By Greg Warner
New Baptist Covenant Communications
ATLANTA – In about two months, Baptists of many stripes will gather simultaneously in dozens of cities across the country for a unique virtual meeting, during which they will not only worship and learn but spread out to work in their local communities.
The occasion is New Baptist Covenant II, a three-day gathering being planned by Baptists from a number of different denominations and ethnic backgrounds.
The Nov. 17-19 meeting is a follow-up to the first New Baptist Covenant, a historic 2008 meeting of 15,000 Baptists at a central location in Atlanta, which brought together Baptists from 40 different denominations and groups for the first time ever – Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics.
Rather than use air and ground transportation to bring the Baptists together this time, participants will rely on communication technology to traverse the miles. Most participants will gather at one of eight viewing locations that are linked by satellite feeds. Many more people will watch in smaller church-based gatherings via Internet video streaming.
As many as 30,000 to 35,000 Baptists could participate in the November event – more than twice as many as gathered in Atlanta in 2008, said Philadelphia pastor William Shaw, one of two national co-chairs for the event.
“It was challenging and affirming when we gathered in Atlanta a couple years ago to seek and affirm our common purpose in Jesus Christ,” said Shaw, former president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. “Now we want to do it again, not in one place but in many places, and those places are closer to home.”
The New Baptist Covenant is the brainchild of arguably the world’s most famous Baptist, former President Jimmy Carter. It is a loose-knit, grassroots effort to unite Baptists in North America around the mandate from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In that passage, Jesus declared his ministry was to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
With more than 33 million adherents, scattered in about 70 denominations, Baptists are the largest Protestant group in the United States. One key objective of the New Baptist Covenant is to unite the disparate Baptist groups around a covenant of social and justice ministries, providing an alternative voice to more strident Baptist voices.
While providing such an alternative was part of the creation of the New Baptist Covenant, Shaw said the point “is not to combat a [negative] image, but to lift up an image of unity.”
As part of the program this year, Carter will be interviewed about current religious and social issues by Bob Abernathy, host of PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” A keynote address will be delivered by Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America. Other program details have not yet been released.
The 2008 event featured leaders from government, religion and popular culture, including former presidents Carter and Bill Clinton, authors John Grisham and Tony Campolo, and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.
The 2011 Thursday-to-Saturday event will originate from Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta and be beamed by satellite to large church facilities in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. For people who cannot get to one of those locations, churches are encouraged to organize viewing parties to watch the event as it is streamed live on the Internet.
While the strategy of dispersion will allow “people to get there who couldn’t be there before,” Shaw said, in a sense it also may be more difficult than in 2008.
“When Jesus spoke at home [in Nazareth], the response to him was, at first, negative,” Shaw said, referring to the conclusion of the Luke 4 passage, where an incensed crowd threatened to kill Jesus. “Gathering where we know and are known is more difficult … particularly in a time of divisiveness.”
Yet scattering out to make a difference locally has been the goal of the New Baptist Covenant since the beginning, Shaw and other organizers said. Using dozens of viewing sites will put more people to work in hands-on ministry, said David Key of Emory University in Atlanta, one of the NBC II organizers. Those ministry opportunities are being planned for the final day in every community where the Baptists gather.
“One large centralized gathering of Baptists is great, but to truly be the presence of Christ we have to take Jesus’ ministry of healing and helping out into every corner of the country,” said Daniel Vestal of Atlanta, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, one of the participating groups.
In addition to worship services and hands-on ministries, NBC II will include breakout sessions to teach strategies to work for justice, fight poverty and address other human needs that would fulfill the Luke 4 mandate.
The seven churches that will host the satellite-fed gatherings are St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City; Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio; Israel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church in St. Louis; New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Seattle; Sharon Baptist Church, Philadelphia; and Citizens of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Compton, Calif.
Organizers are still enlisting viewing sites for the web-streaming video. Local organizers must involve at least two churches of different denominational and ethic makeup and conduct a service project on the third day, Nov. 19.
In order to compensate for viewing sites in three different time zones, some sessions will be recorded and shown at more appropriate times. However, the session in which Abernathy will interview President Carter will be viewed live in all time zones.
“That will be the time that everybody attending the New Baptist Covenant meeting will be live and connected,” said Jimmy Allen of Big Canoe, Ga., who is the other national co-chair for the event, in addition to Shaw.
Allen, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, was the primary organizer of the 2008 event, working closely with Carter and Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Macon, Ga. This time Mercer is managing the finances and Emory University is providing office space for the planning, according to David Key, director of the Baptist studies program of Candler School of Theology at Emory.
Other details about NBC II are being published at www.newbaptistcovenant.org and in an e-mail newsletter available through the website.
The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically, and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. Representatives of these Baptist organizations have reaffirmed traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality, as well as their obligations as Christians to fulfill the biblical mandate to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.
By Greg Warner