The first Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant is now history. A diverse group of Baptists gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center for three days of preaching, singing, talking, eating, hugging and celebrating (and maybe a little politicking, too). This event would not have been possible without the leadership of the most well-known Baptist layman in the world, President Jimmy Carter. Carter used all of his skills of persuasion to mobilize over 30 Baptist groups (denominations, schools, and organizations) to conduct this historic meeting. He, Dr. Bill Underwood, and Dr. Jimmy Allen were able to marshal the personnel and financial resources to call a significant number of God’s people together for an historic event.
So what’s next? I believe that the New Baptist Covenant faces at least five major challenges. First, very quickly the leadership of this nascent movement must be passed on to a new generation (or generations). President Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Allen are personal heroes of mine. They represent the best of the builder generation. They have defined a way of “being Baptist” that makes me proud. This meeting was a testament to their personal commitment and leadership, but others must accept the mantle of leadership. Boomers like Daniel Vestal, Bill Underwood, Charles Wade, David Goatley, Robert Parham and Albert Reyes must be called upon to move this effort forward. (Underwood emerged as a significant force on the national level with his leadership of this meeting.) Generation X folks and Millennials must be included as well. Women leaders such as Julie Pennington-Russell, Joan Parrott, Colleen Burroughs, and Lauran Bethel need to take a major role. If this movement is intended to reflect the diversity of the Kingdom, it must be multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-racial, and gender-inclusive.
Second, lay involvement must be front and center. It was refreshing to see laypersons like Jimmy Carter, Grant Teaff, John Grisham, Charles Grassley, and Al Gore featured so prominently in the program. Lay persons need to be key players in this movement. Steps must be taken to encourage more lay involvement. I suggest that future gatherings be Friday and Saturday events that will allow more lay persons to attend.
Speaking of Al Gore, involvement of the former “next President of the United States” may be crucial to bringing young adults into this movement. Young adults (like my college junior grandson) have been touched by Gore’s crusade to combat climate change. He is a “rock star” to them. His involvement in the New Baptist Covenant meeting was a coup on a par with enlisting his old boss and running mate, Bill Clinton. Hopefully, his involvement in the celebration will be the first step into bringing this scarred Baptist to a higher profile role in the denomination.
Third, can this become a truly national movement? East coast involvement was strong, but the western part of the country must not be neglected. There were a number of speakers and conference leaders from west of the river (the Mississippi, that is) but a conscious effort must be made to assure that this is a nationwide effort.
Fourth, can this movement generate a clear focus? Each of the entities represented have their own agendas and emphases. Can one “big idea” be articulated and embraced? This would cut down on information overload and competition for the already overtaxed resources of churches and individuals. Perhaps the New Baptist Covenant could embrace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations and already being addressed by many faith groups.
Fifth, can the leaders of the New Baptist Covenant prove that a distinctive Baptist voice has a place in the 21st century? This is by no means a foregone conclusion. It may well be that the only way to redeem our heritage is to emphasize “baptist” (intentionally spelled with a small letter) principles much as one might talk about “evangelical” values—more of a theological than a denominational stance.
Not only must the New Baptist Covenant address these challenges (and others), but it must DO something! If the New Baptist Covenant has a future, we must do what Bill Clinton suggested in his closing address: first, find some things we can do together; second, respect each other as we do them. We need actions more than structures.
God blessed this time in Atlanta. Let us pray that God will continue this blessing in the coming days.