Southern Baptist Convention Debates Name Change

The largest protestant denomination in the US — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — has been talking for years about a name change. The word "Southern" has its roots in a church split over the issue of slavery that took place before the Civil War, nearly 170 years ago. These days, some church members feel the denomination's regional-sounding name is a hindrance to its mission nationwide. A task force for the SBC has now formally explored the question of dropping the word "Southern." Host Audie Cornish talks with the SBC's President, Reverend Bryant Wright, about what the task force is recommending.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention is trying to resolve, once and for all, a longstanding dispute among its members, whether or not to rebrand itself. The debate is about dropping the word Southern.

First, a little history. The convention split from the Baptist church back in 1845, in part because of a dispute over whether slaveholders could be missionaries. In 1995, the SBC apologized for its past support of slavery and segregation and the nation's largest Protestant denomination is working hard on outreach. But some of its members are concerned that the legacy evoked by its Southern title is hurting its case.

Joining us now to talk more about this is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Pastor Bryant Wright. Pastor, welcome to the program.

PASTOR BRYANT WRIGHT: Glad to be with you today.

CORNISH: Now, you called a taskforce to debate the issue of the name change. How was this issue first raised with you? I mean, essentially, what was the argument made by those who wanted to drop the word Southern from the Southern Baptist Convention?

WRIGHT: Especially from younger pastors beginning new churches in different parts of the country, southern is not exactly a draw for people in thinking about a church they might be interested in going to.

One of our pastors in New England talked about starting a church for the Yankee Baptist Convention in Birmingham and it probably wouldn't be a tremendous draw there in Birmingham in doing that, so...

CORNISH: Right.

WRIGHT: ...the regional aspect is really the reason for doing this study.

CORNISH: So the executive committee charged with dealing with this issue recommended that churches have a choice, that they can essentially call themselves Southern Baptist still, if they want to go with that name. But the alternative is the Great Commission Baptist. Where does the term great commission come from?

WRIGHT: It comes from the charge that Jesus Christ gave his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations and it's really kind of the final charge that Christ gave before he ascended to heaven.

CORNISH: This is in Matthew?

WRIGHT: This is Matthew 28, verses 19 and 20.

CORNISH: Over the years, the Southern Baptist Convention has dealt with its pro-slavery and pro-segregation past. I mean, back in 1995, you issued a public apology and a resolution, but is there still a sense that a stigma remains?

WRIGHT: I think, certainly, among African-Americans, Audie. The issue of our beginning leading up to the Civil War, that's a heritage that is lingering there. Now, certainly, in the mid-'90s in the Atlanta convention when we sought the forgiveness of African-Americans for our strain of racism, for our founding that was related to slavery. That has greatly helped in reaching African-Americans and we now have literally thousands of Southern Baptist congregations that are mostly African-American.

CORNISH: This has been a long-going discussion. What does it say to you that this is the year that people talked about it so seriously?

WRIGHT: Well, it's interesting that this has been studied or discussed about - I think it's 13 times since 1903. It's been an issue that just wouldn't go away. And because our North American Mission Board has such a huge focus on planning new churches outside the South, this is a perfect time for us to examine: Do we have an unnecessary manmade barrier that might hinder new churches from reaching people in their community?

So that was really the thrust of having the study at this time.

CORNISH: Well, Pastor Wright, thank you so much for explaining to us.

WRIGHT: Very good to talk with you, Audie.

CORNISH: Pastor Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The entire convention will vote on the naming recommendation in June.

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