Observing Baptist life in New Zealand

In the last blog I looked at three elements which define Baptist life in Christchurch: activist / community orientated, minister led church structures and in the influence of Pentecostalism. These then flow into some other aspects of life there.

Independence

After the earthquakes churches, like the rest of the community, pulled together to get life back together. This gave the Baptist churches an opportunity to work much more closely together, which many took. But it is interesting to see how, as time passes, churches move back towards the mentality of ‘looking after our own patch’ in a way which is similar to the UK. That said, my experience of meeting ministers was that many of them get on well together and look out for / support each other so opportunities for collaboration still exist. For example, one Sunday evening I attended a joint service by three of the Christchurch Baptist Churches which used the music group from a fourth. Also, by comparison with the UK there seems less ecumenical working together. Yet I can’t help feel that, with the Kiwi have a go / we can do it attitude, there is significant potential to forge more interdependency and closer working together; to show baptists in other parts of the English speaking world that it can be done.

Into this mix is a distrust of academic qualifications and (among some) the Baptist training college in Auckland; meaning that some pastors have little or no theological training. This obviously impacts their ministry but also robs people of a shared language and experience framework to work together.

Functional BILD0219ministers

In general it seems that for the last twenty years the Baptist Union has opted for a functional
understanding of ministry and church life, so that anyone talking about covenant (or even an ontological view of ministry) is seen as a bit catholic (or plain odd). There are ministers who are theologically engaged, and the breadth of thinking is at least as wide as in the UK, but it seems rare for denominational conversations to be framed by theological questions. This fits well with both the mission focus of the Union and the Pentecostal background of some Christchurch ministers but it will be interesting to see how that enables the union to respond to changing cultures in the future.

Whether a result of a functional view of ministry or of staff led churches, there seems a larger number of people who are on church staff (whether paid, part-time or voluntary); in the UK we often work in teams and think of the team not the leader whereas in Christchurch there is often a clear leader who is appointed to that role.

Diversity

One of the great things about Baptist life in the UK is the diversity of churches and ministers, and the way that we can exist as a movement together. Baptist life in Christchurch is different, although there are a good number of churches in the city it feels remote from the population centres of the North Island; and everyone is still rebuilding after the quakes. But Baptist life there seems less willing to embrace or celebrate diversity and still celebrate being Baptists together. A number of ministers asked me about how British Baptists were responding to questions of human sexuality; there is a genuine fear that the denomination will tear itself apart. [There is a very real danger that we might do so in the UK as well].

What I didn’t get the chance to explore was whether this apparent limit to diversity was the result of things the Union did regionally rather than being true at local church level; or whether the limits are imaginary, a reflection of who speaks loudest, rather than actual limits on fellowship.

In all three of these elements I may have misjudged the situation. I certainly will not have captured the nuances of life in Christchurch after such a brief visit. But I suspect these three elements will be more important than the three in the previous post for shaping the future of Baptist life in Christchurch ~ not least because questions of interdependency, theology and inclusivity are key issues for British Baptists as well and how we navigate them will shape church life in the decades ahead.

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