I think I may be in the minority among those of my generation in the SBC. But I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the news last night that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) would be sticking with its name. The task force appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright recommended last night that “Southern Baptist Convention” remain our legal name and that “Great Commission Baptists” be adopted as our nickname. I am fine with the nickname, but I have been mainly concerned that our official name stay the same. So I couldn’t be happier about this result.
If I’m being honest, I have to confess that my preference to keep our name is not altogether motivated by missional concerns. I grew up in Southern Baptist Churches my whole life. I cut my ecclesiastical teeth on Fall revivals, Royal Ambassadors, and one more stanza of “Just As I Am.” Southern Baptists taught me that the gospel was the best news in the world and that I should share that news with as many people as possible. If they were to make a “Wonder Years” program about the life of Denny Burk, fully one-half of the program would be set within a Southern Baptist Church—in particular, the First Baptist Church of DeRidder, Louisiana. So for me, the “Southern” part of the SBC doesn’t conjure up the specter of slavery or segregation. On the contrary, it just makes me think of home. And I don’t hate home. I love it dearly.
So it is not easy for me think of changing the name of the SBC without somehow feeling like I’m losing a connection to the marrow of my life. But my experience is mine alone, and it shouldn’t be the measure of everyone else’s. No matter what my personal history has been, the progress of the gospel should be more important to me than nostalgia. So when the task force for the name change was appointed, I wanted to take seriously the concerns being raised about our name. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps we could accomplish the Great Commission more effectively by leaving behind a name that sounds regional and that has its genesis in our nation’s original sin of slavery. Those racial issues have weighed on the consciences of Southern Baptists for a very long time, and rightly so.
At the end of the day, however, my concerns about the name change were more than mere sentimentality. As the arguments from both sides mounted up, it became clear that changing the name of the SBC would bring on some significant challenges to our denomination. A name change would have expensive legal consequences, some of them foreseeable and some of them not forseeable. Our history has the potential to overpower any effort to rebrand, and so it’s not altogether clear that removing “Southern” from our name would really free us from our past. Also, changing the name would have the potential not only to sever us from the inglorious aspects of our history but also from the glorious ones—our evangelical doctrine, our ethical stances, our commitment to missions, and the conservative resurgence. And perhaps most important of all, a name change debate had the potential to divide Southern Baptists.
For these reasons and more, it seemed to me that the burden of proof for a name change fell on those who wanted to change it, not on those who wanted to keep it the same. And I never heard anything from anyone that persuaded me that the benefits of changing the name would outweigh the costs. Jimmy Draper confirmed my feelings in his report to the Executive Committee when he said precisely that:
We believe that the potential benefits of a name change do not outweigh the potential risks that would be involved in a legal name change. Renaming the Convention would require a great cost in dollars, in energy, as well as re-branding the name to recapture the meaning that our name now represents. The value of the name change does not justify the risks involved.
I couldn’t agree more.
What about the baggage that is associated with the “Southern” part of the SBC? Are we stuck with the negative historical associations now that we are keeping the name? I don’t think so. As someone has recently said, repentance is more important than rebranding. Turning away from our sin will be more compelling to a watching world than any name change would ever be. We need to pray for the Lord to add to our number and to grant that we might look more and more like the congregation in Revelation 5:9—those who praised God for bringing into the church “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
One more thing. To all the Southern Baptists who want to cut ties with the negative associations of the name “Southern,” there is still something for you to do. You need to be in New Orleans this summer to help elect Fred Luter as the first African American president of the SBC. He is a faithful pastor who did not forsake his New Orleans congregation when the going got tough after Hurricane Katrina. He’s the real deal and is just the kind of man we need leading Southern Baptists. It will be a watershed moment in the history of our convention, and it will be one of the most important votes you’ll ever cast. I cannot wait for Fred Luter to be the face of the Southern Baptist Convention. I hope to see you there.