Goodbye Tall Poppy

Australia, many suggest, is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. The heart of egalitarianism is treating all people as equals with any inequality, whether it be economic political, civil or social, being removed.
In Australia, rather than address our Head of State as Monsieur Presidente, as the France do, or Mr President, as they do in America, we just call them John, Kevin or Julia. Egalitarianism is so ingrained in our psyche that women were first able to vote in Australia, our unions are the oldest in the world and we are the forerunners of the eight-hour working day, equal rights, pensions and other social benefits.

Daisy in Field
Our “tall poppy syndrome” cuts down any who thinks of themselves above or better than the “average”.

Egalitarianism, it seems, began when Australia was one big prison and further developed under the colonial culture. It is evident in our value of “mateship” and in our irreverence for established authority. We expect people to behave with humility and not think of themselves better than others. Our “tall poppy syndrome” cuts down any who thinks of themselves above or better than the “average.” We are particularly critical of any authority that is pompous and appears out of touch.
From the beginning of white settlement the Australian church and its leaders have struggled within this environment and found it difficult to connect. The leadership looked out of place coming from the upper and middle classes of Anglican England when the convicts were primarily from the lower class or Catholic Ireland. As the convict colony developed into a nation and society became settled and diverse, the church found a place, albeit, still uncomfortable within the harsh and alien Australian environment.
It is no surprise that today the church is still considered old and out of touch. Australians remain suspicious and distrustful of the church’s motives. When our leaders comment on social issues such as poverty, land rights, taxation reform etc. they are told not to interfere but rather stick to things religious. Visiting Christian speakers often remark about the hardness of the Australian soul to the gospel.

“Authority, he demonstrated, is a responsibility not a ‘privilege’.”

Despite the difficulties the church faces there is much that Jesus modeled and taught that can connect with our egalitarian and anti-authoritarian ways. Jesus taught that authority and power are to be used for the benefit of others, not personal gain. Authority, he demonstrated, is a responsibility not a ‘privilege.’ Jesus never used authority for personal advantage but lovingly served to others. In fact, he was critical of the pompous displays of the religious authorities and reacted strongly against any inequalities.
To the “average” person of his day Jesus did not come across as pompous or authoritarian but rather as one who was for them. He did not stand aloof condemning, but was willing to share a meal with tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, and untouchables.
This Easter most Australians will take a holiday without reflecting on why it exists. They will not recognise in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a condemnation of the misuse of authority. They will miss the reality that he disarms authorities. They will not understand that this demonstrates once and for all the correct use of authority (Col 2:15). Sadly, they are unaware that all authority has now been given to Jesus (Phil 2:9-11) and he will one day return to set the world aright.
While Australian egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism often leads Aussies to reject Jesus, there is something in these attitudes that should draw people to him. Let us pray that the Spirit of God may move in Aussies this Easter and that they may see in Jesus a kindred spirit rather than an authoritarian master.
Stephen L Baxter

Australia: The Land of the Long Weekend . . . But why?

When the first convicts stepped onto Australian soil they faced the harsh realities of a strange land far from the familiarities of home. Dispossessed and disinherited this disparate and unlikely collection of soldiers and convicts met these unwelcomed challenges by doing all they could to dampen their effects.
Gambling, alcohol, sport and illicit sex became standard obsessions, becoming the foundation of a new nation that slowly grew out of the penal settlement. The “pursuit of pleasure” had “become the highest value and the avoidance of suffering the most vital of stratagems, in Australian life” (Ronald Conway, The Great Australian Stupor, 1985).

