Baptists from 59 countries are converging in Turkey this week for the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).
As the leaders of various Baptist conventions, schools and ministries meet to consider future efforts, they will do so in a land ripe with biblical heritage.
Among the key agenda items are the election of the new president, whose five-year term will begin next July at the BWA’s World Congress in Durban, South Africa.
Other programmatic decisions for the Congress, which only occurs every five years, are also being made this week.
Additionally, 12 vice presidents will be elected, and committees and commissions will consider their initiative plans.
Current BWA President John Upton, executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, told EthicsDaily.com he is excited to work on Congress preparations and to hear from other Baptists.
He added that hotels are filling up in Durban faster than expected, with 1,000 rooms already booked by Baptists for the Congress.
Attendance has been uneven at the congresses, ranging in recent decades from more than 20,000 (in 1980) to just over 5,000 (in 2010).
In March, the BWA executive committee created a committee to consider merging the congress with the BWA Youth Conference that occurs every four or five years.
It is hoped that the two together would attract better participation for the costly events.
The BWA’s financial information shows it fell short of its 2013 budget by 10 percent, mostly because of a 5 percent drop in donations when compared to 2012. However, revenue remained well ahead of expenditures.
Among the proposals being discussed this week at the BWA gathering are efforts to clarify the relationship between the BWA and the six regional fellowships and to create new commissions to help carry out the BWA’s work.
The various commissions plan forums and other activities at the annual gathering as well as guide efforts during the year.
Currently, there are six commissions in the Division on Mission, Evangelism and Theological Education (METR) and five commissions in the Division on Freedom and Justice (FJ).
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam proposes adding two new METR commissions: one on Mission to help Baptists think about the mission of the church, and one on Christian Nurture to help Baptists think about educational institutions.
He also proposes changes to the FJ commissions: splitting the Commission on Social and Environmental Justice into three commissions (Creation Care, Socioeconomic Justice, and Racial and Gender Justice), renaming the Commission on Peace to be the Commission on Peace and Reconciliation, and replacing the Commission on Baptist-Muslim Relations to the Commission on Interfaith Relations.
Turkey’s rich biblical heritage will be on display during the BWA meeting.
Although U.S. Christians sometimes refer to the modern nation of Israel as “the Holy Land,” the biblical land actually extends into numerous countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and even Europe.
Upton said he is “excited to be here in Turkey” since it is “the cradle of the Christian movement.”
He added that, for Christians, traveling to Turkey is “almost like being back home.”
Throughout the week, BWA meetings will be held in Izmir, which in biblical times was known as Smyrna.
One of the seven cities in Revelation, the city continued to be called Smyrna until it became known as Izmir early in the 20th century.
The BWA gathering will conclude with a session several miles away at the ruins of Ephesus, another of the seven cities in Revelation and a key city mentioned throughout the New Testament.
Some people attending the BWA Annual Gathering will continue to a post-tour to see the other five cities, all of which are in western Turkey.
Turkey’s biblical heritage extends beyond the seven cities. Paul was born in Tarsus (now in Turkey) and traveled to several cities in what is now Turkey, including Antioch, Colossae, Derbe, Iconium, Lystra and Perga.
Several of Paul’s letters were written to congregations or individuals in what is now Turkey: Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Philemon.
Other biblical ties to Turkey include the birthplace of Timothy and ministry by Peter and others. According to Acts, believers were first called “Christians” in Antioch.
Smyrna continued to play an important role in early church history after the book of Acts.
Polycarp, considered one of the three main apostolic fathers in the first and second centuries, served as bishop of Smyrna until his martyrdom.
A 17th century church named for Polycarp—the oldest existing church in Izmir—lies just blocks from the BWA meeting. Irenaeus, another early Christian leader, was likely born in Smyrna.
Important Christian sites in Turkey include Nicaea (where the council was held that led to the Nicene Creed) and Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Despite this rich heritage, Turkey today includes a smaller Christian population than any of its neighboring countries, including Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Only about 350 Christian churches exist in the nation, with Greek Orthodox being the most represented.
Earlier this year, four Baptist churches in Turkey banded together to form the Alliance of Baptist Churches in Turkey.
Ertan Çevik, pastor of Izmir Baptist Church, was elected president of the group and will speak at the BWA gathering on Wednesday about religious liberty in Turkey.
Upton expressed his joy to be there to encourage Turkish Baptists—who invited the BWA to come—and Baptists in difficult situations in other nations who are attending the gathering.