A crisis of commitment? (Simon Goddard)

Simon GoddardSimon Goddard asks whether the Church is facing a crisis of commitment.

One of the identifying features of a Baptist congregation is its understanding of church membership, but as someone involved in a fresh expression of church, it has become clear that our current interpretation of what it means to be a member is not really 'fit for purpose' in our contemporary society.

The meaning of the word 'member' has changed over time. Previous generations commonly understood this word as a reference to a part of the body and were thus more able to grasp the organic nature of the biblical analogy in 1 Corinthians 12. Contemporary usage of the word, however, is now largely restricted to an organisational understanding, for example, in our membership of the local gym. Here the mutuality and accountability implicit within the biblical metaphor is reduced to a financial exchange or even lost entirely.

Also, in a time when people were less mobile, and denominations less ecumenical, being involved in the life of a local church would have been an enduring and essential component of an individual's identity. Now, however, the believer's relationship with church is changing. Indeed, there are people who believe and yet aren't members, and others who participate fully, but are yet to profess faith.

There are some commentators who argue that the problem is due to a wider 'post-commitment culture' and that the churches should be counter-cultural and better at communicating the need for individuals to commit themselves to church membership. In my opinion, however, commitment per se isn't the problem. Whilst loyalty to institutions and organisations may be disappearing, campaigns such as 'Make Poverty History' and 'Stop the Traffik' show that there is still a strong desire to be involved in movements which seek to have a transformational influence upon society.

Let's be concerned less about membership and more about our obedience to the call for us to be missional communities

A healthy growing church community still needs commitment. This, however, is not to be seen in terms of becoming 'members' of an institution, but rather as entering into active 'partnership' with God and his people in the work of the kingdom. This is a challenge to those who are keen to know who is 'in' and who is 'out' – those who want to see church as a 'bounded' or 'closed' set.

The alternative viewpoint is the 'centred' or 'open' set, which is less focused on who has yet to 'cross the line' and more interested in encouraging everyone to move closer to Christ who is at the centre of our life together. This type of church becomes a more attractive and inclusive community whose very life together acts as an invitation to others and a 'signpost' to Jesus. In all our churches, let's be concerned less about membership and more about our obedience to the call for us to be missional communities.

Why simply speaking louder won’t work (Simon Goddard)

Simon Goddard explores why we need to speak in new and creative ways.

I've recently returned from a trip abroad, and rather lazily I neglected to learn the language of the country I was visiting. I did what many of us do and hoped that by speaking English a bit louder and slower I might be able to make myself understood. I think sometimes in the church we adopt a similar approach to sharing the gospel!

The story of Pentecost, however, offers us an alternative approach when individuals from a long list of different nations exclaim 'we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!' (Acts 2.11). In an increasingly post-modern and post-Christian context the Holy Spirit is still inspiring people to share the unchanging gospel in languages that people can understand. In a desire to connect with the 94% of the population who aren't regularly in church, some have begun to speak in new and creative ways.

Whilst there are some who, like the scoffers in Acts 2, take one look at Messy Church and café church and presume that those involved 'have had too much wine!' (v13), the language of fresh expressions is one that is increasingly being spoken. Unlike this Englishman abroad, however, many Christians have taken the responsibility to learn how to communicate the wonderful gospel message in a 'tongue' that others can understand.

The mission shaped ministry course has been one method that the Spirit has use to empower the church to learn this new language. At Pentecost about 3,000 people responded, and the impact of msm has been no less impressive. Over the last decade, msm has been the catalyst for new expressions of church being planted and a source of renewal for existing congregations. It's also been a place where people have responded to a call from God, and have been equipped to get involved in the mission of the church, perhaps for the very first time.

For some, however, accessing msm has proved to be a challenge. In some parts of the country it has only been possible to run a course once every few years, and even when a course is available regionally, there are many living in rural locations who have long distances to travel in order to be able to attend. That's why in 2014 people like me, who are already involved in delivering msm, were invited to consider how it could be offered more flexibly.

And that brings us to the launch of msm online. The first running of this course begins in September 2015, providing the same content but presenting it over the web in a 'virtual learning environment'. The idea is that a small group, of up to five people from a single congregation or local group of churches, will gather around a laptop or smart TV in someone's lounge, interacting with other groups and a speaker who will be teaching from the comfort of their own home via a webcam.

If you want to be part of the first cohort on msm online, or know of churches that might be able to benefit, then more information can be found on the msm online website. As a special introductory offer there is a 15% discount on the group fee for those who register before the end June.

Simon Goddard is a Regional Minister in the Eastern Baptist Association and coordinator of the Pioneer Collective, an initiative to identify, release and resource 400 new Baptist pioneers. He was formerly the pastor of RE:NEW, a pioneering and ecumenical expression of church near Cambridge.

