Stories of joy, hope and challenge were shared during the annual Council meeting of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) on Wednesday morning (5 July).
From the birth of new church plants and influence of existing Baptist networks to the impact of the war in Ukraine and the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, delegates in Stavanger, Norway were given a snapshot of the scope of the work of EBF and its member unions.
This year’s Council, shortened to accommodate the EBF’s SENT 2023 Mission Conference, saw the commissioning of new President Mateus Wichary and a farewell to his predecessor Stefan Gisiger.
In his address to Council, Mateus picked up the theme of being sent, and responding in obedience to God’s calling. To be sent, he said, we need a calling. He related this to Isaiah who, when God asked, ‘Whom shall I send?’, replied, ‘Send me!’ But God’s people had endured a long wait, more than 50 years. God’s plan sometimes takes time, and something has changed in Europe, Mateus said, encouraging delegates to think of it as opportunity for God’s calling.
He added that confession of our own weakness and inadequacy is foundational to effective calling into service. In response, redemption is applied and God prepares us for the task.
Earlier General Secretary Alan Donaldson expressed his joy in the ‘continual discovery of new networks, birthed and grown from EBF’, such as the global mission projects of EBMI or through the EBF’s own Mission Partnerships (MP) initiative. Council would later hear how MP has supported, alongside many global partners, 230 projects in its 21 years. Nine new church plants have begun this year already, in Azerbaijan, Lebanon, West Bank, Turkey, Ukraine, and there are increasing requests from Ukrainian diaspora. Others are waiting for future support, including in Russia.
However, EBF also faces growing challenges, Alan continued: the impacts of the Russian war in Ukraine and the Turkey-Syria earthquake are ‘significant’, but have generated an ‘astonishing response’ of the Baptist family near and far, he said. Assistant General Secretary Helle Liht gave more details: in Ukraine, funds have been used not only to meet needs within Ukraine but also to help surrounding countries whose Baptist Unions are supporting displaced people.
The winterisation project was just one example, which Ukraine’s Vice President Igor Bandura described further: churches offered “Heat & Hope”, a place to charge phones, eat soup, keep warm, plus read the Bible, pray and share. Igor offered his thanks on behalf of the wider Ukrainian delegation for the sense of EBF unity shown through members’ support.
This week will mark 500 days of war, and the Baptist churches continue to help internally displaced people, growing their ministry to women and children who have lost or been separated from their men in war, Igor continued. There is much to celebrate, with over 4,000 baptisms since the war began, but the need is great: Igor asked that we pray with them for the rebuilding of the country, and for even more blessings from God.
The Turkey/Syria earthquake in February has entailed a ‘substantial programme of support’, Helle continued, but ongoing prayers are needed for recovery.
Sadly, a planned trip to Russia for July 2023 was cancelled due to the volatile situation there: Alan requested prayer for our Russian Baptist brothers and sisters, experiencing ‘a deepening sense of isolation’, that we may find new ways to continue connecting.
Last year, Alan and his team began the process of asking “Why EBF?” This process involves listening to the various challenges: justice; church development; disruption; decline in members, volunteers, resources, ageing; increased opposition from society and the newly described state of permacrisis.
As well as setting fresh goals, there are plans to re-shape the EBF core team to meet the needs of the region and to increase resilience. He said it is important to have ‘an attitude of encouragement, building up one another and praying that the sparks of hope will be fanned into flame, spurred on by gatherings of the EBF family such as this.’
The session also saw Commission reports, covering Theology & Education, Freedom & Justice, Mission & Evangelism, and Migration. On the latter Juliet Kilpin said migration affects almost every union of EBF, hence the need to encourage and equip one another. One avenue is through developing a Learning Network with IBTS: online training is available through All Nations College, UK, in Sep-Nov 2023. There are also plans to connect and facilitate conversations around Europe, learning from shared experiences of migration patterns.
Farewell gifts were presented to those who have served in key leadership roles over recent years, including Stefan, Ingeborg Te Loo (Mission & Evangelism), Shane McNary (Freedom & Justice), Fabienne Seguin (women’s ministry) and Rachel Conway-Doel, who supported the EBF response to Ukraine until June 2023. All proposals from the nominations committee were approved: Hurrem Carolin Keskin (Turkey), Freedom & Justice Chair and Kaspars Sterns (Latvia), Mission & Evangelism & Mission (both 2023-2028). Charles Costa, Lebanon was appointed EBF Vice President for 2023 – 2025.
There was a statement confirming that the EBF sadly no longer recognises any of the Baptist churches in Georgia as EBF members. The two groups were still unable to send a letter agreeing to belong to EBF in a peaceful relationship, Alan explained, but he added the opportunity exists for Baptist groups from Georgia to apply for membership in the future. Stefan prayed for reconciliation and peace there.
Stefan summarised highlights of the past year’s travels in his role as president. In northern areas of Albania, he saw how the love of God transformed Baptist Christians’ motivation to stay in their country and share God’s love in Muslim neighbourhoods. Visiting the Holy Land, the wall was a visible reminder of ‘physical division’, yet Stefan shared encouraging news of developing ministries to young adults, and wonderful examples of the ‘Baptist family learning to be a minority among minorities, spreading the gospel & serving communities despite immense hardship.’
Reflecting on his time in office, Stefan expressed his gratitude to the EBF family: ‘Thank you for expanding my world view, deepening my faith, sharing your stories, inviting me to visit, allowing me to worship with you. Through this experience, I have found heavenly treasure of different expressions of faith and church which continues to enrich my life. My prayer for EBF is found in Romans 1.11-12.’
The 2024 EBF Council will take place in Budapest, Hungary.
Edited by Paul Hobson
Story by Ruth Donaldson
Photos by Tim Solwoong Kim