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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3 Responses to Baptist Assembly: Musings from an Ex Main Arena Director

  1. Steve Christian says:

    Thanks Jon for both an honest reflection and your many years of service to the Assembly.

  2. Alice says:

    Jon, thanks for your honest thoughts. I’d like to pick up on your point about ministerial students attending en masse. Cost stopped me from coming to Assembly last year in London and a bursary helped me to be able to attend this year. As a student the ticket cost is not insignificant and north of the border the Scottish Assembly provides all BUS ministerial students with tickets to Assembly for free, this is what enables us to attend as we only need to fund travel and accom. Assembly provides a great meeting place and I believe it is important for students (of all ages) to meet with others within our Baptist Family. Perhaps with the shorter assembly next year, a smaller price tag (one would assume) will attract more? Anyway see you for Catalyst in Manchester! Looks like us students are inbound en masse!

  3. John Mclaren says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, and hard work, Jon. I have not attended many BU Assemblies in recent years, partly due to cost but also, in part, because the Assembly fails to find any great interest in the church of which I am a member. In my opinion the reason for this is related to the make up of many modern Baptist Churches, especially where they are in post-war estates, with many members coming to the area as Christians already but from other denominations and joining the Baptist Church because that is the one they feel is right for them (this has certainly been true of my own fellowship). The consequence is that any feeling of being part of a “Baptist Family” is diminished. This is reinforced by the growth of attendance at Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor and the like – but I have to say that Leading Edge never featured as part of this church’s life.
    Young people in such churches grow up with any emphasis upon getting together with other young christians being focussed upon relationships with fellowships of all flavours and with little reference to a wider Baptist community.
    The worrying and inevitable conclusion is that whilst individual Baptist Churches may thrive Baptist Life in terms of gathering together (were have I heard those phrases before/?) may well continue to decline. I am aware that “Baptist Life” is a stronger entity in some areas but recent necessary changes in top structure surely reflect my observations.

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