Last month, Southern Baptist Convention president Bryant Wright announced the formation of a committee to explore the option of changing the name of the SBC. Blogs quickly became forums for people to discuss the merits of the proposal. Some believe the name change represents a sell-out of our historic identity. Others believe that not changing the name keeps us stuck in the past (with racial connotations even!) and hinders our future growth and effectiveness. Still others are open to a name change, but don’t like the way the current president is going about things.
I don’t have a strong feeling one way or another regarding changing the name of the SBC. But I do have some thoughts on the subject, and a few people have asked me to make them public. So, at risk of making people on both sides of this contentious debate angry, here goes nothing…
1. We’re not as big or important as we think we are.
Much of the talk about changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention assumes that people have a terribly negative perception of Southern Baptists. It’s assumed that our mission work in many parts of the country is hindered because the term “Southern” is an obstacle. Or perhaps we’re afraid people associate our name with the backwoods Baptists of yesteryear.
I may be mistaken, and I am willing to be corrected, but I doubt that most non-Christians have a negative perception of Southern Baptists. Truth be told, most non-Christians don’t even know who we are. Right now, we look a lot like the wider world of evangelicalism, which also suffers from this navel-gazing, Everyone hates us! mentality that research has proven to be untrue. It reminds me of the teenage girl who goes home from a party crying about how everyone hated her outfit, when in actuality, no one even noticed it.
Still, the acknowledgement that “we’re not as important as we think we are” cuts the other way too. It’s true that we’re not universally panned in the way some of those desiring a name-change think we are. But neither are we too big or important to refrain from considering a name change. Those who resist any idea of changing the name tend to overestimate the Convention’s importance as well, but from the other side.
So, let’s keep this discussion in perspective and remember that changing the name of the SBC will barely register as a blip in the overarching scheme of church history. We’re not so big and important in the perception of others that we have to change it. Neither are we so big and important to reject any notion of change.
2. We shouldn’t caricature people who approach this issue differently.
Some of the more vocal opponents of changing the SBC’s name believe that historic Baptist identity will suffer if the name were to change. Unfortunately, they level an implied accusation against the proponents of a name-change: They’re not really Baptist. Meanwhile, some who want to change the name have given the impression that anyone who opposes the idea must be more focused on the past than the future, or worse yet, racist for wanting to keep “Southern” in the name.
Both of these lines of attack and argumentation are unbecoming and unworthy of the Southern Baptist Convention. It would do us all well if we would assume good and godly motives on behalf of each other, and then recognize that there are good points to be made on both sides. There may indeed be sound, missiological reasons for considering a name more representative of the Convention’s direction. There may also be good reasons to refrain from going to the expense of changing the name at this time. We need not resort to caricature and insinuation of the worst possible sort when it comes to this issue.
3. Our mission should be at the forefront in this discussion.
For me personally, the most attractive reason for changing the name of the SBC is that we better describe who we are and who we are becoming. It seems strange to think that church planters in Boston or Sacramento would be planting churches that belong to a Convention whose name is regional. That said, I doubt that any of these church planters are publicly advertising their churches as Southern Baptist. It’s quite possible to belong to the Convention and yet choose for missiological purposes to not wave the SBC flag.
If our name gets in the way of the mission, then by all means, ditch the name for something better! After all, as Southern Baptists, we are a missionary people, and the impulse to cast aside anything that hinders the mission is one that we should embrace. At the same time, in a time of recession, one has to wonder whether or not the amount of expense that would be generated by all the ramifications of altering the Constitution and by-laws would be the best use of funds. We’ve just had a major discussion (some would say battle) within the Convention over the need to get more money to the mission field. It’s not wrong to wonder openly if a name-change controversy could distract from the mission, or if our funds would be better suited elsewhere.
In other words, the missiological question cuts both ways. Missiology challenges those who resist the change out of nostalgia, but it also challenges those who promote the change, particularly when it takes into account the time and expense of changing the name. Either way we move forward, let’s make sure missiology is at the forefront of this discussion.
4. We can learn from other organizations who have changed their names.
In recent years, a number of groups and denominations have chosen to change their names. Campus Crusade for Christ is now Cru. The Baptist General Conference is now Converge Worldwide. If a new name is so vague or trendy that everyone has to repeat the old name after it, it probably isn’t working too well. I hope we don’t make the same mistake.
On the other hand, there may be an easier way to go about a name change – a way that avoids the exorbitant costs associated with changing the Convention’s constitution and yet still allows us to be Southern Baptists with a new moniker. We could adopt a fresh name that describes who we are, and still maintain “Southern Baptist Convention” for clarifying purposes. In a nutshell, a DBA (“doing business as”) is the name of a corporation that is different from the legal or true corporate name as on file. We could be the Southern Baptist Convention “doing business as Great Commission Baptist Fellowship” or something of that nature. This would give us the opportunity to avoid a bitter and public controversy. It would also keep costs down.
Whatever Southern Baptists choose to do with our name, I hope that we will keep missiology at the forefront of our thinking. The big issues are God’s kingdom and our representation as Christ the King – not our denominational brand and history. His name is what we must care about most passionately, not our own.