In post-denominational age, what’s in a name?

Joe Carter, our newest GetReligionista, referenced Southern Baptist name-change discussions in a post earlier this week. It’s a topic that GetReligion has tackled a time or two before — or more.

I bring up the subject again because I came across a fascinating Miami Herald news-feature this week with this headline:

For some Baptists, the name of the church is hindrance to saving souls

The top of the story:

After 87 years, the University Baptist Church of Coral Gables recently shed its name for something it felt was more forward looking — Christ Journey.

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

Coral Baptist Church of Coral Springs 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.

This is one of those “growing number” trend stories that never actually provides any concrete statistics to back up the nut graf up high. Alas, I’ve written similarly vague summaries myself, so I won’t be too critical of that lapse. I do wonder, however, if the Southern Baptist Convention actually tracks the number of member churches that don’t use “Baptist” and how those figures have changed in recent years.

It’s not as if this trend is breaking news: I did an Associated Press feature in 2004 contrasting the approaches of Ed Young’s Second Baptist Church in Houston and Ed Young Jr.’s Fellowship Church, a non-Baptist “Baptist” megachurch in Grapevine, Texas. Christianity Today, meanwhile, notes that Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Another concern for me: the editorially charged (as in, opinionated) descriptions of Baptist churches as “narrow-minded” and “stuffy” with no specific sources making those claims — and no one who might disagree given an opportunity to dispute the characterization. The same holds true in a later paragraph:

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.

“Strict” is an editorial term, not a neutral word befitting an unbiased news story, right?

My biggest beef with this story, however, relates to the lack of context concerning the Baptist trend.

Reading this piece, it’s as if the Baptists are the only religious group grappling with the denominational name issue. Yet I live down the street from one of the largest United Methodist churches in Oklahoma. It’s called “Church of the Servant.” A number of congregations in Churches of Christ — my tribe — have dropped the “of Christ” or put up signs emphasizing “Family of God” and downplaying the association with Churches of Christ. In a 2004 AP profile of best-selling Christian author Max Lucado, I noted that his San Antonio church had changed its name in an effort to attract people hesitant to attend a Church of Christ.

The Herald story isn’t terrible. In fact, I enjoyed reading it.

But a little less editorialization (including recognition of the “two-edged sword” involved) and a little more big-picture perspective would have improved it greatly.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevinbasilpersonal Kevin Basil Fritts

    If “strict” is editorial and “fundamentalist” is prohibited by the APS, what non-editorializing but accurate and descriptive word would you recommend to describe the interpretations of scripture which these words (somewhat accurately) allude? “Literal”?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      The goal is to use neutral words to convey facts.

      In that specific sentence, at the least, I’d edit it to say something like this: “Congregations have been concerned that their denomination’s BELIEFS CONCERNING creation, women’s roles and homosexuality have been politicized, even by their own members.”

      That edited version just conveys the facts. It makes no value statement concerning whether those beliefs are strict, loose, conservative, liberal, etc.

      Even better, the story would provide specific information as concisely as possible elaborating what Baptists generally belief on the issues cited.

      Does that help?

      • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

        Of course, the “congregations have been concerned” still needs some attribution to identify the source of the claim.

  • Derek Johnson

    “Growing Number” is phrase I see a lot in liberal journalism. My church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, has a pro-women pastors group that describe themselves as a “growing number” of individuals who think the ordination of women should be discussed. Not a great increase in likes on their Fbook page after the first couple of months, save for a bunch of ELCA mockers.

  • Dave Burwasser

    First Baptist Church of Oberlin (OH) long ago changed its name to Peace Community Church specifically to be decoupled from the social positions of the Southern Baptists Conference. This was at least two decades back, as that’s how long I’ve been in Oberlin.
    BTW I am the “Dave” of times past. Disqus only lets me have one screen name.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Well, hello there, Dave of times past!

  • JoFro

    Is Joe Carter a woman? If he isn’t, wouldn’t he be your newest Get Religionisto, rather than your newest Get Religionista, which is for your female contributors? Or you can stick with Religionista, but then you’ll have to add la and el …meh, I’m probably just being pedantic. Good work, guys! :)

  • http://twitter.com/AaronVriesman Aaron Vriesman

    name changing to hide denominational affiliation is happening in the Christian Reformed Church as well
    Cottonwood Christian Reformed Church is now Cottonwood Church
    Other denominations also:
    Allendale Wesleyan is now “Life Stream”


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