The church of the Messiah in Nashville, Tennessee, is a friendly and energetic Southern black congregation. In a tiny sanctuary that neighbors the city's housing projects, its 300 members soulfully sing the Lord's praises each Sunday, some clapping and dancing with their arms outstretched, others crying out their prayers with their eyes closed and heads thrown back, and still others weeping as the worship sweeps them up.
The animated scene hardly evokes the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In fact, there is no sign anywhere of the church's SBC affiliation. Churchgoers use hymnals from the National Baptist Convention USA, and Pastor Bryan Williams removed any reference to the denomination from the church's name some time ago.
But the sermon on one recent Sunday was vintage Southern Baptist. Williams preached on the story of Elijah, who condemned an Israelite king for worshipping both God and a false god. His application—that only a strict following of Scripture is acceptable—is in keeping with the denomination's belief that the Bible is inerrant, in both historical detail and spiritual teaching.
This is how one black congregation, and many others, are finding common ground with Southern Baptists in spite of the racial, cultural, political, and historical differences that long had separated them from the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Today the SBC is seeing dramatic growth in its number of African American congregations, adding 1,600 in the '90s to total more than 2,700 by 2002. By comparison, the historically black National Baptist Convention USA has more than 5,000 congregations, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention counts 1,800 congregations in its ranks. This makes the SBC one of the ...