By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged
Editor’s note: Every Friday, “Weekend Plug-In” features analysis, fact checking and top headlines from the world of faith. Got feedback or ideas for this column? Email Bobby Ross Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it comes to religious groups, what’s in a name?
In 2018, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began a push to get rid of the term “Mormon.” (A quick side note: Continued news media use of that identifier is “significantly correlated” with negative sentiment in the article, argues a new study, coauthored by Brigham Young University journalism professor Joel Campbell and Public Square Magazine’s Christopher D. Cunningham.)
Now, the Southern Baptist Convention — the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — seems to be recasting itself, as first reported by Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey.
Bailey’s story this week noted:
Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention are increasingly dropping the “Southern” part of their Baptist name, calling it a potentially painful reminder of the convention’s historic role in support of slavery.
The 50,000 Baptist churches in the convention are autonomous and can still choose to refer to themselves as “Southern Baptist” or “SBC.” But in his first interview on the topic, convention president J.D. Greear said momentum has been building to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptists,” both because of the racial reckoning underway in the United States and because many have long seen the “Southern Baptist” name as too regional for a global group of believers.
“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” said Greear, who this summer used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a presidential address and announced that he would retire a historic gavel named for an enslaver. “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”
For more insight on the possible change, see Religion News Service national correspondent Adelle M. Banks’ follow-up report.
Speaking of names, Greear serves as pastor of The Summit Church, a Durham, North Carolina, megachurch whose website contains scarce references to its Baptist affiliation.
Other examples of prominent Southern Baptist churches that don’t necessarily market themselves that way include Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Southern California and Ed Young Jr.’s Fellowship Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The trend of churches de-emphasizing denominational affiliation — be it Baptist, Methodist or Lutheran — in favor of names such as The Grove, Community of Grace and The Bridge is not new, as noted by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Jean Hopfensperger and the Columbus Dispatch’s Danae King.
Even the label “evangelical,” often tied to politics, has become problematic for some.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, RNS national correspondent Emily McFarlan Miller reported on prominent Christians such as Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, eschewing the evangelical identity.
And on the same day that Bailey’s story on Southern Baptists was published, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt reported that a justice-focused group, known for nearly 50 years as Evangelicals for Social Change, was changing its name to Christians for Social Change.
This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.