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What's in a name? Plenty, if you ask leaders and members at Edina's Meetinghouse Church, which was known for more than seven decades as Colonial Church.

After a divisive, two-year process that included weekly meetings with a local branding studio, the church ditched a name linked to colonialism and adopted one it hopes will be more welcoming.

"Under a new name, we now have permission to do some different things — to refocus, re-identify, reconnect, redirect in ways that somehow we just weren't able to do under the 'That's not the way we do it at Colonial Church' kind of idea," said senior minister Jeff Lindsay.

The change comes as many congregations in Minnesota and across the country reconsider their names and examine their brands in an effort to reflect current sensibilities on history and racial justice. They're also reacting to dwindling numbers in the pews, especially among young people. In 2020, fewer than half (47%) of all Americans told Gallup they belong to a house of worship.

For decades, Minnesota churches have been dropping denominations from their names. One of the more recent to rebrand was Roseville's Bethany Baptist, which became Community of Nations Church in 2020.

"We're in an interesting time with regard to name, I think, and identity," said Rev. Emily Meyer, executive director of the Ministry Lab at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul.

Meyer first noticed churches removing denominations from their name in the 1990s. Now any mention of denomination is regularly absent from official names and online church descriptions.

"I think that's happening for a number of different reasons, primarily because identifying too closely with various denominations gives a very clear indication of what you are supposed to exclude," Meyer said. "Certain congregations are wanting to distance themselves from the exclusionary identity of their larger denomination."

The practice is widespread, but seems to be happening faster in certain denominations.

Many Baptist church names nationwide no longer include the denomination — though they maintain the doctrine — to distance themselves from Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church, known for using hate speech against LGBTQ people and other groups. In 2015, the entire Baptist General Conference rebranded itself as Converge.

Appealing to millennials

Newer churches are carefully crafting names — such as Substance, the Salt Co. and Creative — to appeal to those skeptical of organized religion.

"I think it really opens the door towards people who are looking for a church that is untraditional," said Andrew Isahaq, a member of the leadership team at Creative Church in Fridley and Maple Grove.

Edina’s Meetinghouse Church was known for more than seven decades as Colonial Church.
Edina’s Meetinghouse Church was known for more than seven decades as Colonial Church.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Church names have changed over the generations.

A century ago, leaders tended to include a nod to the order in which churches were founded in a town, such as First Lutheran or Third Presbyterian. A mention of heritage was also popular. The Community of Nations Church was founded in 1905 as Bethany Swedish Baptist Church; it dropped "Swedish" in 1930.

Church leaders began dropping legacy names in the 1970s, as those descriptions mattered less to congregants. When baby boomers led the charge, virtue-centered names like Grace and Hope proliferated.

Today, many churches are trying to appeal to young families with a name that stands out and invokes "delight and mystery and curiosity" said Malley Design partner and creative director Bryan Malley, who worked with Meetinghouse.

"You have to look at the kinds of things that those audiences are engaging with in their regular life outside of church and try to identify what rings true," said Malley, who said brewery names are a good example.

"Why is Indeed Brewing a good name? Because it has a sense of mystery to it, because it has a sense of appeal that makes you wonder," he said.

He said a name like Meetinghouse does double duty, acknowledging the congregational history while keeping an "air of mystery."

The road to change

But changing the name of a church isn't necessarily easy.

The name Colonial Church once proudly linked the Edina church to Pilgrim settlers, who brought the congregational religious tradition to America in the 17th century. But for some members of the church, "colonial" became evocative of slavery, the forced relocation of Indigenous people and white oppression.

"After George Floyd was killed, that day, I got messages from about 20 members, saying 'Sara, I can't go to a church called 'colonial' anymore,'" said Sara Wilhelm Garbers, the church's senior associate minister.

Still, changing the name was emotionally charged and divisive. In the end, about 200 members left the church over the change, said Lindsay.

Conversations about changing the name of Minneapolis' Mayflower Churchhaven't formally begun, said Rev. Sarah Campbell, the church's team lead minister. But the Mayflower Early Childhood Center, a separate nonprofit organization supported by the church, is in the process of choosing a new name.

"For us, it [the word Mayflower] raises all those questions of like, 'Well, what did happen once people came here? What did that mean for the Native Americans who were indigenous to this land?' " said the president of the school's board, Dawn Baker.

As difficult as the process can be, a new name offers new opportunity, Meetinghouse's Wilhelm Garbers said.

"It's one of those moments you don't often get in the life of any organization, which is to really rethink about who you are, and who you want to be experienced as in the world," she said. "And so in that way, even as it's been really hard, it feels like it's a deep honor to have been in this journey."

"We will have members who until their deaths will call this church Colonial. We're not interested in fights with folks," she said. "We're just interested in building a beautiful future with one another and hopefully leaning into what might be next for our community."