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.
"Now, on top of [all those changes], to change the name of the SBC? These all may be good things, but this is a lot of change all at once, so I think you can expect some pushback," George said.
Mohler, who is a member of the task force, said that while it is difficult for him, as someone "deeply shaped" by the SBC, to even consider a name change, it is still important for the denomination to address the issue. ""We should never be afraid to ask the hard questions, including the most emotionally latent and historically significant questions, if we are a movement of churches with the first priority of the Great Commission," he said. "With that in mind, and with a significant interest within the denomination to ask the question … I think an advisory task force is at least the right way to begin the process of considering such a major issue."
A key issue of concern raised after Wright's announcement was his forming the task force without approval from the executive committee or the convention as a whole. Wright said he felt that asking just the executive committee to look into the issue could potentially leave out other voices from the SBC that would be needed in the discussion. The task force, he added, is not an official SBC committee. "These people are agreeing to serve, to give me council and direction about whether or not this should go forward to the convention as a whole," Wright said. "I realize that there was concern about that, but it's certainly in the prerogative of the president of the convention to ask for a task force to study any issue that comes along in order for us to have a more thought-out and informed response to the questions that would come up if it were to go forward to the convention as a whole."
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More coverage of the task force is available from Baptist Press (more) and Associated Baptist Press.
Baptist Press has posted audio of the press conference announcing the task force.
The denomination is soliciting suggestions for a new name at Pray4SBC, a website for Southern Baptist pastors.
In 1999 Christianity Today reported that Southern Baptist congregations and other denominational churches are increasingly likely to drop denominational labels from their names.
In 1994 the magazine looked at the relationship between Southern Baptists and northern and western evangelicals.
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