What really needs to change about Southern Baptists

 

In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was organized in Augusta, Georgia, just a couple hours’ drive north of where I now live. However, we’ve come a long way since then, not just in miles or time.

In 1845, one of the main reasons why Southern Baptists split from the North was that the SBC wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Today, many SBC churches are integrated, including my own, African-American pastor Fred Luter is our vice-president, and Luter will probably be elected president this year at the convention meeting in New Orleans.

In 1845, all of our churches were in the South. Today, we are still concentrated in the South, but we have churches in all 50 states. One of our largest churches is in California.

The idea of changing the name, particularly dropping the word “Southern” in favor of something else, has come up many times in the past century, and has always been voted down. Now the Executive Committee of the SBC is passing along the following recommendation to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention: to keep the legal name Southern Baptist, while at the same time encouraging churches that do not wish to use that name to adopt the informal name “Great Commission Baptists.”

I have mixed feelings about this recommendation. Although this is not officially a name change proposal, it could lead to name “erosion” and confusion. Imagine two Baptists who meet and ask about each other’s churches. One says, “I’m a Southern Baptist.” The other says, “I’m a Great Commission Baptist.” They have no idea their churches are affiliated with one another. How does that unify us?

While the name “Southern Baptist” is negative for some, it has positive connotations for others, such as those who received assistance in SBC disaster relief efforts after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and for millions who found faith and Christian nurture in an SBC church.

I am a Southerner, but I grew up an Army chaplain’s son, and lived outside the South, as well. I remember that while attending a Southern Baptist church on Staten Island, New York, that “Southern” was not considered helpful to evangelism. After all, what New Yorker wants to join a “Southern” church? However, the church simply used the name “Baptist,” just as most SBC churches do in the South, including my own. My former youth minister, Jason McNair, who now serves in the Utah-Idaho convention, feels that a name change is a waste of time and energy and doesn’t address the most important issues.

If we earn a good reputation, people don’t care as much about the name. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is the name of a conservative Lutheran denomination. Lutherans looking for a conservative church are glad to find a church by that name, even if they are not in Missouri. It’s not the name that matters; it’s the reputation behind the name. After all, New York Life Insurance sells in Georgia, and Kentucky Fried Chicken sells in California.

Some claim that “Southern” is offensive to African-Americans. I asked this question of my former classmate Cathy McNair, an African-American who graduated with me from Petal High School in Petal, Mississippi. She said, “Well….used to…back in the stone age…it was pretty much understood that Southern Baptist was a synonym for Blacks need not attend….nowadays…not so much.” (By the way, Cathy said about the same thing as Jason, that spending time on a name change was ignoring “weightier matters.”)

Cathy makes an important point about the “used to” and “nowadays” of the Southern Baptist name. Although the name remained the same, the name gained a new reputation over the years, as Southern Baptists repented of the racial sins of the past and many SBC churches opened their doors to all races.

And here is the key: we must be known for what we are for instead of what we are against. Too often we are known as those people who boycott Disney and hate gays. We should be known as the people who love all people (gays included) enough to show them how to change. Our logo says it all. The cross, Bible and globe show what we are for: the gospel of forgiveness by faith in Jesus’ death on the cross, faithfulness to the Bible, and sharing this good news with the whole world. If we are known for these things, we will please our Lord, whatever name we choose to use.

I may vote in favor of the recommendation, since it keeps the legal name and only encourages those who already don’t want to use the SBC name to at least use the same name (“Great Commission Baptist”). But for me, the bottom line is, that it’s far more important for us to change our ways than to change our name.

(The Southern Baptist Convention will hear this proposal at its meeting in New Orleans on June 19-20, 2012.)

To read more on this subject, read these reports and blogs:

http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=37224

Official recommendation from the task force on a name change.

http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/02/the-sbc-changing-names-is-good.html

by Ed Stetzer, researcher with LifeWay Christian Resources, favors a name change, but feels changing our actions is more important. Many comments on his blog, many of them with objections to the name change.

http://loomnwheel.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/whats-in-a-name/

by Benjie Potter, feels the name change proposal is silly, and offers a Southern Baptist revision of Shakespeare’s “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

(Below is a photograph of the historical marker in Augusta, Georgia, where the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845.)

 

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About Bob Rogers

Hospital chaplain in Mississippi. Formerly a pastor for 33 years in Mississippi and Georgia. Historian and avid cyclist.

Posted on March 3, 2012, in Southern Baptists and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Flonnace McClendon Schnabel

    I so much agree with you Bob, there are so many splinter off churches from the Southern Baptist Church. The need to change the name is like so many people who pick and choose their church so that it fits in their views. The church is there for sinners and a place to worship. Whatever church you attend, if you are a christian, you will love your brothers. You will win souls through love and turn away souls with judgements. Jesus did not love just jews, he did not come to save just jews. Jesus gave his life so that we may have everlasting life. There a much more important missions to take presidents. Our church is a living entity, ever changing and still holds one core and that is to words of God and the life and death of Jesus. It is not what you believe, it is what the Bible says. Love the unloveable, forgive the unforgiveable and leave all judgements to God.

  2. I agree. We have more important issues facing the true church today.

  3. Personally, I think a name change is in order, but not because of any reputation issues. (Changing our names is not going to change our reputation.) The issue I take with our current name is that it is no longer accurate: we are not just a Southern denomination.

    However, I think we can do better than Great Commission Baptist Convention. It’s a mouthful to say, and most importantly it does not differentiate us from other New Testament groups that are believers in the Great Commission.

    How about “United States Baptist Convention” or “North American Baptist Convention”? Either of those would be more descriptive of who we are, and would be suitable for any Southern Baptist church anywhere in America or Canada (or even Mexico,e tc).

  4. Chet, I agree with you that “Great Commission Baptist Convention” is a mouthful. What’s more, it doesn’t mean anything to the unchurched. I like your name suggestions better. According to The Christian Index, there were some other names that got more suggestions, like Global Baptist and Evangelical Baptist, and the two you named got a lot of suggestions, as well, all of which would make more sense to the average unbeliever we are trying to reach. Oh, well.

  5. We who have received Jesus Christ as our personal savior are to be joined as one . Jesus words doesn’t change at all. People causes these splits because they all want to be powerful and in charge.I believe the name southern Baptist convention only separates people. It doesn’t mater which part of the map that we live on we should grow together.Instead of being called Southern Baptist Convention, the name should be called Baptist Convention For All Christiansor Christian Convention For all Of God’s People.

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