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Feb 22, 2012

The SBC: Changing Names Is Good, Changing Actions Is Better

This week an administrative committee for my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, approved a recommendation that the SBC adopt the informal name of "Great Commission Baptists."

The proposal will be presented at the SBC Annual Meeting in June, and I will support it.

Initially, I would have liked to see something more than an "informal name," but I think the change will help in many local church situations (though for the foreseeable future, my church will still list itself as SBC, rather than GCB-- and not because the other unfortunate meaning of that acronym).

I understand this is a tough decision with many layers of complexity ranging from legal issues to public perceptions to historical accords, and this gives churches a choice. I might have made a different choice, but I will support this one.

I agree with the task force that the equity we have in the SBC name is helpful in many respects and whatever could be gained by changing the name of the denomination can not measure up to what would be lost from our nearly 170-year history. However, there is also much negative baggage that comes with the name--some because of what we believe, but some because of how we act.

That history is what has brought us to this juncture. For example, and since the committee referenced it, the injustices condoned or perpetrated by those bearing the name "Southern Baptist" have brought distrust and discord in African-American communities. And I am glad the Task Force chose to address the issue head-on.

It is widely known that the founders of the convention split from the North for reasons that included the right to appoint slave-holding missionaries. That leaves a deep scar. Furthermore, the fact that many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of those hoses in Birmingham, Alabama a century later also leaves a scar.

I'm grateful for the churches like that of committee member Dr. Ken Fentress where sound Christian theology takes priority over cultural and political norms. This is, unfortunately, not always the case. For some, there is still deep sociological and racial tension, and the name Southern Baptist does nothing to dispel this.

There are, of course, many other issues caused by bad decisions and bad relationships. Some people don't like the SBC because of what it stands for--and we can take the hits for that. But let's be honest, much of this bad reputation has been earned by bad actions.

Thus, the new name isn't the only--nor the most important--change needed. I'm speaking in Australia this month so I missed the SBC meeting, but I understand Frank Page, Jimmy Draper, and others mentioned this very truth. Changing the name of the convention is useless if the people of the convention do not change as well. The key issue is not a name change, but a heart change. You can't change your name to fix your bad reputation--you must change your actions instead.

My guess is, over time, more SBC churches and organizations will begin using the name Great Commission Baptists, but this is the right decision for now. The convention has had enough organizational change for a while--it needs to recover for a bit and focus on some relational things while the organizational things settle. I sure hope we can avoid another task force, blue ribbon reorganization panel, or new idea for a while--I've got some old ideas I suggest we address instead.

I believe there are three needs facing the Southern Baptist Convention currently that new resurgences, name changes, and study groups can't fix.

First is a need to stop bickering and infighting. My fear is the proposed name change will drive an even deeper wedge in an already wide rift between different SBC factions. I can tell you it is an amazing thing to see just how much Baptists like to fight. You could name yourself an Egyptian hieroglyph and say you are "the Baptist denomination formally known as Southern." But if you are mean-spirited, you just have to change the name again in a few years. And, yet, that fighting and bickering continues.

As I've recently shared, Baptists always seem to need a boogeyman and changing the name won't change that. This infighting, name-calling, and dishonest "watchblogging" must stop if the convention as a whole is to progress. Speak up SBC leaders (or GCB leaders) and call for unity, honesty, and cooperation among leaders and their blogging proxies. Tolerate nothing less.

Secondly, we must work together to promote cooperation. We are a convention that needs to work in a unified manner toward a unified goal: that the world might know Christ, and God be glorified through that. We must act like a convention, not a bunch of small constituencies that want to get their own way. Only after we understand that the goal is bigger than us, our groups, and our views will we be able to unify for Great Commission work.

The promise of the SBC's conservative resurgence was that we would eventually agree on enough to cooperate for global missions. Well, when will that day come? We will never be Great Commission anything if we can't say, "We agree on enough in our Baptist Faith and Message. Let's get busy doing missions and evangelism." It is an odd day indeed when it's controversial to say we favor cooperation around the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We must stop pushing for narrower and narrower parameters. Let's move on--and into mission.

Finally, we need to keep the goal in sight. The new moniker, "Great Commission Baptists," does that. If nothing else, every time we think of our additional name, we will be reminded of what we should be doing. Clinging solely to our legal name, Southern Baptist Convention, would have worked functionally, but GCB speaks to our DNA. We don't need to be primarily "Southern" or "conventional," but a group of churches on mission. Our goal is to be about the task for which Jesus called us.

I say it often, but it's worth repeating: God is a sending God, and we are a sent people. The most profound instruction we have ever received as it relates to our mission is the Great Commission. I've written about it in almost a dozen books on evangelism, missions, and outreach--it's my life's ministry agenda. And, it is why I stay SBC. If we keep the Great Commission as our focus we can succeed as a convention no matter the name.

So, Southern Baptists, let us act like Great Commission Baptists--that will both help fix the reputation of the old name and build a good reputation for the new "nickname."

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Posted:February 22, 2012 at 12:00 am

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The SBC: Changing Names Is Good, Changing Actions Is Better