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All Southern Baptist eyes on Luter
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
June 21, 2011
5 MIN READ TIME

All Southern Baptist eyes on Luter

All Southern Baptist eyes on Luter
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
June 21, 2011

NEW

ORLEANS — Even before the Southern Baptist Convention

(SBC) elected Fred Luter to national office,

there was already widespread speculation that Luter is poised to become the

denomination’s first African-American president.

Representatives of 16 million Southern Baptists overwhelmingly elected Luter

first vice president on June 14 at their annual meeting in Phoenix.

By the time Baptists gather again next summer in Luter’s backyard, many expect

the pastor of this city’s 5,000-member Franklin

Avenue Baptist Church

— one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the state — to clinch the top

post.

“Many of us are thinking this is the first step toward him being elected

president next year,” said Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist

Theological Seminary in Wake Forest,

who nominated Luter for the vice presidency.

“I haven’t talked to a person who hasn’t affirmed that, including the present

president, Bryant Wright, the past president, Frank Page” and others, Akin

said. “There’s tremendous interest and excitement about that.”

Luter’s election comes at a moment that the nation’s largest Protestant

denomination confronts evidence that it has plateaued in numbers — even

declined slightly.

Moreover, some leaders of the predominantly white, socially conservative church

say they are concerned that their ranks — and especially their leaders — do not

look like the nation as a whole.

In recent decades, the convention has passed 11 resolutions seeking “greater

ethnic participation,” including a 1995 resolution apologizing for its past

defense of slavery, but church leaders deemed that insufficient.

“There’s a sense that we’re behind the curve in the SBC,

that we’re not really representative of our constituency at the level of leadership.

That we need to be moving forward with more diversity,” said David Crosby of First

Baptist Church

in New Orleans.

Convention delegates, or “messengers,” approved a plan in Phoenix

to vigorously reach out to minorities to incorporate them in meaningful leadership

positions.

“We’re becoming more aware of the fact we should strive to make church on earth

look like church in heaven,” Akin said in an interview.

Luter’s allies portray him as the right man for the job next year, regardless

of the denomination’s explicit desire to incorporate more people of color into

its leadership ranks.

“I think Fred can be elected on merit, regardless of race or color,” Akin said.

“But he gives us opportunity to make a proactive statement, to say something

about who we want to be.”

Luter, a gifted preacher, has traveled widely in Southern Baptist circles for

almost 20 years and built a solid reputation all across the convention, Crosby

said.

In 2001, the last time Southern Baptists convened in New

Orleans, he was given a plum preaching slot and

delivered a tour-de-force sermon that roused 10,000 messengers to their feet.

Luter took over the Franklin Avenue

pulpit in 1986. Formerly a white church whose congregation had left for the

suburbs, it had only about 60 members and was near death.

At the time, Luter was a commodities clerk, not even formally ordained. His

preaching experience was in borrowed churches and street corners, including his

native Lower 9th Ward. Luter was ordained and installed as pastor on the same

day, he said.

The congregation grew. And although it became predominantly black, like its

changing neighborhood, it kept its Southern Baptist affiliation.

Franklin Avenue numbered

about 7,000 members just before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005.

In the following months, evangelical pastors around the

state sent money and volunteers to help Franklin Avenue

get back on its feet. It currently claims about 4,900 members, according to the

Louisiana Baptist Convention.

“He’s known not only as a great preacher, but an effective pastor. He’s worked

hard and people love him. He’s a model for pastors all over the convention,” Crosby

said.

Meantime, Luter said he is overwhelmed by the sudden attention.

Although a movement to draft him for the presidency has quietly circulated for

months, he said he was approached about the vice presidency only in the past

two weeks.

With the elevation to that office, he said,

people are congratulating him as if the presidency were a foregone conclusion. “My

head’s spinning,” he said.

“I haven’t decided what to do, but every step I take people are telling me, ‘It’s

your time,”’ particularly with next year’s meeting scheduled for New

Orleans, Luter said.

His congregation is in the midst of a major capital campaign to build a new

church in eastern New Orleans. He

said he would decide whether to seek the presidency after consulting with his

church and other leaders.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New

Orleans. Adelle M.

Banks contributed to this report.)