Over the last few weeks, I have been asked a couple of times about churches changing their names, specifically removing “Baptist” from their name. Many churches are doing this and I believe that the trend will continue for some of the reasons that I will share. From the personal experience of having led a name change, I can tell you that a wise pastor treads these waters carefully and intentionally. Let me give you several areas to consider when it comes to processing this discussion.
Cultural Denominational Disconnect
Early American immigration history is at the heart of the vast denominational diversity in America. A denominational identity helped people connect with their cultural religious identity. Even 30 years ago many rural communities’ dominant denominational representation was reflective of the immigrant migrations of the late 1800’s and 1900’s. Northeastern Kansas, where my family settled as immigrants, was predominantly Lutheran because it was a center of the German immigrant communities. After WWII and perhaps even before that, America was losing that European nationalism with the homogenization of our culture.
Add to this the secularization of the American culture over the last 30 to 50 years. Our post-Christian culture has produced an ever increasing number of people who have no religious, let alone denominational, identity. For many past generations there was at least distant relationship with the church, if nothing else as the place where weddings and funerals took place. Even that is now waning in our culture.
In The Rise of the Nones, James Emery White notes that those who identify themselves as having no religious affiliation are increasing at a surprising rate. The Pew Research Center notes, “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.”
Because of this ongoing disconnect from the church, a non-religious individual’s understanding of the church and denominational branding has been formed by the media rather than by experiential knowledge. We know that the media, in general, does not paint a positive picture of the church. Baptist, along with many other denominational identifiers like Assembly of God and to a lesser degree Evangelical Free Church, are defined or judged by the unchurched by this media bias. Baptists are perceived by many in the public spectrum in a very negative framework, thus at times invoking a barrier to connecting with them.
Guilt by Association
For me the impetus to CONTEMPLATE DROPPING “Baptist” from the name of the church I was pastoring was the protesting by the Westboro Baptist church at the Matthew Shepard murder trials and their protesting at the funerals of military personal who were killed in the line of duty. People in our community made it clear that they understood that since they were Baptist and we were Baptist we must have been supportive of what they were doing.
One would need to assess the community’s perception of your church’s identity, part of which is your denominational connection, if that is part of your branding. This is not an easy task as many of the people in our church are insulated from the unchurched in the community.
Again, as we continue to generationally distance ourselves from the perceived American Christian culture from years past (each generation being increasingly identified as nones), our unchurched culture has an increasing deficit of understanding of the denominational distinctions. Even more important is their lumping all “Christian” faith groups together. For the unchurched there is little or no difference between any denomination, let alone those we in the church would identify as a cult. Their only perception is that some denominations are more negative or judgmental toward those who are not part of their group.
Most new church plants do not communicate a denominational identity. Tom Rainer notes that “Newer churches are consistently using descriptors in their names other than denominational affiliation. Some are focusing on their location. Others are at least implying a distinctive doctrinal leaning. And still others are using more trendy and less common terms.”
New churches understand that evangelism and growth are essential to the life (ongoing existence) of the church. As one church planter noted, “It is really only churched people who are looking for a specific denomination’s name and researching what a church believes when deciding whether or not to visit. Our church isn’t targeting churched people at all. I can’t tell you how many of our friends came to our church because of a relationship they had with us or someone else and found out only at our membership class that we are affiliated with a denomination.”
One of the reasons that church plants avoid denominational, or even traditional terminology, is that they want to create open doors of gospel opportunity. They understand that the branding of their ministries which includes their name, social network or media presence, facilities and other things are doors of relational opportunity to fulfill their Great Commission mission.
Paul noted this missional strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, “… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” He understood there were individuals that were in the sphere of his missional influence and he did whatever he could to remove any barriers to his being able to communicate the gospel to them. He declared his missionary identity in the missional strategy.
In the ministry where we changed the church’s name we did so because even though we were reaching people across denominational heritages, there were still those in the community for whom the name Baptist was an insurmountable hurdle. Our people were not willing to allow a word in our name to be a stumbling stone to the people in the community knowing Jesus. It was not easy to part with their First Baptist Church name. The name was full of fond memories and had a deep rich meaning to many, but there was a greater good to be had in giving that up, removing any barrier to people coming to faith in Christ.
How do you prepare a church that is deeply vested in a name for this type of change?
First of all mission and vison should drive the conversation. Mission relates to purpose and the purpose of the church is a relationally redemptive purpose. Vision goes to painting a picture of what it will look like when we are living out our purpose in our community. A well-crafted and communicated vision of what can be will always make what is unacceptable, a motivation for change. Leverage the influence of the board as vision communicators. If they cannot be excited about the vision, how can you expect the congregation to be supportive?
Secondly, when possible, celebrate the past as the reflection of the outward focused mission and vision. In most cases you can point to times in a church’s past where they stepped out in faith to be obedient to a Great Commission, Great Commandment purpose. Point the congregation to changes that they have made in the past that have brought about good results.
Give people time. I love the quote from Resilient Ministry regarding leadership. Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky have summarized that “exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” Wise leaders will bring people along, they will have thought through an intentional strategy. Introduce it as an idea that leadership is considering. Have multiple meetings where the leadership puts it on the table to have people express their thoughts and feelings. With that validate people’s apprehensions and feelings; often times people need the opportunity to express themselves before they can consider the value of the proposed change.