March 8, 2012
A Southern Baptist by Any Other Name...
Can a name change rehabilitate the SBC's image in our culture?
Last month the Southern Baptist Convention decided to change its name, sort of. They have proposed using the informal designation of "Great Commission Baptists." It will serve as a kind of nickname for those congregations who deem "Southern Baptists" unhelpful or off-putting in their community.
The problem is one of branding. The SBC brand has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. First, while still the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptists aren't just Southern. And in many parts of the country the South is still associated with unpopular values and an unjust history. In fact, the "Southern" in Southern Baptists came from the SBC's allegiance to the Confederacy, and slavery, in the 19th century--a fact the SBC has repented of but it remains a stain on their image.
Secondly, cultural crusaders from within the SBC ranks have garnered negative media attention for the last few decades. Remember the boycott on Disney over the media company's decision to offer benefits to domestic partners of gay employees? Calling Micky Mouse public enemy #1 is not how you win public favor. And while there are culturally sophisticated and popular SBC pastors like Rick Warren, the impact of voices like Jerry Falwell's have done far more to shape the Southern Baptists' image in our culture.
Finally, evidence in recent years has shown that the SBC is declining and failing to even keep up with the birth rate in its own churches. That means young people raised in SBC churches are not staying.
But are the problems facing the Southern Baptist Convention really just about image? Or is there a more substantive explanation for its decline? I suggest reading Ed Stetzer's response to the name change decision. He says the name change is good, but not enough. The SBC also needs to change its actions. He writes:
Some people don't like the SBC because of what it stands for--and we can take the hits for that. But let's be honest, much of this bad reputation has been earned by bad actions.... Changing the name of the convention is useless if the people of the convention do not change as well. The key issue is not a name change, but a heart change. You can't change your name to fix your bad reputation--you must change your actions instead.
Still, one shouldn't dismiss the power of rebranding entirely. We are, after all, an image-based culture. Consider ValuJet. Back in the 90s the low cost airline suffered a series of PR nightmares related to safety violations and a deadly accident in Florida. The company decided its brand was too badly damage to revive. So, they decided to rebrand the airline as AirTran Airways, and within a few years it soared back to profitability.
Could the same happen for the "new" Great Commission Baptists? Maybe, but in my area I suspect that the word "Baptist" may carry even more negative baggage than "Southern." Maybe they could become the "Great Commission Believers."
We'd like to hear your thoughts on the SBC rebranding initiative. Do you think it will work? And do you have other stories of rebranding churches that made a difference?