Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is the term 'Southern Baptist' a stumbling block?

The church that I pastor is Southern Baptist. But the funny thing is, we're not in the South. I remember being at a conference last April back in Kentucky and told someone I pastored a Southern Baptist Church in California. With a puzzled expression he replied, "You mean they have Southern Baptists out there?!" So, what's in a name? Ed Stetzer has just released some new polling data from pastors about the term 'Southern Baptist':

Among Southern Baptist pastors, 7 percent strongly agreed - and another 20 percent somewhat agreed - with the statement, "Having the name 'Southern' in the 'Southern Baptist Convention' is a hindrance to the work of SBC churches." Forty-one percent strongly disagreed with the statement while 27 percent somewhat disagreed and 5 percent "don't know."

To further clarify opinions on the denomination's name, Southern Baptist pastors were also asked their level of agreement with the statement, "Having the name 'Southern' in the 'Southern Baptist Convention' is a hindrance to the work of SBC churches outside of the South." As the focus shifted to Southern Baptist congregations outside the convention's historic strongholds, 16 percent of Southern Baptist pastors strongly agreed and 26 percent somewhat agreed, while 29 percent strongly disagreed and 21 percent somewhat disagreed. The remaining 9 percent "don't know."

In other words, 42% of pastors agree or strongly agree that the name 'Southern' is hindering the work of churches here in Southern California. Many churches in our area are trying to overcome this barrier by using names like "Pathway Church," "Sandals Church," and "Cloudbreak Church." But according to research by Thom Rainer, pastors might actually be more paranoid about this than unbelievers:

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in our study was that the name of the church had very little influence on reaching the unchurched. For the most part, neither the presence nor the absence of a denominational name influenced the formerly unchurched's decision to join a church...Over 80% of the formerly unchurched told us that the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church...Nearly 2/3 of those respondents indicated that the denominational name had a positive influence on their decision. (Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, pp. 38-39)

I don't see anything sacrosanct about including the name of the denomination in the name of the church. Nor do I see any hard evidence that proves churches should be swift to change or avoid it. This is a decision each church must make. The most important thing is that whenever we have contact with the world, that they recognize us as churches that belong to Jesus Christ.


David said...

I am encouraged by your research -- and surprised.

This is interesting: The church I pastor is named "Palms Baptist Church." Simple, right? No. Because at some point someone decided to put on the church sign "Palms Southern Baptist Church." We recently agreed to change the sign to reflect the church's actual name... but have yet to figure out how to actually DO it!

Your post really is an encouragement to me. For years I've thought Southern Baptist are typecast as something we are not. Good to know that isn't such a big factor when the unchurched go looking for a church!

Monique said...

Most of my unchurched clients and friends just want to know if it is a "Christian" church or not. They too are not so concerned about the name. However my husband and I are.

When we moved to OC we didn't know where to go so church names were important to us. Much to our surprise a friend recommended and we ended up at an Evangelical Free Church. I thought it would be a "free" church in that anything goes which concerned me but it wasn't. For this very reason the church recently changed their name though it is still affiliated with EVF.

Ps. Thanks for answering my question a few posts ago. I'm still working that one through in my head!

Stephen Jones said...

Thanks for the comments. Very interesting testimonies.

Just this last week week, we had a visitor at church who came because our sign said "Southern Baptist." Sometimes, name recognition can be a very good thing. But at other times, it carries a lot of extra baggage of bad experiences or misconceptions about what a name means.