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Oldest SBC church in New England changes name to be ‘more relevant’

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (BP)–New England’s oldest Southern Baptist congregation, Screven Memorial Baptist Church, Portsmouth, N.H., has voted to change its name to Seacoast Community Church.
The name change, which became official Jan. 1, is part of a larger evangelism strategy through which the 200-member fellowship intends to become “more relevant to the unchurched in the Seacoast area,” said Ed Parker, pastor since November 1996 of the church begun in the late 1950s.
As the church focused on its vision statement “to transform irreligious people into fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ,” they returned several times to the single question, “How does our name help or hinder us from reaching the unchurched in the Seacoast area?”
The updating is “part of a process we are in that seeks to remove any potential roadblocks and hindrances to people coming through the front door of our church,” Parker said.
Church leaders discovered none of the 45 unchurched people initially surveyed would choose to visit a church called “Screven Memorial Baptist” when they were given three other choices. A second survey of some 180 unchurched people indicated a three-to-one preference for the name “Seacoast Community Church” over “Seacoast Baptist Church” as the congregation they would be most likely to attend.
The research found that many interpret the name “Baptist” in the church name to be “somewhat exclusive,” Parker said. By contrast they found that the word “Community” seems to “project a more open kind of environment” in the Portsmouth context, he said.
To communicate their ongoing commitment to the Southern Baptist Convention, the church has been considering adding a subtitle to the exterior sign that would read: “A Caring Baptist Fellowship.” The overall process has extended over several months and involved the deacons, church council and, ultimately, a vote by the members.
“We see the name of a church simply as a ‘front-door’ issue,” Parker said, “since most people will make their final decision on whether or not to attend a church based upon what they experience while visiting the church.”
The name also provided a hindrance to members who were inviting their friends, family and associates to church, since most people’s initial response upon hearing the church name was to inquire, “Who or what is Screven?” This placed church members in what the pastor called “the awkward position of having to explain ‘Screven’ before talking about Jesus Christ” or about how the church could serve community needs.
William Screven was pastor of a Baptist congregation in nearby Kittery, Maine. In 1696, because of religious intolerance in New England and cheaper land in the South, Screven and a number of the Kittery congregation’s members sailed to Charleston, S.C., where they and other English Baptists planted what historians consider to be the first Baptist church in the South.
When a group of Southern Baptists was planting a congregation in New Hampshire in 1958 through 1960, they named it Screven Memorial Baptist Church to honor William Screven.
“If it wasn’t for our burden to reach people and meet them where they are, with all of their preconceptions and attitudes about Baptists and their obviously unfavorable reaction to the present church name, the name change would not have happened. We will do whatever it takes to reach our area for Christ,” Parker said.
The name change is just the beginning, reported the pastor, “for if we stop with a fresh coat of paint over the same old building, we’re simply fooling ourselves. We’ve been involved in a focus on relational evangelism and some other strategies to reach people.”