By Marissa Postell
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most Americans are open to a variety of denominations of Christian churches, including many people of other faiths or no faith at all.
Americans have a wide range of opinions and impressions about Christian denominations, but most won’t rule out a church based on its denomination, according to a new study from Lifeway Research. From a list of nine denominational terms— Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and non-denominational—more Americans rule out Pentecostal than any other denomination. Just over half of Americans (51%) say a church with Pentecostal in the name is not for them.
But for each of the other denominations in the study, most Americans say a specific religious label in the name of a church is not an automatic deterrent for them. Americans are most open to non-denominational and Baptist churches. One in 3 (33%) say a church described as non-denominational is not for them, while 43% say the same about a church with Baptist in the name. A 2014 phone survey from Lifeway Research also found Baptist and non-denominational churches among those Americans were most open to and Pentecostal the denominational group they were least open to.
“Church names vary greatly,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Names including St. Peter, Trinity, Crossroads and Presbyterian reflect biblical people, theology, modern imagery or references to the branch of Christianity the church is tied to. Most people have preexisting impressions of denominational groups when they see them in a church name or description.”
Americans have more favorable than unfavorable impressions of most denominations, whether they would personally attend a church of that denomination or not. More Americans have favorable impressions of Baptist churches (61%) than any other Christian denomination. But Baptist churches are not alone in giving generally favorable impressions. Most Americans think favorably of every denomination in this study except for Pentecostal (47%) and Assemblies of God (43%) churches. Still, more people have favorable than unfavorable impressions of Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches.
Understanding different denominations
For each denominational group studied, 11% to 32% of Americans say they are not familiar enough with that denomination to form an opinion. This response is often more common than unfavorable responses and may indicate many don’t understand denominational differences.
Fewer people have favorable impressions of Assemblies of God churches than any other denomination, but more Americans are unfamiliar with this denomination than any other. Whereas 1 in 10 (11%) Americans say they’re not familiar with Catholic churches, nearly 1 in 3 (32%) are not familiar with Assemblies of God churches, the smallest denomination directly asked about in the study.
“The reputation of denominational groups may be tied to what someone knows about that group’s doctrine, but it also can be the sum of people’s impressions of local churches in those groups,” McConnell said. “Personal experiences with local churches, word-of-mouth and whether they see them serving in their communities can lead people to have positive or negative impressions of those groups.”
Protestants tend toward Baptist and non-denominational churches
Most Protestants are open to attending a non-denominational church. Protestants are least likely to assume a church is not for them if the description non-denominational is used for the church (21%). And Protestants are most likely to have favorable impressions of Baptist (76%) and non-denominational (69%) churches.
Infrequent churchgoers are also generally open to non-denominational churches, as well as Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. Christians who attend a worship service less than once a month are least likely to say they assume a church is not for them when they see Presbyterian (36%), Lutheran (37%) or non-denominational (22%) in the name of a church.
Similarly, Christians who attend church infrequently are less familiar with the Protestant religious groups. Almost 4 in 10 Christians who attend less than once a month are not familiar with Assemblies of God (38%), more than a quarter are not sure about Lutheran and non-denominational churches (27%) and a quarter are unfamiliar with Pentecostal (25%), Presbyterian (25%) and Southern Baptist (25%). Christians who attend worship services less than once a month are least likely to say they have unfavorable impressions of Lutheran (15%) and non-denominational (10%) churches.
“Just because someone is a Christian doesn’t mean they’re familiar with the many types of Christian churches,” McConnell said. “If a person who identifies as a Christian is not interested enough to practice the faith by attending church, they likely aren’t interested enough to learn about historical or doctrinal differences between Christian groups.”
What’s in a name?
Denomination identifiers in the names of churches spark different responses among Americans. For non-Christians, three denomination names stand above the rest as deterrents for attending that church: Baptist, Lutheran and Southern Baptist. People of other religions are most likely to say they assume a church is not for them when the name Baptist (63%), Lutheran (65%) or Southern Baptist (66%) is in the name of a church.
The majority of Catholics indicate most of the Protestant groups are not for them. Only Baptist (49%) and non-denominational churches (44%) are ruled out by less than half of Catholics. Similarly, 58% of Protestants assume a Catholic church is not for them.
Those who are religiously unaffiliated are most likely to have unfavorable impressions of Catholic (47%), Pentecostal (41%) and Southern Baptist (40%) churches. Although the religiously unaffiliated think most favorably about Baptist (36%) and non-denominational (36%) churches, the majority don’t think favorably of any denomination.
“The one group of Americans that consistently has more people with unfavorable than favorable views of different religious groups are those who are religiously unaffiliated,” McConnell said. “More of them have negative impressions of every group except for non-denominational churches.”
But faith isn’t the only factor in people’s impressions of churches. In some cases, ethnic, educational and geographical factors play a role as well. People who live in the South are among those most open to Southern Baptist churches, as they are least likely to say they assume a church is not for them if the name Southern Baptist is in the name of the church (40%). Those in the South are also most likely to have favorable views of Baptist churches (70%).
Young people also often have strong impressions of denominations, most of them negative. Young people (age 18-34) are most likely to have unfavorable impressions of Catholic (39%), Methodist (33%), Presbyterian (33%) and Lutheran (35%) churches. They are also least likely to say they have favorable impressions of Southern Baptist churches (39%).
Hispanics are most likely to have unfavorable impressions of Methodist (38%), Southern Baptist (44%), Lutheran (37%) and Assemblies of God (35%) churches, while African Americans are most likely to have favorable views of Baptist churches (82%).
Marissa Postell is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The online survey of 1,005 Americans was conducted by Lifeway Research Sept. 3-14, 2021, using a national pre-recruited panel. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, education and religion to reflect the population more accurately. The completed sample is 1,005 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.3%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Lifeway Research recognizes there are differences between online and phone methodologies and therefore only references the earlier study in our reporting. While the exact impact is unknown, both 2021 and 2014 studies are reliable independently and provide valuable insight.
Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE Lifeway Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having Evangelical beliefs
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches. For more information, visit LifewayResearch.com.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, Vacation Bible School and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway operates as a self-supporting nonprofit. For more information, visit Lifeway.com.