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FIRST-PERSON: Inclusiveness in the SBC

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–When Norris Fulfer cast the tie-breaking vote — after death threats — to admit predominantly African American Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif., into the Redwood Empire Southern Baptist Association, the courageous moderator had no idea he was unlocking a major door of progress for Southern Baptists. Since Washington Boyce led that church into the Southern Baptist Convention in 1951, the number of Black churches in the Convention has grown to approximately 4,000. When the annals of Southern Baptist history are completed, a significant chapter will be the story of the proliferation of African American churches in America’s largest non-Catholic denomination during the second half of the 20th century.


Why the proliferation of Black Southern Baptist churches? Seven realities have contributed to this dynamic increase.

First, during the last 50 years the image of Southern Baptists has changed in the Black community. As a result of its surprising record of inclusiveness, the Southern Baptist Convention is now viewed as a viable denominational option for many African American pastors. Therefore, they lead their church to apply for membership in an association.

Second, the changing mores in society due to the impact of the civil rights movement have contributed a different mindset on the concept of integration. During the past half-century, there has been a value shift toward inclusiveness relative to denominational membership. Consequently, many Black churches desire to participate in an inclusive denomination like the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention.

Third, a desire to participate in the benefits of Southern Baptist membership has motivated many pastors to lead their congregations to apply. It is widely believed in the Black community that benefits offered by Southern Baptists are unsurpassed by other denominational options. So, to many pastors it makes sense to take advantage of benefits available to Southern Baptist churches.

Fourth, the practicality of dual affiliation enables many African American churches to enjoy “the best of two worlds.” Without abandoning their traditional Black Baptist roots, they can take advantage of the programs and resources offered by the Southern Baptist Convention. Affiliation with their traditional Black Baptist convention is often viewed as providing fellowship; affiliation with the SBC is often viewed as providing help.

Fifth, there has been a generational shift in leadership in the SBC which has resulted in a greater openness to the inclusion of minorities in all areas of denominational life. The greening of the denomination has resulted in a maturational growth factor not present to the same extent with earlier generations of leaders. Today’s generation of Southern Baptist leaders seem to be more comfortable in the race relations arena, reflected by their openness to more minorities in mainstream leadership positions. The new openness unwittingly encourages African American pastors to consider membership in the SBC.

Sixth, the positive testimonies of African American pastors relative to their experiences in the SBC have contributed to a “satisfied customer effect” which makes membership in the convention attractive. When compared with experiences in other conventions, Black pastors considering applying for SBC membership are encouraged to join by their peers who share their positive testimony about the African American Southern Baptist experience.

Seventh, the impact of the Southern Baptist church planting movement in the Black community has accelerated the increase in predominantly African American churches. Since 1989, Southern Baptists intentionally have been starting churches in African American communities. These new churches are often singly aligned and tend to reflect a Southern Baptist programmatic approach. Combined with the Black churches who joined the SBC and also maintained a National Baptist affiliation, the Southern Baptist new starts have jump-started the proliferation of congregational expansion in the African American community.


An amazing reality is the positive trend relative to the inclusion of African Americans in leadership positions among Southern Baptists. A cursory survey of recent Southern Baptist history reveals a willingness to assimilate Blacks into leadership.

The record reveals that an increasing number of Southern Baptist associations are ready for African American leadership in top positions. This is reflected by the fact that many associations have elected a Black to serve as moderator. Also, the fact that the Crescent Bay-West Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association and the Central Baptist Association in Albuquerque, East Bay Baptist Association in Oakland, Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association and the Prince George’s County Baptist Association elected Lyman Alexander (who has served in two of these associations), Reggie Thomas, Mark Thomas and Reynold Carr to serve as directors of missions reflects a readiness for African American acceptance in top leadership by some associations.

The record of Southern Baptist state conventions relative to the inclusion of African Americans in leadership is impressive. This has been most evident in the election of African American presidents. Ten state conventions have elected 17 Blacks to the office of president. They are: Herb Cotton, Bill Lyons, Leon May, Alaska; Donald Sharp, Eugene Gibson, Illinois; Rochelle Davis, Robert Coverson, Michigan; Sam Simpson, New York; Gary Frost, Ohio; Bill Johnson, Henry Nash, Pennsylvania/South Jersey; James Dixon, Maryland/Delaware; Elroy Barber, Florida; Willie Gaines, Horacio Jones, California; Everard Hughes, Ismael Shaw, Mattie Robinson, Clarence Barrens, District of Columbia. Three states have elected an African American president of their state pastor’s conference: James Coffee, California; Eugene Gibson, Willie Jordan, Illinois; Rochelle Davis, Michigan. Not only have states elected African American presidents but two state conventions have employed a person of color to serve as executive director: Fermin Whittaker, California; Jeffrey Haggray, District of Columbia. The phenomenal move of state conventions in including African Americans in top leadership is a gigantic step of progress.

