Meeting under the theme “Hear the Spirit,” more than 4,000 global Baptists gathered in Honolulu for the 20th Baptist World Congress July 28-31. Congress planners, who have been listening for the Spirit’s leading for the past five years, developed the daily programs around motifs of proclamation, liberation, and transformation.
In the opening session, outgoing BWA president David Coffey, of Great Britain, challenged participants to be fully open to God’s Spirit: “The Holy spirit is integral to the birth, the identity and the mission ministry of Jesus,” Coffey said: “So why is it we so often choose to go it alone?”
Baptists who focus on their own strategies and efforts run the risk of having “the appointing without the anointing,” he said.
Proclamation in the power of the Spirit
Thursday’s plenary speakers focused on proclamation. Pablo Deiros, president of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said Baptists “need to realize the proclamation of the good news is the central task of the church,” and that “there is no church without this proclamation.”
“Preaching good news is the most sublime of all ministries,” he insisted, and must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. “Facing an unbelieving, agnostic and relativistic world, we need to cling not to the power of our eloquence or rhetorical resources, but to the power of the Word we proclaim,” he said.
Karl Johnson, general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, said preachers should focus more on God’s message than their own technique: “We do not need more lyrical gimmicks,” he said, “we need more messengers of God, conduits of the truth, of the counsels of the Almighty God, persons who will proclaim, ‘Thus says the Lord.’”
Johnson called for preachers “who will challenge people in their comfort zones, in their shortcomings and failures with ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ calling them to right relationships, to right living, calling them back to God.”
Liberation inspired by the Spirit
Friday’s speakers called upon Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, a quotation from Isaiah 61, to emphasize Christ’s work of liberation.
Janet Clark, dean of Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada, said “Jesus’ mission is both proclamation and liberation. Good news and good deeds go hand-in-hand.”
Christians often fail to recognize the need for balancing the two, she said. “In our day, evangelicalism – especially in its Western manifestations – has tended to over-spiritualize the references to the poor and the oppressed and ignore their political and social meanings.”
In contrast, “Jesus comes to make people whole,” Clark said. “His mission was scripturally promised, spirit-anointed, holistically demonstrated and fully integrated. How is it we miss this?”
Alongla Aier, who teaches at the Oriental Theological Seminary in northeastern India, said Jesus’ inaugural message signaled his concern for liberation from the beginning of his ministry. “The poor, the slave, the exploited and downtrodden will be released,” she said, because God stands with those who are both physically and spiritually deprived.
“God in Jesus is always moved by the cries of the oppressed, the voiceless, and the powerless,” she said. Aier spoke of those today who are trafficked as sex slaves, forced into unpaid labor, displaced by war, and otherwise oppressed and vulnerable. God’s people must work on their behalf, she said: “We dare not remain silent. We have the capacity to make a difference in our generation and in our lifetime.”
Transformation through the Spirit
On Saturday, Allan Demond, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia, likened Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God has come to the call for a biblical Jubilee, a year in which fields were left fallow, debts were forgiven, and slaves were set free.
There is little evidence that the Hebrews ever fully practiced the Jubilee, Demond said, which made Jesus’ call to transformation even more radical.
Christians are not alone in wanting to make the world a better place, he said, and they can work together with non-Christians in many ways. “But there is something distinct about our commitment as jubilee people,” he said: “it is the prominence of Jesus. We know him to be the center of everything and that is why we call him Lord. Without him there is no Kingdom of God, just a long empty wait.”
Those who listen to the Spirit can be not only transformed, but become transformers, said Paul Msiza, general secretary of the Baptist Convention of South Africa and president of the All Africa Baptist Fellowship.
Msiza said it’s all too easy for Christians to follow their own agendas rather than listening to the Spirit. He recalled what it was like to grow up in South Africa where “the same people who carried guns and shot us in the townships stood in pulpits and sat in pews on Sunday.”
Baptists should understand that the Holy Spirit does not belong to Pentecostals or charismatics alone, nor is the Spirit far away, he said: “The Holy Spirit is not in heaven. The Holy Spirit is here.”
As Christians hear and obey the Spirit, God’s kingdom will grow, Msiza said. “Our programs will fall to the wayside as his program comes forward,” he said. “The Holy Spirit will take us from our agenda to God’s agenda. The Holy Spirit of God will bring unity. … We need to say, ‘Spirit of the Lord, take control.’”
Celebrating in the Spirit
While Congress preachers were generally effective, I suspect that most participants will remember few specifics from their sermons about the Spirit. What they will remember most is the presence of the Spirit in the community of gathered believe
rs worshiping together in song and praise, in fellowship and followship, in drawing strength from each other and hope from the Spirit as they return to their homes around the globe.
In the biblical sense, “to hear” also means “to obey.” In that sense, if we could truly hear the Spirit, what a wonderful, liberating, transforming thing that would be to proclaim.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.