Why are Southern Baptists suddenly reluctant to use their own name?
For an example of what I’m talking about, look at the explanation on the web page of Louisburg Southern Baptist Church in Kansas about its name change: “We are still SBC; we still believe in inerrancy; we still cherish our seminaries and mission bodies: We changed our name from Louisburg Southern Baptist Church to Eastside Church of the Cross.”
What happened in Louisburg is not an anomaly, but a growing trend. Simply put, it’s a marketing decision.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been embroiled in controversy that appears to be contributing to declining membership. The longstanding doctrine of church autonomy and personal autonomy, known as soul competency, has been replaced with social and political messages of intolerance and top-down micromanagement.
Take, for example, the issue of women in the pastorate. While the SBC has always had issues with sexism, individual churches were historically allowed to call their own pastors. As a result, a few SBC churches were led by women in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
In the year 2000, SBC leadership pulled out all the stops to eliminate these women. Although the SBC banned female pastors nine years ago, at this late date the purge continues with attacks on First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., pastored by Julie Pennington-Russell. The church has been warned that unless they fire their pastor, they will be ousted from the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Some churches have pulled out of the SBC entirely, including First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C., whose founder William B. Johnson was the first president of the SBC in 1845 and is considered the father of the denomination. Others have split their financial support between the SBC and the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Other churches, however, have responded by continuing their alignment with the SBC but changing their names to attract people who may be initially put off by the denomination. North Georgia, for example, has seen the emergence of a number of misnamed Baptist churches. The Church at Catoosa in Ringgold, Ga., may be the largest SBC church in the region hiding behind a non-denominational name. Although the church readily admits SBC affiliation when asked, the word “Baptist” does not appear on the web site.
The newest undercover Baptist church is Origin Church, also in Ringgold, which uses the slogans, “For people who don’t go” and “No perfect people allowed.” Through MySpace and Facebook, Origin stealthily targets people who have no intention of setting foot inside a Baptist church. Origin meets in the Ringgold Depot, offers free Starbucks coffee and does not use the word “Baptist.” Affiliation is sketchy and noticeably absent from their literature but not from the pastorate. A quick phone call receives a “yes and no” answer. They have gone back to the original Baptist message (None of us is worthy, but God loves us anyway) even as they ditch the Baptist name.
Is it really revolutionary and forward-thinking to pretend to be someone you’re not? Or, to put it more accurately, is it OK to pretend not to be someone you are? To the church-hunter who has already disavowed the Baptist denomination, it may seem like a bait and switch.
What’s wrong with being a Southern Baptist church? As a Nazarene, I could write a bullet list of points on which I strongly disagree with the SBC. Nevertheless, I think Southern Baptists should be proud to be Southern Baptists. If you cannot be proud of your faith, either disavow it or reform it. Don’t pretend to be above it, burying the truth somewhere down in your fine print.
The Baptist message is beautiful and important. I ask my Baptist friends not to lose sight of who you are, and why we need you. Give up the political agendas that don’t further your mission, but don’t give up your name. Grow out of the antiquated ideas about who is fit for ministry (because your writings teach that no one is fit, save through Christ), but don’t forget your heritage.
If you don’t like how the Baptist denomination is perceived, change the organization instead of the name. Be more inclusive. Get back to your roots and remember that no one is worthy of Christ – not even white, middle-class, red-blooded, English-speaking American males who cut their teeth on the church pew. Reclaim the message and the mission that God set before you. Then you can be proud to put the Baptist name back on the signs.