A considerable amount of attention continues concerning whether “Southern” in our official name as the “Southern Baptist Convention” should not finally experience a decent burial, presumably making sure it “dies with dignity,” so to speak.
And, so far as I can tell, the voices to euthanize “southern” in “Southern Baptists” show no signs of going away. For example, last week GCRTF member, J.D. Greear, asked this question in his concluding remarks of a blog entitled “Do Denominations have a Future?”:
“And how about the name of the SBC? Anybody besides me ready to change the name? Why does our name highlight one region of one country, when our vision, our makeup, and our goal is the world?” (//link).
Almost all of the respondents agreed with Greear’s proposal. Upon one commenter’s objection, however, Greear reiterated what he implied in the questions above:
“My concern is with the word "southern." Southern" is somewhat parochial and not at really [sic] reflective of where God has taken us in the last century, or where I believe we are headed in the future!”
Greear's view identically reflects the view of Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where Greear serves as adjunct professor. The Biblical Recorder reports Dr. Akin’s position as favorable of burying the name, "southern":
“With everything up for consideration Akin even said the name “Southern Baptist Convention” needs to be changed, because it isn’t “best for identifying who we are and want to be in the future” (//link).
Going back a few months further and considering Dr. Akin’s “Axioms for a Great Commission” chapel address, Dr. Akin made it clear Southern Baptists must face their future without the inhibiting name of their past. He queried, "Is the name “Southern Baptist Convention” best for identifying who we are and want to be in the future?” (//link).
More significantly, neither Akin, Greear, nor other GCRTF members are first to hold up their hand to change the name of the convention. In fact, generally speaking, changing the name of Southern Baptists—that is, dropping “southern” out of the name--pops up fairly regularly about every decade or so beginning in the 1950's.
While undoubtedly other occasions exist where the name of the convention was up for grabs, the earliest I found in my rather sketchy research was the late fifties of the 20th century. On September 19, 1958, Baptist Press released the finding of an official survey taken at the May, 1958 session of the Southern Baptist Convention held in Houston, TX (//link). Messengers to the Convention were asked to fill out a questionnaire containing a number of matters related to annual conventions including time, place, costs, and other factors.
Significantly, on one portion of the form were questions dealing directly with determining whether Southern Baptists should change the name of the SBC. Just under 1,400 responses were recorded and the results were tabulated by the department of research and statistics of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway).
According to the report, "About three of every 10 messengers favor a change in the name of the Southern Baptist Convention" with the greatest support coming from states with "newer work." The study also found "more women than men" were opposed to a change in name. Most of the respondents were both college/seminary trained and served in city rather than "rural" congregations. Hence, the move to change the name of the convention has been around for at least the last 50 years or so.
What remains highly interesting is, during the 1950's, which conventional wisdom so often suggests were the wonder years of Southern Baptist expansion--a time when evangelism was white hot--Southern Baptists nonetheless discussed changing their name. Why? Was evangelism not working then? To the contrary, SBC growth during the fifties was perhaps unprecedented in recent times.
Why, then? Why change the name when, from what we now know, the name "Southern Baptist Convention" did not pose a hindrance to evangelism?
Nor does it seem to me reasonably arguable--and was not argued to my knowledge in the 1950's--that since Southern Baptists had so much negative baggage at that time, advocates felt the need to change the name of the convention like we hear floating around the airwaves these days.
For example, in April, 2009, Dr. Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway twittered the question, "What do you think when you hear ‘Southern Baptist’?” ((//link). According to his report, "the results were fascinating, if not a bit troubling," results being 60% negative views of Southern Baptists.
Some of the responses included, Legalism, Controlling, Fights, Pharisees, Don’t drink, Fundamentalism, Bickering, Suits and dresses, Old school, Not real, Behind the times, Extreme conservatism, Crazy people, Restricted missionaries, and being Inefficient.
In fact the "negative" image is precisely the baggage Moderate Baptist, Robert Parham, then Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, indicated Southern Baptists were attempting to unload when in 2004, the SBC President, Jack Graham, proposed a name change for the convention (//link). Parham dubbed the proposal nothing more than a "cosmetic makeover," framing it as a way for Southern Baptists to cleverly get rid of their negative past:
"Under fundamentalist leadership, the name Southern Baptist has become synonymous with fundamentalism, which after 9/11 has become the first dirty word of the 21st century."
For Parham then, scandalous fundamentalism came to mind. For Rainer's twitter followers now, is there a dime's difference? If there is, I do not see it.
Even more, what I find fascinating, if not a bit troubling about Dr. Rainer's admittedly "unscientific" research is twofold. First, the responses to his question, from my perspective, should have been predictable. Arguably, given the way the Twitter social network functions, the 60% who were negative requires more explanation than the 40% who were not. In other words, why only 60% were negative is the real surprise!
Second, and a wee bit more significant, is why a research expert of the SBC would twitter a research poll and then quote the "non-scientific" results on a research site which specializes in church data and consultation. Nonetheless, when a credible statistician like Dr. Rainer quotes statistical numbers as "fascinating, if not a bit troubling," who is not going to be significantly influenced by them?
Was this a way to solicit predictable public opinion toward a name change of the Southern Baptist Convention? I don't know if Dr. Rainer saw it as such or not, but it certainly resulted in the "right kind" of evidence to argue the point. Perhaps others could prove a darling hypothesis by twittering to followers concerning whom the overwhelming majority are his or her own fan base, not far from the exact circumstances under which Rainer gave his "fascinating, if not a bit troubling" results from his "unscientific" poll.
In Part II, we'll explore other attempts to change the name of the SBC and log some deep concerns many have publicly expressed about the name change, concerns which, so far as I can tell, not a single current advocate for changing the name of the SBC, has either cited or addressed.
Greear, for instance, poses the question in simple cheer-leader fashion, citing as indisputable reason to change our convention name because "southern" depicts regionalism. Well, so do Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and a host of cooperate names. Regionalism does not appear to hurt their business.
Indeed Greear's own employer depicts regionalism as does every other seminary we own. Yet, I do not think any prospective student from anywhere in the world would be hindered because of a regionalistic name.
We often hear how we must trust the sovereignty of God, believing the Spirit of God able to overcome the most challenging circumstances imaginable. I say amen to this.
But then we turn right around the next breathe and make the most ridiculous, mundane, inexplicable nonsense of an assertion like, "If we don't change our name, people won't be saved"; "if we don't change our name, we won't reach the world"; "if we don't change our name, people won't ever like us or even get to know us"; "if we don't change our name, we won't reflect a global vision"; "if we don't change our name, the young people are all going to leave."
I can't help it. I'm reminded of Israel's sparring with Samuel over a king.
Through God's counsel, Samuel told them what a king would mean for them but they insisted nevertheless, citing as evidence for having a king, among other things, that we also may be like all the other nations (1 Sam.8). One blogger wrote about all the cool names other church networks possess, networks with names which represent something about their future vision rather than about their past: Acts29, Resurgence, Elevate, Exponential, Fusion, Catalyst (//link).
Come on, Southern Baptists! Let's change our name so we can be like them!
Whatever the case, for me, it remains irresponsible for name-change advocates and especially GCRTF members to tease the public--whipping up a frenzy so to speak--with calls for changing our name but only citing the perceived advantages and not also revealing the profound hindrances--including legal hindrances--to changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.
We'll explore some of those hindrances next.
With that, I am...