Like many people in Baptist networks and beyond, I am concerned about the present state of the churches in the UK. This is not because they are not full of wonderful and committed people – many of them clearly are. Nor is it that I’m unaware of some of the many exciting things that are happening. It is simply to accept that things are not as I, along with many others, hoped they might be. The truth is that many, perhaps most, of our churches are in decline, their committed membership is getting older, and many are becoming rather discouraged.
Having said that, the last thing I want to do is to seem to be arguing that the situation is hopeless. The church in this country has faced far worse situations in the past, and each time God has stepped in to change things. Along with lots of others, I am longing for renewal – something I believe that ultimately only God can do. Our contribution is to be prayerful and to be prepared for when God chooses to act.
So, while I feel enormously privileged to have been asked to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25, I recognise that we face serious challenges. I’m keen to say and do things that will hold us all together, that will help us get a better understanding of the issues we face in the church and in society, and that help us to prepare for what God might choose to do next. In my thinking so far, this has three dimensions: I intend to encourage us to look around, to look back and to look forward.
In looking around, I plan to encourage those ministering and serving in our churches today. I want to tell them how grateful I am for them and for the opportunities for service they have given me. I clearly remember the first time I became involved in a Baptist church. It was as though I had arrived home, somewhere I’d always belonged but didn’t know it. Perhaps I will have opportunities to tell the story and it will remind people of something important – our churches are miracles of grace, wonderful communities that God has called into being, and those who serve them should be encouraged and appreciated.
Then, in looking back, I want to remind the Baptist churches of their origins. We emerged because our forebears chose to accept the authority of the Scriptures and to obey them. This hope in the teachings of the Bible, wherever they might lead, is the defining characteristic of God’s Baptist people. When we talk about our key beliefs, we tend to mention things like believers’ baptism by full immersion, the practice of collective discernment and a passion for mission. This is absolutely right, but we have only arrived at these practices because of our prior acceptance of the word of God. Our belief in the Bible is what made us who we are. Yet Bible knowledge, the use of the Scriptures in services and the preaching of God’s word all seem to me to be at a low ebb among us. I want to try to encourage us all to recover this ancient commitment.
Lastly, in looking forward, I’d like to urge us to renew our attempts to encourage younger people to commit themselves to service. In particular, I’d like to see more of them offering themselves for ministry as pastors, teachers and evangelists. More than that, I would love to see more of the churches that have active young people being prepared to give them away so that they can act as ministers elsewhere. If God blesses us, it is so that we can be a blessing to others, not so we can keep that blessing for ourselves. I can’t help thinking that when God wanted to give us the greatest gift of all, he gave us himself. Perhaps one path to preparing for renewal is to be prepared to give ourselves away for the sake of God’s mission in other churches and mission projects.
In the end, the church is God’s creation and, ultimately, it is God’s responsibility. He is the only one who can renew us. Nevertheless, we can prepare for God’s action by prayerfully expressing appreciation for those who faithfully serve the churches, by recovering the place of the Bible in our shared life and by encouraging the young people in our churches to actively consider whether God might be calling them to ministry. These are the themes I hope to share in my presidential year.
Stephen Finamore has been a lawyer, led a community development project in inner London and worked for a rural development project in the Andes of northern Peru. Having trained for ministry and read theology in Oxford, he is currently Principal Emeritus of Bristol Baptist College. He has been elected to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25.
Stephen has written a number of books, and his short commentary on Romans is available free with Bible Reading Fellowship: www.brf.org.uk/product/romans-unwrapped/