I sense the need to say something. Partly because I’m as frustrated as everyone else who’s left wondering what happened to words like ‘radical’, ‘missional’, or ‘movement’?
An opportunity was missed last week at BUGB Council, but it does reveal the reality of how stuck we have become. If we can face this reality, then maybe we can begin to move forwards again. To be honest, my normal optimism, however, has taken a significant knock.
The saddest thing, for me, was even when the cry of people, through the on-line survey, was for ‘movement’, as opposed to ‘institution’, it was dismissed within a sentence.
The problem, I suspect, is not intentional.
The mistake, I suspect, is unconscious.
The pattern, I believe, is typical.
The problem is we don't really know what it means to organise our life around mission. I see it in local churches, Associations and not surprisingly, therefore, our national way of being also. Of course, when I highlighted the point with the Futures Group, everyone agrees. Of course, we must organise around mission, mission is what we do, mission is what Baptists are all about, mission is ….. well, everything, but doing very much about it, I’m afraid.
The mistake is we believe we are doing mission, lots of it, because we use the word, (even trended it up to ‘missional’ in many places), read the books (not as many as I once thought Ministers read), but are we wiling to learn from our mistakes? I suspect not, except in a minority of situations. The minority, however, is growing.
The pattern is typical. Ministers are especially defensive and the worst examples here. How dare a Regional Minister suggest we need to re-think, re-learn, re-assess, etc.? When in doubt, we’re much happier continuing with what we know is not working, than try the unknown, risk-filled alternatives. If it's taking more and more Christians, to 'make' one more disciple, it is, whatever else, a symptom of a deep seated problem.
Movement. We need to dig this word out from the debris of words from the Futures process. It was buried, but must rise again! Jesus started a movement. The mission of God, at the centre of everything we do, creates a centrifugal force – outwards. Nearly everything I heard, last week, was about looking inwards. Who’s represented on the leadership, who’s deciding this, who has the power, who’s getting money for that? The one thing, I’ve tried to stress, here in the West is: what is God calling us to be and do, with, or without the money?
The genius of Baptists is the place we give to the local Church. We’re not unique, but this is where our energy is best placed. Trans-local bodies, called Associations in our case, can be very helpful, as long as they don't get in the way of what God is doing, or wanting to do. I believe some regional strategy and some local energy provides a healthy mix and can, at least, bring some encouragement and empowerment to the gift-mix in most local churches - Ephesians four is, after all, a local church text.
The structural changes around 2000 set us down two particular paths:
A regional pathway. We had become institutionalised - seeking to be too much like the other denominations, in our desire to move up the social strata of a previous generation in Christendom. We’d become too centralised in our thinking (not a swipe at Baptist House – I see plenty of local Ministers who don't appear to have read Ephesians 4 and exercise a centralising ministry). Superintendents were ‘officers of the Union’ – no wonder I never applied for the job! Moving from 29 to 13 Associations meant we could connect the whole Union of Churches around one table (admittedly quite a big one, but it become possible to have a meaningful, proper, conversation). However, the job was left unfinished. It was akin to the kind of car you'd give your daughter for her seventeenth birthday. I didn’t! Had I done, I’d have gone for a small engine, and preferably one with dual controls, where I could apply the brakes! That's what we did and I'd hoped, last week, we might take the brakes off. That said, the proposals do allow Associations to direct much more of our HM giving. This is a healthy step, in the right direction. Not far enough, in my view – I’d let them control all the HM giving from their churches and merely pass on a small percentage, for national use, or to share across their boundaries. Get it wrong - local churches will soon let you know. Get it right - the money gets to those who will multiply its benefit for the kingdom.
A missional pathway. Of course, in 2000 we didn't even use the word ‘missional’. Personally, I don't think we understand the word much more now, but we think we can be missional, because we use the word. One virtue in the new ‘m’ word, is it builds a bridge between what we separate: ministry and mission. At heart, I believe, British Baptists were a discipleship movement originally, more than a missionary movement. The same, I believe, is true of the continental Anabaptists, of whom I am much more comfortable being a descendent of. However, at the heart of the previous round of re-structuring was the desire for more effective living out of the great commandment and the great commission.
Both pathways lead us back to ‘local’ Churches. I’m not always convinced ‘local’ is what we are, but if communities of God’s people who live out, together, the life of Christ are called local Churches, that’s fine by me. I once led a seminar on ‘accessible’ churches – trying to be clever and talk about making the gospel accessible for every people group. The place was stacked out with people interested in disability access to buildings!
This week, I'm thankful to God. Our Trustees in WEBA are supportive of our journey ‘towards a missional association’. This supports our purpose to make a difference across the West of England. To this end we have stated we shall accept the decisions made by BUGB Council, which help this trajectory, but politely try not to be held back by those, which hinder.