NorthRidge. CrossWinds. North Hills.
These trendy nameplates sound more like upscale subdivisions than churches trying to lure suburban residents to Sunday morning worship. But church shopping has become an important part of American religious life. And some churches are changing their brand names to attract more members.
In the 1980s, evangelical congregations that sprouted in growing suburban areas pioneered this marketing trick of choosing generic names for their new churches. Now the trend is spreading as well-established Protestant churches change their traditional names to obscure their denominational histories.
"We describe our church as a shopping mall of spiritual opportunities," says the Rev. Brad Powell, pastor of a 4,000-member church in Plymouth Township that last month changed its name from Temple Baptist to NorthRidge Church. "We're offering ministry to everyone. We have a divorce-recovery ministry, a blended-family ministry, a grief-recovery ministry -- something for everyone's needs.
"Our old name was confusing to many people. People thought that the word "temple" meant that we were some kind of Jewish Messianic Baptist conglomeration. And the word 'Baptist'? A lot of people think that Baptists are very legalistic or that Baptists are political. We are not any of that. We're a nondenominational Bible-believing church."
NorthRidge is carefully positioning itself for maximum growth. Since moving from Redford Township to its new building three years ago, the congregation has swelled from 1,000 to 3,000. With the February name change, Powell says he hopes his congregation will grow even faster.
Many Protestant pastors point to a massive body of church-marketing data compiled by pollsters such as California-based church consultant George Barna.
"A century ago, the church that most Americans attended was virtually arranged for them at birth. Most people went to the church of their parents," says one Barna research report. "Although Americans do not change churches as regularly as they change the brand of gasoline they use, church loyalty is a modern casualty. More than one out of seven adults change their church each year."
Catholics tend to switch churches far less often than Protestants, and so far Catholic leaders have shown no interest in changing their parish names.
But among Protestants, a church's denomination is less important than good sermons, high-quality programs for children, a friendly atmosphere and programs to help poor people, according to Barna polls.
In March, a small Reformed Church in America congregation in booming Canton Township unveiled a sleek sign along Ford Road, proclaiming its new name as CrossWinds Community Church.
"It's part of our effort to be more inviting to anyone in the community who wants to be part of our church," says the Rev. Jon Beyer. While Reformed churches are common in western Michigan, the 20-year-old Canton church was struggling with only 45 members when Beyer arrived in 1998.
Some churches would never drop their denominational titles, says the Rev. E.L. Branch, pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church in Detroit and the president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity.
"I couldn't change our church's name -- I'm a Baptist leader!" exclaims Branch with a chuckle. "We maintain our commitment to using the word 'Baptist.' And we're a growing congregation. So, I think it honors our past and celebrates our future to say we're Baptist."
But Branch admits that, among the pastors of long-established Detroit churches, Barna's research is becoming popular. "And some pastors aren't changing their churches' names, but they are using the word 'Baptist' a lot less when they talk about their churches."
That's the trend at Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Northville. Receptionists answer the telephone, "Ward Church," and clergy tend to shorten the name as well.
"I am the pastor who tends to have the most contact with outsiders," says the Rev. Mike Gatliff, Ward's outreach pastor. "I generally say 'Ward Church,' because it's shorter and most of the people with whom I'm dealing don't care about our denomination. They want to know about our youth groups, programs for children, divorce recovery, single groups."
A similar compromise was made at North Hills Church in Troy, part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. When the church replaced its sign on North Adams Road in 1992, big letters were used for "North Hills Church" and the denomination shrank into smaller print.
"We're keeping the denomination in small letters, because there still are some people looking for a Reformed church," says the Rev. George Vander Weit, "but the word 'Reformed' can be misleading for a lot of people in this part of the state. Some people may think we're bad people who belong in a reform school. They'll ask me: 'So what are you reformed from?' "
At NorthRidge Church, Powell argues that reaching people is more important than a name.
Before his church's name change, Powell says his members often had trouble inviting friends to church. "They perpetually came to me and said, 'Hey, people are interested in our message ...but we can't get them to step across the line and come to church, because of our name.'
"After years of hearing that, we finally decided that God was telling us: It's time to pull the trigger on that old name. And, in the weeks since that time, we've had hundreds of new people coming in our doors."
DALLAS (AP) -- The Rev. Roddy Clyde discovered that he could add hundreds of parishioners to his church simply by subtracting the word "Baptist" from its name.
"I'm not ashamed to be a Baptist, but a brand name can be a hindrance," Clyde said Monday. "Some people mistakenly associate the Baptist name with an angry, judgmental kind of fundamentalism."
Clyde's Trinity Baptist Church in Round Rock, Texas, became the Fellowship of Forest Creek in 1992. Around the country, many other churches are dropping "Baptist" from their names.
The North Point Community Church outside Columbia, S.C., dropped Southern Baptist from its name, and John Sharp, its 26-year-old pastor, prefers not to use the title of Reverend.
Although some ministers have been able to attract new members after the change, more conservative Southern Baptist pastors believe deleting the designation goes against Scripture.
"Most Southern Baptist churches have dropped the word 'Southern' from their name -- we're no longer just in the South. But dropping the word 'Baptist,' I don't think there's anything to gain from doing it," said Harvey Tingle, pastor at the Hampton Place Baptist Church in Dallas.
