Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, is known by many as a hate group for its protests against gays and picketing of soldiers' funerals.

Evidence shows it also has besmirched the word Baptist in the minds of thousands, said the Rev. Dan Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sunbury, 12259 N. Old 3C Highway.

"They have seriously tarnished the name Baptist, which is really sad and a shame," Brown said. "I know hundreds of Baptist churches all through America. They're the most loving, most wonderful people – and they're judged by what this Westboro does.

"I go to a lot of conferences and they tell us the statistics. Most 20- to 35-year-olds today find a church to visit by the internet. A high percentage of that age group, because of Westboro, will not even look at a Baptist church anymore," he said.

For those reasons, Brown said, 99 percent of his congregation voted last year to change their church's name to the Bridge.

The church will hold a special service at 10:30 a.m. March 25 to launch the change.

"We want really want people to know what kind of people we are," Brown said. "We've decided on a name: the Bridge.

"We chose that based on what we've learned: that Jesus is the bridge from us to God," he said. "And what we want to do is be a bridge to Jesus, to lead people to Jesus and teach people about Jesus. We think we have more of an opportunity to do that without being prejudged, based on a name."

The church will continue to be affiliated with a denomination, American Baptist Churches USA, which Brown said "is very much happy with what we're doing."

Brown's church is not the first to take such a step.

About five years ago, the Montgomery Road Baptist Church in Cincinnati changed its name to Montgomery Road Community Church for the same reason, he said. It also is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA.

Brown said his church would be flexible about its new name, in the sense that some promotional materials will identify it as "The Bridge Church."

Other churches, he said, successfully have branded names that don't include the word church. One example is Verve, a Las Vegas church whose attendance has reached 10,000.

"I'm going to a big conference in Indianapolis this week," Brown said. "There's a big church there called Indian Creek Christian Church. Everyone in Indianapolis knows it as 'the Creek.' "

Brown said his church took the first steps toward a name change three years ago. The church's constitution requires a 75 percent affirmative vote for such a change.Brown decided not to make the change without permission from 95 percent of the congregation.

At first, he said, some senior citizens didn't like the idea, but support grew as parishioners became more aware of Westboro Baptist Church's effects on young people.

Leslie Buxton, the First Baptist secretary, has attended since 1992.

"I'm looking forward to the change," she said. "I think the Baptist church is known more for what it's against than what it's for. We're 'against card playing, against dancing' – which really we're not, but people assume that because we're Baptist. And I would like to be more well-known for how we treat people, as far as being loving and kind and being good to your neighbor."

"We've never sent the same message that Westboro has," Brown said. "We're about how much God loves you and how much Jesus loves you. One of the things that has really always touched me that I've been big on is Jesus said, 'I did not come to judge the world. I came to save the world.' And Scriptures show us very strongly that the next time Jesus comes, he's coming to judge the world. First time, save the world. The second time, judge the world.

"When I look at people, I don't have any right to judge them. Jesus didn't. My whole thing is I'm supposed to love you, I'm supposed to put you first and I'm supposed to teach you about Jesus."

Brown said members of the Westboro church lead with judgment.

"They think that somehow God has made them judges of the world," he said. "What has happened is that has come to (be) the perception of our denomination. We're not like that at all. I'm in the American Baptist Churches of Ohio as a part of our American Baptist denomination. ... I go to meetings all the time with all these churches and none of them are like that."

Brown said First Baptist has been in Sunbury about 175 years.

For around 100 years, its building stood on the Town Square. Its current building opened in 1998.

In addition to its weekly services, First Baptist also holds an annual Upward Soccer program; 111 youngsters in grades K-12 have signed up for the 2018 season. The church also hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

For service times and upcoming programs, visit fbcsunbury.org.