The Baptist World Congress, held every five years and drawing thousands of Baptists from around the world, is a refreshing event.
"Refreshing" is an adjective that likely describes the Congress for most of the 4,000 messengers in attendance, but it is refreshing for different reasons for this diverse collection of people linked by their faith in Christ and their common Baptist expression.
Some who make it to this gathering find a respite from regimes and cultures that do not appreciate Baptist or other Christian believers. In some places, negative sentiment manifests itself in resentment, harassment and even physical persecution.
Some Baptists who attend the Congress come from heavily secularized cultures. Some are minority Baptists who come from countries that have majority religions that enjoy preferred status with local and national leaders. Some come from nations wracked by war or violence. Others hail from environments where they live and serve in extreme poverty.
These Baptists of 100-plus nations discover that they are not necessarily alone in their circumstances. They discover kindred spirits that do not necessarily share the same customs, language, skin color or worship styles, but do share common concerns and struggles. The environment is one that helps strengthen the weary.
There are reasons these Baptists sacrifice to travel around the world. They seek and discover a pentecost of sorts, where the location becomes a spiritual crossroads for Baptists of the world, at least for a few days. The Baptist World Congress is a social gathering, of course, and the fellowship is sweet. But it also is an event during which the Spirit of God moves nimbly and powerfully, building up bridges of mutual expression and understanding.
While heaven is not limited to Baptists, the Congress is a tune-up for eternity in heaven. In fact, Baptists meet at the Congress who may never see each other again until they meet someday in heaven. Such gatherings are not casual; they are intense with purpose and expectation.
It is true that never before has there been such potential for long-distance interaction and communication between the most geographically separated points on earth. But the Baptist World Congress is a reminder that there is nothing like being able to reach out and literally touch a brother or sister in Christ.
It is a moving sight to see hands clasped as prayers are hoisted heavenward in different languages. And to experience worship punctuated by thousands singing favorite hymns to the same tunes but in different heart languages.
The delegates who come from the West, where most have the resources to pay travel and lodging expenses, need what the Baptist World Alliance fosters among its member Baptist unions.
Baptists who hail from North America usually do not seek respite from persecution, from poverty, from war in their communities or from the loneliness of being in an extreme religious minority. But they seek a respite nevertheless.
Sometimes those who are more easily prone to self-sufficiency learn much from fellow believers whose circumstances might seem to push them to the edge of faith. But what the self-sufficient often observe in gatherings such as this is the joy of spiritual dependence.
Casual conversations with Baptists who are different don't remain casual very long. Baptists in our state have learned that truth through joint efforts in international and other cross-cultural ministry settings. The experience matures us in our faith.
We Baptist Christians need each other. Perhaps that is why 4,000 people spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars to be part of an experience that lasted only a few days. Even though these Baptists may vary in discussion of important issues, delegates discover a unity that onlookers find hard to understand. Some have observed Baptists at odds with each other and at odds with spiritual outsiders. Reports from the Congress show us what is possible and should bring shame for petty Baptist behavior.
What those of us who live where Baptists have become the biggest, the best resourced, the best trained and the most affluent need is a look at how God is moving in the lives of those who are unlike us. We benefit from a jolt of Baptist togetherness where barriers dare not exist.
Most people who are drawn to the Congress are hungry for what they discover. Each brings something to the family table and each benefits from spiritual insight gained under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Some indeed call such experiences a taste of heaven on earth.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.