Willie McLaurin, Director of Black Church Development for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, discusses the growth of the black church in Tennessee, mobilization, and being on mission.
Chris Turner: Hello, and welcome in to this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host, Chris Turner, director of communications at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. Today, I’m joined with Willie McLaurin, who is the special assistant to executive director Randy Davis. Willie also is director of black church development here at the mission board. Willie, welcome in, and thanks for joining us today.
Willie McLaurin: Thanks, Chris. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Chris: Well, this is indeed a special privilege, especially since it is Black History Month, but there’s so much more to black history than just what we celebrate. Certainly, one of the things that we celebrate is the growth of the African-American church, not only in Tennessee but across the country as it relates to the Southern Baptist Convention. Just tell me a little bit about what has gone convention-wide and then what you see as you travel across Tennessee.
Willie: Chris, the Southern Baptist Convention, many years ago, when the convention elected Dr. Fred Luter as the first president of the Southern [crosstalk][00:59] Baptist Convention, I’ll never forget that day.
Chris: That’s right.
Willie: My daughter at the time was probably 10 years old, and we were on the second row [crosstalk][01:08] from the stage at the Southern Baptist Convention.
Willie: It meant so much to me to see Brother Fred elected that tears really came streaming down my eyes.
Chris: That’s right.
Willie: My daughter at the time, she really didn’t 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 that were a part of that experience.
Chris: Well, and one of the cool things is — and we’re going to talk about this a little later on, but this is appropriate — we had our Fred Luter moment here in Tennessee just a couple years ago.
Willie: Yeah, we sure did. Dr. Michael Ellis, the pastor of the Impact Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, he became and was elected as the first African-American president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and, with that taking place, that began a new chapter in the life of the work that God’s doing through Tennessee Baptist.
Chris: Yeah, and how has the African-American church here grown in Tennessee as it relates Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and Tennessee Baptist Convention?
Willie: Yeah. We’ve had significant growth among our African-American churches here in Tennessee. Over a decade ago, we probably had around 70 to 74 African-American congregations who were a part of our network of churches. To date, we have just over 100 congregations who are strategically aligned and strategically engaged and are significantly involved in the life of Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Chris: Yeah, and we mention Dr. Ellis. If anybody ever has an opportunity to become familiar with Impact Church in Memphis, it’s a great work going on in a very strategic part of town. We have some other men who are rising up within the African-American church who are really great leaders and are providing some leadership with what’s going on in the black church movement within Tennessee. Who are some of those guys that are out there that just you see are really rising up and strengthening that unity in that group?
Willie: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that, Chris, because we’ve got a variety of pastors. We’ve got pastors who’ve been a part of this network for years, guys like Fredrick Brabson, who’s doing a tremendous work over in Knoxville, Tennessee, is well-respected in Knoxville, well-respected in our bi-vocational community, and well respected across our state — but not only Frederick Brabson, but, in Clarkesville, Tennessee, Pastor Willie Freeman.
Pastor Willie Freeman began a work that was needed in Clarkesville to reach African-Americans, one of the fastest-growing churches in our state. They are baptizing over 100 new people every year. Not only have we seen that involvement from pastors who’ve been around for a while, but we’ve even got some guys who are church planners, a guy like Dr. James Noble, [crosstalk][04:04] who received his Ph.D, but he’s also a church planner in the Memphis area, served as the first vice president of our convention.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Willie: The Lord’s called him on down to South Carolina, but we’re really proud about the fact that men like him have paid a significant contribution to our work here in Tennessee, and our causes have advanced as a result of just kind of our focus on just seeing new churches aligned and been a part of our network. We’ve got pastors like Pastor Bartholomew Orr, [crosstalk][04:40] who pastors to Brown Missionary Baptist Church down in Southaven, Mississippi.
Willie: They saw our mission. They saw our vision. They saw our intentionality to get people off the road to Hell and get on the road to Heaven.
Willie: They enthusiastically became a part of our network. Pastor Orr is leaving a significant work in and among our state.
