As pioneering expressions of churches develop, we need to find new ways of belonging, writes Simon Goddard
What is church?
It’s a question which is asked as part of the mission-shaped ministry course that I’ve been involved with for the last few years, and answering it might not be as simple as you think. I’ve noticed that an individual’s response is often influenced by the denomination of the congregation to which they belong. An Anglican, for instance, might emphasise the need for a priest so that the Eucharist can be celebrated, and a Methodist may talk about the local circuit, or the Connexion, and the fact that the church only exists when it is in relationship with others.
As a Baptist, however, how would you answer the question? We believe in a priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of each congregation – so your emphasis will probably be different. Whatever theological responses you might give, or biblical passages you might refer to, practically speaking a Baptist church exists when it has a constitution that defines, amongst other things, who the members are and how the congregational governance will take place. No constitution, no church – at least not one that can join our Baptist Union or a Regional Association.
Constitutions may vary from one Baptist church to the next, but generally the inherited shape of membership involves an interview by a couple of existing members or deacons, a subsequent report to the church meeting, and a vote on whether to approve the membership application. The question, however, is whether this model continues to be fit for purpose in the 21st century, and if it isn’t, what might a reimagined membership look like?
Time for change?
My own view is that the inherited model is straining at the seams. As a Regional Minister I find that the membership statistics for some churches bear no resemblance to the attendance on a Sunday morning – and it works both ways. Sometimes the congregation is much bigger than the membership, with many people attending regularly and actively participating in the life of the church – but for some reason choosing not to become members. On other occasions the congregation is much smaller than the stated number of members – with people who have moved away, or are no longer in regular attendance, still being counted. In both cases the membership has become a ‘virtual reality’ with no correlation to the true situation.
Some churches, realising that this is the case, have experimented by talking about partnership instead, or by introducing annual renewal of membership. At a special covenant service, often on the first Sunday in January, the members recommit themselves to God and to the ministry and mission of the church. Other churches, perhaps more dedicated to the inherited model, have sought to introduce membership courses so that those who come from a non-Baptist background can understand and engage better.
These approaches have had varying degrees of success in established congregations, but it seems to me even more reimagining needs to be done in order for us to find models of membership that will be appropriate for the congregations that are emerging as a consequence of pioneering. This is the case for the new churches planted as a result of incarnational ministry, for example the Urban Expression teams, as well as for the fresh expressions that develop as an outcome of the missional activity of an existing church.
In pioneering church plants there can often be an emphasis on working with the local community in ways that might require the setting up of a charity, and the associated appointment of trustees, even before a worshipping community has begun to take shape. The charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) structure is a new development which helps to limit the liability. The processes involved in this aren’t appropriate for every church, but a growing number of pioneering plants are finding this is working for them.
The challenge is slightly different for existing churches who have started a Messy Church, a Café Church or some other type of fresh expression. Whilst some churches see these as stepping stones into ‘proper’ church, done correctly a fresh expression should mature into a connected, yet distinct, congregation. But what does membership look like where there is one church with multiple congregations? Can you only become a member if you come to the main Sunday morning service, or is membership also open to those who come to faith through the fresh expression and are regular in their commitment to that congregation?
There are more questions than answers at the moment, but we need to be open to discovering new models of membership that are fit for our changing context. I believe if we are to flourish as a Baptist family, the years ahead will require us to do some reimagining…
Photo: Christa Brunt
Simon Goddard is the Co-ordinator of the Pioneer Collective, and a Regional Minister in the Eastern Baptist Association
If you want to know more about the mission-shaped ministry course, and in particular the online version being facilitated by the Pioneer Collective, visit www.missionshapedministry.org/online. Also watch this new video, which features Simon talking about the online course.
To know more about pioneering contact Simon Goddard at email@example.com