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'Some struggling, others thriving through the lockdown'

Notes from a recent Baptist Union Smaller Church online gathering (24 September), which featured representatives from several Associations 


Sharing news from across the Associations

East Midlands Baptist Association 
Some small churches are struggling yet some are thriving through the lockdown. Finances are an issue for some. One church without a minister but with a strong lay team, have been finding out what they are good at, so playing to their strengths and stopping other activities.

Approx one third of the EMBA churches are open on Sundays, many of these are small. The Baptist Union guidelines have been brilliant! There have been links between churches as those with tech have invited those without the ability to organise the tech to join their online services. The Regional Ministers hosted a 20 minute morning prayer time on Monday to Friday during the summer. At the moment it's only weekly but the plan is to have the daily prayer during Advent.

Eastern Baptist Association  
The Regional Ministers have been visiting churches services on zoom as well as in person. After joint Zoom meetings with around 50 ministers earlier during lockdown, we have just held a week of prayer (also on Zoom) looking at discipleship in this digital world.

Finance is a big issue. Ministers are busy but are using their time differently as activities and their buildings closed. At Simon's church, zoom has been good to connect people. Their building is closed but some activities such as a coffee morning, holiday club and after school club have moved online with craft packs being delivered to the children. Some people are struggling as they can’t get back into the building and get life ‘back to normal’.

Heart of England Baptist Association  
The planned small churches day had to be cancelled but had disappointing numbers who booked. They are looking to plan one next year. Several churches have responded to the Twinning idea and it’s been working well through the pandemic. WhatsApp groups have been established too. In Shropshire, the ministers meet weekly online for prayer and support.

People have connected through phone calls or hard copy of services where there is poor signal or no tech. Finance is an issue with churches losing both income and hirers (who in several cases were the church’s mission field). Ministers have been criticised for either doing too much or too little!

Central Baptist Association  
Many of the above issues were echoed especially finance issues which may be bringing some churches to the point of not being viable. Some have experienced tension over the issue or returning to physical worship spaces. Tech has obviously had its challenges, especially for those who are not only having to organise a service but also live stream it.

There have been some positive missional responses such as food banks and creative prayer opportunities in public space. In some churches, numbers attending prayer meetings have significantly gone up. One church with a high number of special needs people in the congregation decided to open the building as soon as they could as the people could not engage online. Another suggested the longer we stay away from our buildings and old routines, the easier it will be to make necessary changes in the future!

Northern Baptist Association  
Similar issues – one church has been creative and advertised services on Facebook targeting local people (costs £5 a week) and received over 1000 hits! For another church who were struggling before, Covid 19 has been the last straw and they will close. NBA and NWBA have been streaming Sunday services online. These have been really helpful to small churches who can’t organise this themselves.

It has been harder for the large churches to adapt during the virus but easier for small churches with their flexibility and small numbers. The NBA staff team have also been talking directly with each of our smallest and most vulnerable churches through zoom or phone calls with the leadership of each church, to discern where in particular they need help and support at this time.

Yorkshire Baptist Association  
It's been a mixture of churches struggling and thriving. The virus has accelerated the reality of cracks in small churches. YBA has connected with about 30 small churches through zoom and share the struggles and joys. It has been interesting to see how older people have been catered for through zoom more than the youth.

Webinars have been well received and the learning communities have continued to meet. One church has been using their hardcopy service sheet as outreach to their neighbours. Peter Dunn’s BIG LIFE course has been well received https://yba.org.uk/resources/biglife/ as it equips you as a disciple where you are.

North Western Baptist Association  
Similar issues but clear that there have been not only age differences but socio-economic differences to how people have coped with the virus. The white middle class churches often have no age barrier to technology but churches in socially deprived areas have people with mobile phones but may be limited in their use or signal. One church was creative and knocked on 500 homes with prayer cards. NWBA delivers a service every Sunday on YouTube with a huge following.

There are many good collaborative things happening which we hope will continue after lockdown. We have a concern for ministers who are feeling ongoing stress over the last six months – a bit like the frog in the boiling water! Ongoing low stress can result in high impact. Ministers are often used as scapegoats for the frustration of the congregation. Church was the only thing that didn’t change over a lifetime, but now even the church is changing! It has destabilised people and the ministers are in the firing line. We need to support them. We are holding a monthly women ministers support zoom and various hubs are online in their regions.