Tingle said he supports anything that will help Baptists reach more people, but "dropping the word from church names is a change from traditional values."
Tradition is revered at the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 15.6 million members and is dominated by theological conservatives. In 1997, the church called for a boycott of the Walt Disney Co. over what it called gay-friendly policies. Last June, the convention said women should "submit graciously" to their husbands.
Ken Hemphill, president of the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said he doesn't think removing the denomination from a church's name can bring in more members.
"Many of the fastest growing churches in the country still have 'Baptist' in the label," he said. "The key issue is not necessarily the name, but changes in the content of what happens in the church."
Most of the churches that drop their Baptist label are otherwise adhering to Southern Baptist doctrine in many respects.
In Grapevine, just outside Dallas, senior pastor Ed Young wanted to draw a new crowd -younger people, even Jews -- to his 6,000-member church. And so, the Las Colinas Baptist Church became the Fellowship Church.
"Basically, we changed the name for one reason -- to reach as many people as possible," Young said. "People now don't have the product loyalty, or the denomination loyalty, they once had."
Young has also tried passing out neon yellow sunglasses promoting a lecture series and T-shirts pushing Saturday services to get what he calls "unchurched" people to attend.
He said the number of members increased dramatically when the name changed, but he admitted some conservative members left because of it.
"I tell people my church is not for everyone," Young said. "Each church is autonomous and has a different style for different styles of people."
At Lake Hills Church in Austin, pastor Mack Richard took "Baptist" out of the title to remove what he regarded as a barrier to people of other denominations.
Vaughn Stanford, a 28-yearold real estate agent who attends Lake Hills, said he grew up in a Southern Baptist home and understands that the word is associated with "the old way, the hard way of doing things."
"To some degree, leaving it out of a name does matter, but I have enough knowledge about Baptists to know that it doesn't matter to me," Stanford said.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The designation "Baptist" is being removed from some church names because it scares away potential members, leaders of an innovative ministry workshop contended at the Texas Baptist Evangelism Conference.
"Some people mistakenly associate the Baptist name with an angry, judgmental kind of fundamentalism," said the Rev. Roddy Clyde, leader of the workshop.
More than 5,000 Texas Baptists attended the conference, which continued through Tuesday night at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Most Southern Baptist churches proudly bear the name "Baptist," but many nontraditional churches in Texas and across the nation are removing the denomination's name to help attract younger members and people who have not been churchgoers.
On Monday night, speakers included internationally known evangelist Luis Palau and the Rev. Ed Young Jr., pastor of The Fellowship Church in Grapevine, a fast-growing Southern Baptist church.
"I'm not ashamed to be a Baptist, but a brand name can be a hindrance," Clyde said. The senior pastor at Fellowship of Forest Creek in Round Rock, near Austin, Clyde said his church has grown rapidly since changing its name last year from Trinity Baptist Church.
The Rev. Dan Southerland of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a featured speaker at the innovative ministries workshop, said the name "Baptist" does not convey a positive meaning to people in south Florida.
"They associate it with fire and brimstone," said Southerland, senior pastor of the Flamingo Road Church in Fort Lauderdale. Leaders there removed "Baptist" from the church's name three years ago.
But the trend toward excising denominational affiliations from church names is more complex than just an effort to address hostility toward the Baptist name, said Ebby Smith, professor of Christian ethics and missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Churches of many denominations tend to leave out the denominational name because it sometimes puts off baby boomers and younger people who do not want to be labeled as a member of any denomination, Smith said.
"It's not that they are just turned off by Baptists; they are turned off by all denominations," he said.
Churches are not being tricky by leaving the word Baptist out of their name, he said.
"It's just a technique to get a hearing," he said. "Once they are in church, they find out it is Baptist. Most of these churches are closely tied with Baptist organizations."
Clyde's congregation, which omits the Baptist name, is part of a new wave of churches that have broken away from the old pulpit preaching style of worship. Some often feature dramatic presentations and have full bands that play contemporary Christian music geared to a younger audience.
"Our dress code has changed to a more casual style," he said. "I preach in my golf clothes. Some people think all Baptist preachers have to wear a dark suit and a red tie."
Since the changes were begun in 1992, the average worship attendance at Fellowship of Forest Creek has grown from 65 to 650, Clyde said. His church had been averaging 140 new members a year, but after taking "Baptist" out of the name early last year, the annual growth increased to 240 members, he said.
Clyde said he believes that infighting between conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention has also hurt the Baptist name in the eyes of outsiders.
"Some think we Baptists are more concerned with the power struggle in our denomination than we are in helping people," Clyde said.
Another Southwestern faculty member, Robert DeVargas, said he doesn't believe that the denomination controversy has much to do with churches leaving out the Baptist name.
"It's happening in many denominations," said DeVargas, an assistant professor of communication arts and foundations of education. "It's just a way of catering to young people who want some kind of spirituality in their life, but they don't want to be labeled Baptist, Methodist or anything else."
Several churches in the Fort Worth area have adopted the new style of church worship with successful results. The NorthWood Church for the Communities in Keller, led by the Rev. Bob Roberts, and the Celebration Baptist Church in east Fort Worth, led by the Rev. James Reeves, are two examples.
