The Baptist World Alliance 2010 Congress begins today (July 28) at the Honolulu Convention Centre in Hawaii, a place that one of my younger colleagues described sarcastically as “a nice gig!” To another, who was also oozing lukewarm sympathy, I pointed out that mine indeed was a filthy job but someone has to do it!
Those who know me will be aware that I have a pathological dislike of conferences, though I sense that asking for understanding on this occasion will be a waste of time. I’ll try and blog as often as I can over the next week or so, especially when the Congress begins today – 10-hour jet lag permitting.
This time five years ago, it was our turn to host the Congress here in the United Kingdom, and my small part in that was to oversee what was called the Home Office team handling visa and immigration queries.
Frankly, everything went smoothly in the beginning. Our meetings with U.K. Visas couldn’t have been more helpful, but then six weeks before the event we started getting calls, often from the pavement outside a British embassy somewhere in the world.
“They say we need another letter” was usually the plaintive cry, or in some cases, “We’ve been turned down. Can you do something?”
In many cases, we were able to help and were greeted in Birmingham weeks later with beaming smiles from people we had never met but had been privileged to help.
In Birmingham, 13,000 people attended – a great turnout swelled by more than 4,000 Baptists from the U.K. The numbers in Hawaii will be far smaller, maybe nearer 4,000 to 5,000, I hear, but a good gathering nonetheless.
One of the highlights in Birmingham was the astounding mix of cultures, dress, languages and worship styles. For those from the U.K., especially those who were encountering this reality for the first time, it was a tonic for the soul to know how varied the worldwide church can be.
So, what’s the point of getting several thousand Baptists together from around the world, once every five years?
It’s easy to criticize large events, not least when you look at the expense, carbon footprint and frankly a location that isn’t ideal.
It’s good for North Americans and Southeast Asians, less good for those from Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, and frankly fairly useless for Africa.
But the decision is made so there’s no point in crying over what might have been. Our brothers and sisters in Hawaii will no doubt be the most gracious and hospitable hosts, so my intention is to enjoy what I can and not focus on what might have been. And as in Birmingham, I believe there will be times of great celebration, poignancy and even heartbreak as we hear from the world church all that is happening in their nations.
This Congress will mark the end of David Coffey’s five-year term as BWA president, a role he has carried out with great distinction. He will be succeeded by John Upton, executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
It will also be Neville Callam’s first Congress since he became BWA’s general secretary and, knowing Neville for the humble and private man he is, I am sure he will be feeling some apprehension until the event actually starts. But Neville’s imprint is on the Congress, a very eclectic group of speakers, seminars and worship leaders – a commitment to express the global dimension of the Baptist network.
And in spite of my protestations about disliking big events, I do look forward to meeting up with partners from all around the world. I have appointments in the diary with many of them and eagerly await what will be warm conversations and times to encourage one another and pray together.
One of those friends is Robert Parham, founder and executive director of EthicsDaily.com, a great website that I heartily commend, which shows to the world the compassionate and radical face of Baptists from the United States of America. Robert has kicked off his Congress reflections with a piece about the future of Baptists in the 21st century.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.