During the closing days of January, more than 15,000 Baptists from 30 different Baptist denominations gathered together at the Convention Center in Atlanta. Although all Baptist groups were invited to join in what was called The New Baptist Covenant, official representatives from the largest Baptist group in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention, were conspicuously absent. Although they were invited, the SBC officials chose not to attend. There were good reasons for that.
First, the plenary speakers at this gathering were not speakers who would have been welcomed at the annual meetings of the SBC. They included Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Grisham - all of whom would likely be treated as persona non grata by Southern Baptist leaders.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the unspoken agenda of the New Baptist Covenant was to provide a Baptist alternative to the politics and practices of the Southern Baptist Convention. Those Baptists who did attend, representing denominations with a combined membership of more than 20 million other Baptists, were viewed by the leaders of the SBC as a kind of "in your face" demonstration that they were tired of being painted by the general public with the same broad brush that has wrongly allied them with many positions taken by the SBC.
Most of those in this New Baptist Covenant, unlike their SBC brothers and sisters, have no problem with women in the pastoral ministry, and are not necessarily fans of the Bush administration. Strong anti-war sentiment was easily discernable among those in attendance. Representing what they considered a moderate stance on such issues - in contrast with the overtly Religious Right commitment of the SBC - they went on to reaffirm historic Baptist principles. These included a belief that the local church should decide on what should be its practices (in contrast to the SBC practice that Baptist state conventions can lay down beliefs and practices that determine whether or not a given church is acceptable for membership in their respective fellowships); and the principle of "sole conscience," which abhors doctrinal conformity (in contrast to the SBC requiring the signing on to creedal statements by any who would be its missionaries or serve in its denominational seminaries or offices).
In seeking unity among the many Baptist participants, those who planned this get-together selected Concern for the Poor as their theme for the conference. Recognizing that there are more than 2000 verses in Scripture that call upon the people of God to care for the poor, the organizers of the New Baptist Covenant decided that there would be no argument among those attending this gathering, given this focus of attention.
It seemed to work! There was a sense of joyful oneness pervading each and every session. In this respect, the New Baptist Covenant was in harmony with the defining mission of Sojourners. This movement lent support to the work of Jim Wallis, who has zeroed in on eliminating poverty as the primary concern of Sojourners.
The negatives of this meeting of Baptists included the absence of significant representatives from African-American denominations, even though the gathering was planned to follow the meetings of two of America's largest African-American denominations, and was held in the very same convention hall. It was reported that many of the members of these two large groups of Baptists were unable to finance staying in Atlanta for an extra three days, which attending the meeting of the New Baptist Covenant required.
Another shortcoming of this gathering was that there was no clear-cut vision of what the next steps should be. There were important questions that were not answered. Is the New Baptist Covenant supposed to function as some kind of new informally-organized denomination? Is the call to care for the poor, so eloquently prescribed in the speeches, going to be translated into some specific programs? Will there be a team of leaders to give direction and some kind of organization to this New Baptist Covenant? It should be noted that the executives of the represented Baptist groups have an upcoming meeting planned, at which time these and other questions probably will be answered.
Whatever might have been the shortcomings and critiques of what transpired in Atlanta, however, there emerged clear evidence that this New Baptist Covenant could be the beginning of something very significant for Baptists. It could represent a movement that could transcend the partisan politics, too often evident among Southern Baptists, and could be a major step in moving Baptists into being a visible and viable partner with other mainstream denominations.
Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.