EBF Council 2016 - a summary
A round-up of the 2016 European Baptist Federation Council, which took place in Tallinn, Estonia
An undeniable symmetry between the history of the host country and the recurring themes of many of its sessions made Tallinn a fitting venue for this year’s European Baptist Federation Council. Themes of faith forged in trying circumstances, and in messy, difficult relationships, were present throughout the gathering. Estonia is a small northern European country with a history of occupation and oppression, not least during the Soviet occupation of the last century. During this time several free church movements were forced into one union, an action designed to result in their self-destruction.
However, God turned ‘that force that was meant for evil into good’, said Erki Tamm, President of the Union of Evangelical Christian and Baptist Churches of Estonia. There was a revival in the darkest days of Soviet rule, which continues to bear fruit. The Baptist union is growing, and there are excellent ecumenical relations in Estonia.
Nowhere was this more visible than the imposing St Olaf Church: selected by the Soviets as the venue into which the differing free church movements were supposed to implode, it’s now a welcoming Baptist church. On Wednesday night it played host to a vibrant opening celebration where representatives of more than 40 member Unions of the EBF came together to worship as one. It is the tallest church in Tallinn, visible across the city, and the one in which Helle Liht, the EBF assistant general secretary, grew up in. ‘I believe we can find a common language to talk about all the great things God has done,’ she said, opening the service.
What is the EBF?
When presenting his annual report, General Secretary Tony Peck reflected on the EBF’s identity and purpose. It is different to a Union, and certainly not a super-Union, he said. Its constitution from 1949 describes it as ‘a federation for co-operation.’
This means we don’t agree on everything; we don’t do everything together… but we come together on a shared Baptist identity.
God is calling us in four main areas, he continued.
Firstly, on a shared commitment to evangelism and church planting.
Secondly, EBF members are called to come together to defend religious freedom, which is ‘about more than writing letters to Governments’: in order to be effective, much specialist legal work is required.
Thirdly, there’s a shared commitment to theological education.
Finally, there’s call to help those in practical need.
The sessions and seminars focused on each of these areas. They included an update from Daniel Trusiewicz, the co-ordinator of EBF Mission Partnerships (MP).
Around 10,000 people have become members of 200 new Baptist church plants in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East since 2002, he said.
Christer Daelander led a session on the EBF’s freedom and justice work, and highlighted how 75 per cent of the world’s population live in situations with limitations on freedom of belief. Tony Peck mentioned the importance of being full members of the Conference of European Churches, which has a ‘quite an emphasis on religious freedom and rights’, and tries to provide a Christian voice in Brussels.
‘Churches are listened to when they come together and talk about their role in society,’ Tony said. The EBF has also become a stakeholder in ‘Freedom Declared’, the very first All-Party Committee on religious freedom to be set up in the UK Parliament. Its chair, Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, has an interest in the declaration of religious freedom made by Thomas Helwys, and it’s likely that an annual lecture bearing Helwys’ name will be inaugurated at the Palace of Westminster.
There was an update about the encouraging progress of the International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam, as well as news that the sale of the former IBTS buildings in Prague was finally going through. There were updates from the youth and children’s committee, which runs an annual conference and promotes and manages the online Horizons programme. Translations are being worked on and the programme will soon be available in 13 languages. There had also been a number of Horizons live events, which have been 'transformative' said Jeff Carter. Teddy Oprenov brought news of a new programme for young Baptist leaders.
Refugee crisis and resolutions
One whole session was devoted to the response of member churches to the refugee crisis. In their different countries Baptist churches engaged in reaching out to refugees were experiencing both great blessings, as well as enduring challenges of scale and local hostility.
‘How long can we keep doing this?’ asked Nabil Costa, referring to the tireless work of Lebanese Baptists, who have been reaching out to Syrian refugees since the conflict began in 2011. He appealed to Baptists to play a greater role in advocacy in their response to the refugee crisis.
All three resolutions which emerged from the Council were related to a lesser or greater degree about the refugee crisis. One had a particular focus on Aleppo and was written in such a way that member unions could use to advocate with their governments.
As well as anger and horror at the crisis, churches involved in responding to people seeking refuge in their midst are an ‘an incredible spiritual harvest,’ noted Rupen Das, a member of the EBF working group. There has been in a spiritual impact on offering hospitality and compassion. This is not just for the refugees – the churches themselves are growing, too.
