When representatives of Baptist organizations associated with the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) convene their annual gathering, they are keenly aware that they assemble as God’s people on mission.
Because of this, corporate worship occupies a special place in their meeting. As the Covenant on Intra-Baptist Relations (CIBR) states, “All BWA meetings take place within a context of worship, acknowledging God’s presence and leadership.”
The worship time that takes place at the start of each day precedes worship in other forms—through meetings, discussions and exchanges of one sort or another.
That worship time aids those present at the gathering remember who they are and in whose mission they are privileged to share. Still, worshippers face certain challenges.
The community that gathers is not a global community of English speakers. While most participants know some English, there is no requirement that all of them must be competent in English.
Recognizing this, the CIBR states, “The members of the BWA celebrate the gift of language that reflects our rich diversity. Language is an index of one’s identity and affirms one’s history and culture. The BWA therefore, recognizes the need to provide for greater opportunities to assist members to hear and speak in their own languages.
“To that end, the BWA will seek to identify and employ a variety of tools that will contribute to make communication in various languages plausible and possible during our meetings.”
Out of respect for this principle, steps are taken to ensure that non-English speakers are not made to feel they are second-class participants in our gatherings. We seek to affirm our fellowship with each other as equals—fellow sharers in the priesthood of believers.
It is for this reason that, at the BWA Annual Gathering in Ede, Netherlands, in 2009, worship materials were available in a number of languages including Dutch, German, Russian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and English.
The tradition of making worship materials accessible to delegates in multiple languages has been maintained since 2009.
Each year, the languages change according to the location where the meeting takes place.
This year, thanks to a wonderful group of volunteer translators, worship materials were prepared in several languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and Arabic for the 316 representatives attending the gathering in Izmir, Turkey.
Each registrant at the annual meeting received a worship book in an appropriate language.
Furthermore, when readers fulfilled the requests they received, daily Bible readings were read aloud in additional languages not normally used at our BWA meetings.
From time to time, sermon scripts are also translated into several languages and made available to conference participants to aid their meaningful participation in our meetings.
In Izmir, when the standard of excellence in preaching was hailed by all, it was particularly encouraging that some persons were able to hear the sermons in their heart language.
The corporate worship time is the time in BWA’s international meetings when we celebrate most meaningfully the linguistic aspect of the cultural heritage that each person brings to the corporate event.
The enormous amount of time and resources required to make this possible is well worth it.
Unless adequate simultaneous translation service is secured, the method currently employed in the corporate worship at our annual gatherings is unsurpassed for its adherence to the CIBR and its affirmation of the inestimable value of each person participating in BWA events:
“We affirm the dignity of all people, male and female, because they are created in God’s image and called to be holy. Furthermore, as members of the body of Christ, we belong to one another. … BWA seeks to live out its commitment to unity in the face of the diversity that marks its membership. It regards this diversity as a God-given gift and therefore essential to effectively represent the kingdom of God despite certain obvious challenges.
“In order to achieve the goals for which the BWA was established, and which continue to be the foundation for cooperation among BWA members, the BWA must maintain a delicate balance … between maintaining a unity of purpose and common commitment even as the organization seeks to honor and be blessed by the diversity that characterizes the fellowship.”
It is in this context that one must evaluate calls by English speakers for what is termed “spontaneity in worship” at our gatherings.
In the absence of adequate simultaneous translation at BWA meetings, to what extent would these persons appreciate spontaneity in worship should we employ a language that they do not understand?
When, at our meetings in Santiago, Chile, some services of worship were conducted in Spanish, many participants appreciated having the worship text in English. There was no insistence on spontaneity in worship during the gathering in Chile.
Is it not easy to forget that genuine corporate worship happens in contexts where participants are ready to cultivate selflessness in the fertile field of neighbor love?
Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared on the BWA general secretary’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.