The future of our church

21 Apr

I was invited by the leadership of our Baptist Union to present the keynote paper for a session of Theological Reflection, as part of the process of 're-imagining' our life together as a union of churches. If in fact we were to 'start over', what would be the central things for us? What should be the most important priorities for us, as churches, in the next 5 to 10 years. Here is the paper I presented.

 

 

 

The request for
this paper set me three distinct, though related, topics:

·     
What
are the central purposes of a union of churches?

·     
What
priorities should our family of churches have during the next 5 – 15 years?

·     
To
what degree should the Baptist Union of Victoria attempt to lead the churches?

 

 

            My
task will be to offer some theological reflections on this cluster of questions
and I begin by thanking you for the opportunity to do this. Frankly it is deeply
concerning that so little of our decision-making seems to be guided by any
overt theological consideration at all.

 

            I
would like to begin with a quotation which may serve to guide and outline what
follows.

            All
my life in pastoral ministry has been guided by a pithy sentence found in the
book The Greening of the Church, by
Southern Baptist scholar and educator Findley Edge.[i]

 

It is imperative that we become a people who
understand who we are, who God is, what God is about in the world and what God
is calling us to be about in the world.

 

            For
me, that says it all. This is the Baptist vision of the church: a people who
are called into being by God, called together to engage with who God is and
what God is doing, and whose identity is determined by those realities. In
short, a people of God.

 

            Baptist
churches are consistently tempted to imagine that the local church and its
activities are central to our identity and our faith, when in reality these are
not the most important things. They are what Bonhoeffer called ‘penultimate
things’: even though they are valuable and helpful, they are not the most
important thing.[ii]  It is a question of identity: and this,
I believe is our biggest challenge.

 

 

1. A
projection of Baptist church life in the next 5 – 15 years.

           

            My
sense is that churches in general, including Baptists, will continue to
experience significant decline in numbers, finances and viability.

            There
are many question marks hanging over the form of local church we have known for
the last few centuries. Philip Hughes suggested to us that during this period
there will be significant growth in the number of small, house-church style
groups and in the number of ‘mega’ or regional churches. But these are the
minority. Most churches are groups of around 60 – 120 people, with some
programs conducted in a suite of buildings and hoping to support one or more
salaried pastors. It is these churches which will face the most acute crisis.

            As
I see it, the crisis is not primarily a crisis of viability: how to pay for the
pastor and upkeep the buildings, how to provide leaders of the programs. These
are the penultimate things. But these are the things that have captured our
time and energies: property and programs.

            The
central crisis here is a crisis of identity, which leads to ‘fortress’
thinking, to self-definition through opposition, and to deep anguish and
conflict.

           

 

2. The
priorities for Baptist Churches in the next 5 – 15 years.

 

            Here
I wish to pose 6 elements which seem to me crucial for our future as Baptist
churches. These are my own convictions and include many sub-elements, which
others may wish to elevate or contest.

 

2.1 A renewal of theological and spiritual identity.

            The
most important development in theology and indeed in wider philosophy in the
later 20th century was the re-discovery of the nature of identity as relational. We are because
of our relationships.

            Human
identity is not primarily and certainly not wholly constituted by our
individuality. We are individuals, but our individuality is itself constructed
through relationships. We are always some one in relation to some others.             Biblically,
to be is to belong. This is so for the entire creation. It is an ecological
fundamental. If we are to survive, we will survive together, with the cosmos.
If we do not learn this, we humans will not survive.

            But
these human and ecological aspects of identity have their foundation in the
divine identity. God is a divine community, the social trinity. God’s very
being is inherently relational. Who God is and what God is can only be
understood (if at all!) through the concept of mutual indwelling. This is the
greatest gift of Christian theology to the world: the understanding of identity
through relationship.

            Jesus
gave it to us in a nutshell, in his great prayer:

 

      John 17.21: ‘ … that they may be one. As
you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the
world may believe that you sent me.’

 

            The
Christian doctrine of the Trinity has been misunderstood as the idea of three
distinct ‘persons’, effectively three gods. But that is the result of
mis-understanding the nature of persons. We think of persons as first of all
individuals, some one. Then you add
on relationships. That’s actually how an adolescent thinks about identity.

            But
this is not what it means to speak of one God as three persons. In the divine
community, relationships define identity. There is no Father without the Son
and the Spirit: the relationships define identity within the Godhead. This is
what Jesus meant by this mutual indwelling.

