'Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship'
A month ago I travelled to Arusha, Tanzania to represent Baptists Together (BUGB) at the Conference held roughly once every ten years for the World Council of Churches Commission for World Mission and Evangelism. Arusha is a bustling city in Northern Tanzania, in the shadow of an active volcano (Mt Meru) and Africa's highest peak, the snow-capped Kilimanjaro. Our conference centre was an hour's commute from the city hotels to a conference centre and safari lodge to the east. Over a thousand people from every continent and almost every Christian tradition, from Catholic and Orthodox to Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Baptist, gathered to worship, deliberate, think and pray about the priorities for world mission. What a privilege to be a part of such a gathering!
As always, when the world church gathers, it was utterly fascinating and memorable. Meeting in Africa, it was inevitably and wonderfully 'African', both in much of the worship and the ways in which the work was undertaken. Africa is now one of the most Christian of continents (far more so than post-Christian Europe) and there was a palpable sense of 'being at home' as the church. Because CWME is broader than most WCC commissions — it includes the Roman Catholic Church, as well as some Pentecostals, who are not members of the WCC, but who have historically been part of what began as the World Missionary Council in 1921, tracing its roots back to the 1910 Edinburgh Conference — it felt more truly 'the world church' than even the Busan Assembly in 2013 which I also attended on your behalf.
The theme was 'Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.' This was the first time that the CWME had focused upon discipleship, and in many ways I was delighted to see how 'ahead of the curve' British Baptists are. This is not to imply we can be complacent, but rather to recognise that discipleship has been on our agenda for a while (certainly since the days when our strap line was 'missionary disciples.') It reflects also our concerns in those ecumenical discussions with the Church of England of more than a decade ago where we called for discipleship to accompany baptism. I believe it remains our most pressing need if we are to truly mobilise a missional church and an effective evangelistic movement.
Recent WCC emphases have focused upon the 'fullness of life', (Together Towards Life. Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, 2012) especially for those on the margins of our political and economic world systems. This has included a concern for climate justice — conscious that it will be the poorest of humanity who bear the greatest costs as sea levels rise and global warming accelerates; and concern for the poor, people with disablities and women — those who live more frequently at the margins of prosperity and opportunity. This emphasis was expressed throughout the conference, and the communique that emerged on the final day is true to this priority. It is hardly surprising given the centre of gravity of the church world-wide is no longer the prosperous West, but the global South with all of its challenges of poverty, poor governance and health and education limitations.
My concern, then, must be seen in the light of this global vision. I, and others present from Europe, did wonder what this might mean for discipleship in our post-Christian West. Our priorities might include a stronger emphasis upon evangelism, for instance. This was presupposed in the communique but might have been made more explicit.
The question arises, if the world church — of which we are a part — is being called to renew its focus upon transforming discipleship, what might this mean for Baptists in Britain. That word 'transforming' is deliberately ambiguous. Who or what is being transformed? In the first instance it calls for a way of following Christ that truly transforms the lives of those who are Christian disciples. I felt quite strongly that while this is an admirable goal, there was little by way of exploration of how such a transformative discipleship might be formed in the believer. Maybe that is the next conference! However, can we wait another eight years to explore this ourselves? I fear not. So, one important piece of work that I would urge Baptists Together to undertake is to ask the question, 'how do we form deeply transformed disciples of Jesus Christ in our consumerist and materialist culture?; what practices or processes develop lives that "are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:18)'
Secondly, the question is what kinds of transformation in society do such disciples seek to enable? Who are our most marginalised? What societal forces, harmful to the flourishing of the good in society, should we challenge, in Christ's name? Popularism as a political creed is on the increase, although we are beginning to see how it might be just one more means by which the elites maintain their control for their own ends and privilege through illicit and hidden manipulation. Xenophobia and racism is no longer receding (if it ever was, which I doubt) while genuine respect and justice for women remains an unachieved goal. Is this what transformed discipleship is called to transform?
On a final, personal note, when (in 2016) the JCG agreed to meet in Arusha in 2018 I had no expectation that I would find myself travelling to the conference with a new call upon my life to serve the churches as General Secretary of Churches Together in England. Indeed, I had no awareness of that even as the New Year began! One of the emphases in a Theos report on the work of CTE commissioned by CTE last year is a call for a renewed focus upon mission and evangelism for the churches in England. Finding myself at an ecumenical conference with just such a theme, has proved to be just one of those 'God-instances' which have played their part in preparing me for the new role of leadership of CTE, and confirming in my mind that this is indeed God's clear call upon my life for the next few years (just when I was anticipating taking things a little easier!) The support of Baptists Together, and the Faith and Society Team in particular, enabling me to be present at Arusha, has been a wonderful 'gift' of grace for which I am deeply thankful.
The Revd Dr Paul Goodliff was Head of Ministry at the Baptist Union until 2014, since when he has served as co-minister of Abingdon Baptist Church. He is an Associate Research Fellow at Spurgeon's College, and is also a visiting lecturer there and at Regent's Park College, Oxford. From September 2018 he will be the General Secretary of Churches Together in England.