This past year, a team was formed to research alternatives and make recommendations for a new name for the Southern Baptist Convention (the SBC). The announcement from this team’s findings were released Monday night. The recommendation was NOT to change the legal name of the the SBC, but rather to offer an alternative name for churches and leaders to use along with the legal name. That alternative name recommended is “Great Commission Baptists.”
Now, some of you may not have even known that my background is Southern Baptist. I grew up in the home of a very gracious, authentic, loving, wise Southern Baptist pastor. He has served with the New Orleans Baptist Seminary since the mid-70s. His humble and authentic following of Jesus alongside his faithful commitment to serve and train Baptist leaders is probably a very significant reason why I still associate in Southern Baptist networks and even pastor a local church expression that participates with our local Baptist association.
And if you know anything about the SBC, you know that historically we have emphasized three things: the Bible, the Great Commission, and the autonomy of the local church. We assert that the Bible is the living, inspired Word of God to be held sacred and taken seriously as God’s story of His everlasting love displayed for us through Jesus and a cross. We assert that the Great Commission is a call on every follower of Jesus to make disciples among neighbors and nations, baptizing and teaching in the ways of Jesus. We assert that the local church is autonomous, held accountable because of relational association with other local church expressions. In its purity, the SBC is not really a denomination. It is simply a very intentionally focused and cooperative group of local churches unified around the mission of God to love as Jesus has loved us. At least ideally.
The two main reasons, at least as I saw them, that the SBC was even looking to change our name were very understandable:
- the founding of the “Convention” was in the context of affinity around slavery, something the “South” historically is remembered for.
- 21st century partnerships and ministries throughout North America and around the world that are not in the Southern USA have had difficulty communicating with locals in their contexts why they are connected with the SBC, and it has even been a hindrance at times (according to what I have heard over the years).
These are good reasons. Might I add another that is important to me.
We also need a name change because our current name does not speak to our purpose.
Our current name does speak to our geography. It does speak to our baptist affinity. And it does speak to our convening. But it does not speak to our purpose.
Our current name also says several things without stating them directly. Our current name reminds us of our founding past, for which we officially apologized in a recent summer convention. Our current name declares our distinctiveness, often unfortunately exclusiveness, because we are more apt to work only with Baptists and give Baptist stats for the needs we perceive rather than cultivating for “on earth as it is in heaven” in the cities where we live. Our current name implies our convening and cooperation, but most leaders if you asked them would assert that we cooperate less in unity than promotion would indicate.
Thus, the team was formed to research options and make recommendations. And they did.
Here’s the concern I have with what was recommended. It was not bold, clear, and intentional, in my opinion.
First, it was not bold because the reason given for offering the alternative name while keeping the legal name was that it was a safe approach to a very risky proposal. I cringed when I read that. Safe? Not risky? This is not the stuff of movement and mission and transformation. Furthermore, I am concerned that disunity and territorialism could potentially increase from some local churches calling themselves GCB and others SBC. This is detrimental to the cooperation that we promotionally declare as a value. The indecision of this alternative name is especially unfortunate during a year when Fred Luter, a black pastor from New Orleans and someone I respect greatly, will likely be elected President of the SBC. This will be the first time a black pastor has walked in this leadership role. This is a bold move that declares hearts of reconciliation and cooperation and a new day in the life of the SBC. The media will have something of cooperation and reconciliation to report. Hopefully, the potential disunity and bickering that follows over a nickname will not diminish this historic event.
Next, even though the words “Great Commission” are in the alternative name, it concerns me that this new suggested name will not be a clear description of our purpose. Why? Because there are so many different labels and definitions given to the Matthew 28:18-20 verses commonly titled “the Great Commission.” Some say the Great Commission is evangelism. Some say it is missions. Others assert that it is discipleship. Might I suggest that all of these alone are wrong. It is very clearly a call to MAKE DISCIPLES, as this is the only subject (an understood imperative “you”) and verb (make) and direct object (disciples) in the three verses. Three modifiers go along with this directive. “As you are going” is commonly translated into English as “Go.” “Teaching” is commonly translated into English as “teach.” And “baptizing” is commonly translated into English as “baptize.”
