By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — The Tennessee Baptist Convention is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, says TBC staff members.
But more importantly, about half of the residents of the state — including non-Anglos — need the Lord, said Willie McLaurin and William Burton of the TBC staff.
“Especially with our emphasis on reaching people with the gospel, we should have a focus on another race of people and that is the people who are lost,” said McLaurin, who works with African-American churches across the state.
William Burton, who works with ethnics, agreed. “Our job is not immigration. Our job is salvation. That’s where we need to be focused. …
“We no longer live so much in a church developing field, we’re a missions field,” said Burton, a former missionary to Venezuela with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
Tennessee Baptists should adopt a missiological view of their state, he added, noting that 98 people groups live in Tennessee who speak 132 different languages. Many are unreached people groups as determined by the IMB. Others have many members who are unreached and immigrants are being added each day.
“We must engage the nations that are here with the gospel,” said Burton.
In addition to ethnics, who form about 12 percent of Tennesseans, African-Americans make up about 17 percent of the state’s residents for a total of about 29 percent of non-Anglo residents.
“Instead of thinking about black and white people, we should be intentional about learning another culture. There is so much we can learn from each other. … ,” noted McLaurin.
“We’ve got to adopt a biblical world view,” he continued. East Tennesseans need to be exposed to West Tennesseans and vice versa.
Burton agreed that learning each other’s cultures is key to seeing more people learn about Christ.
Nashville has become well-known as “refugee city,” Burton reported, as refugees are placed there by Catholic Charities, N.I.C.E. (Nashville International Center for Empowerment), and World Relief. Currently the influx is from Syria and Africa.
In Nashville immigrants have many choices regarding jobs, housing, and transportation, he noted.
These are people the IMB have been trying to reach and “now they’re here,” declared Burton.
Just last year 98 ethnic congregations were formed or planted by Tennessee Baptists, which is amazing because there are only a total of 170 ethnic congregations in the TBC, he reported. Part of the push by Tennessee Baptists to plant churches is to reverse a downward trend in baptisms. Currently the push for evangelism and starting churches by Burton and others is to carry out the TBC’s Five Objectives.
Most of the new congregations are Hispanic, but there are also Arabic, Burmese, Korean, Sudanese, and Congolese congregations, he added.
Traditional TBC churches can “come alongside them and help them become successful,” observed Burton. Then hopefully they will reach their people which they can do better than Anglos, he said.
The reason most ethnics don’t assimilate into existing TBC churches is that their cultures, of which language is only a part, are very distinct, even from countries which share the same language, he explained.
Of course, language can be translated, but that can be cumbersome and distracting, he noted.
“You remember the Tower of Babel. Well, there was a reason for that,” quipped Burton.
Culture is a innate part of worship, explained Burton. “We want to remove every barrier to the gospel and allow authentic worship. We want to contextualize the gospel without harming it or watering it down in any way.”
He is proud of Tennessee Baptists and their eagerness to reach ethnics. Every week TBC churches contact him and ask for ideas to reach some ethnics who live near them, reported Burton.
Culture also is an issue in work with African-Americans.
If Baptists wish to diversify their congregations, they will have to diversify their worship experience which is the main place the two cultures clash, McLaurin observed.
The TBC currently has 85 African-American congregations. Many black churches in the state are affiliated with the predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention, he said.
McLaurin, though, is optimistic about the number of African-American congregations affiliating with the TBC. What has helped is the fact that Michael Ellis, an African-American pastor in Memphis, is the new TBC president, and the increased number of black members of TBC committees and boards over the past several years. Also three of the Harvest Fields missionaries employed by the TBC are African-American. One serves in each region of the state.
African-American churches also are becoming more involved in Tennessee Baptist and Southern Baptist missions efforts, he noted. This summer about 40 African-American students from seven different churches will serve in Jamaica on a TBC-organized missions trip.
He predicts the number of African-American churches in the TBC will increase and his goal is to see 200 African-American churches align with the TBC by 2024 to support the TBC’s Five Objectives. One of those objectives is to start or strategically engage 1,000 new churches by 2024.
McLaurin thinks this is possible because he is being contacted weekly by African-American pastors who are interested in learning what the TBC offers them.
“The word is out. I think we are on the cusp of seeing many other African-American churches become aligned with the TBC,” he said.
Southern Baptists “have come a long way” in racial reconciliation, observed McLaurin.
What Baptists and all Christians can look forward to is “the diversity of heaven. There we will all be together — people of all colors — worshiping the Lord.”