Southern Baptists' Global Ambassador
by J. Gerald Harris
With Southern Baptists no longer being a part of the Baptist World Alliance, Bobby Welch, former Southern Baptist Convention president and former pastor (for thirty-two years) of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Florida, has helped the denomination write a new chapter in international relations. Since March 15, 2007, Welch has been Southern Baptists' ambassador of goodwill to Baptist and evangelical bodies around the world.
Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to break ties with the Baptist World Alliance on July 15, 2004, at their annual meeting held in Indianapolis.
Baptist Press reported, "The BWA is not a governing body, but is a fellowship organization with headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. The BWA, which includes 211 member Baptist conventions/unions, was formed in London, England, in 1905, in large part by Southern Baptists."
Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson explained why the Southern Baptist Convention should approve the recommendation to withdraw from the BWA by stating, "We have noted with sorrow in our 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. We have had no reception on the part of the BWA leadership."
The Washington Post reported that Southern Baptists withdrew from the BWA due to "a drift toward liberalism that included a growing tolerance of homosexuality, support for women in the clergy, and 'anti-American' pronouncements."
Some felt that that the decision to withdraw from the BWA would leave some kind of void or create an inappropriate isolationism.
However, in announcing Welch's new role in Baptist life, Morris H. Chapman, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, stated, "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. 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 like-minded Christians with whom we enjoy fellowship and the unsaved for whom Christ also died on the cross."
Welch's title is strategist for Global Evangelical Relations (GER), and he has logged tens of thousands of miles as Southern Baptists' ambassador to the nations. He recently circled the globe visiting Baptist leaders in Vietnam, Latvia, and Germany. His mission has taken him to over thirty countries and to every continent except Antarctica. However, Welch plans to visit people on some of the scientific bases in Antarctica — the coldest, windiest, southernmost continent on the globe.
He remarked, "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. I feel like we should go to the four corners of the earth and build relationships."
Through GER, Southern Baptists are actually doing more to build bridges with Baptists and evangelicals worldwide than ever before, and doing it with less money.
Welch's recent stop in Vietnam, where he became a U.S. war hero in the 1960s, took him to Ho Chi Minh City, where he delivered the keynote address to 725 Vietnamese believers, former missionaries, and government officials celebrating fifty years of Baptist work in Vietnam.
From Vietnam, Welch's whirlwind trip around the world took him 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.
Latvia is a country in the Baltic region of northern Europe. It 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 the Soviet Union (1940-41, 1945-1991) and Germany (1941-1945), but regained its independence on August 21, 1991. Today, Latvia is a unitary parliamentary republic with a population of 2,377,383.
Fourth Highest Suicide Rate
In 2007, the country reported 23,100 births and 16,300 abortions. Only 3 percent of the people say they are "very happy"; the country has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world.
The primary religious groups are Roman Catholics, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Latvian Orthodox Church. Although about 60 percent of the total population claims some sort of church affiliation only 3 percent are in church on any given Sunday.
The Latvian Baptist Union consists of only eighty-seven churches and sixty pastors. One-third of the pastors will be retired in five more years. Sprogis stated, "Most of the churches are struggling, and two-thirds of the pastors are bi-vocational. Furthermore, the churches are required to register with the federal government and do not have the advantage of being tax exempt."
When asked how the current condition is better than life under Communist control, Sprogis commented, "We are in the wilderness, but at least we are no longer in Egypt.
"In fact," Sprogis added, "for the most part, Baptists are viewed with favor in the nation and have a good reputation among the people."
His 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 to be the largest medieval church in the Baltic States. The nation's most prestigious leaders, including the president and prime minister, attended the "Freedom Celebration."
After serving as a pastor for ten years, God gave Sprogis a vision to connect the Baptist churches in Latvia, start an additional one hundred churches, and provide the pastors with an opportunity for a theological education. Sprogis has launched the Baltic Pastoral Institute to equip pastors for an effective ministry.
Sprogis was the facilitator of the meeting with Welch and had assembled the most notable Baptist preachers in the nation to meet the SBC ambassador of goodwill.
Nothing More Than an Adapter
Aspiring to encourage the room full of Christian leaders who had gathered to meet him, Welch stated, "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. 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.
"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. 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 and his entourage had 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 this country formerly identified with The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Perhaps there are churches or associations that will want to partner with the Latvia Baptist Union or one of the churches in this historic Baltic State. The door is open and the need is great.
From his visit to Latvia, where Welch initiated a connection with Baptist leaders, he turned his face toward Germany to continue to develop a connection with German Baptists, which he had already established.
As Welch arrived at his hotel in Heubach near Stuttgart, he breathed a sigh of relief and acknowledged that it was quite satisfactory and very unlike some of the places he had visited.
Welch recalled, "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.
"But I am happy to embrace whatever I get. My rule is that I will never complain. If it gets worse than what Jesus and Paul experienced, I might complain then."
Not Alone in the World
Heinrich Derksen, the president of the Bibelseminar (Bible Seminary) in Bonn, and Nils Dollinger, host pastor of Heubach Baptist Church, facilitated a splendid banquet to welcome Welch to Germany. In acknowledging Welch's ministry, Derksen remarked, "It was a good day when we found out that we were not alone in the world."
The German Baptist leader added, "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 Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Derkson and a representative group from Germany attended the SBC annual session this year in Louisville, Kentucky. Furthermore, the relationship that has been developed with German Baptists is being replicated in dozens of other countries.
Welch explains, "The Convention is too big and the world too small for us not to be doing what we are doing. 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.
"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 thirty thousand miles as Southern Baptists' "adapter" — connecting believers, bridging gaps, building relationships, and serving as our denomination's global ambassador.
Welch Visits Vietnam, Thankful for Wounds
by Tess Rivers
"For forty-three years, there hasn't been a day in my life that I haven't thought about Vietnam," Bobby Welch told a crowd of nearly 725 Vietnamese believers, former missionaries, and government officials celebrating fifty years of Baptist work in Vietnam.
Welch, strategist for Global Evangelical Relations for the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, attended the November 15 celebration at Grace Baptist Church in Ho Chi Minh City and delivered the keynote address during the worship service.
Speaking on the theme, "Walking with Christ: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," Welch recalled his visit to Vietnam in 2005 when he was president of the SBC. He also touched on the time he spent in Vietnam in the 1960s as a soldier in the U.S. Army.
Welch recounted his story of being shot at point-blank range on a jungle trail by a Viet Cong soldier. Thinking he would surely die, Welch prayed a simple prayer and miraculously survived his life-threatening injuries. That experience led him to recommit his life to Christ and embark on a life of service to God.
"I have often told my wife that if I could find that soldier who shot me, I would bring him to my house, give him the best room, feed him the best meal, and embrace him like a brother because of how God used him to change my life," Welch told the crowd.
Welch applauded steps by the government of Vietnam to provide more religious freedom. In January 2008, the government officially recognized the Vietnam Baptist Convention and its work across the country.
"I was in Vietnam yesterday," said Welch of his visits to the country. "I am here walking with you in Christ today, and if you will allow us, we will be here walking with you tomorrow."