Baptist Assembly: Musings from an Ex Main Arena Director

Baptist Assembly…musings from an Ex-Main Arena Director

This past weekend I ‘retired’ from my role as part of the production team at the Baptist Assembly.

I attended my first Assembly in 1992 as a student Minister and believe I haven’t missed one since then. I started helping on production in 1999 (I think) when I offered my services to the then Producer Jackie Sheppard because I’d had a small amount of experience in theatre production over the years. I began by editing song words, scripts, and generally rehearsing on screen transitions; in those days equipment wasn’t what it is today so it was certainly more complicated. Over the years with Jackie’s expert guidance and attention to detail I progressed to ‘calling’ the event (instructing the team on ‘cans’ to “roll VT” and “Go preset 3” etc) and eventually to rehearsing participants on stage and making sure that things were staged correctly (camera angles etc). With Jackie moving on I was invited to work more closely with pre-production and to become adult arena Director, and for the past few years I’ve had the privilege of serving in that role with Jonny Clark (BMS), a great hard working and creative bloke!

With 14 assembly’s, the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Birmingham and Hawaii (sounds glamorous, it’s not), the World Youth Congress in Leipzig, and the European Baptist Fellowship 400 years celebration in Amsterdam, I’ve travelled widely and worked with some amazingly gifted people, creative types and had the privilege of meeting and listening to great preachers and gifted musicians.

I’ve learned loads and gained much in the time and feel very proud of some significant moments at various events including, getting the timing right for a VT to run with a mass choir in Birmingham 2005, and calling the Sunday morning service in Leipzig which went out ‘live’ on German TV. My heart raced more on that day than any other, and I was suitably proud when complemented by the German TV Production Team for the quality of our production. Jackie Sheppard, Andy Voyce and Jonny Clark have all been superb colleagues to work with and I give credit to them as well as some clever and creative designers.

Along the way there have been some ‘interesting’ moments too, including; rescuing and subsequently carrying a cameraman off his station when he fell ill in the middle of a session David Coffey was giving; battling with some choir leaders and actors over exactly how long they have to ‘do their bit’ and wondering if some speakers will ever end no matter how many red flashing lights they’d been given! There have been moments when technology and people have failed and when the humour in the moment has overtaken me to the point of being ‘un-productive’. There are so many hilarious moments I could write for hours!
The professionalism of the production companies bought in for events has been matched by the wonderful sacrificial service offered by the other volunteers, many of whom I’ve worked with year on year and who have become friends.
The normal day most recently has looked like a 7 a.m. event leadership meeting, followed by production meetings, rehearsals, checking stuff, the sessions themselves, more rehearsing and chatting stuff through. With a little social time at the end of the day and the odd curry and beer its bed around midnight. I well remember not seeing daylight for 4 days when we served at the BWA congress in Birmingham. I was as tired as I can ever remember.

So…from a 21 year perspective what are my reflections on Assembly ‘over the years?’

There is so much to say…. But let me centre on the things that I feel most strongly….

God at work!
I sincerely believe the Lord has changed lives and transformed people. I’ve witnessed people called to serve overseas, called to local church, and convicted to serve in many ways. I’ve spoken with those who’ve met the Lord there, been affirmed, welcomed, encouraged and inspired. I’ve listened to those who’ve agonized about their situations and found their brothers and sisters in our Baptist life were there for them. I’ve heard amazing testimonies and stories from all over the world and been humbled at the grace shown, the courage and the faith demonstrated. I’ve witnessed my own children who’ve been a constant presence throughout these past 10 years (particularly) grow in their understanding, make commitments to Christ and commitments to be baptised. I am extremely grateful.

The partnership between BMS World Mission and BUGB is to be applauded. And God is good. And he always will be a God who works through our efforts.

Presentation overload/control?
I’ve been at the heart of enabling the main arena (and that’s all I can comment on) presentations to happen. Timings are to the minute (sometimes to the second) and the program is packed with so much. I think too much. I have argued for less to be put in and for more space. It’s a matter of opinion and debate as to what is the ‘most’ important element of an Assembly and what gets in and what doesn’t of course. But it has felt at times that the presentation and program element has driven the agenda and perhaps sometimes to the detriment of what God was doing at the time? Is it possible to find another way forward? A blend of presentation and space?

