Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Roger Williams' Fellowship Bonney Muses on ABE Naming Confusion and Perceived Deception

Rev. Timothy Bonney, a leader within the Roger Williams Fellowship, signatory to the pro-evolutionary "Clergy Letter Project," former General Board member in the ABCUSA, and pastor of the Des Moines FBC, takes aim again at the post-Lombard American Baptist Evangelicals. In this recent post on his blog, FreeBaptist.org (http://tbonney.squarespace.com/home/), Bonney muses on the ethics of descriptive names vs. what he sees as deceptive ones.

Several days ago I reported that the American Baptist Evangelicals were renaming their organization "Cornerstone Network Group." I noted that nothing in the new name sounded like a church organization. I also pointed out that rank and file members of the ABE didn't like the new name and, apparently, were not consulted before the new name went public.

Now the ABE vision architects have decided to modify the name to "Cornerstone Church Network." Hopefully, they consulted with members of the ABE in this new choice.

As I commented in my previous article, both the ABE and American Baptist Churches of the West have chosen more generic names rather than denominationally specific names. Neither "Cornerstone Church Network" or "Growing Healthy Churches" sounds like a denomination or a group of churches with a denominational identity. There is no reference to the fact that both of these groups are, at least at this time, made up of Baptist churches.

Dr. Paul Borden says of the name change in his region "Today local congregations in all denominations are changing their names and in the process removing or downplaying their old labels. They want names that matter to both those within and those outside the congregation. They want names that reflect their mission and vision and that communicate meaning to the people God has called them to reach." (see his entire article at

Dr. Borden's argument is that the new name change makes the church or organization more relevant reflecting their mission and vision and downplays "old labels." All this is done because Borden believes that we are in a Post-denominational age.

The argument is that since denominational labels don't attract people to our churches, lets remove our denominational connection from the name of our church, region, and organization. But, when you join that church you find out, eventually, that you have joined a Baptist church with Baptist beliefs, Baptist organizational styles etc.

Several questions come to my mind in this current trend of church growth methodology:

1. Is it really honest and healthy to cover up your church historical denominational identity to attract those who are uncomfortable with the label "Baptist" or is it a form of deceptive advertising?

2. Do generic names such as CCN or GHC really say who and what the organization is and what it is about? What information does the non-Christian really get from those names that helps them want to be a part of a church related to one of these organizations? Or, do these names actually purposefully obscure who or what an organization is by downplaying its roots and connections?

3. Does such generic names really help the organization to attract people? Is it really a good marketing tool for a church organization to choose a non-descript name?

Dr. Walter Shurden, a Professor at Mercer University, says of the trend of church and organizations to choose generic names in his article "The Denominational Traditions and Post-Denominationalism."

"I have heard it said that one cannot grow a church any longer with a denominational adjective fixed to the church sign. It is much better, so the argument goes, to drop the denominational label and go generic. Even if that judgment contains an element of truth in terms of the "evangelistic outreach" of the churches, is there integrity there? If you switch the denominational sign to a generic one but retain the theological, ecclesiological, and ethical distinctives of what goes on inside the house, are you not just a bit guilty of what the federal government has designated as the "truth-in-packaging" law? If the "truth-in-packaging" law applies to a can of soup or a box of breakfast cereal, does it not apply to religious faith? Does not what is on the outside of the package have to conform to what is on the inside? Isn't there genuine integrity in the sign that reads "Calvary Baptist" and underneath in smaller letters: "Indepent, pre-millennial, Bible-believing, and Blood-bought. "Now that's clarity! I know what that church stands for! I also can determine if I want to stand with them!"(See

Dr. Shurden makes the important point that to be Baptist, have Baptist theology, Baptist polity but obscure that fact in advertising, naming, and outreach can bdeceptionf desception. It can be a form of "bait and switch" tactic in which the integrity of the organization is brought into question.

The other argument that is used to encourage church organizations to use generic naming is that it is what will attract people to our churches. If denominational labels chase people away, the argument goes, choosing a non-denominationallabeleneric lable that doesn't offend anyone will be more attractive to outsiders.

