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Has the church meeting had its day?

by Mark Elder

Four years ago I wrote a letter to the Baptist Times questioning whether the time had now come to take a fresh look at the way Baptist churches organise their affairs. I wrote some strong things that, to my surprise – because governance doesn’t seem to be an especially sexy subject – provoked a range of angry and heartfelt emotions, both in support and in opposition. It felt like I had wandered onto sacred ground.

Two memories come to mind, one from a strong advocate of democratic congregationalism in my own church who questioned my calling, and one from a minister who I’d never met. He woke me up at 9am on New Years’ day to pour his heart out about his own desperate situation where he felt he’d been systematically beaten up in church meetings, and the attraction he now felt for turning his back on all things Baptist.  “Don’t give up fighting this battle,” he said, with real sadness and frustration in his heart.

In my own setting we’ve worked hard to make our Church Meeting more appealing and less confrontational: more prayer and worship; better communication; encouraging feedback; honouring people who serve the church; genuine interaction and collaboration; but cultures in churches take a long time to change. We’re on a journey with a way to go.

I am delighted that the Fresh Streams Theology Track has grasped the nettle and is taking a fresh look at a vital ecclesiological issue which impacts us all in various ways. I commend to you the variety of insights and stories from Rev John Claydon in my own association; Martin Young at Stafford, whose church has made a radical change in governance; Stephen Rand, who writes as a lay leader who has introduced new constitutions into two different churches; not to mention an excellent thesis on this matter. You can access all these via the links below.

I’m sure there’ll be plenty of debate and discussion, and possibly not a little heat. What most of us seem to gather round is the recognition that the time is ripe for a new look that takes account of the fact that:

No-one wants to leave behind a collaborative model for an authoritarian one
Abuse works both ways
Christians seem to have lost sight of the spiritual gift of discernment rather than opinion sharing, which seems to be the cornerstone of congregationalism
Most of the upcoming generation have disconnected from Church Meetings
We need to be brave enough to consider whether our ecclesiology serves our missiology, or not
Leaders are called to lead. How might we more effectively honour and release those called to lead whilst creating authentic, non-abusive and grace-filled communities at the same time?
I finished my letter four years ago by saying, “For a denomination known for its radical thinking it’s surely time for change and for action, not least for the sake of the next generation, most of whom feel alienated and disengaged from what passes as congregational government at the moment.”

So, let the conversation begin, and may it be done with bags of truth and grace. You can make your comments at the bottom of this page: my breath is bated!

This article was posted on 6 January 2015.

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