I’ve never been prouder – of Fred Luter or of the Southern Baptist Convention – than when, on the second day of the annual meeting in Baltimore, they suspended the agenda and spent most of an hour in prayer.
Will this be Bro. Fred’s lasting contribution to the SBC, I thought to myself, that he was willing to lay aside the fixed orders of business, to call us all to our knees, and to take our deep needs to the Lord?
Two years earlier, I sat on a bench in the cavernous lobby of the New Orleans Convention Center talking with a pastor-friend of mine. He’s African American. I seemed more excited by Luter’s election that day than he did. I posed a question about the new president’s lasting impact.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” was his response. “Will this be a one-time thing, or has the Convention really changed? Is there room for me in leadership?”
That has been the response of several people I’ve asked since then, even Luter himself. Many people, especially African American pastors, said they wanted to see what happened after Luter’s term. Would he really be able to increase the ethnic diversity on SBC boards and in leadership? Would there be a lasting place at the table for black, Hispanic, and Asian leaders?
Under Luter’s direction, the committees responsible for manning those boards have attempted to broaden representation. In fact, messengers at the Phoenix convention in 2011 had ordered the start of such a concentrated effort even before Luter’s election as the SBC’s first African American president.
It was good to see several African American pastors on the platform in 2014: Southern Seminary Professor Kevin Smith spoke for the Resolutions Committee. Chicago’s very own Marvin Parker of Broadview Missionary Baptist Church served with the Committee on Order of Business and Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church was elected “back-up preacher” for the 2015 annual meeting.
But it took a messenger from the floor to confirm what those watching the live video stream had noticed. There was not a lot cultural diversity on the worship platform. The messenger moved that the music teams next year be more diverse, because, he noted, while the choirs and bands were almost all white, the Convention isn’t anymore – and heaven won’t be either.
I saw a similar message in the official photograph of the incoming SBC officers: five middle-aged white guys in dark suits. Except for one goatee, that photograph could have been snapped in 1974.
We missed an opportunity to extend Bro. Fred’s impact. Korean-American pastor Daniel Kim ran for president, and his showing as a late-entry against winner Ronnie Floyd was respectable. But both first and second vice-presidents ran unopposed. Why? Because no one else stepped up.
Fred Luter’s lasting impact may not be that he radically altered the composition of committees or platform personnel. Instead, he demonstrated the door is open and there’s room at the table. And he was willing to take the risk.
As a pastor in New Orleans, Luter suffered jeers for his embrace of the historically white denomination. And before he agreed to run for SBC president in 2012, one advisor warned, “Look at the racial make-up of the Convention, Fred. You might lose.”
But he won. In a big way. Unopposed. Twice. To cheers and tears and shouts of joy from a whole lot of people glad that a new day had arrived for Southern Baptists.
Successor Floyd called him “the most beloved president” in recent SBC history. Luter traveled widely and preached in churches of all sizes and ethnicities. He embodied the new spirit of the SBC, and he did it with characteristic joy and grace. For all that, he is deservedly and deeply appreciated.
But, for me, Fred Luter’s lasting impact is that he was willing to step up.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.