Despite the dangers of compromise the church generally fared well in this arrangement. Its place in society gave it social and cultural influence, people attended church because it was the ‘done thing’, and so church attendance and finances were sustained. Although many who attended were not Christian, they nevertheless had the opportunity to hear and observe something of God’s good news found in Jesus.
This made our job easy. We didn’t have to ‘go’ to share the gospel (only missionaries did that). People came to us, week-after-week. We did mission and evangelism but we did it in the comfort of our own church services.
A little over 400 years ago the Baptist movement began within this context when everyone went to church and the church was run by the state. From their reading of the Bible our forebears were convinced that this was not the way to do church. Facing persecution and death their conviction formed the basis of what became the Baptist church.
Mission and evangelism was important to them, yet when they called people to repent and follow Jesus those who responded went to church and knew the Bible stories. Although through their confession they were baptised, they continued to go to church in a similar fashion, they still met at the same time and they still called it a service only now they believed they did it in a more biblical way.
Today we can learn a lot from those how have gone before us, however, it is important to understand our different contexts. The first Baptists fought and died for their convictions yet the Baptist church that emerged was forged in the context of Christendom. Now that Christendom no longer exists the way ‘do’ often feels like it belongs to a different era. People no longer come to church anymore and they do not know the Bible stories. We may feel comfortable with our familiar ways of doing things, but most in our community never even think of going to church.
Perhaps the best part of the story is its happy ending. Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Even so, the changes that have taken place in our world means we face a significant challenge.
If I am correct we need to give up hoping people will return to our churches to hear what we have to say. Instead, we will need to learn to ‘go’ to them and become missionaries to our families, communities and Australian society as a whole.
Stephen L Baxter