When the Southern Baptist Convention voted in June 2004 to withdraw from and defund the Baptist World Alliance, a tiny body stepped up a month later at the BWA’s annual meeting in Seoul, South Korea, with a commitment to help rebuild the world’s largest organization of Baptist conventions and fellowships.
“After the report of the withdrawal of SBC from BWA, we are the first to rebuild the BWA,” said Thianhlun Vanlalzauva, general secretary of the Lairam Jesus Christ Baptist Church, which was accepted into membership of the BWA.
Located in poverty-ridden northeast India between the nations of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the LJCBC pledged $400 in annual support to the BWA, a far cry from the $425,000 which the SBC was giving as recently as 2002-2003.
Tracing its roots to British Baptist missionaries, the self-supporting LJCBC had in 2004 an estimated 20,000 members and employed 161 full-time workers, including some 90 missionaries serving in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Tibetan China.
LJCBC’s action was a foretaste of BWA’s future recovery from the traumatizing disengagement by its largest and wealthiest member body.
Despite dire predictions about its future, the BWA has had a record over the past four years of numerical growth and successful change ”electing new leadership, responding to a horrific natural disaster, restructuring the organization, and making a commitment to new programming.
BWA now has an estimated 157,149 churches and 36,943,113 members, compared to 140,538 churches and 31,459,071 members in October 2004.
At the meeting in South Korea, the organization elected a new president, David Coffey, then the general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, for a five-year term beginning in July 2005. Coffey pledged his support to the Micah Challenge, a global project to cut the world’s poverty rate in half by 2015.
Three years later, the BWA elected a new general secretary, the first non-white staff leader in the organization’s 102-year history, replacing an executive who had been with the organization for almost 30 years.
Neville Callam’s election came the day after a memorial and reconciliation service at Cape Coast Castle, a former slave warehouse, located some two-and-half hours west of Accra, Ghana. The former Jamaican pastor traced his ancestry to the West African slave trade.
Between the elections of an officer and a general secretary, the BWA’s relief and development arm, Baptist World Aid, responded to the December 2004 tsunami, mobilizing global Baptists.
The BWA also restructured its annual meeting from a “general council” meeting to an “annual gathering,” which focuses on five clusters of commitment: worship and fellowship; mission and evangelism; religious liberty and human rights; relief and sustainable community development; and theological reflection. Added to the format of clusters are forums, in which attendees share information and dialogue about issues, and affinity groups, where participants meet based on program responsibilities.
The BWA will consider next week another recommendation for organizational change from the Implementation Task Force, which centers on issues of governance.
In May, Callam announced a job search for the newly created position of director of freedom and justice, one of the five cluster commitments. He expressed hopes that potential candidates could be interviewed at the annual gathering.
As director of the Freedom and Justice Division, the new staff member would advocate for human rights and religious freedom, resource Baptist bodies in their efforts at conflict resolution and coordinate the Baptist presence as a non-governmental observer at the United Nations.
At the Prague gathering, global Baptists will hear papers about problems related to human trafficking and the environment, discuss an open letter from Muslim religious leaders to Christian leaders, learn about hunger relief initiatives and examine the issue of ordination.
Over 400 participants are expected.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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