NASHVILLE, Tenn. — What if Southern Baptists were no longer called Southern Baptists? Would more people walk through church doors? Some leaders in the nation's largest Protestant denomination say it's an idea that needs to be considered for an evangelistic faith with declining membership.
A task force asked to study that question made its recommendation to Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright on Wednesday, but it won't be public until an executive committee meeting in February.
Wright wouldn't say whether new names have been proposed for the denomination of 16 million, but he has said the word "Baptist" would remain.
"The reason for doing this is simply to say: 'Do we have any unnecessary barriers in reaching people for Jesus Christ?" Wright said.
Figures released by SBC earlier this year showed total membership declined in 2010 for the fourth straight year, despite a renewed missionary effort.
Ed Stetzer, president of SBC's Lifeway Research, said the membership decline just began recently, but the trend line is negative and trends can be hard to change. He expects it to accelerate unless SBC churches take action.
At a Wednesday meeting, the task force reviewed the results of an online poll it commissioned from Lifeway Research. Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed, 40 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the denomination and 44 percent of respondents said that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to visit or join the church.
Although 53 percent of respondents overall had a favorable view of the Southern Baptists, the high negative numbers are a concern for a denomination with a major focus on evangelism and a declining membership.
"If we don't aggressively plant churches and lead people to Christ, we become increasingly irrelevant to the world around us," said Jimmy Draper, a former SBC president and former head of Lifeway Christian Resources who is chairman of the task force.
Although he would not say what the group recommended, Draper spoke positively about the idea of a change. And the task force is weighted toward people involved in planting new churches and others who likely have something to gain from a change.
The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 when it split with northern Baptists over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries, and for a long time the name was associated with white racism. That is not so much the case these days — in 2008, about 18 percent of SBC churches were composed of largely non-white members — but the denomination is associated with conservative politics.
David W. Key Sr., the director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that while the SBC's stands on issues like gay rights and women in the pulpit might put off some in the public at large, there are members who worked hard to create the SBC's association with conservative causes and may not let that identity go easily.
One of those people is Wiley Drake, pastor for 24 years of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., where he has vociferously opposed several past attempts to change the name.
"We're very conservative, very biblically based. We always have been known for that," he said. ..."To take 'Southern' out of our name would be to water down our theology ... and hide who were are as Baptists."
Drake said if a name change were approved, he would not change the name of his church but he doubts that will happen. All Southern Baptist churches are independent and can have any name they like.
In what may be a barometer of the feelings of the greater membership — or at least those likely to attend denominational meetings — the Tennessee Baptist Convention, a state affiliate of the SBC, voted last month at their annual meeting to oppose a name change.
But other church leaders see the name as a trivial matter in the quest to save more souls. Many churches nationwide have already made their names more nondenominational.
James Merritt, the founder and senior pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., is a former president of the SBC. In explaining how he chose the name of his church, Merritt said, "I always want to do all that I can to remove any obstacle to people coming to church and hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Merritt said he's not ashamed of being a Southern Baptist, and the church identifies its affiliation in its literature, but the name can also be a barrier for people searching for a church.
"Probably two times a month, conservatively, we have people walk in and say, 'This is a Baptist church? I didn't know Baptist churches were like this,'" he said.
If Wright does propose a change at the February meeting, the proposal would have to pass a vote of the delegates to the denomination's general convention over two consecutive years. That means the question will ultimately be decided by people like Phillip Senn, a member of the Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Troy, Tenn., who has served as a convention delegate several times over the years.
"I'm not necessarily against it, but I don't see a real need for it," he said. "Personally, I think the name does not inhibit a person from attending a church or hearing the word of Christ."