Reeves, who led one of the workshops on Monday, said his congregation has grown from 150 members to almost 1,000. The church still includes "Baptist" in its official name, but a huge banner displayed outside the building merely proclaims "Celebration."
"We don't play up our Baptist name," he said. "One of my members told me the other day that if he had known we were a Baptist church, he would not have joined."
Baptist leaders are not disturbed by churches that remove the denomination's name.
"We need all kinds of churches," said the Rev. H. Bailey Stone, director of the evangelism division of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a leader of a Texas 2000 effort to reach all of the state's approximately 10 million people who claim no allegiance to a church.
Stone said the Baptist name itself can also attract people to a church because they associate it with sincere, Bible-believing Christians.
About 40 of the 50 new congregations are to be established - the common term is planted - as part of a multimillion-dollar project set to begin in 2002. The effort, called "Philadelphia Spirit: Let Caring Ring," is being developed by local clergy and lay teams and bankrolled by the SBC as part of its Strategic Focus Cities plan.
The other new churches are outgrowths of the SBC's national Nehemiah Project, which is primarily aimed at younger adults. Local Nehemiah organizers are setting up their first four churches this autumn - none of which bear the name "Baptist" - in Royersford, Warrington and Feasterville, and near the hip South Street corridor.
The plan is to plant most of the Philadelphia Spirit churches within the city, often as "satellites" of nearby churches, the local spokesman, the Rev. Steve Sheldon, said. Mr. Sheldon, pastor of Bux-Mont Baptist Church in Hatboro, said the new churches frequently would be aimed at nonwhites and at ethnic groups such as Koreans, Ukrainians and Chinese.
The local SBC church body, the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association, has had quiet success in recent years attracting nonwhite members. Since 1983, its total of African American member churches has grown from eight to more than 80. The churches are drawn by SBC's conservative doctrine, bounteous teaching materials, and staff pension and benefit packages, although many retain their affiliations with African American denominations as well.
A group of long-time members of St. Mary's Baptist Church have sued the minister of the recently renamed Rhema Christian Fellowship to get the 124-year-old church's name back.
In a class action suit filed May 10 in Athens-Clarke County Superior Court, six plaintiffs claim that Rhema Christian Fellowship Inc., led by Pastor Stephen B. Hall, has used power-grabbing tactics and closed-door decisions to transform the Baptist church on Danielsville Road into a non-denominational place of worship, without the consent of the congregation, which numbers between 300 and 400.
An attorney representing the church counters that the vast majority of church members are supportive of the changes, and that Hall was granted decision-making power through an overwhelming church vote three years ago.
The suit outlines charges of fraud, conversion and conspiracy, among others, and seeks unspecified damages, restoration of the original name and a transference of Rhema's property back to St. Mary's. The defendants have until Saturday to file a response.
"Somebody's got to take a stand," said Phinizy Bailey, a member of the church for more than 40 years who, with his brother, Robert Bailey, is listed as a plaintiff in the complaint. "The main thing that led to this was the changing of the name and incorporating it into an illegal corporation. You don't put a Rhema in a St. Mary's church. If you want a new thing, you go build it."
The suit claims that Hall, pastor of the church since 1994, called a meeting among the board of deacons three years after his appointment, during which he proclaimed that the deacons and congregation would no longer have any say in how the church was operated. Phinizy Bailey said Hall effectively fired the board of deacons and named his own hand-picked board to take their places.
"I told him it wasn't right," former Chairman of Deacons Robert Bailey said of the 1997 meeting. "There was a few of the people who agreed with it, but I stood up and told him it wasn't right."
Calls seeking comment from Hall were directed to Larry Blount, an attorney representing Hall and the church. Blount said Friday that Hall was granted decision-making power in 1997 by a full vote of the congregation.
"The membership was given an opportunity to choose a governance structure ... and (the vote) was six or eight votes shy of being unanimous," Blount said. "The plaintiffs lost this battle fair and square three years ago. The reason this lawsuit was filed is that they are attempting to accomplish something in court that they could not accomplish in church."
In August 1999, the suit claims, Hall and four appointed church officers formed a non-profit corporation called St. Mary's Full Gospel Baptist Church Inc. without the knowledge or consent of the congregation. In September 1999, the suit claims, Hall and his church officers transferred St. Mary's property to the newly-formed corporation, which, according to its articles of incorporation, "would have no members." The transfer of the property, according to the suit, placed a $250,000 loan from Main Street Bank in jeopardy.
The suit claims that after the property was transferred, Hall and his officers changed the name of St. Mary's Full Gospel Baptist Church Inc. to Rhema Christian Fellowship Inc., publishing notice of the name change in March. In April, a new sign was erected over the old St. Mary's sign in front of the church.
Blount said Hall advised church members of the changes. "I think he had several conversations with the long-term members, but he doesn't have any obligation to consult with them," Blount said.
"St. Mary's is a historic site, and we don't want the name changed or the pastor taking the land," Phinizy Bailey said. "If you want a Rhema, go on and build one. The name on that cornerstone says 'St. Mary's Baptist Church.' "
"The reality is you have a classic spiritual conflict between those who would hold onto custom and tradition and those who follow the direction of God," Blount countered. "Pastor Hall was the pastor of St. Mary's and his followers were the members of St. Mary's. ... The Lord directed the pastor to change the name, and the pastor explained it to the congregation."
