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Convergence of Southern Baptists


All religions suffer from a certain insecurity. That’s one reason I seldom write columns about religion. Most dominations seem to have “escape clauses” so as to repent for their malicious actions against others.

As a Southern Baptist, I have heard just about every Baptist joke ever written. Over the years I have traded Baptist and Methodist jokes with a Methodist minister in England.

The Southern Baptist Conbention is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Prostestant body in the United States, with over 16 million members.

The word “Southern” in Southern Baptist Convention has roots from its having been founded in the in 1845 in Augusta, Ga., following a regional split with northern Baptists over their position on slavery. Follrom ing the Civil War, most black Baptists split from white churches and established their own congregations.

The congregational governance system that gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches.

Since the 1950s, the convention has moved away from some of its regional identification. However, years ago I belonged to a congregation in Las Vegas that still goes by the name First Southern Baptist Church. Baptists in many western state -— while still heavily concentrated in the Southern U.S. — are outnumbers by other dominations, including Mormons and Catholics.

The Southern Baptist Convention has about 10,000 ethnic congregations.

History was made this past week in New Orleans when a 55-year-old black preacher was elected unanimously to lead the 16 million-member convention. While the SBC remains a predominantly white organization of 45,000 congregations, the election of Fred Luter Jr. to a one-year term as president triggered hopes among some Baptists that diversity would move through the denomination’s membership.

Luter has long held a prominent presence in national faith circles, starting as a street-corner preacher with a handful of followers 20-years ago to lead a congregation of more than 5,000 members as senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Luter praised the messengers or delegates for choosing him, saying it was proof “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.”

The SBC also approved an alternative name that will allow churches to distance themselves from the organization’s past ties to slavery and regionalism. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized to African-Americans for perpetuating racism and failing to support civil rights efforts.

Great Commission Baptists, the alternative name, was endorsed by 53 percent the 4,800 ballots cast at the annual meeting.

Allowing changes to the Southern Baptist Convention name has been discussed for more than 100 years. More than 4 in 10 Americans said in a recent poll that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join.

Local churches have complete autonomy, and that includes how they refer to the denomination. Those who voted against the alternative name said they believed that the Southern Baptist Convention has a long history and strong theology brand recognition.

“We cannot do anything about the past,” Luter observed. “It’s gone. It’s over with. However, we can do a lot about our future.”

I wonder how many SBC churches will become Great Commission Baptists, the alternative name. Southern Baptists have seen church splits over the color of a new sanctuary carpet.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.