PROTESTANTISM Churches wonder what's in a name

Many parishes are changing to generic names to draw in new parishioners.
MILWAUKEE -- Keeping the beat amid staccato flourishes, the praise-band drummer in Spring Creek Church's sanctuary was a metaphor in motion last Sunday as hundreds of worshippers followed lyrics on large, wall-mounted video screens.
Miles from its geographic roots, the Pewaukee, Wis., church has evolved far beyond pump-organ hymns and strait-laced formalities. However, its Bible-based beliefs have remained as steady as a metronome since it was founded in 1881 as Garfield Avenue Baptist Church in Milwaukee.
The church's name has changed along the way -- part of a continuing national trend in which denominational identities are eliminated or downplayed to create broader appeal in an era in which people church-shop.
Decades of steady growth have gotten an extra boost in recent years from expanded activities and a $4.2 million sanctuary with state-of-the-art sound, video projection and theater-style lighting.
Average attendance on Sundays -- including 1,150 people in the two morning worship services and more than 200 young children in Sunday school classes who do not attend the services -- hit a new high in July.
"Baptist" is gone, but Spring Creek still has "church" in its name.
Reaching out
The latest trend among churches trying to draw people who want something different or who have never attended church is to adopt a catchy, nonchurch name. As of May 1, for example, the First Assembly of God in the San Francisco Bay area became simply Harbor Light.
Emerging churches -- more intimate faith communities reaching out beyond baby boomers to those of Generation X and Y -- are using names such as Three Nails in Pittsburgh and Landing Place in Columbus, Ohio, said Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
"I think what we are seeing is the detribalizing of Protestantism, in that if you have a large external constituency, which would identify culturally or historically with a particular denomination, then obviously it's a plus factor to have that identification," Gibbs said. "But [that changes] when the community becomes increasingly diversified.
"Probably after Vietnam and Watergate there was an increasing distrust of institutions, so that Jesus was still in, but the institutional church was no longer an attraction. So, I think that the dropping of the denominational label is to become more generic, less of a threat, less of a reminder of negative stereotypes if you've walked away from church."
The trend accelerated when large numbers of baby boomers who had left churches began returning in the 1980s, but the process continues today, said Gibbs, who is co-author of a book on emerging churches to be published later this year.
New name and location
Elmbrook Church -- a nondenominational megachurch in the town of Brookfield, Wis., that draws more than 6,000 adults to Sunday services and has planted eight sister churches in the Milwaukee area -- was started in 1958 as an independent Baptist congregation and adopted the Elmbrook name about a decade later to reflect the fact that most of its members then were coming from nearby Elm Grove and Brookfield, said Dick Robinson, senior associate pastor at Elmbrook.
Spring Creek Church first dropped "Avenue" from its name when it moved to a new location in 1964, becoming Garfield Baptist Church. When inadequate parking and cramped quarters prompted another move in 1997, "Baptist" and "Garfield" were dropped.
"The primary reason for the name change was we relocated to a new place, and Garfield does not relate in any way, shape or form to this community," said Senior Pastor Chip Bernhard, who has a master of divinity degree from Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary.
Drawing audiences
Bernhard said the church is attracting a lot of young couples, but it's also drawing senior citizens. The church could have grown faster by targeting only the young, but it chose to gradually become more contemporary without abandoning seniors, he said. One traditional hymn is sung at every service. There are classes and special programs for older members.
"One of the things that makes us special is the blending of the generations," he said.
Church members don't identify themselves as evangelicals. However, the church's teachings are in line with general evangelical characteristics, and the church could be considered evangelical, Bernhard said.
The church's contemporary music and audio-visual equipment are a far cry from what lifelong member Stacey Gresbach, 31, grew up with at the church's second site in Wauwatosa, Wis.
"The biblical principles are the same," she said. "Our church doctrine is the same. The preaching is the same. It's from the word of God. Really, all that has changed, I guess, has been the presentation."

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