Can Southern Baptists turn a new page on race relations?

The Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded following a rift with northern Baptists over slavery, plans to hold a denomination-wide discussion of racism during its annual meeting next Tuesday.

Mark Humphrey/AP
The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn., is seen in this 2011 photo. SBC president, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, has organized a denomination-wide discussion of racism ahead of the Southern Baptists' annual meeting next Tuesday.

Two years ago, when Ferguson, Mo., exploded with racial unrest, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, then newly elected as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was inspired to act. 

Together with an interracial group of his fellow ministers, he wrote an article entitled, "Now is the time for the racial crisis to end in America," addressing racism as a sin and calling on pastors and churches to address the issue in their congregations and communities.  

Since then, the denomination has held several events on the issue, culminating in the SBC’s annual meeting on Tuesday. The meeting will focus on a "national conversation on racial unity." Leading the conversation as a featured speaker will be the Rev. Jerry Young, who serves as president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, the largest black Christian denomination in the United States.

Southern Baptists have been taking steps to overcome their history as a denomination founded in a split with northern Baptists over slavery. In 2012, the SBC unanimously elected its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. The SBC's public policy branch has also focused on being more vocal about racism.

Yet some in the denomination have rejected the call to be more deliberate about diversity, making the comparison to racial quotas. The SBC has 15.3 million members, and says 20 percent of its churches are predominantly non-white, but its top leadership remains exclusively white. Southern Baptists also struggle with falling membership: In 2015, membership declined for the ninth year in a row, by more than 200,000 people. More congregations are affiliating themselves with the church, and have been for the past 15 years, but the number of people in those churches is dropping.

Floyd, however, regards the Southern Baptist conversation on race as more than symbolic.

"We want to leave people with a burden, not only to pray, but to take action in their own communities," Floyd told the Associated Press in discussion about his expectations for next week's meeting. "We believe everybody on this Earth is made in the image of God. Everybody has value."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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