Intentional Christian Communities. Isn’t that the church? Reflections from the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant

I had initially rejected the idea of going to the New Baptist Covenant celebration. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before the event that I decided to go.

My initial reluctance was that it seemed like a lot of sound and furry, and I wasn’t convinced that it would signify much of anything. I thought the only reason to go would be because it might be a bit of a happening, with Jimmy Carter calling the group together, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore speaking.

And then I kept hearing about other people from the Baptist Peace Fellowship, The Alliance of Baptists, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists who were going to be there. So I decided to go and am glad I did. It was a tremendous gathering and I came home with lots to think about. Kathryn Ray was there, as well, and we both agree that it was an event well worth attending.

Jimmy Carter set well the tone for the gathering on the first night when he said we were there to be with the other folk who were there and that it wouldn’t be helpful if we spent our energy on who wasn’t there. That reference was to the Southern Baptists, who declined to support this historic gathering of Baptists.

But twenty other Baptist denominations and groups did, including the American Baptist Churches, USA and the four major African-American Baptist denominations. There were more than 15,000 of us there, and we had a good time with each other. And I didn’t hear anyone talk about the Southern Baptists. We were forming a coalition of the willing, and what was much more important was where this group was going than where the Southern Baptists currently are.

Being a Baptist gathering, there was a major focus on preaching. And great preaching there was. I can’t begin to name all the preachers of note who were there. And there were also people like Marian Wright Edelman from the Children’s Defense Fund who is a bit of a preacher herself, and the most famous lawyer and Baptist Sunday School teacher turned mystery writer, John Grisham. We heard from the Pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church along with Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Believe me, they all preached. Al Gore cut loose.

The Republican Senator and Baptist church member from Iowa, Chuck Grassley, was also there. Truthfully, he’s not much of a preacher, but it was good to have him there. And the Senator from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham a Republican Baptist who like Mike Huckabee, had accepted an invitation to speak, also like Mike Huckabee, decided not to come.

There were plenty of other preachers and speakers. I have the program from the gathering if you would like to see the list.

In addition to the preaching, there were a variety of workshops whose topics ranged from engaging the criminal justice system, faith and public policy, evangelism, HIV/AIDS ministry, the role of the Holy Spirit in personal Bible Study and prayer, and many more.

Of all the workshop offerings, the one that made the least sense for me to attend was on Peacemaking. That is the one, of course, I went to. I go to those kinds of things all the time, but I finally decided to go to this one because though I had heard both presenters several times, Paul Dekar and Glenn Stassen, I had never heard them do something together. Like the last minute decision to go to the gathering itself, this turned out to be a decision I am glad I made.

That’s even true despite the fact that they really didn’t do a workshop together. They divided the time between themselves, and gave what they assumed were two unrelated presentations. Paul talked about a network of Baptist Intentional Christian Communities and Glenn talked about his work on what he calls just peacemaking, a response to the just war theory.

The more I sat in that workshop, though, the more the two themes came together, and the more they highlighted, for me, what this larger gathering of the New Baptist Covenant seemed to be pointing to. No one else may have come up with these conclusions, but I surely did.

An intentional Christian community is a group of Christians who make a deep commitment to community life with one another for the sake of developing a Christian life, or Christian lifestyle, with each other. Most intentional communities focus on what are called the inward and outward journeys. That is they develop with each other spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation, worship and Bible study, as well as ministry and mission that flows to each other and the world. Some share homes and income with each other.

After Paul Dekar talked about this movement of Baptist Intentional Christian Communities, Glenn Stassen started talking about just peacemaking. I have included the handout that Glenn gave us, but don’t look at it right now. It outlines ways peacemaking can happen.

I think one of the overall themes of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration was how can we be more intentionally Christian? How do we take our commitment to follow Jesus and turn it into a life of devotion and ministry that makes our Christianity authentic to our lives and this world? Preacher and preacher was asking us, in effect, how do we get past our divisions and work together in the name of Jesus for God’s Realm?

And it was challenging preaching. Tony Campolo asked which Jesus we are going to follow, the one that American culture is comfortable with, or the one in the Bible who calls us to make peace, stand with the poor, bridge our divides, love God and one another. William Shaw, President of the National Baptist Convention, USA called our attention to that very first sermon that Jesus preached reminding us that when after he said God had called him to preach good news to the poor, they tried to throw him over a cliff.

We were confronted at that gathering by a Jesus who makes demands in our lives to be peacemakers, to challenge the status quo, to work on the behalf of the marginalized, to care for God’s creation, to walk in humility and devotion with our God.

How do we become so intentionally Christian? What does it take to follow Jesus? An important way is to become an intentional community, a community that does not have to function outside the church. As I sat and listened to Paul Dekar, it occurred to me that people shouldn’t have to go to extreme lengths to find a community that helps them become more intentionally Christian. That’s what we should be doing for each other in this thing we call the church.

When Glenn handed out his information about just peacemaking, it seemed to me that if we were doing things rightly, it wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary that Christians are finding ways to make peace. This shouldn’t be controversial material for people who follow Jesus. But it is. Jimmy Carter, for example is vilified by members of the Religious Right because he speaks so often and eloquently for peace and justice. And he is also a man of deep personal faith who is not at all uncomfortable at telling his own testimony of his relationship with Jesus.

After both workshop speakers were done, I asked Paul Dekar if he thought there was any hope for local congregations to become, by in large, intentional communities that helped its members become more intentionally Christian. He said no. As did Glenn Stassen when I asked if he thought there was any way local congregations in this country would become a bulwark of peacemaking. He puts his hope in what he calls Peacemaker Groups, individuals within congregations who form a group that will take the peacemaking message of Jesus seriously.

I want to still believe that our intentional commitment to be community with each other in the church will help us be more intentionally Christian. But that is the challenge for the church. Are we that willing to be intentional about being the church, or what we often call these days a community of faith? Are we willing to offer ourselves as living sacrifices not only to God, but to each other, to help each other be more intentionally Christian? Are we willing to bring our gifts, our insights, our curiosity, our questions, our answers, to each other, and build a community together that helps us all become more intentionally Christian?

Community, like following Jesus, doesn’t happen all on its own. Both take commitment. But in this case they feed each other. Following Jesus should lead us to each other, and building community with each other should lead us to Jesus.

I think the New Baptist Covenant holds out the possibility for us that we might find ways to help each other follow Jesus. But it means new agendas for our lives and new priorities. It means new commitments. It means new intentionality.

Kathryn Ray’s cousin, Jimmy Allen, was the Co-Chair of the gathering and played an important role in the planning of and in the gathering itself. He asked us more than once if our time together was “a moment or a movement.”

I think this is a question we can ask ourselves in any church. When we come together is it for a moment here and there, or is it for a movement called Christianity?

There are many questions about where the New Baptist Covenant is going. In a couple of weeks Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Allen, and others are going to gather and begin to discern what is next for the New Baptist Covenant.

That’s lots of work and there is a long row ahead for them. But we don’t have to wait. How intentionally are we going to help bring about a community of Christians who are propelled by a vision to be salt and light? A sign of hope for the hopeless? A place of life for the dying? A place called home for the wandering? A place of healing for the soul sick? A place of comfort for the battered? A place of rest for the struggling? A place of commitment for the aimless? A place of revolutionary fervor for those looking for a new world?

Is there a celebration of a new covenant, Baptist or otherwise, waiting for us? It’s not too late to decide to go. And we will be glad we did.

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