Not Southern Enough

The powers-that-be in Southern Baptist life have decided and will recommend that the convention retain its original name: Southern Baptist Convention.  However, they will also recommend for those less inclined to, hindered by or offended by the word “Southern” to use the alternative moniker “Great Commission Baptists.”  The chairman of the task force considering the name change even suggested getting a trademark on “Great Commission Baptists.”

Not much matters less than what I think about all this rigmarole.  But it matters to me and that’s what blogs are for, right?

Personally, I am grateful to retain the name for all it means for good and ill.  We toe a dangerous line when we hope to fudge historical truth with the stroke of a pen.  Companies and organizations change names in order to distance themselves from an unfavorable perception.  Rather than change the character and culture of the organization, they change the name and hope we won’t remember the old one.

Haven’t we been pleasantly surprised by Domino’s Pizza of late?  Historically perceived as bad pizza, Domino’s owned up to it and changed their pizza, not their name.  They could’ve changed their name in a cheap attempt to woo some new customers.  But it would’ve been the same old pizza.  Their pizza has remarkably improved and so has the perception of their name.

For what it’s worth, Southern Baptist churches should concern themselves with changing who they are rather than what they’re named.  Having drifted from our historic theological and ecclesiological roots, we’re simply putting out a bad product.  Generally speaking, we peddle gimmicky ministries trying to woo new customers without seriously considering what a biblical, new covenant local church looks like.  We “baptize” worldly methods of building capital and have created a consumerist culture in the church.  We care more about filling the pews with customers than filling the kingdom with disciples.  In the end, are we willing to admit that it might not be the name of the Southern Baptist Convention that’s the problem,  but Southern Baptists themselves?

One of the motivators for considering the name change was declining baptisms and membership (read: loss of market share).  Last year Southern Baptist churches baptized the fewest number of people since the 1950s.  Membership dropped for the fourth year in a row.  These harrowing statistics are seen as a trend of failure.

Declining baptisms and membership would only be of such concern in a market-driven, consumeristic culture.  It is viewed as a loss of market share.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we see a quota of baptisms or church membership.  Scripture does not command we baptize more people this year than last year.  Scripture does not demand a local church be bigger this year than last.  More faithful?  Yes.  Larger?  No.  Assuming so is a failure to understand the nature of salvation itself.  God alone makes Christians.  While we remain faithful to share the gospel with anyone and everyone, God assumes the responsibility for the response to that gospel (1 Cor 3.6).  Have we considered that maybe, just maybe, God might have something to do with the numbers?

Further, have we considered that declining baptisms and membership might be a sign of improving church health rather than failure?  Again, getting smaller is only bad in a culture expecting to control more of the market.  Have we considered that maybe more churches are returning to historic (i.e. 19th-century) Southern Baptist faith and practice, being careful stewards of baptism and church membership?

Perhaps fewer churches are doling out baptisms like VBS cookies and juice.  Perhaps churches are become far more careful with baptism so that demonstrable converts are baptized.  Perhaps we’re baptizing far fewer unconverted children in the name of making true disciples.

Perhaps a declining membership means more churches are taking regenerate church membership seriously.  The SBC regularly boasts of 16.2 million members.  Yet, only one-third are actively involved in local church life.  So we created “non-active” membership to keep the balance sheet numbers high while appeasing our consciences.  Boyce and Dagg roll over in their graves.

Perhaps more churches are repenting from lying about their numbers and doing the hard work of church discipline.  Maybe they consider healthy, regenerate church members are more important than bloated rolls that offend the gospel itself.  Perhaps some churches are simply understanding biblical conversion more faithfully and therefore what it means to become a member of the local church.

Some suggested their was too much racial baggage associated with the word “Southern” that it hindered ministry to the black community.  I’ll be the first to decry and denounce the racism laced in the early Southern Baptist Convention.  Again, let’s be honest about it and recover the name through repentance rather than change the name and hope to fool people.

However, I think this motivation is simply a straw man.  Did you know that the Southern University System in Louisiana is “the only historically black university system in America”?  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which retains a proud legacy stretching far beyond its southern borders.  The Southern Poverty Law Center serves to address the civil rights of many black communities.  Apparently “Southern” is not inherently offensive in that context.

Can we say “Southern” is a legitimate, necessary and inherent offense to black people that would motivate changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention?  We should indeed continue to recover the name, but simply changing it to make people think we’re not racist is disingenuous.  Any perception about “Southern” is informed by the behavior of southerners.  Change the southerners and you change the perception of “Southern.”

Further, introducing an alternative nickname for Southern Baptist will be more confusing than changing the name altogether.  But seriously considering trademarking the name “Great Commission Baptists” is arrogant.  Are we to assume Southern Baptists (a.k.a. Great Commission Baptists) are the only baptists concerned about the Great Commission.  Do we corner the market on the Great Commission such that we should own the rights to it?  Doing this will do far more damage than “Southern” will!

“Owning” the name Great Commission Baptists will communicate we really think we’re the ones who get the Great Commission right and only ones who really care about it.  Why not trademark “Lord’s Supper Baptists” or “End-Time Baptists”?  The Great Commission is for the nations–any and all who leave the kingdom of this world to pledge themselves to Christ’s kingdom.  Believe it or not, that includesfar more than those-formerly-known-as-Southern-Baptists.

Let’s finally put to rest all the wasted time and energy about changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Rather, let’s devote ourselves to changing Southern Baptists.  An article quoted Ken Fentress, a committee member, pastor of Montrose Baptist Church (MD) and proponent of the alternative as saying, “”Sound Christian theology takes precedence over geography and politics.”  I could not agree more so let’s recover the “sound Christian theology” of historic Southern Baptist life.  Then we will have churches who take the gospel seriously, promote regenerate church membership and will be known again for their Jesus rather than the breadth of their programs and height of their steeples.

Shakespeare’s Juliet opined in something of a different context:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Unless there is a serious consideration of changing the culture of Southern Baptist churches themselves (which involves their individual members) then a convention by any other name will still smell the same.  If we don’t return to the convictions of Boyce, Dagg, Mell, etc. then it doesn’t matter what we’re called we’ll still crank out the same ministries.    Only then we’ll have sullied the term “Great Commission”!

In the historical-theological sense, we’re not Southern enough.  Having recovered the inerrancy of Scripture in the “conservative resurgence” let us now recover the sufficiency of Scripture in all faith and practice.  For what it’s worth, I say we do far more considering what it means to be Baptist in the Bible than what it means to be Southern in the marketplace.

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