Southern Baptists Seek More Diversity

Someone sent me an article from the Columbus Dispatch (Friday, July 3, 2009) by Meredith Heagney. The article begins by showing the “Go Ye Gospel Ministries” congregation, primarily people from Kenya, that started in 2003. While we have sent missionaries to Africa and the uttermost parts of the world, we’ve often failed to embrace those same people in our churches.

Johnny Hunt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said at a recent national convention that if we don’t change, we could shrink from 16.5 million members to 8.7 million by the year 2050. He encouraged pastors to reach out to “our brothers of ethnicity.”

According to the article, in 2007 nearly 19 percent of the convention’s congregations were majority nonwhite. These majorities are growing the fastest while traditionally white churches are plateaued or declining. While our denomination has a strong commitment to missions and takes a conservative (I would call it biblical) stance on moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, premarital sex, etc., we are losing ground and losing it fast.

Why? I’ll give you my humble and accurate opinion which I highly respect. One, we’ve let sociologists and economists define us. We have bought the lie that a church has to be made up of people in the same basic socioeconomic or racial group. Where did we get that dumb idea? It certainly isn’t in the Scriptures.

In the early church–back in the old days when people actually believed the Bible and acted in the Spirit–Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women were all one in Christ. The socioeconomic barriers didn’t matter. Slaves could hold leadership positions in the church over their recently converted masters. Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews to become Christians.

Today we want our churches to be sanitized and safe. We can’t imagine some guy from the hood sitting by the president of the WMU. We think it odd when a church is multi-racial. Unfortunately, it’s the exception and not the norm, which is why our churches are dying.

Two, we don’t believe in the power of the gospel. We add to it. We take away from it. We make our worship fit a certain group, age, or preference, instead of honoring the Lord. We want worship to fit us. We think little in the average church about what might be pleasing to God. For some folks, if it’s not in the hymnal, it’s not of God. For others, if it was written in the 20th century, it’s old.

Hey, grow up and get a life! Get over yourself. Worship was never meant to be about you, your taste, or your preference. That’s just a form of idolatry where worship is for us and ultimately to us. When we are pleased, we think God is pleased.

Three, the lack of effort on the part of pastors to reach across racial lines. The fear of man is a snare. We have too many church leaders who want to run a “good old boys, coffee drinking, deer killing” club. They have little interest in prayer or evangelism. They think little of a lost world. As long as the “good old boys” run the church, they’ll run the lost off the church parking lot.

When I was serving in Mississippi in the 1970s, I remember sitting in a deacons meeting listening to men (supposedly full of faith, wisdom, and the Holy Spirit) talk about building a fence around the church to keep black kids from riding their bicycles across the parking lot. That sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? I don’t care how you were raised, that’s inexcusable. I doubt if any of those men were saved. They were mean-spirited bigots who hated anyone that didn’t look like them. They fired me a few months later for quoting Martin Luther King.

Four, even in the 21st century, we are burning bridges instead of building them. It takes time to build a bridge. The south is not the only place where racial prejudice and hatred abound. Depending on where you live, it can be blacks, whites, Hispanics, Indians, or Asians. When I served in the Midwest, there were people who criticized southerners for their attitudes toward blacks, while treating Indians and Hispanics like dirt. You can’t fix stupid.

Five, our denominational leadership is, for the most part, lily white. As I preached at the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference this year, I would guess that less than 15 percent of those attending were black or Hispanic. As I looked out across the room, there were a whole lot of white people. Until our convention gets serious about letting everyone to the table, we won’t make any changes.

The process is slow, but there needs to be a process. Of course there is distrust on both sides of this issue. We work very hard at Sherwood to build bridges with our sister church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Southwest Georgia. Their pastor Daniel Simmons is a dear friend. We often exchange pulpits…and not just on “Race Relations Sunday.”

Daniel’s members call me “co-pastor,” and the Sherwood members call Daniel “co-pastor.” Mt. Zion is relocating to a beautiful piece of property a few miles from us. A few weeks ago they raised the cross on their building, and at least 100 of our members were there to show their support. Why? They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

After 20 years in this area, I’ve preached in more African American churches than I have white churches. I’ve only preached in two churches out of 468 in my association. I’ve preached in at least five or six in the black community.

We just added our first African American head football coach at our Christian school. We didn’t hire him because he is black; we hired him because of his character and commitment to Christ. But you can read the media and see the emphasis on the lack of black coaches in college and professional sports and know it’s an issue in our culture.

We have an African American who is in charge of our Singles Ministry. He is doing an incredible job, and our singles are more focused on learning and serving than any time I can remember since I’ve been here. One of the only African American missionaries through the International Mission Board came out of Sherwood. He and his family are home right now on furlough. I love it when they are home and our people love them and pray for them as they serve in Brazil.

Our platform and choir are beginning to reflect our community, which is 70 percent African American. I told our church a few years ago that if we didn’t change and get out of the southern gospel, lily white mentality, we would die. As a church, we should reflect the community we are in.

Today Sherwood’s membership is spread throughout 30 communities,and we have people from 11 different nations who call Sherwood home. We worship and serve together. We love one another. We don’t look at each other as black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. We look at each other through the eyes of Christ.

When the church gets colorblind, it will see the glory of God!

4 thoughts on “Southern Baptists Seek More Diversity

  1. Well, Michael, You have really “unloaded” a bundle here. I agree with everything you said. My neighbors that connect with my property line on the West side are black. They have four children that are respectful, well mannered, and polite. They are one of my dearest friends. I was born and reared in Florida; my trusted friend as a child was a black boy. He later died in the war. Our church has a couple of black people, but predominately white.
    Wes Allard – Mansfield.

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