            So
it is with the spiritual community, the church.  The church is not constituted by its history, nor by its
activities (not even mission). The church is called into being by God. It is
the called-together community, as Israel also is a called-together people, a
people created by God’s gracious invitation. ‘I will be your God and you will
be my people.’ (Exodus 6. 6 & 7, echoed in Rev. 21 7.)

            In
Baptist theology, the church is a community of people called together by the
Spirit of Christ, who has invited us to know God through Jesus. To be a
Christian is to belong to God, in Christ, and to all those who are
Christ’s.  (That is why the early
Baptists wanted to identify who are true Christians: because we belong to
them!)

 

The first
priority for our future is a renewal of
our spiritual identity
. We are not a church because we attend a certain
service at a certain location. We are not a church because we like each other,
agree with each other, or share a common passion for this or that aspect of
gospel witness. We are a church because
Jesus called us to abide in him, together, ‘as one’.

           

So these are the
basic elements of the renewal of spiritual identity I see:

·     
Called
together by God;

·     
Alive
in and to the Spirit of creation;

·     
At work
in the mission of God in the world;

·     
Co-operating
with God and God’s people;

·     
Worship
as life and life as worship.

            These
things together sketch the life of a people who find their identity in God and
from God, and who live with and for God: a people of God.

 

            My
own conviction is that if we are to reclaim this identity, we may have to
repent of and abandon many of the things which have taken the place of this
primary relationship.

            Positively,
we need always to be able to articulate who we believe God is, and what we
believe God is doing in the world just now: and then to say what we believe we
are doing to participate in that mission and purpose.

 

            To
take this further, let me name what I think is one of our major theological
weaknesses. It is in the area of eschatology:
which has for the most part been left in the too hard basket, or left to a
loony fringe.

            Put
simply, eschatology is about where God is taking us: where is this whole world
headed. Or to use the terms of Findley Edge, it’s about what God is doing in
the world.

            What
are the purposes of God in the world? If we have given any answer to that at
all, it is either a fairly secular view of social justice or a fairly
privatized view of individual salvation.

            Both
of these are of course valid, biblically grounded and true. But the great
tragedy is that they are not enough, and they are not to be separated and, even
worse, they so often lead us into a theology of an absent God. So we go out
into the world to try to make some justice or provide some service, on behalf
of God. Or we gather people into our salvation circle, because out there they
are not safe, since God is not there, God is in here.

            The
weakness here is the absence of an adequate doctrine of the Spirit. God is Holy
Spirit, the creator and redeemer and consummator: God is at work in the world,
the world which is God’s world.

 

This is the eschatology we need: a vision of the
Spirit as not only the Spirit of the church, but the Spirit of the whole
creation.

 

            The
whole creation is invited into the life of God, and it is the mission and work
of the Spirit to bring this world home to God, to bring this world through
Christ into the joyous life of heaven, the banquet of life with God.

            So
what is God doing in the world? That is, where do we see the Spirit doing the
things Jesus did? Where do we see God seeking to bring new life, healing,
forgiveness, peace, justice, creativity, new community? And wherever we see
that, that’s where we need to be! And that is what should define what we mean by
‘church’. The church must be that
community called together, participating in what God is doing in the world.

            And
I believe if we were to go this way, we would discover a great many
fellow-travellers, people who think right now they are not people of God,
because they are not ‘religious’, not ‘churchy’.

            So
here is the renewal of spiritual identity we need: to see that we belong to God
and find our identity in God and what God is doing in the world.

 

 

 

 

2.2  A
renewal of Pastoral Leadership

            Here
I will be more succinct. What follows from the preceding is that pastors should
understand their role primarily as spiritual guides, nurturing the spiritual
identity of the church.

            One
fundamental aspect of our current crisis is the extent to which pastors have become
managers, modeling themselves or being pressed into the model of a CEO of a
corporate organization.

            Pastors
need to meet with people (get out of the office and visit them!) and spend time
with them nurturing their understanding and growth as people of God. The
priorities of pastoral leadership need to be presence: being with people, in a way that nurtures a collective
sense of being in God, being with God,
and being for others.

The most
important task of pastoral leaders is to enable their churches to know who God
is and what God is doing in the world: discerning that together, and discerning
how we are to be part of what God is doing in the world.

            Pastoral
leaders must be trained, recognized and freed to be people of God, and skilled
to lead communities in this way.

 

2.3 The church must be characterized by a passion for
living.

            Jürgen
Moltmann once wrote that what Christians have to offer the world is a passion
for living, hope for the future and a willingness to suffer for that hope.[iii]

            Moltmann’s
theology draws all these things from the very nature of God, whom he often
calls ‘the living God’. God is the source of life and the life of all the
living. Christians who find their identity and security in God, not programs or
performance, have hope for the future and a passion for all life.             There
is no need for the defensive, fortress mentality in relation to social change
that so often characterizes us. We can live and die with the living God, in
hope. This is the joyous life that is given to us!

 

2.4 Wisdom in strategy: knowing our core business.

            One
of the exciting features of our current situation is the rich diversity and
creativity of local church life. But this same diversity presents such a
plethora of choices and options that leaders find it difficult to retain a
focus on what is central.

            Here,
it is vital that pastoral leaders, together with the wider leaders of the
churches, seek wisdom in discerning what indeed is our ‘core business’.            As
indicated below, discerning such wise choices is one of the central purposes of
our Baptist form of church. This is why we need the church meeting:  meeting with God, to discern what God
is doing in the world and what we should be doing in the world.

 

2.5 Making disciples as the common objective across
diverse forms.

            If
the church finds its identity in being a people of God, then the key outworking
of this identity is the nurture of disciples, as Jesus himself made clear in
what we call ‘the great commission’ (Matt. 28. 19 & 20).

 

            Discipleship involves 7 things and making
disciples is about evoking and nurturing these 7 things.

            1.
Commitment to Jesus: following his
way;

            2.  Believing
the basic Christian understandings about Jesus, salvation and what it means to
be a church, in the Baptist way;

            3. Practicing,
that is a lifestyle of devotion to God, ethical living, relationships which
reflect the Jesus way;

            4.
Participating in community, through
worship, prayer and fellowship;

            5.
Engagement with society, caring,
serving, working for justice;

            6.
Spoken witness, giving testimony to
Jesus and his way;

            7.
Growing, in personal and collective
reflective change.

 

            A
re-discovery of the early Baptists’ focus on the local church as a community of disciples is essential
to our future. I believe that the practice of making disciples should be the
common thread in all our diverse forms of ‘church’ and the principle objective
in whatever programs we develop.

 

2.6 Richly diverse, but clear about what unites us.

            Our
life in the next decades must abandon the strong tendency amongst Baptists to
define ourselves by what we are not or whom we oppose. For too long, Baptist
identity has largely been defined in terms of what makes us different, what
separates us, often called ‘Baptist distinctives’.

            What
unites us is more important than anything that divides us. Further, we must be
willing to discover what unites us with people of other faiths and of ‘no
faith’—I would prefer ‘no religion’.

            This
requires us to understand our identity through belonging, not through separation.
If we belong to the God who is creator of this world and the Spirit of the
entire creation, we can find in God a basis for relationship and belonging with
each other.

 

Finally:  it is vital to add:  It
is only God who can make these things a reality.
Pray, therefore, for the
coming of the Spirit to do this.

 

3. The
purposes of a union of churches

 

Here we must
begin with a crucial point of clarification. There has developed amongst us a
linguistic habit of referring to the administrative and ministry staff employed
by the Baptist Union as ‘the Baptist Union’. This is just one more example of
how we mistake the penultimate for the ultimate. In this case, the Union
structures, governance processes, administration, finance, pastoral support
etc., etc., are indeed elements within the life of the Baptist Union. And we
need these elements—but they are not the Baptist Union. They serve the common
life, the association and relationship of a union of churches. That common life
is the Baptist Union.            

            The
loss of this vision of a common life is one of the great problems in our
situation, an outworking of the individualistic forms of faith and the focus on
the penultimate elements within the local churches to which I have alluded.

            We
have emphasized the principle of the ‘autonomy’ of the local church as if it
was the only principle of our heritage, whereas that principle has always been
accompanied by the principle of voluntary
association
. We have lost something really crucial here. But as we ignore
this life-giving dimension of belonging to each other, in God, something rises
to fill its place. It is a structure called ‘the Baptist Union’, too easily
modeled upon corporations, or indeed empire. This is not what anyone intends,
and it is exactly what our ecclesiology was designed to prevent.