Some people are on the edge of burnout, one had a heart attack…But there is hope as partnerships are springing up, sharing resources. There was a Home Mission appeal in June which had a great response so the Regional Team can offer more support.

Southern Counties Baptist Association  
Again some churches are thriving but others, particularly with older ministers are struggling. They have big questions about their future. But the churches and Association are pulling together with sermons online and regular calls by the Regional Ministry team. There is more time to talk with less travel! Clusters are meeting online for support.

The future for small churches lies in partnerships or twinning. SCBA held a Home Mission day for small churches just before lockdown and a later zoom conference saw about 100 people join in. The energy people used to put into Sundays could be rerouted into mission. Leaders are training and there are emerging skills and gifting to be used in mission.

South Wales Baptist Association 
Many small churches are led by retired ministers and this can be positive or negative! There is no mission happening at many churches and their focus is the Sunday service. The internet signal and quality is very poor in the Welsh valleys so paper copies are being distributed (at one place, written by hand as no printer or copier!).

Prayer gardens have been created especially in the rural communities which has been welcomed and used. A medium size church is discussing partnering with a small church (of 2!). With the churches not open, the traditional mission opportunity of inviting someone to church is gone. The younger ministers in small churches are being encouraged to think creatively to engage those with no internet who are becoming disenfranchised.

South West Baptist Association  
There's an echo the issues above. One good story of a church in Somerset with 30 members and a minister who has just retired, had a former young person converted and baptised at the church and who left to go to University several years ago. During lockdown he has returned to worship with them on zoom from where he lives on the other side of the country and was even involved in leading sung worship for the church recently. Other churches have found some prodigals have returned ‘home’ on zoom during lockdown.

In these days, it seems that small churches have the advantage over larger ones, as all churches are only allowed to have smaller gatherings (30 only) which we are used to! The larger churches are having to rethink their number of services, activities, large buildings for large numbers etc and try smaller groups, maybe missional communities with a new focus…Partnering can be the way forward with large churches learning from the small…

London Baptist Association  
There are 119 churches under 40 in LBA and I had personal contact with many during lockdown. About 10 of them had lost members to Covid 19 and the impact of these losses will be felt when the church returns to gather again. Many are reaching out in various ways including offering free ‘Try Praying’ booklets https://www.trypraying.co.uk/ or using the church garden as a peaceful safe space or joining the local council to feed the community. One church was looking at returning to church and having done the risk assessment and bought all the PPE, decided to make a four minute video of the church and what to expect when people returned. This was a welcome change to the long emails sent before!

A few churches have pushed ahead with settlement through lockdown. Our spring event, a retreat at Southwark Cathedral was postponed to 2021 but our autumn event was a webinar and 47 people tuned in. Details here.

Our Leadership training days are popular! We ran three in February, with a total of 94 people attending. Others had to be cancelled – booked 2 for Nov but we’ll see! We ran two gifting workshops before lockdown and a Refocus programme on zoom. Our newsletter continues to link all small churches four times a year and the LBA database has grown to 90 people on the books!

Discussion about Charity Registration (Unincorporated v. CIO) was led by Phil Barnard

All remaining Baptist churches with annual income of £5,000 and over are losing their ‘excepted status’ and will hence have to register with the Charity Commission. The deadline was 31 March 2021 but that has now been delayed due to the pandemic. A new deadline is yet to be announced. All churches will have a choice to register as a charity whilst retaining their unincorporated status, or as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO).

There was much discussion but the churches each have to decide which way to go. The options must be clearly explained so they can make an informed choice.

Essential reading:
Churches and Charity Registration: baptist.org.uk/Articles/368659/Guideline_Leaflet_C06.aspx

Charities, Churches and Incorporation guideline: baptist.org.uk/Articles/368664/Guideline_Leaflet_C11.aspx 

Image | Gregory Hayes | Unsplash


Baptist Times, 05/10/2020
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