Thomas Bolton, vice-president of Rhema Christian Fellowship and one of five defendants named in the suit, said since the change to a non-denominational status, attendance at the church has been up, with the church moving from two to three Sunday services.
Bolton, a member of the church since 1986, also noted that the name St. Mary's led some to associate the church with the Catholic faith. According to the church history, the church was named after the first pastor's mother.
"You have a name like St. Mary's, there should be a saint," Bolton said. "That's not the case. I wasn't ashamed of using the name St. Mary's, and I'm not ashamed of using Rhema, because I feel like it's getting the word of God out either way."
Blount said the church, though in name a Baptist church, had little to do with the Baptist organization. "It never participated in Baptist regional, state or national organizations," Blount said.
Bolton disputed charges that the transfer of property and name change were done in secrecy.
"They try to make it sound like a bunch of people got into a corner and said this is what we're going to do," Bolton said. "That wasn't what happened."
Phinizy Bailey conceded that the majority of members are behind their pastor. "Whatever he says, before he can get through, they jump up and holler," Bailey said.
But long-time members don't agree with the changes within the church, Bailey said.
"All the older members are really upset about it," he said.
"I haven't talked with some of them, but I'm sure there are some who don't feel the same way (about the changes)," Blount said.
One of the church's oldest members, 87-year-old Helen Neal Joseph, is among the plaintiffs who have sued to reclaim the church's name and land. The land on which the church cemetery sits was donated by Joseph's father.
Robert Bailey said he knew some of the people buried in that cemetery.
"I believe they would turn over in their graves if they knew this type of thing was going on," he said.
Wyckoff Baptist Church is no more. The building still stands on Wyckoff and Russell avenues and the faithful still gather for worship on Sunday morning. Weekday Bible studies and youth activities continue.
But Wyckoff Baptist Church is no more. It's now Cornerstone Christian Church.
The Rev. Fred Provencher said he feared the word "Baptist" had "political connotations" that might stand in the way of people "searching for God." Furthermore, throughout its 45-year history, the congregation had never affiliated with any Baptist organization. And now thanks to squabbles among Southern Baptists over such things as politics and the way a wife should subordinate herself to her husband, "Baptist" can be a loaded word.
The church leaders changed the name for perfectly valid reasons, to explain more clearly who they are and what they stand for. Wyckoff Baptist becomes Cornerstone Christian to emphasize that this church is built on Jesus Christ, whom the book of Ephesians calls the "cornerstone" of faith.
Sometimes, however, cutting denominational ties and downplaying traditional names have become trendy. Some contend that the sectarian appellations -- hoary old words like "Presbyterian," "Congregational," "Wesleyan," "Lutheran," or "Anglican" -- make the church sound fusty and ancient, like something that should be in a museum. Never mind that people once put their lives on the line for the sake of those religious movements.
Others argue that traditional church names -- St. Luke's Methodist, First Presbyterian, Christ Episcopal, Mount Pisgah Congregational -- are uninviting and just plain boring. So congregations pick "warmer" names -- Abiding Love, Peace, Joy, Family of God, Morning Star, Holy Love, Light of Life, Valley Glen -- to seem more appealing.
Perhaps the concept has not been taken far enough. Get some focus groups together to discover everyone's favorite warm fuzzy words and then name churches after puppies, comfort foods, or characters from Sesame Street. I think Chocolate Cake Chapel or Bert and Ernie's Bible Fellowship have possibilities.
Churches that really want to market themselves need to learn to run with the big dogs. Maybe even seek corporate sponsorship. How about "Nike Christian Church," with the big swoosh painted on the door? Would a church named "Big Mac Methodist" have golden arches on the front lawn? The water image being appropriate, there could be an "Old Navy Baptist Church." And wouldn't "FedEx House of Prayer" suggest a place where your petitions would absolutely reach the intended address? Would a "Taco Bell Temple" have services in Spanish?
It might not be good marketing, but maybe churches should pick names describing what they really are. That would give us such monikers as "Stay Outta My Pew Presbyterian," "Old Hymns Only Methodist," "Upper Class Episcopal," or "Cold Stare Congregational."
Traditionally, most churches have taken their names from their locations, the times they were built (I think there was once a Fourteenth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh), their denominations, or characters in the Bible. It is obvious that now other "marketing" factors are used to put a label on a house of worship.
The truth is, all does not lie in the name and sometimes the name lies. The church's real name is not chosen; it is earned by what goes on there and how people are treated when they come. Love, joy, peace, and family may be nice names, but they are even nicer lived-out experiences. Someone stepping into a church that truly loves, brings joy, promotes peace, and feels like a happy family will be attracted, even if that congregation happens to be named First Mount Nebo Apostolic Bible Lighthouse Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity. Or St. Swithin's-in-the-Swamp.
Granted, "Baptist" evokes thoughts of contention and conflict these days, but it is still disturbing that the word should be omitted from the name of a church as was suggested by some at the Baptist General Convention of Texas Evangelism Conference (Feb. 5).
If it is necessary to fool people into attending a church by concealing Baptist connections, then the significance of Baptist beliefs may be compromised. This seems similar to the "bait and switch" marketing ploy!