 

            The
Baptist Union of Churches is not a church, but must live and act out of the
same theological principles which guide the being of the churches. Together, we
must engage with the six priorities set down above:            

·     
A renewal
of spiritual identity;

·     
A
renewal of pastoral leadership;

·     
A
passion for living;

·     
Wisdom
in strategy: knowing our core business;

·     
Making
disciples as our common objective;

·     
Richly
diverse, but clear about what unites us.

 

            Historically,
we have sought to do together things which we cannot do apart. I would suggest
that in the next 5 to 15 years there are a number of things which are
priorities for us.

 

            I
suggest five matters, and then a sixth, as priorities in this time.

 

3.1 A support structure:

            Collectively,
the Baptist Union can provide a support structure for the local churches. This
has legal, ethical and pastoral aspects. Whether we need an Act of
Incorporation such as we have right now is debatable, especially since it so
unhelpfully generates a focus upon questions about property ownership.

            But
we need some legal structure through which we relate to government and various
legislative frameworks, and through which we relate to other church structures.
Ideally, this will be minimal and will itself clearly identify the fact that
such a ‘constitution’ does not define the life of the church or the churches.

 

 

           

3.2 Maintaining heritage:

            If
Baptist Union life is to support and express the life of the churches, it
must  provide a constant reminder
of our heritage as Baptists. We need help to see and to remember the rich
resources of our past, not as something to bind us to the past, but as
something that equips us for the future.

            There
has never been a better time to be a Baptist! The enabling capacity of our
‘Free Church’ tradition suits the times. The call for local communities to be
responsive and responsible in working out their own discipleship, in life-style
and structures that respond to what God is doing in the world today is just
what people are wanting. We need to value, nurture and promote our heritage as
a living and enabling reality.

 

3.3 Equipping leaders:

            At
many levels, not only but still importantly in the training of pastors, we need
to provide together for leadership training. Local churches have a vital role
in calling forth and equipping leaders. But together we can share resources
which many local churches may not have. This is one of the most important
things for our Union to be doing.

            There
will be debate about what forms of training, for what purposes and how this is
to be undertaken. Again, my call is for this debate to begin with the
fundamentals of our identity, not with programming needs. We need to train
leaders in making disciples and in equipping others to make disciples.

We need to train
pastors to be spiritual leaders of spiritual communities, not managers of
church corporations.

 

3.4 Sharing wisdom, discerning together:

            The
idea of a ‘learning exchange’ is one element here. Our life together should be
characterized by story-telling.

            This
is not just about ‘what worked’. Wisdom includes being able to recognize what
we learned about false pathways and unhelpful directions.

            Sharing
wisdom is about recognizing that it is only together that we discern ‘who God
is, what God is about in the world and what God is calling us to be about in
the world’.

            Baptist
Union meetings and structures need primarily to be about such discernment and
our pastoral leaders need to be freed to engage with this wisdom-sharing,
community-building task before all others.

 

3.5 Distribution of resources:

            Our
life together includes a commitment to supporting the weak and enabling the
growth of new work and initiatives which cannot be self-funding.             One
of the purposes of our ‘union’ is a re-distribution of resources. The principle
of the autonomy of the local church has been so over-emphasized that we do not
recognize that every local church has its resources only on trust from God.

 

            I
believe we need to re-configure our life together, perhaps with smaller
associations, or clusters of churches. This is not about one big church and a
series of satellites or subordinates. But in a cluster of churches, all equals
in mission together, not every church needs to have a building. We could unlock
millions, even perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, for ministry—not for
‘the Union’ to take the money, but for ministry in the local communities, if we
could get over having to own all these buildings.

            If
we learn to think together about our life as a union of churches, these and
many other resourcing questions will need to be addressed differently.

 

            We
have to stop thinking of ‘funding the Baptist Union’ in terms of paying for the
activities of the Union staff. We have to stop thinking so begrudgingly of our
commitment to the ministries of our union, as if they are not our ministries. We have to reclaim
ownership of and responsibility for our Union.

 

            This
leads me to the additional, sixth priority for our Union of churches. That is,
we must as a collective community refuse to do for the churches what each local
church should do for themselves.

