What’s In A Name? Southern Baptists, Southern Gospel, Pandas Versus Wrestlers

by Bobby Gilles

in Church Communications,Exhortations And Musings

So America’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, might change its name. A growing number of voices have clamored for the change for years, but as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler wrote this week, they are gaining ground.

Groups and businesses change names all the time, and not always by choice. In 2001 the A.P. wrote that “the Panda bodyslammed the Rock” when the World Wildlife Fund beat the World Wrestling Federation in court over the use of the “WWF” acronymn (the wrestling corporation is now WWE: World Wrestling Entertainment). WWE waged their biggest (and most real) fight in years – a massive rebranding effort that involved everything from a new logo to the digitized erasure of the old “WWF” logo on thousands of hours of tape in their library.

Many of you who grew up on Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper matches in the 1980s may have still thought of the organization as “the WWF” which points to one of the biggest difficulties of a name change — you can’t change the perception of thousands or millions of people overnight, or next month, year or even decade.

Does Your Own Church Need A Name Change?

Many churches change their name, for reasons like:

  1. They feel like denominational ties hinder growth. Maybe taking the “Baptist” or “Methodist” out of your name will draw more people.
  2. In this age of churches with huge world-wide presence online, and multi-campus (even multi-community) churches, perhaps designations like “Oak Park Baptist” or “Seventh Avenue Presbyterian” are too limiting.

My own church is honored to be part of the SBC but Outreach Magazine says we’re the 45th fastest-growing church in the U.S. Would we be in that position if our name all along had been “Sojourn Baptist Church” or “Mary Street Baptist” instead of “Sojourn Community Church”?

Yet if it had been, and our pastors now wanted to change it to something like “Sojourn Community,” I get a headache thinking how hard it would be to rebrand. I can’t imagine how much more difficult this work would be for the mammoth Southern Baptist Convention — legally, financially, emotionally and otherwise.

Logo Mark for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)

At least the SBC wouldn't have to change their logo mark if they changed their name.

Some People Decide It’s Just Not Worth It
In the early 1990’s I served as Music Director and deejay in Southern Gospel radio, and was part of many conversations with Southern Gospel leaders who wanted to rebrand the genre for similar reasons to those who want to change the name of the SBC. The “southern” label is geographically limiting, and in some circles it carries the stigma of the American South’s history of slavery and racism.

But what else would we call it? “Southern Gospel” was a term originally imposed by “outsiders” as much as insiders, to distinguish this quartet oriented style, a musical cousin to country music, from “gospel music,” which was reserved for the style that descended from African American spirituals.
  • So do we just drop the “Southern,” knowing that many leaders in the Christian music industry will refuse to play along, not wanting brand confusion between different genres?
  • Do we call it “Quartet Gospel,” even though many modern southern gospel acts are soloists, duets, trios or quintets?
  • How about “American Gospel Music” or “Conservative Gospel Music”? Naw.
  • Or do we just give up and call it Gaither Gospel (this, suggested as a joke, to acknowledge that Bill & Gloria Gaither’s Homecoming concert series and packaged products pretty much rule the genre in sales and publicity).

“Southern Gospel” stuck (at least so far) for lack of a better alternative.

A Related Attempt At Name Change, Which Crashed And Burned
Bluegrass band, performing at Sojourn Fall Festival

Country isn't inherently Christian, folks. But you KNOW St. Peter would be a country music guy

At this same time, many Southern Gospel radio programmers, record executives and artists began to experiment with a modern country sound (at the time, this meant a sound like Garth Brooks, Alabama and Shania Twain). Some suggested “Why not call ourselves “Christian Country, like the Christian Rock industry has done (as opposed to the older term “country gospel,” which carried old-time music connotations the younger artists wanted to avoid)?”

Brooks, Twain and others had caused an explosion in country music sales, concert tickets and radio ratings. So, as artists like Stryper and Petra had piggybacked on the popularity of rock music, maybe we could piggyback on country music.


While many “secular” rock bands, fans and executives were eager to embrace the distinction from “Christian Rock,” the country music culture reacted to the news that there was now a “Christian Country” genre with “But country is Christian!”

And while generations of Christians grew up on Christian Rock, never being allowed to listen to “the bad stuff,” many parents who were country music fans didn’t see the need to provide themselves or their kids with an alternative. While the term “Christian Country” is still around, it was doomed to be less successful than “Christian Rock.”

So With All The Difficulty Inherent In Name-Changing, Why Do It?
Your name is part of your story. Being a “Gilles” is part of my story. Being a “Sojourner” is part of my story. Being a Southern Baptist is part of my story. And we don’t get to tell our own story in the exact way we want to tell it. Like a Wikipedia entry, others get to add their own commentary. Your story becomes your brand, and your brand is what people say, think and feel when you cross their path. Your brand is what they say you are, not what you say you are.

If Southern Baptists want to reach more people, then which argument is greater:

  • We should keep our name because of the positive emotional attachment we feel to it, and the theological convictions that it has historically stood for, and because it will take much time, work and money to change.
  • We should change our name because so many people in this world, outside of caucasians in the American South, are either puzzled or offended by our name.

I believe the latter (obviously because the name in question is “Southern,” which has nothing inherently to do with the cross of Christ. If people are puzzled or offended by a name that clearly identifies us with Jesus, that’s a different story).

What do you think?


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