"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
April 22, 2008

Is It Possible To Be A Post-Congregational Baptist?

Probably not. But, that hasn’t stopped me thinking along those lines recently… Back in 2006 I wrote a somewhat longwinded set of blogposts reviewing Spencer Burke’s book, A Heretics Guide To Eternity.” In amongst that verbiage, I said, “I’m all for dispensing with the illusions of Christianity and for jettisoning the broken structures. But, I […]

Probably not. But, that hasn’t stopped me thinking along those lines recently…

Back in 2006 I wrote a somewhat longwinded set of blogposts reviewing Spencer Burke’s book, A Heretics Guide To Eternity.” In amongst that verbiage, I said,

“I’m all for dispensing with the illusions of Christianity and for jettisoning the broken structures. But, I think A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity goes further than I’m prepared to go. There is something for me about church-ness that is not just an idea, or abstraction, but is a still a reality, hope and calling. I still believe that something church-like is part of God’s providential plan for the world.”

I was a little harsh in the review because I still felt that church-ing (the sense of intentionally doing church together) was still something worth aspiring to. Of course, the reality was I had been through a pretty turbulent few years on the church front and was struggling to find a church “home” in a new city. The critical sense in that review was my hopeful voice speaking from an ever dimming memory of what church could be.

The staggering thing I now have to admit to myself as I close on my 40th birthday (later this year), is that I’m looking back on a decade where I almost never used the phrase “my church.” Sure, I’ve struggled, tried, sacrificed, put the effort in, etc. But, it’s been patchy at best and close to desolate at worst.

Just this week I discovered that the church we attend (I can’t really call it “my church”) has a presence on Facebook. Rather tellingly, I didn’t join. Surely that says a lot.

So, it was engaging to read Steve’s “Some Thoughts On Being Post-Congregational” this week. In particular, these thoughts leap out,

“Those I know who are choosing the route of post-congregationalism (if that’s even a word) are doing so out of a missional motivation to intentionally be the Church outside of traditional church structures in order to be salt and light amongst a largely de-churched world.”

The funny thing is, that’s where I am, but not really by choice. I could be melodramatic and say the church has let me down (OK, a few years ago I was that melodramatic and I did say that) – but it is more subtle really. I’m just finding there is a kind irreconcilability between being missional and being conventionally congregational in a give-every-spare-second-to-the church kind of way.

Which leaves me with this tantalising word Steve threw in there – post-congregationalism. Perhaps post-congregationalism might be the complete rejection of congregationalism, but rather the informed questioning of why it never fulfilled its promise (in the same way that really interesting forms of post-modernism are not just reactions against modernism, but rather explorations of the limits of modernism).

[tags] Baptist, Ecclesiology, Post-Congregational [/tags]

Jason Clark 16 years ago

Hi Fernando, you kindly let us peer into your church pathology. I wondered if you think ‘my church’ is an ontological possibility, what would it take for you to be able to say ‘my church’ and find your identity in it?

Warmly, Jason

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Hey Jason, I think it still is a possibility. Let me throw out two concrete examples of the problems in making it real and the ways they might be overcome.

1. The Cost Of Belongingness – “My church” relates in part to a sense of belonging, but, belonging always comes at a cost. When it comes to church, there are a number of costs involved, freedom, creativity, individuality and in particular time. The church we currently attend is not unusual in placing a pretty high time premium on belonging. I’m down with opening things up so belonging is not just about Sunday services, but when belonging involves long tracts of time during the week – well, it seems to reflect a pre-adult way of building relationships. As a quick example, if you want to play music on a Sunday, there is not only a two hour rehearsal before the service, but also a three hour rehearsal on a weeknight – every week. That’s just nuts.

2. The strength of weak-ties. – “My church” is directly correlated to the amount that church breaks into my everyday life. On one level it is conducive to a sense of belonging if you can build close friendships within the church. But when I look back on past times when I could say “my church” it was always because of the strength of connection with those who weren’t really friends – with the people you just knew, or occasionally spoke to. The idea of the strength of weak-ties comes from Mark Granovetter’s research into how networks help people find jobs and I think it is a useful idea to describe en-fleshed ecclesiology. When you have a church where you say hello every Sunday to the same people and then, when you see them during the week they turn away, or don’t acknowledge your hellos; well, the weak ties are pretty weak.

Jason Clark 16 years ago

Thanks Fernando.

So it’s a case of the only churches you can get to, have unrealistic time, and paritipcation expectations?

Are their other christians like you who could join together in worship and mission, and find a sense of ‘my’ church?

