Pondering Being Baptist… Or Not…

A couple of posts back where I was pondering how we are sometimes not seen as a real church by others (who invite us to come and join them), I made a comment regarding the new ‘Draft Covenant for Membership in Baptist Churches in WA’.

I had just finished reading the document and my comment read: “I just got the new draft membership covenant from the Baptist Union of WA where the criteria for membership is at least 40 people… or you can be on probation until you make it. What the?..”

This document has been circulated around churches and is open for review. That is a good thing as hopefully in the process it will get shaped into a form that works for all.

I’m about to write some random reflections on this document as a way of processing my own thinking. For most of you this will be as interesting as watching paint dry… For other of you my concerns and questions will likely be your own, so read on.

The original comment roused a bit of debate, and I still believe it is quite valid. The whole idea of choosing a number of members that qualifies a church for admission to the organisation is what I find absurd and with no biblical currency whatsover.

A subsequent statement in the covenant reads: “If a church has not reached a membership of 40 adults at the end of the probationary period the church may remain on probation with the BUWA under the oversight of the assigned BUWA representative If the church remains on probation with the BUWA regular reviews will be undertaken at agreed intervals.”

I don’t think it offers a sense of validity and authenticity to a community of people if they are ‘under oversight’ and ‘on probation’. In fact I think it would be easy to find that kind of language a tad offensive and condescending.

It has a personal edge to it in that our own community would not make the cut and after 43 years of being ‘Baptist’ I would find myself outside of that group. ‘There are worse things that could happen’ I hear you say! And yes, of course there are, but despite my very small ‘b’ approach to being Baptist’ (theologically I could fit in several arenas) I do feel a strong part of this group and would feel loss to have to move from it.

Now just so we are clear, I don’t think anyone has set out to get rid of me/us of anyone else, but these reflections are what I felt when reading the paper. I am fairly certain the intent of the paper is to get us all moving in the same direction – to get us on the same trajectory – and I understand that too. Its what organisations do. They streamline for efficiency and maximum effectiveness in attaining common objectives. But in this process it is inevitable that some will not fit the criteria. Some will not ‘get on board’ to use church vision language.

After reading the document I called one of the people on the committee who formed the document whose opinion I would value and respect and he was happy to hear my thoughts and asked for them to be fed back to the denomination. All good in that regard.

I have since been pondering how to respond to this. My primary concern is the de-legitimising of those in new or experimental churches that do not fit the framework that seems to have formed this paper. It is clearly geared more for those in regular established churches – and I realise this makes 99% of the Baptist Union of WA.

According to the document membership of the denomination requires several things aside from the obvious statements of faith etc. I am considering how they sit with me/us (Upstream)

a) Playing a part in decision making i.e. attending the Baptist assemblies. I have attended one of these in my 15 years as a minister and have sought to avoid them at every turn. On one hand I have been glad to miss them and on the other hand also realise that if you don’t show up you can’t influence the decisions and directions of an organisation. I am told the nature of these meetings are changing, but my desire for involvement is still low. I am not sure I could sign on to this, but then maybe that’s a statement of where my own priorities lie. I am aware of the consequences of that but I am also aware that the trajectory I am currently on may put me at odds with the trajectory of the broader denomination (yes – we are both concerned for ‘mission’ but in different ways) and I may be a spanner in the works if I were to get involved.

b) Promotion of the Vose Seminary as the preferred training option – no problem there. This is a good mob and I’d be happy to send people their way. But if it ever got dodgy I would send people in other directions too…

c) Church planting thru establishing new churches including multiple campus churches – no problems with this, although I did notice that later in the document ‘multiple campus churches’ is described as the ‘preferred option’. Not so sure…

d) Supply the BUWA with a copy of your constitution. That one’s a bit tricky as we don’t have one. We are ‘covered’ for insurance and legal purposes by SUWA and for all intents and purposes are officially an SU project moreso than a Baptist project (if we are talking legalities) I guess we fall under the SU constitution… however my care factor on this one is low. I guess we could knock together a constitution and submit it but it doesn’t feel like the best option for us.

e) Supply an annual statistical return – This one doesn’t sit well with me because the things being measured don’t reflect where our energy is spent and inevitably we finish up looking pretty shithouse. However I realise that organisations do need to keep track of things and this is legitimate within that framework. We just don’t fit the framework very well here.

f) A willingness to pay a financial levy – While it might surprise some, I don’t have a problem with this. If I draw from the benefits of a group then I am willing to pay my share for what is on offer. I actually think its good that it is framed as a financial levy rather than an offering. We currently pay SU a small sum each year for the privelege of their administrative support.

The rest is fairly stock standard stuff.

