Southern Baptist

Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Porn again -- Facing denial in conservative pews

The Rev. Heath Lambert usually hears one of two responses when he tries to get pastors to be candid about the impact of Internet pornography in their churches. Response No. 1 sounds like this: "Pornography isn't a problem in my church."

That answer drew laughter at a recent conference on faith and sexuality, organized by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Lambert, a seminary professor who leads the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, said he realized that laughs and disbelief were appropriate -- if sad -- responses to this crisis.

Response No. 2 is also rooted in denial, he said. Pastors shake their heads and say: "Good night! I can't talk about this. Do you know what the people in my church would do if I started talking about pornography? ... I can't talk about this from the pulpit."

But if pastors cannot face this issue with their own flocks, then who can? It doesn't help that this pulpit silence often, according to researchers, may be linked to pornography addictions among clergy.

Lambert said he found it disturbing that 75 percent of clergy say they have zero accountability systems in place to help keep them honest about their online activities. Far too many pastors -- tragically -- seem to "think they are Superman" and need to be challenged on this issue, he said.

Sex and religion remains a volatile mix. Thus, this "sex summit" in Nashville generated it share of online buzz, and news coverage, with its discussions of hot topics -- from private issues such as adultery and divorce to public controversies surrounding gay marriage and sexual trafficking.

But while the culture wars rage on and draw the most attention, Lambert argued that the greatest moral threat to the church today is "the Christian pastor, the Christian school teacher, the Christian Bible college and seminary student, who exalts sound theology, who points to the Bible and then retreats to the basement computer to indulge in an hour or three of Internet pornography."

The bottom line, he said, is hypocrisy: "Porn is something that evangelicals can do in a dark room, behind a shut door after they have railed against homosexual marriage and talked about conservative theology."

In addition to looking in the mirror, Lambert challenged religious leaders to:

* Face the fact that 12 is now the average age at which American boys first experience video pornography, which means "some people are getting exposed to it a lot earlier," he said. "This is the reality. ... We have no idea what kind of generation we are creating. We haven't tested it yet. We don't know what it's like to have a nation of grown men who were taught about sex from Internet pornography. God help us."

* Help members of their congregations -- of all ages, male and female -- learn strategies for how to avoid the common dangers on the digital roads that led into the online marketplace that dominates modern life. Far too many people, he said, keep going to "places where they shouldn't be at the times when they shouldn't be there." Many are alone and vulnerable and pastors need to openly discuss that fact.

In particular, he said, religious-education leaders must talk to adults about Internet security in an age in which their homes are packed with Internet devices. Most of the time, of course, it's the children who know significantly more about how to operate this technology than their parents.

* Confront the belief that consuming pornography is a sin that only affects individual users. For example, he said believers should feel concern -- at least at the level of prayer -- for performers who are caught up in the porn industry. Then there are the patterns in modern divorce, with 50-plus percent of those in broken marriages confessing to some degree of problematic involvement with pornography.

It's simply wrong, said Lambert, to think "this is all about you. ... You wouldn't do it if you thought everybody was going to find out. You wouldn't do it if you knew that you were going to lose your ministry position. You wouldn't do it if you knew your wife was going to leave. You wouldn't do it if you knew that your kids were going to think that you were a pervert.

"The lie is: Nobody has to know."

Baptists rethinking the use of catechisms (plural)?

This joke may be the most famous in all of Baptist humor. While crossing a high bridge, a traveler encounters a distressed man who is poised to jump. The first man asks the second if he is religious and a Christian. The suicidal man answers, "yes," to both. Catholic or Protestant? The jumper says, "Protestant." And, as it turns out, both men are Baptists.

"Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" The second man, in a classic version of this joke found at the "Ship of Fools" website, replies: "Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" Second man: "Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" Second man: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

So the first Baptist pushes the second to his death, shouting: "Die, heretic scum!"

The amazing thing is that they didn't even get to fight about biblical inerrancy, the first chapter of Genesis or the precise details of the Second Coming of Christ.

For centuries, Baptists have had their share of arguments about doctrine and church life and they cherish their approach to the "priesthood of all believers" and the authority of every local congregation.

