Franklin Avenue pastor elected to No. 2 post by Southern Baptists
1st July 2011 · 1 Comment
Members of the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American pastor to its No. 2 position for the first time on Tuesday, signifying an effort to diversify its leadership and flock at a time of declines in overall membership and church attendance.
Fred Luter Jr., the head pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected with 1,558 votes, or 77 percent. Some of his supporters had expected him to be unopposed, but he picked up a local Arizona challenger in Tuesday’s session. Rick Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, received 441 votes, or 23 percent, according to results from the Baptist Press.
The move to elect Luter comes at the same time the SBC is making a push for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its “non-Anglo” members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.
Luter’s church is one of an estimated 3,400 Black churches in America’s largest Protestant denomination, a small minority of more than 45,700 total SBC-affiliated churches with about 16 million members total.
In the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was an all-white Southern Baptist Church. In the late 1970’s there was a “white flight” in the neighborhood; whites moved out and Blacks moved in. The declining membership with their hearts still dedicated to missions gave the Franklin Avenue sanctuary and educational building to the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans so that it can be used for the people in the community. Since that time FABC has been a predominantly Black church.
In 1980 Franklin Avenue became a mission of Gentilly Baptist Church where Dr. Daniel O’Reagan was the pastor. From 1980 to the spring of 1986 Bill Weathers, John Henry Thomas, and Robert Loggins served as pastors of the Franklin Avenue Baptist mission.
Under the vision and stewardship of Senior Pastor Fred Luter, Jr., Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has grown from a membership of 65 members on roll to its current membership of 7,000-plus worshippers. Despite its phenomenal growth, Franklin Avenue has maintained a worship environment where everyone feels welcome, with Rev. Luter reminding worshippers that “it’s not about the pastor, it’s about the Master.”
Despite FABC’s prominence as the city and state’s largest Southern Baptist church, Rev. Luter is adamant that the congregation remember that Franklin Avenue is not in competition with other houses of worship. He does everything in his power to ensure that his congregation “continues to stay focused on what God has called us to do as a church.”
That calling, the website says, is embodied in the church mission statement: “To spiritually impact our families, neighborhoods, city and state by exalting the Savior, equipping the saints and evangelizing the sinners.”
When Pastor Luter attributes his success to God, he is not being modest. On the congregation’s website, Luter says that it truly has been grace that has brought him this far. Pastor Luter began his career as what he fondly refers to as a street preacher. Before he was called to the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church pastorate in 1986, he spent his time preaching on different street corners in the “Lower Nine” area where he grew up. Only having received his call to the ministry three years earlier, the members of FABC elected him pastor even though he had no pastoral experience.
“I know my background. I have not accomplished this on my own.” Pastor Luter says on the FABC website. “It was the grace and mercy of God, committed folk, and my wife Elizabeth.”
In addition to his duties as shepherd of FABC, Pastor Luter is a respected speaker/preacher across the country. The senior pastor made headlines as the first African American to be elected to the Executive Board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention in 1992. He made headlines again in June 2001 when he was the first African American to preach the Southern Baptist Convention Message. In the Summer 2002 issue of Growing Churches magazine, Pastor Luter recounts how it was both exciting and nerve-wracking to “preach to preachers, seminary professors and former presidents of the Convention” and to be in the company of Southern Baptist dignitaries Jerry Vines, Dr. Adrian Rogers, and Dr. Paige Patterson among others.
Some of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church’s milestones with Rev. Luter at the helm are as follows:
• In 1988 Franklin Avenue became an autonomous church.
• In 1989 a second Sunday morning service was started.
• In 1993 a third Sunday morning service was added
• In March 1997 the congregation moves into its new 2,000-seat sanctuary.
• In 2002 the congregation starts a satellite church in New Orleans East.
• In 2003 Franklin Avenue builds a Family Life Center next to the sanctuary.
• In 2005 the congregation grows to over 7,000 members.
• In June 2005 the church purchases 90 acres of land in New Orleans East.
After the New Orleans levee breaks inundated FABC with nine feet of floodwater in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Franklin Avenue began having worship services in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston in January of 2006. Pastor Luter, while living in Birmingham, traveled to these three cities as well as across the United States to minister to our displaced members.
In April 2008 the members of Franklin Avenue moved back into our renovated sanctuary with two worship services attended by over 4,000 members and guests. Franklin Avenue Baptist Church is now one church in three cities with Pastor Sam Young leading the Houston congregation and Pastor Titus White leading the Baton Rouge congregation. Because of all of Franklin Avenue’s displaced members, its New Orleans worship services could be seen live over the internet every Sunday morning.
His election to the No. 2 post in the Southern Baptist Convention also sets up the potential for his election to the top position of president when the denomination holds its annual meeting next year in Luter’s hometown of New Orleans.
It’s a big step for a denomination whose history is rooted in a split over race. The denomination originally formed in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The SBC was silent or actively opposed civil rights through the 1970s, and many congregations excluded Blacks. It was not until 1989 that convention declared racism a sin.
