Gannon Sims: Baptist (and catholic) church planting

For Baptists in Virginia, these new ways of doing church are quite old.

Everyone is uncertain about the future of denominations. This publication is not alone in wondering whether denominational organizations with lots of overhead are sinking ships. But some denominational agencies are taking note. They’re getting leaner and smarter. The Baptist General Association of Virginia is one such example. Executive Director John Upton says that his organization is working on sending out life rafts.

These life rafts are helping one of the country’s oldest Baptist groups reach uncharted territory; forging new partnerships for a post-denominational world. One such partnership is with “Ecclesia,” a small church planting network. Ecclesia likes to keep it simple: their statement of faith is the Nicene Creed. Some of the churches in Ecclesia’s network have an Anglican flavor. Others have roots in the Vineyard movement. Ecclesia gives churches in the network lots of freedom, which makes it a natural fit for Baptists. 

The group has no rock star pastors, no mega-church funding, and no officially-sanctioned template for how to start a church. What they do have is a desire to match thoughtful theology with an evangelical zeal. At the group’s recent national gathering, preaching (of all things) was emphasized for a congregation’s spiritual formation as much as small groups and one-to-one discipleship. David Fitch, chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, said “The sermon is something for the church to experience and be invited into. It’s not a series of points for congregational consumption.” Such emphasis on serious preaching is good news for those skeptical of emerging streams of Christianity.    

Although most of these churches (some meet in pubs and theaters) might not be considered traditional, they share a common desire for partnership and connection with other churches and denominations.  All Souls Charlottesville is a two-year-old, Eucharistically-centered church in partnership with Ecclesia and Virginia Baptists. Baptist churches in and around Charlottesville have been financially supportive of this new church. They have been pleasantly surprised that a church aimed at pioneering new ways of being church values a strong relationship with older and more traditional congregations. 

Winn Collier, the pastor of All Souls, is a picture of what the future might look like.  Raised the son of an independent Baptist preacher in Waco, Texas, he values his denominational roots, but is helping his congregation dig deeper into the Christian tradition. All Souls has no intention of being a hip or cutting edge. Collier just wants to help his people tell the old, old story. He is working to reclaim Gregory the Great’s description of the pastoral role as a curer of souls. He’s not developing an exportable blueprint for church. He’s doing what his Baptist forefathers and mothers did so well -- building local churches in local communities with local needs.  

Over time, these life rafts might work. If they do, the church – Baptist and catholic, universal and local -- will be stronger for it.