I wonder whether a radical rethink is needed to move away from the ‘tired’ (?) worship (music) time followed by a sermon (timed) with various presentations squeezed in? We Baptists do sing quite a lot don’t we?

To script so much certainly ensures that nothing inappropriate happens and sessions are theologically and biblically sound and inclusive, but at the same time it can stifle spontaneity and Spirit led moments? I think so. Does it need to be that safe?

The pressure to include everything and everyone (including diversity issues) has sometimes governed the agenda and I wonder whether at times that agenda has been too prominent. The argument for representation is there, and it’s very important…but sometimes it appears to govern. Is that how it’s supposed to be?

All Age Assembly
I speak from personal appreciation of the great work of the children’s and youth teams and believe that this is important. The stories that emerge are encouraging and inspirational.
I would feel sad if this element were no longer included.

The BUGB Trustees decision some years ago to close Leading Edge (where 50% of those who attended were under 18’s Baptists) was for me a short sighted and financially governed decision and it would be for me, a further backward step to lose the under 18’s program at future Assemblies. Great things happened in the lives of children and young people at Leading Edge and the same can be said of Assembly.

The various attempts at all age services over the years have for the most part not worked and my own reflection is that if you’re going to do them then appoint the right people to both plan them and present them. This year’s attempt illustrated it perfectly. Some great pre-Assembly ideas from the design team seemingly undone by pre-appointed speakers and presiders who neither had the gifting (?) nor the will (?) to ensure that their input was all age appropriate. Perhaps that’s harsh, it’s not meant to be….There were just too many words….

Where is the drama, dance, art, etc? The budget perhaps doesn’t allow but we choose to spend it in other ways? So we experience the same tired (yes tired) and generally predictable approach. We are surrounded by creative people but for the most part creativity is missing or stifled from the Assembly…a fresh look is needed.

Moving moments
- In Memoriam
- Ministerial recognition
- Valediction of mission personnel
- Personal testimony…
- Open debate/listening

Encouragement in debate…
Whilst there has been an over emphasis on presentation and control, I have seen a growing ability of Assembly to listen to each other; the Monday morning discussion at this year’s Assembly on Gay and Lesbian relationships, revealed a deep desire to truly listen and engage, and to do so graciously. Set up beautifully by biblical reflection and some strong leadership. To be applauded. It was most excellent.

The future…
I believe for Assembly to have a real engaging and productive role within the life of BUGB and BMS World Mission life we have to grapple with the issue of “What’s it for? Who’s it for?” The question has been asked many times…. But I’m not an sure answer has ever been truly sought?

Moreover, I may be wrong, but the age range at Assembly appears to be pretty much dominated by the over 50’s. I’m not suggesting these folks aren’t needed, but surely we need a much greater emphasis on drawing in and keeping the emerging leaders and under 40’s?

This is not simply an Assembly issue but one that I see across Union life. Yes, attempts are made and yes representations of the under 40’s (I’m 44 by the way) are there and to be applauded, but I suggest that attendance and demographic figures reveal a worrying figure. Take away those who are there because it’s their ‘handshake’ year and the age demographic soars?

I am NOT sure of the numbers of churches represented but it concerns me that so many aren’t there. And why?

I believe Assembly needs to change whilst embracing some of the positive elements mentioned above; to change in such a way as to draw in the emerging leaders, and keep the youth & children coming. What’s there for the 19 year old who’s grown up in Innovation? What’s there for the 25 year old student Minister and his/her family coming for the first time? What’s there for the recently accredited hand shook Minister to ensure that they come back year on year? What keeps churches spending the money to send Ministers?

Let’s get the college students there en masse every year. Give them a free space, discounted rooms. Let’s hand over program elements to the Younger Leaders Forum or maybe even a whole session or day? Let’s have a main session without worship singing, or even a speaker?

Is it about numbers? Is it about getting the right people there, whoever the right people are? You see, for me it’s all a bit of a muddle and that’s my problem, but I think it’s a muddle I share with others too.

Conclusion (and into hiding)
I watch now, from afar, as retirement amongst other things takes me away from Assembly for at least 3 years, maybe more. I hope to return and see the difference. I am a little pessimistic if I’m honest. I feel like a grumpy ol’ man. (Apologies to grumpy ol’ men)
But then again…perhaps I’m utterly wrong, off piste, out of touch…. Maybe it’s not for me anyway?