As the old saying goes, put two Baptists on an island and you will soon have the First Baptist Church of the Deserted Island and the Second Baptist Church of the Deserted Island.

Thus, it's interesting that some educators, on the Baptist left and right, now believe that it's time for modern Baptists to use an ancient tool -- the catechism -- in their struggles against rising levels of biblical and doctrinal illiteracy. Catechisms are short documents written in a simple, question-and-answer format to help children and new believers learn the basics of the faith.

"This used to be Sunday school for Baptists and the way that they taught and handed down doctrines from generation to generation," said Thomas Nettles, who teaches historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Catechisms "showed you what you believed, in common with other Christians, but they also told you what you believed, as a Baptist, that was different from other Christians."

For many Baptists today, proposing a Baptist catechism may sound as strange as talking about a Baptist creed or even a Baptist pope. The key, explained Nettles, is that while Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others can rally around a common catechism that expresses their tradition's authoritative stance on doctrine, Baptists through history have freely chosen different catechisms at the local, congregational level.

For example, while early versions of the Sunday School Board -- back in1863 and 1891 -- published catechisms for Southern Baptists, some churches used them while others did not. The final doctrinal authority remained in local pews and pulpits. Some congregational leaders even wrote their own catechisms.

Tradition says there can be one Catholic catechism. By definition, Baptists have always needed multiple catechisms.

"Still, the reality was that there was more of a sense of shared faith and practice back then, compared with Baptist life today, which has been shaped by decades of conflict and arguments," said Nettles. "We can't go back to where we were. ... Right now, I don't think Baptists could even agree on what it would mean for us to try to hold doctrines in common. Too many things have happened to push us apart."

Ironically, he said, some of the modern forces behind the creation of many Baptist niche groups -- the Internet, parachurch ministry conferences and megachurches with superstar pastors -- are now inspiring people to rally around documents that resemble catechisms. For example, some Baptists have begun to rebel against a kind of doctrinal "libertarianism" that denies the need for doctrinal specifics, period.

"You go online and this is what you see," said Nettles. "People are speaking out and then other people will rally around that persuasive voice. Before you know it, a network has formed around a set of common beliefs and people start sharing what they know and what they believe.

"Then they start writing things down. Pretty soon they're sharing books and educational materials. They even end up with things that look a lot like catechisms."

Lessons learned by professional church spies

The first thing Chuck Lawless noticed when he entered the church foyer was that the welcome center was empty, which made it pretty hard for a newcomer to feel welcomed on a routine Sunday morning. After several minutes of hanging around trying to look conspicuous, a staff member at this particular Pennsylvania congregation approached him and asked if he needed help. Lawless asked a perfectly normal newcomer question: Was there a small-group Bible study of some kind that he could visit?

Unaware that Lawless was trained church spy who was there conducting research, the staffer gave a surprisingly candid answer: "Do you want to visit a friendly one?"

By all means, said Lawless. He was then taken to a large empty room, where he deliberately sat next to the door. This meant that every person who entered the class -- approximately 60 in all -- had to walk past him.

"It was a wonderful class, with a real sense of community," said Lawless, who is an evangelism professor and the graduate dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "People shared what was happening in their lives and some people shed tears as others prayed for them. It was really nice. ...

"Not a single person spoke to me or asked what I was doing there. And this was their friendly class."

Later, while preparing his confidential report, Lawless asked one of the church's leaders why the class members were so unfriendly. The blunt answer: "That's just our culture around here."

Actually, consultants who do church "spy" work know that outsiders rarely receive warm, friendly welcomes when they visit most American congregations, said Lawless, who does most of his work on these issues through the Society for Church Consulting in Louisville, Ken.

Apathy is the norm in many congregations and their leaders -- ordained or among the laity -- tend to fall into other predictable traps as well, which he included in a recent online essay entitled, "Eight Confessions of Church Spies." But everything starts with whether or not church people are friendly and welcoming.

"We tell our church spies that we want them to be alert -- from their arrival in the parking lot until they walk out the door -- to just how many people intentionally seek to interact with them in a friendly manner," said Lawless, in a telephone interview. "We tell them to count everything except for that moment in the service when the pastor tells everyone to turn around a greet visitors. If the pastor tells people to do something, then it doesn't count."