How much of ‘church’ gets in the way of that, and how much does culture and yourself (or how much does ‘oneself’ in consumer culture) get in the way of that? I’m asking that ontologically, not so much personally of you 🙂

Warmly, Jason

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Jason, in terms of your first two questions the answers are yes and probably. But, I recoil at the idea of starting something because we are only here for a fixed time. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, but it feels to me that starting something should involve some longer term commitment to a place.

I guess we could say that culture gets in the way by placing us under unrealistic time pressures. That feels like the standard answer, but I don’t really buy it. I think as we transition from youth to adulthood we become better at handling relationships in more discrete time frames. That’s a fancy way of saying we manage our friendships and important networks with smaller and more focussed investments of time. But, it feels to me that a lot of models of church (even some new trendy ones), still work on a youth-oriented view of relationships where large blocks of time are required (and expected) to build and manage relationships.

So, I guess it cuts both ways. Maybe our culture makes styles of church that demand two full nights a week and half a Sunday look impossible. But maybe churches that have those kinds of expectations are built on a faulty or inappropriate view of relationships and time.

Jason Clark 16 years ago

Hi mate. So outside of time commitments, and pragmatics, and your own personal needs as you have become more self sufficient as a christian over the years (by that I mean there is little I would expect you would learn/get from attending any church, and your faith is probably self directed in a proactive way), what conviction and understanding do you have about your identity, it’s relationship to the body of Christ, and the mission of Jesus through that relationship, where you are now..

I guess I’m asking if there is any theological ontological imperative for you in terms of doing and being church, where you are now?

spencer burke 16 years ago


Great to see the conversation continue to percolate…

It has been hard to explain to critics of “Heretic’s Guide” that is is the love of the Church that has motivated us to point out how far she has wondered from her mission. It has been a little like questioning the government’s commitment to the war in Iraq and being marginalized as unpatriotic. You can love the Church and question the institution that has tried to say they speak for her. I think the feelings you are having are like the millions of Christ followers – who have left the institute for all of the right reasons…

Let’s move beyond the programs and into the mission and community that help us be the gospel now, no matter if/how it conforms to the needs of the institution.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Jason – I’m struggling to find an answer that isn’t “because I should.” I know that’s not what your probably looking for in that line of questioning, but that’s where I’m ending up.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Spencer – thanks for the comment and your perspective. A key point in all this existential ranting of mine is that I’m not where I am because of a choice to leave the church, but as a result of a choice to continue to engage in and believe in the idea of church. There would be a lot less angst and a lot more clarity in all this if I simply didn’t think there was anything left in the idea of church; it would be easy to walk away.

Your analogy about criticism and loyalty is a really good one. When I look at something like Luther’s “marks of the church” I see ideas and historical practices that I’m still committed to, that still stir my loyalty, that i still trust as the right ways to be in the world. My problem is costs the local church asks of me that don’t really seem to line up with that mission.

Anyway, thanks for the reminder that I’m far from alone in this struggle.

Jason Clark 16 years ago

Fernando: If I hadn’t heard you voice the idea and hope for something within the idea of church, I wouldn’t have been asking you these questions, and I know you know that 🙂

I guess I’m asking if we get beyond institutional naivety, pragmatics, and valid critiques of what doesn’t connect to mission, what is left for you. Is the church you attend a place where you can do mission, and invite other from their to join you, to form a sense of ‘my church’.

Or is the only option to be defined by what church is not? And if you were doing mission with others, what would be the costs of that mission? I suspect they might be significantly more than those being asked of you right now.

I’d rather poor my life out with others, for every day, than clock in and out for a few hours per week to tick some church attendance/performance boxes.

I’d also rather find the place that enabled me to find other christians to do mission, than develop a private, ipod download when I want ecclesiology.

And in all your writings I hear a longing not dissimilar, and sorry to presume to locate you within my ecclesial anxieties 🙂


Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Jason, I guess what I fear is that longing is the only definition that is left, in a real and personal sense.

I don’t find the idea of mission as “come join my church” all that compelling. I guess in that sense church as locus of spirituality is not that high on list. I tend to see the gathering thing more in terms of education and encouragement; the old evangelical language of edification.

That’s partly why I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we ever really “graduate” from church. You are right that mission or the missional living thing is far more costly than a few hours a week of churchianity. I live that and see it.

The fracturing and bifurcation of church doesn’t make it any easier to find people though and maybe enclaving ourselves into groups that “get” our missiology is part of the problem? I don’t know, but part of me keeps coming back to the idea of the cathedral; a big overarching church that facillitates the meeting of missional groups within itself. I’m speculating now – I have no real answers here.

