Many of our Baptist churches are experiencing a declining number of attendees at Sunday services, and a significant reduction in the number of people being baptised. Sadly, this is not just a Baptist phenomenon, but rather evidence of the pervasive underlying predicament of Western churches. Rick Pierce explains why this may not be all bad news.
A poignant moment from the first evening of the 2010 Baptist Assembly (now Hui), held at Otumoetai Baptist Church, is etched firmly in my mind. Rodney McCann, then National Leader, urged those gathered to voice aloud, “We are in decline.” If, at that point, Rodney was addressing the elephant in the room, today the same message is broadcast by a flashing neon sign.
The church in the West is experiencing a cultural displacement, from the centre of society towards the margins, as evidenced by the recent McCrindle Report Faith and Belief in New Zealand. While this seemingly paints a negative outlook, we can conversely view this as a key transition time through disorientation to new orientation. It is a time of great opportunity and potential, as new forms and structures emerge to facilitate the churches’ embodied life of the gospel and its missional role in living out and proclaiming the gospel.
Such a time of disorientation is an invitation to ask the hard questions about our identity and our calling: What does it mean today to be people in a covenantal relationship with our God and with one another? How do we renew our calling as people of mission in a very different (secular) context?
Perhaps it begins with a realisation and acceptance of what has transpired. In many respects, we can identify with the Kingdom of Judah in Old Testament times. Life in Jerusalem, situated around the temple, changed dramatically as many of the Jews were taken into Babylonian exile. As the Jews experienced the anguish, alienation and hopelessness of being strangers in a strange land, it became a pivotal time in their nation’s history and in their relationship with God. Questions were asked: Where is God in all of this? Has God abandoned us?
While we haven’t been taken into exile in another country, we may have voiced similar questions as we try to make sense of our cultural displacement in a 21st century Western context.
Making shalom visible
An important part of our journey may involve us grieving: recognising any sense of loss we are feeling, as society has radically changed around us; letting go of what has been; and grasping a renewed vision of the future. Hope comes through knowledge that God is still with us, as indeed he was for the Jews. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God reassured the Jews of his continued presence with them, even in exile. While God’s people were displaced from the temple, from Jerusalem and from the Promised Land—those aspects of life that signified God’s power and presence—the vision of Ezekiel 1 shows God coming to them and being present with them in Babylon. God later describes himself as “a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone” (Ezekiel 11:16 NIV).
Even in exile, he was still God, the Jews were still his people and he was still in control. With this revelation, the Jews needed to rediscover what it meant for them to be the people of God living in the pagan Babylonian Empire. That awareness came through the prophet Jeremiah, as God instructed his people to “seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7 NIV).
Cornelius Plantinga Jr describes shalom as, “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight… In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.”1 Such a vision of what God desires has not changed. Shalom will ultimately become a fulfilled reality when Christ returns, bringing all things together under his reign. Until then, the church is called to help make shalom visible, something we can only do through grace as we participate in the life of our triune God.
A re-envisioned discipleship
In our 21st Century ‘Babylon’, where much of society seems to be unravelling itself from anything to do with God, discipleship requires a re-envisioning. We need to regain a shared vision of what it means for us to be the people of God, to be people who, together ‘in Christ’, embody his life and make visible his shalom.
This does not involve the church assimilating into secular culture or withdrawing from the world. Rather it means engaging the day-to-day realities of life as we live together in Christ, sharing in the life of God.
Such a life, by the very nature of God, becomes distinctive from the culture, ironically pushing us further to the margins of society. However, it is from here that the church regains its prophetic voice, demonstrating by its life together a revelation of divine life—the grace, love and shalom of God.
Living out what we believe
So what does it look like for the [Baptist] people of God to share life together in Christ, evidencing this shalom? How are we providing evidence of the life of God through embodying his life in community?
There is no silver bullet on the way forward but it’s here we realise our Baptist ecclesiology is ideally suited to the cultural times we are experiencing. Each local church stands under the direct rule of the risen Christ, experiencing its life through being in Christ. Each local church determines who God is calling them to be and what he is calling them to do, in their particular community. It is built up through each member being empowered to contribute his or her God-given gifts. Each local church is to become a dynamic, Spirit-inspired, self-giving, self-denying, self-emptying, authentic, loving and grace-filled community that makes visible the life of God they are sharing in.
Such evidence of God’s life is obviously more than a group of people gathering at a set time, at a given place, for corporate worship on a Sunday. In saying this, I’m not casting doubt on the importance of the gathered community in which Christ is present, but rather what we have limited it to. We need to recognise that each time two or three gather around the Word and in Spirit, the Spirit freshly constitutes the church. Christ is present; Christ is speaking.
Our role as God’s people is to discern the mind of Christ in what needs to become a more participatory ‘conversation’ in which all those present find the freedom to contribute (providing opportunities to hear the voice of those on the margins of our churches). It’s therefore not our gathering, but how we arrange our gatherings (of at least two or three people) to facilitate the life of the church, that’s key in helping us flourish in our life together.
How are we organising leadership through our faith communities to facilitate our sharing in the life of Christ? How are we structuring our faith communities so small groups are relationally connected to larger mid-size groups, which in turn are relationally connected to larger groups still (representing one of our 240 or so churches throughout Aoteoroa, covenanted together as the New Zealand Baptist family). How are we as churches connected to other churches in our locality, whether Baptist or those of other denominations? The formation of concentric circles of relationship serve to demonstrate the life of God in which we all participate as his people, thereby making that life visible and known to others.
The life of Christ, present in all sized communities, remains the source of a church’s life. As we experience this life, fulfilling the many ‘one another’ instructions of life together in the New Testament, and as we embody Christ’s life in who we’re becoming as a church, we’ll discover that discipleship sparks creative, innovative and Spirit‑inspired mission initiatives to seek the shalom of our local communities. For example, it may be through a social enterprise initiative where business becomes a tool for mission; or serving the needs of those with mental illness; or reaching across ethnicities and helping those new to the country with their integration. Again, we recognise our Baptist ecclesiology provides an ideal form for each church to facilitate these new, unique and personal forms of community life under the rule of Christ.
If we discern the times, recognising the presence and rule of Christ in our gatherings and as our source of life, we’ll become churches that live out what we believe. Perhaps one day a future National Leader will then be able to stand at our annual Hui and have those gathered boldly proclaim, “We’re embodying the gospel; we’re growing like a mustard seed; we’re making the life of God visible. All glory to the grace and love of God!” Then again, he or she won’t have to, because it will already be proclaimed clearly by a flashing neon sign!
Story: Rick Pierce
Rick is Pastor, Spiritual Formation, at Windsor Park Baptist Church. Rick and the pastors involved in the PressingOn initiative are in the process of designing a 33-week teaching series, Faith and Life in New Zealand 2019. It’s a journey aimed at re-envisioning their church communities for a life of discipleship in our 21st century Western context. To find out more about PressingOn visit pressingon.org.nz.
- C Plantinga Jr, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 10.
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.
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