A Southern Baptist by Any Other Name...
Can a name change rehabilitate the SBC's image in our culture?

Last month the Southern Baptist Convention decided to change its name, sort of. They have proposed using the informal designation of "Great Commission Baptists." It will serve as a kind of nickname for those congregations who deem "Southern Baptists" unhelpful or off-putting in their community.

The problem is one of branding. The SBC brand has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. First, while still the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptists aren't just Southern. And in many parts of the country the South is still associated with unpopular values and an unjust history. In fact, the "Southern" in Southern Baptists came from the SBC's allegiance to the Confederacy, and slavery, in the 19th century–a fact the SBC has repented of but it remains a stain on their image.

Secondly, cultural crusaders from within the SBC ranks have garnered negative media attention for the last few decades. Remember the boycott on Disney over the media company's decision to offer benefits to domestic partners of gay employees? Calling Micky Mouse public enemy #1 is not how you win public favor. And while there are culturally sophisticated and popular SBC pastors like Rick Warren, the impact of voices like Jerry Falwell's have done far more to shape the Southern Baptists' image in our culture.

Finally, evidence in recent years has shown that the SBC is declining and failing to even keep up with the birth rate in its own churches. That means young people raised in SBC churches are not staying.

But are the problems facing the Southern Baptist Convention really just about image? Or is there a more substantive explanation for its decline? I suggest reading Ed Stetzer's response to the name change decision. He says the name change is good, but not enough. The SBC also needs to change its actions. He writes:

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.... 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.

Still, one shouldn't dismiss the power of rebranding entirely. We are, after all, an image-based culture. Consider ValuJet. Back in the 90s the low cost airline suffered a series of PR nightmares related to safety violations and a deadly accident in Florida. The company decided its brand was too badly damage to revive. So, they decided to rebrand the airline as AirTran Airways, and within a few years it soared back to profitability.

Could the same happen for the "new" Great Commission Baptists? Maybe, but in my area I suspect that the word "Baptist" may carry even more negative baggage than "Southern." Maybe they could become the "Great Commission Believers."

We'd like to hear your thoughts on the SBC rebranding initiative. Do you think it will work? And do you have other stories of rebranding churches that made a difference?

March 08, 2012

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

Tiffany Flaming

March 16, 2012  10:45pm

Greg - you said it yourself. You aren't Southern Baptist. I was there for way too long, and, yes, I heard the discussion about missionaries drinking beer from my seminary's trustees. I also endured a maddening conversation in my Greek class on how Jesus couldn't POSSIBLY have turned water into ACTUAL WINE because it's SO HARMFUL. They are all men. They are mostly white. They are irrelevant and they will continue to decline. I am not denigrating. I am speaking the truth.

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March 12, 2012  8:49am

Tiffany, I'm saddened by your post. You caricature our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters and what they do. It's appropriate to ask whether a nickname will be beneficial for them as they do their work (which largely centers on the Great Commission). But it's not appropriate to denigrate them. Although I'm not a Southern Baptist, I have many friends who are pastors, missionaries and other leaders in the denomination. They don't sit in tall buildings, nor do their missionaries debate whether to drink beer. Southern Baptist missionaries are some of the hardest working missionaries I know. Also, the denomination, though largely white, is more ethnically diverse than they are popularly perceived to be.

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March 11, 2012  12:37pm

"Wherever YOU go, there YOU are." Yep, oh so true.

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March 10, 2012  11:07am

It would be cool if they could say instead of.... we are on ____ Street... We could say, We're the church that started the homeless ministry, the ones that fed the low income school kids for lunch, the ones that cleaned up the graffiti on 6th street, the one that opened the battered women's shelter, the one that rebuilt the clinic on the east side.... But we just say thing like... we are a bible preaching... we have great music... we are the one who just changed it's name... If we would be the church we wouldn't really need to worry about the name of our church.

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March 10, 2012  10:56am

There is a Baptist church in my town that changed their name to "Redeemer's Church" about two years ago. The church is in the same building and the same people go there that went there before. I'm sure they picked up a few newbies but basically, nothing has changed. The humorous part is that when someone said, "I go to Redeemers Church" folks would say, "Where's that?". "O, you know, it's the Baptist Church". LOL... Wherever YOU go, there YOU are.

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March 09, 2012  2:39pm

They should be dropping the word Baptist. It's not distinctive any more. There are maybe 50 or more varieties of Baptist that have very little in common other than immersion. Immersion is no longer a key distinctive that should be put in the name. It does not mean you are no longer baptistic or that you are moving away from that theology. It only means there are bigger priorities to put in your name. Maybe they think their members are too hard to educate on this item. Maybe they think there would be a revolt on dropping Baptist. If this is the case, it demonstrates a sad level of immaturity and stubbornness for things that really do not matter to God. We are to "test everything,hold on to what is good", by God's definition, not by our own. They should not be besmirched for changing their name. This is not a cover up. This is a normal thing that most every institution will do at one or many points in their history. They should have done it 40 years ago, but maybe they had hotter irons in the fire then.

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Brian Jones

March 09, 2012  9:03am

I don't think so. GCB doesn't have any more or less of a cultural ring to it than SBC. My encouragement to SBC's is simply to own who they are - their history, and both their positive and negative contemporary influences. Every denomination has dark sides to it, but there's so much good to the SBC denomination that they have to be proud of. Time and money would be better spent, in my mind, if they worked at re-casting the SBC brand in a positive light. Over time doubters will be won over and past faults will be remembered, but forgiven.

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Rob Dunbar

March 08, 2012  7:18pm

This kind of reminds me of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It's a "huh?" kind of thing that changes tag lines, not identity; it's a "we are/we aren't" mishmash. The SBC needs to sort out what it is and what it stands for, and then unite around that.

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March 08, 2012  1:52pm

The "name change" is a capitulation to old timey religiousity which is still running the convention. Oh well, I'll always just be an SBCer. The change doesn't matter in all honesty. Of course the broader point is significant, we are losing ground...massive ground. I'd be willing to postulate that the 20somethings that leave their SBC churches who are returning to church are largely attending progressive (style) mega-churches that are generationally younger. The estbalished SBC just can't keep up. The "battle" has been lost, just working through the paces now.

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March 08, 2012  10:45am

I agree with Ed on this one. I have been a member of SBC churches for over 40 years, and have seen quite a few changes over the years. One thing that hasn't change is people's perceptions outside of the SBC (at least the ones I come in contact with). We are known for judgementalism and infighting, plain and simple. Even though we are one of the largest missionary-sending organizations in the world, this never comes up in conversation. The one thing that usually comes up is national politics. We can call ourselves anything we want to, but the bottom line is we need to focus on sharing Jesus and living the Christian life out in our culture rather than bashing everyone else (including our own folks!)

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