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New poll fuels Southern Baptists' concern over their own name

Southern Baptist Convention

Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright appointed a task force in September to study whether the church's name was hurting its mission.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and spiritual home to two living former presidents of the United States, is researching whether to change its name because of the public's negative associations with the church.

The news is mixed, at best: Forty percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Southern Baptists, according to survey results released Wednesday by LifeWay Research, the SBC's research foundation.

The survey was conducted after the church's leadership appointed a task force earlier this year to consider the impact of the convention's name on  the denomination, which has been associated with such polarizing political figures as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, convicted Watergate conspirator-turned-Baptist minister Charles Colson and television evangelist Pat Robertson. 

(An earlier version of this story inaccurately referred to a Kentucky church whose pastor overturned the congregation's vote to ban interracial couples as being affiliated with the SBC. It is a Free Will Baptist church.)

When he appointed the naming task force in September, SBC President Bryant Wright said the church's name might be too "regional." But he also said the name might be limiting the church's ability to "maximize our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century."

The task force hasn't issued any recommendations yet, but the survey results are likely to add urgency to its deliberations.

LifeWay President Ed Stetzer noted Wednesday that a majority of Americans (53 percent) still view the church favorably. But the survey found that 35 percent "strongly assume" the church isn't for them. Meanwhile, negativity ratings were highest among the so-called unchurched — a serious problem for a denomination that places a premium on renewing its membership through proselytization (that is, recruiting new members) and missionary work.

Read the full survey (.pdf)

"On one hand it does look like the SBC has higher negatives than other faith groups — and the unchurched numbers are particularly disconcerting," Stetzer said in a report on the LifeWay website. "But on the other, most people don't seem to be concerned either way because there is a level of indifference to denominations or religion in general."

In the survey, which was conducted in September, respondents were asked to react to the names of five denominations. Southern Baptists finished in the middle of the pack in favorability, behind United Methodists (59 percent) and Roman Catholics (53 percent). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also known as the Mormons — trailed Baptists, with 37 percent, and Muslims fell last, at 28 percent.

Asked whether knowing that a church was affiliated with the Southern Baptist convention would affect their decision whether or not to join it, 44 percent said they would be less likely to join. Only 10 percent said it would affect their decision positively; the rest had no opinion.

The survey of 2,114 U.S. adults reported a margin of sampling error of 2.2 percentage points.

Stetzer cautioned that the survey didn't explore why people held the views they held. But "the negative impact numbers concern me most," he said. "Knowing a church is SBC would make four out of 10 Americans less likely to visit and join."

LifeWay said it plans further research on Southern Baptists' image, focusing on the views of pastors.

Unlike other denominations, local Southern Baptist churches are operationally independent, meaning they could decide not to follow along if the denomination changes its name. 

Some prominent Baptists, notably Jimmy Carter — who, like Bill Clinton, is one of two former presidents who have worshiped in the church — have broken with the SBC to join a rival leadership group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which promotes positions more moderate than those espoused by the deeply conservative SBC.

Carter left the SBC in 2000 over what he called the "increasingly rigid SBC creed" and joined the fellowship, which was founded 20 years ago and now has 1,800 affiliated churches and 15 seminaries teaching its view of Baptist theology.

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