NEW ORLEANS – As Southern Baptists prepare to vote on the adoption of the descriptor “Great Commission Baptists,” African American pastors are adding insight on how well the reference will improve the convention’s cross-cultural attraction.
K. Marshall Williams, chairman of the Southern Baptist African American Advisory Council, said the adoption of the descriptor would be a step in the right direction and could improve the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) effectiveness in kingdom building.
“I think it will be helpful, very helpful in expanding our capacity as Kingdom citizens to fulfill our biblical mandate issued by the Master,” said Williams, senior pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa. “It’s a clear declaration of who we are and what we’re about, namely the exaltation of the Almighty and the edification and evangelization of all nations.”
Williams said he would use the name on his church stationery and website and “would be proud to wave that banner as an identifier of who we are, whose we are and what we’re about.” His church’s membership is about 98 percent black.
Ken Fentress, in this screenshot from a video, discusses the proposed descriptor “Great Commission Baptists.”
In February, the SBC Executive Committee (EC) approved the recommendation brought by SBC President Bryant Wright who had appointed a task force to advise him on the advisability of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. Based on their advice, Wright brought a recommendation to the EC that the convention keep its name but adopt an informal, non-legal “Great Commission Baptists” descriptor, to be used by any church that wishes to use it.
Task force member Ken Fentress, who leads multiethnic Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., has said the inclusion of “Southern” in the SBC’s name is a barrier to many in the African American community, who find the term reminiscent of the Confederacy.
“Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. recently summarized the history of the founding of our convention in 1845. In his eloquent recitation of the issues that led to the establishment of the SBC, we learned that the founders intended for the name to identify with the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War,” Fentress said in his February address before the Executive Committee. “This signifies that the name has not only been a source of difficulty for church planters serving in areas outside the American South but also that the name has been a source of some difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity with the Confederacy.”
Robert Anderson, a Maryland pastor who is finishing eight years on the Executive Committee, used a baseball analogy in explaining the anticipated effectiveness of the proposed descriptor.
“In any game everybody likes to see a home run. If I could talk about this game of life and ministry that we have, I think this is a home run. This is not a home run that wins the game, or anything, but it is a home run in the game,” Anderson said. “Everybody wins, those who affectionately love the name Southern Baptist and would not want that to change. But also it helps those who would like to see a change for various purposes, better relating into ethnic communities, better relating to regions of the country that are not down South.”
While the SBC is predominantly white, Anderson pointed out the 3,500 African American churches in the SBC comprise some eight percent of the 45,700 membership congregations.
“I think with that in mind and the passion or interest that our denomination has to reach urban areas, this is going to help,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the SBC last year hit a significant home run when messengers passed an ethnic diversity report that encourages the SBC president, when he makes his various appointments, to “give special attention to appointing individuals who represent the diversity within the Convention, and particularly ethnic diversity.” The report cites the “need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.” Anderson served on the Executive Committee communications workgroup which drafted the report.
It is significant that the convention could elect its first African American president, Anderson said, but added more work is needed.
“We have yet to see an African American leading as president of any of our seminaries. In fact, it would be encouraging to see more African American professors, and not just African Americans,” he said. “The point of the motion passed last year is … more Asians, more Hispanics… etc.
“We need more in places of leadership in our entities, particularly in positions not just leadership, but also significant leadership,” Anderson said. “You know … it’s significant leadership when you have a significant budget … you oversee.”
A.B. Vines, senior pastor of New Seasons Church in Spring Valley, Calif., said while the term “Southern” indeed has a derogatory history, referring to the SBC by another name will not demonstrate the group’s sincerity as much as placing minorities in positions of leadership among its various entities. Vines is current vice president and incoming president of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship, but emphasized his remarks are not on behalf of NAAF.
“To call ourselves Great Commission Baptists … if we don’t show it in our convention, how can we say we’re Great Commission Baptists if we don’t show it in our leadership?” he said. “We have to look like a Great Commission convention. The Great Commission means everyone, every ethnos, every people group, not just in the lower echelon, but also in the top leadership.”
“Our convention needs to really become more like what the Bible says – every race, every culture,” Vines said.
Kevin Smith, senior pastor of Watson Memorial Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., said that while the adoption of the descriptor may be helpful to church planters, any regional identity problems they face also can be reversed by placing a greater emphasis on state identity.
“I think we should make a bigger deal about our state convention identity because that gives us the more contextualized, familiar terminology for our setting. But I have no problem with the Great Commission descriptor,” he said. “When I meet someone in evangelistic conversation, before they know I’m Southern Baptist, I mean, they know I’m Kentucky Baptist. We’re one of 2,400 churches cooperating here in Kentucky for the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“I’ve not met people resistant to the gospel because our church is Southern Baptist or Kentucky Baptist,” Smith said. “People resist the gospel because they’re sinful and they don’t desire to repent of their sins. But again, I’m not in one of these New York City, high-impact areas, so if that’s a conceptualization problem for them, I think that descriptor can be helpful. But it would also be helpful if they would tell people they’re a New York Baptist and make sure that they make those state identifications.”
Smith, who is also assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said the SBC’s name signifies more than a region.
“I think I have been one of those people against any type of name change because I think Southern Baptist Convention says something organizationally, it says something historical and in the days we’re living in now,” he said, “it certainly says something theological. To say Southern Baptist is a theological statement as much as anything else.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer.)