Southern Baptists Confront Tough Cultural Issues

Southern Baptists Confront Tough Cultural Issues

SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 11, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill.

At their annual meeting, Southern Baptists re-elected their president, adopted statements on their views about major cultural issues, and discussed how to deal with sexual abuse and racial discrimination in the church.

They also brought to center stage questions about church leadership roles that are appropriate for women in the church.

North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, who was elected Tuesday (June 11) to a second one-year term as president, had emphasized a “Gospel Above All” theme for the meeting. He said that message was linked to multicultural worship music throughout the meeting and the inclusive approach Baptists took in appointing leaders to the convention’s various committees.

“We’re not where we need to be on those things, but I believe a signal has been sent that we believe that’s where we need to go,” he said at a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting on Wednesday.

“Now it’s on us to take the right steps at the right time and to move in a way that shows that it’s not words or virtue signaling but it’s something that we mean because we believe the Bible teaches it.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that in the past, issues of diversity were usually discussed mostly in hallways among small groups of church delegates, known as messengers. At this meeting, the conversations were held on the main stage of the gathering, which drew more than 8,000 messengers.

A Wednesday panel discussion on the value of women talked about whether a woman could be pastor (no, since the SBC’s doctrine limits that role to men) and whether a woman could one day become a president of the Southern Baptist Convention (maybe, since nothing in the SBC’s governing documents precludes women from that role).

A messenger speaks to a motion during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS Photo/Butch Dill)

Panelists in a Tuesday discussion on racial reconciliation addressed how the issue affects both local congregations and the larger church. A pastor on the panel mentioned how a church member left his congregation when the congregant disagreed with the minister’s support of Baptists’ vote several years ago to repudiate the Confederate flag. Another mentioned how people of color are not likely to get to executive meeting rooms until they are in the same dining rooms with influential white leaders.

“It was definitely a different convention,” said Mohler. “There were more women’s voices and, by intentionality, more voices from African Americans and others who we very much want to be a part of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Pastor Dwight McKissic, a Texas minister who has advocated for more minorities and women to be placed in positions of leadership, agreed the issue of inclusion was highlighted at the meeting.

“It was clearly a move in that direction, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and I welcomed it and celebrate it,” he said.

Still, McKissic was concerned about a lack of diversity in the leadership of major Southern Baptist entities. He noted that the trustee chairman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told messengers the search committee had considered several minority candidates when hiring a new president. But McKissic was disappointed that the board chair of the Executive Committee declined to be as forthcoming about details of its recent hiring process for a new president.

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Abuse victim advocates noted the many actions Southern Baptists took on the abuse issue — including the introduction of “Caring Well” handbooks and video resources. But they still urged the convention to set up a database to help track abusers and keep them from moving from church to church.

Messengers hold up an SBC abuse handbook while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill

“A clergy database must be established, documenting confessed, convicted or credibly accused abusers,” said advocate Cheryl Summers at a rally she organized outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on Tuesday. “We have seen some progress, but there is a lot more work to be done.”

On Wednesday, Baptists also passed resolutions, nonbinding statements that give a sense of the views of those gathered for the annual meeting. They included:

  • Urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and celebrating “recent bipartisan gains in state legislatures that restrict abortion.”
  • Calling the U.S. government to make religious liberty “a top priority of American foreign policy in its engagement with North Korea and China.”
  • Recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” but repudiating their misuse.
  • Urging the president and Congress to not include women in the Selective Service military registration, “which would be to act against the plain testimony of Scripture and nature.”
  • Affirming their “commitment to Christ comes before commitment to any political party.”

What Do You Love About the Black Church?

In their 2010 book, What We Love About the Black Church: Can We Get a Witness? white authors William H. Crouch Jr. and Joel C. Gregory tell their own deeply personal stories about how much the black church has enriched their lives.

Gregory is a professor of preaching at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Texas. He talks about a painful separation from the large Texas church where he had been a pastor and his subsequent divorce. When he thought his ministry career was over, the late Rev. Dr. E.K. Bailey invited him to preach at his International Expository Preaching Conference. That not only led to more invitations from black preachers and a restoration of his ministry, but it also renewed his spirit.

Crouch is president of Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was on a quest to diversify the college he leads, and did so, in part, by by reviving historically black Bishop College on the Georgetown campus in memory of Rev. Dr. Bailey.

Throughout the book, Gregory and Crouch highlight the “blessings and wisdom” of the black church and black preachers respond. Here are a few of their observations.

Freedom of Expression

“Five years into my journey with black men and women of God, I have found a freedom of worship I have never before experienced. I have found a rhythm in the dancing words, swaying feet, raised hands, and singing preachers, and in an engaged and connected congregation praying and praising together. There is joy in the worship, unspeakable joy.” —Crouch, Jr.


“[Dr. Bailey] helped me to breathe. I did not dare believe his words of encouragement, but they held a glimmer of promise and possibility. Here was a black preacher holding out a life preserver to a white preacher who felt forgotten by his own faith community and abandoned by many he had known. Dr. Bailey became a healing balm.” —Gregory

The Power of Touch

“Black worshipping communities have long employed life-affirming touch in active resistance to the message of a dominant culture that has historically denigrated and abused black bodies. In the context of worship, black bodies become intruments of praise.” —Min. Leslie Bowling-Dyer


“Black preaching uses energy and spirit to take the Word of God and bring it to life in a way that changes lives. It demands that the hearer listen, think, and respond.” —Crouch, Jr.


“The relationship between the mentor and his or her protégé‚ usually does not stop when the associate accepts a pastorate or a position at another fellowship. It continues as a lifetime bond of confidence, counsel, contact, and camaraderie.” —Gregory

Honoring Elders

“For black church people, none are quite so precious to us as our elders. It is they who have weathered the storms of racism, bad education, and unjust judicial systems, and who prove daily by their presence that ‘God is good—all the time.’” —Rev. Dr. Susan Williams Smith


“The Jesus preached about in black churches is a holistic Jesus who cares about everything and makes the church the center. School systems, women’s shelters, AIDS awareness, housing, and drug rehabilitation belong in the same sentence with the resurrection, atonement, and new birth.” —Gregory

They also mention praise and respect, hospitality, gratitude, light and laughter, and first ladies of the church.

What do you think of their list?

Did they miss anything? And, what do you love best about the black church?