It is in the later part of the document that I find myself tripping up. There is a requirement for all pastoral staff to be fully registered with the BUWA or to be pursuing registration. I am assuming this is the same as ‘accreditation’ (which superceded ‘ordination’). I am not accredited and made that choice consciously 12 years ago because I felt the requirements were unreasonable and unnecessary. I don’t feel any need to change in that regard.

Every church needs to apply for membership – which I imagine will prove an annoyance to many and a source of increased workload to those in the denomination. The process is fair (in the framework of BUWA) but will be a huge task. Any church not a ‘full member’ cannot claim affiliation or use the BUWA name of logo. Hmmm… we are unlikely to ever be a full member so we are no longer allowed to call ourselves a Baptist church…

The final section relates to the 40 adult members required to be admitted to full membership. Yes, it does state that some may be admitted at the discretion of the council, but 40 is clearly the baseline. I was told that this number was chosen because this is how many people a church needs to be ‘viable’. (ie pay a pastor)

Anyhow those are my thoughts on how I see this document and where I imagine we fit or don’t fit the criteria.

At the moment there are ‘member churches’ in the BUWA and ‘associated churches’. We would be one of the latter. It seems these will no longer exist under this proposal. I guess the question is, ‘is that a good thing or a bad thing?’

I am well aware that in today’s society we can’t escape some level of legal / admin baggage and our affiliation with SU shows that. We run camps and are covered for insurance – we run markets and are covered etc. Its a necessity (or we gamble on the goodwill of people) and no amount of carping can change that.

I think my dis-ease with the document stems from two sources:

a) I don’t think I want to fulfill all the obligations of membership. If this is what is required then I am probably going to say ‘not for me’. Part of this comes from the form our community takes and from my own growing disinclination towards institutional church structures.

b) The less obvious tenor and tone of the BUWA at the moment does not resonate with my own direction. As a denomination we have bought heavily into Paul borden’s recommendations and while the missional intent is commendable, the rugged pragmatism that seems to shape things leaves me with strong concerns. I don’t think this would be news to anyone. The more business-like approach tends to leave me cold these days. It is also common knowledge that Borden recommends denominations treat those who are not ‘on board’ with ‘benign neglect’. I guess we could treat the recommendations with benign neglect also…!

I guess there are two options available. Simply stop calling ourselves a Baptist church and exist as an SU project (where obligations are fewer) and as an independent local community church. Or I could try to be a voice that seeks to influence the denomination to think differently about its approach to membership. I honestly don’t think I have energy for this. I am not sure I want to be the spanner in the works – the voice of constant critique. I guess its easy enough to say ‘if you don’t like it go somewhere else’ and that would be ok, except I feel I belong here.

While I don’t like the thought of losing that sense of identity as a ‘Baptist’, I am not sure I/we can genuinely fulfill all of what is required – and I agree some of it is reasonable.

Its taken me a while to write this, but it has actually helped me to reflect on my own opinions on these issues and to identify what the issues are and the choices ahead. I guess there are choices to be made and no doubt you will hear more in time.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far then I’d be interested in your own reflections.

I think there is a growing number of people who are finding their experience of church outside the ‘institutional’ framework, but I wonder if there is some level of ‘institutionalisation’ inevitable.

Can we just exist as a fluid network of believers with minimal infrastructure and overheads or is it a function of our society that we simply need to accept?…

29 thoughts on “Pondering Being Baptist… Or Not…

  1. Interesting post. I’m sure that I’d have issues with any denomination that I was part of.

    Transparency of process is one factor that I rate pretty high. Even if the results aren’t what I would like. Most of the main stream churches do this well.

  2. Hamo – thanks for thinking “out loud”, I appreciate your honesty in what is a very intimate part of your own journey, as well as the community you are part of. These reflections have a direct relevance to our own faith community’s journey and your wrestling has spawned conversations (over brunch this morning).

    A premise implicit in this document is the notion of the direct correlation between numbers and viability – something that fits very comfortably with the dominant way of “doing” church in Perth, but not other ways such as yours and ours.

    This premise is founded on the idea that a church should be run by a professional ie, someone gets paid to do the work (pastor). If such a person needs to take a wage, then obviously their must be “x” number of members to be able to sustain such a position – hence, 40 is established as the value of “x”.

    The problem with this way of thinking is that instead of encouraging diversity, it implicitly creates division and a core value that values paid clergy oversight over a model that sees all members running their own community without need for waged staff. unfortunately, this is not a model supported any where in the new testament, but rather draws its roots from corporate church growth strategy and bottom-line efficiency.

    Now let’s be clear – this is not saying that a church congregation that chooses to move in this direction is misguided and flawed – in fact it could be said, such a vision requires such a structure to ensure its viability.

    But, this is not the desire of many faith communities – like yours, who are viable precisely because they don’t see the need for paid staff. Instead, everyone gives as they can and takes as they have need – and everybody has their needs met and is without want (both inside and outside our immediate community). Isn’t that precisely the definition of viability????

