Hot, hot, 25-year-old Baptist trend

img 0098Roughly a quarter century ago, people -- academic people -- started paying serious attention to what were called "superchurches" or "megachurches." The goal was to learn more about why some churches grew and others did not. Theology played a large role, of course. But it also became clear that American was moving into what is now called the post-denominational age -- with church shoppers paying less attention to the brand name on the sign out front and more attention to the services rendered.

This trend -- generic church names -- has been around so long that it has influenced some of the biggest churches in the nation. Here's an important clip from the Saddleback Church home page, about Pastor Rick Warren and the roots of his congregation:

With many good Bible-teaching churches already in Southern California, Pastor Rick turned his attention to those who didn't attend church regularly. Two weeks after Pastor Rick and Kay arrived in the Saddleback Valley, they began with a small Bible study, meeting with one other family in the Warrens' small condo.

On Easter of 1980, Saddleback Valley Community Church held its very first public service and 205 people, most of whom had never been to church, showed up. That began one of the most exciting journeys of growth that any church has experienced in American history. In more than two decades of ministry in South Orange County, God has continued to expand the church's influence. Currently, Saddleback Church has more than 200 ministries serving the church and community. One in nine people in the area call Saddleback their church home.

The key is this: The trend to go to this "community church" branding began on the right side of the wider world of evangelical Protestantism. Saddleback, for example, is a very traditional Southern Baptist congregation at the level of doctrine, but is very progressive in terms of how it deals with the public -- in terms of worship and small groups.

It's all about branding.

That's why I was kind of shocked when I saw the Washington Post piece entitled "Shrinking Flock Examines Its Identity -- Churches Renamed to Escape Stigma Some Say 'Baptist' Carries." It seems that reporter Brigid Schulte thinks this issue of Baptists dropping their Baptist label is a hot, new trend. The story also links this with shrinking, aging congregations on the left side of the Baptist spectrum, rather than growing megachurches on the right.

The story -- an advance on the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting -- does pull together some interesting information. But everything has a weird twist on it, due to the old, old naming hook connected to a local congregation called the Baptist Temple:

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?"

Yes, and those meetings have been taking place for years now. This is old news.

But Baptist Temple is a proudly liberal Baptist church. I will admit that this is kind of a new story, in that the Baptist left -- people who have broadly flown the Baptist banner -- now seems to think that rebranding will solve some of their image problems. Here's more info:

Baptist Temple is the kind of place where (Pastor Todd) 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.

The flock is down to about 30 active members and the vote was close.

It's an interesting story. It's just not all that new, for a variety of reasons. Did the Post realize that? It could have said re-branding is new on the left and is happening for different reasons than the old, old trend that is affecting some megachurches and megachurch-wannbes on the right.

But that's not what the story says.

Photo: Saddleback Church

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