Other consistent problems include church websites that are boring, broken or full of out-of-date information, as well as church facilities that include few if any signs to help visitors find their way around.

Lawless noted that many churches seem to have no strategic vision for how to help newcomers, other than one or two people at the front door with "greeter" badges pinned to their chests. Some churches don't have clearly marked guest parking. Many are poorly equipped to promise parents that their children will be safe and secure.

Way too many boring, abstract, Bible-deficient sermons? Check.

Music ministries that show a lack of effort or, just as bad, feature worship-team leaders who are hamming it up like they're on a TV soundstage? Check.

"We tell our spies ... that if it seems like they have walked into an 'American Idol' show, then they have to include that in their reports," said Lawless.

In the end, the most important thing clergy and laypeople must realize is that many visitors who dare to walk through their doors are there because they are experiencing some kind of crisis in their lives. They are seeking help and sense of community, said Lawless, but they are also afraid of being ambushed and smothered.

Most newcomers and seekers are "afraid of being asked questions that they are not ready to answer. They're afraid of being embarrassed," he said. "They are afraid and they are confused and the last thing you can afford to do is leave them standing there alone wondering, 'What in the world is going on?'

"You have to welcome them and let them know that this is a safe place to find fellowship and help. But it's also important not to scare them off."

Protecting church flocks from real killers

It was a Saturday morning and the Rev. Jaman Iseminger had just dropped by to help some volunteers as the cleaned up the cemetery next door to the Bethel Community Church in Southport, south of Indianapolis. Then a homeless woman entered the church and confronted him. She pulled a gun and killed the 29-year-old pastor, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

"There are all kinds of tragic details ... but here's what's really haunting about that case," said Jimmy Meeks, a Hurst, Texas, patrolman who is also a licensed Southern Baptist preacher. "When they looked on his desk they discovered that his sermon that Sunday was going to be about the rising number of pastors around the world who were dying for their faith. There's no way he could have known that he was next in line."

The numbers are starting to add up, so much so that the bloodshed in religious sanctuaries is beginning to get attention from religious and government leaders, if not from national news media.

The pivotal year was 1999. Since then, at least 441 people have died violent deaths in American churches, said Meeks, one of several experts who have kept track of police reports since a gunman killed seven people and wounded seven more during a youth service at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. At least 151 people have been killed in Baptist churches since 1999, more than any other religious group.

At this point, Americans are more likely to be killed at church than in a school, said Meeks. The total for 2012 alone was 75 dead.

One reason the trend has stayed out the news, he said, is that the FBI defines a "mass shooting" as one claiming three or more victims. The violence in religious sanctuaries -- most of it linked to family disputes, mental illness or strife inside a small circle of people -- rarely hits that threshold. While there have been mass shootings in sanctuaries, that is not the norm. But the threat must be taken seriously.

"You are rarely going to see someone walk into a church and try to shoot everybody down," said Meeks. "What we see are people getting angry and then getting violent. The anger means the same thing, time after time: Someone didn't get what he wanted. Things didn't go the way somebody wanted them to go."

This past June, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FEMA released a 34-page booklet of guidelines for religious groups planning ways to prevent and respond to various kinds of emergencies, including gun violence. It hints at one of the toughest issues facing religious leaders -- trying to identify, ahead of time, people who might threaten individuals in their pews or even the congregation as a whole.

For starters, planning team members must "share their own knowledge of threats and hazards the house of worship and surrounding community has faced in the past or may face in the future." The sobering reality is that religious sanctuaries often contain large groups of people, including children and the elderly, and the "better first responders ... are able to discern these threats and react quickly, the more lives can be saved."

The temptation, Meeks said, is to think that megachurches -- perhaps those known for taking controversial public stands -- face the greatest threats. The reality is that most big congregations have very detailed security plans in place, often led by members who are active in, or retired from, nearby police departments.

Truth is, it's usually leaders of small congregations that have trouble facing the fact their members could be at risk.

"I hear it all the time," said Meeks, who has led 80 local or regional workshops ( on these topics. "People will say, 'You mean we can't trust God to protect his own people in his own house? Well, a church is a brick building with a cross on it, but criminals don't care about that. There's no rhyme or reason to what some people are going to do. ...

