Baptists love to have meetings and I’ve been to lots of them. Some of them were memorable.
There was the annual meeting of the Owen County, Kentucky Baptist Association one summer in the early 1980s. I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and was serving as pastor of the Beech Grove Baptist Church in that association. The small rural church where we were meeting had spruced their sanctuary up very nicely, including putting a new coat of paint on the pews. It was hot—very hot—that night. The two window air conditioners were cranked up as high as they would go but they weren’t helping all that much. The meeting dragged on and on. Finally and mercifully, the song leader announced the closing hymn. As everyone stood up, a kind of cracking sound filled the sanctuary as the new paint chose to leave the pews and rise with our clothes. At least we all took a souvenir home with us!
Then there was the Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in Savannah in the early 1990s when I witnessed and participated in the one truly serendipitous and maybe even miraculous moment to occur at a Baptist meeting that I attended. At that point the future direction of the GBC was still in question. A fundamentalist-supported president was presiding. The organized fundamentalists in Georgia had waged a year-long campaign against Mercer University and against the state newspaper the Christian Index and its editor, Jack Harwell. We thought that we had a good turnout of moderates, but no effort had been made to field an opposition candidate to the fundamentalist incumbent who was eligible to run for a second term. For some reason, Rev. Jim Pitts, the solid but relatively unknown pastor of the First Baptist Church in Valdosta, had been named to preach the doctrinal sermon that was to be delivered on Tuesday morning before the Tuesday afternoon election of officers. He got up and in his quiet, unassuming way talked about historic Baptist principles by organizing them around the letters A, B, C, P, and S: authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, church autonomy, priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state. When he finished, I asked him if I could nominate him for vice-president. “Well, Mike,” he said, “that would be all right, but some fellow just asked me if I’d be willing to be nominated for president.” He was nominated and he won! They would eventually get rid of Harwell and they would eventually divorce Mercer, but for a brief shining moment Georgia Baptists rallied around her two great historic institutions and her historic principles and around a humble minister who had absolutely no desire to be president. It was the most Baptist and certainly the most Christian state convention meeting I have ever attended.
Then there was the 2007 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Washington, D.C. The workshops were very good. The camaraderie was refreshing. The spirit was encouraging. But the highlight of the week was the joint worship service in which the folks attending the CBF and delegates attending the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. biennial meeting shared. How good it was to celebrate our joint devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, our common commitment to historic Baptist principles, and our shared participation in missions and ministry. How good it was to sing, to pray, and to share Communion with diverse Baptists who understood how we could unite around the main things.
But that joint CBF/ABCUSA service was, I hope and believe, only a foretaste of what we will experience January 30-February 1 in Atlanta when we gather for the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. There, we expect over 20,000 Baptists representing many different Baptist groups from across North America to come together to worship, to learn, and to fellowship. I anticipate that we will all make many new friends, that we will be inspired to make great strides in taking the gospel to our neighborhoods, that we will be more convinced than ever of the ongoing validity and necessity of Baptist principles, and that we will go away talking about getting back together as soon as possible.
In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball told this story:
Speaking at the fall convocation at Wake Forest University in November 1997, Bill Moyers humorously . . . (noted) that Jesse Jackson, Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell were all Baptists. He went on to make the following observation about Baptists…: “Baptists are a lot like jalapeno peppers. One or two make for a tasty dish. But when you get a bunch of them together in one place, it is sure to bring tears to your eyes!” (p. 224, f.n. 27)
I’ve been to lots of Baptist meetings that brought tears to my eyes; sometimes they were tears that came because I was laughing so hard and sometimes they were tears that came because I was grieving so much. I anticipate that when this bunch of Baptists gets together at the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant, it will bring tears to my eyes, and they will be tears born of hope, promise, and joy.