Leaders of the nation's largest Protestant denomination are preaching that integrated churches can be a key driver of racial justice in society. But that could be a hard sell to those sitting in Southern Baptist Convention congregations.
The Rev. Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is one of several white leaders calling for multiethnic congregations in the wake of the unrest spurred by the killings of black men by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
"In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters," Moore wrote recently. "We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts. ... When we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to stand up and speak up for one another."
The effort has taken on particular urgency for Moore and other Southern Baptist leaders who have been working to overcome the denomination's history. The convention was formed in 1845 in a split with other Baptists when Southern Baptists resolved to continue allowing slave owners to become missionaries.
During the civil rights movement, Southern Baptists were largely silent or actively opposed ending segregation. The denomination eventually declared racism a sin, and in 2011 renewed efforts to reach out to Latinos, African-Americans and others. The next year, the denomination elected its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter, Jr.
Moore's commission has also organized a leadership summit called "The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation" to be held this spring.
Moore said he has two goals for the summit. He wants to spur churches to work for racial reconciliation by articulating it as a Gospel demand. And he wants to facilitate personal relationships between Southern Baptists of different races.
But some would also like to see concrete efforts to integrate the Southern Baptist Convention, especially at the level of leadership.
"The church lacks the moral authority to address the world about race before we set our own house in order," said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, a black Southern Baptist pastor in Arlington, Texas.
While he praised recent statements by SBC leaders, he also noted that the denomination continues to employ all whites as top executives and seminary presidents.
"It's obvious the rhetoric and reality is not matching," he said.
Nonwhite congregations made up 20 percent of the Southern Baptist Convention's nearly 51,000 congregations in 2012, the most recent year statistics are available from the denomination. But less than 1 percent of those congregations are multiethnic. The vast majority of Southern Baptists attend a church predominantly filled by people of their own race, be it black, white or Hispanic. The situation is nearly identical in most Christian denominations in the United States.
Despite that lack of integration, a phone survey of about 1,000 churchgoers by Lifeway Research recently found that only 37 percent of evangelicals thought their churches needed to become more ethnically diverse. The survey was not broken down by denomination.
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said the convention adopted a resolution in 1995 recognizing and apologizing for its historic role in supporting slavery and Jim Crow policies. If the denomination had also set out to address the inequalities those policies had wrought, it could have done a lot over the past two decades, he said.
Moore said he agrees that things are changing too slowly within the SBC, but he sees signs of hope. He points to the work of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin, who has made recruiting and educating a racially diverse group of future pastors a key goal.
Akin said he doesn't think the patterns and structures built up at the SBC over more than a century can be changed without an active and intentional effort.
"My grief is we're late to this party," he said. "We should have been leading the way. The Christian church should be the first to speak to issues of discrimination and injustice ... not sitting back."
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