Pondering contemporary Baptist life in England
it seems to me there are three main ways people think of themselves as being
1. Convenience: These are groups of churches and ministers
who are convenience Baptists; part of the Union because it’s
worked OK for them so far. To some being a Baptist
Church is like having a boat
registered in a particular country. It gives you access to legal and other
services, helps you to explain to the outside world that you are a bona fide
organisation rather than a cult and opens one or two doors. Generally these churches do things
that are considered Baptist because they are primarily things which are
considered evangelical or congregational (and often because they fit with those from Brethren
traditions as well) but hold their Baptist identity lightly. They can be suspicious of attempts to make them more Baptist and often prefer to engage with the wider church through events like Spring Harvest and New Wine or through networks like Willow Creek Association.
2. Baptistic. This group of ministers and churches see
themselves as Baptist because of particular convictions or the way they the do church. I suspect
this is the largest of my three strands. Often they associate being Baptist
with living out these convictions, which typically include the autonomy of the
local church, believers baptism and the Lordship of Christ in the decision making
structures of the local church. For them, being part of the Union
(and Associations) is an outworking of those beliefs but is not a primary part of being baptist. Links with the wider Union are held lightly alongside other links which may have a greater significance. [For example, a
Baptist church which sees its primary relationships and networking through
3. Covenantal. This group sees Baptist identity more closely
identified with Union and Association life valuing these
relationships highly. Indeed they tend to view being baptist in terms of commitment to these networks of relationship. Often this sense
of identity gives them a base to engage with other Christian traditions,
particularly within the ecumenical movement. One of their strengths is that
since they value Baptist history and principles they are probably the ones least likely to
leave in any major crisis of unity because they understand the relationships within
the union as being primarily covenantal. Often the people most involved in
Union life come from this group.
Obviously there is overlap between these different strands. Growth
of BME churches in the Union is bringing fresh insight
into what it means to be Baptist, with different attitudes to leadership and congregational involvement, which probably adds a level of complexity to
But if this analysis is even part true it raises some
helpful questions for us.
1. How can we ensure that the way we operate as a Union
is inclusive of different ways of being Baptist?
2. How important is it for churches to value their
relationship with Association and Union structures? Does
it matter if churches and ministers work out their relationships through groups
such as Incarnate or Fresh Streams instead?
3. At what point does a church cease to be a Baptist church?
Incorporation as a company? Abandoning church membership? Ceasing to be
evangelical? Not giving to Home Mission? And do any of these questions really matter?
I’m confused as to why people think incorporation is somehow un-baptist. It really need not be.
In fact one might suggest it makes more sense of me.mbership if you get it right.
Interesting analysis — checks out with me.
I would predict that the ‘Convenience’ group will continue to grow with people holding the institutional strand increasingly lightly. Likewise the Covenantal understanding needs to change from institutional to something more appropriate for the 21st c. Not sure what though.
The ‘Baptistic’ group has an uncertain future, because my experience is that in any sizeable town, there will be a number of significant movers and shapers who are Baptistic e.g. Vineyard and other new churches. They all relate, but probably not on the basis of being baptistic.
Part of this is people’s desire to find networks of likeminded people, with similar values, and on a definite journey that is lifegiving. In my area (S. Bucks) there are quite a number of these. At the moment a lot of church members around the area are at the HTB conference which is effectively another network.
The challenge for the Baptist family is to define its journey, preferably with clear missional values because this is what people are seeking, and to provide what is found enabling and lifegiving. People will find what they need, and find where it is offered.
I really don’t think it matters where ministers/churches work out their relationships – perhaps ideally with some mix and match. The Baptist part can be valuable in this, and it will be if it works out what it is, where it is going and what its unique offering is — which isn’t quite what you propose in Q1. Churches will be or cease to be Baptist (Q3) depending on how much they want to be i.e. feel part of the same journey. I’m looking forward to some fresh leadership from our new gen sec who I know has a good feel for how this may play out.