            This
is a difficult matter.  There is a
temptation to provide for the churches what they ought to be doing but perhaps
are not doing. On the other hand, there is a desire to provide good things
which model a different or new way for the churches. Christian Education and
discipleship training are an example. Arguably, many churches have abandoned
their responsibility to equip disciples and have left this to other groups to
do, on an optional basis. It is easy to see the Union step in to do what local
churches should be doing. But so easily Kingdom priorities can become kingdom
building.

 

            Is
it, then, appropriate for ‘the Baptist Union’ to try to lead the churches? That
is, surely, a wrongly constructed question, a category mistake. But it raises a
very important issue.

            It
is surely appropriate, within the life of a union of churches, for union staff
and our collective discernment processes to offer a prophetic and visionary
call to the churches. Leaders must lead. But that lead is always an offering to
the community.

            ‘The
Union’ is the churches and we need leaders who will seek God’s will and will
set out before us the possibilities they see for us. But this is to be done
within our common life, and not in place of our common life. When we receive
this vision collectively, we may then ask our leaders and staff to carry out
certain aspects of that work on our behalf.

 

            Finally,
it needs to be added that if any of these factors were to be taken up in the
next period, the pastoral leadership of our churches and our union will need to
devote very considerable energy and wisdom to enabling our churches to make the
transition from our focus on constitutions, property and programs to a more
dynamic, spiritual life together. In short, we will need to work with the
Spirit for the renewal of the church. What better thing is there for us to be
doing?

 

 

Frank D Rees

Whitley College

March, 2010

 


[i] Findley B. Edge, The Greening
of the Church.
 Waco: Word
Books, 1971. p. 37.

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics.  English Translation, London: Collins,
1955. Chapter 4, ‘The last things and the things before the last’.

[iii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church
in the Power of the Spirit.
English Translation, London: SCM, 1977. pp.
166- 168.

Th

 

Theological

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “The future of our church

  1. A thoughtful response to the questions Frank – thankyou. The lynchpin of it all – at least to me – seems to be in the statement, “Frankly it is deeply concerning that so little of our decision-making seems to be guided by any overt theological consideration at all.” Theological reflection is required not only in relation to the past (Baptist heritage, and scripture), but also the present (where is God working now, and what seeds are evident) and to the future (what is the eschatological hope towards which we are moving?)
    Marrying this considered reflection (which takes time) with a shorter-term goal to envisage the structure and practice of our Union of Churches presents a significant challenge.
    Your insights provide a helpful launching pad. Thanks
    Gary

  2. Spot on, mate. I felt disappointed that we didn’t really get into anything much that the paper said. One person said to me that the questions were mostly peoples’ ‘hobby-horses’. Not entirely, I think, but it seems we have real difficulty getting to the issues you named here. I wish you had spoken up last night!
    For me, reflecting on it further, I think the really fundamental thing is for people to learn to discern the Spirit’s call, in the present. And that means I think that people need to be able to identify what I have called ‘doing the things Jesus did’ … And that in turn challenges the kind of spirituality that seems to know so little about Jesus, other than that he died and some interpretation of the atoning or saving significance of his death. But while that is obviously crucial, it cannot be separated from his life. And indeed the death without the life loses so much of its significance and meaning. So we need an eschatology and a pneumatology which draws upon a synoptic Christology. I reckon this has strong implications for what is preached.

  3. Yes I agree “that he died and some interpretation of the atoning and saving significance of his death” is “obviously crucial”. We cannot leave it unarticulated in a paper setting the direction of a Christian denomination. This would be to assume the gospel. And we know what happens when one generation assumes the gospel – the next generation denies it.

  4. Thanks Frank. There were lots of questions running around my head that night, which made it difficult to put my finger on the key one to begin articulating. I’ve made a more systematic response on my blog today. Hope that helps the conversation.

  5. A very encouraging paper Frank, and one which challenges us all to take seriously the life who is the centre of reality to which the people of God are called, baptised and equipped to bear witness to in eucharistic participation. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Cheering loudly at the articulation of making disciples as the common objective! (because it’s an all/any age call) though it’s pesky point 2 (believing) that snags us so much of the time and interrupts the rest of the process (noting how quickly it has been re-affirmed as a watershed in the responses). I wonder what you think about [the word] faith in that place?
    Are communities so prone to division and self-in-the-foot-shooting over the faith of their members as they are of the beliefs?
    Really value that you have posted your theological contribution, Frank, and grateful for the expression of leadership it can become amongst us.

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