The record of some Southern Baptist entities reflects a new openness to inclusion of African Americans in leadership. The employing of Franklin (Jerry) Burkett as vice president of global information systems by the International Mission Board and Gary Frost as vice president of strategic partnerships by the North American Mission Board made history. So did the employing of Lawrence Smith as vice president of communications by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The reality of the African American vice presidents reflects the arrival of a new day of opportunity for Black professional leadership in the SBC.

The record of the Southern Baptist Convention relative to electing African Americans as vice president of the convention is revealing. Four Blacks have been elected vice president: Charles King, Kentucky; Gary Frost, Ohio (twice); Fred Luter, Louisiana; E.W. McCall, California. The election of these men to the office of vice president of the SBC has stimulated discussion about the possibility of the election of the first African American president of the convention in the near future.


Southern Baptists have made tremendous strides in proliferating churches among African Americans during the last half-century. This is most evident by the significant increase in the number of Black Southern Baptist congregations in America today. The increase from two churches in 1951 to about 4,000 currently is an amazing phenomenon in church history. It is obvious that a new movement has begun.

How have Southern Baptists managed to penetrate the African American community? Two trends have been operative.

The first trend is the dual affiliation movement. This was characterized by a National Baptist pastor leading his established church to join a Southern Baptist association while retaining membership in his National Baptist convention. Becoming dually aligned allowed the church to benefit from both conventions. It also placed the African American community on the agenda of Southern Baptists as many associations responded to the needs of Black churches. Informal comity agreements were no longer needed with Black Baptist denominations because Southern Baptists were in the Black community through their own predominantly African American churches.

While this trend was often the result of benign attraction and not Southern Baptist intentionality, it did enable the denomination to enter the African American community.

A second trend that has enabled Southern Baptists to begin penetrating the African American community is the denomination’s church planting movement. In 1989, the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) accelerated its emphasis on church starting in the African American community. Intentionality characterized the church starting efforts of the denomination. Southern Baptist churches, associations and state conventions were challenged to include the Black community in their church starting efforts. African American church starting strategists were employed to promote and implement planting churches in predominantly Black communities. Since that year, it is estimated that more than 2,000 churches have been started in African American communities in America.


If Southern Baptists are to be faithful stewards of the opportunity to reach the African American communities, seven challenges must receive adequate response. Yesteryear’s mindsets, motives and methods will not suffice. The denomination must cross the threshold with an effective strategy for the 21st century.

The first challenge for Southern Baptists is inclusive planning relative to the African American community. Reaching the Black community effectively must be governed by intentionality manifested in a plan. Penetrating this people group with the gospel must become a priority for Southern Baptist entities. Benign neglect must be replaced by a determined commitment to include Blacks as targets of ministry. Apathy must be replaced by zeal to reach people of color as well as other people groups. Southern Baptist churches, associations, state conventions and entities are challenged to ask: What plans do we have to reach African Americans effectively? To not have a plan can easily lead to the slippery slope of not planning to reach.

A second challenge for Southern Baptists relative to reaching the African American community is inclusive organizing. If the denomination is to be effective in reaching Blacks it must be organized for effective reaching. The question of what kind of organizational structure is needed must be answered. Churches may need to employ professional staff to lead the congregation’s strategy to reach the African American community. Associations may need to employ African American ministry specialists to provide leadership for the association’s strategy to reach Blacks effectively. State conventions may need to have African American program entities to provide leadership for reaching people of color effectively. SBC entities may need to have program components which specialize in reaching African Americans. All of this needs to be accomplished while attracting African Americans into total involvement in every area of denominational life. If Southern Baptists are not sufficiently organized to reach the African American people group effectively, minimalism will result and the denomination will operate at a small percentage of its potential.