Couple Sitting on Beach
Material Wealth = Pleasure = Happiness = Reason for Living

Given the beginnings of white settlement in Australia it is not hard to see why following Jesus has never been attractive in our country. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the axiom we live by. As Ronald Conway puts it, “Material Wealth = Pleasure = Happiness = Reason for Living.”
So despite the lament many Christians voice over the decline of Christianity in Australia the reality is there was never much of any size to decline from. While the winds of culture may throw up great numbers of “Sunday Christians” from time to time there is little evidence to suggest a deep and practical faith has been in practice by more than a small minority.
The majority of Australians practice a form of “utilitarianism.” It proposes that in any situation the worth of an action is to be determined by its outcome, and the outcome is measured in maximising happiness and reducing suffering. Australians are not unique in this, in fact utilitarianism is the default moral position in the Western world, but it does take on a rugged and confident form within Australian culture which is often the envy of many across the world.
Given the strength of these elements in Australian culture it is no wonder that the Christian way of life has always been seen as somewhat irrelevant and inhibiting. The caricature of the church is that it declares evil all those things Australians desire for pleasure. Its concern is not conversion, but conformity. As a result the church has been pushed to the periphery, declared out of touch, and discarded as a dangerous relic from the past.

While Pontius Pilate asks, “what is truth?”, Australians ask, “will it work?”

Here is a clash of world views. While Pontius Pilate asks, “what is truth?”, Australians ask, “will it work?”, and we Christians will ask, “what is faithful?” We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the compassion of Jesus. We are called to the task of reconciliation (2 Cor 4). However, as we endeavour to do this it is not surprising we have to reject the Australian pursuit of happiness as the main goal and objective of our lives; despite how tempting and attractive it might look for us Australians.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed that we are to be in the world we are but not of it (Jn 17:15, 16). Our task is to live a ‘counter’ cultural life. We do not look to the world for suggestions as to how we are to be the church; we look to Jesus and the work of his Spirit. We are not surprised when the world around us finds us strange and threatening. That is not to say that we give up trying to relate. Rather that we do not ask the question of others “will it work?” but switch to asking, “what is faithful?”
May God grant to us his church the strength, grace and will that Jesus had; and the ability to live fully in this world as his witnesses even when our communities, work colleagues, school mates and even family members struggle to understand us.
Stephen L Baxter

Hope to Face a Growing Hostility

Over the past few decades many in the Western world have witnessed a growing hostility against Christians and churches. Such is the growth in this hostility that the word “christophobia” was coined in 2003 by Jewish scholar Joseph Weiler in his book, A Christian Europe? He used the word not as we might presume to describe anti-Christian behaviour in general, but focussed on what he saw as Europe’s particular embarrassment with its Christian past.

Forgiveness
The more God’s presence is felt in a community, the more opposition God’s presence provokes

However, today, ten years later, the word’s usage covers a wider range of responses. This includes, as suggested above, the refusal by some to concede that Christian moral ideas have a place in the arena of public debate. Here christophobia is more likely to be defined as “having an irrational fear and hatred of Christ and of Christians.”
For example, in our community today it seems that one of the worst things one can be label is “homophobic”. While the technical definition is “having an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals” more often that not Christians are denounced, as has occurred here in Hobart, as “homohobic” just for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage.
We live in a strange world. Many who call for Christians to be tolerant of their point of view, are less than tolerant in accepting our point of view. And while they advocate for a diversity of views, they are quick to denounce views they do not agree with theirs.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Throughout history Christians have faced similar resistance. In fact, the more God’s presence is felt in a community, the more opposition God’s presence provokes. This was true for Jesus, so it will also be true for his followers. The more vigorously the gospel is presented the more the forces that deny it will intensify their opposing efforts.
Yet, while we may detect a growing christophobia here in Australia this cannot compared to the persecution faced by our brothers and sisters in other countries. According to the German based International Society for Human Rights (a secular organisation) some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year (411 each day, and 17 every hour).  It happens in 133 countries, representing nearly two-thirds of all nations on earth. In countries like, Mali, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, Christians are murdered or forced to leave their homes in large numbers. Churches are destroyed and so too are Christian villages.
All this information could lead us to lose hope and despair. Yet, despite what we and our fellow Christians around the world experience we of all people should be full of hope and expectation. Why? We know how the story ends. We are those who live in the light of the resurrection and the promise it contains that Jesus will one day return and establish his Kingdom. We are those who live today with an eye to the future when God’s purposes will be realised and the world will live in peace.
It is in this hope that we are called to live. May God grant to his people around the world the ability to stand firm, be strong and endure in these promises despite what the world may bring against us.
Stephen L Baxter

God Loves Cities

Despite what some Christians suspect, God loves cities. Why? Because people live in cities. At the end of the book of Jonah God asks, “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11).