    So maybe the foundational premise of this document needs to be challenged – so as to allow for diversity not just uniformity. that would be nice 🙂

  3. I think your comment at the end

    “Can we just exist as a fluid network of believers with minimal infrastructure and overheads or is it a function of our society that we simply need to accept?..”

    is the important one for you.

    Yes you can exist without the infrastructure, but you talk about wanting to be part of the Baptist Churches in WA. So unless they radically reshape the document it may mean pulling out.

    Of course the document itself is only an indication of the values people put behind being a Baptist Church in WA. If that is the direction they are taking then either you need to speak out or shut up.

    (Sorry for being blunt.)

  4. I think the future of the missional church is in networks and not in denominations. As such while a particular community’s “denominational title” might shape (or be shaped by) some of its beliefs and practices. It’s organisation, recognition or whatever will come though membership of a network or possibly networks.

    Such networks might be intra-denominations, inter-denominational or non-non-denominational.

    Think – Baptist House Churches Association, Australian Missional Churchs, Alternative Church Communities Network.

    From what I’ve see online, church networks have gained greater traction overseas than in Australia. I’m not sure why? Possibly it’s because these things start so informally but require an amount of critical mass that Australia lacks.

    Which leads me back to the start the future of the missional church.

    At some point we need to start getting real about the fact that we live in Australia. A less formal, smaller model of church makes more sense. Especially in the smaller regional communities that dominate much of the Australian continent.

    If others, no doubt in the Big Smoke, can have bigger, more formally organised communities and sustain them then power to them, but to seek to define church by that standard is exceptionally narrow minded.

  5. Good thought ben, although I doubt denominations will fade fast.

    Perhaps they will ‘service’ the existing clientele and newer alternative expressions of church will find their identity within a network.

    As much as I am deeply part of the forge network we have chosen not to head in the direction of being a denomination. People refer to us sometimes as a ‘forge’ church but that is quite a misnomer.

    We are a Baptist church who have connections with forge and with SU…

  6. Hamo, why does your church identify yourselves as Baptist? Is it doctrinal or because of your long-time associations within the Baptist Union? I’m sure it’s a mixture of the two, but I would like to read your answer.

  7. So many times I ask a question in my blog after having said what I was thinking. So many times I simply have to read what I wrote to see my own answer.

    You, Hamo, (in my humble opinion), have already answered your own question.

  8. what do the other crew in your own missional team think? After all, you guys make decisions together, this will be a big one, I would have thought. It seems you have pretty firm views on this, I wonder what will happen if others in your team feels strongly the other way?

    BTW….I hope you dont leave the BU, but that is for two reasons…I think the BU should be diverse enough to accomodate your expression of church, and personally I value your input, and who not want to see it broken off…even if we have divergent views.

  9. The Forge ‘denomination/network’, I think has been written about in past posts I think. I also think that If forge was to become a network/denomination it would kill any good will it has with the main stream churches. Even if they already feel a bit threatened by Forge at the moment. It probably the right thing to do.

    Though there is noise out there. That one of the ‘Emergent’groups/networks in the US will, like most times in history hit our shores.

  10. Lance – it was the truth!

    There are specific Baptist distinctives that we would hold – eg priesthood of all believers, decision making by the whole church, believers baptism etc,but its more of a general ‘this is where I fit theologoically’ rather than a whole number of specific beliefs. As i said i could fit other places also.

    The history is a much stronger motivator.

  11. Mark – I am yet to raise it with our crew. i have done in passing, but I don’t think it is a huge issue for any of them.

    It is an issue for me because of my heritage, but most of them have different heritages, so probably a non-issue.

    Appreciate your thoughts and I am not writing this to be adversarial. I hope the tone indicates that, but by the same token I do feel like I don’t ‘fit’ the framework well at all and diversity is not looking as likely to be encouraged as it was previously.

  12. Congregational government in Baptist Churches was originally not so much to do with giving individuals the right to be involved in the decision-making process as a belief that each church had the ability to make decisions on its own without influence from bishops or others outside of that local church. Baptist churches have agreed with the idea of interdependence through membership of a family of churches, while resisting the idea of an outside authority imposing on their autonomy. Unless we follow Gav’s advice and become Anglicans there is good historical reason for Baptists to resist the idea of the Baptist Union taking on an authority role, rather than being a support group.

