By Jeff Brumley
Over the weekend, Virginia Heights Baptist Church in Roanoke, Va., plunged headlong into a continuing, decades-long trend in American Christianity by dropping the denominational reference from its name.
So when Nelson Harris showed up for work Monday it was as the pastor of what is now called Heights Community Church.
Harris said the change followed years of having people either avoid the church thinking it was Southern Baptist, or having conservatives show up for worship only to be shocked by the appearance of women deacons and worship leaders.
“If having a denominational name on the sign was going to deter people from visiting, or feeling like they could not be a part, then removing that barrier would be a good thing.”
But in no other way, Harris added, will the church give up its Baptist identity. Virginia Heights is maintaining its affiliation with the Roanoke Valley Baptist Association, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
‘Open about their relationships’
And that hits on another facet of the trend away from denominational identity that began in the early 1980s and picked up steam the following decade: congregations dropping the name but maintaining relationships with their original denominations and associations.
While the abandonment of outward organizational affiliations is largely an issue of local demographics social trends, the tendency to maintain denominational identity in almost every other capacity stems from theology, polity and missions, say a number of new church starters, pastors and denominational experts.
It’s also one that challenges churches which change their names to be honest and transparent with prospective members about just what kind of congregation they’re considering joining.
“I’m sure there are churches that have been dishonest, but I don’t think that would be a good idea,” said John Chandler, leader of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board’s Spence Network and a columnist for ABPnews/Herald.
Chandler added that churches are much more likely to be open about their affiliations if they have undergone the extensive research and discussion required to effectively change their name.
“Churches that are open to rebranding … are going to be more open about their relationships with denominational bodies,” he said.
Focus on mission
Rather than sitting on the information about Baptist or other denominational identity, most congregations have found that it works best to sprinkle such affiliations throughout web sites, bulletins, programs and other materials, said Eddie Hammett, author, congregational consultant and president of the North Carolina-based Transforming Solutions.
“I’ve never found anybody trying to hide it,” Hammett said. “It may not be in the phone directory or on the sign, but they don’t try to hide it.”
Nor do they simply state such affiliations and leave it at that. Usually relationships with other organizations are presented as catalysts for helping congregations achieve their core mission, he said.
“The focus isn’t on denominational loyalty but on the common mission,” Hammett said.
That idea is also behind the foundation of many of the missional church starts launched in recent years by the CBF.
‘Free to be autonomous’
Some Fellowship congregations, like The Well at Springfield, in Jacksonville, Fla., were launched without Baptist in the name but see themselves immersed in Baptist in values and calling.
“We see our Baptist identity expressed in mission partnerships and in the way we are free to be autonomous,”said Susan Rogers, pastor of the The Well.
The daily living out of principles like the individual’s freedom to interpret Scripture and separation of church and state communicate that identity more than a name on the sign, she said.
Those hallmarks of Baptist faith are largely unknown in a city dominated by Southern Baptist churches where anti-gay attitudes led recently to defeat of a human rights ordinance. That defeat was openly celebrated in a large SBC church.
“We want to distance ourselves from that kind of alienation of people and that kind of treatment of other human beings,” Rogers said.
In Jacksonville, it would be difficult to identify as Baptist without most people assuming it’s what they see in the local media most of the time.
“We didn’t want to make the front door our identity — where immediately some people would feel they don’t belong,” Rogers said.
Using context to decide on a church name — as the Well has done — is the way all of theCBF’s missional church plants have been handled, said Bo Prosser, coordinator of organizational relationships for the Fellowship.
And that’s also why roughly 60 percent of those new starts have chosen to include the word Baptist in their titles, he said.
Basically, it’s left to the local starters to decide. They usually do so based on the community in which they are located and how well the Baptist name plays — or doesn’t.
“It’s so highly contextual that we don’t have a hard-and-fast rule about where you go with that,” Prosser said.
He added that a number of long-established CBF churches have recently dropped Baptist from their names, including congregations in Orlando and Miami.
“It really is a contextual response to culture,” Prosser said.
In Roanoke, Harris said the congregation he has led for 17 years had grappled for some time with shifts in attitudes about church. They’d noticed that about half of new members joined by transferring their membership from non-Baptist congregations.
“We live in a post-denominational world,” he said. “People want a good church, whether it’s Presbyterian or Methodist or Baptist.”
They are in search of a place where they can connect with a local congregation that also provides them avenues for serving the world around them — locally and globally.
That’s why Heights Community Church will maintain its Baptist ties and identity — though just not on the sign.
And newcomers will know it immediately, Harris added.
“Our affiliation is not something we are embarrassed about or try to shy away from,” Harris said. “If you search around on our web site, you will quickly discover our Baptist affiliations.”