Founded more than eight decades ago, the congregation voted to rebrand as Aspire Church San Marco to stand out amid changing times.
The 83-year-old name no longer worked.
It was geographically incorrect.
It no longer defined the church’s mission.
It was lost in the many other congregations when “Southside Baptist Church” was entered in a simple Google search.
Southside Baptist Church, operating next to the fire station in San Marco, had faded into the shopping district’s background to the point that people standing in the park across the street couldn’t identify it by name.
Much like Facebook becoming Meta, the leaders of the church did what so many businesses have done. They addressed their branding.
Under leadership by the Rev. Dr. Gary Lee Webber, Southside Baptist Church’s pastor, the church that served several generations of families voted in November 2021 to change the name to Aspire Church of San Marco.
The new name won with 73% approval.
Aspiring to rebrand
When the church was founded in 1939 Jacksonville was a much different place.
The church was in South Jacksonville, which later became known as the Southside. That descriptor worked until the 1970s when San Marco became the predominant name for the area and “Southside” moved toward the Tinseltown area.
At its annual November meeting in 2019, the congregation voted to form a rebranding committee. Members who were in the marketing, public relations and graphic arts professions volunteered to serve.
Webber, who has been the pastor since 2008, recalled early meetings where the committee would fill a whiteboard with names.
Some were geographical, others included the river, while still others were spiritual and theological.
However, the new name was above them the entire time. The church’s steeple, which many call its “spire,” served as the inspiration for the new name – Aspire.
Built in the 1950s, the steeple defines the church and has become an important part of the Jacksonville skyline.
“It’s visible from five of the city’s seven bridges. We like to think on a very clear day you maybe can see it from the Dames Point Bridge,” Webber said.
Aspire also refers to the church’s aspiration to serve not only its parishioners but the community, he said.
When San Marco was flooded during Hurricane Irma, the church served as a staging area for rescue workers helping the residents and businesses facing more than 6 feet of water.
“The spire idea really spoke to the idea that we all have aspirations, dreams and desires. Our church is obviously aspiring to usher the hope and reality of heaven to earth. The steeple points upward. It’s that whole idea of aspiration,” Webber said.
COVID slowed the rebranding effort. Group meetings were moved to Zoom, but that did not work for everyone.
Webber said the interruption gave committee members and the congregation the time to pray about the need for a new name. When vaccines were developed, the committee reformed and work resumed
“We thought that it was important that the work come from our body. It needed to be something that represented who we are,” Webber said.
“When you look at a company that is going through rebranding, the customers don’t necessarily speak into that. But in a church, the congregation isn’t the customer. The congregation is really the church.”
After the committee completed its work, Webber hired Go Bright Marketing and Roxie Reeve, director of Digital Marketing at 3D Digital, to review the work. Reeve volunteered.
Webber estimated Go Bright Marketing gave the church a neighbor’s discount and the fee came in about $2,500.
In all, Webber estimated the rebranding effort will cost about $50,000.
“Because of the poor name recognition in San Marco we were already going to have to upgrade exterior signage even if we didn’t rebrand, so most of that money would have been spent anyway,” he said.
Removing the Baptist name
When Southside Baptist Church changes its name to Aspire Church San Marco on Easter Sunday, April 17, it will remain Southside Baptist Church for business purposes.
The church has filed under the state Fictitious Name Law, the easiest way to do business under the new name without going through the recharter process.
Aspire Church San Marco will remain a Baptist church in its teachings and theological doctrine, Webber said. However, dropping “Baptist” from its name was an intentional move.
Webber said that for those outside the Baptist community, the word might have some negative connotations. Some people consider Baptists as being stern and judgmental.
Aspire Church San Marco will adopt Southside Baptist Church’s tagline, “Love Everyone Always.”
“For some, when they hear ‘love everyone always,’ Baptist isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It was more of an oxymoron,” he said.
Controversies like the youth sex scandals tarnished the brand of Roman Catholic Churches whether a parish was involved or not, he said. The Baptist church hierarchy has removed “Baptist” from several of its organizations.
For example, Florida Baptist Children’s Home is now known as One More Child.
By removing the denomination from the name, it is thought that those moving into the neighborhood who are looking for a place of worship will judge Aspire Church San Marco by the content of its ministry and the overall experience rather than by its Baptist roots.
“This is a generational issue. With an older generation, the denomination name represents security and comfort and states the theology of the church. Younger, post-Christian members have no denominational loyalty at all,” Webber said.
When asked on forms to express a preferred religious affiliation, younger people are more apt to check “none,” he said.
They are not claiming to be atheists or agnostic, rather they don’t identify with a specific religious doctrine or group.
Communication is key
When the vote approached to change the name, every member of the congregation age 16 and older had a say. Webber and the committee felt confident Aspire would win, he said.
The church has 570 voting members. On the day of the vote, Aspire was among four names.
Almost three-fourths of the members voted for Aspire Church San Marco.
Communication throughout made the process painless, Webber said.
There had been open meetings to allow members to voice opinions about the names or even the need for a change.
News of an impending name change was known to everyone.
After the vote, Webber recalled an elderly couple calling him. They had been members of the Southern Baptist Convention and served as Baptist missionaries.
They called to let him know that they had voted for the new name.
Southside Baptist Church has embraced the internet. The ssbc.org site posted video explaining the reasons for the change. The whys and hows of the Aspire name are easy to find.
The evolution of the new logo is shown. Conceptual pictures of possible branding ideas that include pens, cup and shirts are shown.
Even before COVID, the church shared its services online. The website has video presentations of Sunday sermons. The church has a podcast.
When COVID forced churches to seek alternative ways for worship, Webber knew Southside Baptist had to up its game.
“With all of the services available online, why would people choose to attend ours?” he said.
The church bought new equipment. Webber invited viewers to record a favorite Bible passage.
Those clips in turn were made part of the video service. Musicians were asked to record themselves playing favorite or original hymns and inspirational music that also became part of the service.
Webber said the online engagement has probably increased the number of people partaking of his Sunday services over the past two years.
As Easter approaches, the church is preparing for its new name. Church leaders are making it known that while the name is new, the ministry remains the same.
New stationery, business cards and other documents will be purchased, while every effort is being made to use up the remaining Southside Baptist Church supplies.
Work is being done to assure that a Google search for “Aspire” brings the San Marco church near to, if not to the top of, the listed websites.
“This is not the beginning of a change. It is the culmination of a change,” Webber said.
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