Each day began with a reflection on “Baptist identity in a Post-Denominational age.”
Thursday saw Estonian theologian Toivo Pilli speak about the Baptist way of doing church. It was he said, based on Jesus’s statement in Matthew 18:20 – “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Jesus is in the midst of us, and Baptists believe the church is constituted by Jesus, he explained. According to Baptist convictions, it’s not the presence of a Bishop that exclusively mediates Christ, “it’s the networking and relationship of disciples…. making decisions together, seeking to be under the rule of Christ.”
Shane McNary of the Co-operative Baptist Fellowship, and based in Slovakia, unpacked the familiar story of David and Goliath during a reflection on a Baptist understanding of sharing in God’s mission on Friday morning. He spoke of the importance of contextualising mission to the local context, and how the highest mission service we as Baptists can give is when we allow our lives to be bound up with others; called in love, community… messy, covenantal relationships.’
There were two reflections on Saturday. Mateusz Wichary, President of Baptist Union of Poland, reflected on whether our moral decisions are more often informed by our nationality and culture than our Christian or Baptist identity. We can and should use our national identity in a godly way, he stated. Nationality has the power to be a God-used tool. (God did not call Paul to resign from his background). But we don't need those who differ the most, to necessarily agree. ‘True humility is understanding those with whom we disagree.’
The title of the address from Teun van der Leer, rector of the Baptist seminary in Amsterdam, was Back to the future. Inspiration from the (Radical) Reformation. What can we learn from our past? He said Baptists were called to be God-centred, Bible-centred and church-centred. The reformation was all about renewal and restoration of churches, and that ‘protestantism possesses an innate capacity to renewal and reinvent’. Can we reinvent a way of being church that draws from our roots that will speak to the heart and culture of our people?
The sessions featuring reports of the EBF work were interspersed with stories of what God is doing in member churches. Baptists in Estonia believe in being 'serious about people’s needs', said Erki Tamm. If you are, they are open to you. Estonian Baptists operate a number of second hand shops throughout the country, employing 100 people. They are viewed less as shops, more as environments where people’s needs can be met. They have also introduced a project where they celebrate a the birthday of a child who for economic or social reasons would not be celebrating.
In Finland delegates heard about the ministry to Karen Baptist refugees. The Finnish Karen Baptist Church was founded and now numbers 14 churches with 950 members. Last year a rehab home for drug addicts was founded, in co-operation with the Russian Baptists.
Details of a new internship programme at a Baptist church in Vienna, Austria was shared. Project:Vienna is an opportunity to spend a year exploring what the Kingdom of God means in an urban context, hosted by ProjektGemeinde (Project:Church) in the centre of the city. Interns had already contributed significantly to the life of the church, which is involved in a number of projects and significant ministry among refugees.
‘We are dreaming of church planting,’ said Josifs Makarenko, director for mission for the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Russia. The Union wants to begin missionary churches in towns and cities currently without any church. Many of the indigenous people in Russia – there are 140 – do not have scriptures in their own language. The goal is ot reach 12 nations in seven years. Further afield the plan is to send missionaries to countries with communist backgrounds, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. ‘We live in a challenging situation,’ said Josifs, ‘the financial situation is difficult; the new laws make pressure.
‘But we believe with challenge comes new opportunities.’ The recent congress on mission had gathered a record 5,000 Christians.
‘We’ve reclaimed our missionary spirit again,’ said Igor Bandura from the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists, one of the largest member bodies in the European Baptist Federation. It had held a missionary forum, with around 1600 delegates attending. The forum was held at building in the Maidan, scene of the revolution of 2014. It was ‘a sign of hope – a great step’, Igor said. The country faces an uncertain future, the fighting continues, and Baptist churches continue to minister to those who have been displaced by it. ‘We preached about hope for the nation. Encouraged each other to give our life away, to be sacrificial.’
There had also been a meeting with the Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko, who signed a law allows public buildings to be used for individual celebrations of the Reformation in the coming months and years.
‘This opens opportunities to us,’ said Igor. ‘To celebrate reformation – they have to invite Protestants; they don’t know how to do it.
‘So we have national and regional plans - next year we’ll be very busy! We believe that God has special blessings for his church - to preach the gospel in many places.’