Greetings from Atlanta and the 28th Annual Alliance of Baptists Festival Gathering. Please excuse the title…it will all become clear later, I hope; but I could not resist the opportunity to use those famous words from this place.
I’ve been here since Wednesday evening, attending sessions on pastoral care and christian formation with 400+ of my progressive baptist friends at this year’s conference, poetically named, “We’ve a Story to Hear from the Nations.” Last night, we were blessed to gather with Paco Rodes of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba and to worship with beautiful Cuban music; tonight we will invite God in with the words of Rusudan Gotsiridze of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (and I can’t wait to hear what we will sing). We’ve had workshops on listening to others across the divide of privilege (including an excellent discussion of the all the ways that an individual can experience privilege and exclusion, often simultaneously), we’ve talked about lobbying for important legislation, and we’ve had business meetings (it is, after all, a gathering of baptists). It has, so far, been wonderful.
The most surprising thing about this experience, for me, however, has been the number of people who are here, at this festival gathering, that no longer have a local church affiliation. There are also many here who identify as baptist but worship at the local Episcopal church or the local Methodist church or the local (fill-in-the-blank church). Yes, there are many representatives of congregations here, but there also independent pastoral counselors and people from intentional communities and…well, I’m sure that there are other places I just have not yet discovered.
The room is full of people who believe fervently in the Baptist distinctives as a way of living and as a way of being a disciple. Where you worship, how you worship — that is a completely different proposition.
You see, we spend so much time arguing about the death of the church as a cultural institution. We argue about how to market, how to bring the millenials back to church, how to fill the pews and the coffers. And to me, it is clear that the church of the 1950’s must be allowed to die. It must be allowed to die and to be transformed through resurrection, the foundation of our faith. It must be, as Margaret Mitchell once said, gone with the wind. Particularly if “wind” refers to the action of the Holy Spirit.
And how can I believe this? Well, here in Atlanta, at this gathering, I have seen that resurrection. I have seen people reach across cultures and denominations and embrace a set of personal rules about what it means to be a disciple — and come together with others of like orientation.
I’ll be writing more about the baptist distinctives over the next weeks as I continue my own re-examination of my personal identity as a disciple. But here, in Atlanta, I have had re-affirmed what I suspected and now firmly believe: that no matter where or how I worship, nor what local community I choose to embrace, I will be, now and forever, a Baptist and the Alliance will always hold out a hand of welcome to me.