It was hailed as a great, new movement among Baptists in the US, a unifying force, a way for various Baptist denominations and churches to come together around their common values, celebrate their diversity, have some dialogue and work together, perhaps toward the formation of a single organization within which the various groups could find a sense of identity under the Baptist theological banner. The first gathering in Atlanta was timed to coincide with meetings of several African American Baptist groups meeting there at the same time. With former President Jimmy Carter as the chief organizer, lending his name to help draw interest, and the involvement of the other Baptist to serve in the White House since Truman, Bill Clinton, the meeting got a lot of publicity. Hillary was running for President at the time.
Round two came a couple of years back, with a central gathering in Atlanta again, broadcast via satellite to a number of viewing sites across the country. The second gathering drew participants from the groups involved in the first, and still utilized the participation of Presidents Carter and Clinton. It was a theme centered gathering, appealing to Baptist interests in the plight of children, and ministering to the impoverished. Participation was much lower, the crowd at the host site did not even fill the Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church sanctuary in Atlanta. I have not seen word on a third gathering, and the website has been virtually unchanged and inactive for over a year. They are still putting out a newsletter.
It seems that the impetus, and the momentum that was present at the beginning of the movement is waning considerably. From those who were directly involved, there was some enthusiasm at the outset, but I’ve seen or heard little from them since the initial gathering. Some of those whom I encountered as the biggest cheerleaders of the movement, excited participants in the first gathering, have said practically nothing about it since then. The attendance at the second wave of events was apparently disappointing, though aside from the Baptist press, there wasn’t much coverage and the press outlets associated with the groups involved don’t consider attendance important enough to report.
So what’s happened?
These are Baptists. Some 30 different Baptist “groups” were said to be involved, but in terms of actual commitment to anything more than participation in a couple of meetings, the involvement has been very limited. There hasn’t been much, other than the meetings, to which groups can commit. And Baptists are never “represented” anywhere by their leadership. If they are interested in something, they’ll show up on their own. Independence and autonomy are Baptist character traits that run deep, and the phrase “no Baptist can speak for any other Baptists” is, perhaps, one of the most distinguishing features of Baptist church polity.
The fact that the largest, and most influential Baptist groups avoided participation or association with the New Baptist Covenant is problematic for a group that has an announced intention to unify Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention, along with the various Independent, Fundamental Baptist churches in the country, and the Denver-based Conservative Baptist Association, did not participate in the Covenant, along with a number of other, smaller, Baptist denominations. It is also an indication that the agenda, mission and purpose of the Covenant was built around a moderate-to-liberal perspective.
A couple of the larger African American Baptist groups involved, particularly the 5 million member National Baptist Convention, have had internal issues on which to focus their time and energy. Eventually, their more conservative position has led to a backing away from the Covenant. Essentially, the main groups involved in planning and conducting the second round of meetings were the ABC-USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. As things have shaken out, those who still seem to have some interest in the New Baptist Covenant are those who share its core values, and they are generally the moderate-to-liberal Baptists around which Carter built the movement in the first place.
Aside from the fact that Carter is not a Baptist who is going to rally very many others of the same Christian classification, he is aging and slowing down. Former President Clinton has lent his name to the movement, but is also not a figure who will gain the support of many Baptists for much of anything, especially spiritual leadership of a religious group. They are popular politically with African Americans. But African American Baptists are quite conservative, and they’ve reconciled the differences between their political support for Democrats, and their Christian convictions regarding the social issues of the day, including abortion rights and gay marriage, and the vast majority of them aren’t going down that road. So I don’t think many of them will see the need for getting involved in a moderate-to-liberal covenant agreement that pushes the theological envelope.
There may be future gatherings under the banner of a New Baptist Covenant, though I have to wonder if the embarrassingly low turnout of the last gathering is making the organizers wary of trying it again. Given the expense, I don’t think there are a lot of Baptists interested in another “gathering” for nebulous “dialogue” and to attend some workshops.
Baptists are already unified around their distinctives–salvation by grace alone through faith alone, baptism by immersion as a testimony to salvation, independent, autonomous, congregational churches, and soul freedom, church freedom, religious liberty and the freedom to interpret God’s written, infallible, inerrant word as directed and led by the Holy Spirit. They aren’t going to be pulled together by a Covenant agreement that is divisive, in supporting a liberal agenda, and which doesn’t elevate basic Baptist principles to a high level of importance.