They came to the Georgia World Congress Center by the thousands. They represented thirty different Baptist groups from across the nation, along with an array of representatives from Baptist groups from abroad. This gathering, held January 30 to February 1, 2008, marked the historic beginning of what is being called The New Baptist Covenant. This is not a new "super" denomination, but rather, is an association of separate Baptist denominations that are committing to work together to further ministries that will serve Christ and His Kingdom.
The one single cause around which all of these Baptist groups could rally without debate was the call of Christ to address the needs of the poor. There was recognition of the fact that there were differences among those who were signing on to this New Baptist Covenant, but the participants all recognized a basic principle of the Baptist tradition, which is the autonomy of the local church. True Baptists, from the time of Roger Williams, the initiator of the Baptist movement here in America, down to the present, have always held that local congregations should develop their own rules and regulations for faith and practice. Following that lead meant that there were some Baptists present, for instance, who did not support the ordination of women to the preaching ministry, even though most of those who were present were champions of the claim that women should have the right to hold any and every role in church leadership. There were those present who affirmed gay marriage, while most of the others were opposed to it. Some held pro-war positions, but there were many who were pacifists. Nevertheless, all who were in attendance were united in affirming the call to address the needs of the poor.
If ever Jim Wallis and the Call to Renewal Movement, which he was instrumental in starting, needed assurances that what they were doing was producing results, the New Baptist Covenant provided it. This new association, representing more than 20 million Baptists, made addressing the problems of poverty their basic cause, and this is the kind of thing that the Call to Renewal people have hoped would happen to church groups everywhere. The politics of the Call to Renewal have been the politics of poverty, and it obviously was the politics of the New Baptist Covenant.
The gathering had a list of star-studded platform speakers that included former Vice President Al Gore, John Grisham, the best selling author, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense League. There also were seminars that included some of the premier prophetic voices of our day. For example, James Forbes and Wil Campbell taught eager listeners what they had learned about preaching sermons with a prophetic edge. But in the midst of all the sermons and seminars promoting social justice for the poor, those in the New Baptist Covenant never lost sight of the need to win the lost to the salvation of the cross.
The Southern Baptist Convention was not represented at this gathering by their own choice. They were invited, but several of their leaders took exception to the speakers who were listed on the program for the Atlanta meeting. Several of the SBC's most prominent spokesmen condemned the meetings for what they perceived to their liberal tendencies. The net result is that the New Baptist Covenant may end up being a counter-Baptist group to the theological fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention and its espousal of Religious Right politics. This, in the long run, may prove advantageous to the other Baptist groups in the New Baptist Covenant, whose members are often upset when they are lumped together with Southern Baptists, and have to put up with being labeled with that convention's overt support of the war in Iraq and President Bush's policies.
Already, the leadership of the New Baptist Covenant is planning the next steps that must be taken if this new "association" is to be more than just a one-time gathering with some inspiring talk. Many are waiting to see if "the talk" is translated into action and concrete efforts to end poverty, both in America and in the Third World. Given who the leaders are, I believe it would be surprising if the hopes generated at the Atlanta gathering were not actualized.
Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.