Shrinking Flock Examines Its Identity

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Rev. Todd Thomason looked out at the nearly empty pews of his congregation at Baptist Temple Church last Sunday. He had preached long and hard about Abraham leaving all that he knew and setting out into an unknown future on nothing more than faith in God. He was hoping that, after the service, what was left of his flock would have the courage to do the same.

After 100 years, Baptist Temple, he feared, was dying. In its heyday in the 1950s, more than 900 members crammed into the sanctuary of the pretty white church in Alexandria that was built for 500. Now he was lucky to get 30. Perhaps the problem, he began to think, was the name itself.

"We're probably the most progressive church in the city, but 'Baptist Temple' sounds weird, like it's charismatic and conservative," Thomason said. He worried that the word "Baptist" had become indelibly tied to the political religious right and that when combined with "Temple" it sounded like a fundamentalist "bring out the snakes" kind of place.

So after the service, Thomason would ask the remaining members of the church to save themselves, so to speak, and vote to change their name.

Like those at many Baptist and other Christian churches across the country where attendance has steadily dropped, many Baptist Temple members feel they are at a point where they must either rebrand themselves with a new name, restart as an entirely new church or limp along a few more years before quietly closing their doors.

Recent national surveys show that in an attempt to fill pews, a small but steadily growing number of Christian churches are changing their names and even their religious denominations. Wycoff Baptist in New Jersey became Cornerstone Christian Church. First Baptist in Concord, N.H., is now Centerpoint Church. The Reformed Church in America outside Detroit became Crosswinds Community Church.

Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country, whose 16 million membership has declined in recent years, has hosted church-naming seminars asking the question, "To Baptist or Not to Baptist?"

The convention meets this week to consider a 10-year program designed to stem the membership loss.

"The word Baptist is such a turnoff," said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, who has documented the name-changing trend. "There is a kind of national skepticism about evangelical Christianity because of the religious right and the connection to the Bush administration. You say 'Baptist' and people almost automatically think conservative."

Others say it's more about marketing. "We're entering into a nondenominational era," said Roger Oldham, vice president of convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention. "One hundred years ago, when people moved to a new area, they were looking for the name brand they were accustomed to. Now, people are looking for genuineness and transparency. Not a particular label."

Just up the street from Baptist Temple, Fair-Park Baptist Church, barely hanging on with 30 members, closed its doors a few years ago and reopened as Convergence, with a new mission to cater to area artists, with weekly seminars on "The Artist's Way" and Sunday services at 5 p.m. in deference to musicians playing until the wee hours the night before. Membership dropped to 15 after the change, pastor Lisa Hawkins said, but has inched up to 35.

The Rev. Stephen Welch, executive director of Northstar Church Network, an association of Baptist churches in Northern Virginia, said few new churches have "Baptist" in their names. "I don't think it's a matter of being ashamed, but wanting to position the church where there's less confusion about who you are and who is welcome."

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