A Southern Baptist by any other name …

From time to time here at GetReligion, we post “Got news?” items and wonder why the mainstream media haven’t tackled a particular issue or topic that we deem newsworthy.

Yesterday, denominational press links circulated among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas concerning a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention. (See one report from Baptist Press and another from the Associated Baptist Press.)

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. Perhaps we should all take a moment and pay homage to the writer, Bob Smietana, the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year. (Smietana is a Red Sox fan, so he needs all the encouragement he can get these days. Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the top of Smietana’s report:

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination may be getting a new name.

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just for the South anymore, its president contends, and rebranding could open up other parts of the country to new churches. It’s a strategy other denominations are trying, and at least one is claiming success.

SBC President Bryant Wright announced Monday at an executive committee meeting in Nashville that he’s set up a study group to research changing the 166-year-old denomination’s name.

“There are not a lot of folks in New York City interested in going to a Southern Baptist church,” he said. “Or in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Boise, Idaho.”

(I know Smietana was on deadline for a daily story, but it would have been interesting to contact a Southern Baptist pastor in Cheyenne or Boise and find out his thoughts on a possible name change.)

But Smietana was not alone in smelling mainstream news: The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

As the news reports indicate, this is not the first time Southern Baptists have contemplated a possible name change. In a 2004 interview for The Associated Press, I remember discussing the subject with the Rev. Jack Graham, then the convention’s president:

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity.

Concerning the latest discussion, it’ll be interesting to see if the story gains legs outside Southern Baptist strongholds (such as Houston and Nashville) and outside the conservative press (talking about you, Fox News).

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:

Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.

North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:

The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.

Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just “Southern,” or will they consider chopping the “Baptist” too?

By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)

Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

Got news? It would appear so.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW

    Journalists should look into the controversy surrounding the SBC president’s appointment of the task force to study the possibility of a name-change. The SBC president doesn’t have the authority to appoint such a committee. So – as the Baptist Press report notes – this task force is an unofficial committee and consequently will receive no funding from the SBC.

    The newspaper of Southern Baptists in Florida has an op-ed titled “Process Matters in SBC name change proposal” that sheds light on this controversy: http://www.gofbw.com/Blog.asp?ID=13307

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW

    Also, per the Association of Religion Data Archives, around 89% of Southern Baptists lived in the South in 2000. I doubt there has been any significant geographic distribution in the last decade, especially considering the SBC has experience decline rather than growth.

    Link to the ARDA data and analysis of a Baptist historian/Southern Baptist seminary trustee here:

  • melxiopp

    I’m thinking “The Baptist Convention” with allowance for regional and national Conventions to brand themselves locally. This would be akin to the Anglican Communion being “Anglican” globally while “Episcopalian” in the US.

    Thus, in the South a regional Convention within the national or international body could still be the “Southern Baptist Convention” in communion with other regional Conventions within the US and other national Conventions around the world.

    While “Baptist” has a specific denominational character, it’s association with “The Baptist” (as in John) and Baptism still plays more general around the world.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Thanks for highlighting the story – and the sympathy for the Red Sox. They could not beat the Little Sisters of the Poor right now.

    It’ll be interesting to watch and see if the SBC follows the path of the Baptist General Conference, which adopted a new d/b/a – Converge Worldwide – without changing their official name. That saved the BGC a ton of headaches.

    Also be interested to see if the name change is a success–like the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company becoming 3M– or a flop, like Radio Shack trying to become “The Shack”

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW


    Your suggestion indicates that you don’t understand fundamental differences in ecclesiology between the SBC and The Episcopal Church. The Southern Baptist Convention has no formal ties with any other Baptist body. The SBC is an independent denomination whose churches voluntarily affiliate with the denomination via financial contributions which entitles local churches to send a certain number of “messengers” with voting privileges to the SBC’s annual meeting.

    Another interesting point for journalists is that any name-change for the SBC would have to be approved by messengers to the SBC annual meeting held in the cities of New Orleans (2012) and in Houston (2013).

  • Ted Olsen

    Requisite tmatt archive link: The Southern Baptist Name Game (1997)

  • Bennett

    Speaking as a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, lemme just say:

    I don’t know what’s going on with the Sox, either. I suspect witchcraft, or Satanic influence of some sort. There may be a ghost in the sports reporting on this one, too. It’s very distressing for me. I mean, we finally beat the Curse of the Bambino, and now this? Whatever Sox Nation did to offend the Almighty, we’re very, very sorry.

    (Also, the SBC name’s going nowhere, my money’d say. Change is not a big thing here.)

  • http://!)! Passing By

    While I don’t understand the details, the announcers keep saying Ranger fans need to be cheering Boston on. Something about avoiding a first round match-up with Detroit and some pitcher named “Verlander”… or something like that. So…

    GO RANGERS! And Red Sox, too!

    Oh, yeah, the Southern Baptists: dropping “Baptist” from the local church name has been “a thing” around here (north Texas) for some years. That would, I think, make an interesting follow up article. Related question: is dropping “Baptist” a precursor to dropping the denominational affiliation? I can think of a couple congregations that went that way.

    Also, how is re-branding the YMCA working out?

    One question: granted it’s been nigh unto 40 years since I was a Baptist, I never heard anything about the denomination splitting over slave holder missionaries. I was taught that it was the broader issue of slave holding, plus, of course, the regional tensions of the era.

    Bob Smietana – I wouldn’t count out the Little Sisters of the Poor. Nuns are tough.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Watch it, Passing. There are witches reading this, you know.

    Will (I’m not a witch! I’m not a witch! And if you don’t cut it out, I’ll turn you into a newt!)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I hope I don’t have to spike my own comment for going off-topic, but yes, Rangers would love to draw the Red Sox (at least the September version) in the first round of the playoffs. Nobody wants to play Verlander, who has been almost unbeatable, in a short (five-game) series.

    Now back to Baptists ….