Shrinking Flock Examines Its Identity
Churches Renamed to Escape Stigma Some Say 'Baptist' Carries

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."

At least that's the argument Thomason made Sunday in the church hall, just before the vote.

Thomason held up the century-old silver cup he used to celebrate Communion that day. "You know what it says?" he asked the crowd that was finishing a pizza lunch. "It says Second Baptist." The church changed its name in 1924, he reminded them, to avoid confusion with an African American church of the same name. The world had changed, he argued. It was time to change the name with it.

Baptist Temple is the kind of place where Thomason likes to say all are welcome. There are openly gay members and activists and Hill staffers from both political parties. There are former Catholics and converted Jews. There are whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics. In the 1990s, it was one of the first Baptist churches to break with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention when the convention decreed that women should submit to their husbands and forbade them to serve on the altar. Then Baptist Temple called a woman to serve as its head pastor.

Since October, Thomason has been meeting with small groups as they wrestle with their identity and their name. Members have argued over names such as "Fellowship of Peace" and "Rosemont Community Church." And in one particularly painful PowerPoint session, members hashed out the pros and cons of keeping the word "Baptist." "It's who we are," argued one. "There's too much baggage," argued another.

Sue Anderson thinks the name Baptist Temple is "kind of bizarre." But primarily because of the "Temple" part, which was chosen because of the church's onetime proximity to the towering George Washington Masonic Memorial. She worries it conjures images of tambourines and people speaking in tongues. But the word "Baptist?" That's non-negotiable.

"I'm pretty proud to be a Baptist. Throughout history, Baptists have probably been among the most radical and liberal denominations of them all," she said. "I feel bitter that the name has been hijacked by the Jerry Falwells and Tammy Faye Bakkers of the world. They shouldn't steal my Baptist heritage from me. I want to fight for it."

Baptists are famously among the most independent Christian denominations. There are primitive Baptists. Baptists who don't drink or dance. Baptists who take the Bible literally. There are moderate Northern Baptists who broke with Southern churches over slavery before the Civil War. African American Baptists. Korean Baptists. And there are Baptists like Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr.

Baptists have no church hierarchy. Each church is supremely autonomous and self-supporting. And all people, they believe, have not only the freedom but the responsibility to interpret the Bible as it speaks to them and to seek God on their own terms. But in recent years, the world has come to equate all Baptists with only the denomination's most conservative branch.

"When you have to spend your time in explain-and-defend mode, saying, 'I'm not one of those Baptists,' it gets in the way of explaining who you are," said Pat Eddington, a Baptist Temple member who's been pushing for the name change. "A lot of people see us as surrendering to the Southern Baptist Convention. To me, the difference is, they've already won."

In its 100 years, Baptist Temple has survived a lot: two moves, floods, a fire, a secretary who ran off with the collection money and a pastor's wife who ran off with the chairman of the deacons. But perhaps the biggest crisis is this: In recent years, as the old guard has faded into nursing homes or died, only one new person has joined the church. And like many newer members, Gayle Reuter said she joined in spite of the name. "I never dreamed it was progressive," she said.

Reuter joined because of the people, she said, and because of the good works the church does. She doesn't really care about the name. "But I'm concerned that if people don't come inside in the first place, because of the name, we may not be able to continue," she said. "If there's a chance that we won't make it, then the name could be really critical."

With lunch finished, it was time to vote. Yellow ballots and pencils made their way around the room. Three members disappeared into another room to count. Church bylaws require a majority vote of two-thirds of the 37 members present.

Helen and Sam Dickens had already decided to vote no. They joined the church in 1945 as young newlyweds and remember week-long revivals, songfests, crowded church suppers and the days of five choirs and lively softball, bowling and basketball teams. They love the name Baptist Temple. "It's worked all these years; why change it?" Helen lamented before the vote.

In minutes, the counting committee returned with the results. Ten voted to keep name. One abstained. And 26 members, just 1.4 votes more the majority required, won the day. Baptist Temple will henceforth be known as "Commonwealth Baptist Church."

In the end, members compromised. They changed their name but could not leave their Baptist roots behind. Instead, they'll add a tagline, something that explains their kind of Baptist, such as "A Progressive Community of Faith."

As people filed out, Thomason breathed a sigh of relief. Changing the name is no magic bullet. "It's not like we change the name and next Sunday 200 people will be at worship," he said. But it's a start. Although he won't be around to see it.

Thomason, who became pastor in 2004, got caught up in the church's struggle for identity and survival. Some blamed him, not just the name, for failing to bring in new people and asked him to resign. He preached his last on Sunday. Then he, too, like the newly named church, like Abraham, will step out into an unknown future, on nothing more than faith.

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