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:
Official recommendation from the task force on a name change.
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.
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.)