    On the matter of size of churches, I also have concern with the 40 member concept. I have pastored three very isolated churches and at times membership has gone over 40, but when mining companies cut back, government departments shift offices or there is a general economic downturn the local church can often feel the pinch. I was the inaugural pastor of two of these churches and there was a sense of excitement for a tiny group of people to become involved in mission in a local community, and along with it was a sense of security to know that the Baptist Union was supportive of the group and recognised its legitimacy. It’s not just hard to get to 40 members because of the size of the town, but people who are transferred there for one or two years are generally reticent to take up membership if they are already a member of a Baptist church in the city and will be returning there in a couple of years. It is a pity that such grass roots churches that are often at the front line of mission may always be on probation and be treated as second-class citizens simply because they don’t exist in the city where you can be guaranteed that people will transfer from another church in a nearby suburb to help them achieve their numerical goals.

  13. In the US non doms seem to be more “viable” than mainline churches. Yes, even Baptist churches here in Texas! Around these parts, some Baptist churches are removing “Baptist” from their names and calling themselves community churches – yet they are still associated with the Baptist Convention.

    “Fluid” is the ideal, yet very difficult as more people become part of the body (too many differing opinions you know). Structure (Polity) becomes necessary because of our humanity (such is the history of church from the very beginning).


    Why can’t you float along as you have been (fluid and such) and see what the Lord has in store for you? Why not have your

  14. Let’s just stone the prophet so we can all go home…

    I think any denomination needs the flexibility in it’s structure to value those who are pushing boundaries of what church is and what it means. I have been part of a denomination that stoned it’s prophet and is dying( dead ) as a result. I personally would be disappointed to see you leave Bapos because you and other Forge members give credential to those who are in the center trying promote similar changes.

    I personally think Borden and his crew are useful but have an entirely different context in which they operate. Sometimes they just miss the point.

    However they have helped mainstream be challenged about being truly missional.

    Regardless the blanket of what church and denomination is needs to be wide spread.

    Just an afterthought… If the Forge network became a denomination then would that make Hamo the POPE or it’s CEO

    😮 … 😉


  15. What does the term “fluid” actually mean , I have heard this recently to describe ones faith , now I hear a “fluid network”. Is it a term that really holds any biblical meaning or is it just another trendy christian word that will be here today and gone tomorrow. Sorry this is getting away from the original blog , but I am very interested to know what some of you people mean by this term.

  16. That sounds almost new age or perhaps a science experiment , could you elaborate on how that is lived out in ones daily christain life. Does that mean that like water my faith could be like a block of ice or very hot like steam or maybe gushing like a waterfall, but it still remains water in a sense, although I wouldnt like to try and drink steam or bath in ice.

    Why cant you just say you have faith in a person, namely Jesus Christ.

  17. Hamo, I’m glad so many people have agreed with you that the forty people threshold is a bad idea. I think what you and Steve McKinnon’s Lockridge Outreach Group are doing are the two most exciting and important things that are happening for the kingdom under the baptist umbrella in WA.

    Small church is good!

    Hope your feedback sways the criteria.

  18. Thanks Nathan

    I have written and sent my formal letter of objection. Now I guess we just have to go thru the process.

    Interestingly I spoke with two pastors from churches that would be highly regarded in the union and both indicated their churches / leadership were strongly opposed to the document in its current form for the same reasons.

  19. Its not just the Baptists who are wondering where they are going.Churches of Christ are to adopt a new federal consititution;its been about for a number of years,but never distributed to congregations for discussion.At least in WA,Baptist congregations appear to have opportunities to participate.

    Two of the objectives of the new constitution are “to foster a positive public image of CofC” and to “protect the identity of CofC”.They seem to be strange objectives in the light of the Gospel.

    Are there such objectives in the baptist church?

  20. Make an appointment and go and speak to someone at the Baptist Union. Ask them where your church fits into such a document. Talking to the people at the source always helps in my experience.

    As a member of tiny brand new Orthodox church who doesn’t pay it’s pastor we are given full support from our Bishop. We are not officially called a church until he says is my understanding. We are officially called a ‘mission’ although there is no difference in our responsibilities. Strangely I find the Orthodox church (having come from the Baptist church – and I went to all the seminars every time they brought out some new policy)much more free when it comes to structure. It’s almost like there’s no ‘business’ at all. It feels like all shepherding.

  21. Hammo, take comfort in this, you are still on the list of pastors in the denominational directory. They haven’t kicked you out yet. What concerns me is the “benign neglect” aspect. I too wrote to the Union Office with my concerns and received a gentle reply (read pat on the head)saying the letter was read thanks for the comments. My concerns revolve round having to ‘sign’ the Agreement. Rather legalistic ain’t it? Problem with Covenants is that later leaders can reinterpret the document to read differently (take the US Constitution for example). Matt 5:33-37 kinda leaves me with the impression that Jesus signalled a red light to what we are being asked to do by signing a Covenant Agreement. I agree with your concerns about 40 people being the cut off number. Keep carrying on with your good work. I admire your vision and courage Andrew. Cheers. Jim

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