"You have to have a plan. You have to face tough questions and realize that something evil really could happen inside your church. So does your church have two or three men who are ready to die in order to protect others from harm? Are your people ready to act?"

Goodbye to a radical Baptist patriarch

The old Southern preacher had walked through many airport security gates using his cherry-wood cane and was surprised -- especially years before 9/11 -- when a guard ordered him to send it through the X-ray scanner. After that rite, the Rev. Will Campbell asked the guard to bring him the cane. The guard, somewhat miffed, asked if he could walk through the scanner without it. The preacher, somewhat vexed, said that was a question for his doctor.

Facing a nervous crowd, the guard ordered Campbell to walk through the gate. So the famous civil-rights activist -- the only white leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited to the first Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting -- got down on the floor and crawled through. Then he retrieved his cane.

Campbell admitted, when telling this parable to Baptist progressives in 1994, that he then gave the cane a "sassy little twirl." His wife asked: "Why do you do things like that?"

"Because, I'm a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers," said Campbell. "I was taught that I wasn't a robot -- that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That's why I do things like that."

The key, he said, is to ask what happened to all the Baptists who kept clashing with authority figures in the past. Where are the Baptists who were willing to be "tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience," who "were so opposed to the death penalty they wouldn't serve on juries" and who "would not go to war, any war, for church or state? ... Where are they now?"

Campbell, he died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

"Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. ... This meant rednecks as well as radicals," wrote the Rev. Timothy George, for the conservative "First Things" journal. He is the dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a former member of Campbell's Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Campbell "infuriated many," George added, "when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: 'I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.'

"The fact is Will Campbell was simply sui generis. He cannot be comfortably squeezed into anyone's box."

In the end, the only box Campbell accepted was a Baptist box that fit his own iconoclastic specifications -- rejecting all creeds, traditions and hierarchies.

"Institutions, by their very definition, are evil," he said, in that 1994 address. "Their raison-d'etre is always and inevitably self-survival. They, all of them, when they are threatened will go to any length, tell any lie, engage in any program to protect themselves. And justify it as being in defense of Almighty God."

For Baptists to be true Baptists, he said, it's crucial for them to teach that Jesus never "demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever."

Woodstock sinks into sexual ethics in America

Back in 1969, the same year as Woodstock, Gallup Poll researchers asked Americans this moral question: "Do you think it is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage, or not?" "Yes, wrong," responded 68 percent of those polled, while 21 percent said, "No, not wrong."

By 1973, the traditionalist camp affirming that premarital sex was wrong was down to 47 percent and the minority of those disagreeing rose to 43 percent. In 1991, only 40 percent considered premarital sex immoral, with 54 percent disagreeing.

Anyone paying attention to the moral math could see the trend. By 2001 the number of Americans who took the conservative stance was leveling off at 38 percent, but the percentage of those embracing the liberal, progressive position was up to 60 percent. The numbers were relatively flat in 2011, with 60 percent accepting premarital sex and 36 percent continuing to call it immoral.

"Things have been pretty steady recently among the Americans who are religiously active," noted Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, which is linked to the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "The real action has been on the other side of the spectrum, among the people who are atheists, or agnostics, or who have no affiliation with any particular religious group.

"Then you have the people that I call the 'mushy middle,' who remain connected to some religious faith, sort of, but not active in any real sense of the word. ... That's where we're seeing people changing their minds on sexuality."

The results of a recent LifeWay survey suggest that Americans who have, in recent decades, embraced premarital sex as a moral norm are continuing to edit their beliefs to go with the flow of the Sexual Revolution.

The hot-button issue at the moment, of course, is same-sex marriage. This is a political and cultural puzzle that -- for believers in a various world religions -- is closely connected to a number of ancient doctrines linked to sexual morality.

According to a November 2012 survey by LifeWay, only 37 percent of adults in the United States affirmed traditional teachings that homosexual behavior is sinful. This finding was significant since 44 percent took that stance in another survey -- asking the same question -- only 14 months earlier. The number of respondents saying, "I don't know" also rose 4 percent, to 17 percent.

What happened in between? The researchers were very aware, said Stetzer, that -- halfway between these two surveys -- President Barack Obama announced a long-expected change of heart and openly endorsed same-sex marriage.

