New Southern Baptist Leader Focused on Membership

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NEW ORLEANS -- The Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting drew an estimated 17,000 people this year. Most came to witness the election of Pastor Fred Luter as the group's first black president.

The vote moved his wife to tears.

"I have a common background. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 6 years old, and I have been through a lot in my life," he said.

"And to see where God, through His grace and mercy, has allowed something like this to happen in my life," Luter continued. "And to see it being embraced by so many people, so many backgrounds, so many ethnic groups to affirm the vote."

"It is a moment I will never ever forget as long as I live," he said.

It's also a moment members of his Franklin Avenue Baptist Church congregation in New Orleans will never forget.

"When I was in there and they were nominating him, I felt like, wow, I am standing here witnessing something and feeling something, and I was thanking God that He sent me to this church," Franklin Avenue member Angela Adams said of her pastor's success.

Luter's election took place in New Orleans, one of the largest ports for slave trading in American history. Support for slavery is also part of the Southern Baptist Convention's history, something many people raised to Luter in the months leading up to the historic vote.

"Those questions have been coming at me since day one: 'Why would you want to be an African American, president of an organization that was started as a result of slavery?'" Luter recalled.

"And my answer has always been, 'All of of us have a past.' I have got a past. Every last one of you in this room has a past. And all of us have done stuff in our past that we are not happy about. I know I have," he said.

Luter is now focusing on the future and growing Southern Baptist membership.

For five straight years, the country's largest evangelical denomination has seen a decline. Right now, membership is just under 16 million members.

"We cannot expect to reach this 'do-rag,' tattoo wearing, ear pierce wearing, iPod, iPhone generation, with 8-track ministry. We can't do it," Luter said, hinting at his plans for a more modern approach to gaining interest.

Luter said he's looking for new ways to reach the next generation with the same gospel message that changed his life.

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.