Diversity for the USA’s Biggest Protestant Group?

The election of a black vice president to the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention could be a sign of change. Or not. Here's what he told us.

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. (Franklin Avenue Baptist Church)
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. (Franklin Avenue Baptist Church)

Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Upper 8th Ward has about 4,000 members — most of them black, and all Southern Baptist.

As the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention has 16 million members, but what it doesn’t have is a lot of diversity. Only 45,000 of its members are African American, according to denomination reports. And other minorities account for a small percentage of its membership.

But the election Tuesday of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., Franklin Avenue Baptist Church’s black pastor, as vice president of the mostly white SBC could signal a change for the 166-year-old conservative religious organization. The election also places him in line for election as president in 2012.

In the pulpit, Luter delivers sermons with animation and energy. When the sermons are over, he greets the congregation with a huge smile and open arms. Through the week, he’s visible in the community, still working to rebuild a city recovering from the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Just as change has come to other American institutions, it’s coming now to a religious denomination not previously known for inclusion.

“The door is open now,” Luter said, speaking with The Root in an interview between sessions at the SBC’s annual meeting in Phoenix.

“In the past, the convention has talked about diversity, but they are walking it now,” he said. “The door is open not just for African Americans but for other ethnicities as well.”

The convention approved a plan for the SBC to be more inclusive of all ethnic minorities and to make certain that they are included in leadership appointments and pictured in resources. While the denomination leaders say that they don’t want to have quotas, they will be including a breakdown of minority representation in the annual membership census.

Falling membership within the SBC means that the denomination needs all the new recruits it can find. According to the SBC’s publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resource, in 2010 membership was 0.15 percent lower than it was 2009, in the fourth straight year of decline.

Luter, a native of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, has been pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church since 1986. Before that assignment, he was mostly a street-corner preacher.