Jason Clark 16 years ago

Thanks mate for responding, and for letting me ask…

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Thanks man – I’ve appreciated the questions and they have been helpful to me and I hope they’ve opened the conversation up more for other readers as well.

roy donkin 16 years ago

Fernando & Jason, thanks for letting the rest of us listen in on your conversation.

Let me throw a few thoughts into the pot.

Many of those I’ve seen who say that they’ve left “the church” to be more missional are no more missional than they were before and certainly aren’t more missional than many of the institutional churches I know. They may go hand out food once a month to homeless folk but that doesn’t sound to me like being missional. The issues are too big and too complicated to be addressed by individuals in such willy nilly ways.

For me, I can’t imagine how one defines themselves as a Christian unless they are part of some kind of community of faith that does ministry, worship, fellowship, etc. together. I agree that the institutional church is far, far, far from being what it is supposed to be, but it feels to me as if it needs to be replaced by something rather than for those of us who are looking for something more real and more important to just give up and go off on our own. So… I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think there can be a post-congregational Christian but there can be and perhaps must be post-institutional congregations.

So to bring up Jason’s question again, what does it take for a place to be labeled as “my church?”

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Roy – I agree with you and there’s a challenge in your comments that feels right. To put it another way, part of why I keep reading cnvetional newsapers and magazines and don’t just get my new online is because when I rely on just the RSS I invariably end up with a narrower band of news. I think church does/should/can/might/could operate in a similar vein, to draw us out of ourselves.

Going on the with the news/magazine analogy. I think what makes New York Magazine, The Guardian, or the NYRB “my publications” has to do with the content and in turn with the brand. I can sense that Jason might accuse me of being consumerist at this point if I apply that to church. But, it feels right to think that there is something in the reliablity of a church as a brand that makes it a viable as “my church.”

My guess is that only sound repugnant because the churches that do tend to think of themselves as brands often do so in rather shallow and non-reflexive ways.

roy donkin 16 years ago

The consumerist label is a difficult one. On the one hand it reflects everything that is wrong with the church these days as consumers look for churches that “tickle their ears.” We can almost see the labels – “80’s era rock music, comprised of 30 something suburbanites with small children, sermons aimed at self-help” or “old first church, traditional worship with pipe organ, highly educated congregation, sermons are highly intellectual with little relevance or challenge to daily life” or how about “racially mixed, post modern, creative, really busy people with multiple commitments” and the list goes on. At the same time, I think that there is nothing wrong at all in looking for the church that fits – one that offers opportunities for growth and for service and for community. And it may be any of the labels that we can come up with as each grouping has churches that are doing real ministry as well as some that are little different from many other organizations available to join.

Additionally, churches have personalities just like cities (See Who’s Your City?) and finding the one that clicks is important. Part of it comes from the larger brand – the theological and polity questions that are likely reflected in a denominational tie or lack thereof – but more comes from the make-up and commitments of the individual congregation at a particular place and time. The tough part is finding that church.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Hey, some of my best friends are “racially mixed, post modern, creative, really busy people with multiple commitments…”

Maybe the only really anti-consumerist model is the mono-church. I suspect that’s unworkable and maybe counterproductive.

Whilst I agree that churches branding themselves like radio stations or jean labels is purile, it is right to point out that at an organic level, churches have personalities and the analogy with cities is a good one – in fact, it is a thoroughly incarnational one.

I suspect where the consumerist critique has the most teeth may well be when the attraction of a church is aspirational. After all, how many people buy Apple Macs because they are creative and how many do so because they wish they were.

Churchless 16 years ago

I really enjoyed your reflection and honesty. Though sometimes I wonder if like Catholics, Babtists are Baptists to the day they die, congregational or post – congregational? (joke)

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Thanks. That’s a joke that speaks to a real truth. In so many ways Baptists are actually more similar to Catholics than would appear to be the case on the surface.

Matt Stone 16 years ago

Fernando, as a person who struggles to belong myself I really feel for you.

But I also must admit that I fear for you too because whilst I do struggle, majorly at times, one of the reasons I persevere is because I have seen too many “post-congregationalists” come unstuck. So apart from the theological reasons I have also come to see there are some very pragmatic reasons for hanging in there. I think there’s an irreducably social/communal element to Christian discipleship and wonder about the long term sustainability of the solo path. In persevering I have found the most important thing is to locate my identity, my sense of belonging, first and foremost in Christ rather than his church. I think there’s a bit of a paradox in there that our sense of belonging to church is strengthened when we shift our focus from belonging to church to belonging in Christ with others.

