A focus on small Baptist churches
A report from the latest gathering of Association representatives with a heart for small churches which took place recently, following an initial gathering in September. There are approximately 1000 churches with fewer than 40 members belonging to our Baptist Union, making up around half the denomination
Stories from around the region
Alison Mackay, Regional Minister in the Heart of England Baptist Association, spoke of how the Association is exploring ways of twinning churches. A small churches network day had 60 people booked in. There were lots of conversations in the Association, fuelled both by lack of finance and a desire to share mission ideas.
Tim Longworth, Mission Enabler with the Pembrokeshire Baptist Association in the Baptist Union of Wales, works with 30 English-language churches across rural areas and market towns. He spoke of encouraging cross-denominational work, and cited the example of how one small, elderly congregation had partnered with an Anglican church in its village to run an after school club.
Tim said how social isolation is a huge issue in the communities in which he works, and highlighted the need for relational evangelism. He had been working with one guy over nine months, sharing the gospel. The key to this is people being mobilised, to be really passionate about relational evangelism. ‘How can we do this?’ he asked, before adding ‘it’s hard, but there’s some good stuff happening.’
Joth Hunt, Regional Minister in the Southern Counties Baptist Association, said the Association was focusing most of its energy on Home Mission-supported churches. It hosts a Home Mission day, at which the churches are encouraged to gather. They are thinking of broadening the day to provide support to more churches: while many Home Mission churches are small, but the smallest of the churches don’t apply for funding and could benefit. The Association was trying to persuade Home Mission churches to partner each other, but the connections are not particularly strong.
Nigel Manges, Regional Minister in the South West Baptist Association, reported that the SWBA’s small churches conference had to be cancelled due to lack of support and bad weather. It’s often a struggle to get people to conferences due to the geographical nature of area. However, the Association has organised a rolling programme of church leadership training days: all those who have attended have come from small churches, and it’s been ‘very well received.’
Home Mission in the Association has to have a missional focus, and this has led to support for four pioneering projects in places where there is no church presence. Each is linked with a larger church for pastoral and spiritual oversight. A number of small churches are developing encouraging ministries. Holcombe Church in Somerset has started a Messy Church which has proved so popular people have had to be turned away; a church with an elderly congregation in Ilfracombe has started a night church where, wanting to engage with their community, members serve toast and coffee. Home Mission funds are supporting a community minister to walk alongside the church. Another church in the middle of Devon with a passion for mission is developing a community centre, recognising it is the only place in the area with a car park: the fellowship has already raised several thousand towards the project.
Jane Henderson explained more about her role in the North Western Baptist Association. Jane is the regional minister for church transition, and works with churches undergoing change. She has tried to move the focus from finance, to mission, asking: how do we work with the resources we’ve got? She has encouraged churches to just be, and ‘stop trying to be the church you were 50 years ago.’ This involved not trying to do everything, but recognising what they can do. For example, a discernment process with one church revealed they were the only providers of provision for 11-18 year olds in their village, and they have been encouraged to focus on that. Her role is listening to what they need, helping them discern God’s purpose for them and working through their context.
The Association is investing in local leaders. Again, this involves listening, walking alongside and working with them facilitatively. Again, a key principle is helping churches understand their own context, and having some discernment about what’s available to unlock the potential.
Small church networking in the South Eastern Baptist Association had made the fellowships feel included and cared for, said Regional Minister Jerry Newson. Where once there was a feeling they were out in shadows, now they’re ‘quite excited to be in a club of small churches’. A good proportion of the small churches are made up of a handful of elderly people, who are opening their doors on a Sunday but seeing nobody new come. They can’t carry on likes this, said Jerry. Five churches in close proximity in Gillingham have agreed to meet in May to do some re-imagining.
Jerry has written a missional community training course after a couple of churches became interested in missional communities/gatherings. He piloted it in Tenterden (Jerry is part-time pastor of Zion Baptist Church there), with the result that two missional communities are launching.
Most of the engagement with small churches in the West of England Baptist Association focuses on the Home Mission-supported churches, said Regional Minister Alasdair Longwill. WEBA wants these churches to engage with Reimagine – its missional learning community. The Association has also tightened up its criteria for Home Mission, which is now really focused on mission.
The Small Church Connexion had been running in the London Baptist Association since 2003, said Hilary Taylor. A newsletter was sent four times a year as one way of connecting people. In October the Connexion ran a training course Fit for Purpose, in response to deacons saying they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Thirty-three people came, from a range of different positions in churches, and there is likely to be a rolling, ongoing programme because they found it so useful. The Connexion hosts encouragement days, and has created both an identifying gifting workshop, and a listening skills workshop. There are a lot of square pegs in round holes; in addition, people are just not listening, to each other and to their communities.
The mission@home idea – having a skill you could offer to teach someone else – was seeing fruit. Once you make clear something is available, people say ‘yes, we need that.’ It operated through a database which lists what people can offer.
Adrian Wood, pastor of London Colney Baptist Church in Hertfordshire, represented the Central Baptist Association. He said momentum in connecting smaller churches had stalled, probably due to geographical challenges. However, a small churches day has been planned for September, which will be ecumenical.
He spoke of his own church, and the importance of its ecumenical relationships. partnerships. London Colney does a number of things alongside different churches, including hosting a Churches Together foodbank. It organises various events using community resources.
Tim Lovejoy self-employed and the part-time pastor of a small church in Thetford, Norfolk (his official title is Church Mission and Development Co-ordinator). The church, which belongs to the Eastern Baptist Association and has a small core Sunday morning fellowship of 12, has become something of a community hub: its activities include hosting two toddler groups, the Meeting Place (a bi-monthly event for older people), an arts and well being group and a coffee morning. He is currently writing a book on ‘the precious things I’ve discovered about leading a small church; many of them I wouldn’t have discovered had I been leading a large church.’ Tim believes small churches can fall into a mindset where they can apologise for even existing. However, he wants his book to be counter cultural – ‘small churches can be role models.’
General Secretary Lynn Green also spoke during this period, reflecting on what she had heard around the room and on her wider travels. She highlighted the importance of encouraging churches to focus on what God is calling them to, to do what they can. ‘I’m so encouraged to hear of you working with churches to find God’s call. We want to see more of that connection and encouragement.’
Helping churches explore what God might be calling them to
The gathering also heard from national pioneer co-ordinator Simon Goddard about the Missional Adventure project. Missional Adventure will be a new website designed to draw together all the good things churches are involved with. Its aim is to help churches explore what God might be calling them to. This may be making creative use of their buildings; calling a pioneer; starting a Fresh Expressions; having a mission consultancy and leading people through change; investing in training or engaging with new housing. ‘All sorts of avenues will be on this website,’ said Simon.
It will share resources, stories, opportunities and communicate events. Missional Adventure has received Baptists Together Mission Forum funding, and will be live later this year.
There was also a discussion about resources for Small Churches. Hilary Taylor spoke of how she had updated and rewritten aspects of the Re:focus material, and wondered whether there would be value in offering this nationally. She explained that Re:focus is for the whole church, encouraging fellowships to think more about mission and reaching people for Jesus. It was generally agreed that while there is value in offering this material nationally, there would be more value in having a pool of resources – and feedback on them. Several Associations had their own version of church review – NBA has Springboard, BUW has Toolbox, NWBA has Unlocking the Potential for example.
There are opportunities to engage with Hilary Taylor (Small Church Connexion) and Simon Goddard (Missional Adventure) at the forthcoming Baptist Assembly. Both will be in the Networking Zone, as well as hosting seminar sessions as part of the Network Day on Saturday afternoon. For more details visit baptistassembly.org.uk