Australian Baptist Generational Ministry Research: A Recent Publication on Participation and Priorities

In the last month or so an important and interesting piece of research regarding generational ministry in Australian Baptist churches has been published. In the journal known as ‘Exchange’ Darren Cronshaw has written an article entitled ““Sticky Faith” in Australian Baptist Churches: Surveying Generational Participation and Ministry Priorities”.

It is not often that research is conducted in regard to Baptist children’s, youth, family, and young adult ministries and so I was intrigued to read this. I suppose I should mention that I do know Darren and have worked with him before. However, I hadn’t spoken to him in a while and so seeing this I was enthusiastic to see the results and what he had to say.

This article brings together the data from the National Church Life Survey (NCLS), which is a huge church census conducted every five years in Australia, and interviews with denominational and generational ministry heavies. As Cronshaw writes,

“This article is part of a denomination-wider theological action research project on building capacity for mission in Baptist church, a foundational part of which focuses here on how to better engage with a younger demographic…the article reflects on opportunities and challenges for fostering better practice, in generational ministries”.

And really, the guts of the article, after introducing the topic and outlining the methodology, is all about (1) what the situation is regarding Baptist churches and those in the younger demographic (read: Millennials and Generation Z), and (2) what practices churches can take to retain and grow their churches in those demographics.

Australian Baptist Generational Ministry Research

Considering I’m Baptist and I work with this demographic you can imagine why I’d be interested in such research. Below I will simply outline some of the findings I found interesting or worth commenting on. If you’re interested in knowing further then I’d encourage you to get a copy.

1. Growth in Baptist churches mainly comes from those switching denominations.

I do actually find this a little surprising. I know denominational affiliation has long-ago disappeared, particularly in the Gen Y and Gen Z age group, but for this to be the case in all age groups is interesting. These ‘switchers’, as the research defines them, are more common than newcomers (with no church background) and transfers (those that transfer from another Baptist church – which I expected to be the highest here).

This certainly highlights the challenge for churches and believers to think more specifically and intentionally in terms of evangelism. Growth by transfer and switch isn’t really Kingdom growth at all.

In reference to Gen Y and Gen Z, for us Baptist churches it looks like we would benefit in teaching and communicating Baptist distinctives and values to not only the switchers but also the newcomers.

The research also highlights that one in ten Baptist youth and young adults are newcomers without a church background. This means that nine out of ten of those who come along to church already have some form of church background.

2. Mission and discipleship in the age of unchurched newcomers.

Within the interviews conducted about this section of research there is mention of how generational ministries need to overcome the “internal-focussed inertia in order to meaningfully connect with youth without a church background.” I think this is very true and has become more prevalent over the last 20 years.

With the rise of youth groups in using their main gatherings as worship services the impact can be inaccessibility to those with no church background. I know there will be plenty of stories where unchurched young people have been to these worship-style youth groups and stuck around, but I’m still not convinced this is the way to go for youth ministries to reach those with no church background.

One aspect to overcome this, which is used as an example in this paper, is the rise of programs devoid of any Christian faith content. While I appreciate the need to build bridges and make connections it seems programs like this are a case of bait and switch. Slowly and surely the aim is to gain trust and relationship so that leaders can share Jesus with those who come along. I have found this makes it harder to do so because the group is focussed more on the program, and talk of faith or spirituality becomes extremely awkward and forced. If we are more honest about what we’re trying to achieve from the beginning, and understand that the foundation of our programs are build of Christ and his words, then soon enough conversations and topics about what the Bible says can be more open.

More conversation about how Baptist churches might structure their youth ministries to reach unchurched youth seems to be one takeaway from this research.

3. Retention of children of attendees in Baptist churches.

It would be of no surprise that there are children of church going parents who no longer attend church. This is simply confirmed in the research. As Cronshaw writes,

“In 2016 44% of the children of current Baptist church attenders no longer attended any church”.

That is a phenomenal fact. And what it means is that for every family of four, two parents and two kids, it is most likely that one of those kids won’t be attending church in the near or distant future.

When it comes to those children who are still in the home and under the roof of their parents “results show that younger children and early teens are largely included in the faith practices of their parents”. However, it is still the case that 30% of children aged 15 and over, who live at home, no longer attend any church. And in fact, this isn’t even a new issue. It is similar to figures in 2011 and 2006.

So, what does this mean. As one of the interviewees said,

“It maybe hard to get them (the children) there, it may take a wrestle, it may feel like a battle – but I say, die trying! Do what you can to give your young person every chance of thriving.”

The most important and most influential people in the lives of children are their parents, and this is the same when it comes to faith and church engagement. At the end of the day much of the onus is on parents, but this doesn’t start when they are teenagers, this has to start when they begin primary school.

This doesn’t negate the responsibility the church also needs to take upon itself. The increase in partnering with parents as a ministry strategy now becomes even more important. Operating out of a structure of seeking to engage the whole family rather than the individual kids has to become a priority. The resourcing of parents in order to be able to have faith conversations with their kids is also something that needs to be given intentionality and thought.

