Baptist leaders from all over North America met at the Carter Center and announced plans for a “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant” at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The event will be held January 30-February 1, 2008. Former presidents Carter and Clinton were among 80 plus attendees who are promoting this significant meeting. Baptists of all pedigrees participated in the groundbreaking meeting yesterday. “This has been been what may turn out to be one of the most historic events, at least in the history of Baptists in this country, and perhaps Christianity,” Carter said.

There is hope that the World Congress Center will house 20,000 Baptists for the meeting. The tentative themes for the four plenary sessions are “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” “Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor,” “Unity in Respecting Religious Diversity,” and “Unity in Welcoming the Stranger and Healing the Broken-Hearted.” There will also be breakout sessions dealing with issues of racism, religious liberty, poverty, AIDS, faith in public policy, evangelism, and prophetic preaching. Mercer University President William Underwood anticipates a great meeting, “I believe the convocation in January 2008 will be an important step in mobilizing 20 million Baptists to find a unified voice in addressing these critical issues. There is power in unity.”

Upon receiving the news release about the Convocation, I became very excited about the possibilities of bringing traditional Baptists together to focus on issues that are of mutual concern. It encourages me that these voices will be heard loud and clear early in ’08. It seems like whenever there is a need for a Baptist to comment on CNN, a Southern Baptist representative is chosen. This suggests to many viewers that the SBC speaks for all Baptists and this simply is not the case. This has been the voice heard most loudly when relating to public policy, social issues, and politics. It’s time to offer an alternative and focus on the common ground Baptists have in relating to our world.

Oftentimes the general public thinks of Baptists in terms of “what we’re against.” Carter says the 2008 Convocation is an attempt to create a new Baptist voice to counter what he says is a negative and judgmental image of Baptists in North America. “The most common opinion about Baptists is we cannot get along. . . I have been grieved by the divisions of my own convention.” Of course, he was referring to the SBC. There has been enough documentation and focus on Baptist wars to validate this perception. It is one that needs to be changed. The leaders of 40 Baptist organizations must feel the same way and are doing something about it.

There’s an old saying that “where there are three Baptists, there are four opinions.” It’s no secret that Baptists can be an argumentative bunch and have strong opinions. Our historic belief in dissent and soul competency fuel the our differences when it comes to politics, faith, and government. I don’t have any particular expectations of the 2008 meeting except that it will be refreshing to see so many different kinds of Baptists coming together under one roof for the common appeal of unity. It doesn’t mean that everyone will believe exactly the same way or be asked to sign a statement of doctrinal accountability. I do hope that the areas of agreement will be highlighted and areas of disagreement noted and respected. It sounds like this is the goal Carter has set for the gathering.

The Carter Center gathering yesterday and resultant Celebration scheduled for 2008 may well be the beginning of a new Baptist voice. This is a time when one is desparately needed. A voice that calls for inclusiveness around the creed “Jesus Christ is Lord” and Baptist distinctives is a welcome one. It is possible to have a high view of Scripture yet disagree on interpretation. Agreement on every theological issue shouldn’t be a test of fellowship. Unity doesn’t necessarily require uniformity. So, bringing Baptist groups together should yield a healthy dialogue on the issues that matter.

It’s noteworthy that no SBC representatives were invited to attend the Atlanta meeting. Keep in mind that this is the largest Baptist body in the world. Apparently, Carter and company didn’t think they’d participate (maybe their withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance had something to do with that). Plus, the agenda of next year’s meeting appears to deal with a more holistic view of humanity’s problems and how Baptists can make a positive difference in the world. Southern Baptists have narrowed their list of social evils to abortion and homosexuality. They are also making sure that the members of their boards, agencies, and committees abstain from alcoholic beverages (I’m waiting to hear something about tobacco or obesity). While the first two issues are worthy of discussion, there are other areas that the Bible speaks more about that deserve attention. To that end, it sounds like this ’08 Celebration will deal with broader themes that relate more to Jesus’ life and ministry.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the value of bringing different Baptist groups together. Just from the press release, it sounds like a Matthew 25:31-46 kind of emphasis. I don’t know what will come of it, but I do hope to be in the building to find out.