This past Sunday I had the pleasure of taking part in a Solemn Assembly hosted by a local Baptist Association. The gathering was special for many reasons, but the diversity of the participants and the audience was encouraging. On the platform were White, Black, Hispanic and Asian church leaders each sharing scripture and calling the church to confession, repentance and commitment. Worship was led by a diverse praise team and the gathering was hosted by an African-American congregation. It was a foretaste of what heaven will be like when every tribe, tongue and nation stands before God in total praise. The uniqueness of the assembly was not only in the diversity of the participants, but most encouraging was the fact that the majority were members of SBC Churches.
Without question, the Southern Baptist Convention is turning a corner in the area of diversity. We have repented of our past failures, embraced church planting among various ethnic groups and races, passed resolutions in which we took hard stances against racism and even elected our first African-American president in 2012. According to Frank Page, CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, one in five SBC congregations are non-white. There are now over 3,000 black churches and 2,000 Hispanic churches in the SBC. There has never been a time in the history of our convention where we have been such a colorful bunch. This was evident at the SBC in Phoenix. Not only did I notice a growing diversity within the elected messengers, but also in the nominated officers of the convention. I celebrate and applaud the efforts of NAMB and our state conventions. Both have increased the diversity of the denomination through intentional efforts of outreach and ministry.
This past week James Emery White shared the most recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute. His conclusion from the study is simply, “The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation.” (Church & Culture Blog, Volume 13 No. 72). The results of this study reveals the continued need for local SBC churches to ask the tough questions regarding their outreach to minorities, ethnic groups and younger generations in general.
White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/aging-white-christian-america/)
According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of SBC congregants are white, 6% black, 3% Latino, with the rest spread out among several groups. Think about the realities expressed in these two studies, 85% of SBC members are white, while only 30% of Americans identify as white and protestant. Also the study reveals that 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian. America is quickly becoming more diverse and less Christian. Many Southern Baptists will see these numbers as troubling, but I suggest we see them as a great missional opportunity. The great question for many SBC churches is simply, will the majority of outreach efforts be focused primarily on 30% of the population? Most of the “additions” listed on annual church profiles include people within the 30% demographic. An even greater question is how will the church adjust outreach efforts to reflect the increasing diversity of America. James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church says, “Not only does it mean that fewer “whites” identify as Christian – which is to be expected with the rise of the “nones” – but also that white Christians as a whole have become a minority group in American culture. The future of the American church lies not only in regaining its evangelistic edge, but in embracing diversity. In fact, apart from embracing diversity, there can be no evangelistic edge.” (churchandculture.org) It has been my experience that most declining churches have membership demographic that does not accurately reflect community demographic. While many of these churches recognize the need to reach out to those of other races and ethnicity, the truth is they have no strategy to do it or simply lack the desire. There are several historically strong SBC churches that find themselves in rapidly changing communities. Membership decline takes place because outreach efforts are not adjusted to reach the new demographic. Some of these church leaders have admitted to me that, “they don’t know how” to reach minorities. I believe that many of these Pastors see the need and even develop helpful strategies, but receive push back when they share the necessary changes needed to reach the population. Thus the reality is that several of these churches are facing an uncertain future. Here are some questions for these churches to consider as they face the realities of a changing demographic:
- Does your missional view include the Biblical reality that God loves ALL people and wants ALL to come to repentance? (James 2:1-8, Acts 10:34, John 13:34). The Great Commission to the church clearly includes “make disciples of ALL nations” (Matt 28:19), which I am pretty sure includes many within the 70% of population your church isn’t currently reaching.
- Are you willing to make cathartic changes to be more intentional in outreach to minorities in your community? Will you do whatever it takes to see souls saved regardless of race or ethnicity? This may include ESL classes, diversifying staff, or after school tutoring for disadvantages minorities in your community. It is interesting to study to the book of Acts and see the progression of the Gospel from the Jews to the utter most parts of the earth. Acts reveals the fierce love of God to all tribes, tongues and nations. In it we see Phillip preaching to the Samaritans in chapter 8, Peter at the home of Cornelius in chapter 10, the diversity of the church at Antioch in chapter 11, and Paul, Barnabas and Silas among the Gentiles throughout the remainder of the book. The book of Acts reveals a strong message, souls do not have a color or ethnicity. When the blood of redemption covers a soul, regardless of the skin color, all become crimson stained and righteous.
- Will your welcome be more than words? Simply handing a person a bulletin with a smile may not be enough. The heart of your churches mission must not be simply words on a bulletin or church sign. The heart of the mission must be extended through the hands and feet of the congregation to the community. Engaging them where they are, as they are, rather than what we wish them to be. This will involve many SBC church members coming to grips with deep seeded wrongful views.
If the SBC is going to turn the trends upward with more baptisms, more members and growing ministries, it must come to grips with the new reality. America is changing quickly and diversity is rapidly coming to communities all over the nation. Churches can be troubled and threatened by this trend or embrace it as central to our mission. The Southern Baptist Convention will not change shrinking statistical trends unless many congregations embrace the exciting opportunities for outreach that a diverse population provides. That Solemn Assembly I attended was encouraging and inspiring. May it be said that my denomination embraces a missional approach that secures a bright and exciting future filled with many more of these assemblies.