This is the kind of research that can make us feel guilty and fill us with despair, particularly as parents. But, we also know that it is God who gives the growth, and as we seek to obedient in bringing up our kids in the ways of faith, within the family unit, we continue to pray for our kids and for God to work his sovereign hand upon their hearts.

Of course, more could be said about all of this, and there is more in the research here. What it does highlight is both parents and churches need to continue to work at engaging their kids in faith, praying over them, and leading them. One of the big issues having read this now is trying to cave out time so that the church can help resources and equip parents in their role as faith-builders and influencers in the home. The resourcing of parents is now vital and a new shift we generational ministries need to be intentional about.

4. Intergenerational ministry, not siloed-ministry.

I know I speak about this quite often at the moment. You can read a few of my thoughts here. But intergenerational ministry, seeing the ministry to children and young people as something the whole church needs to be engaged in, not just the children’s or youth ministries, is important to help foster faith formation.

One of the ways churches are seeking to do this is to place more resources in ‘generational ministries’. Rather than hire staff for children’s or youth or young adults there is a focus on making roles larger so that they encompass those from birth to 30 years of age.

These roles then become more oversight and leadership development – an equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry approach. It is viewing these whole 30 years in one, rather than individuals coming up with their own things in each of the age segments. However, it also means there can be a more clearly unified approach and culture formed throughout the age groups.

I’ve got to be honest, if we’re not thinking about ministry in these terms then I don’t quite know what we’re trying to achieve. There needs to be intentionality across the whole spectrum, not just within the individual youth ministry or the individual children’s ministry. The effort is otherwise pretty futile. If you’re a youth leader in any capacity I’d begin by seeking a coffee with people in the children’s ministry. It’s time to start working more closely. This is a cultural shift, and one that needs to happen ASAP.

Interestingly enough though, the research seems to suggest that,

“Baptist attenders are more likely to value age-related ministry compared to all attenders. Youth, young adults, and mid-life adults were more likely than older adults to value these ministries. Baptist attenders were more likely to be satisfied with what was offered for children than for youth or for their own age.”

When I read this it highlights how much work we’ve got to do to change the culture of churches from a silo-generational into an inter-generational culture.

5. Other comments.

A few others comments worth more reflection than I can be bothered right now:

  • There is an undercurrent of fear in much of this research. And I don’t mean specifically this paper but in all the research that speaks of keeping people in church. With cultural Christianity gone, if it was ever there, why would we be surprised that people are opting out of something they didn’t believe in the first place? This isn’t new. Surely.
  • Furthermore, when we begin to despair about all this we begin to question God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. We know God is building his church, and while there are concerns and things we need to improve on, worrying about many things that are out of our hands doesn’t seem to help.
  • The final aspect of this paper is in terms of investing in generational ministry. There are stories of what churches and denominations are doing about this. Each state Baptist union allocates staff and resources in these areas. I have seen over the last 20 years how this has grown and adapted in various ways. However, it has been going on for 20 years and I’m not sure whether that says something or not. I’m probably going to shoot myself in the foot if I say anything further so I’ll leave it there. Although, I have been involved at the denominational level regarding this for a period of time too so I include myself.

In conclusion it seems Baptist churches need to look at how they can share their distinctives with those of non-Baptist background, and begin looking at how an intergenerational approach to ministry can occur. One of the most important takeaways from this paper that I can see is that of resourcing parents.

There is much to pray for and much work to do.

This is far too long, I apologise.

Assurance In Uncertain Times

In times of uncertainty stress levels rise, anxiety increases, and the ability to make wise decisions can decrease. We live in a time of uncertainty, both locally and globally. There are many depressing stories on the news and in our social media feeds that continue to promote fear, instability, and uncertainty. With these things at the forefront of our minds we can feel the tension rise within us.

At our church we’ve recently begun a series, “Assurance In Uncertain Times”, working through the Letter of 1 John. This is a letter written in the first-century to a group of people living in uncertain times. Given the current climate we find ourselves in it becomes a relevant and fresh voice for us.

Assurance In Uncertain TimesOutside the believing community we find a distinct lack of confidence in the church, rightly or wrongly. There are continual critical voices, and in many ways this is to be expected. It’s happened for many years and will continue to happen for many years to come. But right now the coming couple of months will be a telling time for the Christian witness here in Australia.

Inside the church an erosion of our faith and core convictions can also occur. A variety of idea and theologies, all deemed to be accepted in this post-everything age, means we live along a continuum of confusion. On one end we find the denial of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, the rejection of the atonement, and the casting aside of the resurrection. On the other end we find some form of moral over-reach where behaviour trumps belief. Law is placed over grace, and fear over love, which provides an open door for a distorted Christianity.

And so living a life of faith can get confusing. Assurance can be eroded and confidence can be diminished.