On the other hand, Baptists looking for a church may avoid a "Fellowship" church, assuming it to be non-denominational or worse, poly-denominational (believe whatever you choose to believe).
Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention has set an example by removing "Baptist" from the names of Ridgecrest and Glorieta assemblies and from bookstores in order to market those entities outside the traditional Baptist family.
SAN ANTONIO--The word "Baptist" in a church's name can make a significant impact on the congregation's potential membership, according to a pair of church starters.
"To 'Baptist' or not to 'Baptist'? That is the question," quipped Keith Abbott, pastor of North Hills Community Church in Austin.
The use of "Baptist" in the name definitely will shape the membership of a church, added Greg Hill, pastor of Southwest Hills Community Church in Austin.
They led a seminar titled "Survivor: Keys to Outwit, Outplay and Outlast the First Year of Church Planting" in a set of seminars for innovative church ministry that preceded the Baptist General Convention of Texas Evangelism Conference.
"Actually, this question is not as controversial as it used to be," Abbott said, noting a rising number of Baptist churches have chosen not to include or even to drop "Baptist" from their names.
"Baptist" in a name brings both advantages and disadvantages to a new congregation, he acknowledged.
On the positive side, the "Baptist" name "draws new move-ins that are Baptist," he said. Many Baptists move into a community and automatically seek out the Baptist churches, he explained. So, a visibly Baptist name will help the church attract these Baptists' attention.
Also, an overtly Baptist name "sends a non-charismatic message," Abbott observed.
For example, some people expect a church with "Community" instead of "Baptist" in its name to be charismatic, he related. Since the vast majority of Baptist churches do not practice charismatic worship, such as "speaking in tongues," the use of "Baptist" in the name helps define the church's worship style.
In addition, "Baptist" may be "a sign of stability and credibility" in some communities, where Baptists are respected for their long tenure and positive ministry, he said.
On the other hand, a decision not to use "Baptist" in the name can offer a young church some advantages, Abbott said.
"First, it keeps you out of the news," he stressed, referencing more than 20 years of Baptist denominational struggle that often has made national and state news.
"I'm always getting asked, 'Where do you stand on this Baptist thing?'" he reported. This hurts the church's outreach, because "conflict in church is always viewed as bad in the eyes of the unchurched."
Churches that decide not to use "Baptist" in their names also cater to "the general public's trend toward non-denominationalism," he said.
They also are able to "bypass the public's 'Baptist' baggage or assumptions," he added. "Whether they are true or untrue is beside the point. It's all about the people's perception."
And even though "most perceptions are misperceptions," a church must deal with how people see it and its affiliations, Hill said.
In addition, use of the words "community" and "fellowship" or simply "church" makes a congregation seem more inclusive to unchurched people, Abbott stressed.
Hill said an ethical concern helped shape his church's decision not to put "Baptist" in its name.
"I don't want to do the sheep-stealing thing," he said, referring to churches that get most of their members from other Baptist churches.
While it is a Baptist church, his congregation is comprised of only 20 percent of members who came from Baptist backgrounds, he said. Twice that number formerly were Catholics. And many had absolutely no church background.
And although "Baptist" can give a church an initial boost, that might prove costly in the long run, Hill added.
"In Texas, putting 'Baptist' in your name is the quickest way to get to 200" members, he said. "And it's the quickest way to stay at 200."
Churches that are considering whether to use "Baptist" should ask a couple of questions, Abbott suggested.
"What will get the best response from your target?" he asked.
"The truth is, every church is targeting someone, whether they know it or not," he added. "A lot of churches do it by accident. They don't think about it. ... Why not be intentional and know whom you are trying to reach?"
A church should consider the cultural and spiritual background of the people it is trying to reach and then make decisions that will help it reach them with the gospel, he said.
And that leads to the second question to ask: "What removes the most barriers to reaching your target?" he said.
"That's really the bottom line" of making the naming decision, he insisted. "It's not about being ashamed of being a Baptist. ... It's about effectiveness."
WAKE FOREST--In 1834, a Baptist preacher named Samuel Wait founded a school to train men for the ministry in what was then known as the "forest of Wake County."
The town that grew up around his school was for all intents and purposes Baptist. For more than a century, traditions such as church on Sunday, Bible study on Wednesday, vacation Bible school, summer revival meetings and the annual homecoming, a sort of church-wide reunion, went unchallenged.
But that Baptist way of life is now yielding to a religious diversity this small town has never known.
A regional analysis of a broad new, 10-year study of American religious groups shows that the Baptist glue that held Wake Forest and other communities in the Triangle together is cracking.
The changes have not come about overnight. Nationwide, the Southern Baptist Convention continued to grow over the past decade by 5 percent nationally, and by 4.5 percent in the Triangle, according to the study, undertaken by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
But a computer analysis of the six-county Triangle region also shows that for the past 30 years Baptists have been slowly declining as a percentage of the overall population -- from 23 percent in 1971 to 13 percent in 2000. African-American denominations did not provide statistics for the study, which includes 149 religious bodies.
Those numbers confirm the more visible changes taking place on the ground in small towns across the Triangle.
Take, for example, Wake Forest:
* Today, the biggest church in town is St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church -- a mammoth congregation of 4,300 members that provides five Masses each weekend, including one in Spanish.
* Over the past decade, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Mormons have planted roots in this town and are aggressively reaching out to all its residents, including Baptists.
