DULUTH, Ga. (BP)–As Southern Baptists’ ambassador of goodwill to evangelical bodies worldwide, Bobby Welch has helped write a new chapter in international relations.
The former Southern Baptist Convention president and former pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., has served since 2007 as strategist for Global Evangelical Relations with the SBC Executive Committee.
His appointment to the position followed the convention’s decision at the 2004 annual meeting in Indianapolis to sever ties with the Baptist World Alliance. At the time, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said leaders had noted with sorrow in their hearts a continual leftward drift in the BWA.
“We have attempted … through letters, statements of concern and appeals to the body to do something to right the direction of the BWA,” Patterson said. “We have had no reception on the part of the BWA leadership.”
The Washington Post reported that Southern Baptists withdrew from the BWA because of “a drift toward liberalism that included a growing tolerance of homosexuality, support for women in the clergy, and ‘anti-American’ pronouncements.”
Some felt the decision to withdraw from the BWA would leave a void or create untoward isolationism. But as he announced Welch’s new role in Baptist life, Morris H. Chapman, president of the Executive Committee, was optimistic.
“Southern Baptists are opening a new chapter in international relations [by] preparing to renew old friendships and by making new friends around the world who are conservative evangelical Christians,” Chapman said.
“There is no thought of duplicating an organization similar to the BWA. However, Southern Baptists are not and never have been isolationists. We have a heart for the world [and embrace] both likeminded Christians with whom we enjoy fellowship and the unsaved for whom Christ also died on the cross,” Chapman said.
Welch has logged tens of thousands of miles as Southern Baptists’ ambassador to the nations, including recent visits with Baptist leaders in Vietnam, Latvia and Germany. His mission has taken him to more than 30 countries and six continents. Welch even plans to visit people working on scientific bases in Antarctica.
“I have been asked to be the strategist for global evangelical relations. I feel like I need to do what I do globally or we need to call it something other than global,” Welch said. “I feel like we should go to the four corners of the earth and build relationships.”
Through the Global Evangelical Relations emphasis, Southern Baptists are doing more to build bridges with Baptists and evangelicals worldwide than ever before, and they’re doing it with less money.
Welch’s recent stop in Vietnam, where he served as a U.S. soldier in the 1960s, took him to Ho Chi Minh City. There he delivered the keynote address to 725 Vietnamese believers, former missionaries and government officials celebrating 50 years of Baptist work in Vietnam.
From Vietnam, Welch traveled to Riga, the capital city of Latvia, where he met Baptist leaders including Peteris Sprogis, bishop of the Union of the Baptist Churches in Latvia and director of the Baltic Pastors Institute.
A country in the Baltic region of northern Europe, Latvia is bordered to the north by Estonia, to the south by Lithuania, to the east by the Russian Federation and to the southeast by Belarus. Across the Baltic Sea to the west lies Sweden.
Latvia was occupied by Germany during World War II and then by the Soviet Union until 1991, when it gained independence. Today the nation is a unitary parliamentary republic with a population of more than 2 million people.
FOURTH HIGHEST SUICIDE RATE
In 2007, Latvia reported 23,100 births and 16,300 abortions. Only 3 percent of the people say they are “very happy,” and the country has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world.
The primary religious groups are Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Latvian Orthodox. Although about 60 percent of the population claims church affiliation, only 3 percent are in church on any given Sunday.
The Latvian Baptist Union consists of 87 churches and 60 pastors. One-third of the pastors will be retirement age in five years.
“Most of the churches are struggling, and two-thirds of the pastors are bivocational,” Sprogis said. “Furthermore, the churches are required to register with the federal government and do not have the advantage of being tax-exempt.”
Compared to life under communist control, Sprogis likened their plight to the Israelites, saying Baptists there remain in the wilderness, but they’re not in Egypt.
“In fact,” he said, “for the most part Baptists are viewed with favor in the nation and have a good reputation among the people.”
Sprogis’ observation was verified the next day when he participated, along with other religious leaders, in the nation’s “Freedom Celebration” at the famed Riga Dome Cathedral.
The cathedral, built near the Daugava River in 1211, is considered the largest medieval church in the Baltic States. The nation’s most prestigious leaders, including the president and prime minister, attended the celebration.
After serving as a pastor for 10 years, God gave Sprogis a vision to connect the Baptist churches in Latvia, start an additional 100 churches and provide pastors with an opportunity for theological education. He launched the Baltic Pastoral Institute to equip pastors for effective ministry.
When Welch arrived, Sprogis had gathered several of Latvia’s Baptist pastors for the meeting.
‘NOTHING MORE THAN AN ADAPTER’
“When I travel to the different countries of the world, one of the first things I do is look for the power lines that provide electricity,” Welch told the group. “I like electricity. I like electric fans, electric razors and air conditioners. I like to be able to use my laptop. When you have electricity, good things happen. If you don’t have electricity, you can be miserable.
“However, in most countries you need an adapter in order to effectively use the electricity. An adapter is fairly useless. It only does one thing. It connects. It connects the electrical power with appliances and all the electrical gadgets that make life easy and comfortable,” he said.
“I am nothing more than an adapter. I don’t buy, sell or give anything away. I don’t really have a hidden agenda. I just want to connect Southern Baptists with evangelicals around the world,” Welch said. “I want to go with you on a journey. I want to help Southern Baptists take bold, innovative, creative steps to connect with the world. I want to draw Southern Baptists closer to the world.
“I dream of a day when we can sit down and talk about how we can win this world to Jesus Christ. We want everyone in this world to have an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ. In fact, I refuse to die until everyone on this planet has the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ; and you can look at me and tell that won’t be long.”
By the time Welch departed Latvia, he had endeared himself and Southern Baptists to the bishop of the Latvia Baptist Union and his colleagues in ministry. The door is open for an effective ministry in a country formerly identified with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and American churches and associations are free to partner with Baptists there to reach the nation with the Gospel.
After Latvia, Welch headed to Germany to build on a connection he made previously with German Baptists. As he arrived at his hotel in Heubach, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“I had accommodations in one country where the building was old, the room was tiny, there were constant power outages, and bugs had come up out of the ground and built a mound of dirt in the bathroom,” Welch said, noting that the German accommodations were much better.
“But I am happy to embrace whatever I get. My rule is that I will never complain,” he said. “If it gets worse than what Jesus and Paul experienced, I might complain then.”
‘NOT ALONE IN THE WORLD’
Heinrich Derksen, president of the Bibelseminar (Bible Seminary) in Bonn, and Nils Dollinger, pastor of Heubach Baptist Church, hosted a banquet to welcome Welch.
“It was a good day when we found out that we were not alone in the world,” Derksen said. “We were happy when Southern Baptists got out of the Baptist World Alliance. It convinced me that the Southern Baptist Convention was conservative.”
The Southern Baptist connection with German Baptists is strong and flourishing. The seminary in Bonn has a working relationship with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and Derksen and a group from Germany attended the SBC annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., last June.
Through Welch’s endeavors, that sort of relationship is being replicated in dozens of countries.
“The convention is too big and the world too small for us not to be doing what we are doing,” Welch said. “We must nurture and cultivate relationships. Every year thousands of our Southern Baptist people go around the world. We need to have relationships with Baptist and evangelical groups across the globe for their sakes.
“We must have more of a presence in this world. We win the right to say something at the meeting if we have a presence there,” he said. “I look forward to the day when we have people from 193 countries sitting down to discuss what we can do together to advance the cause of Christ.”
Within eight days, Welch had traveled 30,000 miles as Southern Baptists’ adapter — connecting believers, bridging gaps, building relationships and serving as the denomination’s chief ambassador.
J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.