I was the guest preacher in a little Dutch church in the Netherlands, and had gathered with the deacons for a time of prayer before worship. We were sitting comfortably when one brother invited us to pray, so I closed my eyes, bowed my head and joined the time of prayer.
At the “Amen,” I opened my eyes to see all the brothers—there were no sisters—kneeling with their heads buried into their arms and into the chairs! “These Baptists do things differently,” I thought.
We have such diversity in our worldwide Baptist family. We have Baptists who stand for prayer and sit to sing; Baptists who read from the King James and some who don’t read the scriptures at all; Baptists who exercise their charismatic gifts, and those who believe such things are from the devil; Baptists who ordain women, and those who don’t; Baptists who believe there is just one Baptist denomination, and those who see every union and convention as a separate denomination; Baptists who don’t believe in infant baptism but baptize four-year-old children, and those who believe baptism is worth waiting for!
There are also many cultural differences. In England, a 30-minute sermon is long, but for my first preaching experience in Moscow, I was asked to preach for 45 minutes, and allow another 45 for translation! If a child cries in a U.S worship service, it is rushed out to the nursery, whereas in Malawi the child is put to the mother’s breast.
What we think of Halloween, cigarette smoking and alcohol also varies from culture to culture. Then we have churches in the U.S. that will spend millions on property, parking lots, sound and lights, and comfort in a sanctuary two-thirds full with just a third of the membership worshipping, while in India the congregation is packed into a small space, sitting on the floor with others standing at the windows.
But there is a more important diversity among Baptists, and it has nothing to do with practice, theology or even culture. It’s our diverse responses to caring for those in need. To some it looms large on their radar screen, while to others it takes image intensification or Doppler radar to pick up a trace of caring. For some, the response to world hunger is an annual offering or fast, whereas to others their whole church program is concerned about the needs of those in their neighborhood and further afield.
How can we rectify a situation where those of us who live in the richest parts of the world—but with a falling number of Christians—still tend to rule over those who come from the poorest parts, where the number of Christians is growing?
How can we ensure that these people with a multitude of needs are not just guinea pigs for the latest evangelistic scheme or mission strategy, but are treated with respect and dignity and assisted in meeting their basic human needs and attaining self-sufficiency?
There can be richness in some aspects of our Baptist diversity. But there is only poverty if we ignore the near famine brought on by the drought in Southern Africa, the civil war in Liberia and the volcanic devastation in Congo.
Let’s leave some of the emotional debates springing from our diversity to those who make a living out of it. And let us work to bring an end to the chasm between rich and poor, sheltered and homeless, overfed and hungry, citizen and refugee, the healed and the hurt!
Paul Montacute is director of Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance.