Friday, January 19, 2007

So, who are we?

One of the comments being made about our last family gathering is that there were very few non-members there - a handful at best. A couple of people have suggested that non-members probably wouldn't come unless they were given a personal invite - and there might be some truth in this, though I invited a couple of couples and neither of them came!

I wonder whether there is a residual feeling among those not in formal membership that it's not their place to participate in members' meetings. This suggests that perhaps there is something about our way of doing things that is distinctively baptist and that if you aren't a baptist, you don't feel safe or welcome coming to a members' meeting; and if you are a baptist from another church, you know not to come until you are a member.

There's been lots of intelligent stuff on the other baptist blogs - namely stuart's and Brodie's - that's been teasing out whether there is anything left of a distinctive baptist identity. Douglas McBain used to talk of many of the new churches being baptistic - in that they were largely independent, practiced believers' baptism and were low on liturgy.

One thing, of course, they were weaker on was any notion of congregationalism. And perhaps that is at the core of whatever we mean by baptist identity. I was intrigued top read Bishop Tom Wright's withering attack on a group of evangelicals in the church of England who have recently issued a covenant (the details of which are too complicated to go into!). Suffice to say that a key plank of Tom's attack is that the covenant is congregationalist which is not an Anglican value!

Sean Winter has written about this in his reflection on Baptist/Anglican conversations that have taken place over recent years. He argues that baptism is not the key divider between our traditions but the baptist insistence on congregational government and opposition to episcopacy (you'll have to check out Sean's beautifully nuanced argument on his blog and in his article on ambiguous genitives in Romans).

I wonder whether a key distinctive of our way of being church is that we seek to move forward together, having discerned the mind of Christ as a community (along the lines outlined in 1 Cor 2). This, of course, is why there always seems to be a tension in baptist churches around the roles of leaders and possibly why some baptists - whose sympathies lie more with the new churches - struggle with the church meeting.

I have a more practical struggle with the church meeting and that's attendance, representation and finding a model that works. Undoubtedly, our lunchtime gathering worked. We'll do it again. But it was still less than 50% of the membership. How do we hear the voices of those who are members but who do not come to church meetings? Have they excluded themselves from decision-making by not attending? But if we take that attitude, how will we persuade them to come on board with the direction the church has discerned from there Lord as it gathered?

Some of our younger families have expressed the view that we have too many church meetings, that leaders have been elected to lead and that only big decisions (not clearly defined) need to come to the church meeting. Maybe this has something going for it.

I also wonder how we might use the website for conversations about what the church is doing and where it's going. Maybe there's a place for virtual conversations in getting ideas aired and viewpoints expressed ahead of the church coming together to decide something. Perhaps ideas expressed online could be fed into the discussion when we gather.

We are certainly using our mid-week programme between now and Easter to talk about this whole issue of belonging, membership and baptism (I'll blog about that sometime soon) and those conversations will be recorded in some way so that wisdom expressed there is not lost to the wider discussions.


Richard said...

Hi Simon,
I've been following your blog about membership etc. and recognise the same issues about attendance and inclusion. I have no great solutions, but one thing that has crossed my mind is how we present both the discussion and the decision to the wider church.
When I was at the Global Leadership Summit last autumn, I remember James Meeks saying something about the need to preach the notices. I think the argument went something like this:
If you "preach" the notices then, when you call for a response, you are asking people to engage with the "notice" in the context of the message. So, if your notice is about an upcoming outreach event, you preach on outreach, and then ask for a response to the message through the event.
Perhaps we need to find more inclusive ways to "preach" the discussion so that people will engage with it and enter the decision-making part of the journey as a result.
It needs some thought, but it might be something to chew on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon

Thanks for the mention. Now I only need to find the time to revise the paper!


Wulf said...

If they were that interested in congregational involvement, wouldn't they have been quite likely to have become members already?

I suspect that the truth is that congregation is a fuzzy grouping - those who are passionate about being baptist (methodist / anglican / etc), those who are passionate about active involvement in a local church, those who just want a church to help them along, those who... (the list could go on some way).

Maybe being diligent to engage with people and seek their participation is enough? Getting 100% attendance is just about numbers and more of a hindrance than a help?

Anonymous said...


Would we be the first official BB Church members to join in the Blog?
The lunch was good last Sunday and very thought provoking about what belonging really is. We had comments from members in their teens to their seventies all saying they didn't feel that they really belonged.

However, when you question what is the definition of belonging, everyone has a different opinion. Some are quite content to dip in and out of church activities, believing that the sense of belonging to the church is actually more important in the outside world when surrounded by non-believers.

Is an element of this debate that once the question of 'belonging' or 'membership' is raised, everyone starts worrying about an issue they weren't previously concerned about.

Who has the hang up here? Is it the Leadership, the members, the newcomers or all of the above?

Living, working, commuting and paying the mortgage in Bromley leaves little time these days to get to church more than once or twice a week. I remember growing up when my father would be home from work by 6 or 6.30pm. That just isn't realistic these days, particularly when both parents are usually working.

Perhaps technology, such as this could provide an answer for communication? I spend between 8-10 hours a week in my car. Are we close to being able to download services, mid-week meetings etc as Podcasts in the foreseeable future from the church website?

Stuart Blythe said...

Hi Simon

Continuing to enjoy the blog. Know many of the issues from practice.

I guess I find myself asking why should one be concerned for participation in decision making and why chose that method rather than others especially recognising the difficulties both on leaders and members. For me it is about aspiring to make concrete in practice convictions about discipleship with attention to individual and corporate responsibilties and privileges that come our way through being part of the body of Christ, of which he is the head.