What’s wrong with Aussie Baptists?!

Ross Clifford, former President of the Baptist Union in Australia and principle of Morling College, recently wrote on the state of the denomination in Together in Ministry and I though a few of you might find it an interesting read.

For those who don’t know the back story, Ross, along with my friend Philip Johnson, were the pioneers of Mind Body Spirit Festival ministry back in the early 90s. Together they co-authored Jesus and the Gods of the New Age and Beyond Prediction: The Tarot and your Spirituality in collaboration with John Drane. Community of Hope, the group they formed and which first introduced me to more contextual styles of Christianity, was the forerunner of groups like Dekhomai in the UK which is were Jonny Baker comes into the picture. Mike Frost, who many of you would know, is deputy principle at the college where Ross hangs out.

Morling, you may recall, is also where I am studying counselling. I was discussing the leadership issue with a few bods over dinner last night when Ross dropped by. Unfortunately a pesky exam precluded any in depth conversation over this but I appreciate that Ross is putting these comments out there. Anyway, onto the article:

President of the Baptist Union of Australia Rev Dr Ross Clifford shares some insights gained from his 3 year term which finished in November 2008.

In my columns I have endeavoured to highlight the many inspiring things Baptists are doing across the country as well as to challenge our thinking on sharing the gospel in the market place. I wrestled over this final column and I have a real sense the Lord wants me to speak about a prophetic reality check for Aussie Baptists.

Let me explain. A couple of months ago Mark Driscoll hit Sydney. If you haven’t heard of him he is a bullish pastor from Seattle who is growing a significant church and creating waves. He is the unusual mix of being a reformed pastor who is open to the gifts, eg. tongues. He shoots from the hip, which can be a concern. He preached at my College, Morling, and told us that we were world leaders in contextualization, but needed to lift our game in proclamation. He went to Moore College (Anglican) the next day and from the same passage told them they weren’t cool (i.e. weak in contextualization). He then spoke to a forum of mainly Sydney Anglican ministers and part of his presentation was 18 things wrong with Sydney Anglicans. It has created a stir around the globe, and it appears that many young ministers have responded positively to the challenge/rebuke. I believe that Sydney Anglicans showed a spiritual maturity by putting the 18 criticisms on their website, rather than being defensive.

I don’t want to match Driscoll, but I believe it is time for Australian Baptists to accept the challenge of a reality check. Unlike many denominations we are holding our own, but we are not significantly growing. There are issues we still need to address. After three years let me list some areas of concern I have. I only want to mention a few, as I would really appreciate your responses (principal@morling.edu.au). My commitment is to ensure that your concerns are shared with our Baptist leadership. So let’s get in touch. My list is not about what’s wrong, but positively what can we do better together. Where is the Lord challenging us?

  1. Leadership – I don’t believe that we are challenging enough of our best young people to consider pastoral ministry. Our churches and our denomination will suffer if this does not change. Leaders also need to be empowered to lead.
  2. Theological education – How we train is still strongly influenced by accrediting agencies, consortiums that we are a part of. Our colleges are strong, and therefore it is time for some radical reflection and action.
  3. Baptism – In some churches it is lost. Have we become ashamed of baptism, in our openness to other traditions?
  4. Evangelism – Often spoken of, but I sense for many it’s left to the occasional church event/outreach.
  5. We need to support both our ‘mega’ churches and our ‘missional’ churches. Let’s call a truce, and empower both forms of church and learn from both.
  6. How can our pastors and smaller rural churches survive without a new paradigm of supporting them financially and with resources? This is a national issue for all denominations.
  7. Prayer has a vital role in all our churches, but without concerted prayer for denomination as a whole we will continue to struggle. A more national, global perspective to our prayer life is needed.

Well, just a few thoughts which are offered by a former President who has been blessed by many wonderful things God is doing in our midst. Let me know your thoughts.

I plan to respond to this, but first, what are your thoughts?

10 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Aussie Baptists?!

