Southern Baptists try to diversify churches — but will it work?

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Erskin Anavitarte, a Southern Baptist pastor-turned-musician. Photo courtesy of Tate Music Group

Erskin Anavitarte, a Southern Baptist pastor-turned-musician. Photo courtesy of Tate Music Group

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Russell Moore's proposed solution -- diversifying worship spaces -- will take some work. Of 50,500 Southern Baptist congregations, 3,502 identify as predominantly African-American, or about 7 percent.

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  • James Carr

    What I’ve seen over the years is that people like to congregate with their own kind, despite the demands of society that we integrate. Look at any school lunch table, or neighborhood barbecue. It is not a problem…it’s a choice. Problems become so when folks are either forced to integrate or are barred from integrating.

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  • Larry

    When it comes to race, the Southern Baptist Convention has more baggage than Samsonite.

  • “I’m not sure the motivation of their actions, but it’s a small beginning.”

    Glad to hear it.
    The effort to reach out to other religious groups and attempt to find a common ground is an excellent development. Far more common is the cold shrug and the tacit acceptance that segregation should always be expected as the norm.

    Millions more mixed marriages, more education, more integration of workplaces and less religion will combine to decrease racism in America over time.

    I’m very optimistic about that for sure.

  • Eric

    ^ = object lesson #1 why the SBC’s efforts won’t get far, if anywhere.

  • Perfectly useless exercise. Liturgy and modes of worship are properly organic growths and the imposition of synthetic liturgies can be horrendously damaging. What is done in any given setting does not appeal to every sensibility or even most people’s at any given time.

    The point in worship is reverence. The tasks of a congregation include corporal works of mercy and spiritual works of mercy. Neither task requires an artifact of ‘diversity’ nor is appreciably advanced by it. Here we have Russell Moore, not knowing what to do with himself, taking his cues from the most clueless sort of higher education apparatchik. Find another line of work, Russell. You’re no good.

  • Fran

    If Christians showed true love to their fellowman and/or “brothers and sisters in the faith”, no matter what race or culture, this would not be a problem at all. Love is the distinguishing mark of true Christians.

  • Lin

    Are Asians part of this ‘diversity’ discussion? Or is it the usual black/white divide.
    It is important to remember that Jesus was born Asian 😉

  • Doc Anthony

    You’re right Larry, the Southern Baptists have got racial baggage, just like the Methodists got racial baggage, just like the Lutherans got baggage, just like the Catholics got racial baggage, just like the black denominations got racial baggage. (Yes, we blacks have our own racial baggage too, just like everybody else.)

    But what about the ATHEISTS’ racial baggage? Glass houses, Larry.

    Don’t forget how the atheist chaplain Chris Stedman, the recent RNS atheist blogger, ran one or more articles showing that atheists have their own racial issues to work out.

    Black atheists still don’t feel like they’ve got an equal seat at your table, they have concerns that white atheists might not share (in fact you know that’s true), and they don’t always want to have to sound like white atheists to be taken seriously.

  • Creed Pogue

    This report from 2013 seems to indicate that about 20% of SBC congregations were self-identifying with an ethnicity other than Anglo?

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  • John W

    The 7% figure quoted is meaningless in and of itself (especially since those may not be integrated either). What is going on in the 93% would seem the more relevant data.

    By the way what is white theology? is it that stuff we got from all those Middle-Eastern and North African guys in the early centuries?

  • Larry

    Lets get some perspective here. So how many of those churches/groups were founded on the idea of upholding the ownership and subsequently legal subjugation of people of color? 🙂

    There is baggage and there is BAGGAGE. Atheists have carry-on that fits neatly under the seat. The SBC’s fills a major international airport.

    Atheist groups have their issues with dealing minority and feminist voices. None of that is an integral part of non-belief, nor even something intentionally propagated. People are jerks. Put them in an organization and they become raging jerks. Plus atheist organizations make no pretensions to speak for all atheists. One can easily ignore their foibles without any impact on whether one is an atheist or not.

    This is a far different than a church leadership. Churches demand as a prerequisite to membership, adherence to the views and practices of their leaders. As you so often bring up, failure to comply with church rules means you are out of their club.

    So yes black atheists have issues which demand to be taken seriously. Various atheist groups have problems in that regard. Does it affect my atheist belief in any way or cast aspersion on to my beliefs. Not in any conceivably way.

  • Byron Gibson

    Are Asians part of this ‘diversity’ discussion? — Probably not. If any denomination is focusing on skin color more than they are on Jesus and the word of God then you should run miles away from it!

  • Jack

    James Carr, that sounds right in theory, but given the history of this country, separation according to race is at least as much the result of past Jim Crow laws on the books as it is the result of people naturally preferring to be with people who are like them.

    I don’t see much good at all coming from the segregation of the races. What I do see is a vast amount of ignorance on both sides of the color divide.

