The Rev. Todd Thomason looked out at the nearly empty pews of his congregation at Baptist Temple Church last Sunday. He had preached long and hard about Abraham leaving all that he knew and setting out into an unknown future on nothing more than faith in God. He was hoping that, after the service, what was left of his flock would have the courage to do the same.
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.
So after the service, Thomason would ask the remaining members of the church to save themselves, so to speak, and vote to change their name.
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?”