Please note that comments and views may not represent those of Fresh Expressions.


Simon GoddardPioneering Baptist minister, Simon Goddard, explains how RE:NEW grew in rural Cambridgeshire.

Lode is situated about eight miles north east of Cambridge and the Baptist Chapel serves five villages in East Cambridgeshire. The membership of Lode Chapel has been declining, but is currently stable at just over twenty members. The majority of these are professional couples with families, although around a third of the members are retired.

I was called to part-time ministry at Lode Chapel in September 2005, with a particular focus on pioneering. Lode Chapel held a summer holiday club which was a well attended feature of the church’s outreach. Despite positive contact with a large number of local families, there had been very little follow-up to the club. This became an issue we discussed with the local Anglican vicar and we ended up talking about the possibility of a monthly 'Kids Club'.

NEW - gymSo in September 2006, 'Sunday Club' was launched with personal invitations for each of the sixty or so children that had been to the holiday club, and adverts in the village magazines and through the schools. It was advertised as a 'holiday club on a Sunday' and this meant that there would be video, games, craft, action songs, a creative prayer activity, and a very short talky bit focussed around a memory verse. A number of families from the holiday club joined us at the first event and although a few didn't return, many continued to come each fourth Sunday.

Initially resourced only by the Baptists (who cancelled their Chapel service on that Sunday), sustainability was an issue. Fortunately, however, the vicar had been approached about having a curate, and had asked me to meet him. Jonathan, and his wife Emma, were excited about what was happening with 'Sunday Club'. They were keen to get involved, and from September 2007 they joined me in planning and leading the events. Graciously, on those Sundays, the vicar allowed them to be free from responsibilities in his five parishes to be able co-lead.

We recognised the weakness of our individual churches in sustaining mission and the need for us to work together. As Jonathan shared with the parish churches news of what was happening in Bottisham, one of his other churches, in Swaffham Bulbeck, asked whether it could start something similar. I was invited to be part of discussions about this possibility right from the start, and when, in May 2008, this new event started, it was scheduled for the second Sunday of each month partly so that the 'Sunday Club' families would have the opportunity of attending something twice a month.

NEW - pool splashThis development, however, was not how the members of Lode Chapel had initially envisioned 'Sunday Club' progressing. The fellowship’s hope was that 'Sunday Club' would provide a way for the main Chapel congregation to grow, but although one family had come to a few services, they had not stayed. Families were still coming month by month to the school event, but Chapel services were so different from 'Sunday Club' that it seemed such movement was unlikely. To me, rather than being engaged in an outreach activity, it seemed that we were now involved in planting a new congregation. Although it was difficult for the Chapel members to understand, I felt that my commitment to this new initiative was critical.

The first few Swaffham Bulbeck events attracted a good number of new people, mainly families from that village. Although it was also based in a primary school hall, the feel of this event was quite different. Tables were set out in a café-style (rather than the 'Sunday Club' rows) and there was deliberately a less churchy feel (for example, no singing) to make it more accessible for those with very little, if any, church experience. The hope was that it would be a relaxing and enjoyable place for families to spend some time together doing something fun as well as thought-provoking. The parish church congregation didn’t cancel its morning service but came afterwards to the school (which is next to the church) for shared refreshments at the start of RE:NEW. This was a particularly busy but rewarding time; we were making positive contacts with a number of families who were coming to the school events, and slowly but surely our churches were become more engaged in mission.

NEW - venueThere have been some challenges as we've slowly realised that the two styles of event connect with two different groups of people. Whilst the Swaffham Bulbeck event was accessible for the 'un-churched', many of those coming to the 'Kids Club' could be described as 'de-churched' – having some previous, but not current, connection with church. But as we've clarified the vision there have been some exciting times too as a growing number of people at Lode Chapel have grown in commitment and enthusiasm to this mission activity. Many members have a more active role in the 'Kids Club' which is now accompanied by a 'RE:NEW Café' where parents chat over a coffee and watch a Nooma DVD. Jonathan and Emma, whose particular calling is to work with the 'un-churched', are now taking a leading role in organising social events and 'community blessing' activities.

The three of us, along with the rest of the leadership team, see the need for us to be building this fledgling community as well as supporting those who are coming to faith through Alpha and the other small groups that are developing. Recognising the mission opportunity, the Baptist Union is providing a grant that has enabled me to be in full-time ministry since 2008, but nonetheless there is still uncertainty in terms of the future of the congregation and the personnel involved. We are therefore also exploring the possibility of a Bishop's Mission Order, and our prayer is that resources will be found which enable someone to be appointed specifically to oversee the future of RE:NEW.