I also find its essential to have a good sense of your own call and your own boundaries when it comes to those time expectations. I have written of this previously but I think one of the most radical ways we change Sunday services is just by giving them less attention, less oxygen. I am pretty ruthless about this myself and only commit to involving myself with that which is in line with my gifts, calling, etc – prioritizing mission time over maintenance time. Why should I help prop up what is more of a distraction anyway? Let ministries collapse I say. And if that leaves me on the margins, away from the centre of “the action”, well that’s probably a good thing.

Personally I have given up on the HUP-centred / people-group focussed church as I think it creates unrealistic expectations, particularly in more pluralistic societies. That’s not to say I approve of mono-church either, rather I think what we need to get back to is true multi-cultural church. That’s only going to happen if minorities tough it out.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Matt – I hear you on a range of issues there; identity, mission, priorities and time. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ve always found it a harsh experience when I’ve tried to define myself more in terms of Christ and mission than in terms of the church. There’s a brutal dynamic there. Also, one thing that really broke me was that a few years back I had only the second spell in my time when I felt I “needed” a church to support me and it wasn’t there. That was also a tough lesson.

Overall I agree with you that there is too much attention on Sunday services and on keeping programmes alive. Back when I was pastoring I would often say that we should not treat Sunday like the most important couple of hours in the week and nearly a decade on I’ve not changed that view. But again, it’s not an outlook that makes it easy to “belong.”

As for the idea of the church being truely multi-cultural – sure. But, I gotta say, best of luck with that in Sydney. You’ve got 50+ years of significant multi-cultural immigration down under and the last time I checked, the leadership of most denominations still looked predictability mono-cultural.

hamo 16 years ago

Great reading and something I have been reflecting on quite deeply also.

Actually I was preaching on this last night and I offered the statement that ‘the church is actually the primary unit of Christianity – not the individual’.

I have become convinced of the absolute not negotiable nature of Christian community and its priority if we are to be disciples of Jesus.

That said…

Locating oneself in a Christian community can be a challenge. I think a person can be out of a specific community for a period of time but ultimately our goal would be to connect deeply with at least a few people (in fact any more than a few is not ideal) who can walk with us on the journey.

I have my own preferences in regard to church experience. We took some Asian guests to our local Baptist church yesterday. I would have preferred to stay home and got very bored, but went out of politeness. Much of is just didn’t resonate with me. By the same token if our own group ever folded then i would probably join this rather unexciting and very conservative bunch of believers simply because they are in my community. Whether I could experience real community there would be another issue again.

I couldn’t ever see myself slotting into a ‘pumping pentecostal’ church. It just isn’t me. So if that were the only option available I might be a tad lost for a while!

Good question F

Is it possible to post-cong. I would say ‘yes’ but only for a time!

Matt Stone 16 years ago


Yup, no argument with any of that. It’s a tough gig.

I will say that I have been shaped for the better by persevering, enduring; that I am more Christ focussed as a consequence, mostly because I was forced to see how necessary it was.

It is precisely because churches have a propensity to let people down that I recommend against locating your hopes and identity in church as you find it. There is a paradox here, I feel, in that the more people locate their identity in church the less “Christ-ian” the church actually becomes. A form of churchiolatry can enter our thinking, where we expect the church to do what only God can. Now of course, the church is the body of Christ and the temple of the holy Spirit, so it is reasonable to expect it to be Godly, for it to be better than the world in some way. It is understandably soul destroying when sometimes it proves to be even worse. But the only way I know out of that is to turn my eyes and attention to our Lord.


Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Hamo thanks for the comment. Reading your words made go back to the earlier exchange with Jason and wonder again about his question. If the local options are limited are we just left with obligation and fear as the main motivations for going to church.

Certainly, I feel like I “should” go and in a way I “fear” the consequences of not going. But those are totally negative motivations. I feel hypocritical falling back on those since my arguments for attending church in the past have always been positive; human flourishing, creativity and mission being at the core.

I will keep going “if I have to” but it’s not an inspiring position to speak from.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Matt, in both your posts you’ve highlighted a riddle that could well be a great place from which to start an ecclesiology. We best serve the church when we don’t define ourselves in terms of the church.

In my more optimistic moments, I do wonder if the experience of the last few years will prove important in future. It certainly has changed the tone with which I write and the expectations I have of theology as an endeavour.

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