>A few days ago, the Washington Post published a report about churches renaming themselves in order to avoid a perceived stigma that the name “Baptist” carries in the mind of some people. The report focuses on the plight of Baptist Temple Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Baptist Temple is an old congregation, organized more than 100 years ago. In the days when the church was vibrant and prosperous, more than 900 people worshiped in a sanctuary built for 500 people. Now, the church attendance averages about 30 people each Sunday.
The congregation feared that the church was dying. The pastor of the church, Rev. Todd Thomason, believed that the problem facing the church, a problem that had caused the membership to dwindle, was the name of the church.
In trying to understand the reason the church was failing to attract new members, Rev. Thomason 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.”
A few Sundays ago, 37 members came together after the morning service to decide whether to change the name of the church. After the vote was taken and counted, the result was a split decision. By the majority of one member, the church decided to change its name to Commonwealth Baptist Church. As a result of the vote, the church changed its name while maintaining its Baptist identity.
Many churches of different denominations are changing their names in order to attract people who are reluctant to identify themselves with a denomination. As attendance drops steadily in mainline churches, churches are changing their names in order to attract new people, fill the pews, and market themselves to a seeker generation.
But should churches change their names in order to gain more members? Should churches drop the word “Baptist” from their names? To Baptist or not to Baptist? This is the question of the moment. A new name or a generic name will not by itself attract more people to the church. The problem of dwindling attendance is systemic and there is no magic bullet that will solve the problem.
In what follows, I will submit four reasons many churches are unable to bring new people into their membership. These reasons are my own and do not come from any study conducted by a research firm. These reasons are what I think cause churches to dwindle and die. These reasons also reflect my Baptist perspective on this issue. They come out of my congregational church background and the revivalist movement in which I grew up.
The first reason churches are failing to reach more people with the gospel is the lack of spiritual power. Jesus said: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The work of the church cannot be accomplished by human power. The church needs to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish its work. Many churches and many pastors are using gimmicks and programs to attract people to the church, but unless the church is mightily infused with the power of the Spirit, all human efforts will come to nought.
The second reason churches have been unable to reach new people for Christ is because churches have lost their missionary fervor. Jesus said: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Today’s church is not willing to go after people. Jesus expected his disciples to go. In the parable of the great banquet, the master told his servants: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).
Instead of going where the people are, churches expect people to come to them. Today’s Christians have lost the fervency of the first disciples, the same fervency that motivated Paul to go “from house to house” preaching the Gospel. Today, only Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons go evangelizing house to house.
The third reason churches are failing to reach a lost world with the good news of Jesus Christ is the lack of costly discipleship in the lives of many Christians. Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” People want to follow Christ but they refuse to carry a cross. This is cheap grace, the kind of grace that does not please God.
Because of a lack of commitment to the cause of Christ, Christians are willing to conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2) and refuse to become involved in evangelism, ministry, and discipleship. They rely on a paid ministry to do the work they were called to do. These are the Christians who are not aware of their vocation in the world: “You are . . . a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” When people fail to declare the praise of God their Creator and of Jesus their Savior, then no one will believe in this wonderful Savior.
The fourth, and I believe the most important, reason churches are not reaching people for Christ and people are not being evangelized is because churches and their members have been afflicted with the plague of universalism, the doctrine that declares that in the end all people will be saved.
For generations, Christians believed the words of Paul: “There is salvation through no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Today we hear from some pulpits that we do not have to evangelize the Hindus, the Moslems, and the Buddhists because they will be saved by their faith. Some believe that their religion is as good as Christianity.
A few years ago Emil Brunner was able to talk about “The Scandal of Christianity.” Today, to many Christians, the scandal of Christianity is the Christian attempt at evangelizing Hindus, the Moslems, and Buddhists. When Christians accept as a fact that unbelievers are not “lost,” they also believe they do not need to be saved. If there are no lost people, why then go after the lost?
Evangelism is almost non-existent in many churches. Among Baptists, there are thousands of churches that each year do not add a single new member to their membership roll. Today, almost 50% of Americans are unchurched and yet, some churches are unable to reach even one of them and bring them to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Ministers must set the example. It is incumbent for pastors to go out and visit the lost and bring them the good news that Jesus saves. If Sunday after Sunday a preacher preaches the gospel from the pulpit but is unable after 52 Sundays to bring one new person to Christ, that preacher cannot expect the church to grow and the members to become evangelists.
I am not against changing the name of a church and dropping the “Baptist” from its name provided that we do not abandon our religious heritage. Baptists have a rich religious heritage and I am proud to be a Baptist. What we need, however, are Christians who are willing to go out into the world and proclaim from the top of their lungs that Jesus saves. And the task of evangelizing the lost must begin with the pastor.
After Baptist Temple Church changed its name to Commonwealth Baptist Church, the congregation asked their pastor to resign.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Church