Skyline of Chicago
Cities are the primary source of culture, values, and belief

In 2008, for the first time in history more than half the population of the world (3.3 billion people) lived in urban settings. From just 13% in 1900 it is projected the figure is will rise to 70% by 2050. (Global Scenarios to 2025, p35) Clearly, the future focus of the ministry of the church will be the city.
Because cities are the centres of education, media, the arts, music, and literature they are the primary source of culture, values, and belief. The strategy of the apostle Paul in the early days of the Christian church was to target cities, and eventually the whole known world was won.
It is easy for the church to lament how we have lost our influence on Australian culture. If we are to regain it we need to be strong in our cities. Ministering to the city is nothing new for the group of people at Hobart Baptist Church, where I am the pastor. Throughout its history we have been a church for the city of Hobart, and although Hobart is not a large city, this does not change our focus nor the enormity of the task God has given us.
In his book, Center Church (2012), Tim Keller points out how “Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet sent to a pagan city to call it to repentance.” In this he is a great example of the task Jesus has given to his church. And like Jonah we can be reluctant and try to avoid the task God has called us to.

“Like Jonah we can be reluctant and try to avoid the task God has called us to.”

Eventually Jonah did the job God asked him to do and then got angry and depressed when the vine that was providing him with shade wilted (see Jonah 4). God is not pleased because Jonah is more concerned about the plant than the people.
On the other hand, God loves people more than plants and that’s why God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and call them to repent. That’s our task too. We are to love our city, pray for our city and find ways to bring the message of the gospel so that our city is able to hear. While we don’t expect everyone to respond we are tasked with bringing a clear presentation of the gospel to them.
As cities change, the task of the church is to modify the way it presents the gospel so that it is able to be heard. At different times throughout the history of Hobart Baptist the church has found ways to present the gospel with fruitfulness.
We live in challenging times. There are many forces at work against the church and the gospel. May God grant you and me the grace to move past any reluctance we might have, and be ready to be the church for our own city God would have us be.

Aussie Attitudes to Christianity

Karl Faase
Karl Faase, Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist, Sydney, since 1996

Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.
Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”
However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”
My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.
How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.

“We too are learning what it means to be church . . . 

Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.
In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .
So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.
Stephen L Baxter

Reading the ‘Signs of the Times’

It is an understatement to say we live in changing times. Not only do we experience change, we see the effects on our families and communities. It takes faith to hold on to the truth that God has it in hand, and we need not worry.

The gospels recount an incident where the religious leaders of the day came to Jesus and ask him to give them a sign to confirm he was from God. He rebuked them saying they were good at reading the weather, but couldn’t read the obvious signs of the times. His implication was that they didn’t understand him, his ministry or the times they live in. You can read the story here.
Perhaps it is the same for us. We too have difficulty interpreting the times in which we live.
Last year, the entire population of Australia participated in a census, the results of which were released only last week.

The media were quick to pounce on the resulting figures regarding religion in Australia. They enthusiastically reported how the figures show a rise in those declaring they have ‘no religion’ (from 18.7% in 2006 to 22.3%) and how the numbers reporting affiliation with a Christian religion declined (from 63.9% to 61.1%).
Based on these figures many were quick to conclude, even pronounce, how the figures were a demonstration of the continuing demise of religion in Australia. Yet is that an accurate interpretation of the “sign”?
Reading the figures
Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and Associate Priest St John’s Anglican Church East Malvern, in Melbourne, suggests otherwise. In an article for Eureka Street, a publication of Jesuit Communications, he concludes that while figures show a decrease in the numbers of religion adherents, they also reveal increasing religious vitality.
For example, except for Anglican, Uniting and Presbyterian denominations, religious groups have increased in numbers even though their percentage of the population has decreased. In other words they have grown, just not as quickly as the population as a whole.
During the five years since the last census those calling themselves Christian increased to 13,150,600 up from 12,582,800. Over the same time Catholics increased by about 300,000, Pentecostals by almost 20,000, Eastern Orthodox by around 10,000 and Baptists by over 35,000. While those Christians nominating “other” rose by close to 200,000. Migration continues to influence the growth of non-Christian religions with Buddhists rising to 2.5% of the population and Muslims 2.2%. Both Buddhists and Muslims now outnumber Baptists (1.6%) and Hindus (1.3%) outnumber Pentecostals (1.1%).
Bouma’s conclusion is that “while ‘non-religion’ is growing, religion is certainly not dying out”. In fact, the increase in those choosing ‘no religion’ suggests those who say they are religious are doing so out of conviction. In other words, they more likely to be serious about religion than not.
In an interview with ABC radio Bouma stated,

