Southern Baptists Diversifying to Survive

Rev. Eric Redmond is the first African-American pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church, which is part of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention. Video by Jacqui Salmon/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Seven years ago, the Rev. Eric Redmond never imagined himself leading a congregation in the overwhelmingly white Southern Baptist Convention.

Now, the young Temple Hills minister is the highest-ranking African American in the 16 million-member denomination and a representative of the changing times confronting Southern Baptists and other mostly white Protestant denominations.

Faced with a crisis of aging and departing members, the nation's largest non-Catholic Christian bodies -- Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- are reaching out to minorities in ways they never have before.

Yet, while local churches often remain predominately black or white, the outreach does result in a more diverse national organization.

By establishing churches in minority communities, changing worship practices, electing minorities to leadership positions and purging racism from their language and attitudes, the faiths are seeking to draw in communities of color as a way to boost stagnating or falling membership. The consequences of ignoring those communities, they warn, are dire.

"You can almost calculate the time when we close the door and turn off the lights if we don't become a more diverse church," said Sherman Hicks, executive director of multicultural ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 4.9 million-member denomination that is 97 percent white.

But of all the denominations seeking to diversify, many agree that the Southern Baptist Convention -- an association of about 40,000 congregations that make up the nation's largest Protestant denomination -- has the farthest to travel.

From its 1845 birth in Georgia as a haven for white Baptists who supported slavery, the SBC has had troubled relations with African Americans. For 150 years, by its own admission, it was hostile to black progress, often speaking in favor of Jim Crow laws.

But in 1995, the Southern Baptists did an about-face, issuing a public apology for their history of bigotry and vowing to "eradicate racism in all its forms" from its ranks.

These days, the faith that was once proudly white now touts the fact that almost 20 percent of its congregations are predominantly black, Latino or Asian. Hundreds of minorities serve in leadership posts in its state conventions, seminaries and other organizations.

The SBC Mission Board estimates that the number of black members has doubled to about 1 million since the 1995 apology.

Southern Baptists are starting churches in black communities and, while they insist they don't recruit from predominantly black denominations, the outreach strategy includes welcoming black preachers from those bodies and offering them multi-day "boot camps" -- intensive teaching in starting Southern Baptist churches.

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