My church still has the word “Baptist” in its name. No, we’re not some weird, legalistic, hyper-conservative, old-fashioned church. I preach in jeans most of the time. Part of the reason we haven’t scrubbed the word Baptist off our sign is because we have a pretty good reputation in our community and have never felt huge pressure to change. But I totally get why some churches do feel that pressure.
Every time there is a news story about Westboro Baptist I cringe. They make me feel ashamed of being a Baptist. Recently there was a pastor near us that got a lot of press for saying some mean, evil, unchristian-like things about the people who lost their lives in the Orlando shooting. This guy pastors at a church that has the word “Baptist” in its name. These “Bad-Press Baptists” make every Baptist pastor feel horribly insecure about how people view their church.
Part of the problem with Baptists is that we fiercely believe in local church autonomy. No one gets to tell us what to believe or what we can do. So it’s not hard for a pastor with a bad hermeneutic to wrongly interpret and apply a passage of scripture and not have anyone who can rein him in. There is no presbytery to hold him accountable.
Now I love the fact that my church doesn’t have to answer to some home office in Milwaukee. It is one of the Baptist distinctives that works well. I’m not interested in giving that up. But I have to live with the reality that this independence comes with a risk. Honestly, any form of church governance that involves people will run the risk of being misused.
The reason that so many Baptist churches have changed their name is because they really love the gospel. They don’t want there to be any stumbling block that might prevent someone from coming to church. They don’t want people to wrongly associate them with those weird Baptists. There is a perception that the word “Baptist” is a dirty word out there in the world. Our hyper-sensitivity to the bad-press Baptists and our own insecurity makes it feel like the word “Baptist” is universally hated.
But is our feeling about the word “Baptist” a reality? Is it true that most unchurched people out there have negative feelings toward the word “Baptist”? Has it really become dirty word? I don’t want there to be any obstacles to our ability to proclaim the gospel. But I also don’t want to make a change based on untrue perceptions, insecure feelings, or fear.
Lifeway Research came out with a study last year that really helps shed some light on this issue. They surveyed people who identified as non-religious and asked them a few questions about their perceptions of different denominations. The answers were surprising and encouraging.
The first question they asked was, “When I see a church named the following I assume it is not for me…” and then they listed several different denominational titles. We would expect that a majority of unchurched people would say that they assume all of the denominations are not for them, with Baptist topping the list by a high margin. But the study found that no denomination was ruled out by the majority of people. And “Baptist” was at the very bottom of the list! Baptist churches were viewed even more favorably than non-denominational churches!
The second question simply asked people for their impression of the following faith groups. At the top of the list of churches that are viewed as “favorable” was Baptist! In other words, this study shows that for the most part people have a good impression of the word Baptist.
In a similar study conducted by Gray Matter Research in 2013 the findings were the same. Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, notes, “There is some belief out there that the unchurched run away from anything that says ‘Baptist’ or ‘Lutheran’ or some other denomination, but the fact is only a minority of the unchurched have negative perceptions about denominational names in general.”
Maybe this seems like an unimportant issue, but for those of us who are a part of a church with the “B” word still in its name, this is an area of real concern. We never want to do anything that will get in the way of people coming to a saving faith in Jesus. And if the word Baptist has become a stumbling block then it should go! However, what the research seems to be saying is that Baptist is not a dirty word! In fact, it is more respected than non-denominational titles!
If you still have that word in your church name, stop worrying about it. It is not preventing people from coming to your church and changing it won’t flood your church with new people. Go ahead and funnel all that nervous energy into updating your stale website. If you are a Baptist church that has taken the word “Baptist” out, it’s OK to let people know who you really are. Baptist is not a dirty word.
About Andy Flowers
Andy has served as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California since 2007. He graduated from the Doctor of Ministry program at Western Seminary in 2016. Andy is the author of Leading Through Succession: Why Pastoral Leadership is the Key to a Healthy Transition.