As we all know, an important announcement was made by SBC president Bryant Wright at the latest Executive Committee meeting in Nashville. Wright proposed that the SBC should explore the possibility of changing the denomination’s 166-year-old name. You can see a list of the exploratory task force members here. This has profound implications for the way we carry out Kingdom work in the United States and around the globe.
The stated reason was the belief that the name might hinder the work in non-Southern areas. Church planters and pastors in such areas largely assume that the name “Southern Baptist” is a hindrance to their work. This is not a universally held view, but in the places I served (New York and Pennsylvania) this is assumed to be true.
When I led research at the North American Mission Board, I wanted to learn more. Richie Stanley and I conducted research in 2006 asking the question, “How Do People Perceive Southern Baptists?” This is probably the most recent data, and I am sure it will be a part of the debate, but you can download the PowerPoint here. That summer the Center for Missional Research conducted a poll of 1,210 adults. Respondents were asked if their impression of Southern Baptists was very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable. Some respondents said they were not familiar with Southern Baptists and others were not sure of their impressions.
Here were some of our conclusions:
- Overall, Southern Baptists were viewed favorably (combining very and somewhat favorable) by 57 percent of adults interviewed.
- Southern Baptists were viewed more favorably than either Latter Day Saints (32% favorable, 32% unfavorable) or Muslims (27% favorable, 31% unfavorable) but had higher unfavorable ratings than Catholics or Methodists.
- Two of three respondents in the South expressed a favorable opinion of Southern Baptists, compared to 1 of 2 in the East and West regions. More than 1 of 3 easterners said they were not familiar with Southern Baptists.
- One of five respondents ages 18 to 24 expressed a “very unfavorable” impression of Southern Baptists, while another 4 percent reported a “somewhat unfavorable” opinion.
- Middle-aged adults esteem Southern Baptists most, with 66 percent of 55- to 69-year-olds reporting a favorable impression.
- When asked “If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church was Southern Baptist negatively or positively impact your decision?” only 31 percent of respondents said this knowledge would positively impact his or her decision to visit or join the church.
- The Southern Baptist identity simply does not resonate as well with adults age 18 to 24. More than 40 percent of respondents in this group said knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join the church.
Here is an excerpt from our report five years ago:
But it also should give us pause when our denominational label causes some not to hear the gospel in our churches. Too often, the stumbling block of the cross has been replaced with the stumbling block of the church.
This study does not answer some of the questions, “why?” Are Southern Baptists seen as intolerant because they believe that God’s best for marriage is one man, one woman, and one lifetime? Are they seen as harsh because they see God’s word as inerrant? Or, are there valid reasons why they have negative perceptions of our churches? The answer is probably some of both.
Regardless, there are major concerns here, particularly for long term ministry of our Southern Baptist churches. Many churches have now removed Baptist from the name of their church in the “name” of reaching the unchurched. The data would seem to indicate that is not the best choice in all areas but may have validity in some areas and with some segments of the population.
As you can see, the two most determining factors of the perception of our denomination are age and the region of the country in which they live. Bryant Wright made a good point when he said, “With our focus on church planting, it is challenging in many parts of the country to lead churches to want to be part of a convention with such a regional name.” That resonates with data we collected years ago.
The other issue of age is more complicated than it first appears. Age is a complicated metric because a person’s chronological age is so often taken for granted when it comes to maturity, perspective, and experience. Though it is often true that “youngsters” perpetuate the stereotype, we cannot afford to ignore their insight. Thom Rainer and his son (and millennial) Jess Rainer have demonstrated that the millennial generation (birth years 1980-2000) will (and already do) yield tremendous influence.
Many are concerned about the decline of the SBC. What will the SBC’s role be in the future? Bryant Wright says, “Second, a name change could position us to maximize our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century.” Fair enough.
A group will study this and bring back a report, but like most of those who have served outside of the South (New York and Pennsylvania), I tend to think he is correct. We need more data, and a study of “unchurched perceptions” is not enough. For example, what do the missions staff of state conventions outside the South think? Of course, even if every State Director of Missions and other church planting leader said, “Please change the name,” some have, regrettably, already made up their mind.
Let me add here that I am concerned about the tone of the early opposition to even asking this question. I do believe there are good reasons to keep the name SBC: stability, theological reputation, history, finances, and the amount of change we have undergone as of late. However, to say, “Regardless of how much this hurts our work in Boston, I care about my preferences in Birmingham,” is unhelpful and remarkably self-centered.
I say wait. Let the committee do its job. And, listen to the people who are there. Jimmy Draper is “Mr. Southern Baptist,” so I think he can be trusted. Paige Patterson is no pushover. Al Mohler leads THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Yet, I trust they will listen to those from the newer regions of our work. I know of Dr. Patterson’s love for New Hampshire– and I am glad he is on this study group.
It is easy to say, “In Texas, we know what’s best for Portland.” But, I am just crazy enough to think that Southern Baptists might want to consider their name based on their mission.
Names are for common identification in a family, but they can be a blessing if they communicate well or a bane if they are misunderstood. As a missiologist, I’m always asking, “How can we remove unnecessary barriers to engagement and understanding?” My hope is that the only stumbling block Southern Baptists would die over is the stumbling block of the cross.
Is the name “Southern Baptist” one of those barriers? In my experience, it has been, but I am not ready to say that my experience is the best way to determine the name of a denomination. In other words, though I have an opinion, I don’t know for sure. Actually, I don’t think anyone knows for sure-but that’s why you study these things. I will be praying with this committee as they think through and consider the issue in the coming days.
If the committee comes to the conclusion that the name “Southern Baptist Convention” is a hindrance, I will not be surprised and it will reflect the realities I have seen. If they don’t, I will say that God is still sovereign and churches will still be planted, people will be reached, and the gospel will be proclaimed.
I still believe that we can do more for the kingdom of God together than by doing it alone, and my hope is that our mission will matter above all.
But, for now, let’s all take a deep breath.