End on the positive. I’m looking forward to BMS World Mission Catalyst Live (though won’t be taking my kids…)

Jon Stannard (ex Main Arena Director)

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“This ‘sinn(g)ing thing” (questions, musings about SINGING in church)

For the last year or so I have visited many many churches, generally to preach, and sometimes to lead the service too. After 20 years of leadership in the local church it’s been a thoroughly interesting and stimulating time to move beyond the ‘confines’ and ‘genuine joy’ of the local church to be a “travelling preacher” (amongst other things!). To view other church situations and see how others do stuff has been a helpful insight and one I have been extremely grateful for.

However, I am disturbed by what I see and experience in a number of ways. Too many to recount in one short blog. But here are a few questions to hopefully get you thinking and reflecting on just one subject!

1. What would churches look like it we chose NOT to sing anything at a Sunday service? How would your church use the time to ‘worship’ without singing? (I am assuming the traditional Sunday service is in view….but the same applies to those experimenting with other forms of church)

2. How much pressure ‘from within’ is there to ‘sing’? – i.e if you didn’t sing for a month, what would happen?

3. How often do we get the balance of the different gender, cultural, traditional and modernistic preferences of those present right? Does this matter?

4. How many hours are spent planning,co-ordinating, rehearsing and delivering ‘songs’? Is it worth it?

5. Are we in danger of ‘singing to please ourselves’ (see Isaiah 58.3)

6. Has the language within sung worship all got just a little too self centred and gooey? And is the language largely irrelevant to our post Christendom culture?

Please don’t get me wrong. I am NOT suggesting that ‘singing’ in worship is wrong, but I am questioning both the dominance and approach.

Or am I just being an old grump??!

Bless ya

Jon

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Baptist Futures: changing days

A good friend drew my attention to Acts 10 again recently. It’s a passage I’ve looked at before and in one sense there were no surprises at all. Yet, what struck me more than ever this time is the massive internal journey that Peter went on. All of his life he’d known things a certain way, right or wrong, everything within him saw the world through particular eyes. Then encountering Christ through a vision changed that…not all at once…but gradually, a new world view emerged. That and those which he had previously seen as ‘out’ were now ‘in’ and those he walked past were now to be welcomed, embraced, loved, like never before.

Some people love embracing new stuff. Every time they go for a curry, a chinese, they’re up for trying something new of the menu; for others it’s safest to stick to what they know, and like. I think I’m braver on some days but not others!

The paradigm shift that Peter went through may not be the same as the shift I believe our Baptist Union is facing (or is it?) but nevertheless I sense that its not just seeing a fresh vision that is needed, but also facing the internal battle of saying, ‘yes’ to God and embracing that vision. Peter displayed an immense and admirable courage when others were slipping back into old ways, and it seems from other NT letters that the early churches battled with this dilemma too.

For me, it’s fear that holds me back; fear of losing what I have, what is familiar and comfortable. All too often I settle.

What I need is courage, determination and regular reminders that the Lord calls me forward to embrace a new future, which is much more challenging and mind blowing than I might possibly imagine.

The danger is of course, we go so far…and stop there.

‘Lord, give us the courage Peter displayed’.

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Courage or comfort

I was recently taking a church weekend in Sussex. A series of teaching sessions about what it is to be a disciple and be the church in today’s culture. It was a fruitful weekend with lots of positive engagement and feedback. (Plug: email me at jonstannard@vizaviz.org if you want to explore opportunities…end of plug).

On the final morning service I took the opportunity to illustrate the main point of each of the previous 4 sessions, with an example/story/activity.

My last point picked up Luke 12, where Jesus warned his disciples to ‘beware the yeast of the Pharisees’. There were lots of important lessons to learn from that passage, one of which, I felt, is the idea that Jesus warns his disciples not to ‘be like the Pharisees’. My guess is that this was far from their minds but I wondered whether Jesus could see that there is within each follower a weakness that means we could in time, become just like a Pharisee. Maybe because of fear of what we have being lost, maybe fear of persecution, maybe the enjoyment of all the trappings that we have…I pondered on this, and continue to do so.

To illustrate the continuing need to have courage and embrace what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, rather than settle back and risk becoming comfortable, I asked a young guy to come forward and play the faith game. You know, the one where you fall back into the arms of a waiting person ‘trusting’ that they will catch you. That game.

However to up the tension I asked this guy to stand on a chair, which adds to the danger. I asked him to pick 4 f’riends’ whom he trusted to catch him.

