The country's largest Protestant denomination may be changing its name.
Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Bryant Wright announced September 19 that a presidential task force would study the prospect and potential ramifications of changing the 166-year-old denomination's name. Wright said the decision came after hearing numerous reports about the difficulties associated with having a regional name.
"Starting a church in New York, or Boston, or Minneapolis, or Cheyenne, Wyoming, it's really a barrier to a lot of folks in even considering that church or that ministry," Wright said. "When they hear Southern Baptist, it's a regional perception there. The reason this task force has been set up to study a possible name change is [firstly] to consider a name that is not so geographically limiting, and secondly to help us be better prepared for reaching North America for Christ in the 21st century."
A 2006 poll by the Center for Missional Research found that while Southern Baptists were favored overall by the majority of adults polled, 1 in 4 said that knowing a church was affiliated with the SBC would have a negative impact on their decision to visit or join a church. That number was significantly higher for younger adults; nearly 40 percent of the adults 1824 said the affiliation would have a negative impact on their decision. Some SBC churches (as well as other congregations in other church families) have changed their names in recent years to downplay their denominational identity. The number of SBC members has been declining over the past few years, and the number of new baptisms into the church dropped to 332,321 in 2010, the lowest since the 1950s.
This isn't the first time a name change has been considered. In the mid-1970s, a study committee recommended the convention keep the name. The messengers at the 1999 convention declined to take a straw poll on whether they favored a name change, and a ballot vote at the 2004 meeting defeated a motion authorizing the SBC president to appoint a committee to study a name change. This particular task force is "unprecedented" in recent history because while past committees addressed the topic, they were never specifically assigned to that one topic alone, said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological seminary.
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford, said the issue reflects the SBC's changing role in American Christianity. "We began really out of the depths of the Civil War; the 'southern' part of our name spoke about our history, our past," George said. "I think the SBC is increasingly less and less southern in the old cultural sense. … [In] respect to the prominence that we give now to church planting and world evangelization, 'southern' is probably a name that has outlived its usefulness."
The task force, which includes a mix of new and longtime pastors, as well as members from all areas of the country, will be analyzing whether a name change would help the SBC's mission, and if the potential legal and financial ramifications will be worth it, Wright said. "If the study committee comes to a peace that [a name change] is something that should be recommended to the convention, then it will be the convention's decision about whether or not to make that name change," Wright said. While no official date for the task force's meeting has been set yet, Wright said he hopes to meet within the next few months.
Since any proposal for a name change would have to be passed by two consecutive conventions, the earliest a change could officially happen would be 2013. However, George said opposition to any potential changes is likely, especially given the number of significant changes in the SBC's recent past, including the Great Commission Resurgence and the election of Fred Luter as first vice president.