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The ‘rock’ from which I was hewn

Timaru Baptist Church Centennial (Wilson Street)

 

Over Labour weekend I attended the Centennial Celebrations of the church I grew up in, received my earliest teaching about the Christian faith from, was baptised in and felt a call to ministry at. My last time there had been organising and taking part in my mother’s funeral three years ago. I did not know what to expect really: I had noticed the last few times I had gone there were fewer and fewer of those who I remembered having significant inputs into my life so was not expecting a large number of present attenders I knew. Often when I have gone to anniversaries such as this I have been disappointed at how few of my contemporaries showed up.

 

I was overwhelmed by this. There were 130 out of town registrations and I counted up nearly 100 people I knew reasonably well, of whom only about 25 were current attenders. What was noticeable at photo time was that the 60s group was by far the largest, and I certainly had a great time connecting up with a wide variety of people I have fond memories of, many of whom I had not seen since. People only come back to anniversaries for things they have pleasant memories of (very few of my class mates turned up at the Timaru Boy’s High 125th reunion in 2005 as it was not a happy place for many) and the fact that so many did indicated what a wonderful place it was. The strength of what was happening in the 50s, 60s and 70s was clear in a story telling time on Saturday afternoon when people were asked to talk about someone who had been important for them. Some names were mentioned many times and what was clear was that it had been a place where people had felt nurtured, encouraged and cared for in many ways, but also were taught the basics of being a Christian.

 

This was certainly so for me, and there were about six older men who were enormously important for me, not only back then, but in encouraging me every time I came back to see my parents in the 40 plus years since. One in particular, Bob Auty, did much of the organising of the weekend and I believe is one of those “saints” to whom ‘so many owe so much’ in their Christian journey, but will never be a headline in the histories of faith. But it reminded me also, as it did many others, that people like this are truly the core of what makes for effective Christian communities rather than star studied preachers or worship leaders. Many of the women who were there also spoke of women who had been the same for them. This reality was reflected on the Sunday evening in which the service involved the baptism of a young person. The minister spontaneously asked how many of those present had been baptised at Wilson St. It looked like well over 80% of those present had, a powerful statement.

 

One of the joys for me was meeting the minister from my mid-teens and through my university years, Peter Millichamp and his wife Barbara who was very much a part of the ministry. At 82 they are an amazing couple, so fresh and vibrant and keen to serve still (although sadly churches are a bit reluctant to take them on) and Peter’s address as the after dinner speaker on Saturday was a real highlight. I never realised till then that his ministry had really ended with a vote in the church that there should be no charismatic teaching in the church! I thought only Opawa Baptist and the Brethren did that!! In reflecting on the weekend I realised how fortunate I was to have Peter and Barbara at that critical stage of my life, and then when I finally found a church to call home in Christchurch in my third year away, Murray and Marj Robertson. They both preached a wonderful gospel of grace and love and modelled that in the way they treated you – even to a long haired somewhat nonconformist student in whom they both saw something else and gave the opportunities to be involved in ministry, encouragement to pursue and provided wonderful models to build on. For me the highlight was having the opportunity to preach at the evening service back in the church I had first been given the opportunity 45 years ago, and with a number present who would have heard my stumbling effort back then.

You can find my message from John 20.19-23 here: Timaru Baptist Centennial

 

One final reflection from the weekend was the sadness that comes from the awareness of so many who were part of a very vibrant youth group back then, but who are no longer part of a church or even any longer journeying with Jesus. I have been increasingly aware of this over recent years as I put faces to the figures that feature in much of my work on declining church and religious identification in New Zealand. Talking with people only put more flesh to that reality. One thing that hit me was that I had taken a photo of the group from Wilson Street who were at an Easter Camp in 1966. Of the 30 or more in it, apart from Peter Millichamp, there were only 4 of us at this weekend. When I looked at the photo I realised that most of them were younger than me (I was in the 6th form then), and also in the weekend there were not that many there from the 60s who were younger than me. I have often said that the 60s only arrived in New Zealand in 1964 with the Beatles, and certainly those who were fully socialised as teenagers in the late 60s and early 70s, the period some call the New Zealand 60s, seem to have dropped out of church and faith in even greater numbers than those socialised in the early 60s, or even like me the mid 60s.

 

Much food for thought, but the stories that were told, and some reflective thought around the people there, has reaffirmed for me again what has been a theme in much of my work, that people are basically socialised into the faith. Of course God does need to be involved with it, as God was deeply for me sometime after I had left Timaru, but it was that nurturing in a faith community that provided the material on which God could work. It emphasises for me again the importance in community, as is emphasised in both the Old and New Testaments, of prioritising the handing down of our tradition to the generations behind us. Nothing (buildings, styles of music, types of leadership, forms of church, debates about sexuality) should be allowed to usurp its place. Likewise in mission our focus needs to be on working with children and youth, as all the research shows that very few people come to a faith decision after their teenage years who have not had some prior exposure to the gospel and to Christian community. Many of us who shared that weekend were privileged to have received that in such a loving grace filled community.

 

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