The name-change effort in the Southern Baptist Convention faces a long, uphill climb. Allow me to sketch out some of the obstacles it will have to overcome in order to succeed:
Any change to the name of the Southern Baptist Convention will necessitate a change to the convention's constitution. To accomplish this, a supermajority of two-thirds of the convention messengers would have to vote in the affirmative for two consecutive annual meetings.
As recently as 2004, it was not possible to find a simple majority (50% + 1) even willing to have a task force to STUDY having a name change. Has the makeup of the convention changed so dramatically in a mere eight years that two-thirds of the convention will now support what was such a minority position so recently?
Perhaps it has, but I have seen no evidence yet of such a dramatic sea-change in the convention.
Annual Meeting Locations
If one were interested in accomplishing this political feat, the time to have done it would either be two years ago or two years from now. This is the worst possible time to attempt this simply because of the location schedule for the annual meetings.
If one had attempted this starting in Orlando, then one would be trying to win a supermajority out of crowds in Orlando and Phoenix. Winning in Orlando might have been slightly touch-and-go (and there was the risk that this divisive issue would have harmed the GCR push), but the odds for this proposal would have been far greater in Phoenix, simply because of depressed messenger count. In general, the less of a voice Southern Baptists have in this process, the better its chances of success.
Two years from now, the convention will begin a two-year tour through Baltimore (2014) and Columbus (2015). Maryland and Ohio are probably places where convention turnout will be low and where the hurdle of obtaining a two-thirds supermajority will be much, much lower. A serious attempt to push the name-change through would have been wise to delay itself for two years. And, indeed, perhaps some strategy of delay is still possible for proponents to implement.
But at this time, Bryant Wright's proposal will face messenger bodies in New Orleans (2012) and Houston (2013). Two worse locations could hardly have been imagined. Messenger turnout will be high and will contain large numbers of the same people who have defeated these measures over and over. I'm willing to predict the odds of clearing the 66% threshold in both New Orleans and Houston as being well lower than the odds of President Obama's attending the Collin County Lincoln Day gala.
A Poison-Pill Process
The way that the will of the messengers has been sidestepped in the beginning of this process has been divisive. It divided the Executive Committee, with many EC members not learning about this until the press releases were being distributed in the public meeting, after the story had already gone out on Twitter. It has scandalized some of us to see how this initiative is being railroaded through. As was discussed in the Executive Committee meeting, this comes at a time when many Southern Baptists are still a bit bruised and tender from the way that the GCR report was pushed through with high-pressure political tactics that are still fresh in the memories of Southern Baptists and that are unprecedented in our polity.
The GCR was not so bad of an idea (with the exception of Great Commission Giving) that it deserved such heavy-handedness from the platform. Good ideas can rise on their own merits. God's people can be trusted to seek God's will. Missing from the process seems to be faith in the action of the Holy Spirit to build consensus among SBC messengers around those things that are His will. Tell the truth and trust the people, I say.
What President Wright ought to do, instead of bringing a report from this task force in New Orleans, is to backtrack and ask the convention to approve the formation of the task force to begin with. Such a humble, conciliatory, and congregationalist move would do much to counter criticisms and to pour oil on the waters of this process. The inherent delay would also, by the way, cause his proposal to come to more favorable locations for the annual meeting, as outlined above.
That's not likely to happen. Apart from something like that, the procedural aspects of this initiative will make it less likely to gain a broad and dispassionate hearing. The discourse up to this point has included plenty of people who falsely presume that I got so worked up about this just because I don't favor a name-change. Not so. My previous post on this topic is the kind of post that I produce when we're just exploring the possibility of changing the convention's name. It is the disregard and disrespect for the convention's messengers that bothers me most about President Wright's task force initiative and that catapults me into a more energetic and confrontational mode of writing.
The Paucity of Alternatives
Southern Baptists were eyeing the name "American Baptist Convention" back before the Northern Baptist Convention snapped it up out from under us in 1951. That would have been a good name, but it is no longer available. "Baptist Convention of the Americas" is also gone. Nothing with "Cooperative" in it will be feasible, because of the CBF. A few alternatives remain that still communicate a gathering of Baptists, but not many.
Of course, a great many Southern Baptists will want to ditch both "Southern" and "Baptist" (and probably even "Convention"). "Convention" speaks of a business meeting, and anti-congregationalists will want something warmer and fuzzier. "Southern" is, of course, the most offensive label, and a strong argument can be made for ditching Southern. After all, our churches that happen to be in the South really aren't Southern any longer, by and large. As I wrote in a post last year:
As a historian I would assert that the distinctiveness of Southern culture is at its lowest point since the Colonial period. Everything from media to chain restaurants and big box stores have made it more true than ever before that Boston = Atlanta = Houston = Los Angeles. Of course, these equations are not absolutely true, but they are more true than they have ever been before.
Moving from culture-at-large to church culture, a Cowboy Church movement has arisen largely because the standard Southern Baptist church culture has almost nothing Southern about it. The music is Rock, the marketing is Madison Avenue, the platform dress is Abercrombie & Fitch, and the A-V technology is Times Square.
What's Southern about that?
So, with a convention full of churches in the South that are embarrassed of their Southernness, one can see a rationale for eliminating the word "Southern."
But the word "Baptist" will be examined as well. Just yesterday a Southern Baptist from Idaho reported that, in his state, "Baptist" presents far more of an obstacle than "Southern" does. One cannot ignore the phenomenon that an alarmingly growing number of Southern Baptist churches is removing the word "Baptist" from church signs throughout the nation. Many of the agitators for change are people who have already taken this action in their local churches—not all of them, but many of them.
Now, what makes all of this interesting is that we probably can't go about changing the name of the denomination every decade (although it seems that we can reorganize it on that timetable). The safe bet is to keep "Baptist" in the name and go for changing only "Southern" (or, at the most, do away with both "Southern" and "Convention"). And perhaps that would be a sufficient change for those who wish to do away with "Baptist" as well, so long as they thought they could easily work incrementally. But multiple changes of the denominational name are likely to weaken it over the long run, and so I think there's going to be an inclination to see this as the one, best opportunity to do this thing all the way.
Moderation and incrementalism are often successful political strategies, but it remains to be seen whether a moderate, incremental change to the name will really satisfy anybody. A good alternative would need to be a name that enjoyed broader support than the present name enjoys. Maybe such an alternative exists, and we probably won't know until people are finished dreaming up the options, but the selection of the right candidate name remains one of the more difficult obstacles for this process to overcome.
For all of these reasons, I predict that it is going to be very difficult for the task force to succeed at their objective. Certainly, there are members of this task force who have accomplished the improbable before, and we do well not to count them out before the first bell has rung. Nevertheless, if they will change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention, all of these are among the more prominent obstacles that they will have to overcome.