Thousands of Baptists wrapped up a historic three-day gathering wondering if their time spent in Atlanta was the beginning of a major Baptist movement toward unity or just a moment.
"We don't want this to be a wasted moment," former President Jimmy Carter told the Baptists as they closed the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant on Friday.
Over the past three days, some 14,500 people from over 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists convened in hopes of ending racial, theological and political divisions and laying the grounds for future cooperation and unity.
The meeting focused on social causes such as poverty, immigration, responding to natural disasters, peacemaking and protecting religious liberty as well as evangelism as Baptists sought to find ways to work together and improve their image.
"As individuals united in partnership, we can make a difference," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) during a Friday session on public policy and hunger. "If there was ever a time for unity, now is the moment."
And Christians around the world are noticing their effort, some leaders say.
"People are seeing Baptists talking about working together and doing positive things together, rather than bickering," said Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University and event co-chair with Carter. "I think that is a very positive thing for Baptists."
"There have been Christians around the world taking notice that we have been doing something unprecedented," said William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the four African-American Baptist denominations that partook in the meeting.
Former President Bill Clinton called the meeting "a wonderful beginning."
Clinton was one of several prominent Democrats invited to speak at the New Baptist Covenant event. His participation along with former Vice President Al Gore's raised suspicion that the event may be a Democratic rally just ahead of primaries on Super Tuesday. Although event organizers have repeatedly stressed the meeting was not political, leaders from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) chose to sit out the gathering.
During his speech to Baptists on Friday, Clinton said he was disappointed some conservative Baptists dismissed the unity effort as a "veiled agenda for liberals."
He called the broad group of Baptists to move toward unity with a spirit of humility and forgiveness.
"If we are going to form a covenant that can embrace the whole body of the Baptist [tradition], which every Christian can identify with and every good human being on earth can applaud, it is the spirit with which we go forward and our determination to offer specific things we can do as the children of God that will determine how it comes out in the end," Clinton said.
Emphasizing humble love above everything else, Clinton added, "We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us, or even how they treat people that we care for."
"No matter what condemnation is directed against his movement, you must respond with a spirit of love," he said, regarding reconciliation with critics in the Southern Baptist Convention and elsewhere.
Event organizers have scheduled to convene again in March to assess what came out of the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 convocation and to set a course for follow-up ministries and future collaboration among Baptists around social causes.
Carter, who said he had a positive exchange of letters with SBC President Frank Page, hopes all – including the Southern Baptist Convention – will cooperate with propelling the Baptist unity movement.
"We can disagree on the death penalty, we can disagree on homosexuality, we can disagree on the status of women and still bind our hearts together in a common, united, generous, friendly, loving commitment," Carter said.