Editor’s Note: As the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) approaches (Nov. 15-16) Emerson Falls, senior pastor of Oklahoma City, Glorieta, nears the conclusion of his two years as the first Native American president of the convention. The Messenger takes a look in this two-part, Q&A series at his presidency and the challenges he sees remaining for the BGCO as he leaves office.
Messenger: Why did you decide to run as BGCO President?
Falls: We have a lot of Native American churches in the BGCO, and for many years, there has been a feeling that we have many fine Native Americans who could be leaders at the state and national levels. There is no animosity between the Native American churches and the anglo churches, but there was a feeling that we had not had leadership in visible positions, but we have leaders who could do so.
So it had been a dream of the Native American people to elect a president of the BGCO. Still, their vision wasn’t to elect an Indian president, but to elect a person who was qualified to be president who also happened to be Native American. That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. And so they approached me about running, primarily because of my credentials. I have an earned doctorate, have worked at Golden Gate Seminary and been involved in the Southern Baptist Convention at a national level. Because of that, they felt I could represent all Baptists as a Native American, and wouldn’t just be an Indian president.
I prayed about it, and wanting to be supportive of the Indian churches, I agreed to have my name placed in nomination. I told my wife—everybody—this would be a good symbolic thing, but we had no expectation of winning. Primarily even if all of the Native Americans who were there voted for me, it still would have been a minority.
I personally didn’t think it would happen. Still, we wanted God’s will to be done, and I was probably as surprised as anyone when it turned out that I won.
But, we wanted it to be about my qualifications. The person who nominated me never said a word about Native Americans; he talked about the qualifications he felt I had to lead Oklahoma Baptists. That’s a credit to Oklahoma Baptists. I think we are mature, and whoever’s in leadership, it’s not going to be a issue of race or nationality, but of qualifications. I think we’re at the point that an Hispanic, an African American, an Asian or Native American, or whoever, if they’re qualified, can lead the Convention. That speaks well for the Convention.
Messenger: Did the Native Americans feel they did not have a voice with the BGCO at the time?
Falls: Anthony Jordan (BGCO executive director-treasurer) and I have talked about this many times. I can’t tell you why, but there has been a disconnect between the Native American churches and the BGCO for years, and a distrust. That was reflected in that not all Native American churches turned in figures to the Annual Church Profile, and so many of us who are committed Southern Baptists have been working to bridge that gap between the state convention and the Indian churches. That gap has closed a lot in the last few years. The issue was to try to bring us together so the Indian churches felt more a part of the Convention.
And, I have to give Dr. J. credit; he has worked hard to do that, including speaking about it at Falls Creek a couple of years ago.
I think today we see more and more that traditional distrust is starting to wane, and our churches are starting to feel more like we’re really brothers in Christ. That’s what I wanted and the people who approached me wanted; it wasn’t to say it’s time to elect a Native American, and we have been neglected; it was just to say to our Native American churches we are part of the Convention, too, and we need to support the Convention.
Messenger: Are you seeing that in other ethnic groups, too?
Falls: Yes, I do. Since I have had the opportunity to serve as president, I have had the chance to relate with some other non-anglo groups. I’m excited about what is happening with the African American churches, for example. We still do not have a lot of African American churches in the Convention, but we’re heading in the right direction with them. I anticipate that more and more African Americn churches are going to realize that there is an advantage in relating to us as Southern Baptists in reaching our state for Christ.
The biggest need for us is with the growing Hispanic population in this state. I think it’s really critical that if we’re going to reach our state for Christ, we cannot neglect that. I also have seen that we have had some Hispanic leaders step forward, and we have some Hispanics employed at the Convention level. We still have a long way to go with Hispanics, but I think we are heading in the right direction, and I think it’s healthy for everybody.
I think the Convention needs to be a microcosm of the state, and we’re heading in that direction.
Messenger: What were your goals when you took office?
Falls: My goals as Convention president were no different than mine as an individual. I have been concerned over the past several years of my ministry that, as culture is changing and the world is changing, I think we tend to get comfortable, and as a result of that, we are more into building churches than we are in building the Kingdom. Something needs to happen so we see a great spiritual awakening, and that has to precede any change in methodology. There has to be a change in the hearts of the Christian people. The two words that come out of my mouth a lot are spiritual awakening.
I feel like the influence of Christianity is declining in America. We could quote statistics and debate that, but you just have to look around and, obviously, the world is less Christian than it was 25-30 years ago. The scary part of that is 25 years from now, it’s going to be even less Christian than it is now unless something changes, and that’s a frightening thought. So, one of the things I have wanted to do when I have had an opportunity to go places and speak to people is to call us to humble ourselves and realize that we have a problem and something needs to change.
The beginning point of that is we need to humble ourselves and admit that we’re not doing all that we need to and we need to come and repent.
The problems we see are not so much with society—we can blame Congress, Hollywood, Wall Street—but when you get right down to it, we are the Salt and the Light, and until the church changes, you’re not going to see changes in those other areas.
One of my goals was to be an advocate for spiritual awakening.
Messenger: What things are left unaccomplished as you leave office?
Falls: Let me say the things I’m satisfied with first. One of the things I’m most excited about was the (BGCO) Mission Advance Team. I think the fact that we came together as a Convention to ask the hard questions about the future puts us on the right track. Again, we’re talking about strategies and programs.
I feel like what’s still undone is there still is not a great humility. The Lord calls on His people to humble themselves and pray. I think there’s still a feeling that we’re OK, and I had hoped to help us to see that we’re not OK.
Not to be despondent, because God is on the throne, but there are times when God’s people need to make changes in their hearts. I appreciate the ministry of (BGCO prayer and spiritual awakening specialist) Greg Frizzell and what he has done in trying to call us back to that, but there is still a great need in that area. I wish I could have done more to help promote that.
We don’t have enough brokenness for the lost. I’m a pastor, and I get caught up in that, too. We get wrapped up in getting our church to grow, you know, and doing the things pastors tend to do that sometimes I think we don’t know how to wait on the Lord. We’re doers, but being precedes doing.
Next week in Part 2: Falls, who has been pastor of Glorieta since 2003, discusses the report of the BGCO Mission Advance Team, live streaming of the annual meeting, “The Gathering” coming in March 2011 and what’s next for him after his term in office ends.