Helen Brereton believes celebrations—both the events themselves, and the work associated with celebrating—strengthen communities. They do this, she says, by reinforcing a shared identity and generating enthusiasm for its ongoing purpose and mission. Here she outlines three personal suggestions for celebrations our churches might like to consider.

I recently began a new interim pastorate, and on my second Sunday, I preached a message on the benefit of spiritual habits. As I prepared resources on various spiritual disciplines, I was reminded of two decommissioning and commissionings I recently attended.

I pondered how the symbols, words and actions of these special ceremonies helped shape, nurture and inspire the people that participated in them. I thought further on the celebrations we regularly undertake in our congregations: weekly celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries; special family celebrations of communion, welcoming new babies, and a saint’s graduation to eternity; and our important annual celebrations of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, and Pentecost.

Thanksgiving, praise and exultation sit at the heart of each celebration as we remember what God has done for us and through us. As we commemorate God’s goodness to us, and as our joy and delight bubbles over and infuses the honour we offer up to him, our remembering again ‘re‑members’ us as his body. 

Identity, unity, well-being

This repeated re-membering is important if our faith communities are going to thrive in the years ahead. McMillan and Chavis1 have identified five factors that contribute to a robust sense of being part of a body or community of people. They are a sense of belonging, identity-defining symbols and boundaries, participation in community life, having needs and desires met through the community, and shared emotional connections within the community.

Regular celebrations are symbols that work to preserve group history and impart identity. These symbols promote social cohesion, a shared spirit of unity and a continued commitment to group well-being. 

So, what are the celebrations your community observes regularly, and how does this celebrating shape and reshape you and the community you belong to? 

Here are three different, and potentially new, annual celebrations for you and your community to consider. I stress these are just my own personal suggestions and are not official proposals in my capacity as a member of Assembly Council. Each of these presents an opportunity to intentionally celebrate Jesus at work in us, and through us. Which of these Sundays might your local congregation need to celebrate most in the next 12 months?

1. Covenant Sunday

Each year our nation celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Our nation’s founding document was considered a covenant by many of the Māori signatories to the treaty. As Baptists, covenant is central to our way of being; at our best we are covenanting communities watching over each other and walking together in the ways of the Lord.2

Individually, our personal covenant commitment to Jesus is sealed through the waters of baptism in front of members of the covenanting community; and as a community we covenant with each other through the practice of membership. 

This covenanting as a community continues when we stand and commit to supporting a newly married couple or to supporting new parents to raise their children in the ways of the Lord. Likewise it happens when we commission a new pastor or missionary, and when we welcome a newly formed fellowship or newly constituted church into the New Zealand Baptist family. 

So how might an annual Covenant Sunday celebration—perhaps the Sunday closest to February 6th—shape and form individuals and congregations over time? A Sunday for celebrating the various covenants in our individual lives, and in the life of our faith community. A time to remember and recommit to promises made at our baptisms, our entry into membership, our weddings, at child presentations, and at commissionings. A time to celebrate the growth we have experienced as disciples, as members, spouses, parents, friends and champions—and to speak our gratitude to Jesus for his faithful ministry to us over the past 12 months. 

Could this Sunday also provide an opportunity to examine how well we are covenanting as citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand, and to celebrate how Jesus is faithfully covenanting with the people and land of this country we like to call God’s own?

2.  Foundation Sunday

In your Sunday services you may hand out chocolates to celebrate ‘belly button’ birthdays, and maybe baptism birthdays, but how many of us celebrate the day that our local congregation was birthed? 

Have you heard of an Ebenezer stone? This stone was placed to remind the Israelites “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12). Samuel’s action of marking and remembering God’s faithfulness has long struck me as useful for the local faith community. 

Do you know when your church was born or officially welcomed into the Baptist fold? You may already have your own Ebenezer, a foundation stone that marks a significant date in the story of your church.

Consider what good fruit could emerge if every year, on the Sunday closest to your congregation’s foundation date, you had a celebration of all that Jesus has done for you over the past 12 months? 

A Sunday to celebrate prayers answered, lives saved and changed, outreach activities undertaken, new initiatives launched, volunteer service faithfully given, budgets met and building projects commenced, new members and attendees welcomed into the family, and a year’s worth of marriages, births, baptisms and memorials! 

Friends, how might an annual Foundation Sunday inspire joy, build trust and unity, and re‑energise your shared purpose as a congregation? 

3.  Union Sunday

On 9th October 1882, at a conference in Wellington, 15 delegates representing 10 of the 25 existing New Zealand Baptist churches, were led by the Lord to form the Baptist Union of New Zealand. After 138 years of associating, the Union now comprises 242 fellowships and churches, and an increasing number of Baptist mission entities, located as far north as Mangonui and as far south as Owaka. 

Over these years, God has used his Baptist people to do mighty things in and for the world he loves! We have seen Jesus use us to reach thousands of people, we have seen lives changed, and generations baptised. At his direction, we have nurtured, taught, commissioned and sent young and old into mission and ministry—at home and abroad, at school, at work and in the communities we love. 

How do we as individuals, as congregations and as a family of churches celebrate what God has done, and is doing, across the wider Baptist family? While our Baptist whānau events do a fine job of showcasing God’s faithfulness to our churches, they are only enjoyed by a small fraction of our people. So, what might a Union Sunday—that Sunday closest to 9th October—produce in the way of good fruit? 

How might celebrating who we are as a family of churches and mission entities—united under Christ—shape and form us? How might it help New Zealand Baptists face the future together, and unite us and inspire us to keep faithfully proclaiming Jesus and his Kingdom to those in our neighbourhoods and beyond?

Contributor: Helen Brereton

Excited by good sci-fi, great bush walks and delicious global cuisine, Helen is a 1st-gen Baptist, married to Nigel and mum to three adult sons and a soon-to‑be daughter-in-law. She currently serves as interim pastor at Kaikohe Baptist Church and sits on both Assembly Council and the Northern Association board. Helen says, “What gets me out of bed each morning is excitement at the opportunities Jesus keeps giving me to help people and congregations live more fully into the freedom for which Christ has set us free!”

If you are keen to think more about celebrating, then check out John Douglas’s new article ‘The Heart of Celebration is Reorientation’.

References:

  1. D W McMillan and D M Chavis, “Sense of community: a definition and theory,” American Journal of Community Psychology 14:1 (1986): 6-23.
  2. Stephen R. Holmes, Baptist Theology (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), 156-157.

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.