“Religion’s been a low temperature affair in Australia for a long time … so those who become ‘no religion’ don’t feel like they’ve moved much perhaps. But those who are left in churches and those who are in new emerging religious communities are very much more likely to take their religion more seriously.”

Another insight into the figures is that “cultural Christians,” i.e. those with a nominal commitment who never attend church, are “being more honest” and ticking the ‘no religion’ box. The result is that the census reflects what many have suspected for a long time: many who say they are Christians are not necessarily followers of Jesus.
So while the latest census figures could cause some Christians to despair and give rise despondency, are there are other ways to read the “signs of the times?” Bouma’s suggestions give new insights and open up new possibilities. Perhaps the figures have some good news after all – we just need to read them correctly.
My prayer is that God will grant us the grace to read the census and the changing times we live in through ‘kingdom’ eyes; that we will see past the negative connotations of our media commentators, and catch a glimpse of God at work in our families and communities.

Australia and NZ Stop — ANZAC Day memories

WWI Charge
On the battlefront during WWI

This week I was taken again by the outpouring of emotion we see each year as Australia stops for Anzac Day.
The evening news bulletin showed men and women, young and old, taking the pilgrimage to Gallipoli with one grown man declaring it was the most significant day of his life. That the commemoration endures, when not so long ago that some declared it was about to die, could point to a hunger for spirituality that remains for many Australians.
Biblical scholar, and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, suggests spirituality is something like a hidden spring that continues to bubble up despite our materialism and secularism. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay seems to say similar in his book What Makes us Tick —The Ten Desires That Drive Us, where our “desire for something to believe in” makes his list. He writes that regardless of the debates “about the possible meanings of ‘God’… there is a powerful human desire to believe in something in the realm of the non-material.” Although people are attracted to memorialising Anzac Day for many reasons, it could be that for some it is this hunger for spirituality that we see at work. It is interesting to ponder why this is might be so.
Despite the enduring popularity of Anzac Day, there are those who are not drawn into its commemorations. Many a returned soldier has never marched preferring to bury the past and allow nothing, not even Anzac Day, resurrect the memories and the trauma. As one reflected recently, “I don’t like Anzac Day, my father returned from war an alcoholic, he was a gentleman sober, but violent when drunk.”
Post traumatic stress, as we now call it, didn’t have a name then and was never diagnosed at the time. Australia lost many young men in both WWI and WWII, but not only on the battlefield. There were too many who returned physically and or mentally wounded. The scars of war are still carried today by wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren.
There are others, who despite the scars of war, stop on Anzac Day to remember family members and the prices they paid. Without idealising war, they remember in the midst of their pain. They are confronted with the futility of war, but thankful for the giving of lives in the hope of making for a better world.
This perhaps comes closer to the ‘spirit’ of the Anzac. Although not commonly acknowledged, the diaries and the stories of the first Anzacs reveal how faith and religion were part of Gallipoli with many finding comfort in Scripture, song and prayer as they confronted the possibility of dying.
Then as Australians began to erect war memorials across our country in every rural town, they found inspiration from Jesus and quoted in King James English with Jesus’ words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Even at our modern Anzac Day commemorations we still sing the old hymns as we search to find reverence and meaning in our services.
Perhaps here is the spiritual link—the giving of oneself for others. Anzac Day commemorates what others did on our behalf and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate what Jesus did for us. Perhaps it is here that Easter and Anzac Day overlap and why Australians find Anzac Day strangely moving and spiritual.
Have you ever attend an Anzac Day March? What was your experience? Did it make you stop and think?
I’d be keen to know your thoughts!
Stephen L Baxter