What’s in a name? As Shakespeare has it, a rose by any other name smells the same. But in the case of America’s largest Protestant denomination, changing the name could change everything.
Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bryant Wright recently told his organization’s Executive Committee in Nashville, Tenn., that he had appointed a task force to study a possible name change. Abandoning the 166-year-old identifier, he argued, would help the group thrive both in America and internationally.
“First, the convention’s name is so regional,” Wright said. “With our focus on church planting, it is challenging in many parts of the country to lead churches to want to be part of a convention with such a regional name. Second, a name change could position us to maximize our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century.”
Wright is, well, right. The label is no longer accurate. Until the mid-20th century, the denomination was concentrated almost exclusively in the American South and Southwest. That is no longer the case.
While most congregations still exist below the Mason-Dixon line, SBC churches – all 40,000 of them, as well as 16 million members – have spread to all 50 states, and the SBC’s missionary effort has planted thousands more globally. The denomination also comprises more than a quarter of all American evangelicals.
It’s safe to assume that if the denomination were forming today, the name “Southern Baptist Convention” wouldn’t even be considered.
“The SBC is not driven by a Southern agenda nor a Southern vision,” said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “In the context of the United States, ‘Southern’ refers to a region. That region gave birth to the Southern Baptist Convention, but it no longer contains it.” Mohler went on to say that the name sounds “strange, if not foreign” to those in the Pacific Northwest and New England, for instance.
Then, there’s the stigma attached to the name. A 2006 Center for Missional Research/Zogby poll found that many Americans have a negative impression of the denomination. More than 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join.
In the past, the SBC has been a magnet of controversy. From boycotting Walt Disney for its “pro-gay stances” to a perceived near alignment with the Republican Party, it always seemed to play the role of cultural crusader. This waning reputation led some congregations to drop the word “Baptist” from their name.
In recent years, however, the denominational ship seems to be turning. A new generation of Southern Baptists seems less concerned with fighting such battles and more united around missions and church planting. A new name could give the body a fresh start.
But the greatest reason for a change could be the need to break with its past and embrace an increasingly multi-ethnic reality in America. I was reminded of this recently when an African-American friend asked me about the denominational alignment of our church. I saw pain in her eyes when I told her “Southern Baptist.”
Much of Southern Baptist history is laudable, but we cannot forget that the denomination was founded in 1845 over slavery. The first SBC churches were birthed out of a desire to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Many Southern Baptist preachers vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws.
Southern Baptists are, in many ways, facing a struggle that has played out in the broader American culture. Changing their name would be akin to Southern schools dropping “rebel” mascots and Southern states scrubbing Confederate imagery from their flags. While the SBC has made strides in repudiating its shameful past, including a 1995 resolution apologizing to African-Americans, this bold move would be another important step.
As Jon Akin, a Southern Baptist pastor in Tennessee says, “We’ve obviously made statements and resolutions saying that we do not affirm what happened in our past … but it’s something we’ve got to continue to answer in terms of our heritage – that we aren’t going to be a mostly Southern, mostly middle-class, mostly white denomination, that we want to reach all nations.”
No doubt, there will be much resistance. Motions to change the name have been presented to the convention – and failed – eight times since 1965, most recently in 2004.
The denomination must now decide whether it cares more about its past heritage or its future vitality.
Shedding “Southern Baptist Convention” could inject the body with a new energy already stirring among the group’s younger leaders. Doing so would also put our denomination on a path to thrive in this century and beyond.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jonathan Merritt is author of the forthcoming “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He serves at Cross Pointe Church in Georgia where his father, James Merritt, is senior pastor.)