"It's not a great secret that Southern Baptists were not always as ethnically diverse as we are today," moderator Ed Stetzer said at the Executive Committee booth at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"We've made remarkable progress. As a matter of fact, when news reporters do kind of a forthright, well-told story, they will hold up Southern Baptists as one of those who've increased ethnic diversity in our churches," Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said.
Even so, leadership roles throughout the convention are occupied largely by Anglos, Stetzer said.
The panel included Paul Kim, Jerry Lepasana and Alan Chan of the Asian Advisory Council; A.B. Vines and K. Marshall Williams Sr. of the African American Advisory Council; Daniel Sanchez of the Hispanic Advisory Council; and Frank Page and Ken Weathersby of the Executive Committee.
Nearly 10,000 of the SBC's 46,000 churches are "ethnic in some shape, form or fashion," making Southern Baptists by far the most ethnic convention in the nation, Page, the Executive Committee's president, said.
Lepasana, pastor of Bible Church International in Randolph, N.J., said the Filipino congregation he leads finds great value in partnering with the Southern Baptist Convention because the Cooperative Program helped start many of the Filipino churches in the New York and New Jersey area. CP is the channel by which Southern Baptists support state, national and international missions and ministry.
"We always want to make sure that we stay connected to Southern Baptists because we feel that there's this partnership that allows us to be able to expand the Kingdom with other Southern Baptist churches. That has been a critical partnership for us," Lepasana said.
Vines, pastor of New Seasons Church in Spring Valley, Calif., said he believes now is the time for action among ethic Baptists.
"We have these talks behind doors, so it's time for us to come in the room, get at the table and talk clearly and talk truthfully," Vines said. "... We have fears about different cultures, but those things need to be put away because Christ has evened the playing field."
Kim, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., made a motion at the SBC annual meeting in 2009 that the Executive Committee study how different ethnic groups could work together in the convention. When he walks onto the convention floor, Kim said, he wonders where the ethnic groups are.
"Southern Baptists cannot do the mission with one ethnic group," Kim said.
Williams, pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said the "elephant in the room is racism."
"It's a problem all over the nation, and if the church of the Lord Jesus Christ doesn't stand up, this nation is doomed for hell and I'm calling our convention to step up -- black, white, red and green -- because really the issue is not skin, it's sin," Williams said. "We need to call it what it is, that we might be able to come together as the body of Christ because Jesus is coming soon."
Many Anglo pastors don't know an African American pastor or an Asian pastor or a Hispanic pastor, Williams said, and that must change.
Sanchez, a professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that many ethnic people arrived in the United States and had to adjust to a different culture and language "and have done beautifully."
"I think by virtue of our experiences or pilgrimages as such in the assimilation process, we are in a marvelous position to be missionaries in this country and around the world," Sanchez said. "Already we've adapted."
Southern Baptists, Sanchez said, are taking the lead in integrating ethnic groups. "Many multicultural congregations now are showing people that it can be done," he said.
Chan, a pastor at the Los Angeles-area Mandarin Baptist Church in Alhambra, agreed with Vines that Southern Baptists must seize the moment to unite in order to reach the world for Christ. He mentioned traveling recently with SBC President Fred Luter and other pastors.
The team was unique, Chan said, because there were two African American pastors, two Asian American pastors, a Hispanic pastor and an Anglo pastor.
"Wherever we went, people would look at us and wonder what in the world we were doing," Chan said. "That's the beautiful picture because the Great Commission asks us to make disciples of all nations. I think this is the strength of our convention. We're not here to save the convention but to obey the Great Commission, to do what Jesus asked us to do."
Weathersby, vice president of convention advancement at the Executive Committee, said the various ethnic groups are Southern Baptists "because of our values." The task of reaching the nations for Christ is what unites them, he said, and "we need to be planting the seed of the Gospel."
Stetzer said, "This is a great conversation, but I think we had it last year. And I think we had it the year before. We've had it in different forms. ... How do we not have the same conversation 10 years from now?"
The panel identified five ways: Tell the story, better information leading to action, intentionality, relationships and cultural sensitivity.
Vines said it's imperative to tell the whole story of Southern Baptist work as opposed to just telling what the Anglos are doing. "How about African Americans?" he said. "I've planted two Anglo churches. I planted a Hispanic church. The story's got to be told on both sides of the table, and when that happens then the discussion won't be needed because they'll see it."
Sanchez noted that detailed information is being presented in advisory council meetings so that specific needs are known and specific recommendations can be made. An example of that, he said, is that the council members told Page they were concerned about a lack of education among ethnics. "Already a committee has been appointed," Sanchez said.
Page said entities and state conventions must be intentional about hiring minorities to work on their staffs. "We now have two African Americans on our staff," Page said of the Executive Committee, which has fewer than 30 employees.
Also, Page has been encouraging African American, Asian and Latino friends to run for SBC president. "Fred Luter should not be an anomaly," Page said.
Williams emphasized the importance of relationships between ethnic groups. "In the National African American Fellowship we've done many conferences and we've tried to partner with some of the state conventions to help our brothers understand what's available through Southern Baptists," Williams said.
Chan urged Southern Baptists to demonstrate cultural sensitivity. Stetzer, in response, said, "You're going to have to help us. You're going to have to say, 'If you said it this way, it would be more inclusive, more appropriate, more helpful along the way.'"
Weathersby made the point that Southern Baptists now are eager to reach the nation's cities, and many urban churches are ethnic. If Southern Baptists would work in partnership with those ethnic churches to reach metropolitan areas, they could save themselves some mistakes and get the Gospel out to people faster, Weathersby said.
Lepasana encouraged convention staff to empower ethnic pastors by visiting them and helping them understand how they can fill important leadership roles on the associational, state convention and national levels.
Stetzer concluded the panel discussion by telling the ethnic leaders, "We need you more than you need us."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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