You may not be someone of faith, or you may have had a faith for a while now, nevertheless as we journey through life a sense of assurance is something we find ourselves searching for. This search for assurance, for confidence in our self, in what we believe to be true, is part of life’s quest. There are many areas and activities where this can be discovered, but for the Christian this is most clearly found in the love of Jesus. 1 John 3:16 reads, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

Being assured of a God that loves us is a tremendous thing. With this knowledge we find a solution to our lack of assurance. We find confidence in knowing God loves us because his Son Jesus gave his life so we could find true life in God. As a result we seek to live lives that are humble and service-orientated toward others—families, neighbours, and community. Through the inward knowledge of the love of God comes the outward expression of love to others.

In uncertain times, where we aren’t assured of what is true, fear becomes one of the main drivers of our decision-making. The fear of the future, the fear of our children’s education, the fear of unemployment, the fear of family breakdown, the fear of relationship struggle all unhinges our assurance. Thankfully, through scripture, and particularly through the Letter of 1 John, this lack of assurance is overcome by the love God has for us, and in turn, our love for others.

Baptism and The Baggy Green

The Australian baggy green is a significant symbol in our nation’s sporting landscape, and some would argue our Australian culture-at-large. The baggy green is held up as a symbol of sporting greatness and success, and is the embodiment of Australian cricket values and expectations.

When a player is selected for the Australian test team they become part of a select number of people to ever do so. Upon being selected they are presented with a baggy green cap.

mitchell-johnson-baggy-green
Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

In years past this cap was picked up when the player received their kit bag for the upcoming tour. Some players were given a number of caps throughout their career and many of the ‘greats’ have long ago lost or given theirs away. But in recent time, from the mid-90s, each debutant is physically presented with their baggy green by a former Australian test great. On the morning of their first test, just after the warm-up, this player is told of the significance of the cap and what it represents. He is surrounded by the others in the team, who congratulate him on becoming an Australian test cricketer. They watch him put it on and welcome him into the fold. As cricket journalist and historian Gideon Haigh comments ‘the baggy green means a lot to the current generation of players – they are constantly being told how important it is and how great they are’.

This baggy green is a symbol of what it means to play cricket for Australia. It is a symbol of elite performance and cricket excellence. But more than that, it is a symbol of joining the other 450 players who have played test match cricket for Australia.

In a similar way baptism is a significant symbol of the Christian church.

Baptism has played an important part in the history of the Christian church. Prior to the birth of Jesus baptism was practised by the various Jewish sects as an act of cleansing, for ritual purity. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, led people in the practice of baptism ‘for repentance of sins’. And, Jesus was baptised himself, in order to fulfil all righteousness and share in this act with those who were to follow him in faith.

Throughout the New Testament the followers of Jesus have continued in this tradition and symbol of baptism. After Jesus was resurrected, and before he ascended to the Father, Jesus said to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And from this time on baptism has been a symbol and rite of passage that takes place as one puts their faith in Jesus, follows him, and seeks to obey his commands.

But what’s this got to do with the baggy green?

First, like the baggy green baptism is a significant symbol and rite in the Christian church.

Since the resurrection of our Lord Jesus baptism has been performed as a symbol of entrance into the Christian community. It is through baptism that Christians were recognised as believers of the Way. When we are baptised today we not only join a local body of believers, but also join with the millions who’ve gone before us in recognising Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Just as the baggy green is a symbol of an Australian test cricketer, a marker of their entrance into the team. So too, baptism is a symbol of a follower of Jesus, a marker in their life and faith.

Second, like the baggy green baptism has meaning and significance.

Through the act of baptism itself we acknowledge what Christ has done for us. When we are baptised, like many before us, we acknowledge the work of God in our lives and the reality of what Christ has done.

Those who have been baptised do so because through his death on a cross Jesus has paid the punishment for their sin. Through his resurrection Jesus has enabled true life, and a relationship with God. And by faith, those baptised acknowledge Jesus as Lord and seek to trust and obey his commands.

Going down into the water and coming up again is an imitation of this truth. It is a symbol of leaving behind the ways of the past and committing to a life of following Jesus.

Just as the baggy green derives its meaning from the players of the past, the values and expectations of what it is to be an Australian test player. Baptism derives its meaning from the person and work of Jesus, who died and rose again in order for us to know God.

Third, like the baggy green baptism is a natural part of being a Christian.

It would be odd for a player to be presented with his baggy green and then to put it in his pocket or stick it in his kit bag for safe keeping. The baggy green is handed over and is expected to be worn. To not do so would be odd.

In committing our lives to Christ and putting our trust in what he has done it is only natural to be baptised. To not do so would be odd. The New Testament doesn’t have a category for one who is a disciple of Jesus and not baptised.

Those who do go public with their faith are following a rite of passage into the Christian community from ages past until now. In front of a local church congregation they acknowledge Jesus as Lord and simply follow him in obedience.

Just as the baggy green is to be worn and acknowledges the cricketer as a test player. Followers of Jesus are to be baptised, publicly declaring that they are following in the way of Jesus and his commands.