The end of this month marks an historic event for Baptists in North America.

Gathering leaders from the National Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., and some 25 other Baptist organizations, the invitation has been sent to gather in Atlanta Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in an attempt to unify these voices within the Baptist family in addressing: Peace with Justice, Bringing Good News to the Poor, Respecting Diversity, Welcoming the Stranger and Setting the Captive Free.

David Goatley, executive secretary-treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and president of the North American Baptist Fellowship explains:

“The New Baptist Covenant is a collaboration of Baptist communities to celebrate our common commitments to the gospel of Jesus Christ. One major impact will be that we seek to cooperate around ministries of compassion and capacity building among the poor. We will share in worship. We will share in fellowship. We will share in networking to create information and communication opportunities to nurture new synergies among Baptists who are actively working to build a better world through the Christian witness.”

These priorities are the focus of the earthly ministry of Jesus as described in Luke 4 and have been called “The Nazareth Manifesto” by the Baptist Center for Ethics. I will be preparing for this time with a new series of sermons to develop the biblical foundation for this perspective.

Visibly absent from this gathering are any leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention. It is regrettably understandable. During the 1980s, these individuals captured the institutions and agencies of the world’s largest Protestant organization by emphasizing their brand of biblical fidelity as the only legitimate path and their identification and address of social issues as the only biblical priority. It’s a shame it has taken nearly 30 years for a different biblical and Baptist voice to be articulated.

I also have to admit a part of me wishes this was not a “Baptist-only” conversation. Shouldn’t all Christians be committed to Jesus’ command to be peacemakers, to help the poor and needy and welcome the stranger? Is this just another example of Baptist hubris, believing again we speak for the Christian world? Isn’t it more important to demonstrate our unity as Christians first and Baptists second?

Unfortunately, current needs demand a more specific Baptist response. As historical Baptists who embrace the freedom of radical equality, individual conscience and local autonomy, we also need to be contemporary Baptists who understand how these core realities of Christian expression have fallen out of both the Baptist and the evangelical lexicon. And while many of us may not consider ourselves evangelical, the last time I checked the name “Baptist” is still on our sign out front.

So, particularly for us in Central Kentucky, who are these kinds of Baptists, identification with our larger Baptist family is very significant.

We are not isolated oddballs, but belong to a strong, albeit comparatively minority voice within the Christian community.

The covenant is hardly new, but maybe we are at the beginning of something new that can finally be done with it.

Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.

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