    There needs to be a bottom-up solution, and that’s where churches come in. My concern, though, is that Russell Moore is behaving more like a pander bear. Part of racial reconciliation must involve each side — black and white — facing up to some very hard truths about the past and also the present.

  • Jack

    Here’s what Russell Moore, whose heart is in the right place, is missing:

    Yes, racial reconciliation depends on a full belief in racial equality.

    But…..racial equality means both equal rights and equal responsibilities.

    It means belief that both white and black adults can and must be held responsible as individuals for their convictions, their attitudes, and their conduct.

    Anything less is a betrayal of belief in equality.

    That means no adult gets a pass for demonstrably false beliefs, bad attitudes, or bad conduct.

    It means that white people don’t get to pretend that America’s past racial history doesn’t matter. And it means that black people don’t get to conjure up fantasy theories about what happened in Ferguson because it doesn’t fit their preconceived narratives.

    Racial reconciliation necessarily involves facing up to hard truths on both sides…..and not lowering the bar of responsibility for anybody, black or white.

  • Chaplain Martin

    “Southern Baptists try to diversify churches”
    As a former Southern Baptist pastor and SBC endorsed chaplain for many years, I can tell you that there has been some slight movement in that area for some time. In my opinion, Russell Moore is not the man for the job, but neither do I know anyone in the SBC that could take his place. Anyone who takes the job would have to espouse fundamentalism and speak well of the Republican Party and, oh yes be against abortion.

    When I left the last SBC church of which I was pastor, a member told the group assembled on my last day said that I had taught him to say “black” person instead of the “N” word. Yes it was a small country church and black people would probably not be turned away but sure would have been noticed.

    A move was made to rename the Southern Baptist Convention at least as far back as the seventies. The reason then was because the SBC was growing churches in the northern states. It was said then that the name really was about theology more than geography, sure.

    The SBC cannot be changed racially simply by a edict from Nashville headquarters, it has to be changed one church and each person at a time. Also the worship would need change a bit to say the least.

    I’ve preached in black churches and I’ve said “if you can’t preach well in a black church, then you can’t preach.” They help you preach by getting into it and encouraging you.
    “Get the Spirit” That’s another thing the SBC will have to deal with to get diversity.

  • The Great God Pan

    The Southern Baptist Convention was founded for the specific purpose of supporting slavery.

    That’s not quite the same thing as black Americans being “underrepresented” in atheism due to the fact that there aren’t very many of them. Compare 34% of white Americans identifying as non-religious versus 13% of black Americans, bearing in mind the relative sizes of these populations to begin with.

  • Dan the Mormon

    Good for the SBC. I will be interested to see if they come up with anything more concrete.

  • cken

    I think the SBC should first try to answer why anybody not born into Southern Baptist indoctrination would want to become one. That might give them the answer to their declining enrollment. Maybe they would find their old cliched religious dogma is is well it’s just that well you know nice words and rules none of them live by.
    Why when people talk about diversity do they only talk about blacks and ignore Indians, Asians, Arabs, and Latinos.

  • Eric

    ^ object lesson #2 why the SBC’s efforts won’t amount to much.

  • Jack

    cken, I’m not southern, a Baptist, or a Southern Baptist, but in defense of them, “declining enrollment” is now a general problem across American Christianity….and SBC was growing robustly, as were other evangelical movements, for decades until the 1990s. Like other evangelical movements, they were growing at the expense of the liberal mainline Protestant denominations, including former bastions in the south like the Methodists. For decades, the story was the extraordinary growth of evangelicals among the baby boomers. Now it’s the bust among the Millennials.

  • i wrote my DMin dissertation on racial reconciliation in our dually-aligned CBF/SBC church. I titled it, The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. While it is available on Amazon as a free Kindle Unlimited book, it is available absolutely free on

    Two points I make in the book: first, the SBC apology for slavery was never enacted in the hierarchy. I’m until the SBC is serious about power-sharing and appoints African Americans to significant positions such as agency heads, real reconciliation is a pipe dream of an SBC eager to reverse declining numbers by reaching out to minorities. One black SBC president does not balance the scales of 170 years of exclusion.

    Secondly, the SBC needs to reimagine the five Baptist freedoms in light of its infamous beginnings. Until those two shifts occur, African Americans are rightly skeptical of this overture.

  • “When I left the last SBC church of which I was pastor, a member told the group assembled on my last day said that I had taught him to say “black” person instead of the “N” word.”

    I hope the “N” word was “Negro”.

  • Jack

    One black SBC president sends an extraordinarily powerful message, given the history of your movement, so don’t kid yourself on that.

    What you don’t want to do is play the ideological equivalent of pander bear…which is what Russell Moore is doing.