After explaining what was going to happen, when he was ready, this young man fell off this chair and was caught by his mates. It went well. Point made. People were reminded that faith is a mixture of trust and courage.

You might know, or firmly believe, but to let yourself go is a step of courage, especially when you can see the very real dangers.

What left an impression on me more than anything else was that a few minutes after the service, the young man I’d asked to stand on the chair told me that he was absolutely petrified of heights. I know its only a chair height, but the thought of falling off a chair filled him with real deep sense of fear.

He not only showed faith/trust in his friends. But he showed some courage too.

Comfort or courage? You choose.

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Another race to swim

My ‘friend’ was having a particularly rough time. He’d given up on much of what had been his life. He’d let people down, and felt badly beaten up by it all. There were many thoughts of running away, disappearing, even for good. Yet those closest to my ‘friend’ convinced him life was worth living..not to give up. They dragged him to a church. He went reluctantly.

The speaker that day was an american preacher, a bronzed adonis, wearing trendy clothes, pointy shoes (like proper trendy people do) and he spoke with enthusiasm. This glitzy American told a story of a moment in his life when in a swimming gala many years before he had been expected to win, for himself and his team. He was brilliant at the butterfly…(and showed off his muscles to a whooping throng of young female listeners). For some inexplicable reason he dived in and swam breastroke in the butterfly race and though he realised after a few seconds, the damage was done, he won the race but was disqualified.

He couldn’t believe it. He’d let himself and everyone down. So disappointed he went and sat in the baby pool, and sunk his head under the water, holding his breath for as long as he could, every now and then taking a deep breath and submerging again. Angry, disappointed in his failure he stayed there for some time.

Whilst he lay there, lamenting his failure, he couldn’t hear his name being called by the organisers. Time after time they called. He never heard his name being called.

Eventually, the team coach found him, dragged him out of the water and told him, “You have another race to swim.” He stood on the blocks, the gun sounded and he dived in. He won the race.

My ‘friend’ listened intently. He could hear God’s voice speaking into his life for perhaps the first time in many many months. “God has another race for you to swim”.

He left that church service knowing he could no longer bury his head with the shame he felt, but lift it up and listen to what God was saying.

Don’t give up. Even when you’ve failed. God has another race, just for you.

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Assembly 2012 musings

It was nostalgic being back at Central Hall for the 2012 Baptist Assembly, as I think my first ever Assembly was there in the early 90′s as a college student, though I did perform a drama sketch at an Assembly in the late 80′s and was in & out in less than an hour. Now as Director of the adult sessions I get to sit in on the latter stages of planning with the Assembly Planning Team where the worship design team hand over to the production team. My role at each Assembly is to direct the main stage sessions working with a fabulous team. Over the past 10 years I’ve been involved at every Assembly, and have served in similar roles with the BWA congress in Birmingham and Hawaii, the Youth Congress in Germany, and European Baptist Assembly in Amsterdam. (It sounds glamorous, it’s not. Early starts and late finishes. But there is great fun within the team, and a sense of achievement when things go well. It’s all about a brilliant team).

My musings on this years assembly are limited to the Grand Hall experience alone and particularly the Futures session. Other comments about Assembly 2012 will be shared with the Assembly Planning Team as I’m on it (for half a year) and I’d rather they hear it from me face to face than read it on a blog.

Futures:

1. My own reflection is that the actual futures process was and is being questioned significantly and openly criticised, which mirrors both the survey results and much of the blogging. There was a sense of disempowerment from many, and a frustration that ‘voices’ are not being heard. Personally I think they are being heard…but there is a difference between hearing, listening and engaging, and then empowering. I am not sure that these questions, comments, and frustrations have really been taken on board? I haven’t seen any significant shift in approach, any major attempt to engage with the ‘voices’ though maybe that’s a little unfair. I’m not sure.

2. I’m also not sure an hour of presentation was as helpful as it was hoped it would be, but was there another way (?) and many people needed bringing up to speed (sadly). Some seemed just confused.

3. I was deeply challenged & personally humbled to hear the cry from those on the fringes to be included, and very pleased to hear some younger voices both in the session and via social media. I have written before of the necessity of having NAMS and emerging leaders as part of the Futures Group process, and recognise the cry of others who find themselves on the margins…again. I did hear that every association is to organise an opportunity to engage with NAMS and emerging leaders so welcome that move.

