How could something so good have been such a bust?

How could the New Baptist Covenant II, supported philosophically and theologically by so many Baptists, draw such meager attendance?

By Jim White

How could the New Baptist Covenant II -- supported philosophically and theologically by so many Baptists -- draw such meager attendance?

Some NBC II optimists initially placed the combined attendance potential for the Nov. 17-20 meeting in Atlanta and seven other locations linked by satellite simulcasts at 30,000. 

Actual figures are hard to come by, because people were coming and going. But by any count, the numbers -- including 203 who viewed via the Internet -- do not exceed 2,000. Another 900-plus have viewed portions of the national gathering after the fact through streaming video.

Numbers are not the only measure of success, and if we ignore the numbers, the second national gathering of the New Baptist Covenant was indeed successful. Jesus’ purpose statement drawn from Luke 4:18-19 established the theme: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Passionate speakers delivered messages that spoke to the heads, hearts and hands of hearers as they provoked thought, challenged negligence and stimulated kingdom action. Atlanta-area combined choirs sang their hearts out and inspired us to listen for the voice of the Lord. And on Saturday actual missions encounters were scheduled enabling previously unacquainted Baptists to work side-by-side in applying Jesus’ words in practical deeds.

Yes, for those who participated, it felt successful. But numbers are telling.

Almost four years ago organizers of the first New Baptist Covenant event were thrilled by the crowd of more than 15,000 that represented every substrata of Baptist life. At that time I editorialized, “Baptists [gathered] from North and South; from inner cities and sprawling farms; from hallowed halls of academia and wretched halls of tenements; from board rooms and mail rooms; from tall steeples and storefronts."

Perhaps the numerical success of that first national gathering inflated expectations of the second. Still, as I sat last Thursday evening with 14 others in the 1,200-seat sanctuary of the Israel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., I couldn’t help but conclude that something was amiss. My first inkling of this was when I entered the church and a woman who directs church ministries at Israel Baptist stopped me and asked, “What is going on tonight in the sanctuary?”

I assume I am not the only one asking why we didn’t come close to reaching our potential attendance. Surely the organizers are also wondering. I have more questions than answers, but the questions are worth asking.

First, is there a real purpose for the New Baptist Covenant? Is there benefit in black Baptists and white Baptists coming together in worship and witness? Together, in the name of Jesus, can we more effectively ease suffering and enhance the kingdom of Christ? Is there something to be gained by harnessing the potential spiritual, economic and political power of 30 million Baptists -- 10 percent of the U.S. population? Who could possibly believe there is not? In fact, I would go even further than saying there is benefit; I contend there is a real need.

So if there is purpose for the New Baptist Covenant, why did so few get together? Perhaps we relied too heavily on the magnetic power of former president Jimmy Carter to draw a crowd. When the NBC was being formed, it was Carter who invited Baptist leaders together to pitch the concept of a national gathering. It was his influence in inviting speakers that put together such an impressive slate of presenters, from author John Grisham to Bill Clinton. As someone said, “When Jimmy Carter calls and asks you to be a part of something, how can you refuse?” But is Carter’s influence waning? Is it time for new faces and new voices? If so, whose?

Or was the attendance problem more basic, like communication? The pastor of Israel Baptist told me that all he was asked to do was to provide the meeting place and arrange for the satellite hook-up. He also expressed the assumption that the District of Columbia Baptist Convention would publicize the event. What has become rather painfully obvious is that nobody publicized it well. Members, even staff members, of the church didn’t know about it.

Was the problem with the timing? As churches prepare for Thanksgiving and the Advent season to follow, were they too caught up in the press of their own events to give much thought to something as ethereal as the NBC II? After all, from the local church perspective, it was one more event layered on top of an already crammed calendar.

Or could it be that Baptists just don’t care? Even though the purpose is clear and the need is irrefutable, do Baptists want to keep on as things are instead of moving on into something new and indefinite? Are our differences so great that we would choose diminished impact over cooperative effort? Are egos so pronounced that being a big duck in a small pond is preferable to joining ponds to produce greater possibilities? If so, we are as much like the world as the world we are trying to convert.

But I believe in the idea. I believe it is heaven-sent and Spirit-led. Regardless of the poor showing, eventually Baptists across the boundaries of denominational factions will get together for more than just a worship service. We will discover that we can do more collectively than we can do individually. Didn’t we learn that already? When the disciples are dull, lessons have to be repeated. How often Jesus marveled that the apostles still didn’t get it.

But finally, they did. And so will we. I hope.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.