2020 Vision for Hobart

Prac recently caught up with Rev. Stephen Baxter. Stephen is employed by the Baptist Churches in Hobart, Tasmania to help coordinate and facilitate 2020 Vision, their strategic church planting and mission project. 

You’ve been involved in Christian ministry for a number of years. Tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?
I grew up going to Baptist churches and, after studying Graphic Design, started working for “On Being” magazine and attending Hawthorn West Baptist Church. Jenny, my wife, and I were at Hawthorn West for 23 years. During that time our five children were born and I had stints as pastor of the church and managing director of the company running the magazine. I was, for a time, Chair of the Melbourne Prayer Breakfast committee and also helped to set up Servants in Hawthorn Inc., an organisation that ran a local rooming house.

We moved to Tasmania in 2004 and worked in youth and community work with Fusion for 5 years, heading up their Registered Training Organisation. I commenced my work with Baptist Churches in Hobart in late 2009.

What exactly is 2020 Vision and what does it aim to achieve?
2020 Vision is a dream to see the Baptist Churches in Hobart collaborating and growing together such that by the end of the decade we have grown from 6 congregations to 20 worshipping communities and from about 400 people to 2000.

How did the idea for this come about?
It grew out of eighteen months of collaborative effort by representatives from Baptist Churches within the Greater Hobart Region. During this time they looked at the current missional health of Hobart’s Baptist Churches and the result was a real wakeup call. Their finding showed a lack of missional intent, a lack of evangelism training, a lack of creative engagement, and a failure to consistently provide missional opportunities across our churches. They concluded there was no reason to expect a reversal of the current decline in attendance and membership numbers unless something significant happened. It was in response to this that the 2020 Vision was born.

What is the Christian scene like in Hobart, amongst both Baptist Churches and other Christian communities?
Hobart is an interesting city, heavily influenced by its remoteness. As a capital city, it has its own parliament and a number of corporate headquarters, despite a population of only 200,000. It is also the second oldest city in Australia after Sydney and my guess is that the convict past is deeply etched into its DNA. This has never been fully explored or appreciated but I believe this past still influences community attitude to the church as well as the church itself.

The church in Hobart started out as a state church (Church of England) and clergy were paid from England up until 1896. The remnants of this past can be seen in the profile of the Anglican Church and are felt by leaders of other denominations. Generally speaking, Baptist Churches appear never to have been all that strong in Hobart, although there have been some exceptions to this at times.

Baptist Churches are normally a pretty independent lot. We stand on our autonomy and aren’t renowned for doing things together. How come the Baptists in Hobart are working together?
One of the reasons we are beginning to collaborate is our dwindling numbers, which are creating a growing consensus that we need to do things differently and together. An added incentive was that money from the sale of a church building a few years ago was set aside for mission activities in the Hobart region. We needed to work together so that this important resource could be put to good use. Our young people have led the trail in this regard: they have been working together and across the churches for a number of years now.

What are some of the strategies you are employing within the 2020 Vision?
I am working to a three-year strategic plan produced by a team working with Dr David Jones of Baptist Rural Support Services of which my engagement was one outcome. A key component of the plan is to develop a “Hobart Baptists” identity, both structurally and relationally. This involves the creation of a logo and web site and conducting events to promote the fact that we are working together; for example, corporate prayer times and seasonal gatherings. Later in the year we will have a tent at the Hobart Show and this will be undertaken as an initiative of Hobart Baptists rather than just one congregation. Another aspect of the plan is encouraging those who live in areas where there is little Christian activity or witness to work towards a missional activity in the area. We have a couple of teams who have taken up this challenge and are actively working at reaching out locally from their homes.

Why is there a desire to plant more churches or congregations? Why not simply build up the existing ones?
Building up our current congregations to a total of 2000 people would require each congregation to be around 400 people. There are very few churches able to sustain that number in Hobart. What is more, there are people who don’t want to belong to a larger church. In fact, the average church size in Australia is around 50 people. That is not to say larger congregations are not important, they are. However, I believe we need diversity and a smorgasbord of different sizes and forms of fellowships: from large multi-congregational buildings to small groups in homes. We need existing churches to grow, but we also need new fellowships.

Do you reckon there are some principles that could be drawn from what the Hobart churches are doing and applied to other centres around Australia?
It would be great to think so but we are still in the early stages and are still to put runs on the board. If what has happened already is an encouragement, then that is great.

What are some of the specific issues you face in proclaiming the gospel in a place like Hobart?
Firstly, I think the church in general has been caught off guard by the changes in society over the past 50 years and, in many ways, we are still playing catch up. In Hobart, and this is a generalisation, our Baptist Churches have been in survival and maintenance mode rather than actively engaged in mission and evangelism.

Then, as I said earlier, I believe we still have to come to grips with how the city’s convict past and the “state” church has shaped community attitude to the church. Hobart is a deeply secular city and, despite what the rest of Australia thinks, it has a very mild climate (compared to most European cities and even Canberra!). It is a very beautiful city and its slower pace and remoteness breed a feeling of confidence, contentment and comfort. So I believe that both a “comfortable community” and a “complacent church” are the biggest challenges we face in working out how to present the gospel to this city.

What are the big issues or opportunities facing the Baptist movement in Tasmania in the coming years?
I’m not sure about the rest of Tasmania, but I guess it will be the same. Across Hobart we have a dearth of potential leadership from which we can grow 20 faith communities. This is a great concern. Those in the 30 – 49 year old age bracket are almost completely missing, even if their parents are in our churches. They are either in more charismatic churches or totally dechurched. It is difficult to see how we are going to achieve our dream of 20 communities of worship by 2020 without recruiting leadership from the rest of Australia or other parts of the world. If anyone has a sense of call to Hobart, I’d love to talk to them!