JOE LAGUARDIA: Southern Baptist Convention should work to change its reputation, not its name

Joe LaGuardia

Joe LaGuardia

A conflict in my church's recent history concerned a rumor that made its way through the congregation. Some were under the belief that the staff was planning on dropping the "Baptist" in Trinity Baptist Church.

Not sure how the rumor got started, especially since staff then (and now) are more Baptist than many folks in the pew. It points to the importance that names have, especially when it conjures notions of identity and history.

Back then, church name-changing was common; and although its been nearly a decade, churches are continuing to drop denominational monikers all over the country.

Even denominations are reconsidering. In an article for USA Today, Jonathon Merritt reported that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee put together a task force to study whether having "Southern" in the name hinders its mission.

SBC execs argue that "Southern" points to an antiquated, regional identity. The Convention no longer advocates for a "Southern agenda nor a Southern vision," according to Albert Mohler as quoted in Merritt's article.

That may be true in theory; but, although I do not have any right to opine on the wisdom of this latest discussion (since I am not a Southern Baptist per se), it would be hard to argue that the Convention does not reflect a Southern ethic. I can speak confidently about that because I am, after all, a Yankee in King Mohler's court.

I once visited a church that refused to identify itself as Southern Baptist. The goal was to not turn away visitors, but 10 minutes into worship and three minutes into the sermon, my wife and I knew the church was nothing less than Baptist. It was not just the pastor's Southern drawl that gave it away.

I understand the Convention's reasons for giving up the name. Southern Baptists have the reputation for being too far to the right, too politically involved, and too exclusive. Whether or not that is true of Southern Baptists in general or in particular is besides the point. Even Merritt points to a survey in which 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would not visit a church if it was Southern Baptist in name.

Many times, perception is reality. Trinity has had several families visit just in the past year who said they hesitated coming to church because we had "Baptist" in our name. Likewise, if the Convention wants to focus on church planting in North America, it will be an uphill battle to found a new Southern Baptist congregation in say, Manhattan.

Nevertheless, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck ...

For years, many friends and I have been salvaging the "Baptist" part of our churches to rebrand what many feel is a more mainline trajectory in church life. Opponents of this trend have labelled many a church "liberal," hoping to hinder our own church growth for some rhyme or reason. We argued all along that at least we didn't give up on our heritage.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: Is subterfuge an effective means of evangelism? Perhaps the Convention should take it from us and not give up on what it means to be Southern. That, and focus energy on fixing their reputation.

Don't give up on "Southern," just help the public discover why many thousands of individuals are proud to be Southern Baptists in the first place. Don't abandon an identity because of polls; rather, work hard in the years to come so that the polls reflect a different perception.

No amount of name-changing will shape the SBC in the near future. Its reputation for good or ill still precedes it. Perhaps its time to ask what needs to be done about those perceptions instead, because even if it quacks like a duck, one will still eventually find out that it could be a Baptist in disguise. It's just a matter of time.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.