* In an example of how rapidly the entire denominational system is changing, two of the town's fastest-growing Baptist churches have decided not to use the B-word in their name.
Wake Forest is not as diverse as Cary, for example, which has a Jewish synagogue and a Hindu temple. But it resembles North Carolina's small towns to a great extent. Here, as in the rest of the state, Christianity is still the predominant religion, but the Protestant variety that had been its mainstay for so long faces increasing competition.
"If you look at the study state by state and county by county, there's no question the preponderance has been Baptist, and it's lessening," said Kenneth Sanchagrin, chairman of the department of sociology at Mars Hill College in Madison County and director of the Glenmary Research Center of Nashville, which published the study.
"The South is becoming more diverse," Sanchagrin said.
Baptists are still a powerful religious force. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which sits in the center of Wake Forest, is still the town's largest landowner and employer. But in the religious life of its residents, Baptists are now one voice among many.
A flood of Catholics
A visit to St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church on a Sunday morning is a good way to gauge the extent of the town's religious transformation. Moments before the 10:30 a.m. Mass, half a dozen ushers fan out across the building to guide throngs of people to their seats. Motioning one another with raised fingers -- two, three or four to a party -- they direct the lucky to the 503-seat sanctuary, and the others to the overflow room where they will watch the Mass on two closed-circuit televisions.
In towns such as Cary and Apex, and in most areas of the Triangle, the picture is nearly identical, with packed Catholic parishes fast becoming the "mega-churches" of the South.
The Glenmary study documents this change. North Carolina, once the least Catholic of all the states, has a fast-growing Catholic population. In the Triangle, it has risen from less than 1 percent of the Triangle population in 1952 to 6.6 percent in 2000, the study shows. And for the first time, there were more Catholics than Methodists in Wake County in 2000, 59,610 compared with 46,283.
Of all the religious groups that have made North Carolina their home this past decade, none have come in numbers like the Catholics. Demographers say the migration has come from two directions. From the north and midwest, thousands of Catholics have come in search of high-tech jobs and warmer weather. From the south, thousands of Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic, have come in search of a better way of life.
But Catholics are not solely responsible for this religious sea change. Wake Forest Presbyterian Church has just added a multipurpose gym. Hope Lutheran has outgrown its building and is building a new one. And the Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have already split into two congregations, known as wards.
These newcomers are slowly changing the town in subtle but important ways.
Take Thomas Weber, 46, one of the town's most respected family doctors, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of his patients are among the town's old-time Baptists, and they seem not to mind his religious affiliation.
Weber is also the bishop of the Wake Forest ward, an unpaid position in a church that has no clergy. In the waiting area of his practice, he likes to keep a copy of the Bible and "The Book of Mormon" among such magazines as Time, Good Housekeeping, and Golf Digest. Twice he has found "The Book of Mormon" in the trash. Bemused, Weber said he has plenty of other copies.
"I have not perceived that religion has been a barrier," Weber said. "My attitude has been that people are going to see me for who I am."
It's impossible to understand how dramatic this religious transformation is without understanding Southern history.
Historians say that since the Civil War, Baptists, and to a lesser extent Methodists, held a monopoly on the religious life of the South unrivaled in any other part of the nation, except perhaps Utah, which is overwhelmingly Mormon.
That monopoly has been characterized by a particular form of Protestantism that prized conversion, a personal relationship with Jesus, and the assurance of one's salvation. Whether in camp meeting or Sunday school, Baptists and Methodists passed on to successive generations of Southerners a heritage that revolved around the Bible, personal morality, regular church attendance and the overarching goal of "winning lost souls."
In the 1920s, writer and critic H. L. Mencken blasted this type of religion, calling the South "a bunghole of the United States, a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodism, snake charmers, phony real-estate operators and syphilitic evangelists."
Whatever Mencken's views, Southerners were unapologetic about their faith. An 1873 Sabbath law prohibited North Carolinians from "all ordinary work or business, on land or water." And in 1920, the city of Charlotte passed a municipal ordinance forbidding debate with a Detroit atheist on evolution.
Southerners loved their religion, and they loved it hot.
The Rev. Samuel Wait was among the founders of this brand of religion. A New England Baptist, he traveled to North Carolina in the early 1800s and found here a dearth of ministerial training. Determined to do something about it, he founded an agricultural institute for ministers in 1834. Students worked half the day and spent the other half poring over the Bible. Four years later, the school became Wake Forest College, and its emphasis shifted to the liberal arts. In 1956, when the college moved to Winston-Salem, a Southern Baptist Convention seminary established at the college five years earlier took over the entire Wake Forest campus.
But by the 1970s, partly in response to waves of migration, the old way of life began to change. First, state legislators allowed towns to hold referendums on selling liquor in bars. The legislation passed over the loud protests of Baptists and other Protestants who insisted that "liquor by the drink" would destroy morality. Next, Sunday "blue laws" were gradually eased, and in 1993 Hudson Belk got front-page coverage for becoming the last department store in the Southeast to open its doors on Sundays.
Beginning in 1971, Baptists also began losing their dominance, dropping from 50.5 percent of all religious adherents that year to 32.6 percent of all adherents in 2000.
These days, in towns like Wake Forest, schoolteachers freely assign homework on Wednesdays -- traditionally a church night. Restaurants that once catered to Baptist breakfast clubs are now sharing space with members of other faith groups. And the missionary knocking on the front door is more likely to be a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness.
Ben Aycock, a native of the town and a member of Wake Forest Baptist, has noticed the change. "A lot of the people I play golf with aren't members of my church," he said, "whereas the people I used to play with were all members of my church."
Bevies of Baptists
Still, it would be a mistake to suggest that Baptists no longer exert influence in the town of Wake Forest.
Despite St. Catherine of Siena's huge numbers, it is the only Catholic church in town. By comparison, there are between one and two dozen Baptist churches in northern Wake County, and it's safe to say that of the 15,000 residents of Wake Forest who attend a religious congregation, the largest single group are likely Baptists.
But there's probably no more telling sign of the decline of the Baptist hegemony in Wake Forest than the calculated decisions by two of its fastest-growing churches to avoid the word "Baptist" in their name. Richland Creek Community Church and North Wake Church both affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention, but neither the signs on their buildings nor the bulletins handed out Sunday morning advertise this fact.
Not only have these two churches shed the Baptist name, they've shed the image, too. Gone are the hymnals, the organ, and the wooden pews bolted to the floor. These churches consider themselves contemporary.
The sanctuary at North Wake Church, for example, resembles a cozy nightclub. On the stage are an assortment of electric guitars and a drum set. Nearly every member of the band wears jeans; two sport goatees. And when they jam Christian praise songs, the bass is so loud that congregants can feel the reverberations.
The Rev. Larry Trotter, the church pastor, said he never set foot in a Baptist church before he was called to lead this one. And he still doesn't think the denominational name is all that useful.
"We found it made it harder for people to understand the message we were communicating," he said.
At a time when Americans are becoming ever more savvy consumers, loyalty to a particular brand is waning. Today, people pick a church not because of its theology or because they were reared in a particular tradition. They pick a church where they feel comfortable. Instead of asking about doctrine, they ask: Is it friendly? Is the worship exciting? Are there programs for the kids?
"Denomination is not important, and certainly not to seekers," said Samuel S. Hill, a retired professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a leading expert on Southern religion. "They care about the tone of the community," he said. "They respond to joy, freedom, expressiveness."
Johnny and Teresa Edwards picked Richland Creek Community Church for just those reasons. The couple, North Carolina natives, and their two children moved to Wake Forest a year ago. Neither had gone to church regularly when they were growing up, and they quit going altogether after they got married 12 years ago.
But the couple had been thinking of joining a church and wanted to offer religious education for Megan, 8, and Cole, 4.
Teresa Edwards, 33, attended a Presbyterian church in Fayetteville as a girl, but said she didn't feel drawn to that denomination. More than anything else, the word "community" attracted her to Richland Creek.
"The fact that anyone was welcome is what really pleased me," said Edwards, who joined the church after four visits saying it felt warm, friendly and genuine.
Increasingly, that's the lesson Baptists are learning in this age of diversity.
A Southern Focus Poll conducted last year asked 800 Southerners whether they saw themselves as different from non-Southerners, or as linked to other people around the world. Nearly 50 percent said they saw themselves as linked to people around the world; 29 percent saw themselves as different from non-Southerners.
"It seems that what the South is doing is thinking globally," said James Peacock, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who devised the question for the poll. "Instead of the chip on the shoulder, opposition to the rest of the nation, they're opening up."
Church pastors know this better than anyone.
"A church is bigger than any one denomination," said Trotter, the pastor of North Wake Church.
Trotter says the Baptist affiliation allows his church to support more missionaries than it could on its own. But it's not the central piece.
"Being Baptist is a small slice ... a small part of what Christianity is doing around the world," he said. "It's not the thing we champion for our identity."
THE BAPTIST TEA PARTY
By Dr. G. Earl Guinn
President Emeritus, Louisiana College
An address to the Executive Board and Advisory Council of
Mainstream Louisiana Baptists
July 23, 2001
Early on American school children are told of the Boston tea party and the rebellion against tyranny it reflected. "No taxation without representation" became the battle cry of the American Revolution.
The human hunger for freedom cannot be suppressed forever. This insistence on liberty has been at the heart of the Baptist movement from its inception. In the statement that led to his death, Thomas Helwys, founder of perhaps the first Baptist church in England, told King James-the one who authorized the King James version of the Bible-that while he was a great king, he was not Lord of the conscience. It is to the Lord Jesus Christ and to Him alone that the soul is accountable.
Apparently those who hatched the scheme to take control of the convention (SBC and LBC) and force creedal conformity upon the constituency underestimated the importance of soul freedom in Baptist experience and history. They have captured the apparatus but find themselves losing much of the funding it formerly enjoyed. The victors have no power to tax, and Baptists are not inclined to support that in which representation is denied.
The disenfranchisement of all but the "faithful" has led to a Baptist tea party that is growing in attendance. Baptist universities and colleges in a number of states have broken away in the interest of freedom and excellence in education. State conventions are altering patterns of giving. Several alliances and fellowships have been organized. A number of new seminaries have been created. Some churches have severed their relationship with the SBC. A larger number of churches provide optional giving opportunities. An unknown number of Baptists, including pastors, embarrassed and denied opportunity to serve, have gone to other denominations. The invitation of some convention leaders to conform or get out is seen by many as an invitation to the Tea Party and they are accepting.
