Survey finds Protestant loyalty low

PHOENIX (BP)--Seven out of 10 regular churchgoers would be at least somewhat open to switching denominations, with dramatic differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, according to a study released by Ellison Research of Phoenix.

As part of the survey, released Jan. 12, Ellison polled a representative sample of 1,007 American adults. The sample included 471 respondents who regularly attend worship services at a church broadly considered to be within the Christian tradition: Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox. The survey also included Mormon respondents.

Respondents who attend worship services once a month or more were first asked the specific denomination of the church they attend most often (for example, not just "Baptist," but "Southern Baptist," "Free Will Baptist," etc.). Then they were asked what role that denomination would play if they could no longer attend their current church (if the church closed or if they moved to another area, for instance).

Three out of 10 churchgoers say they would only consider attending one denomination -- they would be open to nothing else. Another 44 percent report having one preferred denomination, but they would also consider others.

Eleven percent have a small number of denominations they would consider, with no particular favorite among them. Six percent don't have any particular denomination they prefer, but they do have certain ones they would not consider. Finally, 9 percent say denomination does not factor into their decision of what church to attend.

Denominational loyalty differs strongly between Protestants and Catholics. Six out of 10 active Catholics would only consider attending a Roman Catholic church, and another 29 percent prefer this, although they do not rule out other denominations. Eleven percent of Catholics do not show a specific preference for attending a Catholic parish.

In comparison, just 16 percent of Protestant churchgoers will only consider attending their current denomination. Fifty-one percent do express preference for one denomination, but would also consider others. Thirty-three percent do not have any preference for one specific denomination. There is little difference between the loyalties of people who attend evangelical Protestant churches and those who attend a mainline Protestant denomination.

Groups other than Catholic or Protestant, as well as individual Protestant denominations, represent a proportion of all churchgoers that is too small to analyze separately in the study findings (although their responses are included in the overall findings for all churchgoers).

There are relatively few demographic differences within the findings. Denominational loyalty does not vary significantly by gender, household income, age or type of community (small town, suburban or urban). It does vary by ethnicity and by region of the country.

Ethnic differences are driven more by the Catholic/Protestant divide than by the actual demographics. Hispanic churchgoers -- a majority of whom attend a Catholic church -- are the most intensely loyal to their denomination, while African Americans -- relatively few of whom attend a Catholic church -- are the least loyal.

Similarly, loyalty is highest in the Northeast, where Catholicism is more common than in any other part of the country, and lowest in the South, where Catholicism has less of a presence.

People who worship at a nondenominational congregation were asked the same question about their loyalty to attending a nondenominational church. People who attend a nondenominational church actually are more loyal to remaining nondenominational than churchgoers in Protestant denominations are to staying within their own denomination.

Among nondenominational churchgoers, 29 percent will only consider a nondenominational church, while 32 percent prefer a nondenominational congregation but would also consider others. Sixteen percent have a small selection of denominations they would consider (including nondenominational) with no specific preference, 15 percent don't have a specific preference but do have some denominations they would avoid, and 9 percent don't pay attention to denomination when selecting a church.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, said there may be much more to the story of the Protestant/Catholic loyalty divide than loyal Catholics and non-loyal Protestants.

"It's not as though there are 200 different Roman Catholic denominations," Sellers said. "On the Protestant side, there are scores of different denominations, with some of them fairly similar in practice and theology. The story of this research is that many Protestants may not see a lot of difference among some of these denominations. It may not be lack of loyalty so much as it is the presence of so many options that is causing Protestants to be about as loyal to a brand of toothpaste or bathroom tissue as they are to their church denomination. ...

"Protestant denominations are simply facing what most companies face as they try to develop brand loyalty -- consumers with many different options who may not perceive strong differences among those options," Sellers said. "Church denominations certainly are not the same as hotels or soft drinks, but some of the same rules apply -- the brands that develop stronger loyalty tend to do a better job of differentiating themselves from other brands and demonstrating key elements of the brand very clearly.

"With one-third of all Protestant churchgoers not even being able to identify a preferred denomination, denominational leaders face many of the same challenges as do the leaders of brands such as Coke, Chevrolet or Home Depot."


Based on information provided by Ellison Research.

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