The Baptist World Alliance is meeting on African soil — in Durbin, South Africa — for the first time in its 110-year history as this issue of Word & Way goes to press.
And its new president for the next five years is David Msiza, a South African who will be only the second African to hold the position since BWA’s founding in 1905. Liberia’s William Tolbert (1965-70) was the first.
The BWA World Congress itself meets every five years and draws representatives from member Baptist bodies. This year, 2,500 Baptists representing 80 countries from around the globe were expected in Durbin.
The event is a cultural showcase of sorts as attendees dress in the traditional clothing of their countries. They share dozens and dozens of languages and dialects and pray together, study the Bible together and sing the familiar songs of the faith simultaneously in their native languages. Attendees have suggested that the World Congress gives them a “foretaste of heaven” — even if it lasts for just five days every five years.
The event is powerful, but the greatest value of the Baptist World Alliance is that somewhere around 200 Baptist conventions and fellowships worldwide choose to identify as an “alliance of Baptists.” Despite differences, they choose to be united around the good things they hold in common as Baptists.
Baptists are known to be passionate about their faith, and that passion sometimes puts them at odds with each other. Several years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention — long the BWA’s largest financial supporter — cut off funds over SBC leaders’ dissatisfaction with BWA on some issues. They have not returned.
Members that remain are different in many ways. They worship differently; some are poor and some are wealthy by comparison; and they hold varying theological views,just to name a few. But they have invested their eternal hope and their lives in service to Christ. And they are Baptists.
Many are physically poor, and they find the association with and the support of fellow Baptists to be important to them. Others have been affected by crises such as natural disasters or civil unrest. Either they need help themselves or they desire to provide assistance to others around them — sometimes both.
BWA also speaks out for Baptist ideals like religious freedom and calls attention to religious persecution wherever it occurs in the world, no matter which faith group is experiencing persecution. It does so in appropriate forums and regularly fosters communications between various faith groups to facilitate understanding and respect in places where tensions are strong, even among Christians of various persuasions.
BWA facilitates communications among these Baptists of the world to make sure critical needs are met. They help members of the international Baptist family know better how to pray for each other and how to meet specific needs as they develop.
The fact is that Baptists need the Baptist World Alliance because Baptists need each other. In a world of division, Baptist unity must be valued and sought. And for 110 years, BWA has been a unique Baptist resource.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way. He is a member of the BWA Communications Advisory Committee.