One reason for visiting New Zealand was to learn about Baptist life in Christchurch. Rob, my host, is Senior Minister of Opawa Baptist and he organised lots of opportunities for me to interact with other local pastors and people involved in Baptist life. Christchurch is, of course, a particular place with its own history and situation, some of which makes it different to other parts of New Zealand. So what did I learn?
If you ask ‘what defines a Baptist in NZ’ the most common answer is ‘activist’ rather than anything about congregationalism. And from what I have seen Baptists have been structured for activity. In the UK, NZ Baptists are sometimes held up as a model of mission. And it is true that churches here have developed a range of activities with/for the local community. Most churches here have trusts which they use for a wide variety of these activities, but this model isn’t without problems. Creating a trust has some legal and financial benefits but the price is frequently that the activity is disconnected from the core of church life (and if the finance comes, as it often does, from local authority or other source, the stipulation may well be it is not used to evangelise).
That said, Christchurch has been a great model of churches working with the community, particularly in the aftermath of the earthquakes in 2010/11. Opawa run a fruit and veg co-op which is staffed and sorted by volunteers from across the community who work together to buy and distribute fresh market produce at a knock down price
Community engagement also extends to having ‘community chaplains’ on the church staff; volunteers (or sometimes part time paid) people whose ministry is to provide help and support to folk outside the church; I saw examples of helping single parents, older people and others who needed some support or practical assistance to deal with government bodies; and of engaging local young people.
However, this activist mindset runs across more than the community ministries. I think it is part of the Kiwi worldview that says ‘yes we can’ to most challenges and get stuck into it.
Compared to most UK Baptist churches, NZ ones are more pastor led. Indeed a bit over 10 years ago the NZBU committed itself to growing healthy churches and embraced and promoted the idea of churches being ‘ministry led’. Broadly this means that the church is led by the Senior Minister who works to appoint a board (or Elders) to focus on leadership issues in the church. The minister then creates ministry team leaders who provide leadership to the main areas of church life. The nominations for Elders are ratified by the Church Meeting and the ministry team leaders by the Elders. Church Meetings are held a couple of times a year.
Making the Senior Pastor the key leader and writing into the constitution that plans and proposals have to be agreed by him (or her, though all the leaders I met were male) significantly changes the congregational dynamics. Such that in one publication the regional leader could write to churches that this is “the time of year when leaders generally cast vision for the year ahead”…….”leaders must lead. That is why they have been placed in the position of leadership.” An article which assumed the role of ministers was to hear from God and lead their congregation in the light of this revelation. A far cry from the British perspective which starts from the congregation discerning the mind of Christ together.
Another significant difference to the UK arises from how churches responded to Charismatic renewal. As in the UK almost every church has been impacted by it, as can be seen from the songs used in worship. In all the services I attended, led by groups from three different churches, it was almost exclusively contemporary songs (from US, Hillsongs, UK). Whilst in the UK you might plot churches along a line from ‘traditional baptist’ through to ‘charismatic baptist’, in NZ the line would be from ‘traditional’ to ‘pentecostal’. This alignment with Pentecostalism, not just charismatic renewal, isn’t just a difference in wording but an alignment with many aspects of Pentecostal ecclesiology and theology (as espoused by Elim and Four Square Gospel rather more than Assemblies of God). Alongside the pastor led church this leads to a strain of Baptist life which sees the minister like a modern day Moses and places considerable emphasis on apostolic leadership.
Alongside this traditional-pentecostal axis there is another element of evangelicalism which is different. Historically at least, there have been more churches which have seen themselves as preaching centres (some of which were more reformed in doctrine and ensured that the charismatic movement passed them by). Overall, Bible preaching remains a key element of Baptist life.
While these three elements (Activist, Leader-centred, Pentecostal) are key to Christchurch Baptist life they are not the only things. In the next blog I’ll look at some more and consider how some thoughts from the UK might resonate there.