Dec 9, 2011

Church Name™

I once knew of a small, conservative Anglican church called St. John the Baptist.

That's not quite accurate.

It was named St. John the Baptist.

The congregants, however, just called it "St. John's."

This frustrated the priest, who thought the name was special. He really wanted that full name. He tried -- unsuccessfully, if I recall correctly -- to get the parishioners to say "St. John the Baptist." Exasperated, the priest once complained, "they just want to be like everyone else."

Church names, for the most part, are not particularly distinct. There's a grammar to church names. There are very standardized conventions. While there are a range of styles, and different types of churches have different naming conventions (so one almost never sees a First Pentecostal Church, nor a Lakeside Catholic Church, nor a Presbyterian House of Prayer), there's really not a lot of variety with church names. It'd be hard, I think, in most towns in America, to find a church with really strange, really unusual, make-you-look-twice name.

And people are fine with this.

If they weren't, there would sure be a lot fewer Second Presbyterian Churches, not to mention First Presbyterian Churches.

There'd be a lot fewer Family Bible Churches.

Not so many St. John's.

To me, this is what makes the discussion about trademarking church names and logos so weird.

Christianity Today has five experts defending the idea of church name trademarks in the Dec. issue. All of them argue the trademark is a way to protect the name and logo of the church.

The first question is, protect it from what?

From misuse, apparently. If you don't have a trademark protecting your church name, "others will use it and devalue what the church has put into it," "misrepresent it accidentally or misuse it intentionally," "misusing its good name and reputation."

This expert advice makes it seem like such name misuse is going on all the time. Like it's a real problem. That seems pretty far fetched, though. I'd like to see some examples of this in practice. One, because I just don't believe it. Two, it seems so absurd, I'd like a little information on what "misuse" might actually mean. Are people accidentally going to church only to realize, half way through or something, that it's the wrong Hope Chapel?

The context for Christianity Today's interest isn't actually a horrible abuse of a name, either. What happened was one Mars Hill Church had their lawyers send a cease-and-desist letter to another Mars Hill Church, demanding, among other things, that they change their name or else. The one church has since backed down from that rather aggressive move. The official comment was, "oh yeah, maybe that wasn't a good idea." The other church has agreed to do a logo re-design, and all is well and good with the Mars Hills (as it is, also, one would assume, with the other megachurch of that name, and all the churches with that same name in 19 other states).

The first Mars Hill's reaction in this situation did more to color it's reputation than any similar-looking logo could have done.

The second question is, protect the name for who?

It really doesn't seem like people particularly want unique church names. Except in just a few cases, such as the Church of God, people don't even seem particularly confused or concerned about confusion.

If the trademark isn't protecting the name for the people, though, then what?

Well: for the money-making potential of the "brand," apparently.

As the experts in Christianity Today say, "Churches are businesses too ... they have a responsibility to operate and serve in responsible business ways;" "Trademarks protect a name or a logo or a slogan from being copied by other people for use with similar goods or services;" it "is good stewardship of a church's assets. It allows the church to secure their marketing and secure the usage of that trademark."

It requires a particular conception of a church to think trademarking a church name is a good idea. Much less important. In the end, it may well turn out the "™" at the end of Church Name™ is the most telling part of a church's name.