How does an institution experience renewal from God? This is a question that I have been asking myself for some time.
On the one hand we could say that there is nothing that we can do, as renewal is the sole responsibility of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) but on the other hand we could argue for the validity of planning in detail the renewal of structures and systems in an organisation. My interpretation of what is happening in our movement of Baptist churches right now is that we are doing both- planning and depending on God for his renewal of our Association.
And we need renewal! Recent statistics show that the church in Australia is becoming more and more marginalised in society, less and less trusted and increasingly irrelevant to our culture. The statistics show that even though 64% of Australians classify themselves as Christian only 9% are practicing Christians. Added to that, overall Australians are ‘turned off’ by some aspects of the Christian church. Christianity is perceived to be authoritarian, hypocritical, judgmental, outdated, money hungry, exclusive and carries with it the witness of abuse and religious wars.
These opinions and a growing secularisation of our culture make it very hard for the voice of the church to be heard today. John Kotter in his classic book Leading Change says that in order to produce change in an organisation the urgency levels of the need for change must be ‘pushed up’ so that people are motivated to shift from the status quo to transformation. Well in my opinion we don’t need to artificially ‘push up’ the urgency for change in regard to the church…the situation clearly is urgent as the statistics and our own experiences reveal! The renewal of the church in Australia is essential.
The renewal of the church must happen so that the voice of the church is heard as a prophetic presence on this earth pointing to the breaking through of hope, salvation and justice in our world through Jesus Christ. Author Luke Timothy Johnson who exegetes the Luke-Acts narrative writes in his book Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic church, ‘What would make the church prophetic… is its total dedication to responding to the call of God in every circumstance, more than cultivating institutional self interest… the essential character of the church must be the desire to answer to the living God. Otherwise why does it exist?’ Being a prophetic presence simply means to be God’s representatives in our own contexts.
How do we do this in the current climate of the marginalisation of the church in Australia? It’s my belief that the renewal of institutions happens through both planning and dependency on God and this is occurring in our Baptist Association today. Since Directions 2012 the various people committed to the renewal of our organisation have been establishing strategies, researching the issues, presenting alternative structures and thinking creatively with all the energy that God has given them so that transformation occurs in our organisation. As a movement we have adopted those changes, as experienced in our Assembly gathering this year through the acceptance of a new constitution. As a part of the constitution, a new governance board of the Association was created – The Assembly council. I am currently a member of that team.
We are a very new team but as I participate in this council I am constantly aware of two things , the challenge of bringing renewal but also the hope that is clearly evident every time that we meet. There is challenge in every situation where renewal is necessary as old structures fall away and new structures, procedures and processes emerge. This sometimes gives cause for tension, grief and even doubt. However in the midst of the ‘messiness’ and even the pain of change, as we plan together I can see a very sure hope present that sustains us and propels us forward. I see this planning process as the act of making sure our ‘wineskins’ or structures are healthy, relevant and flexible for the coming ‘wine’ that God is pouring and will continue to pour into our movement. Kenneth Gangel says in his book Feeding and Leading that ‘Hope and planning look much alike. Both hope and planning are in love with the future… they are unwilling to accept what exists as if it were eternal finality’. I come away from our Council meetings feeling that everyone in the room will not accept the status quo as a finality and that our planning will help to produce a better future.
A key part of the planning process has been, as a team, to adopt the core Baptist values and think through how we can implement them personally and as a team. We have thought through practices associated with those values so that we can hold ourselves accountable to embodying these values in order that a shared identity be formed. One example of a practice that we regularly act on is related to our ‘Relationally Committed’ value. We have agreed that during the course of our meetings if we sense that someone needs prayer due to hurt or grief being expressed we will stop our proceedings and offer to pray for that person. There are many other examples that I could offer but this one is a practice that I find quite moving in our formal meetings.
So the planning aspect of bringing renewal is occurring and I think it is occurring in the midst of challenge and hope. However the other crucial aspect of renewal of course is dependency on God and prayer. This has been championed by Pete Davies as he establishes prayer teams for each Assembly and for each crucial gathering that the Association has. He has also established a prayer team to pray for the Assembly Council and particularly for our meetings. I find that amazing! That people would commit to praying for us as we gather is a deeply encouraging and touching thought. Moreover I can sense that people are praying for us as we meet because there is a desire for godliness in our meetings and a commitment to transformation as we plan and pray. My sense is that God is close as we gather in the midst of our challenges and hopes, planning and praying. To me it seems that this is one way that God brings gradual renewal to an organisation and I believe he is doing that before our eyes. However, as the seeds of renewal are sown and grow, at times we wonder if it is in fact growing at all. So again we turn to hope in our God who does the impossible and to faith in His faithfulness that He has not finished with us yet and will bring His work to completion in our movement for His glory in the Australian church and beyond.