Churches, Just Without the Label

The Rev. Chip Bernhard leads Spring Creek Church in Pewaukee, Wis. It's a Baptist church, but
The Rev. Chip Bernhard leads Spring Creek Church in Pewaukee, Wis. It's a Baptist church, but "we no longer wanted to be a church where only Baptists could come," Bernhard says. (By Sonja Y. Foster -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Saturday, August 6, 2005


Keeping the beat amid staccato flourishes, the praise-band drummer in Spring Creek Church's sanctuary was a metaphor in motion last Sunday as hundreds of worshipers followed lyrics on large, wall-mounted video screens.

Miles from its geographic roots, the Pewaukee, Wis., church has evolved far beyond pump-organ hymns and strait-laced formalities. But its Bible-based beliefs have remained as steady as a metronome since it was founded in 1881 as Garfield Avenue Baptist Church in Milwaukee.

The church's name has changed along the way -- part of a continuing national trend in which denominational identities are eliminated or played down to create broader appeal in an era in which people church shop.

"Baptist" is gone, but Spring Creek still has "church" in its name.

The latest trend among churches trying to draw people who want something different or who have never attended church is to adopt a catchy, nonchurch name. As of May 1, for example, First Assembly of God in the San Francisco Bay area became simply Harbor Light.

Emerging churches -- more intimate faith communities reaching out beyond baby boomers to those of Generations X and Y -- are using names such as Three Nails in Pittsburgh and the Landing Place in Columbus, Ohio, said Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

"I think what we are seeing is the detribalizing of Protestantism, in that if you have a large external constituency, which would identify culturally or historically with a particular denomination, then obviously it's a plus factor to have that identification," Gibbs said. "But [that changes] when the community becomes increasingly diversified.

"Probably after Vietnam and Watergate, there was an increasing distrust of institutions, so that Jesus was still in, but the institutional church was no longer an attraction. So, I think that the dropping of the denominational label is to become more generic, less of a threat, less of a reminder of negative stereotypes if you've walked away from church."

The trend accelerated when large numbers of baby boomers who had left churches began returning in the 1980s, but the process continues today, said Gibbs, who is co-author of a book on emerging churches to be published later this year.

Spring Creek Church first dropped "Avenue" from its name when it moved to a new location in 1964, becoming Garfield Baptist Church. When inadequate parking and cramped quarters prompted another move in 1997, "Baptist" and "Garfield" were dropped.

"The primary reason for the name change was, we relocated to a new place, and Garfield does not relate in any way, shape or form to this community," said Senior Pastor Chip Bernhard, who has a master of divinity degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Michigan.

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