Churches Use Generic Names to Reach Out

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 17, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Churches Use Generic Names to Reach Out


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


It's a Baptist congregation, but the word "Baptist" appears nowhere in the name of the fast-growing Fellowship of Forest Creek church outside Austin, Tex.

"Name-brand" churches identifying Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran congregations still dominate America's religious landscape. But in the face of a vast, younger unchurched population that either harbors stereotypes about denominations or cannot tell them apart, more and more churches with generic names are opening their doors across the country.

Until a year ago, the Fellowship of Forest Creek was known as Trinity Baptist Church. Since dropping the old name, it has expanded by 240 new members in a suburb that has grown with booming local high-tech industries.

"We changed everything about the church inside and out, and the sign was the last thing we changed," the Rev. Roddy Clyde, pastor of Forest Creek since 1992, said in a telephone interview.

Though Texas is Baptist territory, Mr. Clyde said that for the unchurched, the Baptist name has a "negative connotation" of being strict and judgmental.

Last week, Mr. Clyde's workshop at the Texas Baptist Evangelism Conference thrust the topic of dropping "Baptist" from church titles into the national media spotlight.

Yet he said it was hard to find pastors among the Southern Baptist Convention's 41,000 congregations to speak because the numbers to date have been small.

"There's a tremendous resistance in the ranks," Mr. Clyde said, emphasizing that a name change is just part of a larger package: a more contemporary, user-friendly ministry and worship with conservative theology but casual dress.

Despite resistance in major denominations, the formula has often proved successful.

Willow Creek Community Church, founded outside Chicago in 1975, grew out of a Christian Reformed congregation and now hosts 15,000 worshippers. The huge Saddleback Community Church, named for a mountain spine in Orange County, Calif., is another example - founded by a Southern Baptist pastor, the Rev. Rick Warren.

While the Southern Baptist Convention has grown in comparison with other historic Protestant denominations, it suffers along with the rest from the younger generation's aversion to organized religion.

"What's behind it is this anti-authoritarianism that arose in the 1960s," said Barnard College church historian Randall Balmer, who studies contemporary church life. "There's a view that denominations are cultural dinosaurs that have little utility anymore."

But in efforts to revitalize Protestantism, some are experimenting with a back-to-roots approach - the very opposite of the movement behind stripping the name from the corner signpost.

While such a push for brand-name recognition has been seen in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in United Methodism, one official with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said it is less evident among its nearly 11,000 churches.

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