Challenges for Churches and Advice to new Rev.s

Prac interview with Garry Billing; General Superintendent for Tasmanian Baptists in 2010.

PRAC: Tell us a bit about your life and ministry experience prior to becoming GS for Tasmanian Baptists.

I sensed a call to pastoral ministry at the age of 16 and commenced studies at age 20. I had anticipated pursuing a musical career, but instead have found fulfilling opportunities to use these abilities within the churches I have served. I was ordained at Ulverstone in March 1969, two months after Wendy and I were married. We commenced ministry in Launceston where our two boys, Andrew and Shane, were born. When our hopes of going as missionaries to Bangladesh didn’t work out, we focused on pastoral leadership.

Flinders Street Baptist in Adelaide invited me to an associate ministry in 1972; and we spent several happy years there, completing our young family with the adoption of Lee-Anne from Thailand in 1975. There followed a six-year pastorate in Avalon, NSW and a seventeen-year ministry as Senior Pastor in Devonport, Tasmania. Then came the call to lead Tasmanian Baptists…

PRAC: After your years at the helm of a denomination, what do you see as the greatest issues facing the Aussie church?
I’m convinced that we must become a more missionary church. We’re beyond the Christendom era now. In many ways we face parallel opportunities to the New Testament churches, but in a vastly more complex era.

We need to find new ways of connecting with a society that sees church as irrelevant; holding lightly to some of the inherited patterns of church life we’ve found comfortable, and re-evaluating our congregational life in terms of local missionary effectiveness. Traditionally, we’ve tended to be a telling organisation; but the right to share God’s message today needs to come out of deeper listening. I like John Stott’s notion of dual listening: listening more intently to God’s Word, letting it shape us radically in faith, hope and love; and listening intentionally and non-judgmentally to the surrounding world, living God’s way with engaged respect and compassion.

PRAC: What are some of the particular issues ahead of the church in Tasmania?
We’re reaching a critical time of opportunity where God wants to break into our lives and churches in fresh ways. I see a four-fold invitation in this: To re-focus on our Lord as head of the church, letting his missionary passion grip us again; to live lives of prayerful attention, giving our missionary activity the solid underpinning of openness to God; to move boldly into new ways of being church, being willing to relinquish security, conformity and nostalgia, and walk by faith in fresh paths; and to be an active part of God’s whole Church, open to learn and to contribute within the wider fellowship.

PRAC: You’ve sought to lead Tasmanian Baptists to be missional in their context. If you had to describe the mission of Christ in concise and contemporary terms, what would you say?
At the heart of the biblical Good News is the fact that God entered into our flesh-and-blood humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. By opening ourselves to all that the historical Jesus said, did, and was, we come into saving touch with the life of God. It’s an expansive, liberated life of sacrificial love, into which he invites us all. The missionary task of Jesus’ followers is to live a life of compassion and Spirit-enabled integrity that is simultaneously confronting and attractive: confronting because it radically challenges a me-first culture; and attractive when people recognize it as fair dinkum. Biblically, I can’t get away from Philippians 2 as the paradigm for such a life.

PRAC: From observation and experience, what are some of the impediments to effective mission that the Aussie church needs to address?
We exist as part of a consumer culture. I don’t just mean we buy too much stuff from shopping centres. I mean, we have a restless mind-set that perpetually propels us towards the next thing or experience that we imagine will bring satisfaction. This mind-set has infected church commitment in many ways. We view church involvement through the lens of what might suit personal preference. This keeps us self-focused rather than looking outwards to others and we lose sight of the fact, well articulated by Archbishop William Temple, that the church exists primarily for the sake of those as yet outside its’ life. For today’s challenges we need a robust spirituality, a spirituality that is most likely to be forged in the nitty-gritty of actual missional engagement.

PRAC: If you were starting out in pastoral ministry today, what would be some of your dominant priorities?
There is a lot to say about this, but as top priority, I would deliberately carve out regular times for my own spiritual nurture; including prayer, spiritual reading and reflection. I would also prayerfully seek a competent mentor and develop an accountability relationship, to keep me honest to my true self and focussed on godly priorities in ministry. I would focus on relationships over tasks and structures. I would be diligent in seeking to understand and respect the broader community. I would model what it means to know Jesus deeply, letting his heart for mission increasingly transform my own. And finally, I would invest heavily in identifying and discipling potential leaders.

PRAC: What disappoints you about the current state of the church, and what excites you?
I’m excited by vital congregations living God’s mission in a holistic way, but I’m sometimes disappointed when I see local churches or leaders over-emphasising independence and autonomy. The way the church generally is so marginalised in today’s society troubles me because, imperfect as we are, I know that God’s people are the bearers of an extraordinary message of loving hope for a lost world.

PRAC: What do you consider to be the primary function or purpose of a denomination?
I don’t see denominations as such in the New Testament, but I do see practical patterns of cooperation and support between and beyond local congregations. In the main, modern denominations have provided useful structures and systems to assist local congregations in doing together, what few can do alone. I see a denominational body functioning healthily when it focuses on facilitating effective partnership and mutual support between constituent churches, providing administrative infrastructure to enhance their local mission, and encouraging big-picture thinking and cooperative initiatives.

PRAC: How do you respond to those who think the day of denominational networks is past its used-by date?
I understand where they’re coming from. In many respects, not withstanding what I said earlier, I am post-denominational in my own thinking. I am a Christ-follower first and a Baptist second. I think we’ll always need some tangible structures to facilitate partnership in mission but in future, viable denominational organisations are likely to act less as judiciary and regulatory bureaucracies, and more as relational networks; facilitating and empowering the mission of participant congregations.

PRAC: If you had one piece of advice to offer new church leaders today, what would it be?
Cut yourself some slack by accepting that we’re all what Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers”. We don’t have to look successful in human terms. We must own our brokenness while seeking to live in the forgiveness and freedom of Christ. Nurture your own inner life and live out of that integrity. Nothing is more important for effective Christian leadership than godly self-understanding and a capacity for prayerful discernment of God’s ways. When our hearts are related to God in this way, we have the openness, the flexibility and the trust to rise to anything God calls us to do.