So, the "Southern" in "Southern Baptist Convention" has had the attention of the blogging world lately. Right out of the gate, we ought to acknowledge that the topic is an emotional one. The likelihood of this matter coming to an actual vote—and if it does come to a vote, the outcome of that vote—will be determined at least as much by non-rational factors as it will be determined by lists of reasons pro and con. What's more, I confess that I also have as many feelings as I have thoughts about the question. I will endeavor, in this post, to stick with thoughts and leave the feelings aside.
Thesis to Test
I have seen two logical rationales offered for changing the name of the convention:
The argument from identity: This rationale asserts that the Southern Baptist Convention is not really all that Southern, and that the name therefore does not fit the identity of our convention.
The argument from pragmatics: This rationale asserts that our convention's name poses a practical obstacle to our evangelistic efforts in regions other than the South.
Evidence to Consider: Southern Baptist Identity
How would we test the first argument, the argument from identity? Is the Southern Baptist Convention no longer Southern? One way of examining this thesis would be to look at demographic data describing the SBC. The Association of Religion Data Archives contains a fascinating set of data from the year 2000, showing the geographic distribution of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Geographic Distribution of Southern Baptist Adherents
Fourteen states lie east of and including Oklahoma and Texas and south of and including Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. Kansas makes up the outside northwestern corner of this plot of geography, but is not included in this collection of states.
Ranked by number of Southern Baptists living in the state, the top fourteen states are the fourteen Southern states. Collectively, they account for 17,635,679 self-identified Southern Baptists. The other thirty-six states outside the South account for 2,206,936 Southern Baptists.
Thus, a whopping 89% of Southern Baptists live in the South, compared to 11% outside the South.
Geographic Distribution of Southern Baptist Congregations
Ranked by the number of Southern Baptist congregations, the states line up similarly. The fourteen southern states again dominate the listing. One noteworthy exception appears, however—California, one of the largest states in the nation, just edges out Arkansas for the fourteenth spot on the list. Arkansas takes the fifteenth slot.
The fourteen southern states account for 34,365 of the SBC's congregations, or 83%. The other thirty-six states collectively have 7,100 congregations representing 17% of the convention.
Southern Baptist Adherents as a Percentage of State Total Population
California's successful grasping of the fourteenth slot in the previous table might have something to do with the fact that California is so much larger, both in land area and in population, than is Arkansas. What happens when Southern Baptists are measured as a percentage of the state's population?
Over 32% of the population of the Sovereign State of Mississippi identifies itself as Southern Baptist. At the other end of the table, barely 1% of the folks watching a Minnesota Golden Gopher game are likely to be Southern Baptists.
In this category once again the fourteen states of the South take the top fourteen slots in the table. Examine them collectively, and you learn that a full 21% of the people who live in the South identify themselves as Southern Baptists. In contrast, only 1.4% of the people living in the remaining thirty-six states identify themselves as Southern Baptists.
The demographics of the Southern Baptist Convention reveal that the label "Southern" does accurately describe the Southern Baptist Convention, which is preponderantly Southern. In every category, the fourteen states of the South dominate the demographics of the SBC.
Indeed, although I would not advance such an argument, one could make the case that it would be deceptive to call the Southern Baptist Convention anything other than the Southern Baptist Convention—the effect of the change would be to hide the demographic realities of the convention with a name that obscures our very real and inherent regionality.
One could argue with these statistics in a couple of different ways. First, one might assert that having only 10% of the membership of the convention living outside the South is enough to meet the threshold at which the convention should no longer be named the Southern Baptist Convention. This might make sense if the roughly 10% of Southern Baptists living outside the South were evenly distributed among the other states. The tables, however, reveal that a high proportion of Southern Baptists not living in the South live just across one state line from the South. The percentages become even more disproportional when one considers not only Southern Baptists living in the South but also Southern Baptists living clustered around the South.
Second, one might assert that the Southern Baptist Convention cannot be the Southern Baptist Convention if any SBC members or congregations live beyond the confines of the South. In other words, once one, single, solitary Southern Baptist relocates outside the South, we have ceased to be the Southern Baptist Convention according to this hypothetical logic. And there's a certain force of truth to this characterization—although the Southern Baptist Convention is preponderantly Southern, it is not entirely Southern.
