NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Southern Baptists first considered changing their name in 1903. Leaders have seriously proposed it at least 13 times since then.
Now, Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright hopes a compromise of sorts could put the issue to rest by adding the moniker "Great Commission Baptists."
A task force formed by the nation's largest Protestant denomination recommended to the SBC's executive committee Monday that they should give an official option to those who might not embrace the "Southern" name and identity.
Wright and other church leaders are concerned that their name is too regional and impedes the evangelistic faith's efforts to spread the Gospel worldwide.
The "Great Commission" refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
"We are Southern Baptists. That's who we are. The Great Commission is what we do," said Jimmy Draper, the head of the name task force and a former SBC president. He was also president of the SBC's publishing and retail arm, LifeWay, when it changed its name from the Baptist Sunday School Board.
The panel rejected a complete name change, citing the legal costs and difficulties like the thousands of will and trusts naming the SBC. They also noted the positive associations many hold with the Southern Baptist name, such as with its well-regarded disaster relief organization.
Wright said a name change was first proposed in 1903, and the idea has lingered since then. He hopes when members realize the cost of a legal name change, they will see the wisdom in the recommendation and have unity moving forward.
The executive committee will consider the name recommendation on Tuesday. Anyone can then introduce the proposal at the annual convention this summer to be voted on by delegates, but a measure endorsed by the committee would carry greater weight.
Regardless, all Southern Baptist churches are independent and call themselves whatever they like. In the past, Draper said some pastors had been criticized for not embracing the Southern Baptist name. He said the names could be used together, like "Southern Baptist Convention - Great Commission Baptists," or either could be used by itself.
"This allows people to make a change if they want to without feeling condemned for it," he said.
Draper said it was possible that over time more congregations could start using "Great Commission," instead of "Southern Baptist," but no one knows if the new term would ever replace Southern Baptist completely.
"We'll just have to see how God leads," he said.
The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 when it split with northern Baptists over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. Draper said that history has left some people to have negative associations with the name.
In 2008, about 18 percent of SBC churches were composed of largely non-white members. When surveying the leaders of African-American and other ethnic churches, Draper said they indicated that a name change would help them.
A recent survey conducted by the SBC's own LifeWay Research firm gives weight to the idea that the name does drive away some potential members.
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 negatives are a concern for a denomination in which spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a fundamental to their faith.
While the 16 million member denomination continues to plant new churches in the U.S. and around the world, it has seen a decline in baptisms, church attendance and membership in recent years.
Southern Baptist Convention: http://www.sbc.net/