4. Perhaps the next phase needs to be a real determined effort to meet face to face with those who are expressing opinions from the margins, and those who clearly feel disaffected and patronised? Or at very least for those with a view to engage face to face with those on Council who represent them or know them.

5. Any change within the process can only come from those who sit at the Futures Group discussion. If I heard the sentiments of the Assembly session and from reading blogs, discussions etc correctly then ‘no change’ to the process and make up of the Group is unacceptable? I realise Council appointed the group…..but I believe Council have not grasped the opportunity to send a strong message that expresses the desire to engage in a new way. I have yet to meet many who think the make up of the Futures Group is right and believe that this challenge has to be recognised and responded to. Who else can make the decision? Is the Futures Group paralysed by fear? Pray for them. Encourage them.

6. The loudest applause of the session arose from Tony Campolo’s comment about how “ridiculous” it is that there are 2 separate organisational bodies like BMS and BUGB.

I believe Campolo did oversimplify the issue.

There is so much that is different between BMS and BUGB and much of that will rightly (I believe), remain for sometime, yet, I do truly long to see a much closer collaboration and sharing of resources and creativity than is currently the case. I am NOT ignoring the inevitable cost to people’s lives here but I am dreaming of a different future. (Earlier blogs state some of my opinions on this). It was good to hear that there is an ongoing discussion about this potential. I hope this remains an important area for debate and deliberation.

7. Fundamentally, there needs to be a significant cultural shift in the way Ministers, church leaders, and congregations see Associating. This was right at the heart of the conversations in the 90′s about change then, and structurally things did change…… but theologically, culturally? We desperately need a recovery of the deep desire to work more closely and rely more fully on one another, both as individual disciples and as local churches. So much potential and yet so much resistance. A cultural change does not simply emerge from structural change or a financial review and shift, but develops from a long term strategy embracing and committing to particular values and theological views. A strategy that will emerge I believe from those emerging with it. And it may take a generation…but the work must start now through colleges and associations and through NAM development.

8. Yes, there needs to be some practical resolutions, but please, not without a VISION of shared future, shared values, and shared covenant commitment to it. We must not miss the opportunity to do the theology or recover some of what has been lost, alongside the important and practical necessities. We heard about and read of some core shared values and principles, likened to the 5 core values, and want to encourage that… keep going, don’t give up on those things.

9. Courage is the much needed characteristic of embracing an unknown future.

Prayerfully.

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“Keep going”

In 2001 I ran the London Marathon. I trained pretty well but didn’t put in the longer distances needed to keep a steady pace. Two hours in, I had completed 13 miles and was feeling pretty good. I crossed Tower Bridge with confidence.

Sarah, my wife travelled from Tube station to tube station to wait at strategic points cheering me on and watching with pride.

For a while I ran with the ‘Rhino’s’ (people that are dressed up as Rhino’s obviously) hoping I’d get on telly, for no other reason (of course) than to draw attention to the charity I was raising money for.  But soon, the Rhino’s (hat’s off, big respect) trotted off into the distance and my legs and my stamina began to give way.

From mile 18 it was really tough. I had to walk, then run (ish), walk, (run, stumble) and the second half took me way way longer than the first.

Around 22 miles I remember I was hardly running, and I still had miles to go, and an elderly gentleman, let’s say around 75 years old, trotted past me, and asked “You OK sonny?” I knew I was in trouble and all around me I saw people stopping, wrapped in tin foil and having vaseline rubbed into all kinds of creases, but I was determined not to stop. I carried on. I finished, with my hands aloft (well I though they were but the picture above my desk shows they weren’t raised very high) and a gritted smile.I got there. I made it.

It was with great sadness that I read about Claire Squires untimely death in this year’s marathon and it brought it all back. It’s a gruelling experience for many. The money raised in her memory touches our society and reminds us all of our vulnerability.

I was able to keep going because along the route, friends and strangers shouted out my name which was blazoned across my t-shirt. “Go on Jon” “Not long to go now Jon” “Keep going Jon”, and more.

I will always remember those voices.

Voices which across our churches and communities are needed more than ever. Voices of encouragement. It’s a missing gift. Those that will take the time, the moment, the opportunity to ‘encourage’. 

There is much to be critical about, to bemoan…but a word of encouragement is more valuable than you might imagine.

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