Yet it is not uncommon to employ geographical terms in this general rather than precise manner. For example, one could accurately say that California is west of Nevada. And yet, portions of Nevada are actually west of portions of California. When each constituent city of Nevada is considered atomically against each constitutent city of California, one cannot say of California that it lies west of Nevada; when the two states are considered collectively and in general, then the geographical description makes sense. The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Evidence to Consider: Evangelistic Pragmatics
Preceding are the statistics. As I mentioned at the beginning, many of the factors involved in this topic are emotional rather than factual. The 10% of Southern Baptists might feel offended that the convention has not altered its name in consideration of the tiny minority of Southern Baptists who do not live in the South. A Southern Baptist living in the South might feel offended that anyone would even consider slighting the Southern preponderance of the convention by changing the name. These emotional factors do not easily submit themselves to analysis and are even more resistant to change.
Another argument is more complex, involving a mixture of feelings and ideas: Some suggest that we ought to remove the "Southern" from our name because the word poses a hindrance to evangelism. I say that this argument involves both feelings and ideas because we Southern Baptists feel passionately about the question of evangelism. Make Southern Baptists think about the Great Commission and you have (depending upon your motives and how you use the idea) the power either to make Southern Baptists stop and think or to make them stop thinking at all.
So, if we were setting aside the emotions for a moment and trying to be strictly cerebral, how would we test the thesis that our evangelistic efforts outside the South would be more effective if we were to rename the Southern Baptist Convention?
Comparative Denominational Demographics
One approach might be to go back to the same data source and compare the effectiveness of Southern Baptists outside the South to the effectiveness of other evangelical denominations in the same areas.
Looking at adherents, we find that there are two and only two states that break into the top fourteen when we consider evangelicals beyond the Southern Baptist Convention: California and Illinois. Otherwise, evangelicalism at large seems not to have any substantially different evangelistic effectiveness in seeing people converted beyond the South than do the Southern Baptists. The percentages do change substantially, however (again, largely because of California and Illinois), moving from 88/12 to 64/36 when we consider all evangelicals rather than only Southern Baptists.
Looking at congregations, the impact of non-Southern-Baptists congregations becomes a bit more significant, with Indiana joining Illinois and California in displacing Southern states from the top fourteen. The dramatic demotions of Mississippi (8th among Southern Baptists; 18th among evangelicals at large) and Virginia (11th among Southern Baptists; 16th among evangelicals at large) reveal that evangelical strength beyond the South is bolstered by a larger number of smaller congregations.
When we consider the rate of evangelical adherents in each state's population, we see that all evangelical groups, including all of those without any regional descriptor in their names, are far less effective outside the South than they are inside the South. Evangelicals comprise 30% of Southerners compared to a mere 8.5% of non-Southerners.
Overall, we see that other evangelicals do perform somewhat more consistently between Southern and non-Southern areas, and yet we observe that even those evangelical denominations without the word "Southern" in their names struggle to spread the gospel outside the South compared to what they achieve within the South.
Beyond these statistical measurements that give us a snapshot of things as they existed in 2000, we can also pull out the home movies and see how things came to be that way.
A large number of denominations have preached the gospel and planted churches in the United States of America—most of them without the word "Southern" in their name. Perhaps the best example for Southern Baptists to consider in comparison would be the American Baptist Churches in the U. S. A. (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention). This denomination is worthy of consideration for two reasons. First, it is a sister denomination to Southern Baptists, being the group from which we separated in 1845. Second, in 1951 the Northern Baptist Convention did precisely what some people want the Southern Baptist Convention to do today—they changed the name of their convention to rid themselves of a regional name. In fact, they took the very name that some Southern Baptists were considering before the Yankees beat us to the punch (much to the consternation of some)!
It is no mystery that the ABC is smaller by an order of magnitude than is the SBC. What you might not have considered before is the geographic distribution of ABC churches. For that, we turn once again to ARDA. The distribution map reveals that the ABC is heavily clustered in the New England states and around the Great Lakes (one stand-alone state that is strong by ABC standards is California, where 170,000 American Baptists reside)
Someone doubtless will complain that American Baptists do not make for a good comparison with Southern Baptists became American Baptists have a different theology than do Southern Baptists. I agree that Southern Baptists and adherents of the American Baptist Churches in the U. S. A. could in fact be characterized differently in their theology. That fact, however, is immaterial to the comparison. Even if one completely accepts the presumption that American Baptist theology will fail where Southern Baptist theology will succeed, the fact remains that American Baptist churches do not fail or succeed with their theology equally across the geography of our country. Also inescapable is the conclusion that American Baptist geographical distribution has not changed substantially since 1951 when they discarded their regional name for a broader name.