A third challenge for the denomination in its quest to reach African Americans effectively is inclusive staffing. The effective denomination today understands that God does not discriminate in the allocation of gifts, talents and abilities based on race. The nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination needs to be open to the possibility of persons from any racial/ethnic group being called and equipped by God to serve in any position in churches, associations and the convention. Monoracial staffing policies are dinosaurs when trying to reach people groups in multiracial society. At a particular time in history, the denomination may be blessed by having a gifted minority person in leadership. Denominational entities make a mistake if they unwittingly adopt the core value of monoracial leadership. The challenge is to be Christian in the personnel selection process.

A fourth challenge for Southern Baptists endeavoring to reach African Americans effectively is inclusive budgeting. Financial resources must be allocated to reach the African American community. Funding should be adequate lest the denomination be guilty of the token too-little-too-late syndrome. Allocations should be targeted for African American work to minimize the possibility of programmatic dilution as other line items compete for funding in a zero-based budgeting contest. Since priorities are usually reflected by budget allocations, the denominational entity should reflect its commitment to reach African Americans in the budget. To fail to do so may inadvertently send the negative signals of tokenism, minimalism and optionality. The truism says: Commitment is shown by the budget.

A fifth challenge for Southern Baptists committed to reaching African Americans effectively is inclusive research. A dearth of research exists on the Black community. Nowhere is this more evident than with African American Southern Baptist churches. Research projects are extremely rare. Even a book on African American Southern Baptist history is non-existent. Paucity of research must be replaced by prioritizing at least the African American Southern Baptist church community for research projects so that denominational planning decisions can be made on the basis of informed intentionality and not by anecdotal information. Southern Baptist research cannot afford to neglect the largest minority group in the denomination.

A sixth challenge confronting the SBC relative to reaching Blacks effectively is the assimilation of African American indigenization into the denomination. Indigenous strategies from the Black church experience exist within African American churches. Indigenous manifestations of African American culture may be seen in preaching style, music, ministry evangelism, church starting methodology and other areas. Southern Baptists need to learn to accept and recognize what is culturally effective in the African American community and utilize it to develop strong programs to reach people. Black cultural strengths need to be accepted and utilized for the benefit of all people groups.

A seventh major challenge for the denomination is bonding new African American churches into the total life of the convention. This challenge involves leading Black members from non-Southern Baptist backgrounds to “own” their new Southern Baptist experience so they function like the SBC is really their denomination. This means they participate significantly in all areas of convention life; they are involved in praying, paying and playing denominationalism as Southern Baptists. The process begins with orientation about the denomination, continues with welcoming, and results in significant involvement just like any other church. When denominational bonding is successful, new Black congregations will say: We are proud to be Southern Baptists.


Southern Baptists have a great challenge to be on-mission Christians committed to reaching the African American people group with the gospel. A review of recent convention history and trends reveals several conclusions about the denomination’s efforts.

The most obvious conclusion is that the SBC is undergoing a major transition in its identity as a result of reaching various people groups, including African Americans. Increasingly churches, associations and SBC entities/institutions are racially/ethnically inclusive. No longer is it possible to identify a Southern Baptist by the color of their skin or the sound of their language. Today they come in all colors and speak all languages.

Another conclusion is that the contemporary Southern Baptist experience is a successful transition to inclusiveness. The new day in the SBC is moving in the right direction. The convention’s racial image is becoming more Christian as churches increasingly reflect the values of Christ toward other people groups. The absence of major backlash along with increased acceptance of minorities in mainline leadership are significant factors pointing to the dawning of a bright day of progress.

A third conclusion is that Southern Baptists are being equipped as never before to accelerate their impact in reaching all people groups with the gospel. As a result of the movement toward inclusiveness among Southern Baptists, the denomination is better equipped to reach the multiracial society. This is reflected by a new openness, readiness and commitment of congregations to accept responsibility for reaching people groups. It is seen in denominational program designs by associations and state conventions. Another indicator is denominational entity leadership staffing patterns as they reflect inclusiveness and diversity. The present arrangement has equipped Southern Baptists to be better prepared than any other period in their history to implement the Great Commission!

A final conclusion is that Southern Baptists have a major opportunity to grow as a denomination. As old traditions, barriers and mores have passed away, behold, a new denomination has emerged. The modern SBC is bigger, better and more Christian because of embracing inclusiveness. God is not finished with Southern Baptists. The denomination is still in the process of growing. As the maturation process continues, the potential of doing even more is great.
Smith is director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division.

    About the Author

  • Sid Smith