Bookham Baptist Church in Surrey has a congregation of around 400 people. In recent years the church has invested heavily in developing international mission partnerships and currently the church is actively involved with partners in Brazil, Lebanon, Italy, Slovenia and Siberia. We spoke to Steve Elmes, Lead Minister at Bookham Baptist, about how the church’s passion for partnership has shaped the life of the church.
How does partnership fit with the vision of the church?
Our vision words are Shaped in Community, Partners in Mission. They bring together four important areas for us: ‘Shaping’ is about spiritual formation, becoming Christ-like in the community and in the world; ‘Community’ is the context in which God shapes and grows us; ‘Partners in Mission’ reflects the fact that modes of mission that are developing are no longer about us sending somebody abroad or sending money to projects abroad, but actually we need to be working together and seeing what’s needed, with partners locally, regionally and in far-off places.
How did the various partnerships begin?
Our partnerships in both Brazil and Slovenia came about when young people in the church going out on short-term mission trips led to us building a relationship with a particular church, or in the case of Brazil, a church movement. Other partnerships have come through people from the church going to work overseas or people from other countries coming to the UK. We’ve found that there hasn’t been a shortage of opportunities.
Can you share some examples of how these partnerships have been worked out?
One of the first partnerships we embarked on was with a church movement called ‘Sal de Terra’ (‘Salt of the Earth’ in Portuguese) which includes 70-80 churches in different parts of Brazil. We recently had one of the senior leaders of Sal de Terra come to spend a sabbatical with us for nine months. That gave us the opportunity to get to know him and for him to input into the church and also to be shaped by his experience of being with us. On the other hand, Jill, one of our own ministers, has now moved to Goiânia in Brazil because of her husband’s role with a charity there and she is working with a Sal de Terra church. We’ve also received a Brazilian family supported by the Sal de Terra church Jill is working in. They’ve been missionaries in Europe for 15 years and we invited them to spend a year with us on what we’ve called active sabbatical while they consider whether to return to Brazil or to remain in Europe.
We run regular short-term trips to a university in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, where the teams offer themselves for conversation to students learning English. We always find we have a very loaded schedule as they’re very keen to spend time with us. That also means that they’re keen to spend time with us outside of lessons as well, be our guides around Krasnoyarsk and do social things with us such as going shopping. Then we also lay on some things where they can come and hear a little bit more about our faith and they’re very open to hearing about that.
So far around 60 of the congregation have been on short-term mission trips, including both young people and much older people. With the trips to Siberia, in particular, the mixed age group works so well with the students who relate to the different age groups in different ways. On the last trip we had a man in his mid-seventies who was an amazing asset to the team and was like a grandfather figure to the students.
We run the Kairos course in the church – one of our aims is to get everybody through that over the coming years. We’ve found it to be a really helpful tool to help people to think about mission in broader terms than they might have done before and to discern their own place in the mission of God. What we’re trying to do is to offer people who go through Kairos the opportunity to get some opportunity to do a mission trip abroad – whether it’s a week or a gap year – so that Kairos is laying the foundation for that kind of action.
What value have these partnerships brought to the life of the church?
I think it’s easiest to see with Brazil because we’ve had so much contact with Brazilian visitors. The Brazilians bring a huge amount of passion for the good news, massive energy, and often lots of gifts alongside that. Just having them with us inevitably shapes how we grow in our faith and our understanding of mission. As well as helping in the spiritual formation of the community and in the growth of our local mission, we’ve found it to be really beneficial in terms of sharpening up our mission focus and drawing people out. I remember when we first said to the church, “We’ve got 60 Brazilians coming and we need beds and hospitality” it was a big shock so we had to talk a lot about how hospitality is really a kingdom value. Ultimately people responded really well and through having just a week where many of the congregation were sharing their homes with Brazilian Christians we see a clear impact in terms of the growing of our hospitality but also through the sharing of gifts between people in Bookham and Brazil.
On the other hand, when we’ve sent teams abroad to places like Siberia, this had a massive impact on people in terms of their confidence in sharing their faith. You learn so much about being people of God through being part of a team that’s growing together, spending time together and working through the tensions.
Part of the reason why our relationship with Sal de Terra has been so fruitful is that their values relating to the importance of relationship in how mission is worked out, very much reflect our own. However, where there are things that are different – attitudes to women in ministry for example – we’ve found that when you come together with a willingness to listen and learn from each other, discovering the different emphases and approaches that you have is all part of the creative process that God can use. It can be really helpful to see your situation through the eyes of others from a different culture. Often there may be things that we’re living comfortably with that need to be challenged.