Updated Wednesday, June 15 with presidential election results – The Southern Baptist Convention has selected Steve Gaines, a Memphis pastor, as its next president.
Church representatives, or messengers, voted twice Tuesday after a close count caused a runoff election. By the next morning, North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear dropped out of the race to keep the convention "united." The announcement came the day after the convention representing the country's largest Evangelical Christian denomination notably called on its members to "discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag."
The vote Tuesday by the Southern Baptist Convention was part of an ongoing discussion on racial unity that dominated the first day of the group's annual meeting at the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis.
Socially conservative and predominantly white, the Southern Baptist denomination is represented by a network of some 46,000 Southern Baptist churches across the country, with more than 15 million followers. At least 10,000 people are expected to attend the two-day meeting.
Thousands of church representatives, known as messengers, were eligible to vote on a variety of resolutions before the convention Tuesday. The adopted resolution acknowledges that, for some, the flag is a memorial to loved ones who died in the Civil War, not a "symbol of hatred, bigotry and racism." But it also said removing the flag is a sign of "solidarity" with the growing numbers of African Americans within the denomination.
It also said, per the Baptist Press' blog:
"We recognize that, while the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public display is not going to solve the most severe racial tensions that plague our nation and our churches, those professing Christ are called to extend grace and put the consciences of others ahead of their own interests and actions."
"The sin of racism is one of the biggest strongholds in American life and we must tear it down spiritually and practically to go forward as a nation together,” said outgoing convention president Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas, during a press conference Monday. He said there is a "racial crisis" in the country that churches must help address.
That theme took on added significance not just for the proximity of the meeting to Ferguson, where unrest over racial issues became what Floyd called a national “turning point,” but also due to the convention’s own history.
In 1845, the Southern Baptists split from northern counterparts over the denomination’s support of slavery. The predominantly white convention formally renounced this position and apologized for the stance in 1995. It elected its first black convention president, Rev. Fred Luter in 2012.
“It is with deep regret that I can do nothing about this stained past against our African American brothers and sisters. But with all I am and with all I can I join you in creating a future together that binds up the nation’s wounds and always marches ahead knowing that we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters,” Floyd said Tuesday.
He noted “racism is completely opposite of the message of Christ,” and also introduced — to a standing ovation — a descendent of Dred and Harriet Scott, Lynne Jackson. Jackson runs the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation in St. Louis.
Bridging the gap between white, black Baptists
The first day of the meeting also marked what Floyd called “one of the most historic mornings in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention” with an address by Dr. Jerry Young, the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the largest historically black Christian church. It marked the first time the head of the black Baptists spoke at the predominantly white Southern Baptists’ annual meeting in several decades.
Young participated in the convention’s “National Conversation on Racial Unity in America” panel discussion Tuesday, featuring 10 other pastors of different racial backgrounds. Young spoke about the racism he saw first-hand growing up in Mississippi and urged churches to change people’s attitudes through faith.
“I know what it means to be dehumanized and exploited. I know what it means to literally be told you are not worth it,” he said. “And I would argue those who would like to suggest that racism is not indeed a problem for the church but rather it is a sociological problem, I would argue it is without question a sin problem.”
Bridging the “big gap” among the nation’s largest Evangelical and black Baptist churches would be “awesome” for Gregory Collins of Alton. He said he’s seen it first-hand, when a church member was “irritated” by his plans to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“They told me, ‘You be careful, because they say they apologize (for slavery), but they are still committing these acts,’” he said. “This idea of racial unity being explained within the Southern Baptist Convention is key to building the bridge and uniting the black church with the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m grateful for that.”
Pastor Danny Holliday of Victory Baptist Church in Alton, who attended the convention, said he feels many black churches and leaders “have issues with the southern Baptists without giving them a fair hearing.”
“People I have been around are people who love God, just like any other black church. We ought to be able to come together,” he said. “Living just a few minutes from Ferguson, this racial talk and animosity and things should not be in the church. I have not found anything but fairness since I’ve been a part of the Southern Baptist Church."
Race, Southern Baptists and St. Louis
Two of the racial unity panelists touched on the racial divides the St. Louis area has seen. Kenny Petty, senior pastor of The Gate Church in St. Louis, called racism an “infection,” and that while the city and Ferguson have seen some racial healing, “there is a long way to go.”
“What we found out after the incident and what transpired, was that the infection didn’t just stop at the doorstep of the culture,” he said. “That infection was also in the church and needed to be exposed, and that’s a good thing so we can have discussions like this.”
Pastor Joe Costephens told the story of how a small church he had started, or “planted,” on the Ferguson-Florissant border joined with First Baptist Church in Ferguson, which had seen declining membership, to respond to unrest in that community. He said the goal was to re-form and become “a force back out in the community.”
“What drove it was God’s heart for all nations,” he told attendees Tuesday. “It wasn’t centered on ethnicity, but that north county needs the gospel.”
Costephens said in a phone interview that the Bible requires churches to serve “every tribe, tongue and nation.” Yet after living through the “white flight” in north St. Louis County, Costephens said churches there no longer represent the communities that lived there. By combining his new church with First Baptist, he wanted to bring people together and rid the “idea of the church being one of the most divided places on a Sunday morning.”
While Costephens hopes his new church will serve as an inspiration for others, racial diversity has long been an issue among Southern Baptist churches. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, the denomination is 85 percent white, 6 percent black, 3 percent Latino and less than 1 percent Asian.
“Like a lot of churches I observe, Southern Baptist churches do not do a good job at changing to reflect and look like their communities,” said Jim Breeden, executive director of the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association, which represents 140 Southern Baptist churches in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County.
“When I was a kid in St. Louis, my parents and many other parents did the whole ‘white flight’ thing, left downtown, built houses out in the county,” he said. “My prayer is that we can learn how to live together and not segregate. That affects our churches practically, to how they relate to their neighbors, how they relate to the demographic and neighborhoods of north county and the city.”
A changing church
Breeden said he has seen progress. Among his association, 35 are predominantly black and 15 focus on ethnic and language groups.
Nationwide, Southern Baptists have seen a decline in attendance, but the number of new churches, particularly those led by people of color, is growing. According to Floyd, at least 10,700 of the convention’s 51,000 churches and mission churches are “non-Anglo.” He said 58 percent of the 1,000 new churches in North America were non-white.
Floyd emphasized the need for the church to diversify.
“By 2043, there will be no majority in America, so we better understand how to get along,” he said. “We better understand… that we’ve all been created in the image of God. We have value. For me, it’s a human dignity issue.”
That’s an exciting development for Collins, the seminary student.
“It gives me hope because the ignorance is appearing to die out,” he said. “To hear that that there are more churches that are non-Anglo Saxon that are looking to work with the Southern Baptist Convention, that gives me great hope.”
Defending religious liberty
Floyd on Tuesday memorialized the victims of the Charleston church shooting a year ago and decried the recent violence in Orlando, saying, “since all human beings are made in the image of God, an attack against gay Americans is an attack on each of us.” In the same speech, he also criticized a loss of religious liberty, “rainbow colors” on the White House, laws allowing gay marriage, and government “overreach” on which bathrooms transgender students can use.
Messengers had also made several motions to be considered, but were not voted on. Those included a move that would “deem churches that ‘affirm, approve or endorse racial discrimination’ not in friendly cooperation with the convention," as well as a policy removing all convention officials or officers from office “who support Muslims’ right to build mosques” in the U.S.
The convention also planned to hold a “national call to prayer for spiritual leadership, revived churches and nationwide and global awakening" Tuesday evening.
Follow Stephanie Lecci on Twitter: @stephlecci