Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Should Southern Baptists change their name?

I love Southern Baptists, but sometimes I just don’t know what we’re thinking. Yesterday’s official press release just confused me more. After months of study and work a special task force released their findings regarding changing our denomination’s name. The new name doesn’t address the basic issue. Instead it just makes it worse.

Here’s what I mean. Several years ago, what was then known as the Foreign Mission Board changed their name. The leadership realized that the name came across as condescending to the international community and had a negative impact on the board’s purpose. So they changed it to the much more appropriate International Mission Board. That was a very good thing.

Now, the leadership of the whole denomination has gone through a similar process. Yes, it’s true that the name Southern Baptist Convention has strongly regional tones to it. And yes, that fact does limit the mission of our people, especially when, say, a church is planted in upstate New York or an evangelistic campaign is launched in Salt Lake City. So a panel was put together to study how the name could be changed.

Yesterday’s press release contained the panel’s recommendation (the convention as a whole will need to approve the recommendation at the annual meeting in June). And what did they recommend? Here’s the puzzling part. They didn’t really change the name. The reason, they said, was that there would be too many legal issues involved. Instead, they recommended a clarification. From the Southern Baptist Convention we would become The Southern Baptist Convention: Great Commission Baptists.

Huh? Maybe I’m missing something, but how does that “clarification” help anything? I mean, I’m a Southern Baptist minister and even I have to think hard before it makes any sense to me. “Great Commission” is a biblical and compelling phrase but has no meaning at all to anyone without a basic degree of biblical literacy. If the point of a name change is to make the ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention more accessible to non-southern regions, how would that  help? It seems to me that it would actually make things worse.

Such a name change could also be offensive to the many other Baptist groups in the country. How would, for instance, the General Association of Regular Baptists or the American Baptist Convention or the National Baptist Convention respond to the proposed change? If we designate ourselves as “Great Commission Baptists” doesn't that imply other Baptist denominations are not?

The real reason for the proposed change seems to be to align our name with the recent report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, which is changing the basic mission and funding priorities of the denomination. There's nothing wrong with re-alignment but co-opting our name--which is how those outside the denomination view us--for the sake of how we operate inside the denomination is a fundamentally flawed strategy. It places politics at a higher premium than mission.

The purpose of a name change—or “rebranding” as marketing experts would call it—is to reposition an organization for wider appeal. For that to happen the new name must be comprehensible to the audience you’re aiming for. If you have to explain what it means, there’s really no point in changing the name to start with. The proposed name change of the SBC fails the test. Better by far to keep the present name as it is, or to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more fitting suggestion.

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