May has come – and with it our celebrations of the 400 Anniversary of the first Baptist church in this country. That first local church has left no physical trace. It was simply a gathering of a few people in the centre of London who loved the Lord and who were passionately concerned to live their lives according to the teaching of the New Testament. What a turbulent period that was! Some Baptists were imprisoned and a few lost their lives for their faith, but all were placed under enormous pressure and had to pay a high price for their Christian commitment.
The celebration of our beginnings gives us a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of our Baptist life. Baptists have always placed strong emphasis on the local church, for we believe that as we gather together in the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit shapes us and leads us. Believers’ baptism, for which we are possibly most widely known, is important because it emphasises that the local church is made up of people who have individually decided to follow Jesus. As we gather together in the presence of the risen Christ, we believe that he transforms us and invites us to share with him in his mission to the world.
The core convictions of Baptists today are essentially the same as they ever were. The world has changed out of all recognition and most of the ways in which we work are completely different from 17 Century Baptists, but we still have a deep desire to see the risen Christ at the head of every local church. The last two centuries have been particularly fashioned by mission and it is of the utmost significance that we organised ourselves on a national scale for world mission, some years before we got down to establishing a union for the churches in this country. Christ’s call to go and make disciples of every nation has always rung loudly in Baptist’s ears.
I am delighted that the life of the local church has figured highly in our present conversations about the future of the Baptist Union. We recognise that the health and vitality of the local church is of crucial importance, and we need to work continually at finding more effective ways of resourcing and supporting every fellowship. The birth of the Baptist Union in 1813 arose out of the understanding that we could only have strong local churches if we had a firm commitment to one another between churches. Christ never calls us to independence, but to work humbly and generously together as a completely interdependent community of his people.
There are many ways in which local churches work together. On a number of occasions this year I have preached to clusters of Baptist churches and I did so again yesterday evening. Clusters have often been a very effective way of strengthening local relationships. However, for a myriad of reasons, clusters don’t always work – history, personalities, theological differences and geography can all conspire to trip them up. But that just means that we need to work harder at ensuring that every local church receives the inspiration and support that it needs.
Whatever comes out of the conversations about the future of the Baptist Union, I pray that we will find a new commitment to supporting one another in local churches. Without that, we won’t have a future worth having.