In 1994, the convention elected its first African American to an executive position when the Rev. Gary Frost was named second vice president. In 1995, the denomination issued an apology to Blacks for slavery. That same year, Luter was elected to succeed Frost as second vice president.
Luter said it doesn’t make him uncomfortable that people want to see this as a milestone for African Americans.
“There’s no way we can get around it. Here’s a convention that started on slavery. Years later you have an African American one step away from the presidency. I can’t deny that,” Luter said.
Luter said presidential aspirations were far from his mind.
“Give me time to enjoy this first. I’m not even thinking that far ahead,” Luter told The Associated Press. “I want to enjoy the vice presidency, enjoy the moment.”
With regard to diversity, Luter said his election is a step in the right direction. “The door is open now,” Luter told The Root.com last week.
“In the past, the convention has talked about diversity, but they are walking it now,” he said. “The door is open not just for African Americans but for other ethnicities as well.”
Not everyone was as upbeat about changes in the SBC.
The Rev. Dwight Mckissic, pastor of the Black, SBC-affiliated Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said before last week’s historic election he was excited about Luter’s likely election, but called it a “baby step,” noting that the first vice president serves for one year and has little real power.
McKissic said he visited the SBC headquarters in Nashville in 2007 and found the highest-ranking African American there was a custodian. The real positions of power, he said, are the high-level staff positions.
“When we get a Hispanic, African American or Asian as head of one of the entities, like the North American Mission Board or one of the seminaries, then I’ll know we really have come into the 21st century,” he said.
Dr. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, a Shaw University professor of theology and an editorial-board member for the Journal of Race Ethnicity and Religion, said last week that Rev. Luter’s term as an SBC vice president will not be without challenges.
“I hope it’s not just a setup [by the SBC],” Kirk-Duggan told The Root.com, noting Southern Baptists’ past record on race. “I hope he is really supported and that he will have the support and the authority to bring change and inclusion.
“God made humanity in his own image. That means we are all equal,” she added. “There are no subordinates.”
“About 30 years ago we were virtually all white — by intention, sadly, but true,” Richard Land, head of the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, told The New York Times last week. In a landmark resolution in 1995, the Convention issued a public apology for its past racism and opposition to civil rights laws.
The Rev. Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., called Luter a “much-loved, much-respected pastor” who “can be elected on his own merits regardless of skin color.”
The move to elect Luter coincided with a push by the SBC for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its “non-Anglo” members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.
Rev. Akin said his nomination of Luter was not related to a resolution on diversity scheduled to be presented at this year’s annual meeting but “just coalesced beautifully.”
“I’m a white boy from the South, but I’d love to see the convention of churches become more diverse in terms of ethnicity and race,” he told The Associated Press. “I long to see the church on earth look like the church in heaven, around the throne.”
“It helps reflect what people desire to see more of in our convention,” the Rev. Robert Anderson, a pastor and member of the SBC executive committee, told Huffington Post.
SBC President Bryant Wright noted after Luter was elected that the denomination was founded for two reasons — “one was bad, one was great” — the defense of slavery and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“It took us 150 years to come to our senses … and seek the forgiveness of God and to apologize with our African-American friends and to ask their forgiveness for the strain of racism all through our history,” he told USA Today. “But there’s a noble reason for which we were founded, and that is for the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Statistics on the number of ethnic churches have not yet been released, but Roger S. Oldham, SBC vice president for convention communications and relations, said they have been growing.
Ethnic congregations made up about 13 percent of SBC churches in 1998. That had increased to 18 percent by 2008, with African-American and Hispanic congregations each making up about six percent of SBC churches, Asian churches at about three percent and other ethnic churches making up another three percent.
This year’s meeting comes following the release of internal figures showing SBC affiliates baptized fewer people in 2010 than any time since the 1950s and also saw declines in overall membership and attendance.
David W. Key Sr., the director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said the decline reflects the fact that the membership of many Southern Baptist churches is aging.
“Over the next few years membership is going to drop even more dramatically,” he told The Associated Press. “And older members are the financial foundation of the churches. As they die off that trend is going to have a big impact.”
It’s a trend many mainline protestant churches began seeing a couple of decades earlier, in part because of the declining religiosity of Americans in general. The Southern Baptists have been somewhat insulated from the trend, he said, because of their heavy concentration in the South, where religious participation has declined more slowly than in other parts of the country.
“They want to start planting churches, which is a smart move,” said Key, who is a Southern Baptist. “How that strategy unfolds is going to be the kicker.”
He said the SBC has been very effective at creating ethnic churches. “But they’ve not created a strategy for how to shift predominantly Anglo churches into multicultural churches.”
According to statistics released recently from Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Nashville, Tennessee-based SBC, baptisms declined by nearly five percent in 2010 over 2009, with churches reporting 332,321 baptisms last year.
Many Southern Baptists consider that an important indicator of the denomination’s health because evangelism is a defining characteristic of their identity.
Key said a more telling number is probably how many people actually attend SBC churches on Sunday. The SBC puts that figure at 6,195,449 for 2010, a 0.19 percent drop over the previous year.
This article originally published in the June 20, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.