NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — A panel of Southern Baptists recommended Monday that its leadership endorse a new description, offering an official option to those who don’t embrace the “Southern” name and history of America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Church leaders are concerned that their name is too regional and impedes the conservative, evangelistic faith’s efforts to spread the Gospel worldwide. The panel suggested a compromise of sorts could put the issue to rest by adding the moniker “Great Commission Baptists.”
The church formed in 1845 when it split with northern Baptists over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries, a history that has left some people to have negative associations with the name.
A recent survey conducted by the SBC’s own LifeWay Research firm gives weight to the idea that the name does drive away some potential members.
Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed, 40 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the denomination and 44 percent of respondents said that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to visit or join the church.
In 2008, about 18 percent of SBC churches were composed of largely nonwhite members. When surveying the leaders of African-American and other ethnic churches they indicated that a name change would help them, said Jimmy Draper, the head of the task force recommending the name change and a former SBC president.
The “Great Commission” refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The panel rejected a complete name change, citing the legal costs and difficulties. They also noted the positive associations many hold with the Southern Baptist name, such as with its well-regarded disaster relief organization.
The executive committee will consider the name recommendation on Tuesday. Anyone can then introduce the proposal at the annual convention this summer to be voted on by delegates, but a measure endorsed by the committee would carry greater weight.
Regardless, all Southern Baptist churches are independent and call themselves whatever they like. Draper said it was possible that over time more congregations could start using “Great Commission,” instead of “Southern Baptist,” but no one knows if the new term would ever replace Southern Baptist completely.
“We’ll just have to see how God leads,” he said.
While the 16 million member denomination continues to plant new churches in the U.S. and around the world, it has seen a decline in baptisms, church attendance and membership in recent years.
Southern Baptist Convention: http://www.sbc.net/
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.