June 27, 2012
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
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
“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
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
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
a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers.