Having celebrated last year in Amsterdam the founding of the Baptist faith tradition 400 years ago, global Baptists turn this year in Honolulu to the future.
When the Baptist World Alliance invited Baptists to attend the 20th Baptist World Congress, it beckoned them, “Come to Hawai’i and let’s hear together what new thing God wants to create new with all of us.”
The BWA Congress begins on July 28 and concludes on Aug. 1.
Global Baptists meet every five years in what is called a “congress.” They’ve been doing that since 1950, although the first BWA meeting was in 1905 and the BWA did meet irregularly for the next 45 years in part due to two world wars.
One Honolulu workshop will specifically explore where Baptists have been and where they might be headed.
“The Baptist family is now 400 years old. What does it mean to be Baptist now in comparison to what it has meant to be Baptist in earlier generations? This session probes the trajectories of Baptist life and witness and attempts to forecast where Baptist expressions may be headed in the 21st century,” according to the workshop’s description.
Karen Bullock, professor of Christian heritage at the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute and chair of the BWA’s Heritage and Identity Commission, is a workshop presenter.
She noted in her paper that 400 years after Thomas Helwys, a Baptist founder who was sent to prison in England for religious liberty advocacy, Baptists have grown to more that 36 million baptized believers with some 110 million community members.
When she turned to the future, Bullock wrote, “It is a time to speak for those who have no voice, to work on behalf of righteousness and justice, to strive for religious liberty for all people, and to provide a safe haven for the hurting.”
Urging cooperation with other Christians, she said that Baptists need to “model unity in Christ, to be reconciled with God, and to be peace-weavers both between ourselves and fellow believers and with neighbors one and all. It is a time to stand together as family, to sacrifice for the good of others and to love unconditionally.”
Another presenter on Thursday, July 29, is Daniel Carro, professor of divinity at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics (BCE).
Carro, a native of Argentina, is the nominee for first vice president, a new position defined as the “deputy to the president.”
Given the importance of the topic, I asked seasoned Baptists where they thought Baptists should head.
“The human tendency is to celebrate the past, remembering all the good things accomplished and regretting the errors in judgment and action that were made,” replied Carolyn Crumpler, a former executive director of the Woman’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention and a founding BCE board member.
Instead of looking back, she favored going forward with global evangelism and meeting human need.
“Baptists need to engage ecumenical and interfaith conversations at every level. Stop the halting witness in these circles…[I]t’s a matter of being taken seriously in a post-Christian world,” said William Brackney, the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada.
“Dialogue is likely the new means of witness and if we are not training a new generation of those who are open and engaging, we will become obscurantist,” he said.
Brackney also advocated for a new way of training ministers.
“Theological education will be different: part-time, non-resident, diverse students working on shorter qualification programs. Seminaries that emphasize old stuff and narrow theology are doomed,” he warned.
Richard Pierard, professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University, said he
“would like to see the BWA reach out to more Baptist bodies and be as inclusive as possible,” including an effort to get back into the fold the SBC that withdrew from the BWA in 2004 under false charges against the BWA of liberalism.
“I would go so far to say that they probably need us even more than we need them,” said Pierard. “We must emphasize that we can achieve more by working together, sharing ideas, learning from one another.”
Pierard was the general editor of “Baptists Together in Christ 1905-2005: A Hundred-Year History of the Baptist World Alliance.”
Bonny Resu, general secretary for the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation, identified three key areas upon which Baptists need to focus – respect, self-respect and accountability.
Respect requires Baptists to avoid a “condescending and paternalistic approach,” said Resu. “God is doing as much through ‘poor’ churches as through ‘resourceful’ churches.”
Self-respect means that churches in developing countries need to end the “begging bowl approach,” said Resu. They need to know that they have something to offer even if they lack financial resources.
Resu also called for a transparent accountability in which churches in the East and West share their visions and work in partnership.
“No more ‘secret agent’ approach of bypassing local churches in a second country, to do their own ‘mission,'” said Resu, referring to the pattern where affluent – often American – mission organizations disrespect indigenous Baptists in their missionary efforts.
British mission leader David Kerrigan called for the radicalism of the Baptist founders and a faithfulness to Jesus.
“We should go back to first principles to draw fresh inspiration for mission today. The early Baptists craved religious freedom for themselves and others. If we could recapture that hunger today, we would be more radical in our reading of scripture and radical in living it out,” he wrote in an email.
The general director of BMS World Mission, the oldest Baptist missionary organization founded in 1792 in Britain, Kerrigan said, “In truth we have become too conservative, too ready to go with the status quo, less willing to stand with those who live in the margins.”
Kerrigan, who blogs at Thinking Mission, argued that “it is the responsibility of those of us in leadership to encourage that radical discipleship. We fail in our leadership if we believe our role is to be guardians of orthodoxy. That was never the way of Jesus.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s Note: Friday’s editorial will look at what a younger generation of Baptists thinks about where their faith tradition should head in the future.