The present rulers are getting frantic over the loss of financial support by the disenfranchised. Their cries and accusations will get louder and more numerous. They would do well to remember that support will continue to decline as more Baptists realize that they have viable alternatives. The Tea Party is getting larger day by day.
At the meeting of the Louisiana Baptist Convention last year, the take-over forces won major victories. They won approval of the highly controversial revision of the long-standing Baptist Faith and Message statement and elected their candidate for president. He is pledged to support the SBC program in every way. A third victory was the election of their candidates to all boards and committees. Now the convention and boards are under their control. That does not auger well for freedom and representation.
As the convention was coming to a close, Dr. Jon Stubblefield arose to a point of personal privilege. He quietly and courteously pointed out to the president and remaining messengers the narrow margin by which officers were elected and how narrowly the convention was divided in other matters. In the interest of harmony, he stressed the importance of fairness in all convention activities.
Now let us note subsequent convention developments as well as presidential appointments to committees and programs. Does he (LBC President) believe that our numbers and contributions deserve representation? We shall see. You might find in his actions an invitation to the Baptist Tea Party.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
-- William Shakespeare
Changing times call for a change in names, members of Bethel Baptist Church decided, voting Sunday to rechristen themselves as Living Hope Church.
"We've got to adapt to our culture and it's not about us. It's about becoming all things to all men that by all possible means we can save some," said the Rev. Jay Williamson, citing the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 9, verse 22.
The pastor said the name of the South Toledo church, which was founded in 1965, had a detrimental effect on efforts to spread the gospel.
For starters, Mr. Williamson said, "bethel," a Hebrew word meaning "house of God," does not have much relevancy in modern American society.
"It's a wonderful name to people who have Old Testament literacy and know the story, but to the average unchurched person, it's a foreign word," he said. "It doesn't have any appeal. In fact, it has a subtly negative effect."
And the name Baptist, he said, can give people a false impression of what services are like at the Glendale Avenue church.
"People think of Baptists as Bible-thumping, extreme fundamentalist types who are thrown onto the evening news saying, 'God hates gays,'" Mr. Williamson said in an interview this week. "Some people may think of Baptists as being unsympathetic to the world's needs.
"But we as a church are trying and attempting to follow in the footsteps of Christ."
Those footsteps are aimed at saving people's souls, Mr. Williamson said. And while stereotypes about the church's name were generally untrue and unfair, they nonetheless impeded church members' efforts to invite people to church.
In the spring, when Bethel's members invited people to attend special services linked to the release of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of The Christ, some people balked when they heard it was a Baptist church, he said.
"It's like, why do we have to fight that battle? It's one less barrier for them to deal with now," Mr. Williamson said.
A graduate of Whitmer High School, the 49-year-old minister was raised in a Toledo Baptist church and graduated from Cedarville University, a Baptist-affiliated institution near Dayton.
He said the new name, Living Hope, was inspired by the Bible's I Peter 1:3, where Apostle Peter writes: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..."
"We wanted a name that did not have a denominational label and one that didn't have a biblical term that would be confusing," Mr. Williamson said.
"Our church has not been your traditional stuffy Baptist church. We have an uptempo style of music and we are trying to relevant. But we certainly don't compromise our message," he said.
Another effort he has taken to make people feel comfortable at Bethel Baptist/Living Hope is to not wear a tie and to ask ushers to dress in "business casual" attire.
"For some people, that's a big step," Mr. Williamson said.
The motive was to make visitors who are dressed casually feel comfortable at the church.
"We're doing the little things not to make people feel like we're stuffed shirts," he said.
The Rev. Andrew Edwards III, pastor of Northwest Baptist Church on Alexis Road, an independent Baptist church, said he does not believe the name Baptist is a hindrance to ministry.
"As far as reaching people, our job is to get the Gospel out, not to add to the church," Mr. Edwards said. "The Bible says in Acts Chapter 2 that 'the Lord added to the church.' You sow the seed, and people respond differently. I'm not going to be ashamed to be Baptist."
Church doctrine is more important than names or labels, Mr. Edwards said, speaking in general and not specifically of Bethel/Living Hope.
"People don't want to draw a line. There's a philosophy out there to give people what they want instead of what they need. They say you just have to believe in Jesus. But when you throw the Bible aside, you throw Jesus aside."
Living Hope will remain an independent member of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches and the legal documents will remain under the Bethel Baptist name, he said.
Mr. Williamson, who was elected pastor in January, 2002, said he first brought up the idea of a name change in November. The church appointed a 10-member committee to research the concept and, after a number of meetings, concluded that a name change was, indeed, the right thing to do. The church, which has an average Sunday morning attendance of about 200, overwhelmingly approved the change Sunday, voting 88-12 percent for the switch.
Mr. Williamson said he began thinking about a name change when a pastor friend in Wisconsin led his Baptist church to change its name. "That kind of planted some seeds in my mind," he said. Living Hope Church, 4621 Glendale Ave., will celebrate its new name with a special service at 10:45 a.m. Sept. 12 with special guest Steve Camp, a Christian singer and minister. An all-church celebration picnic will follow.