NASHVILLE -- What if Southern Baptists were no longer called Southern Baptists? Would more people walk through church doors? Some leaders in the nation's largest Protestant denomination say it's an idea that needs to be considered for an evangelistic faith with declining membership.
A task force asked to study that question made its recommendation to Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright on Wednesday, but it won't be public until an executive committee meeting in February.
Wright wouldn't say whether new names have been proposed for the denomination of 16 million, but he has said the word "Baptist" would remain.
"The reason for doing this is simply to say: 'Do we have any unnecessary barriers in reaching people for Jesus Christ?" Wright said.
Figures released by SBC earlier this year showed total membership declined in 2010 for the fourth straight year, despite a renewed missionary effort.
Tom Wickes, pastor at First Baptist Church of Cleveland, Tenn., said the regional label might prove confusing to some outside the South.
"My father was missionary pastor in Utah while I was growing up, and Southern Baptist didn't make sense to a church in Utah because you weren't Southern," he said. "I did some mission work in Philadelphia, and if you call yourself Southern Baptist, the people up there associate that with being a black Baptist church. It's confusing to people. My mother was a missionary over in Africa, and Southern meant nothing to them over there. It would just help if we had a more generic name, or more descriptive name that didn't include the word Southern."
Changing the name, Wickes said, "would facilitate mission work outside the South."
Ed Stetzer, president of SBC's Lifeway Research, said the membership decline began recently and he expects it to accelerate unless SBC churches take action.
At the Wednesday meeting, the task force reviewed the results of an online poll it commissioned from Lifeway Research. Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed, 40 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the denomination and 44 percent said that knowing a church was Southern Baptist negatively would affect their decision to visit or join the church.
Although 53 percent of respondents overall had a favorable view of the Southern Baptists, the high negative numbers are a concern for a denomination with a major focus on evangelism and a declining membership.
"If we don't aggressively plant churches and lead people to Christ, we become increasingly irrelevant to the world around us," said Jimmy Draper, a former SBC president and former head of Lifeway Christian Resources who is chairman of the task force.
Eddy Rushing, association missionary of Northwest Georgia Baptist Association in Rock Springs, Ga., disagrees. He said he is not in favor of changing the name.
"Since close to 60 percent of people do have a positive feeling about us," he said, "changing our name is not going to change their feeling about us. People know us through disaster relief and other sorts of benevolent-type ministries we do. They know where we stand, and I'm not ashamed of the title. I don't see any real purpose or need in changing it."
Although Draper would not say what the group recommended, he spoke positively about the idea of a change. And the task force is weighted toward people involved in planting new churches and others who likely have something to gain from a change.
The question, said Wickes, along with John Barber, senior associate pastor at Brainerd Hills Baptist Church, is what name best would serve the denomination and its missions.
"I think if anybody came up with a good alternative, everybody would vote for it, but nobody's figured out what a good alternative is," Wickes said. "I'm going to guess that until somebody comes up with a good idea, we're not going to change it just to change it."
"I don't think it would make that much difference in the South," added Barber. "I think where it would be beneficial is outside of the South. Obviously for Southern Baptists, our stronghold is in the Southeastern United States. The difficulty is not so much changing the name, but what do we change it to?"
The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 when it split with northern Baptists over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries, and for a long time the name was associated with white racism. That is not so much the case these days -- in 2008, about 18 percent of SBC churches were largely nonwhite -- but the denomination is associated with conservative politics.
"Sometimes, I imagine what's associated with the South, if you will, maybe some of the baggage that comes with that name from times past, whether it be slavery or other types of issues," said Barber.
David W. Key Sr., the director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that while the SBC's stands on issues like gay rights and women in the pulpit might put off some in the public at large, there are members who worked hard to create the SBC's association with conservative causes and may not let that identity go easily.
One of those people is Wiley Drake, pastor for 24 years of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., where he vociferously has opposed several past attempts to change the name.
"We're very conservative, very biblically based. We always have been known for that," he said. ..."To take 'Southern' out of our name would be to water down our theology ... and hide who we are as Baptists."
Drake said if a name change were approved, he would not change the name of his church but he doubts that will happen. All Southern Baptist churches are independent and can have any name they like.
In what may be a barometer of the feelings of the greater membership -- or at least those likely to attend denominational meetings -- the Tennessee Baptist Convention, a state affiliate of the SBC, voted last month at its annual meeting to oppose a name change.
But other church leaders see the name as a trivial matter in the quest to save more souls. Many churches nationwide already have made their names more nondenominational.
James Merritt, the founder and senior pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., is a former president of the SBC. In explaining how he chose the name of his church, Merritt said, "I always want to do all that I can to remove any obstacle to people coming to church and hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Merritt said he's not ashamed of being a Southern Baptist, and the church identifies its affiliation in its literature, but the name also can be a barrier for people searching for a church.
Staff writer Holly Leber contributed to this report.