Are you more loyal to your brand of toothpaste or bathroom tissue than your church denomination? If so, you are a typical American Protestant.
According to a new Ellison Research study that’s generating a lot of discussion on the web, “16 percent of Protestants say they would consider only one denomination, while 22 percent of them would use only one brand of toothpaste and 19 percent would use just one brand of bathroom tissue.”
No word on the percent who wonder why anyone would spend money to conduct such a survey.
Internet debates on the survey seem evenly split on whether this is good news or bad news for Christianity — a triumph of ecumenism and Christian unity or a failure of evangelism and essential Christian doctrine. Certainly it’s good news for people who market toothpaste to Protestants.
On the no-big-deal side is Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, told United Methodist Reporter: “When you actually think about it for more than 10 seconds, none of this is all that surprising and I don’t think it’s actually bad. Those distinctions, which seemed so important as the various Protestant churches were identifying and evolving … are really not that important to the average churchgoer in the United States.”
On the very-big-deal side is Anthony Sacramone, who blogs as Strange Herring, says the survey confirms “the victory of indifference. We can’t all be right about baptism, about the Real Presence, about the extent of the atonement, about church polity. But that doesn’t mean these things are of no consequence. It means we have to continue to dig deeper into Scripture, into church history, into the creeds, and see where we may have erred — and where we must stand firm.”
In either case, the survey results are not surprising. There are (according to Wikipedia) only about two dozen brands of toothpaste while there are more than 20,000 Christian denominations. Fewer choices, more brand loyalty. Besides, most Christian historians and theologians have been writing for years about post-denominationalism.
As Dr. Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest, told blogger Dem Bones: “Fewer religious Americans think of their primary religious identity in terms of a denominational identity. Loyalty to local congregations as the primary source of religious identity seems to be increasingly normative. Many folks can switch denominations as readily as toothpaste, I suspect.”
To me, whether this survey represents good news or bad news is less interesting and relevant than two other questions:
First, do denominations matter? Is the choice between a Methodist and Baptist church, or a Presbyterian and Episcopal church really any different than the choice between Crest and Colgate?
Second, are the various Christian denominations (and their member churches) merely branded products to be marketed like toothpaste?
Denominational leaders seem to think so. In recent years, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on national advertising campaigns such as “We are Southern Baptists,” “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church,” “Come and Grow With Us: The Episcopal Church,” and “Joining Hearts & Hands: The Presbyterian Church (USA).”
According to the ads, there really isn’t that much difference between various brands of Christians. That’s got to be good news.