September 7-11 marked the 135th Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. (NBCUSA), the nation’s largest African American Christian denomination. It was expected that 50,000 National Baptists gathered last week in Memphis, TN, for Kingdom business and Christian fellowship, while also enjoying the recreation offered by the Bluff City.
Dr. Jerry Young, Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church (Watkins Drive) and the NBCUSA’s 18th President, led the stalwart Convention in envisioning its future exceptionally through an array of seminars, meetings, and initiatives that seek to reform the organization for 21st century ministry. Last September Dr. Young became the first native Mississippian still residing in the Magnolia State to serve at the helm of the NBCUSA. Having served fifteen years as Vice-President-at-Large with previous Presidents Julius Scruggs and William J. Shaw, Dr. Young was favored to see the grand old movement from an informed vantage. He ascertained its organizational strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and has therefore purposed, with God’s help, to guide the NBCUSA on a course toward renewal. His election symbolized a sacred embrace of both the storied past and hopeful future of 7.5 million Christians of African descent trusting that God’s power is still working through them.
But difficult days are ahead.
At the risk of the mislabeling Dr. Young, I imagine him to be a progressive conservative, a principled pragmatist, and a Spirit-led reformer. He is a progressive conservative in that he is future-oriented while deeply rooted in biblical Christianity and moral absolutism. He is a principled pragmatist in that he knows that courageous decisions must be made but that such righteous acts must be calculated in order to be successful. And he is a Spirit-led reformer in that he is led by the Holy Spirit through prayer and God-given visions so that he can lead biblically faithful reforms of the NBCUSA and Black Baptist identity altogether. I believe these elements shape the lens through which he envisions the future exceptionally. Dr. Young is aware of the persistent secular threats to moral truth and Christian values, the lingering realities of racialized injustice, and the steady decline of church health and holiness. These and other factors aggressively confront the NBCUSA and simply having three large (and expensive) meetings every year will not faithfully and fruitfully address these challenges in meaningful and lasting ways. A new way of being the National Baptist Convention USA must emerge, if the Convention is to survive another fifty—or five!—years.
Dr. Young’s annual sermonic address, given the Thursday morning of the session, inspired the delegates to envision with him in spite of these difficult days. He was clear that dying churches, doctrinal drift, community disintegration, and rapidly shifting moral sensibilities require a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit and a revived commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ in order for the NBCUSA to be a continued force for the Gospel. This is true. Leaders must cast a compelling vision that distinguishes itself from where the people are at a given moment; they must be convinced that what is presented is better than what is present. Dr. Young urged the Convention to accept that the times have changed and simply meeting, greeting, and eating was insufficient for our times and seasons. His push has been for the Convention to function more denominationally, meaning that it is do sustained work through ongoing missions and financial solvency such that the NBCUSA could retain and create new institutions able to help local churches and provide hope to desperate communities. Think, if you will, of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). United in doctrine and mission, the SBC has hospitals, colleges, seminaries, and research agencies that are healing, educating, and edifying millions of their members and persons not affiliated with them. Every time a National Baptist or Pentecostal walks into LifeWay to purchase a Bible, a book, or a CD, we are supporting a SBC entity with our dollars. Sadly, the NBCUSA model hasn’t afforded us anything comparable to what the SBC has institutionally.
Under Dr. Young’s visionary leadership, we will strive for a national credit union and the development of businesses and educational agencies that can bless our people spiritually, culturally, and economically. His passion for a social justice and economic development and empowerment is nevertheless rooted in what he calls Christ-centered evangelism and comprehensive Christian education. We must reach the lost and hurting with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and teach them biblically and train them intellectually to be culturally competent disciples of Christ who will in turn be good and do good in their neighborhoods and in other nations. Christ exalting, Holy Ghost filled, baptized believers can make world-changing differences and together as a Convention the magnitude of those differences will be felt thousands of miles away. It will take time, resources, and prayerful engagement. But all things are possible with God.
I look forward to the continued progress of Dr. Young’s visionary presidency and remain thankful to witness as an unashamedly black, Baptist, but most importantly biblical, brother in Christ from and within Mississippi attempts to make the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. viable for this present age. Godspeed to Dr. Young. I too am envisioning the future exceptionally in Christ Jesus.