A UMNS Report – by Joey Butler*
United Methodists rank highest in favorability among five different faith groups in a new survey conducted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s research arm.
“(United) Methodists are well liked — and there is great opportunity if (United) Methodist churches will seize the opportunity that this positive perception provides,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “If they will show and share the gospel with their neighbors and plant evangelistic churches – they can turn a good reputation into a gospel opportunity.”
The study was conducted in September after the president of the Southern Baptist Convention appointed a task force to consider a possible name change for the 166-year-old institution.
A group of 2,144 online respondents was shown the names of five denominations or faith groups and asked to “indicate if your impression is very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable, or you are not familiar enough to form an opinion.” Sixty-two percent claimed a very or somewhat favorable view of United Methodists compared with 59 percent for Catholics, 53 percent for Southern Baptists, 37 percent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormon) and 28 percent for Muslims.
Because the LifeWay survey focused on gauging the need for a name change, respondents were also asked whether seeing any of the five faith groups’ names on the church sign would be an indication to them that this was “not the church for me.” United Methodists also had the lowest percentage of unfavorable impressions: only 23%, compared to 38% for Roman Catholics, 40% for Southern Baptists, 52% for Mormons, and 63% for Muslims.
Americans in the South were the most likely to have a very favorable opinion. Americans with a college degree were also more likely to have a very favorable opinion than those without a degree. Those in the West and Northeast were most likely to be not familiar with United Methodists. Americans who never attend a worship service are the least likely to have a very favorable opinion or a somewhat favorable opinion and the most likely to have a very unfavorable opinion.
The United Methodist Church was included in the survey to represent the mainline Protestants among the sample, according to LifeWay Research.
“Since the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination, four other denominations or faith groups were selected for comparison. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Muslims were chosen as examples of large groups not typically categorized in one of those first three categories,” said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research.
Despite those findings, the research also found that “two-thirds of Americans are without strong feelings in regards to all the Christian faith groups included in the survey, with a third or less either very favorable or very unfavorable to them.”
Gallup research results
The Lifeway research reinforces the findings of a 2008 Gallup poll that showed United Methodists have the highest positive ratings of religious and spiritual groups in the United States.
The United Methodist Church has had a decade-long effort to raise awareness of the church through its Igniting Ministry and Rethink Church initiatives. The church began the “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” advertising campaign in 2001 to increase awareness and recognition of the denomination’s basic beliefs and to promote willingness to visit a United Methodist congregation.
Research on the effectiveness of the advertising reflected a steady increase every year from 2001 to 2007. Acknowledging the need for the church to reach a younger demographic, the campaign evolved in 2009 with the launch of Rethink Church, an effort aimed at globally minded 18- to 34-year-olds to highlight the opportunities available within United Methodist churches to make a difference in the world — from literacy programs to feeding the poor.
Making a difference
Global service events also serve as physical entry points for seekers. United Methodist churches around the globe joined for Change the World, a two-day service event in May 2010 and 2011. More than 100,000 people from 1,000 churches in 13 countries hosted events in which volunteers distributed food, planted gardens, tutored youth, raised funds for worthy causes and more. In 2011, church participation increased, dispatching 250,000 volunteers and serving more than 3 million people.
These events were organized by the denomination’s Rethink Church ministry and coordinated with public media messaging.
“We have to be present in the media-saturated environment in which we live in order to reach younger audiences,” Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive officer of United Methodist Communications, said. “It's a part of their environment, and it influences how they see themselves and others, including the church. If we're not there, it's as if we don't exist. They won't know about us unless we make to the effort to reach them where they live.
“It's also a reminder that communication is about listening,” Hollon remarked. “We must understand how we’re perceived and why. And we must give careful attention to how we communicate with people. This involves listening, doing careful research and making a concerted effort to speak in language that’s relevant to them.”
*Joey Butler is editor of young adult content for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist News Service is a unit of United Methodist Communications.