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Churches opt to drop "Baptist' from names

Leaders have differing opinions on whether churches are doing the right thing by trying to be more inclusive or breaking away from the Southern Baptists' political stances.

The people in the pews are the same, and their theology hasn't changed, but the Baptists at First Baptist Church of Palm City are no longer advertising themselves as such.

Following a decision by the church's five-member body of elders, the 40-year-old church recently decided to change its name to Crossroads Community Church.

Although the church decided to drop the "Baptist" from its name, elders chose to retain their affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with 16-million members.

The Rev. Jon Jacobs, the church's pastor of seven years, said the elders came to the decision after months of prayer and discussion about what the church wanted to be and whom it wanted to attract. Jacobs said church leaders were nervous that the SBC's negative publicity in recent years would alienate potential members.

"We are committed to the convention as long as it fulfills the mission of Christ," Jacobs said. "But the bottom line is, we've got a mission and we have to fulfill it. If the convention lends itself to completing that, then great. If it doesn't, then it doesn't."

The church, in an upscale retirement community on Florida's east coast, typically draws between 500 and 600 people each Sunday.

Severing, or at least loosening, the ties with the denomination has been a choice increasing numbers of Southern Baptist churches have made in recent years, often reluctantly. Moderate Baptists disagree with the denomination's conservative bent following a major leadership shift over the past 20 years.

While it's by no means a mass exodus, more of the already-autonomous churches seem to be flexing their independence. Several large churches in North Carolina and South Carolina, one of the denomination's geographic strongholds, have dropped their Baptist affiliation.

The debate over the name "Southern Baptist" has even reached the national level. The SBC's executive committee rejected a move in February to change the name of the convention; that decision was reinforced by a majority vote at this summer's convention.

The SBC's controversial public positions in the past three years have brought increasingly negative publicity. In 1997, Southern Baptists launched a boycott of the Walt Disney Co. and its subsidiaries because, they said, the entertainment giant was pandering to homosexuals and no longer was family-friendly.

In 1998, the annual convention approved a revision to the denomination's statement of faith calling on women to "submit graciously" to the "servant leadership" of their husbands, and women's groups said the convention was trying to turn back the clock on female equality.

This summer's convention in Atlanta produced a resolution criticizing President Clinton, a Southern Baptist, for proclaiming June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

Jacobs said although he theologically agrees with the positions the SBC has taken, he does not believe that the church in general, or the SBC in particular, should be involved in crafting political messages or passing sweeping resolutions that alienate non-Baptists.

"When a denomination or church turns its attention to politics, it becomes very dangerous, and what suffers is the Gospel," he said. "I don't feel the Lord's intention was for the church to be a political entity, but to be a group of people called out of this world."

Brent Small, the church's administrator, agreed. He said the SBC's Disney boycott has done nothing to further the Gospel but instead has given the denomination a bad name.

"I think they lost some of their credibility by coming out and saying they're going to boycott, because those are really superficial issues," Small said. "They are not going to change anybody's eternal destiny by saying they're going to boycott Disney."

Rob Tartaglia, associate pastor, said church members wanted to put more emphasis on biblical teaching and nurturing, and didn't want to alienate people simply because of the name on the church sign.

"There's a lot of people who wouldn't go to a Baptist church just because it has the word "Baptist' on it," he said.

Jacobs said the Palm City church no longer wanted to battle those "misconceptions and preconceptions" about what it was and what it stands for. What's more, the church has become home to more than just Baptists, Jacobs said. The new "Community" name reflects a church that attracts members from across the Christian spectrum, he said.

"We've got the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker," Jacobs said.

Other Southern Baptist leaders said that while they would have kept their Baptist name, they supported the church's right to make its own decisions, a Southern Baptist trademark.

"If that's what they feel they need to do, I would not stand in judgment against them," said the Rev. T.L. Holton, moderator of the Indian River Baptist Association, which represents about 52 churches and missions along Florida's Treasure Coast. "But for me, personally, I'm proud to be a Baptist."

Leaders at the national level agreed but said only a "distinct minority" of the more than 40,000 Southern Baptist churches in the United States choose not to use "Baptist" in their names, or have dropped it altogether.

"On the part of innumerable Baptists, there is no allergy to the name Southern Baptist Convention," said Art Toalston, editor of Baptist Press, the official SBC news agency. "It has come to represent a strong voice for biblical and moral conviction which many people feel is much needed in these troubled times in America."

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