Southern Baptists mull whether 'Southern' still fits

February 17, 2012

c. 2012 Religion News Service
FAIRHOPE, Ala. (RNS) For the Rev. Jerry Henry, pastor of First Baptist
Church of Fairhope, being Southern Baptist is a defining aspect of life.
He embraces the denomination's conservative social values, extols its
evangelism -- "We reach out to people instead of waiting for them to come to
us" -- and identifies with its name.

"I grew up under the traditional name of Southern Baptist Convention,"
said Henry, a native of Selma, Ala.

But Henry, 67, acknowledges the realities of a changing America, and
wonders if his denomination must change with it -- at least its name.
"Being Southern Baptist isn't a problem in Fairhope, Alabama," he said.
"It's a proud thing." But in other parts of the country, he says, it might
turn people away.

"If we were to say the Yankee Baptist Church here," he said, "that would
be a real turnoff."

On Monday (Feb. 20), Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright
is expected to give his recommendation on a possible name change to the
denomination's top leaders. That recommendation is likely to be debated at the
Southern Baptists' annual convention in June in New Orleans.

For a denomination that has used the same name for nearly 170 years, a
change is an involved process. First, there has to be the will to do so. And
on that, the jury is still out.

"My first response is, I don't want to change it, the Lord has blessed us
in every way," Henry said. "But I'm willing to look at it to see if we do
need to change it."

Adds the Rev. Jay Cook, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pascagoula: "Our
prime objective is to do what Jesus Christ called us to do -- to share the
gospel. If a name is hindering that, we need to consider it strongly."

Formed in 1845 when Baptists split into Northern and Southern branches
over slavery and other issues, the Southern branch kept its name, while
Northern Baptists eventually became the American Baptist Churches USA.

The slavery issue, Cook said, has long been addressed in the
denomination's history. "Southern Baptists have stated unequivocally that we are
for any role we played in any way with slavery. It was abhorrent."

In fact, a widely respected New Orleans pastor, the Rev. Fred Luter, is
the odds-on favorite to be elected this summer as the first African-American
president of the SBC.

Yet Cook is proud of another strand of the denomination's history.
"There's a lot of meaning in the name. Southern Baptists have a rich
heritage of mission work in the U.S. and internationally."

There are more than 16 million Southern Baptists in the U.S., and the Rev.
Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, said the name question
has come up before. For 70 years, Southern Baptists have been more than
just a regional body, he said.

"What's happening," Terry said, "is that two years ago a decision was made
that we would try and have a major church planting effort in underserved
areas of the U.S., largely outside of the traditional South."

Is the term Southern Baptist, Terry asked, "a brand name, or a regional
description? Does Southern convey an expectation of theological concerns?"

"That's part of the debate," he said.

The Rev. Stuart Davidson, pastor of Eastern Shore Baptist Church in
Daphne, said a change might be beneficial in the short term, but in the long
term, "We need men and women, boys and girls, to live and act like Jesus."

"We don't have a name problem, we have a Jesus problem. The reason people
are running from churches in general is because Christians are not acting
like Christ," he said.

Davidson says 85 percent of Southern Baptist churches are stagnant in
their membership, or declining. "That's a heavy statistic," he said.
LifeWay Christian Resources, the Baptist-affiliated publisher and
retailer, polled 4,000 people outside of the South and found that 44 percent had
negative views of Southern Baptists.

Too often, he said, "Southern Baptists are known for what they're against
rather than for."

The Rev. Ed Litton, pastor of First Baptist North Mobile, has a strong
conviction that a new era has come because too often "the term 'Southern'
alienates people."

"I'm for a name change. I think it's a burden," Litton said. "We're part
of planting churches in New York City and out West. I don't look to a name
change to be anything of a game changer. Baptists need a heart change."