Global Baptists hold lessons for Bible Belt
While Christianity is often identified with the West, there are Baptists in places where Christians have been around a lot longer than the United States.
By Bob Allen
If they have ears to hear, Baptists in places like the United States’ Bible Belt, where Christianity is the norm, can learn lessons from Baptist minorities in other parts of the world, Baptist World Alliance leaders said in a recent interview at BWA headquarters in Falls Church, Va.
Many Baptists in the United States “think they have an idea about diversity, but they don’t understand the extent of the diversity in the world,” said Kathe Traynham, BWA associate director of promotion and development.
Traynham recalled a recent phone call when a travel agent representing two Baptist pastors going to Rome and Paris wanted to find a Baptist church where they could preach and talk about missions.
“I had to spend a few minutes explaining to her that they should go and listen about missions,” she said. Traynham, contact person for the Global Impact Church program of the BWA — where local congregations are invited to join in weekly prayer for Baptists around the world and provide financial gifts and other means of support and involvement — advocates a “more even-handed exchange” between Baptist majorities and minorities.
“This comes up from time to time with people in churches who see themselves on the United States spectrum of political or religious thought, and they think that it’s the whole spectrum,” she said. “They think, ‘We’re the whole spectrum, right to left,’ and they don’t realize that we are a segment of that spectrum.
“They may feel they are classical or conservative Christians, and they are concerned about the rest of the world, and I explain to them that they may not be conservative enough in some areas. They would be surprised to know that men and women don’t sit together at worship in some places at Baptist churches. They would be surprised that we have Baptist bishops. They’re not aware at all of the things that are specific to culture.”
“When you are able to open people to that idea that we haven’t actually exported Western Christianity everywhere — they’ve always had their own Christianity and their own Baptist Christian traditions — sometimes that’s a little shocking. It takes a while for people to absorb, and sometimes, it’s a tremendous eye-opener that really is a gift to people to understand how much bigger God is than we’re able to imagine in our own culture.”
“For some reason, in our immaturity, the assumption always is that our Christianity is the standard and our Baptist Christianity is the standard. And, of course, it’s not.”
Equating Christianity and the U.S.
It is important to remember that for many years and for many people, Christianity has been equated with the West — particularly the United States, said Fausto Vasconcelos, a former Brazilian pastor who succeeded Australian Tony Cupit as BWA evangelism director in 2005.
“The Christian church can be easily perceived as a Western church or allied with the Western values, Western countries and governments,” Vasconcelos said. “That’s one thing that you have to take into account.”
Vasconcelos recently posted an item on Facebook making note of Billy Graham’s birthday, and one of the responses said, “Here’s a man who came to Brazil in ’64 to help a military coup.”
To this day, many Brazilians believe the CIA was involved in the country’s 1964 military coup, a perception backed up by now-declassified documents, he noted. When he was in seminary, Vasconcelos remembers people trying to identify a Southern Baptist missionary in Brazil as a CIA agent.
“That was in 1964,” he said. “Fifty years later in my Facebook, someone puts this note. Forget that Billy Graham was not there in 1964, but because he is an American preacher, he was immediately identified with the military coup.”
Vasconcelos recalled translating for a North American evangelist who was asked if he was in Brazil as a representative of the government of the United States.
“Christianity, to some extent, has been perceived by many, regardless whether we are minority or not, as a Western religion identified with Western values, culture, especially American culture,” he said. “That’s one thing that I hear every so often when I travel.”
That is true even in places like the Middle East, where Christianity has been around a lot longer than the United States, said Raimundo Barreto, director of the BWA division of freedom and justice.
Barreto, a graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology with a doctorate in Christian ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary, cited a recent example. A Taliban faction that has vowed to kill non-Muslims until the United States cancels its lethal drone strikes in the country attacked the All Saints Church in Pakistan.
“But Christians have been there for much longer, and I think they are eager to voice that older presence,” Barreto said. “We might be helpful if we don’t dress Christianity as much as we do with Western values.”
“Christianity is bigger than the West,” he said. “It is older than the West. I think we should be careful as we proclaim our Christian faith to make sure that we’re talking about the global faith.”
Words have repercussions
Eron Henry, associate director of communications for the BWA, said when he first visited Jordan years ago, he noticed the emphasis Baptists and other Christians in the Middle East put on careful use of language.
“They try to avoid, for instance, using the word ‘conversion,’ because that implies something else from what we understand conversion to mean,” Henry said. “They try not to use the word ‘Christian’ and instead substitute ‘followers of Christ’ (or) ‘followers of Jesus,’ because a Muslim can understand when you are a follower of someone quicker than to say you are a Christian. They will say they are a follower of Muhammad. So, language is something that has to be used with care.”
One of the most peculiar situations Henry encountered was in Turkey, where there officially are no Baptists. However, Christians who follow many Baptist doctrines meet in house churches but are not baptized.
“They deliberately choose not to get baptized because of what could happen as a result, but in all other respects, they were Christians,” Henry said. “They were catechized. They meet. They do Bible study. They pray. They worship. They do everything.”
Vasconcelos cautioned against “hermeneutical assumptions” in dealing with people from other cultures. On a trip to Israel after a service on Mount Carmel, a Jewish tour guide thanked him because another group on the same spot two weeks earlier had said Israel no longer exists but was replaced by a new spiritual Israel that God raised up made of Christians.
“And you did not say that,” the guide told Vasconcelos. “Whether you believe it or not, I don’t know, she said, but you did not say that.”
“So many times, our hermeneutical assumptions or understanding of the Bible may get in the way of our relating to others,” he said. “If you’re a minority, even worse, because it can really close doors to us."
Every time Vasconelos’ plane lands in a foreign country: “I tell myself: ‘Fausto, you are no longer either in Brazil or in the United States. You are in another culture. This means the values may be very similar to yours but the thinking may not be exactly the same. Don’t joke. You don’t know exactly how any joke can be taken in this country.’”
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