Members of the 105-year-old First Baptist Church of Deerfield Beach recently voted 95 percent in favor of renaming the church The Church at Deerfield Beach, a move that went into effect on Pentecost Sunday, June 4th.
The trend is gaining momentum among mainline Protestant churches to exclude their denominational affiliation from their church’s name as denominationalism becomes increasingly irrelevant in a post-Christian culture.
Critics argue that a church without a denominational reference is five times more likely to be perceived as hiding their beliefs; however, proponents are quick to identify exactly what is believed about church denominations.
President of LifeWay Resources for the Southern Baptist Convention, Thom Rainer, solicited his Twitterverse by asking, “What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Baptist’?” The top response: legalism. Others included: potluck, outdated, boring, fundamentalism, men only, fighting, no alcohol, no dancing and grape juice.
To confront the effects generated by the misunderstanding of the word “Baptist,” Jeremy Earnest, 40, senior pastor of The Church at Deerfield Beach, and the elected leaders, acted upon the years of prayer, wise counsel and sensing of God’s affirmation by challenging the status quo. During their second quarterly business meeting, which began with a dinner where students taught the adults how to use Snapchat, and in return the adults taught the students about table etiquette, the leadership called for a vote to remove any unnecessary barrier that might keep the unchurched from gracing their pews, specifically by removing the word “Baptist” from the church name.
Wall vs. bridge
While sharing his conviction, Earnest referenced an article penned by Pastor Brandon Park of Connection Point Church in Kansas City, Missouri, formerly First Baptist Church Raytown, titled “Should we keep ‘Baptist’ in the church name?” Park writes that the first role of the church is to let the outside world know “there’s a God who loves them and a community of people who will love them. They can learn what it means to be a Baptist once they get here” — as The Church at Deerfield Beach will remain affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Earnest affirmed that, as a church, they are “drastically different” than they were a year ago. “It’s not the same church that it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago;” it is a transformed Baptist church concerned for a city with a sobering percentage of residents without a church home. However, Earnest believes many bypass his church, citing Park’s claim that the name “Baptist” can be “more of a wall than a bridge,” noting churches with denominational affiliation in their name can be perceived as unwelcoming or exclusive. Earnest agrees when Park writes, “If the ‘Baptist’ in my church’s name causes an unbeliever to think of me as a Westboro Baptist Church member holding up a picket sign, then I can live without having the word ‘Baptist’ in my name.”
Easing anxieties, longtime members of First Baptist Church of Deerfield Beach enthusiastically vocalized their endorsement of the name change during the meeting, claiming the change precisely represents the transformation they had undergone as a church, which they say parallels occasions in the Bible when a person received a new name that identified them as a faithful follower of God. Similarly, the members departed the evening eager to share their faith and invite people to church after having accepted their new identity as The Church at Deerfield Beach.
While nationally there is resistance to the excluding of denominational affiliation, Earnest and his members stand firm in their decision to remove the word “Baptist.” For them, they claim only one name, Jesus Christ, and they assert that this was an act of faith toward their mission, which trumps tradition.
The Church at Deerfield Beach — similar to The Church at Ephesus or The Church at Philippi — believes both the unchurched and churched have a place in God’s redemptive story that is unfolding through a movement of Christ-followers seeking a deeper relationship with God as they prioritize their time and resources to love and serve the people of Deerfield Beach.
C.J. Wetzler is the NextGen pastor at The Church at Deerfield Beach. Connect with him on social media: @thecjwetzler