24 February 2012

Name Change for Southern Baptists?

Here we go again.  Leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention are once again batting around ideas related to concerns that the denomination's name is antiquated and no longer adequately descriptive of the denomination as a whole.  Now we have learned that the task force that has been studying this issue will bring a recommendation to the annual meeting in New Orleans in June to allow congregations to adopt the informal moniker of Great Commission Baptists, while maintaining the formal and legal status of Southern Baptist.  If I understand this correctly, this means that congregations that find themselves within a context in which they believe it would be advantageous not to advertise themselves as Southern Baptists could opt for this new label - Great Commission Baptists. 

As a Southern Baptist pastor I do have a few thoughts on the issue.

First, at forty-five years of age I find myself in the middle of this debate.  I have and continue to rub shoulders with both the Millennial generation behind me and the Boomers and GI generations ahead of me.  I'm an older Gen-Xer, so by definition I'm a little lost, confused and angry (so I'm told!).  However, I think because of where I am generationally or just by my nature, I see the merit of both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, among the older generations within the Southern Baptist Convention there is great attachment to the label and to the denomination itself.  These folks can remember a greater time of cooperation and strong Baptist identity.  They tend to care deeply about Baptist distinctiveness and Baptist accomplishments.  Among them runs a strong us versus them mentality.  They have increasingly watched the Baptist label fade in significance in their children and grandchildren.  This isn't easy.  They have watched the Baptist Book Store,  The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, The Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Broandman Press become respectively LifeWay Christian Bookstore, LifeWay Christian Resources, Guidestone Financial Resources, and B&H Publishing Group.  They can remember when Convention Press, which no longer exists, turned out works for discipleship training that gave great attention to Baptist distinctiveness and doctrine.  The Baptist world they once knew is just a memory, replaced by clandestine Baptist organizations.

On the other hand, among the younger twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings there is a conspicuous disregard for the label of Baptist.  I don't mean that this is hostile in most cases.  There remains, for the large part, a commitment to baptistic doctrine and practice.  The only exception I observe here is in the area of church organization and governance.  There continues to be a growing trend toward the incorporation of Presbyterian style organization with the introduction of elders as an official office along side deacons.  I believe this has been one of the unintended consequences of the resurgence in Reformed theology in the SBC.  Otherwise, these younger guys preach and teach the Gospel, including adherence to believer's baptism by immersion.

However, there is a huge difference with many of the younger pastors and church planters out there in SBC life today.  It seems they have observed a preoccupation with Baptist identity that has been detrimental to reaching their generations.  It's not that they don't agree with historic Baptist doctrine and practice, they just don't think that's the point.  Furthermore, they appear to think that the label comes with significant negative baggage to a lot of people they want to reach.  Therefore, many of them bury the SBC affiliation deep in their websites.  It's there, but you often have to work hard to find it!  For many of these younger fellows this is a calculated choice.  They don't really want to look or sound like the stereotype of Southern Baptist that many have in their minds.  Furthermore, they are more apt to forge non-baptist partnerships and be more ecumenical.  They are not liberal in their theology or lifestyles, they just don't want to make a big deal out of being Baptist.  If they perceive that the label Baptist gets in the way of forging relationships with people whom they want to share the Gospel, then they have no difficultly playing down their Baptist heritage and connections.

Currently, in my small town of Hazard we have a case study going on in this debate.  The fastest growing, largest in attendance church in town is a new church plant that launched last fall.  The pastor is young, conservative, Baptist in upbringing and education, and a delightful guy.  His church is a "community" church, not Baptist in name.  Yet, it is Baptist when you look at the fine print, and as a church planter this pastor is a recipient of CP money.  Here is the truth.  He has been able to reach people in this community that would never give First Baptist the first look.  Why?  Top among the reasons I believe is the negative reputation many perceive of the 114 year-old church.  Would they hear the same Gospel at First Baptist?  Yes.  Do First Baptist people treat visitors with hospitality? Yes.  Could guests truly worship at First Baptist?  Yes.  So what's the difference?  Well, there are differences in our styles.  So, style may be a factor, but I'm not convinced that's the bottom line.  Certainly a new work has a lot of energy and excitement that just comes with the newness factor.  But I'm beginning to be convinced that the significant factor is that many in our community have a bad impression of First Baptist specifically and probably Baptists in general.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm getting more sympathetic with those who downplay the Baptist label, even though I still don't like it.  It's regrettable that First Baptist has not secured a better reputation over our long history.  I think we have to own that.  However, I don't know that ditching the label is the answer.  In my context, my choice is to change the reputation, even though I know that change will come slowly.  This has to happen at First Baptist Hazard, and I think it has to happen church by church all across our convention.

I've observed at convention meetings that it seems that at least 75% of new church plants go by names that leave out the Baptist label.  (I'm guessing at that number).  Part of me bristles every time I hear "community" or "fellowship" replacing "Baptist."  I admit I have an emotional reaction.  But that's when I have to get a grip and ask myself why.  After I think it through, I begin to see the other side and I begin to get it, even though I still don't like it.

But here is the point.  I believe our task force has missed the mark.  I realize that their job was to come up with an alternative label that didn't use the word Southern.  But for those who have a desire to change the name it's just as much or more an issue with the word Baptist.  I'm afraid that "Great Commission Baptist" will scantly be applied because of that reason.  Young church planters are not going to use it because it still contains Baptist. (not to mention it's just a little cheesy).

The hard work Southern Baptists need to do is that of mending fences, loving their neighbors and improving their reputations.  Middle-aged guys like myself need to be honest about this and get to work.  As much as I cherish my Baptist heritage, I know that God's Kingdom is not a "Baptist" kingdom.  It's much bigger than that.  However, I have no shame in being Baptist because I believe that label stands for many important things in doctrine and practice.  I will not run away from the label.  I want to communicate why the label is historically significant and what it stands for.  And I want to work to improve its reputation in my community.  As for all the young church planters who choose to hide the Baptist name even though that's what they are-that's their business and it's not a hill for me to die on.  However, I probably won't be able to help myself from still giving them a hard time.

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