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IB: Convention will vote on optional 'Great Commission Baptist' identity for use by churches, while keeping legal name ‘Southern Baptist’

By Lisa Sergent, contributing editor
NASHVILLE | Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention will decide in June whether or not to call the denomination “Great Commission Baptists,” at least informally. The SBC Executive Committee approved a task force’s recommendation to adopt a name for optional use by churches, while keeping the legal name of the denomination in use since its founding in 1845.

The recommendation is a compromise of sorts between leaders who say the word ‘Southern’ is viewed negatively by the very people they are trying to reach with the Gospel and those who wish to preserve the heritage and strong theological identity associated with the SBC.

The recommendation will be presented to messengers at the convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans, La., June 19-20, 2012.

The committee’s vote took place Feb. 21, after the task force’s presentation the previous evening.

Following the vote, the Illinois Baptist spoke with the SBC Executive Committee members representing Illinois – Charles Boling, Williamson Baptist Association director of missions, and Wilma Booth, a member of Calvary Baptist in Elgin.

Boling shared, “I think the time has come for us to take a serious look at it [an optional name]. Our purpose has always been to engage the lost. This might open up more doors for us to do that. The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some … ’"

Booth said, “I think it was good work by the task force to make such a recommendation. I’m hoping it will take away from any distractions we may have had … It does offer an option for those who feel the Southern Baptist name is a barrier.”

Each said the vote in favor of the recommendation was overwhelming.

The paper also spoke with IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams, who stated, "I think the task force was wise not to recommend a legal name change for the Southern Baptist Convention. To what degree individual churches or entities will find the proposed informal name ‘Great Commission Baptists’ useful in their various contexts will of course be up to each autonomous Baptist body. Under the circumstances I feel the task force did a good job with a very difficult assignment."

Presenting the task force's recommendation to the Executive Committee, task force chairman Jimmy Draper said the name "Southern," is a barrier to the Gospel in some regions of the country.

"We believe that the equity that we have in the name Southern Baptist Convention is valuable," Draper said. "It is a strong name that identifies who we are in theology, morality and ethics, compassion, ministry and mission in the world. It is a name that is recognized globally in these areas."

Draper continued: "We also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word 'Southern.' We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention. We believe we have found a way to do that."

The goal from the beginning, he said, "was to consider the removal of any barrier to the effective proclamation of the Gospel and reaching people for Christ."

Changing the legal name, Draper said, would have been fraught with problems.

"We believe that the potential benefits of a legal name change do not outweigh the potential risks that would be involved in a legal name change," Draper said. "Changing the name of the convention would require a great cost in dollars and in energy, and would present huge challenges legally that create a multitude of issues. The value of a name change does not justify the risks involved.

"At the same time, we are concerned about the negative perception that the word 'Southern' may carry in certain geographic areas of North America. But even there, the opinions are mixed on this issue. From leaders in non-Southern states, one-half of those we heard from reported that it would be a benefit to them to change the name, but the other half said it would not be a benefit. It is true that the leaders of African American and other ethnic Southern Baptist churches indicated that it would be helpful to them."

Task force member Ken Fentress, pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., spoke to the Executive Committee regarding the convention's ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 being a barrier to some in the African American community, saying "the name Southern Baptist is full of meaning, significance and history.

The 2009 SBC Annual Church Profile report showed that 6.5 percent of SBC congregations were predominantly African American while an additional 12.5 percent reflected other ethnic identities.

The SBC name, Fentress said, has been "a source of difficulty for church planters ... serving in areas outside the American South." It also "has been a source of difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity and the history of the Confederacy."

A recent study by LifeWay Christian Resources found 40 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the convention. The groups more likely to have a "very unfavorable" opinion included those who never attend church (44%), Hispanics (29%), people who live in small cities (26%) and young adults ages 18-29 (25%).

The report ended weeks of speculation as to what the task force would do. A name change was first proposed in 1903, and in recent years, motions to consider a change were made from the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1965, 1974, 1983, 1989, 1990 and 1998. In 1999, a motion to conduct a straw poll to consider a name change was defeated on the convention floor. Then, in 2004, messengers defeated a motion to authorize the SBC president to appoint a committee to study a name change.

Other members of the 20-member task force, which were appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright, include Michael Allen, pastor of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago; David Dockery, president of Union University; Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board; Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board; Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

With information from Baptist Press and wire services

Last Published: February 22, 2012 11:41 AM
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