But the Rev. Kenneth Clay isn’t shy about letting church members know to which denomination his Essex Drive church belongs.
“I understand the name Southern Baptist can be a roadblock for some people, especially for African Americans,” said Clay, pastor of New Creation, one of just a few predominantly black Southern Baptist churches in Augusta. “It’s a great organization. I’m proud to be a part of it, but a lot of African-American people are surprised.”
This week, many members of his denomination anticipate the historic election of the first black president in the 167-year history of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Fred Luter, a Louisiana pastor, is running unopposed as Baptists gather for an annual meeting in New Orleans, Luter’s hometown, this week.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be a major step toward tearing down the racial barriers that still exist here in Augusta,” Clay said.
He says it’s good news for a denomination born out of racial divides that predate the Civil War. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, was founded in Augusta in 1845 when Baptists in the South split from their Northern counterparts over the issue of slavery.
A LifeWay Research poll in May found that more than six in 10 Southern Baptist pastors agreed that it would be good for the convention to have a black president. One in 10 disagreed.
The Rev. Brad Whitt of Abilene Baptist Church said he looks forward to casting his vote for Luter.
“I believe that his election as president will be an undeniable statement of the heart and hope of the SBC,” said Whitt, who was named co-pastor of Abilene in May as the church’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Bill Harrell, prepares to retire.
“As Southern Baptists, we exist to take the good news of the Gospel of Jesus to every person on the planet,” he said. “Dr. Luter has evidenced his commitment to the Gospel and love for people through his ministry in New Orleans, both before and in the wake of hurricane Katrina.”
Luter is the senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, a church he’s credited with growing from 65 members in 1986 to more than 7,000 by 2005.
The makeup of the Southern Baptist Convention has changed significantly over the past few decades, according to LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer.
“In the last 20 years, the percentage of non-Anglo SBC churches has grown from 5 percent to 20 percent, and now 7 percent of Southern Baptist churches are identified as primarily African-American,” Stetzer said. “But, we are still a predominantly Anglo denomination, so it is particularly encouraging to see the openness and enthusiasm for an African-American SBC president.”
Five percent – or 180 of Georgia’s 3,595 Southern Baptist churches – are black, according to Eddy Oliver, the director of communication services for the Georgia Baptist Convention.
“We have a total of 463 non-Anglo congregations in Georgia, and that number is growing each year,” Oliver said.
The South Carolina Baptist Convention doesn’t track those figures, a spokesman said.
The Aiken Baptist Association doesn’t have any predominantly black churches among the 73 it counts as members, said Director of Missions Jim Diehl.
“Honestly, I don’t know what sort of impact Luter’s election might have on the local church,” Diehl said. “The average church member couldn’t tell you who Fred Luter is. But it is a big deal to their pastors.”
The Southern Baptist Convention has made a concerted effort to reach out to black churches over the past few years, said Don Wheless, the outgoing director of missions at the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches. In his 14-year tenure, four black churches entered the association. Previously, there weren’t any.
“The election of Fred Luter would continue that effort,” he said. “However, I don’t know that it would affect black churches in this area one way or the other.”
Clay hopes it will.
“A lot of the African-American churches here in Augusta are unsettled by the Southern Baptist Convention. There’s a distrust, I think, but it comes from a lack of knowledge or a lack of understanding,” said Clay, one of several local pastors who met Luter when he appeared at a state evangelism conference at Abilene Baptist in 2004. “Hopefully, with Pastor Luter, that can change.”