While the president's words may have helped move some of the numbers, the change among African-Americans appeared to be minimal, with 36 percent saying homosexual acts were sinful in the first survey and 34 percent in the survey 14 months later. That shift was within the survey's margin of error.

As would be expected, Americans identifying as "born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist" Christians were -- at 73 percent -- most likely to call homosexual behavior a sin. Only 33 percent of Catholics in this survey agreed.

A clear "pew gap" also emerged, as usual, with 87 percent of those who said they attend worship services once a week or more affirming the traditional doctrinal stance. On the other side, only 17 percent of those who said they "never" attend worship services said that homosexual behavior is a sin.

In light of these trends, it's easy to see why the Rev. Louie Giglio, an evangelical leader in campaigns against human trafficking, was accused of anti-gay rhetoric and forced to withdraw from giving the benediction at the second Obama inauguration rite.

In a sermon recorded 15 years earlier, Giglio had said: "If you look at the counsel of the word of God -- Old Testament, New Testament -- you come quickly to the conclusion that homosexuality is not an alternate lifestyle. ... Homosexuality is sin. It is sin in the eyes of God, and it is sin according to the word of God."

Clearly, these words are highly offensive to defenders of the Sexual Revolution. Indeed, times have changed.

Giglio's words, said Stetzer, were "simply mainstream evangelical expressions of what traditional Christians have believed for 2,000 years. ... But what we are learning is that a growing majority of Americans no longer feel comfortable with words like 'sin.'"

What Baptists can learn from craft beers

It would be hard to imagine a vision of Baptist life edgier than the one served up by a recent Wake Forest School of Divinity graduate named Zachary Bailes. This parable starts something like this: Once upon a time, America was dominated by giant breweries that produced rivers of ordinary beers like Budweiser, Coors and Miller Lite. Some of their local outlets grew into mega-franchises that could seat thousands of people in shopping-mall-like facilities featuring giant video screens, pop-rock bands and witty Baby Boomer hosts who were treated like superstars.

But eventually many young adults grew restless, yearning for brews with more local character, spice and charm, robust beers like People's Porter, Cottonwood Endo, Carolina Blonde and myriad others. Some created Craft Beer collectives and then taprooms, spreading the word about this emerging do-it-yourself beer lifestyle.

So here is the church-growth gospel according to Bailes: If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. Yes, he thinks this is true for Baptists who don't drink beer, as well as the many Baptists who -- reality alert -- down a few cold ones now and then.

It's time, he said, for "craft churches" that reach niche audiences.

"Many people, and especially young adults, are willing to pay more for a quality product. ... Opting to shy away from the typical, freezing cold, American light beer, brewers and imbibers desire something with character and distinct flavor," argued Bailes, in an Associated Baptist Press commentary. He also edits the "Crazy Liberals and Conservatives" website.

"In an era where churches experience lower attendance rates, perhaps we would be well served to look into 'craft churches.' Craft brewers do not create the product to be the next 'big beer' producer, but rather isolate and engage a community. Megachurch models still work for some, but they have become the standard flavor without any distinct flavor."

On one level, it's easy to see this parable as a harsh judgment on decades of Evangelical Protestant megachurch culture. But the reality in America's increasingly post-denominational age is more complex than that, a fact liberal Christians such as himself must acknowledge, said Bailes, in a telephone interview.

Truth is, growth in most of America's "giant breweries," the major denominations in this scenario, peaked in the mid-20th Century and many have been in demographic freefall for decades, especially on the doctrinal left. The Southern Baptist Convention continued to grow -- driven by megachurches and growing ministries with Latinos and African-Americans -- until the past five years, when small declines slipped its membership under 16 million.

Meanwhile, the progressive, "moderate" Baptist camp in the wars to control the nation's largest Protestant flock has been having its own troubles. While it's hard to calculate a total membership statistic for congregations affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, this loose network eliminated 13 staff positions last year in the face of a nearly 20 percent budget decline.

That's the bad news, said Bailes. The good news is that Baptist life is rooted in a tradition flexible enough to allow independent-minded believers to start their own niche congregations that can speak to an age in America "in which, to be blunt about it, the church isn't the big dog on campus like it used to be," he said.

