Baptists in an age without safe labels

Baptists in an age without safe labels December 19, 2011

Journalists have been known to jump to premature conclusions if a denomination has the word “Southern” in its name.

Consider this paragraph in an report about efforts by Southern Baptist researchers to shed light on the pros and cons of changing the name of America’s largest non-Catholic flock. Southern Baptist Convention leaders have been discussing this prickly issue off and on for a generation.

This new LifeWay Research survey was conducted, noted MSNBC, after SBC leaders created a task force to “consider the impact of the convention’s name on the denomination, which has been associated with such polarizing political figures as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, convicted Watergate conspirator-turned-Baptist minister Charles Colson and television evangelist Pat Robertson. Just this month, a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky voted to ban interracial couples, a controversial decision the pastor later overturned.”

Alas, this ban on interracial couples had been approved by a Baptist church that happens to be located in the South — not an actual Southern Baptist church. There is a difference. The tiny Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church quickly overturned its decision. MSNBC editors corrected their error, as well.

Nevertheless, this journalistic train wreck perfectly symbolized the cultural baggage that has become attached to that awkward and now inaccurate “Southern” label.

Truth is, it’s getting harder and harder to pin simple labels on Southern Baptists and other religious believers. This reality is especially important in an age in which Americans are increasingly hostile to labels.

“The trend you just can’t miss is the continuing rise of the non-categorized, the non-labeled forms of Protestantism,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “You used to be able to look at religion in America and you could put most people into their appointed categories. Now we are seeing more people who just don’t want to be put into a category or they don’t want to stay put.”

It will be impossible, he said, for Southern Baptist leaders to downplay some of the negative numbers in this survey — numbers that are sure to make headlines. For example, while 53 percent of Americans reported having a favorable impression of Southern Baptists, 40 percent of those polled said their impressions were negative. The SBC’s image was especially bad in the West (44 percent) and in the Southern Bible Belt (40 percent).

One eyebrow-raising number in the survey is that, in terms of favorable impressions, Roman Catholics (59 percent) fared better in the South than Southern Baptists (52 percent). Southern Baptists, ironically, fared better in regions in which they have had a lower profile, such as the Northeast and Midwest.

The news was also sobering on a question focusing on the convention’s name and its evangelistic efforts. LifeWay researchers asked: “When I see (fill in denominational affiliation) in the name of a church, I assume it is not for me.” Nationwide, 35 percent of those polled “strongly agreed” that a Southern Baptist congregation would not be a good fit for them — higher than for Catholics (33 percent), generic “Baptists” (29 percent), Methodists (26 percent) and “community” or nondenominational churches (20 percent).

In other words, the mere presence of the word “Southern” cost SBC congregations six percentage points in head-to-head comparisons with other Baptists. In another question linked to decisions to visit or join a church, only 10 percent of those polled said that knowing a “church was Southern Baptist” would have a positive impact.

Meanwhile, the SBC fared worst among Americans who rarely attend church, Hispanics, many urbanites and young Americans. In all, only 17 percent of Protestant adults agreed that knowing a congregation was Southern Baptist would have a positive impact when it came time to decide whether to visit or join. The number among non-Protestant adults was a mere 2 percent.

The clear evidence that nondenominational churches — churches without labels — fared significantly better than Southern Baptist churches was especially significant, said Stetzer.

“People increasingly see religion in terms of silos and categories,” he said. “It seems that they look at churches and then quickly decide, ‘That one’s for me’ or they decide, ‘That one’s not for me.’ … The irony is that they will find many of the same beliefs in nondenominational evangelical churches that they find in our Southern Baptist churches — but people don’t know that.

“It seems that people will give a church a fair shot, but only if the label doesn’t scare them.”

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