The Emergence of the Postmodern Church

by David Parker

© D. Parker, 1999


Originally published: Qld Baptist Forum, No 42 April 1998


This year all eyes seem to be on the end of the century and the new millennium. However, there are also some important events to be remembered in 1999, especially the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Baptist minister in Queensland, Rev. Charles Stewart and the establishment of the United Evangelical Church (UEC). We are looking forward to a well supported celebration of this event on 1 May. It was this church which served as the spiritual home for the first Baptists in Queensland, including James Swan, the Grimes, Childs, Lloyds, Bales, Birts, Taylors and other pioneers of our denomination. A Baptist church was first organised in 1855 a few months after the UEC disbanded. So the sesqui-centenary of the Baptist denomination occur in 2005. As this is only a relatively short time away, our thoughts turn to ways of observing it.

One worthwhile project would be to produce a new or updated history of the denomination. The first formal official history, the work of Edmund Gregory and William Higlett, was published at the Jubilee in 1905. The full background and published versions of this have been republished recently by the Baptist Historical Society and are available for purchase. The next major history was published at the Centenary of the Baptist Union in 1977. Titled, A Fellowship of Service, it was written by Rev. John White. Copies are still available for purchase. It is a valuable book with important material, but some of later material can now be seen in far better perspective. More significantly, a great deal has taken place since it was written which calls for attention.

Some work has been done on selected topics or individuals during this (and slightly earlier) periods, including Mel Williams' history of Mission to Queensland, Stan Nickerson's study of the Baptist College, Catherine Grieve's dissertation on church music, Joan Maxwell's history of camping and Ken Smith's paper on the Social Questions committee; John Brooks' biography of his father throws light on a key period of the Home Mission, while a number of College students looked at churches and ministers for their graduation papers. But overall, this period has not been studied adequately. Documentary sources, which are fragmentary and disorganised, are likely to be a problem in tackling this project, but even so, there is much to take into account. It is apparent that even since the 1970s, the denomination has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

For example, in 1977 there were 8173 members in 123 churches, giving an average size of 66; there were 21 churches larger than 100, but only one larger than 200 and one larger than 400. At this time there were 183 accredited ministers, pastors and deaconesses - 1.5 per church on average, or one for 45 members. Twenty years earlier there were 86 ministers for 5074 members (one for 59) in 82 churches, an average of 62, with 11 larger than 100, and as later, one larger than 100 and one larger than 400.

Today we have 141 affiliated churches with 13,000 members and 325 ministers (2.3 per church or one for 40 members), 19% of whom are unordained. The average size of churches has increased by 50% to 92 members, but half of them are under 70 members in size; 15 are larger than 200 and another 30 between 100 and 200.

Baptist membership growth has been a little better than population growth from 1957 to 1997 (2.56% compared with 2.35%), but planting of new churches has lagged seriously. The "20/20 vision" set 15 years ago with a "realistic" goal of 20,000 members by 2000 AD is clearly not possible now. The proportion of small churches (20 to 50 members) has remained steady, while middle sized churches (50-100) are about the same as 40 years ago after rising in the 1970s. It is the number of large churches which has increased.

This means the denomination is now made up of (at least) two distinct kinds of churches (mega-churches and small/middle sized). The development of this trend and reasons for it need to be tracked and understood. The impact of this dichotomy upon the denomination also needs to be analysed - not least in terms of the implications for pastoral and leadership training, and the role and skills of denominational officers; support for and involvement in the denominational program by the two types of churches also needs study, as does the flow-on effects for outreach, church planting and mission. A wide informed discussion of these issues would provide a key to some of the difficulties now being faced.

These statistics give only the merest hint of the changes taking place in the life of the churches during this period. Several local church histories have been produced, but they do not deal with any of these changes and trends. This leaves a great deal of work to be done at this level; beyond this, questions such as the social relevance, theological development and community impact of the churches need to be investigated.

During this period the denominational machinery has undergone many changes of structure and personnel. Since 1977, at least 50 people have served in key staff positions, with more than one episode of significant re-staffing. The Union office has had three locations, changing in the process from a pastoral centre to a secure, corporate headquarters.

Twenty years ago, Rev. Frank Stone spoke of a new "simplified and flexible organization" but the record shows that this has been an elusive goal. A review in 1969 introduced a "General Superintendent" with service departments and divisions, but this was modified in 1976 to produce a super-department, the Board of Church Growth. More changes took place only four years later. Further structural changes took place in the early 1980s, followed by modifications to policies on ordination. There was also an in-depth investigation by the "Structural and Spiritual Research and Review Committee" which presented a series of reports over several years; wide-ranging constitutional changes followed in 1992-3. Within three years another review was undertaken, which revamped the Union structure once again from October 1996.

This latest example of denominational self-examination and re-structuring has institutionalized review on a three yearly basis, thus committing the Union and its constituency to a significant on-going investment of time, energy and emotion. Yet for all this, responses to the current Triennial Review indicate a serious crisis of confidence across the denomination, which appears to be confirmed by the continuing limited financial support offered by the churches.
Meanwhile, during this period, Community Services has grown out of all proportion, the College has become a degree granting institution (with a second college established in Townsville), and camping has been professionalised; however, there is no book store and Christian education in the churches has all but disappeared. The Baptist "bank" now "sponsors" the annual Convention (along with other commercial bodies), but with the latest staff changes, evangelism at the denominational level is again under review.

The February 1999 Queensland Baptist reported that the Triennial Review process has revealed "a serious problem for our denomination" in relation to its identity and unity. The President said, "The issues raised will cause most of us some angst in the present, but we must face the harder questions about our long term future." This paper is an introduction to research intended to set these problems in their wider context; further papers will follow in due course.

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