  1. Hi Matt,
    I read this article somewhere else (can’t remember where) and it saddened me then as it saddens me now. The main reason for this is that much of what is described is familiar to me in my Scottish context. To make the changes necessary to address the spiritual health issues that both you and we have in our Baptist churches is going to be very challenging.
    Much though I am challenged about this, I am also challenged to consider what is right about our churches. It’s too easy to paint everything black, and so to obscure the light that is shining, no matter how weakly. Maybe you could provide an insight into what is good and right in Aussie Baptist circles as a foil to this article, allowing a more balanced conversation to take place?


  2. I should probably look at these a bit. I’m a lifelong attender/member (who has always managed to avoid most leadership) of baptist churches – one big contemp, one missional, one traditional.
    1. “pastoral ministry”… In the early 90s the baptist college in SA was known for training “pastors” ie the man who leads a church, roughly one-size-fits-all. Since then we’ve moved away from one standard model of leadership. I think “our best young people” tend to find roles where they fit.
    2. Not sure about the point here – is there something wrong with the influence of the accrediting agencies?
    3. In my first church (big) there were lots of baptisms, mostly because there were lots of teenagers. In the other two there haven’t been, because not many teenagers or new Christians.
    4. I think he’s right there, not a huge amount of evangelism happening.
    5. Both mega and missional are very much in the minority here. Is he saying we’ve looked after the missional type more? It usually seems the large churches look after themselves more and the small ones make use of the denom.
    6. Churches do need to be supported, and there does need to be some level partnership between city & country, rich & poor, Australia & elsewhere – this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The baptist model tends tends to have congregations mostly self-supporting, while other denoms run a lot more money thru ‘head office’. Thus baptist churches seem to thrive in the well-off places. The nine biggest baptist churches in Adelaide are all in the eastern half, most of the medium-large ones are in the socioeconomic top half. The northern suburbs are quite under-represented. In poor and rural areas, churches in more top-heavy denoms manage to survive.
    7. “A more national, global perspective to our prayer life is needed” – I agree. But I don’t resonate with “but without concerted prayer for denomination as a whole we will continue to struggle”
    Good things to discuss, I might come back to this later.


  3. Tony, you ask about what’s good and right about Baptist churches in Australia? Two things I think worth recognizing in this article were the comments that (1) we are being recognized as “world leaders in contextualization” and (2) unlike many denominations we are “holding our own”, that is, we are not shrinking. Maybe these two positives are not unrelated? To them I would add a third, where Baptist churches do have a public profile in Australia, it is generally positive.
    So, we Aussie Baptists may be experiencing zero growth, but when everyone else bar the Pentecostals is experiencing negative growth this actually makes us the second most healthy church in Australia numbers wise.
    Of course numbers are not the only measure of church health; they are not even a good one. More important is this: how are we growing in faith, hope and love? There again I would say we are not doing too bad. The Baptists in Australia are not known for public brawling, insensitive comments in the media, nor pastoral falls from grace. When we have attracted media attention it has generally been for prophetic stances on social justice issues, and not the ones Americans may suspect. Behind closed doors, well, I won’t pretend to know everything but it is my experience that there is very little internal conflict within the Baptist church. Diversity of views and disagreements are to be found, but generally they’re conducted civilly and respectfully. So generally I would say it’s a loving church, in the tough love sense of the word.


  4. Hi again Matt.
    Much of what you say rings true for Baptists here in Scotland. We are declining, but not as quickly as most other denominations. Our larger city churches are quite strong, while many of our rural churches are struggling. In part this is due to demographics, which is influenced in turn by there being fewer employment and education opportunities away from the cities. I’d like to say that there is little internal conflict in our Union, but that’s not totally true. What is true is that, on the whole, it is being kept internal. I think we have a looming leadership crisis – at least partly of our own making, because we have failed to develop the next generations of leaders for our churches and our denomination. And lastly, I think we’re not very good at contextualisation. This is because many of the churches and their pastors don’t see the need for this.
    Are there any positives? For individual churches, yes. For the denomination as a whole? I’ll reserve judgement on that.


