Religion

Identity crisis: Will Myers Park Baptist Church drop ‘Baptist’ from its name?

Rev. Benjamin Boswell, right/facing camera, the senior pastor at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC speaks with hugs an attendee of the church’s special series Awakening to Racial Injustice on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. Rev. Boswell was joined by Rev. Dr. Peter Wheery, Senior Minister of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church for the discussion.
Rev. Benjamin Boswell, right/facing camera, the senior pastor at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC speaks with hugs an attendee of the church’s special series Awakening to Racial Injustice on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. Rev. Boswell was joined by Rev. Dr. Peter Wheery, Senior Minister of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church for the discussion. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

In a podcast he co-hosted this spring, the Rev. Benjamin Boswell summed up the challenges that he — as senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church — and his members face in trying to describe the congregation to curious outsiders:

“(Explaining that) we’re the real Baptists, and we do it the right way, is hard,” Boswell said on the show, addressing the problem his church is having with attracting new members. “It’s a long elevator speech, to say, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m not like that. Not Southern Baptist. Not those Baptists. The different kind of Baptist.’“

This discussion is one that’s been going on at the 75-year-old church, long one of Charlotte’s most prominent and most progressive, for some time now. But the situation is coming to a head this summer, as the congregation prepares to embark on the longest and hardest look it’s taken at its brand in recent memory, in an effort to convey how welcoming and inclusive it is as quickly and clearly as possible.

And on the surface, it might seem like there’s an easy solution — one that folks at Myers Park Baptist are in the process of considering yet again, having already done so multiple times over the past few decades. That is: They could eliminate the word “Baptist” from its name.

Maybe the name isn’t the problem, however, when it comes to appealing to potential new members. Maybe it’s the branding, in general. Maybe it’s the messaging. Or maybe it’s the fact that the staid and traditional-looking facade of the church across from Queens University of Charlotte in Myers Park fails to give any sense of how progressive-thinking the people worshiping inside it actually are.

These are among the issues that church leaders are priming the members of its roughly 2,000-person congregation to wrestle with — via methods such as Boswell’s four-episode June podcast series, titled “Identity Crisis” — as the church determines how best to clarify its public face and its identity.

The key word here, by the way, is priming.

The conversation, church leaders say, is just beginning; actual, substantial debate on what to do about possibly re-branding Myers Park Baptist or sharpening its identity won’t begin until January, and then the plan is to spend the entire calendar year of 2020 facilitating discussions in various shapes and sizes.

The church is run by the congregation, so any major decision — like, say, changing the name to remove the word “Baptist” — would have to be put to a vote. Church leaders told the Observer this week that no vote on a name change would take place until 2021 at the earliest.

“We’re calling it ‘a year of discernment,’” said Chaz Seale, chair of the church’s Identity Task Force (more on that in a minute), “to discuss all of these things thoroughly before we ask, ‘OK, are there any big things that we need to make decisions on, and how do you feel about it?’”

‘We’re losing people’

Founded in 1943, Myers Park Baptist has long been focused on social justice and has viewed and pitched itself as progressive for even longer.

Under its previous senior minister, the Rev. Stephen Shoemaker, the church was famously ejected from the state Baptist Convention in 2007 for opening its doors to gays and lesbians. (It is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and American Baptist Churches USA, not the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.)

Boswell — who became Myers Park Baptist’s youngest leader ever when he took over at age 35 in 2015 — has during his tenure demonstrated keen interest in issues related to racial injustice and gender equality, and has intensified efforts to attract millennial members.

The overarching title of the podcasts he co-hosts is “Awakening Shalom,” which borrows the Hebrew word for peace, and he followed up the “Identity Crisis” podcasts this week with one focusing on queer theory and queer theology. This summer, he unveiled a new logo for the church, and in the church’s August-September newsletter, he explained that it “includes the rainbow colors of the unity flag as the dial to convey those other important words of our covenant: ‘We are open to all and closed to none.’”

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He also oversaw the drawing up of the strategic plan 2-1/2 years ago that indicated that the church needed to take a good, hard look at its brand. The problem, Boswell said, was that the branding didn’t communicate — to those considering giving the church a look — how welcoming and inclusive Myers Park Baptist has been for a long time.

