Editor’s Note: You can hear Willie McLaurin discuss the growth of African-American churches during Episode 5 of Radio B&R, the official news podcast of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
BRENTWOOD — Two events stand out in the mind of Willie McLaurin as they relate to the growth of African-American churches across both the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.
The first happened in 2012 when Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La., became the first African-American to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It meant so much to me to see Bro. Fred elected that tears came streaming down my eyes,” recalled McLaurin, special assistant to the president and director of black church development for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
He noted that his daughter Sierra, then 10 years old, was with him. “She didn’t really understand those tears, but I’m hoping and praying that, as she gets older, she’ll realize she was one of the few of her generation who was a part of that experience.”
The second event occurred just two years later when Michael Ellis, pastor of Impact Baptist Church, Memphis, was elected president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
The election of Ellis “began a new chapter in the life of the work that God is doing through Tennessee Baptists,” McLaurin affirmed.
“Over a decade ago we probably had around 70-74 African-American congregations which were part of our network of churches. Today we have just over 100 congregations who are strategically aligned, engaged, and actively involved in the life of the Tennessee Baptist Convention,” he observed.
A native of North Carolina, McLaurin said he’s so appreciative of the pastors in Tennessee who “paved the way” for his leadership role in Tennessee. He cited ministers such as Jimmy Terry and Willie Freeman of Clarksville, Lawrence Hudson of Memphis, Jay Wells of Nashville, Frederic Brabson of Knoxville, and Ken Weathersby of Nashville, who was the first African-American staff member (director of evangelism) for the TBMB. “I feel an indebtedness to so many pastors — past and present,” he said.
He is especially appreciative of the current African-American pastors in the convention who have “seen our mission, seen our vision, and seen our intentionality to get people off the road to hell and get them on the road to heaven.”
McLaurin also is grateful that African-American pastors are now more involved in the TBC by serving on boards and committees. “They’ve got significant leadership positions in our convention and these men are actively involved in making the decisions that shape our culture and shape the direction of our convention,” he said.
In his role as director of black church development for the TBMB, McLaurin helps train African-American churches to plant new churches and develop current and future African-American church leaders.
McLaurin also has worked to help black churches become more involved in disaster relief and to see the need to be on mission not only internationally but in Tennessee. This is beginning to happen now but it was not always the case, McLaurin admitted.
“I’ve had people (in the inner city) who have said, ‘Our white brothers and sisters are showing up, but where is the black church?’ ”
McLaurin is optimistic that African-American churches will respond to a new initiative in the state called City Reach, an effort to reach the five major “mega-cities” in the state — Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Clarksville.
In past years he has taken African-American teenagers to Jamaica on missions trips. “We’ve seen a great number of people come to know the Lord, but those trips are pretty expensive. The Lord put it upon my heart that missions is not just overseas, but also is right here in Tennessee.”
McLaurin said this year he is planning a trip for African-American students to participate in City Reach Knoxville. “We’re absolutely excited about partnering with New Covenant Baptist Church in Knoxville and the Knox County Association of Baptists,” he noted.
He said the youth will work in some of the local ministry centers in the city. “Hopefully, they will have an opportunity to see some people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, be baptized, and set on the road to discipleship,” McLaurin said.
McLaurin is excited about both the present and future of African-American ministry in the Tennessee Baptist Convention. He noted that churches from other denominations in Tennessee and even outside the state are calling and asking questions about the TBC.
He noted that callers say they have heard about the emphasis on evangelism, discipleship, missions, and stewardship and that they “want to be a part of a convention that is adding value to the local church. I get those calls every week,” McLaurin said.
For more information about the ministry of African-American churches in Tennessee, contact McLaurin at firstname.lastname@example.org.