Chris: Not just that. Some of these men, beyond Michael, have become part of the leadership within either our Tennessee Baptist Mission Board executive board or within the convention itself and a different type of leadership role from a conventions perspective. These aren’t just churches that are coming. These are men who are coming in and participating and getting involved in the life of the convention.
Willie: Yeah. A lot of guys don’t know how our convention is structured, but the way our convention is structured, you’d think of it differently than a normal convention structure. At the top of our structure is the local church.
Chris: That’s right.
Willie: These men are not just men that their church’s name are on the list, but these men are involved in serving on our boards. They’re serving in our 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.
Chris: Yeah, and they’ve been very active members, too.
Willie: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Chris: They’ve really spoken into [crosstalk][06:11] what we’re doing, not only as a mission board but also as a convention.
Willie: Yeah. Absolutely.
Chris: What is a little bit about how you see the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board serving the African-American church in Tennessee?
Willie: Yeah. The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board serves the African-American churches in so many ways. One of the ways that we serve the local churches is we have a lot of churches that come, and they are new church plants, and so we try to serve them by getting them connected to our church planning team so that they can be trained in how to start a church in an underserved and under-reached people group area.
Another one of the ways that we really take pride is equipping the local church by providing scholarships for pastors of churches to attend, conferences such as our black church leadership conference, which is one of our premier conferences every year. We bring in leading experts in the area of black church development to equip and to train black churches in all areas. We provide scholarships for church leadership to be a part of our church administration conferences, and so there’s just a great variety of ways. One of the newest ways we’re training is providing opportunities for black churches to be involved and been trained in disaster relief.
Willie: Many of us know about Hurricane Katrina, and just recently there was a massive tornado that took place in New Orleans, and one of the pastors that lost his church, I know him personally.
Willie: I was just thinking, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool just to be able to call the church and say, ‘Hey. We’ve got a sister church in another part of the country, [crosstalk][08:01] and we need you to send your team there.’”
Chris: That’s right.
Willie: Those are just some of the ways that we’re serving those churches. Another way is an area of stewardship development. Many of our churches are in poverty-stricken areas, and so just cultivating stewardship and providing opportunities for churches to grow in the area of stewardship is just a really practical way that we can serve those churches.
Chris: Yeah. You touched on something with the disaster relief and, really, just now, again, with more impoverished areas. There is a great for the African-American church to be mobilized and on-mission. I know that’s something that’s very close to your heart, [crosstalk][08:47] because you see a mobilized church and a missional church is a healthy church.
Chris: Talk a little bit about the need for the African-American church to really grab hold of that commission calling.
Willie: Chris, I saw that need over 12 years ago. I led a team to West Africa. I was a black guy, African-American. Led a team of white folk. When I got to Africa, my African brothers and sisters said, “Finally. Where have you been, my brother?”
Willie: The lights begin to come on in [crosstalk][09:22] my heart and in my head.
Willie: I begin to think about C.T. Studd, who said, “The light that shines the farthest is the one that shines the brightest at home.”
Willie: I absolutely agree that a mission church, a church that’s mobilized on a mission, [crosstalk][09:37] is a healthy church.
Chris: That’s right.
Willie: Not only do we have to be on mission overseas, but right here in our own state, Tennessee, Tennessee really is a mission field. There are areas here in Tennessee, areas right here in our own state, intercity areas, they are looking for the black church. I’ve had people ask me, “Willie. Where are the black churches?”
Willie: “Our white brothers and sisters and other brothers and sisters, they’re showing up, but where are the black church.”
Willie: I just appeal to every church that really wants to be a Great Commission church just to look around your committee, look around your neighborhood and ask the Lord, “Lord, how can we be a blessing to our community?” I must say that we already know the answer to this already.
Willie: The way that we can be a blessing to that community is to give them the good news of the Gospel and serve them the way Christ was served.
Chris: We have a mutual friend, International Mission Board missionary, Courtney Street, [crosstalk][10:46] who’s Jamaican-American.
Willie: Yeah, I know him. Yeah, man. Yeah, man.