The Identity Task Force was created, and it eventually prompted the church to hire a consulting firm to help evaluate its branding while at the same time conducting a yearlong “brand audit” that incorporated feedback from the entire congregation. The task force recently summed up all the findings in the same edition of the newsletter that announced the new logo.

Among the key findings, based on the consulting firm’s poll of nearly 700 people within a 10-mile radius of Myers Park Baptist: Only 3 percent of respondents named the church when asked simply to name all churches in Charlotte that they could. (By comparison, 41 percent named Elevation Church.)

Another big takeaway? Respondents generally associated the word “Baptist” with words and phrases like “conservative,” “strict in terms of scriptural interpretation,” “possessing an obedience to God,” and “judgmental.”

“It’s so, so bad,” Boswell said of the connotation.

But he also said: “There’s definitely some strong feelings from folks who feel that their own personal spiritual identity is tied to the church’s name, and also that the name is historic and iconic and we shouldn’t change it because of its history within the city, regardless of how the word Baptist (is interpreted).

“But the problem is, we’re losing people who would never even show up at the door — just because of the word.”

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‘Christianity is in an identity crisis’

The ironic thing is, Myers Park not only doesn’t require members to be Baptist, it proudly counts members of other religions and boasts that its congregation also includes atheists and agnostics.

And the church leadership is fiercely protective of its members.

In his initial chat with the Observer, Boswell acknowledged that what’s going on at his church is noteworthy in a broader cultural context.

“Being in an identity crisis as a congregation around our church identity,” Boswell said, “is really fitting in this particular time, where Christianity in America is in an identity crisis — for a whole bunch of reasons. Because of Trump, and white evangelical voters, it’s because of church decline in America, because of changing demographics of American society.”

But after being interviewed, he penned an email to the congregation emphasizing, in light of this story, that “our work as a Church is really just beginning in a new way, and the final decision will only take place when the congregation’s discernment is complete.”

Tara Harris, the chair of the board of deacons at the church, also emphasized that the church is early in the process.

“I would think of this as a very long marathon-style race that we will get ready to run,” she said.

“We’re getting excited about the process, but we haven’t even gotten to the starting line yet. And I just thought it was really important for you to hear that, because I want to look out for our people. ...

“They don’t really need the Charlotte community to tell them how to identify their church.”

‘If we keep the name the same...’

Church leaders have also emphasized repeatedly that the discussions they’re preparing to have are about much more than a name change.

Yet at the same time, they seem to understand that a name change will be one of the topics they wrestle with the most. No one’s talking about changes in ideology. Everyone’s talking about changes in messaging, in branding, in marketing, in conveying as quickly and clearly as possible what you’ll get if you step inside Myers Park Baptist.

The right name could do that, and although a number of longtime members are still struggling to imagine parting with the original name, the tide may be turning.

“In 2003, I spoke out strongly about the need to keep our name,” lifelong member Bob Thomason wrote in an email to the congregation last month. “I felt the word Baptist was the anchor to who we were. I was proud to be the descendant of the first American Baptists who believed so strongly in religious freedom and who were so tolerant and inclusive in their practices. While those values are still important to me, I have since become convinced it is time for a new Church name.”

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Myers Park Baptist Church sits where Queens Road turns in Selwyn Avenue, directly across from Queens University of Charlotte. Logan Price Charlotte Observer File Photo

The driving factors for his change of heart? First, the same thing Boswell said in the podcast, about having to explain to people the difference between this kind of Baptist and that kind of Baptist. Second, again, the fact that the church’s makeup really isn’t all that Baptist anymore.

But a plot twist could be looming: Boswell added that it’s possible a name change will never come to a vote at all.

“If it comes to the point where we think we’re gonna vote and it’s gonna be 50-50, we’re not gonna vote,” Boswell said.

“Because we don’t want to alienate half the congregation on something like this. And we’re not gonna die tomorrow if we keep the name the same. ... I mean, I think in the end, if your mission is strong enough and your marketing is strong enough — and I do think it’ll be a lot of marketing — sometimes you can overcome even the worst name.”

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Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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