North American Baptists ask, what will we look like in 50 years?

The FutureBaptists Convocation explores compelling visions for the half-century old North American Baptist Fellowship.

By Robert Dilday

The North American Baptist Fellowship marked its 50th anniversary March 6-7 with a nod to the past while focusing on what the group’s general secretary called one of its greatest challenges — finding a mission and vision to animate collaboration among its member bodies.

Meeting in Philadelphia — where 200 years ago Baptists in the United States formed their first national organization — NABF members centered attention on a single question: What will characterize Baptists as a collaborative mission movement from a base in North America in 50 years?

Organized in 1964 as a regional affiliate of the Baptist World Alliance, the NABF counts 28 conventions and ministry organization in the United States and Canada as members.

Bullard Web“The NABF is still looking for a mission and vision that is sufficiently compelling to cause its member bodies to be passionate about their collaborative work in and through NABF, and their collective support of the Baptist World Alliance,” general secretary George Bullard told the BWA executive committee two days before his group’s meeting. “These are our two objectives, but they must be owned by the member bodies for NABF to be a vital and vibrant region of the Baptist World Alliance.”

In the weeks prior to the NABF celebration — titled a “FutureBaptists Convocation” — Bullard asked registrants to identify the most compelling issues offering possibilities for collaboration. Twelve issues emerged from that survey and in small groups during the convocation, participants narrowed those to three: congregational transformation and renewal, systemic reform to end economic oppression, and evangelism.

Later a straw poll of the nearly 100 attending the meeting endorsed those three topics.

“We’ll take these to our executive committee to formulate a recommendation,” Bullard said. He said an official report will be presented when NABF leaders meet in conjunction with the BWA’s Annual Gathering in Izmir, Turkey, in July.

Upton WebCircling around a compelling mission will be undergirded by increased financial support, which Bullard told the BWA executive committee was promising.

“2013 was the best financial year NABF has experienced in its history,” he said. “Almost five times as many member bodies contributed as did five years ago. Financial receipts were four times greater than they were five years ago.”

More to consider

But challenges remain — and not just in identifying a compelling purpose for the group.

“North America offers numerous opportunities for Baptists to be engaged in various organizations and movements. …,” Bullard said. “Some of these groups function in competition to NABF. Many member bodies do not see NABF as a primary organization to benefit from their leadership, time and financial support.”

What’s more, diversity among North American Baptists sometimes hinders collaboration, he added.

“Baptists are human enough to prefer Baptists who are their kind of Baptist. Therefore, several varieties of Baptist exceptionalism exist within North America that cause one kind of Baptist to exclude other kinds of Baptists. Because of the human tendency to desire harmony, it is difficult to get Baptists in North America into deep dialogue with one another. Too often and too quickly opinions are formed that hinder fellowship and collaboration.”

Overcoming those differences is “a vision of the future to which I believe God would lead us as Baptists,” BWA general secretary Neville Callam told NABF participants.

The Church was created “to be a sign and instrument of the new creation,” he said, reflecting “a unity in diversity powerful enough to counteract fragmentation.”

That “ecumenical fervency,” combined with “evangelistic fervor” and a “Trinitarian faith,” is essential, Callam said.

“It is a future in which we participate joyfully in the one Church that worships the one God, in which they burn with passion to share the one message of salvation through Jesus Christ.”

No security here

BWA president John Upton told the NABF facing the future means moving forward without always knowing where one is headed — and Christians must embrace that uncertainty.

“What happened to us? When in the world did we think this was about stability?” asked Upton, who also is executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. “That’s what our church people think. That’s what denominational leaders think.

“We look for security and permanence. When did we think the journey had anything to do with those things? Authentic faith is without exception an open-ended journey. It’s about change, growth, dynamic movement, vulnerability.”

God is telling the church that “it’s time to pack up,” Upton said.

“God is saying, ‘You’ve lived with security too long, you’ve gotten too dependent on permanence. This wasn’t where you were supposed to stop.”

The FutureBaptists convocation was hosted by Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. In addition to the NABF, it was sponsored by American Baptist International Ministries and the Philadelphia Baptist Association.