Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are thinking about changing the organization’s name — again — and I suspect the idea will get a lot more traction this time than in previous attempts, in part because SBC president Bryant Wright appears to be in favor of it.
Previous attempts to change the name quickly fell to Southern pride and the weight of tradition, but the current task force assigned to study the change seems well aware that the convention’s name can be a problem when it comes to recruiting new members.
It’s a problem because all three words have come to have negative connotations.
“Southern” is freighted with images of intolerance, racism, right-wing politics, anti-immigrant sentiment, and male dominance, among other things.
And “Baptist,” to many people, has come to suggest, well, intolerance, racism, right-wing politics, anti-immigrant sentiment, and male dominance, among other things.
The third word will be the easiest to expunge — in an increasingly post-denominational age, hardly anyone likes the word “Convention” any more, though it’s the most neutral of the three.
The sad thing is that negative attitudes raised by words like “Southern” and “Baptist” are more caricature-istic than characteristic. Yes, there are intolerant, racist, right-wing, anti-immigrant, male dominant Southerners, and there are intolerant, racist, right-wing, anti-immigrant, male dominant Baptists, but they’re not all that way, either separately or combined. There are lots of accepting, inclusive, pro-equality, progressive Baptists around, in the South as well as elsewhere.
Even within the Southern Baptist Convention, whose three-decade-old reactionary shift in leadership has made it one of the most fundamentalist organizations to be found, there is great diversity among the rank and file, most of whom don’t give a whit what SBC officers or denominational officials in Nashville say or think.
Still, reputations are what reputations are, and the name “Southern Baptist Convention” is a badly tarnished shadow of the banner we proudly flew 50 years ago. So, what’s a task force to do when it’s charged with suggesting a name that might overcome negative bias and enhance evangelistic opportunities?
Personally, I hope they won’t go as far as the Baptist General Conference, which changed its name to “Converge Worldwide” — a moniker that conjures images of a movie studio or a peace movement, giving no hint of its Baptist roots.
Leaders of the SBC task force say they’re all united on keeping the word “Baptist” in whatever new name they may ultimately suggest, and that’s certainly appropriate. My prediction is that both “Southern” and “Convention” will go the way of the dodo bird, though tradition may yet win out.
Anyone who’d like to suggest a name to the task force can do so by going to www.pray4sbc.com and clicking on the “Suggest a New Name for the SBC” button. It would be interesting to see a list of what’s been suggested.
I don’t think it’ll get any consideration, but the alternate name I’ve heard used most often for the SBC in recent years generally comes up when moderate or progressive Baptists are in conversation with new acquaintances who throw up defensive walls when they hear the word “Baptist” and immediately assume we’re of the fundamentalist variety.
“Oh,” we often say, “We’re not that kind of Baptist.”
So, do you think the SBC might consider a name like “That Kind of Baptists”?
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.