An extraordinary gathering of Baptists in Birmingham, England, took place last month. It was remarkable not just for the numbers gathered there–at least 12,000, and many more when day visitors are counted–but for the spirit in which the Baptist World Congress was conducted.
Most of us in the UK are used to small congregations, and while ours is the second largest Union in Europe, for many of us the spiritual horizon is bounded by our immediate local church Christian family.
In Birmingham, those of us fortunate enough to attend had our eyes opened to the astonishing diversity of our Baptist faith and witness.
There were many inspiring addresses and worship experiences, some of which are recounted in this newspaper. Beyond question, though, the most treasured memories which delegates will take away are their personal encounters with people speaking different languages, from different cultures, facing widely different challenges and with equally diverse opportunities.
In these meetings of minds and spirits we are made more aware of the breadth of our tradition and of our essential kinship–firstly as Christians, but also as Baptists–with people who at first glance have little else in common with us at all. There is an old saying that “blood is thicker than water.” But in our common baptism, water is thicker than blood.
Of course only a small fraction of British Baptists have attended Congress–about 3,000 registered for the whole event, with more attending as day visitors. The experience for those who have come has often been intensely valuable. What is its lasting significance for those who have not?
The answer is that this is largely unknown; it is a work in progress. But there are desirable goals.
Firstly, the sense of being part of a wider world should impact on our sense of mission. Friendships with people outside the UK can become partnerships; a link to another person can become a sharing in their mission. For many people here, the world has suddenly got smaller.
Suddenly, mission organizations like BMS World Mission work in places we know, at least at second-hand.
Secondly, there should be, for many of us, a greater sense of common purpose. While it is far more effective to carry out most work in evangelism and pastoral practice locally, there are ways in which the experience and wisdom of Baptists around the world can be shared, for the advantage of all. The BWA’s initiatives in mission and evangelism are to be welcomed, and the Alliance itself should come to be seen more as a resource for British Baptists.
Thirdly, there should be a breaking down of assumptions about how things ought to be done. We are not nearly as hide-bound as we used to be over matters of worship styles, issues of church government and leadership, and methods of evangelism. But those who have attended this Congress will have been exposed to a huge variety of different expressions of Church, each of them authentically Baptist and each offering another perspective, another way of doing what we are already doing.
There is a need, then, for the home churches of those who have had the Birmingham experience to listen carefully and humbly when their delegates return home. For some Congress will have had a purely personal significance. For others, it will have been the means by which God has given a fresh vision and new understandings. Very few will be entirely unchanged.
In the end, of course, the outcome of this event is in the hands of God. Last week’s Baptist Times, made available to every delegate to the Congress, contained an article about Bill Upchurch, who attended his first Congress in 1934. That experience set him on a path which led him to China as a missionary and later to ministry in UK churches.
There may be many at this Congress whose lives will have been similarly changed. We should pray for them, listen to them, and learn from them.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.