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First-ever worship congress held by Latin American Baptists

NITEROI, Brazil (BP)–More than 2,000 pastors, musicians, theologians and laypeople from 18 countries packed First Baptist Church, Niteroi, Brazil, for a first-ever Latin American Baptist congress on worship, March 15-18.

The meeting included worship filled with vibrant praise and searching questions on worship styles, including content and music.

Also, the congress provided the setting for a reconciliation between two Brazilian Baptist bodies that formerly had been divided over their differing worship styles.

The congress was sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance’s study and research division and the Union of Baptists in Latin America.

When the congress concluded, “The Niteroi Declaration on Worship” adopted by the participants asked Latin American Baptist churches to center their worship “upon God and His glory” and music leaders to constantly seek for “true Christian worship.”

Each day, three different styles of worship were modeled — traditional, contemporary and renewal/charismatic. Various aspects of worship were addressed in afternoon workshops. Each evening service was a blend of classical, gospel and contemporary songs, liturgical dance, Latin American indigenous music and preaching.

Nilson Fanini, BWA president and pastor of the host church, set a theme in the opening address that was repeated daily. “Nothing can be done without Jesus in the center,” he said.

“We do not worship traditions or styles, we worship Almighty God,” said Tony Cupit, director of the BWA study and research division, who urged the participants “not to demonize the way others worship.”

“We may not embrace each style,” Cupit said, “but let there be no worship wars. Let us celebrate that God by his Spirit has given others insights on worship.”

Tomas Mackey, a theology professor at the Baptist seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina, laid a theological foundation for worship. “To worship is to be conscious of God,” Mackey said, “to open our hearts to his voice, do his will, obey his Word.”

Worship “lifts up our lives to God and causes us to recognize our dependence on God,” Mackey continued, describing worship as seeking and finding. “In adoration we seek and God allows us to find him. This is not just a philosophical thought, it is an experience,” Mackey said.

Jorge Aguillera, a professor at the Baptist seminary in Lima, Peru, said the Holy Spirit equips the church as an instrument of worship. Prayer and praise are essential ingredients of worship, he said, cautioning against worshiping a particular form of worship and using personal experiences to translate the Bible.

Roberto Alves de Souza, president of the Baptist Seminary of Southern Brazil, urged that more attention be paid to worship in theological seminaries. Seminaries need to teach a biblical view of worship, he said, noting that God is looking for worship that embodies spirit and in truth.

Preaching at the contemporary worship service, pastor Wander Ferreira Gomes of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, pointed out that contemporary worship, which is more informal, “does not exclude Bible.” While the order of worship is important, believers must not worship the order because the Holy Spirit will sometimes change the order, Gomes said, describing the service as a vehicle of communication with the living God.

Rosali Ramirez, a Guatemala City pastor and president of the Union of Baptists in Latin America, who spoke at the traditional celebration, said love is “the foundation of our worship, and that includes love for God and for those he has created.”

Samuel Escobar, a professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary near Philadelphia and president of the United Bible Societies, gave an overview of Baptist worship. All of Baptist worship has been influenced by the worldwide movement of worship in the Wesleyan, Lutheran and even the Catholic Church, said Escobar, a native Peruvian.

Escobar pointed out that the history of hymns evidence the particular renewal emphasis of the authors. For example, Methodist Charles Wesley wrote hymns that reflected his powerful conversion experience, while Calvinists emphasized the Psalms since they were the songs of God and not humans.

Rather than focus on forms of worship, Escobar said the church needs to find ways to respond to such modern-day challenges as the great interest in religion that is not necessarily Christian as well as new religions.

Denton Lotz, BWA general secretary, said there is a mighty force of the Holy Spirit moving all over the world, and he reminded the congress that governments cannot prevent worship. Although many believers do not have the freedom to worship, they do so anyway, because no human institution can deny the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church and believers, Lotz said.

Lotz described two kinds of worship, priestly and prophetic. Priestly worship is praise and worship to God while prophetic worship speaks the Word of God and brings people to repentance, Lotz said, noting, “Baptists must bring both celebration and prophesy together.

“Celebration without proclamation becomes emotionalism and proclamation without celebration becomes rationalism,” Lotz said.

One of the most memorable moments of the congress came in a reconciliation between two Brazilian BWA member bodies.

Thirty-five years ago, 14 churches of the Batista Nacionales Churches (National Baptist Convention) were expelled from the Baptist Convention of Brazil because of their different worship style influenced greatly by the charismatic movement. Fanini welcomed the president of the convention, Eneas Tognini, in the very church where they had been voted out.

The Batista Nacionales became a BWA member in 1997 and today has 3,000 congregations with 200,000-plus members.

“This is a historic moment,” said Fausto Aguiar de Vasconcelos, BWA vice president and pastor of First Baptist Church, Rio de Janeiro, who welcomed Tognini to the pulpit. “I remember as a boy 14 years old, sitting in the back of this church with my parents, when the convention expelled Tognini’s group.”

Said Tognini, “I believe what is happening is a miracle of the Holy Spirit, because we don’t see it as two conventions, only one, the Brazilian convention.”

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  • Wendy Ryan