PHOENIX — Members of the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American pastor to its No. 2 position for the first time on Tuesday, signifying an effort to diversify its leadership and flock at a time of declines in overall membership and church attendance.
Fred Luter Jr., the head pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected with 1,558 votes, or 77 percent. Some of his supporters had expected him to be unopposed, but he picked up a local Arizona challenger in Tuesday's session. Rick Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, received 441 votes, or 23 percent, according to results from the Baptist Press.
The move to elect Luter comes at the same time the SBC is making a push for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its "non-Anglo" members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.
Luter's church is one of an estimated 3,400 black churches in the nation's largest Protestant denomination, a small minority of more than 45,700 total SBC-affiliated churches with about 16 million members total.
His election also sets up the potential for his election to the top position of president when the denomination holds its annual meeting next year in Luter's hometown of New Orleans.
It's a big step for a denomination whose history is rooted in a split over race. The denomination originally formed in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The SBC was silent or actively opposed civil rights through the 1970s, and many congregations excluded blacks. It was not until 1989 that convention declared racism a sin.
In 1994, the convention elected its first African-American to an executive position when the Rev. Gary Frost was named second vice president. In 1995, the denomination issued an apology to blacks for slavery. That same year, Luter was elected to succeed Frost as second vice president.
Luter said it doesn't make him uncomfortable that people want to see this as a milestone for African-Americans.
"There's no way we can get around it. Here's a convention that started on slavery. Years later you have an African-American one step away from the presidency. I can't deny that," Luter said.
Several prominent pastors in the denomination were pulling for Luter, including the man who nominated him, Danny Akin, President of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
David S. Dockery, the president of SBC-affiliated Union University in Jackson, Tenn., tweeted soon after the voting results were announced: "Hope he will be elected president next year in New Orleans!"
This year's meeting comes following the release of internal figures showing SBC affiliates baptized fewer people in 2010 than any time since the 1950s and also saw declines in overall membership and attendance.
David W. Key Sr., the director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said the decline reflects the fact that the membership of many Southern Baptist churches is aging.
"Over the next few years membership is going to drop even more dramatically," he said. "And older members are the financial foundation of the churches. As they die off that trend is going to have a big impact."
It's a trend many mainline protestant churches began seeing a couple of decades earlier, in part because of the declining religiosity of Americans in general. The Southern Baptists have been somewhat insulated from the trend, he said, because of their heavy concentration in the South, where religious participation has declined more slowly than in other parts of the country.
"They want to start planting churches, which is a smart move," said Key, who is a Southern Baptist. "How that strategy unfolds is going to be the kicker."
He said the SBC has been very effective at creating ethnic churches. "But they've not created a strategy for how to shift predominantly Anglo churches into multicultural churches."
According to statistics released last week from Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Nashville, Tenn.-based SBC, baptisms declined by nearly 5 percent in 2010 over 2009, with churches reporting 332,321 baptisms last year.
Many Southern Baptists consider that an important indicator of the denomination's health because evangelism is a defining characteristic of their identity.
Key said a more telling number is probably how many people actually attend SBC churches on Sunday. The SBC puts that figure at 6,195,449 for 2010, a 0.19 percent drop over the previous year.
Total membership in 2010 also dropped 0.15 percent from 2009 to 16,136,044, the fourth straight year of decline.
Travis Loller reported from Nashville, Tenn.