By Travis Loller/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — More than the image of the Southern Baptist Convention is at stake when it holds its annual meeting this week to elect a new leader who could be its first African-American president.
The future of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination weighs in the minds of church leaders as they consider how to reverse declining membership by attracting more believers to its churches in a country that is more diverse than ever.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr., a former street preacher from New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward who founded Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, is currently unopposed for president of the SBC. While it’s possible that challengers could jump into the race when the annual meeting begins Tuesday, most observers think Luter will be elected.
It’s an important step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation.
“Many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the hoses in Birmingham,” said Ed Stetzer, president of the SBC’s Lifeway Research. “And I think that brings with it a memory that lasts a long time. I think Southern Baptists have the opportunity and the necessity to go further and be more intentional than anyone and everyone else.”
While the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is uniquely tied to race, it’s not alone in being a denomination defined by it. Almost all American churches serve one ethnic group. Even churches with a large number of immigrants often have separate English and non-English services.
Many Christian churches in the United States have been trying to diversify and some have made solid progress. In the SBC, 20 percent of its churches in 2010 were predominantly non-white, up from only 5 percent in 1990. But the denomination is still playing catch-up.
“The nation itself has become less white and the South especially has become dramatically changed, not simply because of the African-American, but because of the Latino presence,” said Bill Leonard, an expert in Baptist history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and a critic of the conservative resurgence of the SBC that began in 1979.
“If they’re going to remain in their view numerically viable, they have to expand their constituency, and they’ve almost waited too long for it,” Leonard said.
The 2010 Census counted 50.5 million Hispanics in the U.S., a growth of 43 percent from 2000. The Pew Research Center’s Hispanic project found that 17.1 million of those Hispanics were 17 or younger.
The Census also showed that Hispanic populations more than doubled in several states in the Southern Baptists’ historical territory: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina.
At the same time, statistics released last week by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources show membership in 2011 decreased by .98 percent to just under 16 million. That marks the fifth straight year of decline.
The number of churches increased slightly, but the total number of congregations dropped as the denomination lost several church-type missions. These are smaller congregations that are supported by larger churches.
The number of baptisms increased slightly last year — an important measure for a denomination with an expressed mission to win souls for Christ.
Lifeway Research’s Stetzer said he doesn’t find any comfort in the slight uptick in baptisms. He sees a long slide that can only be reversed with aggressive efforts to cut down internal disagreements, embrace new leaders from different backgrounds and plant new churches.
He said the symbolic gestures of the past won’t be enough, like the denomination’s vote in the 1990s to formally repent for racism.
“I think they thought racial diversity would happen … now they realize they have to make it happen,” he said.
At least two votes at this year’s convention are tied to diversifying the denomination. First is Luter’s likely election.
Luter’s supporters say that having someone whose background is so different from many past presidents, both because he is African-American and because he leads an inner-city church, will be good for the SBC. Not only does it show the outside world that the denomination has changed, it also helps within the denomination to have more diversity of perspective in the leadership.
Although SBC presidents have little real power, they have a bully pulpit and they have the power of appointment (in a roundabout way) to the boards that oversee the SBC’s seminaries, mission boards and other important entities. It was through the election of a series of conservative presidents beginning in the late 1970s that social and theological conservatives took over the denomination.
The other important vote will be to sanction the use of an alternative name, Great Commission Baptists.
Fearing the Southern Baptist name carried negative associations for many outsiders, current SBC President Bryant Wright formed a study committee last year to consider a change.
An online poll by Lifeway Research commissioned for that study found that of the 2,000 Americans surveyed, 44 percent of respondents said that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to visit or join the church.
While the committee deemed a full and official name change to be too difficult and expensive, they have suggested the alternative name as an option.
Supporters of the alternative name say it will give churches in areas that might be hostile to the “Southern Baptist” name a way to identify themselves that doesn’t carry baggage but still is officially recognized by the denomination.
But the compromise faces opposition, especially from some of the people who worked hard to build the SBC’s reputation for conservative theology and politics.
Wiley Drake, pastor the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., has said he is against the idea.
“Everyone wants to blame our woes on the name rather than admit we’re not doing a good job telling people about Jesus,” he said.