Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bryant Wright, who serves as pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., announced to the SBC Executive Committee on Sept. 19 that he was appointing a task force to study the prospect of changing the Convention’s name.
Wright made his announcement after speaking of the energy and unity within the denomination after the SBC annual meeting this past June in Phoenix. He reasoned that the Convention’s name is geographically regional, which he said could be a barrier to starting new churches outside the South.
The announcement provoked a lively debate among Executive Committee members. Darrell P. Orman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stuart, Fla., stated, “Every man here wants to do something significant in his life for Christ and His Kingdom. A name change could be a future necessity for our convention, but it should start from the bottom up, not the top down.”
Others contended that the Convention is already divided and that a debate over changing the name could exacerbate the division. Terry Robertson, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New York, told Fox News that the potential name change is somewhat “polarizing.”
Robertson added, “While a name change of the convention may be a worthy consideration, my prayer is that God will send a Great Awakening which will result in a change of hearts across the nation.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and a member of Wright’s task force, indicated that he is “personally traumatized by the very idea of changing the denomination’s name,” but added, “This is a highly-charged issue that holds great potential to divide the Convention if not handled well and responsibly. The task force must act in a way that unifies Southern Baptists and helps us all to gain a much-needed understanding of what is and is not at stake.”
On at least a half dozen occasions the idea of changing the name of the Convention has surfaced. The last time it received widespread attention was when President Jack Graham addressed the Executive Committee in February of 2004 and called for a new name and indicated that he would appoint a committee to study the idea.
Since Graham pressed for the name change seven years ago it is not surprising that he quickly voiced his approval of Wright’s proposal, stating, “The value of changing a name/brand is intangible. But change can create a new momentum and unity for a new generation of Baptists.”
However, before we plunge headlong into a name change for the Southern Baptist Convention there are some things that need to be considered.
• First, do we really need a name change?
What is gained if we change the name and what is lost if we don’t?
Is the Southern Baptist Convention not known for its fidelity to the Bible, its fervency in evangelism and its passion for missions? Do those identifying marks not more accurately characterize us than the word “Southern”?
Kentucky Fried Chicken has a fairly regional name, but even with restaurants in Michigan, Maine and Minnesota, the chain has given no thought to changing its name to my knowledge.
New York Life Insurance, with offices across the nation, started their operations about the same time Southern Baptists formed their convention and have given no apparent thought to a name change. Why, we even have Texas Roadhouse restaurants in Georgia.
But then, I have never pastored a church in Washington state or New Hampshire, so it is hard to know if the name “Southern” is a liability to them or not. The word “Baptist” would be non-negotiable for me. The word “Baptist” is woven into the very core and fiber of our being.
• Second, the bylaws of the Southern Baptist Convention indicate that the SBC president can appoint only three committees: the Committee on Committees, the Tellers Committee and the Resolutions Committee.
Therefore, it would appear that President Wright has named the aforementioned task force more as a fellow Southern Baptist and that any Southern Baptist could appoint a task force and, hopefully, receive equal consideration at any given annual session.
For example, it would appear that a Baptist state college president could appoint a task force to consider the impact seminary baccalaureate programs have on Baptist state colleges and get an equal hearing as Wright’s task force. Or a denominational worker could appoint a task force to study the relationship between tithing and spiritual awakening.
Do the SBC Constitution and Bylaws give special privileges to the president that would validate his task force more than any other Southern Baptist? Is it possible that numerous Southern Baptists could come to the annual session next June in New Orleans with task forces prepared to report their findings to the messengers?
• Third, while I feel confident that Bryant Wright’s motives are pure, is the timing right on this proposed name change?
Many seem to think not. Are we still not attempting to sort out the implications of the Great Commission Task Force recommendations?
Have psychologists not repeatedly stated that too many rapid changes increase one’s stress level? Does the devil not often use timing and intensity to accomplish his diabolical agenda?
• Fourth, what will a name change cost?
The legal fees in changing the name of the corporation, the cost of discarding business cards, letterheads, literature, signage for agencies and individual churches would be considerable. With the uncertainty of the economy and the need to make evangelism, church planting and missions a priority, is cost of a name change worthy of consideration at the present time?
• Fifth, does a new name not mean that you have a new brand?
Maurillo Amorim, CEO of The A Group, a media, technology and branding firm in Brentwood, Tenn., says, “New packaging without changing the product or experience only goes so far. Churches that changed their names in the mid 90’s to appear more community friendly but failed to change the experience learned that such strategy often backfired.
Amorim continued, “People came expecting something different than what they got. It’s the classic ‘bait and switch’ approach. A brand is made when the name, packaging and product deliver on the brand promise. And does so consistently over time.”
So, if we change our name do we create a new brand promise or has the Convention so changed that the present name no longer fits who we are?
• Sixth, does a name change really change anything?
Michael Catt, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, recently tweeted, “Any organization that is in decline and tries to fix it with Bandaids when it needs heart surgery is missing God.”
For those who feel that “Southern” is too regional a name and too closely attached to the issue of slavery and racism there may be some interest in going back to the actual name of the convention prior to 1845.
Although historians point back to the Triennial Convention as the SBC’s predecessor, the actual name of the convention according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists was “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions and other Important Objects relating to the Redeemer’s Kingdom.”
I know that is a rather cumbersome name, but you could always reduce the name to the acronym and call it “The GMCBDUSAFMIORK.”
The Southern Baptist Convention continues to be a stalwart and formidable force in the United States and globally. The impact God is making upon the lives of people around the world through Southern Baptists continues to provide thrilling stories, which those of us in Baptist journalism are privileged to tell.
I believe that Southern Baptists are for multitudes the salt and light so desperately needed today, but we certainly do stand in need of a spiritual awakening.
So, if we were to change our name to the Praying (Southern) Baptist Convention and reprogram our lives to fit the name, we just might have something I could wholeheartedly support.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gerald Harris is editor/publisher of The Christian Index, Georgia’s Baptist news journal, where this editorial first appeared.)