  5. “I think we have a looming leadership crisis – at least partly of our own making, because we have failed to develop the next generations of leaders for our churches and our denomination.”
    I think you’ll find most denominations have an impending crisis in terms of ordained ministry… not as catastrophic as the Roman Catholic church has already experienced, but serious nonetheless. I think there are social issues impacting all denominations… not the least of which is the massive drop out of young adults from churches. The NCLS stats etc. are pretty alarming here for those concerned about the future of denominations.
    It’s interesting to note that independent churches (Baptists, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ) are doing better than mainline denominations on the whole in Aus… maybe a stronger capacity to adapt locally due to church autonomy? Don’t know… I think there’s usually cultural factors at work behind the stats. It also needs to be acknowledged these are smaller denominations than the mainline ones, so the church in Australia is shrinking significantly… especially when you consider a growing Australian population. There’s lots of reasons for the Church (ie all of us) to realign ourselves around mission.


  6. Janet, do you remember when our financial and telecommunications systems were deregulated in Australia? Prior to financial deregulation the government sponsored Commonwealth Bank ruled; now NAB does. Prior to telco deregulation the government sponsored Telstra ruled; well it still does but its being strongly challenged by companies like Optus. I see us as undergoing a sort of religious deregulation. The churches that have traditionally relied on government support are under stress; the independants are better positioned for a post-Christendom world; so the balance is shifting even as Christianity contracts. The independants are also generally less centrally governed, with all that implies.


  7. Eric, many of your thoughts were similar to mine. I agree with Ross that Baptism is being neglected and have encouraged a number of members of our transition team to think about Baptist identity as we look for a new pastor. I also agree very much with Ross about evangelism, and as the Ministry leader for Mission and Evangelism at Pendle Hill Baptist this year I am trying to introduce teaching that will challenge this and encourage a more everyday, relational, conversational approach.
    As for leadership, well I commented about that last week. I think the denomination has been slow to recognize that the old dichotomy between educated pastor and simple parishioner has collapsed, that now there is a wide spectrum between the two with highly educated and skilled lay people in between, that some of us who may have felt called in past ages feel called elsewhere today. This is exacerbated by the fact that the ministry system is still geared towards pastors and teachers, that apostles, prophets and evangelists still find it hard to fit in. As someone who has been questioned more than once why I don’t become a pastor, all I can say is, there isn’t a place in the pastoral system for someone like me. But the denomination can still learn to use people like me.


  8. “… the ministry system is still geared towards pastors and teachers …”
    If this is true (and I think it is, at least here in Scotland) perhaps we need to address the question of why things are like this.
    Since the demand from the churches is for pastors and teachers, the selection boards look for people with these gifts. Colleges emphasize training these gifts because their funding largely comes from church donations made by churches looking for pastors and teachers.
    Now we come to the chicken and egg part! Because most churches only experience ordained leadership from people whose principle gifts are as pastors and teachers, they aren’t especially open to the possibility that a person with a different gift set could be called to an ordained leadership role. Worse, if they do call such a person, then they don’t know how to handle him/her to benefit both the church and the leader. Instead, churches demand that evangelists perform as pastors, even though that is not their gifting or calling. (I have a friend who faced exactly this problem, having been called to pastoral leadership in a church on the strength of his evangelistic gifts!)
    All of this assumes that leadership should be at least partly provided by ordained ministers, but that is a whole different issue and it’s not as clear-cut as it might seem.


  9. Hirschy and others have been arguing for a while that leadership teams exercising the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher (Eph 4:11) will generate more health and vitality than our traditional church arrangements… our denominational church “hardware and software” is all lined up for a more traditional Christendom pastor/priest model… so it’s easier said than done.
    In some ways the independents have more flexibility to adapt… on the other hand, the mainline denominations have more resources if they were to expand their imagination as to what a local “church” might look like, and mobilise some apostlic/prophetic/evangelistic leadership to work across their systems. (when mainlines are short of cash they can sell under-utilized land… when independent denominations are short of cash they have to put up affiliation fees, and hope their churches will vote to approve it! A more complicated business).


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