However, focusing new ministries on "craft churches" that target urbanites, college communities, artists and other hip, young demographics could, he acknowledged, lead to the theological equivalent of "beer snobbery" in which insiders are tempted to look down on the less enlightened.

The key, he argued, is to keep focusing on the needs of local communities and then to build networks of church leaders who share what they have learned.

"What would a more 'robust' church style look like? ... By focusing on the depth and flavor of the spiritual life offered, perhaps younger adults will drink deeper from the well of the local church," argued Bailes, in his essay.

"Wherever one stands on the issue of drinking, one element cannot be ignored: in what may be one of the largest industries in the United States, small, craft brewers are experiencing growth, not big-name brewers. Though many who read this might look over their shoulder when they walk into the beer aisle, or stay quiet about the 'fruits of the vine,' perhaps beer can teach us something."

Thundering new voice for Southern Baptists

A New Orleans preacher, preaching to a New Orleans crowd, can expect a few "Amens!" if he quotes lyrics from Billie Holiday's bluesy "God Bless the Child" while talking about God's love for sinners who get saved. But what if he's preaching at the pastors' conference before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

All the people said, "Amen!"

What really mattered was that the preacher was the Rev. Fred Luter and his turbo-charged call for salvation and social change was one of the dramatic scenes that preceded his election, by acclamation, as the first African-American president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.

But there was more to this event than its symbolism, coming 167 years after the convention was formed to defend the rights of slaveholders to be missionaries. Also, his election came on "Juneteenth" -- June 19th -- when many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of the slaves.

In his only sermon during the gathering in New Orleans, Luter challenged Southern Baptists to face the blunt realities of life in a diverse and urban society. For starters, Southern Baptists in pulpits and pews must face their own sins, so they can truly identify with the lost.

After all, everyone is "an ex-SOMETHING," he said. Sin is sin and forgiveness is forgiveness.

"The Gospel can save a gang banger. The Gospel can save a crack addict. The Gospel can save a child abuser. The Gospel can save a street runner. The Gospel can change a rebellious teen-ager. The Gospel can change an unfaithful spouse," he shouted.

"The Gospel can change you and the Gospel can change me. How do I know it? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I haven't always been preaching in a pulpit. I haven't always been preaching at the pastors' conference. At one time I was too mean to live and not fit to die, going to hell and enjoying the ride. But one day I heard the Gospel and the Gospel changed my life."

The young Luter's life in New Orleans was shaped by a broken home and his rebellion ended with a bloody motorcycle wreck. This dance with death inspired his move into part-time street preaching in the Lower Ninth Ward and eventually into the ministry. Under his leadership, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church grew from 50 members in 1986 to 7,000 two decades later.

Then Hurricane Katrina demolished the church and its community. Luter stayed to rebuild, with the remnants of his flock sharing space for a time with the predominantly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans. That partnership grew and it was First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the SBC presidency, which traditionally consists of two one-year terms.

Today, Franklin Avenue Baptist has about 5,000 members and is rebuilding again, because of its rapid growth. Meanwhile, 36 of the 110 churches in the New Orleans Baptist Association are majority African American.

Nationwide, the SBC's membership totals are down 2 percent in recent years -- a slide that have been much worse without rising numbers in predominantly black, Latino and Asian congregations. Today, whites make up 81 percent of the national convention's nearly 16 million members, with African Americans at 6.5 percent and other ethnicities combining for 12.5 percent.

Looking at the bigger picture, Luter stressed that all Americans -- regardless of race -- are wrestling with a blitz of social changes that are shattering many families and communities. Thus, his sermon addressed a litany of hot issues, from sitcoms to politics, from racism to gang violence, from adultery to pornography, from homosexuality to abortion.

"Oh my brothers and my sisters," asked Luter, "what is it going to take to change our lives? What is it going to take to change our morals? What is it going to take to change our culture, our community and our world? ...

"Only the Word of God -- not the Republican Party. Only the Word of God -- not the Democratic Party. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Congress. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Senate. ... Only the Word of God can change the mind of a murderer. Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist. Only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester. Only the Word of God can change a gang member. Yes it can! Yes it can!"