Nearly 130 years ago, the foundations for Tasmanian Baptists were established but there are important differences between our origins and our ministry today.
Baptist historian Laurie Rowston* reports that the Association of Tasmanian Baptist Churches met first in Launceston on 27 May 1884. William Gibson Snr, a keen supporter of the Baptist work and a generous donor, called together the pastors of the five main Baptist Churches in Tasmania at that time. They were Rev Robert Williamson (Perth), Rev Harry Wood (Longford), Rev Edward Vaughan (Deloraine), Rev Robert McCullough (Hobart), and Rev Albert Bird (Launceston).
That meeting led to the formation of the Baptist Union of Tasmania, now known as Tasmanian Baptists, and Gibson served as the founding President of the Union (Rowston 2011: 113). I recommend Rowston's work - his research and analysis helps us to understand the vision and the limitations of our origins.
Rowston refers to that group of pastors as 'Spurgeon's men', because they were all graduates of Spurgeon's College, London. He makes some hard-hitting observations with respect to those men:
The essence of the Spurgeon tradition in Tasmania was an unashamed, powerful, and evangelistic preaching tradition ... to some extent their fundamentalism rendered them remote from intellectual debates ... Spurgeon's men and the Gibsons were ambitious doers rather than thinkers (Rowston 2011: 130)
Rowston comes to this conclusion:
... the history of Baptist churches of Australia, and in Tasmania in particular, was a series of implantations. Spurgeon's men took as their task the preservation of the ways of home. They believed that Spurgeon stood for true religion and his message was changeless and needed only to be proclaimed. They lovingly remembered their roots and sought to preserve, amidst all the peculiarity of the colonies, a church life they had embraced and which remained for them a tie with home. It was not a question of innovating or improvising but defending and propagating. But rather than taking root in Australian soil, the Spurgeon-Gibson venture to some extent remained a potted plant (Rowston 2011: 131).
In 2009, the condition of Baptist work in Tasmania was reviewed and the churches identified nine major issues:
Today, I would like to remind you of some of the exciting things that have been happening in Tasmanian Baptist churches over the last five years.
In 2009, an open letter was sent to all church members outlining the issues and calling for prayer, repentance, and a commitment for revival. The response was mixed; some churches caught the vision and understood the need to become mission-shaped. Others took longer to understand that Tasmania is a mission field and we have to be 'back yard missionaries'. A minority still do not see the problem.
In 2010, we commissioned a new style of denominational leadership. We introduced a Mission Leadership Team, with John Smith, Jeff McKinnon, and Ivan Jordan talking on the roles of a joint Superintendent and Regional Minister in the Southern, Northern and North-West regions respectively. They showed great wisdom and exercised spiritual leadership and MLT has become a valuable source of vision and leadership.
In 2011, Council adopted new governance guidelines. In the same year, Assembly agreed to match the BUV system for stipends and allowances for pastors over a five-year period. This was done so that Tasmanian churches could attract pastors from interstate.
In 2012, Council launched the Healthy Church program, providing resources and guidance for the church/pastor relationship and church governance. This material was based on similar material developed by BUV and it encourages professional development, transparency, and accountability in all areas of church life. John Smith was appointed as Superintendent and NW Regional Minister and Stephen Baxter was appointed as a Sothern Regional Minister and member of MLT (after Ivan Jordan's retirement).
Assembly adopted the Safe Church program in the same year, providing a new way to educate and supervise church workers engaged with vulnerable people. We also released a new Model Constitution that would protect the status of a church as a charity, indemnify its officers, and comply with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission Act. Also in that year, MLT developed a three-year Strategic Plan and road map of missional options for smaller churches and commenced a new Forum for this group of churches.
In 2013, we conducted a review of our churches experiences with children's ministries. This was necessary to prepare for the Royal Commission into the Institutional Abuse of Children. We also conducted training sessions for the Healthy Church and Safe Church programs. Council developed a succession plan to enable emerging leaders to be trained to support the denomination in the future.
MLT launched an exciting new Mission Summit, which brought together pastors, interns, and key lay leaders to encourage one another, share experiences and build mission-shaped expertise. Assembly agreed to introduce a fairer and more sustainable basis for membership fees for the future, using an income-based fee structure similar to most other State Unions.
I know many churches have found it difficult at times to cope with all these changes. Some things have not been of our doing: new health and safety legislation, new tax laws, the ACNC, and the Royal Commission have been necessary externally initiated changes. Other changes have been necessary to make our churches fairer, safer, better governed, and more welcoming for newcomers.
I want to assure you of this - these things have been done so you might have a mission-shaped ministry. Council has not been trying to make your life miserable. Instead, these changes were to overcome the problems identified in 2009 and to cope with the external requirements that arise as community standards change.
Finally, if you recall my opening comments about our Baptist origins and Rowston's research, I would like to leave you with these two thoughts:
First, we are not 'Spurgeon's men'. Our allegiance is not to our history or some form of 'true religion', but to our Lord. Therefore, we should be Jesus' women and men living in the twenty-first century.
Second, our churches should not be 'potted plants', propagated from outmoded twentieth century versions of British or American Christianity. Instead, we have been called to be a contemporary indigenous church that is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and willing to find ways to contextualise the Gospel for this generation of Tasmanians in all lifestyles.
This is our high calling. This is our challenge.
*Rowston, Laurence (2011) Spurgeon's Men: The resurgence of Baptist Belief and Practice in Tasmania 1869-1884. Hobart: BUT & Rowston. (MA Thesis: UTAS)