partners."
It turned out that these secret-society fanatics, posting from across the nation and beyond, were confused by the church's name — Illumination Church.
The sometimes amusing Facebook threads turned into an annoyance, and last year the church changed its name. It's now the simple but clear Mercy Road Church.
The episode reveals the downside of the national trend for churches to creatively rebrand. The wrong name can prevent the faithful from even checking out the church, especially if it doesn't even sound Christian, the pastor said.
"It shows how very important it is to have the right name," Lotzer said. "We live in a sound-bite age. You have to do the best you can with the shortest information to represent who you are. That's challenging."
Mercy Road is the third name carried by the Burnsville church in 11 years. The church, launched in 2009 under the name LifePrint Church, decided to abandon that name after its pastor was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and membership and morale plummeted.
Under its next pastor, the church chose to rebrand as Illumination Church, a reference to openness and light shining upon it, as opposed to hiding secrets, Lotzer said.
When Lotzer became pastor, he wasn't particularly troubled by the Illumination name, noting, "It sounded a little New Age, but I was fine with it."
But when he saw what was happening on Facebook, he began worrying about confusion on the opposite end — that Christians would think it was some kind of cult church or New Age spiritualism.
By contrast, the church website shows it is a contemporary, family-focused Christian church and "a community of people committed to following and loving Jesus Christ."
And so, the church decided to try again. There were membership meetings, surveys and more than 100 name suggestions. Mercy Road wound up as the winner, combining the tried-and-true Christian concept of mercy with the idea that members are all on faith journeys.
Next came the legal and communication changes, with its website, financial accounts, church signs and more.
"At first you couldn't ask Siri to take you to Mercy Road Church," Lotzer said. "There was a two-month delay with Google maps."
But it was the right decision, he believes. Church membership is growing. Christians are checking out the place. Posts on the Facebook page actually relate to church activities.
"I think the name change played a part in it," he said.
Does he miss the strange Facebook surprises?
"It was humorous," he said. "But I'm not a fan of confusion."