I’m a Baptist minister surrounded by Baptist ministers.
I’m not talking about the paintings and faded photos of my predecessors that hang in my office. In Norwich there are several live and kicking colleagues. They pastor a line of churches that stretch from the outskirts, to the heart of the city. We meet every so often for coffees and chats. I miss some of the group meetings, but I enjoy catching up ‘one-on-one’ over lunch in a nice eatery. Mark and I go to the M&S café for one of their excellent chicken burgers. There’s a pub where I often meet David for fish and chips – especially if one of us has received a ‘buy one get one free’ email. On a couple of occasions, Ian and I have even resorted to bringing our own sandwiches and picnicking in the church foyer. I’m rubbish at making sandwiches, so I’ve made a mental note to check Vouchercloud well in advance of my next get together with Ian.
At one of the very first of these meals, about 9 years ago, David shared an exciting vision with me. He explained that God had given him a deep desire to see the Norwich Baptists working alongside each other much more closely. Instead of isolated Christian outposts, David was given a vision of a unified community that made communal use of resources. I listened with interest. I agreed with what David said. Long after the lunch was over, I contemplated what we’d discussed. Then I carried on my ministry in much the same way as I had before.
Fast forward 8 years. Without warning, the vision seemed to change its status from ‘interesting’ to ‘urgent’. I wish I could tell you precisely why. The best I can do is to put it like this: God seemed to say, “Do this now!” The first question we asked Him and each other was, “How?”
A meeting of leaders was called and lots of ideas were bandied about. The suggested responses included pulpit exchanges, some united evening services and a festival week. We opted for all of them, stretched out over about 6 months. Everyone was a little uncomfortable about just getting together just for the sake of it and so we expressed the vision for gathering in these terms: we can reach this city for Christ more effectively together. So, we had a simple plan in place quite quickly.
Jeremiah 6:16 encourages us to, ‘look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it.’ It was looking back in time that led us to the name, Festival 344. Sitting back in my office – the one with the paintings and faded photos of my predecessors – I began to read up on Norwich Baptist history. It was an inspiring few hours of study, to say the least.
I discovered that the original Norwich Baptists started life in a variety of different churches and felt disaffected or persecuted because of their high view of the Scriptures. Many of them ended up fleeing Norwich, mid-way through the 17th Century. They sailed to Holland, where they joined the famous ‘English Church’ in Rotterdam. Here, they enjoyed a new freedom to worship and experienced a new way to ‘do Church’.
After a few years, they came home to Norwich and met in secret. They were discovered in 1669 and declared to be an illegal gathering. Ironically, it was this declaration that became the first official recognition of the Norwich Baptists, 344 years ago. Thankfully, the persecutions didn’t last for long and they soon worshipped openly and grew in size. After a few more years had passed, the Norwich Baptists started planting new congregations.
In the first united service, I shared some of my findings. In summary, I pointed out that God calls His people together to bless them and dress them for service (Luke 12:35). What God chose to do 344 years ago, He might choose to do with us today.
So, with a fair amount of work and lots more leaders’ meetings, we cautiously started doing more and more together. The ministers preached to each other’s congregations and the congregations worshipped in each other’s churches. As time went by, our people really got to know each other a lot better. It was lovely.
Then came the festival itself. We managed to run it for 8 days, from Sunday to Sunday. It all started with a launch service that looked very like an ordinary service but with extra cakes, extra people, extra laughter and a guest speaker – Ian Bunce; Monday was a day of prayer spent touring between the churches; the highlight of Tuesday was the special luncheon club meal and cabaret afternoon; Wednesday had a worship event at Witard Road Baptist Church (you can bet that we made the best use of the alliteration in our advertising); Thursday began with a packed historical tour around Norwich and ended with Jeff Lucas and Adrian Plass’ Seriously Funny Tour; Friday combined the creative with culinary in The Great Baptist Bake-Off.
Without a doubt, Saturday’s ‘Fun Day’ at Silver Road formed the spearhead of our outreach. It was the most expensive and most labour intensive part of the week. The Norwich Baptists effectively commandeered a school next to one of the churches. We ran a children’s club in the morning and then managed to have a barbecue, inflatables, live-band, cake-stalls, face painting, etc. all up and running for when the parents came back to collect their kids. As we had hoped and prayed, most stayed to eat and have fun. It wasn’t long before we were joined by many more families from the surrounding community. The helpers encouraged everyone to check out the ‘what’s on in your area’ displays from each of the churches. Older folks were directed to nearby Silver Road Baptist Church for teas, coffees, yet more cakes, comfy seats and invitations to other events.
On Sunday, it all drew to a conclusion with each congregation back in its own church building. We worshipped, gave thanks and listened to the same message – recorded the week before by Ian Bunce. Ian caught the mood of the gatherings well. We were all asking, “What next, Lord?”
A few weeks have now passed. I’d love to be able to say that the Norwich Baptists have continued on the journey of togetherness with increasing gusto. I’d love to be able to say that we are now a mirror image of the Early Church, described at the end of Acts 2. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.
In fact, the changes the Lord seems to be bringing about are more subtle, but heartily encouraging in their own way: the smaller Baptist churches in the city have commented that they feel less isolated; the church leaders have already met to arrange several more united gatherings – including the opening of Witard Road’s new church building; the Silver Road area of the city has been shown a little of Christ’s love; the whole Festival 344 experience has prepared us well for the new ‘Networking’ initiatives BUGB are beginning around the country.
In conclusion, we had good times and feel excited about the future. Despite the fact that lots of church members didn’t join in with any of the special events, the festival seems to have created a tangible core of people in each congregation who are now vocally ‘pro-togetherness’. The Lord seems to have inspired a growing Norwich Baptist cry for unity in worship, nurture and evangelism. We are starting to believe that we can be better together.