While this sounds on the surface like marketinge marketting savvy behind it, current marking gurus actually disagree. According to marketing and branding strategy that is now being promoted to some of the largest companies, it is very important to create solid brand identification in order for a company to attract new customers. According to professional marketer Mike Wagner of the White Rabbit Group in his article "
Be Different, Be Inviting, or be Gone!", you have to build brand identification in order to attract. People have to recognize your label and know just what it stands for.

Wagner went so far, in a presentation to the Johnston, Iowa Chamber of Commerce, as to say that you have to be so distinctively different that people have an opportunity to love your or hate you but, if you choose the middle ground where no one is offended then you are dead as a company because you will not be remembered or recognized.

Wagner pointed out the success of Starbucks and Apple Computing. He contended that people really love or really dislike Starbucks and Apple Co. They attract because they have chosen to be really and truly different in a market where of sameness is the rule. They do not try to attract everyone. But, they strongly attract those persons who share their same values.

"American Baptist Evangelicals" was a name that told people exactly who they were dealing with. It was a brand name that recidentifiedd idenitfied who and what the ABE stood for. "Cornerstone Church Network" does not seem to to give the same clarity of purpose or mission. What is there to attract persons with the same values? What are those values?

It seems ironic to me that an organization that has spent the last decade trying to push the ABC/USA to take specific stands on issues of theological controversy, to force churches out who disagree, and for the ABC to be more creedal in its doctrinal views has now chosen to be less specific and less identifiable in the name of its own organization.

The American Baptist Churches, USA stands for the Biblical principles of soul freedom, local autonomy, priesthood of believers, and unity in diversity. What does the Cornerstone Church Network now stand for? I guess we will all have to wait and see. Right now it is hard to tell.


Laura said...

The whole notion of taking off the denominational label is counterintuitive in a culture where 'tribalism' has become so important. As an example, Apostles Church (an emerging church in the new monastic domain) describes itself as "our lutheran tribe is the elca and our anglican tribe is the episcopal church"--so much for the cultual need for removing denominational affiliation. Those who believe culture demands generic are out of touch with the actual culture and instead are caught in the 70s or some such thing. Tribalism is much more "in" these days.

Dennis Reeves said...

I find myself agreeing with Bonney on this. I am not ashamed of the Gospel and I am not ashamed to be called Baptist. What I find ironic in his comments is that he is, intentionally or not, criticizing the middle of the road, don't offend anyone thereby not inspiring anyone approach of Roy Medley and others in our Valley Forge leadership.

Robert said...

In his first column on this topic, Bonney points out that it is ironic that ABE has spent the past decade trying to impose its understanding of what "true" Baptist principles are on the rest of the denomination and, now, in its pending separation from the ABC/USA it chooses not to identify itself as Baptist at all. In the absence of ABE's efforts to provide a serious response to these remarks, I hope that McFadden and/or other conservative bloggers would seriously address this issue. While many of us are skeptical about continuing our relationship with the ABC/USA, do we really want to withdraw to form an independent non-denominational sounding entity?

revdrron said...

A classic double entendre!

Did God really say…

Since the ABCUSA does not believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant word, it cannot stand for Biblical principles! The American Baptist Churches, USA doesn’t stand for anything! It falls for everything and justifies it with soul freedom, local autonomy, priesthood of believers, and unity in diversity.

What does the Cornerstone Church Network now stand for? Let’s start with the absolute authority of the Bible! Hard to swallow?

Dennis E. McFadden said...

I find myself agreeing with many of Bonney's points regarding the name also. I have tried to keep my powder dry regarding criticism of Bill Nicoson. However, the notion of a "plain wrap" organization appeals to me not at all.

Dennis E. McFadden said...

"I hope that McFadden and/or other conservative bloggers would seriously address this issue."

Actually my desire to be deferential to Bill Nicoson during these difficult times disinclines me to tackle the subject seriously at all. Like most of you, the news hit like a thud with me. The name sounds more like a Management Consulting firm or computer operation. Unfortunately, church consultants often float "visionary" ideas that are none to practical to implement. This sounds like an idea by a church consultant intent on designing a post-modern, post-denominational network. Most of us want to hold onto the idea of being Baptist.

Robert said...

I agree that holding on to the idea of being Baptist is important. My experience is that the Baptist churches that have dropped their denominational label have also watered down their Baptist distinctives, basically becoming little different than non-denominational churches. Again, is generic evangelicalism what we want?