Resourcing small Baptist churches
How best to resource, encourage and challenge small churches across Baptists Together was the focus of a recent meeting
There are approximately 1000 churches with fewer than 40 members belonging to our Baptist Union, making up around half the denomination. But though they may be small in number, they are a big deal: figures shared at the meeting showed that in eight Associations small churches have a higher baptism rate proportionally than large churches.
The meeting, which took place in London on 20 September, was organised by Hilary Taylor, the team leader of the Small Church Connexion of the London Baptist Association (LBA), alongside Phil Barnard, LBA regional minister team leader. The gathering featured representatives from Associations. General Secretary Lynn Green was also there.
Each brought stories from small churches in their region, before Mike Lowe, Baptists Together communications enabler, led a session exploring the possible future of a national Small Church Connexion.
Stories from around the region
Nigel Manges, regional minister South West Baptist Association shared the geographical challenges of a smaller churches conference. Even a central venue means a 90-mile journey for some churches, so attendance is hit and miss. However, there is an appetite for such a gathering.
Many small churches want to talk about governance; how to encourage people to take on leadership roles, and mission relative to village life. Another major challenge is pensions: nine churches in the Association have experienced cessation events, averaging £45,000.
Four new projects have started in recent times, each with a larger church walking alongside.
One church has explored alternative forms of ministry: it is using its building as a retreat centre and working alongside someone from the Northumbria Community. Another small rural church is exploring looking at developing its building for the community, after recognising it is the only such building in the area with a car park.
There is a focus in the North Western Baptist Association on unlocking the potential, said Jane Henderson. This was about responding to smaller churches in pastoral vacancy and diaconates not so confident in spiritual leadership. The Association has explored hub churches – how a church with a particular strength can support other churches, and helping leadership team embrace change: “basically to say let’s re-imagine how we do church. How can we do things differently?”
The Association is thinking of offering a pre-retirement course to encourage those approaching retirement to reflect on how they might use their gifts. Currently people in this position receive lots of practical information about finance, but not about their change in identity. Many have gifts that could be used not only in their own congregations, but others too.
Alison Mackay, a regional minister in the Heart of England Baptist Association, reported on the continued efforts of trying to build relationships between churches, and making larger churches aware of the relationships. Problems occurred with different styles of churchmanship. There was also a reluctance to go down the route of shared ministry, she said.
Alison also shared the story of a how a church in Shropshire, with around 10 members in their 70s, had hosted marriage boot camps, and seen many men attend. ‘It’s an example of a tiny church that’s taken on a radical mission and is punching above its weight.’
Lindsay Caplen, representing Eastern Baptist Association, highlighted how larger churches can also learn from smaller ones. She spoke of the need of sharing resources – people with specific skills – and how the EBA weekly prayer focus often highlighted issues facing small churches, and helped smaller churches feel part of a wider family.
Paul Revill of the Northern Baptist Association spoke of one church whose congregation had dropped to single figures. However, they have been invited to become a learning community, and it’s been a catalyst for them to see new life. They are being assisted by a retired minister, and recently worshipped with a couple of other congregations in a new worship room. This was an ‘encouraging story of one of our churches being assisted in different ways.’
Colin Pye of the Central Baptist Association, said momentum had stalled in terms of gathering small churches together. Only one church bought into a small church day, possibly reflecting ‘insularity, or an unwillingness to travel?’ He said sometimes churches respond with ‘hostility’ when he paints a picture of the future, and the need to do something outside the church. On a more positive note, he’d been impressed with a couple of examples of churches setting up community cafes, which have become village spaces, and which are blessing their communities.
A learning partnership involving small churches in the Yorkshire Baptist Association and the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity is being encouraged, noted the YBA’s mission enabler Kezia Robinson.
The Association had started a group for the leaders of toddler groups. Toddler groups are one of the biggest fringes on the life of churches; the women leading them don’t see themselves as leaders, but in fact are. The Association is also interested connecting more traditional churches with the energy of pioneering groups.
