Pastor John Onwuchekwa, lead pastor of the diverse but predominantly black Cornerstone Church Atlanta, announced Friday that his congregation has voted to leave the Southern Baptist Convention.
“On Sunday we voted as a church to leave the SBC. I don't say this for applause (there's nothing particularly commendable about our decision). I only mention it to bring clarity surrounding where (and with whom) we stand in days like this. Frankly, we should've done it sooner,” Onwuchekwa wrote in a series of tweets last Friday.
Onwuchekwa, Richard Mullen, Moe Hafeez and rapper Trip Lee planted Cornerstone Church Atlanta after they moved to the city’s historic West End neighborhood in 2015. In a 2016 interview with The Christian Post, Lee, who is no longer listed on the church’s website, said the church at the time attracted about 200 predominantly young worshipers weekly who were about 60% black and about 40% white. It is unclear what the current composition of the church is as Onwuchekwa did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CP.
An official with the SBC’s Executive Committee confirmed Tuesday that the church was planted with the help of the convention’s North American Mission Board and referred questions about the vote to them. A response from NAMB is pending.
In Friday’s announcement and a number of public statements on social media leading up to it, Onwuchekwa hinted that among the reasons his church is severing ties with the SBC is that he did not want to send the wrong message to particularly other Christian leaders of color that the organization is healthy for them.
“Often when you find yourself with people you dearly love and want the best for, you end up staying around longer than you should. That was us. In the coming weeks, I'll be more vocal and comprehensive as to our reasons why. But for the time being, I'll say this much,” he continued. “Whenever you swim in certain streams, you implicitly hold up a sign that says ‘Come on in, the water's fine.’ We don't want to hold up that sign. Instead, if I'm going to hold up any sign—it's going to be one on the outside of the pool that says ‘Enter at Your Own Risk!’”
Just over a week before Cornerstone Atlanta Church’s decision to leave the SBC, Onwuchekwa, noted that he was suddenly being asked by apparently white church leaders to "talk" about racial reconciliation and "catch" up in the wake of social unrest over racial inequality and police brutality.
“I’ve often found that making progress in conversations like these are difficult because we start from two different places,” Onwuchekwa said in his proposed response to white leaders seeking to “talk” and “catch up.”
“I’d say the best way to enter into conversations is do your homework beforehand. One part is understanding that even the concept of racial ‘reconciliation’ is often a majority culture concept. Aimed at reconciling the races. While reconciliation is the ultimate goal, so many people treat reconciliation as the pathway as if the solution is as simple as reconciling two people that have an argument,” he continued.
“While the majority culture is often concerned with racial ‘reconciliation,’ minorities (who already have a ton of reconciled majority culture relationships) are concerned with something different — namely racial equality and justice. The gospel in action is needed to address these issues. And in order to understand how the gospel needs to be applied, there needs to be understanding as to what exactly is the problem. A proper diagnosis is needed,” he insisted. “In other words, (as stated above) before any conversation is helpful it’s important that both parties that come to the table are able to define the problem the same way.”
Studies show significant gaps in the way people from different ethnic groups view racism. A 2016 Barna study showed, for example, that while 59% of black U.S. adults disagreed that racism is a problem of the past, only 39% of white adults strongly disagreed. There was also confusion on whether the Church specifically contributed to that problem. And while six in 10 U.S. adults somewhat or strongly disagreed, black Americans were nearly twice as likely as white Americans to view Christian churches as complicit.
Responding to Onwuchekwa’s announcement, popular Bible teacher and author Beth Moore invoked the words of John Dollard, a psychologist and social scientist best known for his studies on race relations in America, in a statement on Twitter.
“Thinking about this quote. ‘Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do...it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put.’ John Dollard, 1937 Blessings to you & your church in this glorious journey of faith. He awaits,” Moore wrote.
Last month, during his SBC presidential address J.D. Greear, endorsed the black lives matter movement as a Gospel issue to members but denounced the Black Lives Matter organization that sparked the movement in 2013.
Greear, who leads The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area and has long been a champion of intentional diversity in the SBC, explained how the denomination started 175 years ago by founding members who supported slavery. The denomination has, over the years since then, rejected and repented of its racist past to become “one of the most ethnically diverse religious groups in the United States.”
“A lot of people don’t know that, but nearly 20% of all Southern Baptist churches are majority non-white and the North America Mission Board tells us that more than 60% of new churches planted recently have been planted and led by people of color,” Greear said.
He noted, however, that the organization still struggled with expanding that diversity into its leadership ranks.
Rolland Slade, the black 62-year-old senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, was elected last month as the first black chair of the SBC’s Executive Committee.