When I delivered a speech at the Centenary Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Birmingham, England, in 2005, I quoted a famous sports philosopher, Yogi Berra. He coined several deceptively simplistic and tautological remarks, such as: “It’s not over ’til it’s over;” “You can observe a lot just by watching” and “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
I said that if we would pose to the witty baseball philosopher the question “Where will Baptists be after the next 100 years?”, Berra would answer with one of his most ingenious proverbs: “It’s very hard to make predictions, particularly about the future.”
I still think Berra is absolutely right. When we aim to clarify Baptists at our 400th anniversary, especially when we try to say something intelligent about where in the world have we been and where should we go, we enter into more than just an academic exercise in futurology. Defining such a matter is more than merely elaborating about our past and our future; it has to do with our own essence and it conveys implications that determine our very existence and our identity.
Quoting Berra once more: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.”
Where should Baptists go?
I want to speak to Baptists as individuals, as well as Baptists as communities and institutions. I want to speak to the majority of Baptist groups in the world, who live in minority situations.
First, learn your story and your doctrine. History is tedious for some. Doctrine is complex. But both need to be learned. Know who you are, who your parents in the faith were and know what you believe. If you are a vagabond Baptist, try to understand at least what are the things in the Baptist way of being that make you unsettled and unsatisfied. That is also a Baptist way.
Second, envision new dreams. Learn something new that will connect you to your future. Buy a new G4 phone, get a Facebook account, enroll in seminary, do something you have never done that is aimed to advance the Redeemer’s kingdom in some way. What sustains the Baptist vision is not so much history as eschatology. We live in hope of a better tomorrow. We are part of the redeemed people, citizens of the new heaven and the new earth that come from God. Do not be afraid of your future. Delve into it in the strong confidence that God is the One who is waiting for us in our multiple possible futures.
Third, keep it simple. Do not try to do things that you do not understand. Do the basics: read your Bible, pray, go to church, tell your testimony, get involved in ministry, give, live for others and reach for the sublime. Then, expect God’s intervention in your life.
Fourth, keep it small. The Baptist genius has been manifested in the small. Small churches, small associations, small seminaries. If you are already stuck with one big organization, find ways of dividing without creating conflicts or at least create a network of small groups that connect the small to the big. Many of the things that have made Baptists great can only be achieved in small communities.
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Fifth, keep it open. Welcome others, especially when they are different. Welcome the new winds of the Spirit and the new kids on the block. Do not be afraid of people, realities or situations that you do not quite understand. Live a lifestyle that can identify you with the poor, the needy, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, a life of service to God through service to others.
Sixth, be discerning. Do not get trapped in useless discussions. Discern the spirits. Be astute as serpents and peaceful as doves. Center your life in experimenting with the presence of God in the Christian community, then empty it out in Christian service.
Seventh, keep it meaningful. The fact is that if it is boring for you, it will be boring for others. Spiritual life, church, seminary, conventional work – they do not need to be dull and repetitive. Make them significant, important and consequential.
Eighth, be honest. Be honest to God, honest to your inner being, honest to your faith community, and honest to all others. Ministry is only done in truthfulness and integrity. Don’t do things – especially worship – for the show. Do them in Spirit and in truth. Make the name “Baptist” be valued as the name of someone who is a leader in living a true ethical and Christian life.
Ninth, don’t do it alone. The Baptist way of being the church is communal. Find your place into a Christian community of believers, and try to live according to the standards of the community. Relinquish your ego to the will of the community and you will find the will of God for your personal life. Strive for unity in diversity.
Tenth, be intentional and authentic. Do not follow fads or trends unless they are really appropriate in your corner of the world. Whatever you do for the advancement of the Redeemer’s kingdom, do it intentionally. Be deliberate, plan, meditate on what you are going to do and, once in prayer you have decided what to do, keep it consistent and keep it coming. There will be rainy days, but later the days of achievement will come, too.
Friends, the challenges of the future are always changing.
The care of the planet, religious freedom, poverty, forced migrations, violence, drugs, health, security, lack of incentives, solidarity, the care of children, youth, the elderly …
These issues and others are joined to our own responsibility of redefining evangelism, Christian education, social aid, human rights and dialogue with other religions in such a pluralistic age.
The agenda is extensive.
Daniel Carro is professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, first vice president of the Baptist World Alliance (2010-15) and on the board of directors for the Baptist Center for Ethics.
This column is excerpted from Carro’s manuscript delivered to the Thursday Focus Group titled “Baptists at 400: Where Have We Been and Where Should We Go?”