This article first appeared in Missionscene.
Have you heard the story of the group of mums who were surprised to discover that the parents and toddlers group they had enjoyed for years, actually met in a local Baptist church building and not a community centre? Or have you heard the one where most people in a town thought that the old Baptist chapel had been closed for years, when Sunday services happened twice every week. Or have you heard the tale of the Baptist chapel that the village assumed was an exclusive old age people’s club, like some kind of Saga-freemasons! The stories could go on and on. I have discovered that the church in many parts of the UK has become invisible, either through good works freely given without explanation, or through lack of communicating what happens in their buildings. Yes I know that the church isn’t buildings, yet I believe we desperately need to rediscover how we may become even more-so visible, literally and figuratively in our communities.
When I started my year as President I declared: ‘Too many of our church buildings are like sex shops and bookies.’ The point being that for an outsider they can’t see in, frosted glass obscures the windows and what happens inside is somewhat of a mystery. I thought I may have received a few emails objecting to my analogy, yet I didn’t receive a single one. Not that I like receiving disgruntled deacon’s correspondence. Rather, I’m sad to say, that no one objected as my observations are painfully true. We are somewhat invisible to those who haven’t got a clue about Jesus; let alone what it means to be a Baptist.
For those of you who know me, you may be thinking that this opening paragraph is somewhat uncharacteristically pessimistic. Yes, you’re right; my article isn’t really all doom and gloom and surprise surprise I have some good news. Recently I’ve started collecting stories of how Baptists have been able to be seen in their communities. One lavish way that stands out is how Dormansland Baptist Church has been somewhat ‘in-yer-face’ through taking part in the community’s annual carnival, where they facilitate a community art piece. I don’t mean some pretty canvas, but rather a gigantic creation that over 150 people make. Over the past 5 years they have created the most impressive pieces, all with some explanation and clear purpose that what is being created is made possible through the local Baptist Church. This not only raises the profile of the Christians in their community but changes impressions of church too. Often any community involvement of the local church is presupposed with a collection for a building fund or fundraiser of some-sort.
So far, half way through my Big Hearted Tour, I have spoken to over 50 different groups, ranging from over 60’s cream teas to youth events. Yet out of all the training and speaking engagements it’s when I manage to drag a gaggle of Baptists to ‘get out there’ in public and among people who wouldn’t consider attending one of our services that the greatest impact those who take part happens. Not only do we experience plenty of people who are willing to engage with good news we also find people compliment us on our approach! Like a well rehearsed scripted mini-monologue a man in Dundee stood among the young people who had a free fruit (of the Spirit) stall and said, ‘I like the way
you are sharing what you can get from God. This isn’t in a pushy way, but I get this. Thank you!’ It was if I had paid him £10 to reiterate the teaching I had given before hand. Being visible isn’t being pushy with the gospel. It’s being ready for people to ask us questions and being present for people to see and feel what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Once a month on a Sunday morning I organise something for the city centre of Peterborough called ‘Saints on the Street.’ (St.St) The vision for this is that many Baptist congregations up and down the UK may replicate what I do and cancel a few Sunday services a year to meet in public for the benefit of the majority of people who wouldn’t consider going to church. My last St.St experience blew people away. I organised a classical music ensemble called Epiphany to perform in coffee shops and pubs in some of the least places you would expect to encounter church on a Sunday morning. People were stunned by the lavish beautiful music, they asked questions and some commented as to the peace they experienced through the music and the unusual way Epiphany played ‘in the Spirit’ as they ministered to people sipping on their cappuccinos or pints of beer.
Perhaps you may feel that this approach to being a visible church is too late. You may be like some Baptists I have met on my travels who believe we should have changed what we did years ago to become more accessible and missional, but seeing as we’ve left it too late we just now need to plod on with the way we do what we do. Indeed, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. In what ways may you become even more visible for your community? How may you bring good news in a way that people may be able to respond, ‘I see!’