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FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Jesus is the answer to the problems that churches in urban America face today, Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter said during an Urban Economics and Ministry Conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"You don't have to be a Bible scholar to realize that we're living in a time of crisis. You don't have to know Bible prophecy to realize that we're living in some very sinful and sick days," Luter said, listing teenage pregnancy and abortion, homosexuality and gang violence among these problems.
However, Luter underscored the solution to these problems in Christ Jesus.
"People need to know the difference that Jesus makes in the personal life," said Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
"They need to know that Jesus is hope for the hopeless. He is joy in the midst of trouble. He is peace in the midst of confusion. He is love for the unlovable. He is bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty. He is a friend even for the friendless."
Luter said he learned these truths from his own experience -- from the grace that God has poured upon his life and from his ministry in New Orleans. When Luter, a native of New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward, became Franklin Avenue's pastor in the 1980s, the church had 65 members. By 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, there were 7,000 members. Luter led the church through the tragic hurricane, ministering even when his own home had been destroyed. He welcomed his congregation to a new sanctuary in 2008.
Southwestern's Urban Economics and Ministry Conference, sponsored by the seminary's Land Center for Cultural Engagement, featured scholars and ministers who addressed the economic, social and cultural challenges confronting African American churches in the 21st-century urban context. Speakers discussed the creation of wealth; the importance of marriage, the family and abstinence education; and the impact of black liberation theology in African American churches.
Craig Mitchell, associate professor of ethics at Southwestern, noted that many of the challenges that arise in the urban context are not a result of racial tensions.
"Racial discrimination is not the cause of most of our problems," Mitchell said. Instead, these problems reflect class tensions and economic conditions that exist across racial barriers. For example, studies have shown that unemployment, rather than race, determines the crime rate in both black and white communities, he noted.
"A job makes all the difference in the world. God made us to work," Mitchell said. Government programs that encourage people to remain in unemployment are actually harmful to society, he added.
In light of this reality, Mitchell said African American churches in well-to-do communities should help African American churches in low-income urban areas.
"For all these blacks who are going into the middle and upper classes," Mitchell asked, "what are they doing for the ones who are still in the hood? ...
"We can't do it alone," he said. "We need to look at the reality of the situation. Those churches that are in the inner city are not going to be able to do it by themselves. They need the help of churches -- black churches and other churches -- in the middle and upper classes."
While one church cannot reach out to every group in society and must therefore be faithful in its own context, Mitchell said "the Gospel was made to reach every person." For this reason, he called churches to reach across racial and economic boundaries and cooperate with one another in ministry.
Experts in business, medicine and theology were among other speakers at the March 7-8 conference, including:
-- Antony Beckham, assistant professor of business at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., who suggested that the urban church may be a catalyst for economic flourishing.
-- Freda McKissic Bush, an OB-GYN who serves as medical director for Pregnancy Choices Metro Jackson and the Henry M. Johnson Women's Resource Crisis Pregnancy Center, who discussed the negative impact of casual sex among young people and the importance of abstinence, marriage and the family. Bush is co-author of "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children" and "Girls Uncovered: New Research on What America's Sexual Culture Does to Young Women.
-- Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology at King's College in New York City and research fellow at the Acton Institute. Bradley, author of "Liberating Black Theology" and "The Political Economy of Liberation," discussed the impact of black liberation theology in African American churches. Instead of creating an unbiblical theology to meet the needs of the black community, he urged theologians to apply the truth of the Gospel to the challenges confronted by African American churches.
Audio from the conference can be downloaded for free at swbts.edu/urbanministryaudio.
Benjamin Hawkins is senior newswriter for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).