The Groundbreaking New President of the Southern Baptist Convention
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CBN.com MAKING HISTORY
Pastor Fred Luter, Jr., was elected the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) first African American Vice President in 2011 and made history on June 19, 2012 when members of the SBC elected him president. He's now the first African American to lead the nation's largest evangelical denomination. "When all those folks stood up I started thinking about my great, great ancestors,” Luter says. “What are they thinking now? And guys that were trail blazers in this convention before I was.” His election means that Luter, a descendant of slaves, now leads an organization that supported slavery and segregation.
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845. It is the largest protestant organization in America with more than16 million members and 45,000 churches. However, the predominantly white organization’s history is steeped in their support of slavery and segregation, so Luter’s ascension to the top post signals an overall desire by some members to change the culture and brand of the SBC. Despite that past, Luter says his eyes are fixed on the future, and his top priority is growing Southern Baptist membership. Although still the largest, Southern Baptists have seen five consecutive years of decline. Luter plans to reach out to his predecessors and other pastors for help turning things around. "I have a two-year window here. I can't do everything I want to do," he said. "But I want to do something to change this decline in baptisms and membership. How can I help you all to pull off what you pull off to make it work, to impact this country, to impact the churches?" So far, he says he has enjoyed talking with other pastors around the country about ways to grow their churches, but it is still early in his term.
While Luter’s new position as president of SBC is historic, he has a long history with Southern Baptists. It all came together in what Luter calls his “Road to Damascus” moment, referring to the apostle Paul’s conversion experience in the Bible. An avid motorcyclist, Luter was involved in a horrific accident in 1977 that left him hospitalized with compound fractures and serious head injuries. He said that after surviving the accident, he realized he wanted to go into the ministry. Luter, who was born and raised in New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward, had been active in the church as a child, and in 1977 he made a conscious decision to give his life to Christ. With no church to preach in, Luter set up shop every Saturday at noon on the corner of Galvez and Caffin Avenue where he would preach to anyone who would listen. He preached his first church Sermon in 1983 at the Law Street Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. By 1986 he was preaching regularly at Greater Liberty Baptist Church . While preaching there, he heard about the opening for a pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
From 'Disaster to Dancing'
Since becoming pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Luter has witnessed his congregation revive twice. There were only 65 people on the membership roll at Franklin Avenue when Luter arrived to lead the church in 1986. The church was shrinking as the urban community was changing from predominately white to predominately black. The head of Southern Baptist missions doubted Luter would be able to turn things around. "He told me this, and I quote, he said, 'Son, you are not my choice for this church. But evidently these people want you, so this is my job description for you: you either resurrect this church, or we are going to bury it,” Luter recalled. "I looked at him and I said, 'Sir, I know New Orleans is known for our jazz funerals, but I am in no mood for a funeral. We are going to resurrect this church.”
In addition to growing the church, Luter also focused his attention on bringing men into the fold. He felt that if you could get men to church, the women will come. “The man is the head of the family. If he comes to church he’s going to bring his family with him,” said Luter. In the beginning to get more men involved Luter would do things like have 20 or 30 guys over to his home to watch a sporting event and then make his pitch for God. “When Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought, I had about 25 guys at the house that night. Many of them are still with us."
With time and effort, Luter saw the church grow to more than 8,000 congregants. But many of those members were forced to flee the city in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina poured more than nine feet of water into their sanctuary. It then took two years to reopen the doors. "I never will forget my sermon was from the book of Habakkuk. And my title was 'From Disaster to Dancing.' And I literally danced across this pulpit," Luter said.
That dance celebrated more than his return to the church. Luter and his congregation also helped restore more than 30 homes in the community. Five years later, Pastor Luter now holds three Sunday services to accommodate crowds of more than 5,000. The first service begins at 7:30 a.m. and some people start arriving at sunrise to ensure they are able to get a seat. "It burdens my heart when people drive from miles and miles, come to the church and can't get it in the sanctuary, and they have to go into the overflow room. That's kind of tough for me," Luter said. With his growing congregation, Luter often leaves the pulpit to shake the hands of those in the pews. He also personally reads and responds to his mail. It's part of what he calls "frangelism." That's short for friends, relatives, associates and neighbors reaching each other to grow the church. The pastor prefers "frangelism" over Facebook. He has yet to join any social media sites. But Fred Luter's name quickly became a top trending topic on Twitter, just moments after being elected president of the SBC. It's quite a different stage for the pastor whose ministry actually began on a street corner in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. "There are people who will see me today and say, 'Man I remember you when you were on the street corner. I thought you were so crazy man," Luter said. "Some people they will wave at you. Some people will give you the finger. People will curse you out. But that is where I got my start, and I really think that my ministry on the street prepared me for ministry in the church," he explained. The former street preacher now leads a denomination of more than of than 45,000 churches filled with some 16 million people.
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