Saturday, June 13, 2009
What's in a Name?
Columnist and blogger Jeannie Babb Taylor recently wrote a piece which begins with the question, “Why are Southern Baptists suddenly reluctant to use their own name?” Taylor’s column/blog is a thoughtful critique of “bait and switch” churches that appear non-denominational then turn out to have a denominational connection that some prospective members might find distasteful.
This has been the subject of much discussion over the past decade or so, but the trend continues. One church in our area which has been a “First Baptist Church” for years has adopted an attractive name that lacks any denominational connotation while affirming among the fellowship that they are still Southern Baptist to the core. (The practice is not limited to Baptists, by the way.)
I must admit some sympathy for these churches. Why advertise that you are something that turns people away? At the same time, they must struggle with having to downplay their denominational identity.
Of course, the term “Baptist” applies to all types of churches—from snake handlers to liturgical. There are at least nineteen national groups of Baptist churches listed in the Handbook of Denominations in America. In addition, there are hundreds or thousands of independent congregations across the country that carry the Baptist name and dozens of national Baptist organizations around the world.
The “big dog” on the block in the United States for many years has been the Southern Baptist Convention. The arrogant and triumphal statements of this group over the past three decades have drawn national attention, astonishment, and scorn. There have been attempts by groups like the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to redeem the term “Baptist,” but they are just blimps on the radar screens of most Americans.
The churches who have dropped “Baptist” from their names or changed their names are just dealing with the reality of losing some level of control when you choose to identify with a larger entity. Some respondents to Taylor’s piece said that if one is ashamed of the organization of which you are a part, you should try to change the organization. This is easier said than done. Most national organizations plunge on their course, driven by a vision and a culture that may not necessarily reflect the values and attitudes of their constituents. Once they get up a head of steam, changing course is difficult if not impossible.
The bottom line is that most of the people who come to the churches that have chosen to downplay or hide their denominational affiliation don’t really care about denominational ties. They like the pastor, the worship, the programs, the ministries and the people in the church. That is why they are there. Many will find a place of community and service there and will stay. Others, like many 21st century Americans, will move on when it no longer fills their perceived needs.
Perhaps an appropriate question for the denominations is, "What is our real purpose?" Is the role of the denomination to empower and enrich or protect and maintain? But that is a topic for another day.