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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rebranding of the Baptists?

I recently wrote a post about a new book, Fall of the Evangelical Nation, by former Dallas Morning News religion writer, Christine Wicker. In her tome, Ms. Wicker maintained that the big religion story every reporter was missing is that membership in the evangelical churches is shrinking, and the denomination's political influence is waning.

Two recent stories in the Washington Post, seem to bear out Ms. Wicker's claims and show that the media are waking up to this hard fact.

First, Jacqueline Salmon writes, in the Sunday June 8th newspaper, that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, is going to consider a ten year initiative to halt the sharp decline in its membership. According to the report:

Alarmed by a drop in membership and baptisms, members of the Southern Baptist Convention are set to consider at their annual meeting, which starts Tuesday, a 10-year initiative to reverse the decline.

The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year last year to the lowest level in 20 years, and membership in the nation's largest Protestant denomination decreased by close to 40,000 to 16.27 million last year. Leaders of the convention say the numbers could represent a turning point for the organization.

The convention's president, the Rev. Frank S. Page, has predicted that unless the denomination takes swift action, the number of Southern Baptist churches will fall by half by 2030.
The article then goes on to describe the initiative, which consists of outreach to young families and college students and to create worship services and programs more relevant to their tastes and lifestyles.

Some Baptists churches, however, have taken an even more radical route. They are wrestling with the decision to drop the "Baptist" from their names because they think the brand's bad. According to this piece, by Brigid Schulte,

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.
Although that particular church ultimately voted to simply drop "Temple" and leave "Baptist" in their name, becoming the Commonwealth Baptist Church, the issue of name change is troubling Baptists across the nation.

The truth is there are many different types of Baptists, as the article points out. Although the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest group, there is also a denomination of American Baptists, which broke from the Southern Convention during the Civil War, over the issue of slavery. Located mostly in the northern United States, American Baptists are far more progressive than their southern counterparts. There also are historically black Baptist denominations. Each Baptist church also has considerable autonomy as none of the various Baptists Conventions are hierarchical in the way that the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches are.

The point, though, is that many mainstream Baptists, across all denominational lines, are concerned that the Baptist name has become too associated with right wing political causes and narrow fundamentalism.

"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."
And that's by no means an eccentric position.

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?"
So, the story Christine Wicker stumbled across and could hardly believe has now hit the mainstream media.

I can't help but be struck by the irony that not only has too close an association between denominationalism and partisan politics hurt the nation and the political parties, it's also harmed the religious denominations that allowed themselves to be so tempted by worldly power and influence.

It may be that religion is at its most powerful when it plays the role of the outsider, hungering for justice and thirsting for righteousness. If I recall my Bible correctly, none of the prophets were numbered among the powerful of the kings' courts. Indeed, they came afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted. Perhaps, that is what Baptists need to do again, rather than change their names.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good discussion, important trend. Thanks, AIAW. The church can be a powerful force, if it sticks to its real mission.