Regional minister Joth Hunt said that 50 per cent of churches within the Southern Counties Baptist Association are classed as small, while 10 per cent are tiny. A number of pioneering situations are emerging following the work of Ali Boulton in the Association. Some churches have been visited by Ali and grasped the vision of something new, and “we’re encouraged by that.” However, a lot of smaller churches are aged 70 and over and have explored their vision, but a long time ago. ‘That’s a real challenge.’
SCBA is looking at the whole area of partnerships – of a better-resourced church coming alongside a smaller one. Joth is trying to encourage the Joel prophecy: can older people dream of a future that they won’t be part of?
Home Mission is key – the Association hosts well-supported Home Mission days; a lot of Home Mission Mission churches are pioneering, but others are struggling – the days are places ‘where two cultures collide’.
Hilary Taylor of the London Baptist Association spoke of how ‘it’s not about numbers, but growth.’ She mentioned her own church, which has 23 people, but has seen six people come to Christ in the last two years.
The number of encouragement days, when a church is visited, has fallen. Last year there were seven, this year only three. ‘When people are there they are really encouraged and love it, but this year the people haven’t been there,’ she said. She said the LBA database continues to be well used – the database works by people offering their time and skills to smaller churches. An additional nine people had offered to support treasurers. She spoke of leadership team training for small churches (there is an event on 13 October), where one of the sessions will be on identifying gifting, which doesn’t often happen. ‘It’s all about getting people empowered.’
Hilary added that it’s a hard job encouraging people to think about mission, not maintenance. ‘The moment churches value survival more than mission is the moment they start to die.’
Phil Barnard, the LBA regional minister team leader, co-hosting the gathering with Hilary, spoke of how the Association was very much into recycling and replanting. The Association wanted to get to a point of planting new churches. He mentioned there were success stories – of churches ‘getting too big for Hilary’, vibrant churches that have gone from almost closing.
Roll out of Small Church Connexion across Baptists Together
How do you encourage small churches to become mission shaped in their setting? What can be done to enable a greater resourcing and encouraging of small churches across our Union? Could there be a roll-out of the Small Church Connexion across our union?
These are some of the questions posed by Baptists Together Communications Enabler Mike Lowe during the afternoon. Mike explained that the idea behind such a roll-out was to strengthen and encourage small churches, and encourage relationships between large and small churches for mutual appreciation and spiritual and practical resourcing.
He spoke of his experience as a minister at Boulton Lane Baptist Church in Derby. A mission facilitator had walked alongside the church, which was very helpful. Gradually the culture of the church changed, even if some members didn’t directly participate in the activities. Partnerships with other Christians and agencies was key to nurturing small examples of mission. In time the church was involved in more than 10 activities, despite having just 20-30 members.
It was about an orientation for mission, Mike said. ‘If your mindset is for mission and partnership, you don’t need masses of money or resource – you can do loads.’
Mike shared a number of ideas that could be part of a national roll out.
At a strategic level, they included having a representative from each Association on the SCC, and the SCC becoming the Baptist voice for small churches, with a voice into Council and the Baptist Steering Group.
He explained for lots of churches, their future is in partnership. They will still be a local church, doing things on the ground, but partnerships will be key to their health. A greater roll-out of the Small Churches Connexion may help that.
Mike spoke about the idea of developing the idea of mission at home – of people using their gifts and time in another church; of being a missionary in another church.
He spoke about developing and growing the SCC presence on that Baptists Together website. It could become a hub for stories and focused resourcing. He also spoke about the possibility of a national database, similar to that which has been created in London, to provide preachers, worship leaders, musicians and help for treasurers.
The pros and cons of these ideas were discussed, with general agreement they could be explored – and that this meeting should be held twice, not once, a year to create momentum.
Following the meeting, Hilary said, 'These meetings with reps from across Baptists Together show that small church is a big deal and it is always inspiring to hear the strategies in the different Associations.
'Many of our churches are strategically located but need to hold mission high on the agenda and focus on fulfilling the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations. Let’s keep the main thing, the main thing!'
Do you have any thoughts on the development of a national Small Church Connexion? Contact Mike Lowe here
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts via our letters' page.