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Messengers defeat proposed study of new name for SBC

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–A proposed study committee to consider changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention proved controversial when the idea came to the floor of the SBC annual meeting June 15 in Indianapolis.

Messengers voted by a slim margin to refuse the suggestion outlined by SBC President Jack Graham in February to appoint a committee. It was presented to messengers as a motion by Texas pastor Claude Thomas.

With about 8,500 messengers registered at the time of the ballot Tuesday night, 1,731 (55.4 percent) opposed the motion while 1,391 (44.6 percent) were in favor of the proposed study committee.

In what Graham praised as “a spirited debate,” most of those calling for a study related the challenges that local churches face when ministering in an area that is far from “southern.”

In the Midwestern region where the annual meeting was held, Southern Baptist work is relatively new compared to the SBC’s 159-year history in the South. Southern Baptists in Indiana organized in 1958 during a decade when the convention began expanding to the West, North and Northeast.

A comity agreement with Northern Baptists (who changed their name to American Baptists) fell apart as migrating Baptists from southern states started churches like those from which they came. In the case of Indiana, Southern Baptists found encouragement from their neighbors in Kentucky and southern Illinois who helped plant the earliest Hoosier churches.

SBC President Jack Graham informed the Executive Committee in February of his desire to have a study committee consider a name change. At the EC’s pre-convention meeting June 13, Graham said he had received “a very positive response” to the proposal.

The issue has been raised almost every decade over the last half-century, Graham said, but has never received a favorable recommendation.

“The South isn’t your daddy’s South anymore,” Graham said, noting he observed more Yankee and Red Sox fans than Ranger supporters at recent baseball games in Texas. “That’s primarily because of the vast number of people from New York City and Boston who have moved to Texas.

“This is not only about the missiology of the name and its relationship up north,” Graham added, “It has to do with our identity all across America and potentially around the world.”

Graham conceded the biggest challenge would be in finding a name better than the one that has been used since 1845.

Claude Thomas, pastor of the Dallas-Fort Worth-area First Baptist Church of Euless, made the motion proposing the study, recognizing “the expanse of our mission and ministry has transcended regional identification.”

Thomas said he believes it would be wise to authorize the SBC president to appoint a study committee to determine whether identification with a southern region “has been an impediment to our effectiveness” in reaching across North America and the world.

The four messengers voicing support for the motion were from regions outside the South — while a number of other messengers cited concerns about the resources that would be needed to conduct such an assessment.

In support of the motion, John Flynn of New Horizon Church in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., spoke of serving a small church in upstate New York where any mention of Southern Baptists “is almost evil” due to cultural perceptions.

“We don’t have Baptist in our name,” Flynn said, “not because we’re not proud we’re Baptist, but because it becomes an impediment to sharing the Gospel.” He said he would rather see the name changed in order to see one more person saved than continue using a name that might be a stumbling block to non-southerners.

In opposition to the motion, messenger Sid West of First Baptist Church of Bosque Farms, N.M., asked for an estimate of the cost of the study, amusing the audience when he said the question made him “sound like a deacon.”

“The brief answer to your question, my brother deacon, is we don’t know,” Graham answered. “It certainly will require financial resources to do the right kind of study.”

Ed Taylor of Amissville (Va.) Baptist Church, called the effort “a waste of time” because “no matter what we change our name to the media will let the secret out that we’re really Southern Baptists,” prompting widespread laughter and scattered applause from the crowd.

Taylor said he could not think of any name that would be international in its scope. “Perhaps United Baptists?” he jested. “There’s an oxymoron for you,” he added. “I understand that some churches do not put the name on the sign because of the stigma attached to the area they’re in, but when I go and witness, I don’t ask if they want to be a Southern Baptist. I ask if they want to know Christ.”

Observing that 11 of Jesus’ 12 disciples were from Galilee, Taylor said, “They had weird accents much like I do, being from the South.” He noted that God’s strength was made perfect “through their weakness.”

Messenger Blain Barber of Agape Baptist Church in Petoskey, Mich., spoke of his service on the SBC Executive Committee when a similar proposal was studied in 1999. “If the name is a hindrance to starting churches and reaching people,” he said, “then we should consider a name change.”

Byron Edens of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Austell, Ga., drew strong applause when he said a name change would “cost thousands of dollars across our convention,” preferring to see money expended to support seminaries and other SBC causes.

An Ohio messenger recalled that he addressed the issue about 30 years ago when it was raised on the floor of an annual meeting.

“There’s no need to change the name so there’s no need for a study,” stated George Pennington of First Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Ohio. “Being in what you’d call a northern area, all that the name Southern Baptist means to people of other denominations and no denomination is the fact that you’re a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-teaching church. We are identified in the most positive manner we could be. For goodness sake, for God’s sake and our own sake, let’s keep it that way.”

Herb Stoneman of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, favored the study since the SBC includes churches from two nations — Canada and the United States. “A name that better reflects those two nations’ cooperation in building churches for the Kingdom’s sake should be addressed,” he said.

Glenn Peck of First Baptist Church in Saint Louis, Okla., opposed the motion based on the convention’s heritage, doctrinal distinctives associated with the name and the media’s identification of “who we are and what we stand for.” As a former Midwesterner, Beck added, “There is no good time for a bad idea and this is a bad idea.”

California pastor Rob Zinn of Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland appealed to the body to “see if God could raise up a better name that would identify all Southern Baptists across the country.” He recalled having been taught “there is nothing so dark as a closed mind,” pleading for an effort to find a name that would “appeal to everybody regardless of race, color or region.”

Messenger Dottie Salman of Miami Shores Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, chided the SBC president by raising what she thought was a point of order. “You’ve come to us tonight asking for a study, but you have no idea what it’s going to cost. That’s not good business,” Salman said. “You should have had some estimate before you came to this. It’s not right to say you have carte blanche to do this study without some idea of what it’s going to cost.”

Messenger Doug Austin of Lynnwood Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, Mo., opposed the study, preferring for Southern Baptists to invest time and money to “explain Jesus and His saving grace” instead of spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars to change legal documents, constitutions, title papers and signs.”

After time for debate expired, Graham responded to a call for messengers to vote on the question, but could not determine which side garnered more support based on uplifted ballots. “It looks very close here so I order a ballot to get an exact vote of the people,” Graham said. “All we want to do is get the will of the people on this.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter