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June 27, 2012

Column #1,609

Southern Baptists Elect Black President

By Mike McManus

            For the first time in its history, the Southern Baptist Convention, which was created in 1845 as a pro-slavery church, unanimously elected its first African-American president, Pastor Fred Luter Jr. of New Orleans.

            “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said.  This vote is a bend toward justice.  “I can’t help but think Dr. King is looking down with a smile on his face,” said Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

            At a press conference after the vote, Luter praised the delegates for choosing him: “This was a genuine move by this convention that says our doors are open, and the only way they can see that is not just putting up an African-American president, but seeing other ethnic groups in other areas of this convention. Time will tell, and I’ll be a cheerleader promoting that.

            However, this day would never have come had not Luter help convince the Southern Baptists to pass a resolution in 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the denomination’s founding, in which they humbly “genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty…and ask for forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake.”


            Consider the result: the number of black Southern Baptists almost tripled from 337,000 in 1995 to 900,000 in 2010, and the number of churches almost doubled to 3,500. 

Similarly, the number of Hispanic Southern Baptists jumped 84% from 112,000 in 1998 to 206,000 and their churches grew from 1,971 to 3,361. 

An even greater growth can be seen among Asian Southern Baptists who doubled from 78,000 to 155,000.  Thus, Luter’s dream to see other ethnic groups blossom is being achieved.

This spectacular ethnic growth is in sharp contrast to Southern Baptists as a whole, who have been losing membership for five years, dropping from 16.3 million members to 15.98 million last year, a modest 2% overall decline. 

However, that decline would have been much worse, had there not been a doubling of black, Hispanic and Asian Southern Baptists from 631,000 in 1998 to 1,259,000 in 2010.

Who is the pastor who helped inspire this unlikely ethnic growth from 5% of the denomination to 19%?

Luter was a street preacher with a few dozen followers when he took over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans that had been a white Southern Baptist church before its people moved to the suburbs. Through great preaching and winning black men to faith in Jesus Christ, it became a giant, 5,000 member church.

Then Hurricane Katrina washed it all away, destroying the church in a sea of stinking mud.  His flock scattered to Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham, etc. Luter became an itinerant pastor, traveling to shepherd his flock in those scattered cities. 

“Then amazingly, like a phoenix rising from the flood waters, Dr. Luter re-formed his congregation and now preaches to about 5,000 people every Sunday in a beautifully rebuilt church,” said Dr. Land. “He built a great church twice in one of the cities where it is difficult to build an evangelical church.  New Orleans is an Old World City, the “Big Easy.”  It is not a city of moral rectitude.”

His election as President symbolizes the emergence of the Southern Baptist Convention as national denomination, which in time will be as ethnically diverse as the nation itself.

Luter’s first major initiative was to support a new name for the church, “Great Commission Baptists,” to underscore its commitment to reach the whole nation, and not just the South.  The proposal was so intensely controversial, that it was watered down to be an alternative, unofficial description.

Southern Baptists researchers found that more than 70% of pastors think the official name should continue. However, Jimmy Draper, a former SBC President argued, “It would have been terrible if we elect Fred with enthusiasm and then reject one of the biggest needs that African-Americans expressed to us.   It would have been inconsistent.”

Opponents called the new name “divisive,” and complained that those who want another name were not focusing enough on evangelism at a time when membership had declined five years in a row.

However, the convention voted narrowly for the unofficial name, by 53% to 46%.  Now those who are trying to evangelize in the inner city or the Northeast, will call their church, Great Commission Baptists.

“I love it,” Fred Luter enthused.  “I think it is a win-win situation.”

It is a new day for Southern Baptists, or Great Commission Baptists.

Copyright © Michael J. McManus is President of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist. 

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