The National Baptist Convention USA's conference continues to draw thousands of devoted followers. That was the case this week when the historically black organization brought its 139th annual session to New Orleans.

The conference, which was held Monday through Friday largely at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, has long been a mecca for black Baptists joining together for worship, preaching, music, Christian education classes, empowerment, social justice issues and fellowship.

"They try to bring the body of Christ together so they can come up with ideas on how they can better serve the black churches, and not just our churches, but try to make the whole country better," said the Rev. Donald R. Sterling, pastor of Greater St. John and Israelite Baptist churches of Baton Rouge.

The convention traces it roots to the 1880s. The late Rev. T.J. Jemison, the longtime pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge, served as president from 1982-1994.

"To have it in Louisiana, it's a great thing," said the Rev. Ronald Sutton, of Ebenezer Baptist Church of south Baton Rouge. "I love being in those settings because you can get new ideas. You can get inspired. Preachers like to be preached to, too. We have a lot of gifted pastors throughout the country, young and old. … It's been beneficial."

Sadly, many convention members no longer seem to see the benefits of such traditional gatherings. More than 20,000 people attended this year's event, but officials say attendance has been in decline for years.

"We're living in a world and a time now where conventions and the popularity of conventions are dwindling," Sutton said. "People used to look forward to that because that was all we had. Now, we got too many other things. Everything else is filling the gap."

Sterling and Sutton agreed young adults and younger pastors are not as interested in attending conventions. 

"We have the millennials, the younger generations that are not in tune, just like with a lot of traditions," said the 60-year-old Sutton. "Younger pastors and churches are more independent now, not like our forefathers and those that came before us, our predecessors that valued the strength of conventions, just like everything else in the community. The things that got us to where we are we don't value anymore."

Future national conventions need to address ways to get more millennials involved, not merely to entertain them but to help to mature them spiritually through the word of God, Sutton said.

Sutton said those kinds of programs have become a focus locally for the Baton Rouge-based Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association. Sutton is in charge of recruiting and retention for the association, led by President/Moderator the Rev. Rene Brown, pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church.

"We have to hold to the traditions and the principles of the Bible," he said. "We've got to bridge the gap between entertainment and the spiritual development. The younger generation — I hate to say it — they are only interested in the entertainment part. This is new to them. They didn't come up through the vacation Bible school, the BTUs (Baptist Training Union), the district and associations. Now we have leaders of churches who didn't come up that way, and they're not active. And if leaders are not active, the church is not active."

One issue that rallies young people, however, is social justice, Sutton said.

"It's very important, but that can't be our sole issue," Sutton said, "and to the younger generation, that is their sole issue."

Marches and protests won't change anything until lifestyles are transformed, Sutton said.

"We want social justice, but we don't want to change the way we're living," he said. "You've got to change what you're doing. Until they're willing to do that, social justice is nothing but an empty wagon making a lot of noise. … We want to be able to march down the streets and hold signs and express ourselves, but is it going to make a change within us? There's not going to be a change until we decide to change. And the only way we'll going to change is we're going to have to be spiritual."

Sutton said this year's convention proved routine, which could have hurt attendance, when National Baptist Convention President Jerry Young, of Jackson, Mississippi, came in unopposed for a second term as the organization's 18th president.

But, Sutton said, that says a lot about Young's leadership.

"He's doing a great job, and the membership supports him," Sutton said.

Sterling, 74, said Young has prompted the organization to assist churches, including in times of natural disasters. The convention organized financial assistance to Baton Rouge-area churches and church members following the 2016 flood.

"He's available to the people," said Sterling, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Ministers Conference. "People like a leader that they could talk to or someone who not just sends people but he'll come and see what's going or when you have problems."

The convention started Monday with a rousing three-hour musical at the Convention Center. Classes were held Tuesday through Friday with worship opportunities throughout the day, including late-night services at 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

It was one of those late-night services this week that produced one of the most powerful and dramatic messages of the conference.

The Rev. Leroy Elliott, of Chicago, a longtime favorite of the late-night services, kept the attention of a packed ballroom Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel Riverside with a stirring sermon titled "Don't Ever Fall In Love With Yourself."

Elliott cautioned the audience about the dangers of pride and arrogance as believers of Christ.

"Pulpits and pews, we can not afford to be in love with ourselves at this stage of our Christian faith," Elliott said.

Elliott's message was based on 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 and the life of King Uzziah. After becoming king with his father at age 16, Uzziah ruled for 52 years. Most of Uzziah's reign was marked by faithfulness to God, prosperity and military triumphs.

But pride was Uzziah's downfall. In one instance, Uzziah took it upon himself go into the temple and burn incense upon the altar. That was the job of the priests. The priests confronted Uzziah about his actions, but he got angry and refused to put down the incense burner. 

Uzziah was then stricken with leprosy. He was cut off from his people and from the temple and lived as a leper until he died.

"If we ever get besides ourselves, all wrapped up in ourselves, we will ultimately be by ourselves," Elliott said.

God's people should be an example of humility and civility and be the salt of the earth, Elliott said.

"National Baptists, we are the salt. Our salt is salvation. Our salt preserves. Our salt protects and saves," Elliott said, breaking out a container of salt and a salt shaker. "There's a world out there on their way to hell, while our salt is stuck in the salt shaker."

Elliot mentioned issues such as murders, mass shootings, predatory lending, high interest rates, economic worries, human trafficking, drug problems and contaminated drinking water in some communities that the church needs to confront.

"Let's break loose from the shaker and get some salt out there in a secular society," he said.

But it's going to take people of God denying themselves and their selfish ways, Elliott said.

"We should be carrying ourselves in such a beautiful and godly fashion that people would fall in love with us instead of us falling in love with ourselves," he said.

Elliott said he wore his funeral outfit.

"That's why I'm dressed in this black suit. I came here to die," he said. "The more I die the more (Christ) can live in me. So I got to be crucified so he can live. Everyday I'm dying to self. Everyday I'm having a series of self-funerals."

'Tell the Truth'

The Grace family is back.

The stage play "Tell the Truth," featuring the troubled family's journey to truth and salvation, is set for 4 p.m. Sept. 14 at Independence Park Theatre, 7800 Independence Blvd.

The production is the second by Velma Matthews, a counselor and minister whose passion is helping people deal with grief. She introduced the Grace family in "I Don't Love You Anymore!" last year.

"Jesus was the greatest preacher who walked the face of the Earth," Matthews said. "He used many preaching methods to reach the people. … I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write a play to help bring hope to God’s people called 'Tell the Truth.' Before we can enjoy any real victory, we must learn to tell the truth about our situation and admit that only God can change our situation."

Tickets are $20, $5 for ages 10 and younger. Group rates are available at Eventbrite. For more information, call (225) 202-0077 or (225) 636-1449, or contact velmacompassion@yahoo.com.

Who Dat?

The Who Dats are primed for another run at the Super Bowl. Legions of fans believe St. Drew will come through.

While Drew Brees has reached lofty heights as leader of the Who Dat Nation, I'm reminded of a power that is far greater than Brees. I tend to think of God as the leader of the WHO Nation because he's a God WHO is bigger, WHO is stronger. 

Romans 8:36 says: "If God is for us, WHO can be against us." Who can rival our God? Who will you put your faith and trust in?

The Who Dat is ready for some real football. But the believers of the WHO Nation is ready for all battles because the victory is already won. The WHO Nation is alive and well and ready to defeat opponents not just during football season but any season of our life.

Email Terry Robinson at trobinson@theadvocate.com.