We have seen many churches on our tour of the British Isles. These have ranged from the impressive Westminster Abbey to the ancient Iona Abbey and its ruins. But by far the church visits that I have enjoyed the most are the three Baptist congregations we’ve worshipped with on Sunday mornings. These living and vibrant communities of faith warmly welcomed us as guests in their midst, and reminded me of some important lessons.
In the Stirling Baptist Church (Stirling, Scotland – pictured above), the Limerick Baptist Church (Limerick, Ireland), and the Balham Baptist Church (South London, England) we discovered diverse and authentic communities of faith that are looking to impact their neighbors with the love of Christ. Worship was relaxed, participatory, and equally led by laity and clergy alike. Preaching was genuine, relatable and shared with energy and the love of the gospel. But mostly it was the people who made the experience. I had forgotten what it is to be new (though I spent about nine years once being in a new church nearly every week!). It makes such a difference when someone greets you, smiles at you, and helps you feel welcome. The differences in ethnicity, nationality, accent, experience fade away as the common ground of Christ takes hold. Blending your voice with these sisters and brothers whom you’ve never met, and may not meet again until eternity, in the known or new lyric of a chorus, lifts up the heart and stirs the soul. Being humbled as your home nation and it’s troubles are part of the prayers in worship is a unique and healthy minority experience. Sharing conversations over coffee after worship with genuine interest reminds you that in our differences, and differing perspectives, we have much to learn from one another.
Each of these congregations was real (not perfect) in that it was apparent they were figuring out how to share ministry today in ways that work for today. They, like we who worship in America, are minority people who gather for worship in lands where most do not. It’s just that they may be more aware, or less in denial of this fact than much of the church in America, and therefore more ready to leave attempts at resurrecting yesterday behind.
It’s true that our experience was limited, and maybe skewed a bit by what we hoped to see. But in the end it wasn’t the technology, the facility or even the preaching we’ll remember. It was the authenticity of living communities of faith, made up of persons who’ve chosen to love and share Jesus, that will continue to resonate.
As one whose place of weekly worship draws its own fair share of visitors, many who come by to see the architecture, I am always sure to welcome these guests I meet and let them know we are a living body of Christ followers and not just stewards of a building. I want them to know we are also choosing to be identified by our love for Christ first and foremost. That’s the common heart ground I’ve discovered among our new Baptist friends in these lands. They could easily be overshadowed by the numerous grand cathedrals and abbeys and ancient spiritual ruins, but for me their faith shines brighter than the glint and glitter of those edifices and monuments to history. I pray for their witness and mission in God’s name.