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Decision to rename Bluffton church met with resistance from some members

First Baptist Church of Bluffton to change name, remove 'Baptist'

The pastor of the 113-year-old congregation says the decision was made to overcome any negative stereotypes some may have with the term 'Baptist'. Pastor DeVaney shares the new name, and when the new signage will be in place.
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The pastor of the 113-year-old congregation says the decision was made to overcome any negative stereotypes some may have with the term 'Baptist'. Pastor DeVaney shares the new name, and when the new signage will be in place.

This story has been edited. An earlier version quoted a critic of the change who it now appears set up a fake social media account to hide his/her identity.

What's in a name?

By any other name, would the First Baptist Church of Bluffton be able to grow its membership and attract younger worshipers?

Pastor Mark DeVaney and church leaders believe so after leading a controversial charge to change the 113-year-old congregation's name to Cornerstone Church.

The decision, which was made late last month, was by no means unanimous.

Of the 121 church members who cast votes, 42 percent opposed the decision, church executive director Bob Hawley said last week.

DeVaney said during the weeks leading up to the vote, "there were people who expressed some concern."

"We recognize that there are people who are attached to the name. We hear that, we know that," he said.

But, "every decision you make is, in some way, going to alienate somebody. ... We have to look at what's in the best interest for the future of this church."

DeVaney, who has been pastor for a little more than six years, said after discussions with church elders and "praying about it for a couple of years," he decided it was in the best interest of the church to move away from the First Baptist Church identity.

"We know that the word 'Baptist' is an obstacle for some people because of the ways Baptists have been stereotyped," DeVaney said, referring to outsiders' perceptions about things like fire and brimstone sermons and past opposition to the civil rights movement.

Removing 'Baptist' from the name "allows us to overcome some stereotypes that people have and moves us forward," DeVaney said.

A major aim of the name change is to make the organization more welcoming to people who otherwise might not consider joining a traditional Baptist congregation, DeVaney said.

He said if "the name change means that one person who wouldn't normally walk through the doors of our church comes in ... then it is worth it. Even if it means that two people (who may oppose the name change) walk out of the church."

SOME LEAVE CHURCH

Some members have recently taken to social media to criticize the name change and church leadership in general.

"My family and I no longer worship there have not for over a year. We were just not receiving what we needed," one Facebook commenter wrote last month.

Another commenter wrote that her "heart remains broken" over changes at the church she grew up attending.

GETTING YOUNGER

While Cornerstone Church membership is up slightly in 2015, the past few years had been "pretty tough," DeVaney said.

Sunday services average about 300 people. Over the past 20 years, DeVaney said attendance has tended to top out at around 400.

He hopes church initiatives such as the name change will "help push us through some of those (attendance) thresholds and reach more people."

Young people and families are the target market for the church's rebranding effort.

"Over the past six years the church has become younger," DeVaney said.

Former pastor Rev. Dennis Wilkins "had an older congregation ... and appealed to a different demographic than I appeal to," DeVaney said.

Younger congregants are "where the future is," he said. "That's who we have to reach and keep going after: the young people, the families, students."

Church member Kellie Kamer, who leads the children's ministry, said parents of young families have been very positive about the name change.

"I think everybody is pretty much on the same page," she said. "(The name change helps) to take down barriers. I have asked people to come to church and they are very hesitant when they hear the name because of preconceived notions they have had."

But DeVaney acknowledged it has been a challenge to convince some longtime members to "sacrifice what they are more comfortable with."

Hawley said the negative comments he has received "were almost exclusively from people who are between (the ages of) 50 and 70."

STILL BAPTIST

Regardless of criticism, the name change is moving forward.

DeVaney said over the next five weeks the church will begin its rebranding with a new website and signage to reflect the new Cornerstone Church identity.

Despite the new name, the church will not change it's approach to scripture.

"People are concerned that when we changed the name, there is a theological slippery slope that moves us toward being more of a liberal church," he said. "That's not true, but it's still some people's concern."

Hawley said the church is "still affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention."

The Southern Baptist Convention, which includes more than 46,000 congregations, is the largest Protestant organization in the country.

Roger Oldham, convention communications director, said last week that the organization does not "take a position one way or the other on a name of a church."

"If a church chooses to change its name, we view that as a matter of congregational governance," he said

Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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