A baptist future: nightmare or sweet dreams?

The problem with advertising is that half your money is wasted – the challenge is working out which half. Pondering what the BUBG might be like ten years from now I’m sure at least half of what follows is rubbish but these five areas will be important.

1. Local church size. A number of commentators suggest churches will get smaller and the UK church scene will see a few big churches, many small ones and few in between. It will be a bit more complex, because most big churches will have multiple outlets (think of retailers like Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s with their range of store sizes).  The question for us is will any of the large churches be Baptist?

2. Discipleship and church membership. As social media and networking rather than geography define people’s relationships identifying with church may be less about local congregations and more about the larger movement (and its subsets). Being part of something that inspires and resources people for daily life and gives a sense of mentoring / spiritual growth. Likewise, the idea of ‘membership’ and clear definitions of who is in or out will seem increasingly anachronistic. What is less clear is the importance people will give to being part of a congregation where they can encourage each other, join in worship together and engage in mission to the local community. The challenge for Baptists is to be in front of this networking, resourcing curve not reacting to it.

3.Patterns of ministry. We will see fewer full time posts, a growth in bi-vocational ministry and a move away from pastoral ministry. Not least because smaller churches with bi-vocational ministers and larger churches with a mix of part time / specialist posts have one thing in common: they are not looking for traditional church pastors. This will significantly change our patterns of training with more regional and part-time formation and, with part-time specialist posts, raise the question of whether Baptist Colleges are the best training routes for evangelists, community engagers and mission enablers.

4. Church engagement with society. Most churches will be known for what they contribute to the community. Toddler groups, after school clubs, youth groups, seniors work; debt, stress, marriage and other counselling; food banks, street pastors, social enterprises to name a few will all become more important. This will be a challenge if some of the other changes happen but three things may help. First, if gift aid is restricted to activities with clear ‘public benefit’ and not to activities connected with gathering for worship or proselytising; churches will gain proportionate financial benefit in providing them. Second, by being one of the few institutions able to provide them, others from outside the church will be willing to help and support. Third, because fewer people in society will have residual Christian knowledge, these activities will become central to our mission; a way of demonstrating following Jesus matters and that being a disciple makes sense in a world of militant atheism. It will also make it easier to speak into the public arena.

5. Denominational change. Changes to the church landscape mean our links with non-denominational groups, Pentecostalism and wider evangelicalism will grow in importance compared to the more traditional free church links. Our finances will also change: we currently have an aging demographic and either we will get smaller as people join the church triumphant or change to reflect the cultural assumptions of people now in their 20’s and 30’s. As fewer people identify as being ‘baptist’ and more prefer to support designated projects rather than general giving to organisations, Home Mission will see radical change.

Personally I'm looking forward to it. I still believe a Spirit led, God orientated church that shares in the life of Jesus is the hope for the world. Hopefully this blog will not be here in ten years time to remind me how inaccurate my predictions were!

5 thoughts on “A baptist future: nightmare or sweet dreams?

Add yours

  1. Five good points to ponder.

    I hope in ten years BUGB will look very different, reflecting these changes in values e.g. churches known for what they contribute to society (point 4) and relational rather than institution belong (point 2), broadly accepting and celebrating that the church was created with a pentecostal DNA (point 5).

    My fear is that BUGB will look pretty much the same — in which case we will be relating more to other networks, so maybe it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

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  2. It is already obvious that churches which are not connecting in positive ways with their local community are in a difficult place. Thankfully many churches are contributing to this shift from self-centredness to community inclusivity.
    The other point about an ecumenical approach and involvement of ‘fringe’ worship styles would be a way I pray that many churches would engage. Points 1 and 2 outline the anachronism of our present church style. But I would not want to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ by leaving aside any ‘traditional’ worship style. Listen to the words of the Communion Service – “By the tradition – .” Excellent and thought provoking on Baptist Future. Also goes to show that we have not got very long to change things, 10 years will just whistle by!

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  3. Feels right-seems-right-probably right. But, we can be sure that because the church is a movement driven/led by the Holy Spirit:whatever configurations come to pass – things will change.

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  4. Very helpful article, thank you.
    The lack of church size is an interesting point but the question arises do we expect church sizes to be smaller because we don’t want to change and our system of government can be a hindrance to growth – possibly yes. Also do people see us as outdated, probably yes in many cases. Should several smaller Baptist churches close and amalgamate fund, gifts etc? Possibly yes.
    Church membership is, in its current form, a dying concept evidenced by what we see in our churches. People are still committed through, even if they haven’t had the membership visit etc. I question the way we do it and ask whether it is in fact helpful or dare I say a biblical model? It’s not wrong in that sense, but not necessarily what scripture suggests?
    Thank you for your reflections. They will prove useful to my sabbatical studies next year.

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  5. Neil you’ve got us all thinking – thanks. So much to say but here’s a limited response…

    I wonder if it will become harder to measure the size of a ‘local church’? Will that concept start to lose some of it’s meaning? Will some ‘local churches’ start to reform into nodes in mission networks, will some be forced to as a way to survive? And will some of those networks not stay within denominational boundaries (5.)?

    If ‘local churches’ resist moving in that direction will people still treat them as nodes and attach to more than one even if the churches continue in the old mode? This might be fed by increased understandings of interdependence and fueled by developments in social media and lives lived less locally.

    These changes could frustrate some ministers operating in the old paradigm and regional and national staff trying to facilitate a Union or Association.

    And in all the cultural change and decline of the church it seems inevitable that some more vulnerable churches not able to adapt to new ways will die. These numbers will be amplified as we approach the demographic cliff that denominations with an older age profile are already going over.

    Alongside these developing networks we could continue to see some large Baptist churches thriving with these typically being in middle class areas as well as network churches with majority black congregations. Will some of these large churches be sources of mission resourcing for those around them and will they find ways to be involved in mission to other cultures and sub-cultures? I hope so! Will they find ways to be resourced and shaped by smaller churches and mission they are resourcing? Maybe various types will emerge including some who understand their role as providing generously and others who want to provide and be shaped…

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