The New Baptist Covenant Celebration was a great success. Bringing together Baptists from various denominational communities, theological traditions, ethnicities and geographic locations was an unprecedented venture.
Those who participated sensed that we were at the threshold of an amazing moment in the history of the church in North America.
That success did not emerge out of nothing. Many partners of the North American Baptist Fellowship had already been serving together before the celebration. A number of leaders of member bodies had been working to know each other, trust each other and learn from each other. The New Baptist Covenant Celebration gave an incredible boost of visibility and vitality that can nurture what we have been planting and watering.
We have a chance to build stronger partnerships for collaboration. We have a chance to cultivate a richer sense of Baptist community to complement our sometimes obsession with Baptist autonomy. With humility and creativity, we can experience a contemporary kind of Pentecost.
As people were leaving the hall where the plenary sessions of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration took place on the final night of our worship together, a middle-aged woman stopped to speak with me. She said she was going to volunteer at a community ministry in the city where she lives that provides emergency relief for people in need. She said the New Baptist Covenant Celebration had inspired her to go home and get involved.
The Saturday morning following the conclusion of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, I met with seminary students who had participated. Nearly 200 students from 16 theological schools participated through the generosity of a Baptist layman’s gift, enabling them to attend and network with Baptist clergy and lay leaders from around the country.
One young adult leader-in-training told me he had learned about a ministry to immigrants that was serving in ways that he had imagined wanting to do. While he had not yet fully discerned all that he should do in this area of service, he discovered that others were already at work. All he had to do was to contact them and get involved.
A brainstorming session I had with a university campus pastor several weeks prior to the New Baptist Covenant Celebration resulted in nearly 100 college students from five schools coming together on the final day of the event to attend the plenary and plan for work the next day. They came from historically white and historically black schools. They were male and female students. Some planned on vocational ministry careers and others planned on careers outside of ministry. They volunteered in four Atlanta service points on the Saturday following the gathering. These college students were seizing a moment of opportunity for cooperation and collaboration and community building in a new network of Baptists committed to serving and learning and getting involved.
Sometime during the final day of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, a baby boomer pastor told me that the energy and spirit of unity that he was experiencing went beyond what he had asked or imagined. He was seeing people networking. He was hearing people exploring new ways to cooperate. He was joining people in anticipating what was yet to come.
An amazing encounter happened at the Atlanta airport the day after the New Baptist Covenant Celebration. Two people met each other at their departure gate, because they recognized the plastic bags they received through registration. They discovered that they lived in the same city and that their church facilities were less than 10 miles apart. They committed to meeting when they returned home to discover how their churches might be able to get involved together. One person was black. The other was white.
These stories represent what is at the core of the New Baptist Covenant–an opportunity for Baptists to demonstrate our common commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and an opportunity to explore networking and collaboration.
The New Baptist Covenant Celebration was a grand experiment. Baptists from such a broad spectrum have never come together before.
Some have criticized us by projecting their own issues onto our efforts. That’s OK. We don’t mind being criticized for doing something good in the name of our Lord. The great challenge, however, lies ahead of us. The horizon of possibilities is broad. We have the opportunity to nurture relationships and partnerships that have already been developing and maturing.
We are seeking to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. As God reveals direction, we will follow Christ. That’s a novel idea for Baptists in North America! Let the journey begin.
David Emmanuel Goatley is president of the North American Baptist Fellowship and executive secretary treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention.
A New Baptist Covenant, A Chance for New Collaborations
David Emmanuel Goatley is Research Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies and Director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School.