Skip to site content

Will British Baptists Continue to Embrace Change?

Editor’s note: This column is another of several EthicsDaily.com will carry from an initiative from Great Britain called “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”
The first Baptist church in Britain met in Spitalfields, London, still known as a tolerant place that harbors dissenters, artists, anarchists and free-thinkers who want to challenge injustice and unfairness.

Words such as these were used frequently to describe early Baptists, a group of Jesus-followers beginning to be joined together by a shared commitment to the priesthood of all believers, God’s Word, sharing God’s story with others, freedom of religion and absence of coercion, the pursuit of justice, social action and mutuality.

Whether regarded as heralding from the controversial Anabaptists or Puritans, these early Baptists faced persecution for their stance and even 50 years after their foundation were still being sentenced to death.

We who choose to draw our nutrients from the rich soil of this tradition have much to be thankful for and a great deal to inspire us as we work out what it means to be faithful Jesus-followers in a society where tolerance is still sometimes as hard to find as fairness and justice. 

As someone who grew up in a family with few church roots, I will forever be grateful for the Baptist people who nurtured my faith, taught, envisioned, equipped and affirmed me.

In our early existence within a society immersed in Christianity and at the dawn of a new Bible literacy, it seems to me that many denominational discussions focused around issues of doctrine. 

Today, in an increasingly post-Christendom and Jesus-illiterate society, much recent dialogue has centered around questions of how to “be” church for this age, how to retell the Jesus story in a way that makes sense and how to recapture or refound ourselves as a movement.

One of the things that encourages me in the midst of this dialogue is that over 400 years this union of churches has never stayed the same. 

Congregations have moved in and out of relationship with one another. Buildings have been built and buildings have been knocked down. New patterns of relating have been imagined and implemented. 

BMS World Mission has focused on different nations according to need or openness. Colleges have created new courses and some have moved location. Even the Baptist Union of Great Britain offices have moved.

There is never a rule that says we have to stay the same, and many Baptists throughout the years have given examples of how to adapt to a changing context. 

It is these forebears and values we need to look to at present for we live in a time which has experienced change as profound as the invention of the printing press. 

We were birthed in the midst of a paradigm shift, the center of which was arguably the increasing availability of the Bible to the uneducated. We find ourselves now in another, equally seismic shift that presents much opportunity.

Alan Hirsch, in “On the Verge,” suggests that “the digital era, with the associated network thinking and acting, sets us up to experience movement again in a significant way … It’s an opportunity to recalibrate back to our most primal and potent form: the apostolic movement.”

JonnyBaker, reflecting on Arbuckle’s writings, suggests that “refounding is a return to the founding story or experience of a community, connecting with the energy of it in its day, re-owning it and then creatively applying that to today’s most urgent needs – i.e., it’s a drive to the heart or roots of a tradition sometimes reclaiming it over and against itself in order to break open newness in the present.”

“Jesus,” he says, “is supreme in this. He drives to the heart of the tradition and reframes it in the present where its essence has been lost.”

My prayer for this Beyond 400 digital exercise is that we will drive one another to the heart of that which made us distinctive in the past, propel one another to living it out in our present and put things in place to equip those who will continue this task in the future.

JulietKilpin is a part-time coordinator of UrbanExpression with whom she helped plant a congregation in Tower Hamlets and co-leads the CrucibleCourse. She is also a part-time community minister with a local Baptist congregation in Essex. This column first appeared on “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”