Celebration Reflections

February 04, 2008

After a couple of days to catch up on sleep and to reflect, here are some overall thoughts about the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. It was truly a historic and exciting gathering for several reasons:

1. Unity. Seeing about 15,000 Baptists come together in order to demonstrate that we are willing to worship, fellowship, and minister together despite some differences was an exciting thing to see and be part of. Baptists have been tragically divided and have allowed this to impede missions efforts. We do not have to agree on all things in order to work together to share the love of Jesus. He prayed in John 17 that we would be one so that the world would see God's love. And yet, despite the biblical mandate, we have too often focused on our differences instead of our common calling. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and must come together as members of the same body. It was exciting to see Baptists showing that they cared about this biblical mandate and about sharing the love of Jesus by uniting in love. I truly hope we will continue to learn how to work together and put aside the divisiveness of the past.

2. Reconciliation. This was truly the most diverse Baptist meeting I have ever been to. It is one thing to say we love all people, but it is another to demonstrate it. It is especially good since, despite improvements over the last couple of decades, there is still much progress to be made. It is said that the Sunday worship hour is the most segregated of the week. That may be an exaggeration but it is sadly indicative of a real problem. Although there were Baptist heroes who prophetically stood up for racial equality during critical times, many Baptists tragically supported slavery and then segregation. Not only were African-American Baptists strong in attendance, but they were included in key roles in the organizing of the gathering from the beginning. It is good that Baptists are coming together to undue wrongs and try to fulfill the dream of the Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr. And worship and prayer is much more exciting with our African-American brothers and sisters.

3. Worship. The sermons were great, as was the music. You can watch the main session speeches online here, and I would especially recommend Tony Campolo, John Grisham, Chuck Grassley, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. These and other speeches were thought-provoking and inspirational. They challenged me to seriously consider what it means to be a follower of Christ and how to live out my faith. I did not agree with everything they said, and that is okay because they made me think about it and that is a good thing. I felt like the gathering went deeper into exploring our faith than often occurs at Baptist meetings. And the song times were exciting as they had great special music. My favorite by far was on the last night when The Morehouse College Glee Club sang. They were incredible and high energy, and it is too bad the music parts are not online.

4. Fellowship. It was good to see some people that I had not seen for some time, as well as meet many others for the first time. It was especially nice to meet people in person that I had only spoken with online, such as Bob Allen of Ethics Daily, Rob Marus of Associated Baptist Press, Aaron Weaver, Ben Cole, and Keith Herron. It was great to meet and get autographed books from David Gushee and Tony Campolo and to briefly meet Jimmy Carter again. It was also really great to meet people at Smyth & Helwys who helped me with my book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!), including Keith Gammons, Griff Hogan, and Lex Horton (and, of course, it was nice to see people buying my book from them). The friendly spirit in the hallways confirmed that people were having a great time meeting and visiting with each other.

5. Positive. The critics of the event who made wild predictions about how it would be a Democratic pep rally and a time for bashing Southern Baptists were wrong. Carter declared on the opening night that the gathering would stay focused and positive, and it did (he also made it very clear that his beliefs about salvation are orthodox). It was great that the meeting was a time to consider what we are for instead of what we are against. And it was a time when all Baptists were invited to join hands to share the love of Jesus. Although national SBC leaders were not there, many Southern Baptists were and had been part of the organizers. Southern Baptists were praised and welcomed to join with their Baptist brothers and sisters. Also, it was not a political rally. Bill Clinton was the only plenary speaker to praise a presidential candidate, but it was Republican Mike Huckabee who he praised (and that was to illustrate why we should work together despite our differences). I hope that now those who were skeptical will become more willing to unite with their fellow Baptists. There are already signs of this as SBC president Frank Page moved from being a strong critic to expressing prayers for the gathering.

The Celebration was truly a great gathering. I am very grateful to those who worked so hard to make it what it was, and am glad I got to attend. I hope the messages from the Celebration will continue to ripple through Baptist life. I echo Jimmy Allen's hope that the Celebration will not be just a meeting but a movement.