I was doing some research earlier this week on the history of Baptist churches in south Wellington. In the 1890s the Wellington Central Baptist Church started establishing new congregations in the growing suburbs; first Brooklyn, then Berhampore. Berhampore, in turn, helped establish a congregation at Island Bay, and for some decades there was a small congregation in Houghton Valley.
In digging through some of the historical publications I noticed again this photo recording the names of those from the Berhampore congregation who served in the forces in World War One (one of my relatives is among them, described then as missing, but killed in Iran in 1918). Almost 70 of them, all but one of them men. From a single congregation.
The Brooklyn Baptist Church has been gone now for some decades. In the 1970s the Berhampore and Island Bay congregations merged into Wellington South Baptist Church (including the Houghton Valley congregation, which itself was closed about 30 years ago. So there is now a single Baptist congregation in the whole of southern Wellington, an area with a materially larger population than it would have had 100 years ago.
And yet last Sunday there was no more than 20 people – all ages – at worship in the single Baptist service. It wasn’t an unusual weekend – not school holidays, not major civic activities. And there were 20. A couple of weeks earlier there had been 15.
I guess I knew this stuff in the abstract, but somehow the concrete comparison across time – the stark contrast – hits home.
Are there consolations? Not that I can see. It isn’t as if all the previously suburban Baptists have decamped to the central city church. Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans have all closed churches, and most (or all?) of those that remain seem small, and the Catholics seem to be struggling too. I guess there are now some Pacific congregations and independent charismatic/Pentecostal churches, but even if that represents growth over 100 years, it represents decline over the 40+ years I’ve been in Wellington.
But from a Baptist perspective, the denomination used be regarded as holding up better than many. Perhaps in some places it has, but in southern Wellington it has just imploded.
And for all its faults – ecclesiology among them – that is a deep loss as, in their heyday Baptist churches proclaimed the call to repentance and discipleship, formed individuals and families in the faith, and sought to live as communities of Christ, witnessing- here and abroad – to the saving work of God.
At a personal level, it hurts (a lot). I had family involved in the founding of the Berhampore and Island Bay congregations, my father was minister of the Wellington South congregation and in times past I was heavily involved in various leadership roles.
As the Easter approaches I pray Lord have mercy, Lord revive your work in this part of our city.
UPDATE: In this post I overlooked the Wellington Chinese Baptist Church which has operated in Newtown for several decades. Going by the photos on their website there appears to be a reasonably-sized congregation, but drawing (I presume) from across Wellington.