Hoping to provide useful data to help settle the Southern Baptist Convention’s dilemma on whether to change the Christian denomination’s name, a research group released a study Wednesday on how Americans view the SBC along with other faith groups.
The majority of Americans have a favorable impression of Southern Baptists, according to the LifeWay Research study. However, 40 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of the denomination and more than a third strongly assume an SBC church is not for them.
The negative viewpoint is slightly higher (44 percent) among the unchurched, according to the study.
The research was conducted in September after SBC President Bryant Wright appointed a task force to consider a possible name change for the 166-year-old convention, say officials at LifeWay.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said he believes that while the study shows 53 percent of Americans having a favorable view toward Southern Baptists (including 15 percent very favorable), there is a large enough segment of the population that has an unfavorable opinion that warrants both sides to be considered.
"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. "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."
During the research, which had more than 2,000 participants, respondents were shown the names of five "denominations or faith groups" and asked to "indicate if your impression is very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable, or you are not familiar enough to form an opinion."
The study showed that 62 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Methodists compared to 59 percent for Catholics, 53 percent for Southern Baptists, 37 percent for Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and 28 percent for Muslims.
Stetzer told The Christian Post that he was concerned about some real issues that need to be approached with grace and wisdom.
“The words ‘southern’ and ‘baptist’ both have connotations for people. When you combine them, they add another set of connotations. They may be regional, racial, moral, and denominational, but they are real and it is wise to consider them,” he said.
The study was necessary because “facts are our friends and Southern Baptists need to know that for some people, the name is a hindrance,” Stetzer explained. “Our hope is that those considering the SBC name change possibility will find this helpful as they review it in their meeting [Wednesday].”
The research also showed that two-thirds of the people surveyed are without strong feelings in regards to all the Christian faith groups included in the survey. Only a third or less had either very favorable or very unfavorable feelings to a particular faith group.
In trying to determine the impact of a denomination‘s name, those surveyed were asked their level of agreement with the statement, "When I see (fill in denominational affiliation) in the name of a church, I assume it is not for me.”
Thirty-five percent "strongly agree" a Southern Baptist church is not for them, which was higher than for Catholics (33 percent), Baptists (29 percent), Methodists (26 percent), and community or nondenominational churches (20 percent).
When answering the same question about nondenominational churches, the study showed that respondents were more inclined to associate themselves with such a church.
“This positive reaction to community or nondenominational churches reflects other recent LifeWay Research analysis that showed growth among nondenominational churches while Southern Baptists are trending in a membership decline,” stated LifeWay officials.
Stetzer noted that the study did not explore why some respondents hold a negative view of Southern Baptists.
"For instance, one reason may be because they disagree with positions Southern Baptists take on certain issues such as sanctity of life or the exclusivity of the Gospel, and that is the only point of reference they have for Southern Baptists."
Stetzer said he guesses that many people will see the research and interpret the results in their own way, like a “Rorschach Test.”
“My hope is that people will consider how best to respond to this research rather than simply restate the view they already have,” he said.
"An unbiased observer will conclude two things: a lot of the unchurched people assume certain denominations are not for them – and Baptists at the highest rate; and, that most of the unchurched don't have strong opinions or awareness of denominations," Stetzer noted. "This would be especially true in areas of the country such as the West where the concentration of Southern Baptist churches is considerably fewer than in the South."