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N.E. Baptists mark 20th year, Vacation Bible School concerns

WARWICK, R.I. (BP)–Concluding the 20th anniversary year of the Baptist Convention of New England, messengers approved a balanced budget, revisions in the constitution and bylaws and a total rewrite of the bylaws for the Baptist Foundation of New England.

A new president was elected without opposition during the Nov. 7-8 annual meeting in Warwick, R.I., and, through the resolution process, messengers went on record against supporting LifeWay Christian Resources’ 2004 Vacation Bible School materials, recommending an alternative LifeWay resource for VBS for the coming year.

The convention’s 128 registered messengers adopted a $2,736,359 budget, reflecting a slightly decreased, but balanced, budget from the current year. Twenty-one percent of the Cooperative Program gifts from the New England churches will be forwarded to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program, matching last year’s amount.

Revisions were made to the BCNE constitution and bylaws following a review and recommendations from an outside consultant. However, more extensive revisions to the Baptist Foundation of New England’s Bylaws were approved. These included a detailed description of the duties and powers of trustees and administrative officers of the foundation.

Bruce James, pastor of Gallup Hill Baptist Church in Ledyard, Conn., was elected president and Jerry Smith, pastor of Baptist Fellowship in Randolph, Vermont, first vice president, both by acclamation. Sandy Coelho was re-elected as clerk.

One of several resolutions approved by the messengers included the convention’s decision not to promote LifeWay Christian Resources’ 2004 VBS material, “Rickshaw Rally.” After being contacted by Asian Americans and having numerous meetings on the issue, BCNE leaders felt the step was necessary. Instead, the convention will suggest another LifeWay resource for VBS use during the coming year.

“We believe that, however unintentional, a mistake was made with this year’s theme,” stated Jim Wideman, BCNE executive director. “Asian Americans in New England have found this theme focusing on the rickshaw to be insensitive and to be a poor representation of Asian culture. Some have found it highly offensive. We did not feel that we could stay sensitive to our culture and context in New England and promote this material.”

Wideman added, “We recognize the solid biblical content of the material and the desire of LifeWay to present a fresh and exciting experience for children in VBS. However, the symbols used in this year’s theme will be a tremendous stumbling block in our area, and we felt we had no choice but to make this decision.

“The BCNE is not at odds with LifeWay and is grateful for the partnership and support that LifeWay has provided to New England through the years,” Wideman said. “In fact, we are going to offer another LifeWay resource, ‘Down the Street and Around the World,’ as an alternative for our churches this year. We look forward to being able to enthusiastically promote VBS material from LifeWay in 2005.”

LifeWay subsequently issued a statement quoting Mary Katharine Hunt, VBS division project manager, as stating, “We appreciate the gracious way in which the BCNE’s messengers affirmed their support of LifeWay, expressed their concerns about our VBS curriculum and pledged to continue working with us in the days ahead. However, we are disappointed with the passing of the resolution and disagree in the strongest possible way with its tenets.

“Churches nationwide, including many Asian churches, are telling us they will use the curriculum because of its strong biblical content, clear message of Jesus and the respectful way in which it lifts up another culture,” Hunt said. “For every concern raised by an Asian American, we are receiving dozens of positive responses from Asian Americans that tell us we are fulfilling our intent to lift up another culture and share the message of hope for all people in Jesus Christ.”

Rob Phillips, LifeWay’s corporate communications director, additionally told Baptist Press that the VBS materials were in development for 15 months, involving “experts in Japanese culture and language, and we traveled to Japan to research and film the curriculum. … This year’s VBS theme, like others before it, invites American kids to experience the richness of another culture. And it’s designed to teach children that God loves people everywhere. While a small number of people have questioned the use of symbols like rickshaws, umbrellas and kites, saying they are stereotypical of Asian culture, no one group speaks for all Asians. We’ve listened carefully, and have chosen to use symbols that give literal-minded children representations of the beauty and color of another part of the world they might otherwise never see.”

BCNE staff, in various convention sessions, presented their reports through PowerPoint, interviews and testimonies, championing the ways they have seen God at work during the last year.

Raymond C. Allen, BCNE director of evangelism, was honored during the meeting for his 20 years of service on the BCNE staff. Allen will leave the staff at the end of 2003. His ministry in New England dates back to the late 1960s when he and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Massachusetts to attend seminary. He and his wife planted many churches in Massachusetts and mentored young ministers, several of whom are pastoring BCNE churches today. The Allens will continue to live and serve in New England.

Among other resolutions affirmed by messengers were support for the biblical definition of marriage; appreciation to President Bush for support of the ban of partial-birth abortion; and acknowledging the 20th anniversary of BCNE, with recognition of the many leaders and staff who have faithfully served the convention over the last 20 years.

Greg Torres, BCNE Hispanic church strategist based in Hartford, Conn., preached the annual sermon from Philippians 1:1-11 and 3:8-11.

O.S. Hawkins, president of the SBC Annuity Board, shared a message based on Matthew 16:13-15, challenging those attending to face the issue of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ in order to win the world to faith.

Next year’s annual meeting will be Nov. 11-12 at New Hope Community Church in Ayer, Mass.
Based on reporting by Allyson Clark & Art Toalston.

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