Southern Baptists consider new name

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Sunday, February 22, 2004

In a culture where image is reality, is it time for the Southern Baptist Convention to change its name?

President Jack Graham of Dallas thinks so. After returning from a meeting with Southern Baptist missionaries trying to start new churches in New York City, Graham told the denomination's executive committee he will appoint a panel to study the idea.

The committee will make its report at the 2005 annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

"The fact is that this name that I love and you love is a name which speaks of our region and doesn't move us beyond to the great cities of the Northeast, to the West, to the Midwest," Graham said in his annual sermon to the executive committee last week, according to Baptist Press, the denomination's news service. "And I believe once again it is time for us to look at the possibility of choosing something that reflects a name which reflects our future."

It's not the first time the denomination has considered changing its name, which was chosen in 1845 during arguments over slavery. Previous suggestions that failed at conventions in 1998 and 1999 include the Baptist Convention of North America and the International Baptist Convention.

The Rev. Ron Dillon, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mount Pleasant, also believes it might be time to drop the Southern label. When he was a pastor in West Virginia, a lot of potential members were turned off by it, he said.

"I'm sure it's been a hindrance in many places," Dillon said.

"A lot of people in our society have a negative stereotype of Southern Baptists."

Many new Southern Baptist churches don't even include Baptist in their names. The most famous example is Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., whose pastor, the Rev. Rick Warren, wrote the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life."

The S.C. Baptist Convention introduced the denomination to a corporate makeover called Empowering Kingdom Growth a couple of years ago.

The state convention is in the middle of a five-year campaign to start 600 new churches and baptize 100,0000 new members by 2007. Many of the new churches will be predominantly black, Hispanic or Asian, according to state Baptist leaders. Many also will not include Southern Baptist on their signs.

"Denominationalism as a whole is dying out," said Dillon of First Baptist of Mount Pleasant.

"People are not looking at labels but what can this church do for me."

Hundreds of Southern Baptists will meet in Charleston this week to hone ways to share their faith and start new churches. The Charleston Baptist Association will help coordinate projects that include giving out food baskets to needy families identified by the Department of Social Services, according to the Rev. Chuck Coward, the association's church and community ministries consultant.

Speakers at the evangelism conference, which will be held at Charleston Southern University on Monday through Wednesday, include the Rev. Greg Surratt, senior pastor of the 10,000-member Seacoast Christian Community Church in Mount Pleasant, which is not affiliated with any denomination.

The Southern Baptist Convention is America's biggest Protestant denomination, reporting 16 million members. The S.C. Baptist Convention reports 740,000 members and is the biggest religious group in the state.

But the national convention's leaders are concerned that membership has leveled off in recent years.

A few years ago, the convention's North American Mission Board introduced a campaign to start hundreds of new churches in major cities across the nation.