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European Baptists Model Ecumenism, Community Engagement

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I often wake up and think what a privilege it is to work for the European Baptist Federation (EBF). Only very occasionally do I consider the other possibility!
The heart of the privilege, for me, is centered on travelling around Europe and the Middle East, and seeing firsthand some of the surprising, not to say amazing, things that God is up to, often in very challenging situations.

I am often visiting unions and conventions for their assemblies and congresses when they bring their churches together to celebrate in worship and reflect on the future together.

Last weekend, however, was unusual because I was the guest of a local church. I was in Katowice, Poland, with my friend, Jerzy Rogaczewski, the pastor of First Baptist Church in the city.

I met his father, Stefan, one of the “saints” of the Polish Baptists, who lived nearly all his own ministry through the Communist time. In spite of that, under Stefan’s leadership, an impressive church building was opened in the 1980s.

During the same period, the Baptists were instrumental in bringing Billy Graham to Katowice for a memorable evangelistic initiative in which many people found faith.

Graham even preached in the Catholic Cathedral at the invitation of the archbishop.

So, what of the church today, as Poland faces up to the chill winds of secularism, despite the hold that Roman Catholicism still has on the population? And there are other challenges, too.

In the past decade, many young people have headed for the United Kingdom and other parts of western Europe to find work. In Katowice, the center of the former thriving coal and steel industries of Silesia, the city is coming to terms with industrial decline; all around are signs of urban regeneration.

I came away from Katowice impressed by what one local church is doing to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in its contemporary environment and culture. 

First of all, the church has a respected voice in the city.

A visit to the city mayor confirmed that the Baptist church and its pastor – and, indeed, the other city churches – have a part to play in the regeneration of the city and are welcomed to speak to the issues which face it.

The mayor is a regular visitor to the church, and the city government agreed recently that one of the streets bordering the church building could be renamed “Baptist Street.”

This engagement of our churches in the “public square” is, for me, one of the marks of effective mission in our contemporary situation.

Second, long before the word “ecumenism” became so problematic for some Baptists, there were cordial relationships between leaders of different churches in the city of Katowice, including Roman Catholics.

Today, this continues and develops, with leaders meeting regularly for prayer for the city and preaching in one another’s churches during the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

I was warmly welcomed by Catholic and Lutheran leaders and was left in no doubt about the importance of the Baptist contribution to the Christian presence in the city.

I often find that official suspicion of ecumenical structures among European Baptists is combined with some committed to working together locally.

Perhaps that is how it should be, as our ecclesiology is so centered on the local church, but I long for more of our Baptists to have this sense of belonging to the one great church of Jesus Christ. 

And most important of all, this is a local church that is still sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the city.

The climax of my weekend in Katowice was a baptismal service on Sunday morning, in which 26 men and women from four churches in the region confessed their faith. It made me realize that in western and central Europe, baptism services for so many are now quite rare.

It was an inspiring service with great music and enthusiastic worship, and I found it a real privilege to be the preacher.

I am sure that the church in Katowice is not an exception.

All over the EBF region are encouraging stories of what local churches are doing to speak to the issues of their cities, to make positive and productive relationships with Christian brothers and sisters of other traditions, and to not lose sight of the purpose of the church – to proclaim Christ in all that it does in such a way that people will respond in faith and the commitment of their lives to Christ.

So we can be confident that the gospel continues to speak to contemporary Europe, despite all the many challenges that confront it.

Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Europe Matters, and is used with permission.