The implication is that we are to go and live out the ways of Jesus together among the lost. Jesus will go with us there. We are to with Him and together with one another (John 13:34-35) love people so that they might see the near love of God in and through us and thus desire to become a learner of His ways along with us. We are to MAKE new followers then learn His ways as they also make disciples among the lost of our culture. Our togetherness in love and unity around mission brings growth in our own loves as we love the lost and lonely. This is not evangelism alone. It is not missions alone. And it is certainly this intellectual, self-development mechanism that we have labeled “discipleship.” It is simply making disciples.
Making disciples among the lost would indicate a more Christ-centered approach to what is normally called “discipleship.” Indicative in this understanding of the Great Commission are three crucial elements of mission: (1) that Jesus spent the bulk of His time living out the rhythms of the Kingdom among the lost, (2) that discipling happened for Jesus in 100-plus week relationships, not just 10-week studies, and (3) that the church must move beyond being LEARNED in a classroom to being LEARNERS in the daily.
Could this be the Great Commission. Until we as the SBC become clearer about this, we will not be a unified around mission kind of people. Fortunately, however, God does this really cool thing called sanctification and makes use of our love for Him and for others in gracious, miraculous ways anyway :)
Finally, this alternative name is not intentional, in my opinion. When I talk with young leaders, there is a more and more common sentiment and more and more impassioned desire for what Jesus prayed in John 17 – maturity of oneness around the mission Jesus gave to us. Unity. I was really hoping that this new name suggestion would not only call us to a unified purpose, as it did with the words “Great Commission” (but again that needs to be clarified), but that it would also rally us as Great Commission Churches rather than Great Commission Baptists.
Prioritizing unity would be evidenced by ministry strategies that included a vision for “on earth as it is in heaven” in a city rather than success for one local church, an effort that included all Christ-centered leaders and ministries of a city rather than Baptists only, and a result that decentralized strategy-making beyond clergy into the daily rhythms of followers of Jesus together in homes, schools, offices, and communities.
Just yesterday, I was reminded of limitations that “Baptist money” creates for our churches and organizations who are funded by Cooperative Program giving. There may be a non-Baptist leader who is loving the lost and seeing amazing transformation in a context, but because he or she is not baptist, we can partner with them in significant ways to cultivate the Gospel and see new local church expressions blossom. Why? Because we say that we have to stay distinctive as Baptists to honor the “baptist money” given. Well. we may want to reconsider, and remember that it is God’s money, not Baptist’s.
And Jesus prayed for “on earth as it is in heaven.” And it goes without saying that Baptists will not be the only ones in heaven.
So, why this long diatribe about something on which I normally avoid even making comment? Because I genuinely felt like this name change was an opportunity to rally us all together, remind us of our roots, and call us into the future to grow in unity around the mission of the God who became Emmanuel.
Isn’t that what the Bible teaches as Jesus’ intent for His church? Isn’t that what the Great Commission demands, if I take the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) along with the “New Command” (John 13:34-35) along with the Great Commission along with the story of “on earth as it is in heaven” (Acts) coming alive among a very disunified world (Jews and Gentiles) brought together by the transforming love of Jesus (Ephesians 2)? Wouldn’t that turn heads – otherwise self-absorbed local churches uniting together in a city to love the people of the city together in hopes of seeing new followers of Jesus?
Bible. Great Commission. Associational, unified autonomous local churches.
Sounds pretty baptist to me. More importantly, sounds like what Jesus might want.
May we be willing to lay down all that is SBC in order to take up all that Jesus intended. May we be committed as unified followers to this mission that to me is very clear. May we be catalysts as Baptists for the work of God in our respective contexts, not just preservationists of Baptist ways.
After all, if we are honest, we have been talking about being Great Commission Baptists since those founding days in that southern city of Augusta.
We shall see. But we shall not see if leaders like you and me spend all of our time in blog dialogue and not enough time cultivating the Gospel together with all its implications among neighbors and nations.
So I’ll stop here…