    The way to achieve racial reconciliation is to redress the past as much as possible and then quit wailing incessantly about it, but to tackle the problems of the here and now. The greatest need today is for the “responsibility” side of racial equality to be stressed….for whites and blacks to speak candidly to each other in an atmosphere of equal rights coupled with equal responsibilities.

  • Jack

    There’s a fine line between such talk and patronizing nonsense. When both white and black church people are able to speak honestly across the color line about their pet peeves as well, and when both sides are really willing to heed and learn from such candor, real progress will occur.

    Right now, we’re not even close as a nation. It’s white leaders in full grovel mode, and black leaders looking on with embarrassment and wondering when the white leaders will listen to their pleas to quit groveling about 1955 and start helping with the work of 2015.

  • Chaplain Martin

    “I hope the “N” word was “Negro”.” Unfortunately no, it was the other “N” word. He had stopped using it.

  • James Carr

    I agree that forced segregation is no good, but forced integration has its drawbacks too. In the arena of Religion, people should feel free to attend services where worldly distractions and tension are minimal, so as to free them to concentrate on God.

  • James Carr

    Atheists have no voice in religious matters, simply because they are incapable of rational thinking.

  • Larry

    Atheists in most cases understand religious matters in a far more objective manner than those under compulsion to follow them under fear of spiritual consequences.

    Rational thinkers do not assume to take cues from a Bronze age mythological anthology.

    All you are saying is that I should ignore your opinion whenever possible since its just going to be insulting, irrelevant, malicious nonsense.

  • James,

    Yeah, Jonas Salk couldn’t think straight. Giving away the Polio vaccine to humanity was so selfish and unthinking of him.

    Neither could Dr. Seuss. What an awful Atheist he was – couldn’t think straight at all.

    Neither could Jaques Yves Cousteau – a real nutter. Trying to bring attention to the fragility and science of the oceans – crazy Atheist can’t think straight.

    Oskar Schindler saved a bunch of Jews from the Holocaust but his crazy Atheism means he didn’t think straight i guess.

    Paul Newman, crazy Atheist couldn’t think straight. Started a $400 Million charity for poor children called “Newman’s Own”. What a loser!

    Warren Buffett – now there is a crooked thinking Atheist! Can’t figure out how to stop making billions and giving his money to poor people in need, one of the biggest donors in world history.

    That religious stuff really makes people think clearly!

  • Jack

    James, I don’t agree with “forced integration,” either, if by that, you mean forcing people to mingle with each other in every area of life. I do agree with the civil rights laws which barred businesses from excluding people based on skin color.

  • James Carr

    I agree that forced integration was a necessity in the work/housing field, since society was truly discriminating as a whole. I do think the need for that has diminished over time, though, and those who use race as an excuse for everything is now too commonplace.

  • James Carr

    I said atheists should not enter into relgious discussions because their thinking is narrow-minded to only what they can see, and adamant that nothing else exists. Atheists are a minority for a reason. Their surly mockery of Faith is evidence of their pride and self important image of themselves. The majority obviously finds no value in their pompous “cause”.

  • James,

    Atheists wrote the Bible.
    They rejected all the thousands of other gods they ever heard about.

    They were not even confident about Yahweh or Jesus. That is why the compelled ‘faith’. They had no evidence for a god and they knew it.

  • FmrCath

    They’ll never achieve full integration because there’s too much history that neither side is willing or able to forget. Also, there’s just way too much politics standing in the way, too many opposing ideologies. Too much “blaming” going on on both sides. And, yes, other racial groups should be included…

    I just CAN’T see that much “change” ever happening… there’s too much underlying mistrust and even “hatred” for some. (I can’t think of another word)

  • OnlyVisitingThisPlanet

    I think Moore and SBC is responding to the growing preference of young Evangelicals for non-denominational churches that are generally more diverse. My local church was started by an SBC affiliated church and generally follows Baptist doctrine but is not part of SBC. It is a pretty diverse congregation. In our area, central Florida, we have and are experiencing significant population growth. Most of the new church starts are not part of an old line denomination.

  • Jack

    You might be right, but in one sense, what happens at SBC is a microcosm of what happens across America:

    Either we move fully toward true racial reconciliation or we really are toast as a country. And it can’t happen until truth in all of its aspects as well as love enters the picture and any discussions. Both sides need to take a good hard look at themselves and deal with reality.

    Whites in particular need to repent not just of the “easy” racism, ie Jim Crow and all the rest, but what George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” when it comes to black people. They need to repent of attitudes and ideas that presume black inferiority….the idea that black people can’t make it in life without the patronizing governmental hand of King or Queen White.

    It is no coincidence that some of the worst patronizing on this score comes from white southern liberals. They need to take a good hard look at themselves and their attitudes.

  • TenorSax

    And you can’t please the Negro – he only has complaints and demands.

  • TenorSax

    I didn’t know Atheism was a religion – I thought it was a conclusion.