On Religion: Southern Baptists, Race, and the Table Gap |

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. faced a barrage of questions about race and politics during his landmark 1960 appearance on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” but one of the most memorable exchanges involved a question directly on the life of the church.

“How many whites are members of your church in Atlanta?” asked a Nashville reporter.

“I think it’s one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in the Christian America,” King replied. Any church that has “a separate body stands against the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ, and fails to be a true witness,” he added.

Millions of Americans are still struggling with that Sunday morning divide.

But another practical question surfaced during a recent Southern Baptist Convention program titled “Pursuing Unity: A Discussion of Racial Reconciliation Efforts and the SBC.” Can black and white church people find gaps in their busy schedules and start breaking bread together?

“It doesn’t matter how many round tables you watch. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, how many conferences you attend. None of this will do better than table ministry,” said Reverend Jon Kelly of Chicago West Bible Church.

If people want to progress, he said, they have to look at their circle of friends and ask themselves “why does everyone look like me, vote like me, think like me. … When we talk about racial reconciliation, we want the fruit of reconciliation without the relationships. Until our dinner tables diversify…until we eat bread together and (live) communion together, we will make no progress.

Fellowship meals won’t make headlines or set off rhetorical fireworks on social media, and that’s a good thing, said Reverend Ed Litton, who recently said he won’t would not run for a second term as president of the SBC. He plans to focus on racial reconciliation projects tied to his own church near Mobile, Alabama.

Years ago, he said, black and white pastors began sharing meals while discussing the “deep wounds” in this racially divided community. The key was to focus on faith and the ties that bind, until basic bonds of trust are in place.

“We explained why we were there,” Litton said. “We weren’t there to bring about some kind of social change. We were there to focus on the gospel and how we as believers should confess Christ and live together. …

“What came out of it was that God transformed our hearts. … We fell in love with each other and began to serve the Lord together.

In recent years, SBC leaders — black and white alike — have endured fierce debates over terms like “white supremacy” and “critical race theory.” Southern Baptists have maneuvered through minefields caused by the policies of COVID-19 and internal fighting over President Donald Trump’s job and style.

During this time, seismic changes were occurring. The SBC’s Great Commission Relations and Mobilization research team showed that between 2000 and 2010 there was a large increase in the number of black SBC churches (52.2%), as well as Latin American churches (53.1%) and other ethnic groups. White churches grew only 3.7%. Beginning in 1990, ethnic church memberships increased by one million, while white churches decreased by the same amount. In recent decades, 8 out of 10 new SBC congregations were made up primarily of “minority groups”.

There have also been slow — but clear — changes at the top of the national convention’s leadership, pointed out the Reverend Fred Luter, who in 2012 was elected the SBC’s first black president. Currently, another black Southern Baptist is the interim chairman of the convention’s executive committee, and another black pastor is the chairman.

This kind of progress does not make Satan happy, Luter said, which can lead to conflict.

“The main challenge I’ve seen…since day one is that we as God’s people have to recognize the attack of the enemy in all of this,” he said. “This is a spiritual warfare of the enemy…As blood-washed, born-again, baptized believers into Jesus Christ, (we must) come together, realizing that the separation we have because of the color of our skin is an attack from the enemy.”

These struggles are with the sin, not the skin, Luter said. “Until we recognize that in our convention we will always have this gap.”

(Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)

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