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Four ways Baptists need to transition


We need a mind-set, demographic, leadership and relational transition, writes General Secretary Lynn Green


Lynn Green 
 

We are acutely aware we live in changing times. When I was born my dad ran up the road in the middle of the night to the telephone box to call for the midwife. When my son was born my husband phoned our family from our home phone downstairs. Just two years later I lay in bed and used my mobile phone to tell my mum of daughter’s arrival. Nowadays photos are shared within minutes via social media!

As a local church pastor I particularly enjoyed visiting my oldest member. Elizabeth was born at the end of the 19th century, and it was always fascinating to listen to the life and faith story of someone who lived through two world wars and the unbelievable technological advances of the 20th century.

Of course, our churches are not immune from this bewildering onslaught. But as Peter Morden rightly points out, while the changes themselves may be new, the fact of change is not. Every generation has to respond to the call to worship and follow our God who dwells in the eternal present. If we want to be with Him we need to stop trying to live in the past and embrace the present moment as well. To help us, here are some thoughts about the sort of transitions we need to be entering into.

 

We need a Mind-set transition

 

The first and most fundamental transition I believe we need is in our thinking and self-understanding. Through the 19th and 20th centuries Baptists thoroughly enculturated themselves in the mode of institutions and this is reflected in the life of our Union as well.  

While I see many signs of a transition in progress here, I also see an unhelpful commitment to institution that can act as a negative pull in our attempts to move forward. Surely what we need to learn from the trajectory of the church through the ages is the need to renew our focus on Kingdom rather than institution; on whole life discipleship rather than Sunday attendance; to move from a preoccupation with rules and boundaries to an undefended commitment to loving God and others; a focus on community transformation rather than empire building, from sucking resources in to being a source of blessing, from “keeping the show on the road” to participating in God’s mission to the world, and from once majority to vast minority.

In order to navigate these transitions, we need the spiritual gift of discernment; an ability to discern between outward form and inner content. We struggle in transition when we invest too much emotional value in the “ways we have always done it” and fail to see beyond those ways that have served us well to the fresh ways that will embody our commitment to Christ in the present. So whether it is in our small groups, local churches, Associations or our Union, I believe we need to continue to be open to the renewing of our minds through the Holy Spirit so we can see and perceive God’s new thing in the present moment.

Cat Tiger705
 
 
We need a demographic transition

Globally, while the West grows older, the rest of the world is growing younger. It is estimated that by the year 2020 almost 70 per cent of all Christians worldwide would be under the age of 45. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, where Baptists are growing fast, that is particularly true. Countries, such as Ghana have witnessed a 1700 per cent increase in Baptists since 1990, according to the Baptist World Alliance. The average median age in Ghana is 21.5 in comparison to 39.4 for the United Kingdom. Interestingly the two largest churches in our Union are both Ghanaian churches. In the light of these demographic shifts it is significant that the recently appointed General Secretary Elect of the Baptist World Alliance, Elijah Brown, is 36 years old. 

In our own context, the ageing population in the UK is going to present us with several challenges in the coming years. As we cherish, honour and care for the elderly, we need a blessing from them for us to grow younger as churches and a Union so we can be faithful in handing on the faith to our children and children’s children.

The statistics above from the Baptist World Alliance also show us, however, that age is not our only significant demographic shift. They clearly point to the need for us to embrace the journey of transition that reflects that fact that the world is now on our doorstep – literally.  In these days the Lord has graciously given us another opportunity to reflect in our churches and Union the ‘all nations’ vision of the Kingdom that is conveyed through Scriptures. May the history books record that we had the faith, humility, prophetic courage, grace and vision to make this transition, and to make it well.

 
We need a leadership transition

As our position in society becomes more marginal and as our financial resources are challenged by many factors such as changing demographics and loss of denominational loyalty, our capacity to resource full-time, “professional” ministry will become increasingly difficult. As Stuart Murray-Williams points out, we can either look back and lament our former glory, or we can make the choice to look for the opportunities this new era will bring. Our dna as Baptists includes a very strong commitment to the priesthood of all believers and this will serve us well in this particular area of transition. I believe that in these times of transition we will need to ensure that we focus on the nurturing of Christian character in all of us, and in our leaders in particular. 
 
We also need to be willing to imagine and release all sorts of flexible patterns of leadership so that the rich gifts of God’s people are developed and released for the sake of His Kingdom Mission. I am confident that this leadership transition will enable us to see a much more rich and diverse network of leaders emerge and flourish and contribute to the health and growth of our churches and communities.

 
We need a relational transition

It seems to me that in our institutional phase as a Union and as churches we have expressed our historic commitment to interdependence as Baptists in distinctive, and rather formal ways. Our challenge going forward is to discover new ways to embody our interdependence so that we can continue to nurture our passion to see mission and ministry flourish contextually from the grassroots. 

As the UK church has become more marginalised in recent years there has been a growing willingness to forge partnerships. It is encouraging to see Roger Sutton and others being so key in nurturing unity movements such as Movement Day across the UK. 

We cannot fail to see that this new sense of partnering for the sake of the Kingdom arises from the heart of God who desires that “they all may be one”. Just as Jesus called the first disciples to head out into deep water and cast their nets, so it seems clear to me that if we want to see God’s Kingdom come then we need to be weaving the nets of relationships and partnerships that will be able to contain the harvest in God’s heart. No doubt we have much more to learn about humility and seeking God’s Kingdom first in this time of transition, but it is good that we are on the journey into closer partnerships.
 
 
 
There is no doubt that throughout our Union we are on the journey of transition already. The question for me is whether we are going to travel that journey “the scenic route” like God’s people in the wilderness in Old Testament times, or whether we are going to devote ourselves to prayer; being attentive and obedient to the call of Christ in this present moment and take seriously the invitation to participate in the life of God’s Kingdom here and now.

 

The Revd Lynn Green is General Secretary of our Baptist Union

Tiger image | mgkaya | istockphoto.com

TogetherAut17This article appears in the Autumn 2017 edition of Baptists Together Magazine


 

 

Baptist Times, 13/09/2017
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