By Greg Warner
Birmingham, England (ABP) — An estimated 12,000 Baptist Christians from around the world celebrated a century of togetherness July 27, opening their five-day meeting in Birmingham, England, with vibrant music, vivid pageantry and stirring stories of faith.
The Baptist World Centenary Congress returned to England, where in 1905 the Baptist World Alliance, now an international fellowship of believers from 200-plus countries, was formed. A century ago, 85 percent of the world's Baptists were in Europe and North America, said Denton Lotz, general secretary of BWA. Now 65 percent of Baptists are in the Two-Thirds World, Lotz told the delegates.
"This is the new paradigm shift," Lotz said as he asked delegates from Africa, Asia and South America to stand. The Southern Hemisphere may lack money, political freedom or clout, he said, but "they are going to re-evangelize the world."
The July 27-31 Baptist World Congress in Birmingham is one of the largest gatherings ever of worldwide Baptists. Delegates swept aside any concern about recent terrorist attacks in nearby London. As they made their way through the legendary English drizzle to the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham's city center, many were unaware that several Birmingham residents were arrested earlier in the day as suspects in the London subway bombings of July 7 and July 21.
"We prayed that you would come, despite the bombings and the terror alerts," said incoming BWA president David Coffey of Great Britain. The delegates' presence, he said, was a witness of faith to the victims of terrorism and to persecuted Christians around the world.
The evening gathering of Christians from many languages and nations was a re-enactment of Pentecost, said Coffey, general secretary of Baptist Union of Great Britain, who are hosts for the congress.
"Jesus Christ is head of this global family," he said.
A procession of banners from BWA member nations, interspersed with colorful 20-foot streamers and delegates in native dress, weaved their way around the arena floor as delegates sang. They also experienced the traditional music and dance from various countries, including India and Korea. And they sang hymns, praise choruses, and in other musical styles representative of their diversity.
Delegates were welcomed to England with letters from Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called the world's 35 million Baptists a "powerful force for good," a diverse community "ready to challenge the powers that be." Other messages came from the mayor of Birmingham and the private secretary of the Queen of England.
As a demonstration of their unity, the delegates were invited to recite together the Apostle's Creed, a centuries-old declaration of orthodox faith used in many historic Christian traditions. They were led by actor Eric Petrossian in the role of Alexander Maclaren, who led the first BWA meeting in 1905 in a similar recitation.
Petrossian, quoting Maclaren's address to the 1905 meeting, said the delegates were gathered notonly to celebrate their diversity and fellowship but, more importantly, "in the name of Christ and by the power of the Spirit…the only source of power and peace."
The opening session of the congress, which is held once every five years, introduced the meeting's theme, "Jesus Christ, Living Water," which also denotes a five-year BWA emphasis on evangelism. With drama, video and preaching, the delegates considered the centrality and life-giving nature of Jesus. A youth drama troupe from Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, acted out the biblical story of Jesus with the woman at the well, then accompanied a recording of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" with choreography.
"As water is essential to life, so is salvation," said Korean pastor Billy Kim, outgoing BWA president, who delivered the sermon for the session. In stories from Korean history and his own life, he told of the power of the gospel to transform lives. He noted that 30 percent of South Koreans are Christians today, in part because of the courageous commitment of an American determined to take the gospel to the island nation.
Kim, who recently retired as pastor of Suwon Central Baptist Church near Seoul, one of the largest Baptist churches in the world, was followed on the program by the Korean Children's Choir and orchestra, in traditional costume, who performed a medley of familiar Western hymns in Korean and English.
Other musical groups from around the world sang in their native tongues as well as English, the predominant language for the congress. (07-29-05)