Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What's In a Name?

Making the national news this week is a proposed name change for the Southern Baptist Convention.  It’s an idea that’s been periodically revisited—and then rejected—for decades.

I spent 30 years of my ministry working in Southern Baptist Convention churches outside the South, first in Northern California, then in Chicago, and finally in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In my experience all three words in the SBC name are problematic.

Southern has obvious regional connotations that are especially negative in places like the Upper Midwest and the Northeast—at least as negative as being identified as a New Yorker would be in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The Civil War didn’t end with a peace treaty—just a grudging cease-fire.  Regionally-based suspicions and misconceptions still abound in American life.

Baptist is a word that has long carried with it a lot of negative and confusing stereotypes in the minds of secular people, even among secular Southerners.  Some of these stereotypes are misplaced; some, not so much.  Many automatically associate Baptists with Fundamentalists.  Some Northerners actually believe that Baptists represent some weird cult, like the snake handlers of Appalachia.  When I worked for the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association in the late ‘80s we commissioned a focus group study on the perceptions raised by the name Southern Baptist.  We learned that our new suburban church plants were automatically assumed to be Black churches since the words “Black” and “Baptist” were strongly connected in Chicago.  Too often Southern Baptists have unwittingly defined themselves by what they are against—not a strong selling point.  And for the last 30+ years SBC leadership has so often equated conservative theology with conservative politics that for outsiders, a Southern Baptist church is automatically assumed to be a voter recruitment center for the Republican Party—a big turn off for millions of Democrats and Independents as well as for many Republicans.

And then there is word Convention which in the minds of most people is more readily associated with trade shows in Las Vegas than with a religious body—not exactly a desirable connotation for the largest Protestant denomination in North America.

The study group established at last June’s SBC Annual Meeting has announced a recommendation that the SBC keep its current legal name.  Changing it would be enormously expensive and complicated.  It would be confusing and would open up the probability that some other group would begin using the name.  Instead they are recommending the informal use of the name Great Commission Baptist be encouraged in places where the label Southern Baptist is a problem.  I suspect that this is simply adding a new public relations problem for Nashville.  It smacks of incredible arrogance.  Is the study group suggesting that the many other Baptist bodies are not committed to fulfilling the Great Commission?

The ties between Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have long been tenuous.  There has never been any formal separation nor is there any pressure to make such a break today.  But for many years the SBC and RABC have been drifting in slowly diverging directions.  What the future holds, I cannot say.  But in my year at RABC I certainly see no evidence that this gap was caused because Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church is somehow less committed to the Great Commission than are other Southern Baptists.

No comments: