Los Angeles, California, is known for worldly glitz—celebrities, riches, and show business. But nestled in the southwest corner of the city is an organization with a decidedly eternal focus.
Central Baptist Church in Inglewood has been a vital component of its neighborhood since its founding in 1950. And its impact for God's Kingdom has proven immeasurable.
Luther B. Keith has served as pastor of Central Baptist for the past thirty-four years, and at age seventy-six he still has as much passion for Gospel ministry as the day he was called there.
Central Baptist is a predominantly African American congregation. While the majority of Southern Baptist churches are predominantly Anglo congregations, Central is one of a growing number of African American churches that chooses to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention's mission and purposes. Asked whether the Southern Baptist label has been a hindrance in Los Angeles, Keith replied, "The name doesn't matter. I'm hung up on the Lord."
When Keith arrived at Central in 1974, the church and its neighborhood were experiencing "white flight," a term used to describe the migration of whites out of urban areas to suburban areas. A predominately white congregation at the time, the church recognized the changing demographics of its local community and called Keith, an African American, as pastor. Though a white church with a black pastor was rare in the 1970s, Central understood that it needed to adapt if it had any hope to reach its changing neighborhood with the Gospel.
Keith began his ministry with an upward financial battle to wage. The church had only fourteen members, twenty-six dollars in the bank, and a ninety-eight thousand dollar mortgage. Intentionally devoted to Southern Baptist work, he was unapologetic about his commitment to the SBC.
Amazingly, by 1984 Central had paid off its mortgage. It more firmly established its presence in the community as "salt and light" in a notoriously un-churched area.
For instance, Central set out to rid its community of rampant gang intimidation and drug abuse. Starting a gang awareness program at the church culminated in an invitation for Keith to be part of an ABC documentary that brought attention to the gang epidemic that dominated his neighborhood.
"We'd march, expose the drug houses of our neighborhood, and let God do the rest," Keith said. In time, gang violence and drug abuse subsided.
According to the pastor, Central is not a "mega-church, but a model church." In particular, it models healthy church life for the almost twenty congregations it has planted during Keith's tenure.
While many churches seek to grow in size indefinitely, Keith felt God leading Central in a different direction. "We have a policy," he said. "Once our church gets to a certain size, we plant a new church."
Whenever the church reaches the four hundred member mark, a core group voluntarily leaves Central to begin a new church.
In conjunction with the emphasis on planting new churches, Keith formed the Church Planters Institute, based out of Central Baptist. "We build up men, and men build up the churches," he said.
While the majority of Central's church plants have been African American congregations, the church has also been instrumental in reaching Hispanics and Koreans who have moved into the community, planting several Hispanic churches and a Korean mission church. With the neighborhood transitioning yet again, the church plans to deed its property to the Hispanic congregation now meeting in its facilities within the next few years. Asked whether the changing demographics have changed his strategy, Keith replied, "We haven't changed. We simply planted."
Keith insists that Central never set out to achieve prominence as a church planting center. As its members went about the routine of ministry, God simply chose to bless, he said.
"We've kept to the basics," he said. "We're about soul-winning. We give to the Cooperative Program. We give to missions. And we love people."
Now on kidney dialysis, Keith has not let his fragile health dampen his spirits or drive. Reflecting on a lifetime of ministry he said, "I've always been surrounded by good people. God has been good."
Andrew Walker is a member of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.