Southern Baptist Churches Adopting New Names to Shed Historical Baggage

Friday, May 17, 2013
After 87 years, the University Baptist Church of Coral Gables, Fla., recently shed its name for something it felt was more forward looking: Christ Journey.

It was following the lede of First Baptist Church of Perrine, Fla., which dropped the name it had held for 89 years in favor of Christ Fellowship.

Coral Baptist Church of Coral Springs, Fla., relaunched itself in 2006 as Church By the Glades.

And First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale is now known as “First Fort Lauderdale” in its new website. The word “Baptist” is found in a faintly lettered tagline.

These South Florida churches are joining a growing number of Southern Baptist congregations around the country that are quietly moving away from their denomination’s historic namesake, worried that it conjured up images of pipe organs, narrow-mindedness or stuffy, formal services.

The reality, pastors say, is that many modern Baptist churches mix their liturgy with rock bands and gourmet coffee, and sermons are more likely to be about personal growth than fire and brimstone.

While their approach to saving souls has kept up with the times, some pastors feel the name has not.

“Baptist today has as many flavors as Baskin and Robbins ice cream. It has no defined meaning, and where it does, no positive meaning,” explained Bill White, Christ Journey’s lead pastor. Ninety-three percent of his congregation voted to change the name.

Their restlessness isn’t new. The 168-year-old Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s largest Protestant denomination with some 46,000 cooperating U.S. churches and over 4,800 field personnel worldwide — was asked to consider changing its name at least seven times between 1965 and 2004, said spokesman Roger Oldham.

Congregations have been concerned that their denomination’s strict biblical interpretations of creation, women’s roles and homosexuality have been politicized, even by their own members.

In 2012, just as the SBC selected the Rev. Fred J. Luter as its first African-American president, the body allowed churches to use an alternate name, Great Commission Baptists, in place of ‘Southern,’ which conjured painful racial memories and a regionalism that Oldham said member churches had outgrown.

Southern Baptists can be found in every state and U.S. territory, with most in the south and southwest. The Great Commission name was at once global and unifying, evoking Jesus’ instructions to his followers to go into the world and make disciples by baptizing and teaching them.

Around the same time, the Baptist convention’s research arm also undertook a study to look at how people reacted to the word ‘Baptist.’

In the study, 44 percent of the participants said the words Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to join or even visit. The negative perceptions came mainly from people with no church affiliation. For a denomination committed to the directive, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” that was not good news.

Robey Barnes, lead pastor of West Pines Community Church in Pembroke Pines, Fla., an SBC member, compared the situation to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s decision to drop its famous name in the 1990s in favor of “KFC,” partly because of consumers’ negative perceptions of fried foods.

But, Baptist denominations have always reinvented themselves to reach people, he said.

“There was a day when the organ was the electric guitar and drum set, and stained glass was as cutting edge as online video.”

If the traditional Baptist name no longer works, dropping it is consistent with moves other denominations have made throughout history, he said.

Some churches turn to consultants to help them rebrand.

Alex Rodrigues, creative director of Broward, Fla.-based Paradox Design Studio, helped several churches freshen their images, including Christ Journey and Church By the Glades.

“There are conservative and not-conservative Baptist churches,” Rodrigues said. “For example, some do and some don’t limit women’s roles. Taking the name out removes the confusion.”

The brand also has a generational problem that many churches face.

“We were dying,” said David Kling, who attends the former Immanuel Presbyterian in Pinecrest. “We needed to change drastically to attract more and younger people.”

King’s pastor, Felipe Assis, closed the church for a month and “replanted” it as Crossbridge, with a focus on diversity and community service.

“It’s a more inclusive name, a consumerist attempt to recast a super conservative image,” said Kling, chair of the University of Miami religious studies department.

Wendell Fisher, who used to minister to single adults at University Baptist, started Lighthouse Church in Miami Beach with Sunday services by the sea that appeal to the Beach community.

“In my parents’ generation, the denomination you belonged to was as strong as your choice of political party,” he said. But today, “we’re not as concerned about the brand of Christianity as the heart of what we’re about.”

In Coral Springs, Church By the Glades opens its doors to all comers with a “no perfect people allowed” policy borrowed from John Burke’s book of that name. The church advocates a “come as you are” culture, and not just come as you are in jeans and a T-shirt. Whether an alcoholic, a doubter or a homosexual, everyone is a struggler here.

“We would rather spend our time explaining Christ to people than explaining ‘Baptist,’? “ said social media director Summer Boone.

David Uribe of Christ Fellowship Miami offers a similar message on the website, an offshoot of the Center for Church Communication, which helps churches improve their marketing.

Uribe counsels churches to bring as many people through the door as possible by reducing confusing messages and “single-mindedly focusing on “the stated mission and vision of the church.”

But Barnes of West Pines cautions that being more accepting doesn’t change a denomination’s articles of faith.

“Ultimately, what we believe as a church is what the church has historically believed,” he said.

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