Chris: Yeah. One of the things that he has said is that the Great Commission is not a Caucasian calling. It’s a calling for everyone.
Chris: We do look at our needs here, especially in our five megacities that we have [crosstalk][11:01] or what we’re calling megacities, with Memphis and Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Clarkesville.
Chris: We have CityReach right now, [crosstalk][11:09] which is a missional project that’s focused this year on Knoxville, and then it’ll move over succeeding years to the other four cities, but there are some projects that would be a great opportunity for an African-American church who might not even have the resources or necessarily the ability right now to go overseas.
Chris: They could take a group and engage on really a ministry, a missions opportunity, that would focus on African-Americans in Knoxville. Talk a little bit about some of that opportunity.
Willie: Yeah. I’m glad you asked that, Chris. One of the things that’s happened in the past couple of years, we’ve taken over 100 of our students, grade seven through 12. We’ve taken them on international mission trips to Jamaica, and those trips have been great. We’ve seen just a great number of people come to know the Lord, but those trips also are pretty expensive. The Lord put upon my heart that missions is not just overseas, but missions is also right here in Tennessee, and I’m grateful and thankful for Tennessee Baptists who saw the vision and caught the vision for us to reach the cities here in Tennessee.
Knoxville is this year’s emphasis of CityReach, and we’re mobilizing African-American students this year, June 7th through the 11th, to go to Knoxville, Tennessee, and to be our mission there in Knoxville. We’ve got a great, great schedule set up for those students to be on mission, and the cost is going to be significantly lower, because we do understand that people want to be on mission, but sometimes it’s a challenge financially for those students to be on mission.
We’re absolutely excited about partnering with New Covenant Baptist Church in Knoxville, partnering with the Knox County Baptist of Associations, Phil Young, who’s the director of missions there, partnering with some of the local ministry centers in Knoxville. The students are going to have an opportunity to go on the campus of UT Knoxville and be a part of the [crosstalk][13:15] Baptist Collegiate Ministry, the Diversity Center.
Chris: That’d be great. Yeah.
Willie: Then, hopefully, they’re having an opportunity to see some people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ [crosstalk][13:24] and baptized and some of the roads of discipleship.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I definitely think the diversity and the growth of diversity and a healthy African-American church, health ethnic churches in our state, [crosstalk][13:38] it helps us look more like what Heaven will look like.
Willie: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.
Chris: We recently talked to William Burton in ethnic ministry [crosstalk][13:48] and the growth of the ethnic church in Tennessee, the growth of the African-American church in Tennessee.
Willie: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
Chris: What we need are healthy churches of all ethnicities that resemble that passage in Revelation that talks about some from every tribe [crosstalk][14:04] and denomination.
Willie: That’s right. That’s right.
Chris: We’re starting to see that in Tennessee. We just need more of it.
Willie: We really do need more of it. Every week, Chris, I get a call from pastors across Tennessee who are not a part of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, but they’re probing. They’re asking.
Willie: “Man, we want to be a part. How can we come be a part? We’ve heard about the emphasis that you have on evangelism and discipleship and missions and stewardship and all of those things.”
Willie: “The emphasis on prayer and the emphasis on worship. We want to be a part of a convention that is adding value to the local church.” I get those calls every week. I would say to any pastor who is interested in being a part of our convention that they’ve made the right inquiry.
Willie: We want to talk with them. I want to invite them to come be a part of our convention, where they can come to the table and add value to what we’re doing here in Tennessee.
Chris: How can they go about getting in touch with you? If they heard this podcast, what do we tell them?
Willie: They can email me. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can call me at Tennessee Baptist Mission Board at area code 615-371-2011. I would absolutely look forward to having a conversation.
Chris: Awesome. Willie, thanks so much for being in and telling us a little bit about the African-American church in Tennessee. We’ll look forward to seeing more growth. Hopefully we can catch up soon to hear that there’s been even more movement, especially in the front of missions and see the church grow here just within our state and hopefully to the ends of the earth.
Willie: Thanks, Chris. Appreciate you, man.