By Robert Dilday
Dwindling attendance at both the Baptist World Alliance’s world congress and youth conference has prompted a proposal to merge the two international meetings, held every five years though not simultaneously.
BWA general secretary Neville Callam told the global organization’s executive committee March 5 that recent attendance at the events has been “less than encouraging”
“The relatively small attendance has severely strained BWA financial resources and has had the effect of diverting attention of BWA staff from other pressing aspects of the BWA mission,” Callam told executive committee members meeting in suburban Philadelphia.
Both the Baptist World Congress and the Baptist Youth World Conference have been signature events for the BWA, offering fellowship and inspiration for members of its 121 affiliated conventions and unions around the world. Both meetings are held at five-year intervals, typically about two years apart.
The first world congress was in London in 1905; the first youth conference met in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1931.
But in the past several decades attendance has dropped, Callam said. The 1980 congress in Toronto drew more than 20,000 participants, while attendance in Honolulu in 2010 was only 4,400.
Youth conference attendance in 1988 in Glasgow, Scotland, was 7,000 and in Houston in 1998, about 8,000. Last year in Singapore it was only about 2,700.
Since both events depend on registration fees for financial support, the declining numbers have pinched the BWA’s budget.
“I believe that sound stewardship needs to be exercised in our approach to conceiving and planning future international conferences beyond 2015,” Callam said. He added that plans are already at an advanced stage for the 21st Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, in July 2015. No date or location has yet been set for the next youth conference, which presumably would have occurred in 2018.
The executive committee authorized a General Secretary’s Special Commission to consider possible designs for a combined meeting.
Difficult, but natural
Dean Miller, a Virginia Baptist leader who helped organize the last three youth conferences and chaired the 2008 youth conference program committee, called the proposal a “difficult but somewhat natural decision.”
“It is very apparent (if one uses attendance as the main basis) that people are no longer attending these large group meetings,” said Miller, disaster relief and Virginia missions coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
He acknowledged that evaluating the events only on the basis of attendance doesn’t take into account the rich experience of those who participate.
“It’s difficult to quantify the energy, passion, meaningful dialogues, cultural exchanges and life-changing decisions that both the youth conference and congress have had on thousands of people,” he said. “But, honestly, it’s the numbers of attendees that actually pay the bills. And I believe it is following a natural trend that indicates people are just not attending large events of this nature. I believe we are seeing this in all events, across all denominational lines as well as outside of religious meetings.”
Vast opportunity for interaction
Callam told the executive committee merging the two could create “one vast opportunity for interaction among Baptists.”
“This transformation does not affect only the youth conference, but also the congress,” he added. “The driving force behind this appeal is the firm desire to preserve the opportunities these two quinquennial events afford.”
Such an “international gathering will provide the BWA with an opportunity to respond to the challenge to preserve some of our best mission consciousness-raising opportunities, to facilitate extensive networking among Baptists worldwide and to offer worship and fellowship opportunities using a flexible, effective and sustainable vehicle,” the BWA leader said.
Miller also recognized potential in a single international meeting.
“I wish it were possible to maintain these two events, but now there is yet another opportunity for the BWA to put forward an event that will make a new mark on Baptists around the world.”
— With reporting by Eron Henry, BWA associate director of communications.