reflections on the new baptist covenant
Well, three days, 7 sermons, 5 "messages," 4 testimonies, 21 references to MLK, Jr., and one late-night trip to the Buckhead T.G.I. Friday's later, I survived the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.
I am so glad I went to Atlanta. Worshipping with up to 20,000 other Baptists of all kinds of stripes - conservatives, moderates, and progressives; blacks, whites, and hispanics; Southerners and Yankees and people from all over the world - was one of the more profound experiences of my life. The preaching at the plenary meetings and in the prophetic preaching session I attended was beyond challenging. And the chance to reflect on what it truly means to pursue justice and mercy with humility as Baptists was something we all needed.
I can't possibly begin to cover everything that happened here; if you're interested in detailed analyses of the sermons and messages, take a look at Big Daddy Weave's excellent coverage. But here are some of my reflections on the events:
Things that were sweet:
One of the best parts of being in Atlanta was getting to see friends from just about every part of my life, as well as meeting new ones. From running into the college department directors from the church I attended in college to having dinner with my pastor from Connecticut and his daughter and seeing Dale from Yale (who is connected to just about everyone I know), the NBC was a great chance to be glad to be friends. The whole weekend was like that - I'd just be walking down the hall and suddenly see my college dean, or someone I met in Kenya a few years back.
Meeting new friends was also a treat. I was particularly excited to meet a representative of the American Baptist Churches who used to manage their partnerships with Baptists in Goma (what are the odds that we would be sitting near one another in a session?), as well as the members of Krystaal, a worship group comprised of Congolese refugees.
The other huge highlight of the weekend was the preaching. I'll give brief summaries here, but you can watch each sermon by clicking on the links in each paragraph.
William Shaw's opening sermon on peace with justice on Wednesday night started things with a bang. He pointed out that the Biblical call to justice is not a call to relief, it's a call to a reversal. Jesus, he said, did not give "shades to the blind, but sight to the blind." Jesus is about "the work of reversal, not relief" and when we "do injustice to anybody [it] is to do injustice to the reality of God."
Tony Campolo gave the same sermon he always gives, but it's still a good one. He talked about the fact that churches are losing young adults "because we have made Christ too easy," and the young have "a longing to do something heroic." And he pointed out that churches that spend their budgets on the church building are very off-putting to that desire to do something heroic - and to the cause of Christ. "If all we're worried about is maintaining the institutions, we're not going to be the church that Christ has called us to be." Amen to that.
Julie Pennington-Russell's Thursday sermon was amazing. I can't tell you how affirming it was for the young women in that convention hall to see an affirmation of God's call in women's lives. On the last night when they showed a slide show of pictures from the event, the last one was of Julie P-R holding her Bible in the air. There were cheers from all over the room.
The fact that her sermon was so good didn't hurt either. Her assigned topic was "The Bible Speaks About Respecting Diversity." P-R turned that on its head by pointing out that the Bible says very little about respect, because the message of the gospel is love, and that love is the one thing that can "obliterate the walls of every kind of separation we have contrived."
Friday morning was Joel Gregory's sermon. I was really excited to hear this; my dad heard "The Castle and the Wall" sermon in San Antonio twenty years ago, and we all refer to Gregory's deep preacher's voice as "the voice of God." His magnificent sermon was on welcoming the stranger, and after noting that we are all strangers sometimes, he said that God is always calling us to care for the strangers in front of us. "We like to generalize; God likes to particularize, and he says, 'Take care of the stranger before you.'" Gregory also noted that the Gospels' discussion of judgment says it will be on the evidence of how we treated "the weak, dependent, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the stranger." "An invisible faith will be based on that kind of visible evidence," and we see that, "Behind the face of the stranger is Jesus."
Thursday afternoon I attended the first half of the Prophetic Preaching series. I should've just gone to all eight sermons on both days, but oh, well. Dr. Joan Parrott was first up. Her sermon on "The Quintessential Yes" brought me to tears. After telling the story of how she and her brothers would play church as children (her grandfather, father, and all of her uncles were preachers), and she'd just step over her 5 brothers as they fought over who would get to preach to take that post, Parrott preached on the woman in Matthew 15 whom Jesus called a dog. But the woman still said, "Yes, Lord," and Jesus healed her child because of her faith. "There is a 'yes,' Parrott said, "that goes beyond statistics." "Even if I am a dog, I am your dog." "If you had said yes..., nothing can stop you, not the traditions of the church, not the ignorance of the disciples." "God is waiting for us to drop...those things that exclude the other." "I want my testimony to be, 'she said yes.'"
James Forbes followed Parrott with his usual incredible preaching, this time on the subject of healing. I saw Forbes preach at Baylor when I was 18 and it changed me, in part because it made me realize that a Christian could be concerned about justice. After dancing all over the platform, Forbes closed his sermon by saying, "The sermon was about asking Baptist to repent from turning healing over to the Pentecostals."
The final sermon of the week was from Charles Adams, who spoke on setting the captive free. His text was from Galatians, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," and once he took off, he was unstoppable.
I missed Bill Self's prophetic preaching sermon on Thursday. You should listen to it here. Best quote: "When church and state go to bed, they don’t make love, they don’t create a child; one rapes the other”
I also loved the racial reconciliation aspect of this meeting. Baptists in the United States have been divided for over 160 years, since the question of slavery tore our forebears apart. It was amazing to worship together once again.
Also, the African-American women attending the meeting wore their hats, which were beyond incredible. I'll admit to a little bit of jealousy there.
Much of the music was amazing (more on the rest of it tomorrow), especially the performances by Kyle Matthews and the Morehouse College Glee Club. All I can say about their West African number complete with djembes is wow. Wow.
Challenges for the Covenant Negative coverage of the event started early, and much of it came from Baptist Press, the SBC's news agency. Baptist Press was not fair to this event, and I encourage those of you who rely on its coverage to go watch the sermons and messages to make your own judgments. Bill Clinton managed to not talk about politics (which I didn't think he had in him), and he pointed to the fact that "Surely there is something we [conservative and moderate Baptists] can do together" even though we disagree. Grisham's message was slightly biased against conservative Christians, but he also pointed to several very important truths: that Baptists must truly respect diversity, that we need to stay out of politics, and that we should "spend as much time out there on the streets as we do in church" loving all of our neighbors; because "we cannot pick and choose."
There was a noticably small number of Hispanic Baptists in attendance at the meeting. As citizens of a state where Hispanics are the largest ethnic group, perhaps we Texans are a bit more inclined to notice this. I don't think there were intentional oversights of Hispanic Baptists in planning for this meeting, but I do believe that the organizers could have done more from the beginning to include Hispanic Baptist believers. If the New Baptist Covenant is to have real meaning in our rapidly changing society, we need to understand that racial reconciliation means more than simply reconciliation between blacks and whites.
I also wish that there had been at least one young leader on the platform at some point during the week. It was great to hear so many of my heroes speak, but if the Covenant is serious about being relevant to young adults - which I believe it is - then it would be nice to see some of our generation as representatives of that commitment.
Finally, we left Atlanta with good feelings, but also with a lack of concrete plans for the future. The NBC was wonderful, but it will be meaningless if we don't do something. I hope that together we'll find a way to move forward, because this week in Atlanta has given us a wonderful foundation.
I'll have more on some of the more entertaining aspects of the NBC tomorrow.