The second round of the New Baptist Covenant event was actually multiple pre-Thanksgiving events, its regional approach completely distinct from the early 2008 national gathering. But the earliest indications suggest that the movement — as some characterize it — is showing signs of becoming what founders like former President Jimmy Carter originally envisioned.
This time around, local planners set issue-oriented agendas that included Baptists across various lines of traditional separation looking to get acquainted, then unite in human needs and other justice issues in local communities and across their states.
To be sure, the contrasts between the original gathering and what transpired Nov. 17-19 are great. Some things simply didn't seem to turn out as organizers had planned and hoped.
Organizers pointed to the estimated 15,000 participants in Atlanta back in 2008 and suggested that even more would — or at least could — take part in coast-to-coast regional settings linked by satellite feeds coming out of Atlanta in addition to local programming. But instead of doubling participation this year, the various venues totaled only about a 10th of the original's attendance — about 1,700, ministerially speaking.
Conventional wisdom suggests that 15,000 would make a greater impact in cooperative efforts to impact communities and the nation than barely a tithe of that number.
But as with a lot of things in Christendom, that is not necessarily so.
The 2008 event was promoted well in advance and held in conjunction with a pair of well-attended National Baptist conventions' annual meetings. It was heavily promoted well in advance. And it was held in late January and early February, a time of year when it was not likely to interfere with other Baptist events.
The 2011 incarnation had none of these factors working in its favor.
The 2008 event was primarily that — an event. To be sure, it was a great place to be and an historic Baptist event. While new cross-denominational relationships were formed between national leaders, pastors and others during the meeting, joint issue-oriented efforts at the local and state levels have been relatively limited and fairly scattered.
Expect a more aggressive approach by this year's participants in the aftermath of NBC II. The St. Louis venue, for instance, focused on ongoing racism concerns and local urban issues like youth violence and drug addiction, and ministries to HIV/AIDS victims and to the poor.
Coordinating efforts between churches in various Baptist traditions in local communities and across Missouri should enable such concerns to be addressed more effectively, with genuine passion and with greater success.
The issues are close to home and so are the participants. For the most part, we simply haven't noticed each other, recognized each other's concerns or felt motivated to engage important people-issues.
The St. Louis event's point person, Scott Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, believes participants in the days ahead will get even more involved in addressing the payday loan industry and proposed legal limits on such loans, now often requiring 400 percent interest or more in Missouri and allowing even higher rates.
The event in Oklahoma City also focused heavily on the explosion of the payday loan industry as an issue on which diverse Baptists can agree to work. Expect not only local but state and national mobilization of Baptists on this issue. It affects the working poor in virtually every community in America.
These city-based meetings present opportunities to help churches in smaller cities and towns that deal with this issue and others in their own setting.
In St. Louis, participants experienced unity in worship. That is a great starting point for deeper understanding and other expressions of unity. Many are gaining a clearer look at potential and are eager to experience it. It was clear in St. Louis that these Baptists from varying traditions have a lot to learn from each other. Many are already listening, joining hands and anticipating the journey together.
What began as a dream leading up to the 2008 national meeting has the potential to come to fruition at the grassroots level. Historically, few Christian movements start anywhere else.
Baptist unity expanded exponentially can be a powerful force for spiritual transformation in homes, churches and communities. Some suggest that a society that usually notices Baptists at odds with each other won't quite know what to do when several Baptist traditions unite for common purpose and uncommon good.
Some of us long-time Baptists can hardly imagine what that would be like. Perhaps we will soon find out.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&way.