Somebody has already done precisely what some people want the Southern Baptist Convention to do today, and the result was a dismal failure.
Another denomination worthy of consideration is the Presbyterian Church in America. Their denominational name is national in scope, but unlike the American Baptist Churches in the U. S. A., the Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative denomination. Yet the geographical distribution map for PCA churches and adherents, just like the map for the SBC, reveals a high population cluster in the Southeast with waning adherence the farther north or west one travels (with the exception of California).
Of course, I welcome the listing by the name-change proponents of all of the denominations who have abandoned a regional name and have then gone on to great and storied effectiveness in regions of the United States where beforehand they were anemic. Apart from hard data to demonstrate that this approach has worked in the renaming of other denominations before, we're left to conclude that other factors besides denominational names (or, alternatively, no factors within our control at all!) are the secret to religious success in the United States but outside the South.
Cultural Captivity Remedied by a Name Change?
On my previous post, a friend of mine and a thoughtful commenter on this site suggested a different, more internal reason for a name change. Perhaps the changing of the name "Southern Baptist Convention" in and of itself would not effect greater receptivity for the gospel when Southern Baptists proclaim it outside the South, but perhaps the changing of the name would change Southern Baptists by liberating us from our Southern parochialism. Andrew asked, "Are we not hidebound in our comfortable Southern (intending both geographic and denominational) ways in our familiar Southern areas that we are lacking the means to reach the lost in America, much less around the globe?"
In other words, maybe the removal of "Southern" from the name "Southern Baptist Convention" would change US, thereby making us do OTHER things that would make us more effective in evangelism and church planting to non-Southerners.
It is a complex question, and one that would be difficult to measure empirically. We can, however, (and did in the comment stream of the post) explore the premise that Southern Baptist churches are held captive by Southern culture.
I replied to Andrew's question in this fashion:
As a historian I would assert that the distinctiveness of Southern culture is at its lowest point since the Colonial period. Everything from media to chain restaurants and big box stores have made it more true than ever before that Boston = Atlanta = Houston = Los Angeles. Of course, these equations are not absolutely true, but they are more true than they have ever been before.
Moving from culture-at-large to church culture, a Cowboy Church movement has arisen largely because the standard Southern Baptist church culture has almost nothing Southern about it. The music is Rock, the marketing is Madison Avenue, the platform dress is Abercrombie & Fitch, and the A-V technology is Times Square.
What's Southern about that?
I did not (as one reader misunderstood) equate "Cowboy" with "Southern" in the comment. Rather, I stated that there was a lack of Southernness in Southern Baptist churches in general, and that the Cowboy churches were able to profit from that lack. To be more specific, of those who graduated with me from Riverside High School, I'd say that generally comparable percentages of the student body listened to country music on the one hand and pop music on the other hand. Southern Baptist churches in the South, on the other hand, have featured in addition to hymnody an almost exclusive selection of pop-sounding Christian music. Southern Gospel is not really representative of recent Southern culture, and no CCM equivalent of the immensely popular music group Alabama has ever been able to break through to prominence.
Country & Western music is more Southern than is pop music. Cowboy churches frequently utilize somewhat-baptized Country & Western music in their worship services. In doing so, they provide worship services that are more compatible with Southern culture as a whole (although Southern culture as a whole is different from Cowboy culture) than are the Bono-clone worship services that have been the vogue in many SBC churches in the South.
Hank Williams Jr. famously opined in a song, "If Heaven ain't a lot like Dixie, I don't want to go." Does the presence of the word "Southern" in the name "Southern Baptist Convention" indicate that SBC members and churches pretty much agree with Bocephus?
I certainly don't feel that way (nor have I ever really liked Hank that much). Do some people feel that way? I don't know. Maybe. But I'm certain of this much: Even if some people do hold that opinion, changing the name of the SBC won't do anything to solve that problem.