The Church is Dead – Yes? … NO!

When you think of ‘church’ what comes to your mind? A building, an institution, a local congregation or a multitude of believers spanning the world? Your perspective of the church will have a great influence on how you view her future.[slideshow]
If you believe all you hear in the media, you could conclude the church is ineffective, irrelevant and a dying institution. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the church in the Western world is facing challenges, the demise of the Christian faith is a long way from an actuality. Try suggesting the church is dying to Christians in Seoul or Nairobi . . . they would wholeheartedly disagree with you!
Throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church is experiencing tremendous growth. At the start of the 1900s about nine per cent of Africa was Christian. During the 1960s, the proportion of Christians surpassed that of Muslims for the first time, and today about 50 per cent of all Africans are Christian.
This amazing growth in different parts of the world is bringing a shift to the demographic centre of Christianity. Since the Day of Pentecost the centre of the church has resided in the northern hemisphere, but soon the centre of influence will move from the northern hemisphere and places like Rome, Paris, London and New York, to the south and cities like Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, Seoul and Nairobi.
This move south will bring changes in the way Christians express their faith. Some Christians in these developing countries express their faith in different ways to our traditions and their faith can look strange to our Western eyes. Yet, despite these differences, many who make up the church in the southern hemisphere are quite biblical, sometimes more so than we are. They take the supernatural – prophecy, spiritual healing, dreams and visions – seriously, and they are enthusiastic and charismatic. In fact, projections suggest that by 2040 the number of Pentecostal Christians will exceed one billion.
How should we respond
One of the most important things we should do is to choose to look at the bigger picture of what God is doing rather than just our immediate context. God is at work in the world, there is no doubt about that. The questions is, are we aware of it?
If we believed the media reports that the church in Australia is backward, archaic and in danger of falling over, we can easily be left feeling despondent and despairing. However, looking at the bigger picture of what God is doing around the world can change all that. Despair is replaced with hope and we’re strengthened. We begin to see our context within God’s overall strategy. It gives us the strength and will to persevere and stand against the false images and expectations the media serves us.
Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18) Despite the challenges we face, this remains true and the growth of the church across the world proves it. So let us not lose hope with our current situation, but be encouraged and spurred on by all God is doing around the world.
What are your reflections on the nature of church growth in Australia?
Stephen L Baxter
Global Statistics for all Religions, 2001

Faith and Cultural Diversity

Recently multiculturalism has reappeared in public and media debate after years on the sidelines.
Except for our indigenous people and unlike European countries, Australia is a nation of immigrants built on mass migration. The cultural diversity of those who have arrived over the past couple of centuries have shape our adopted homeland. We are a nation of different skin tones, religions and languages – few countries are as culturally diverse and cosmopolitan as modern Australia.Multiculturalism
Over the past couple of years a number of leaders of European countries, including Britain and Germany, have declared multiculturalism a failure, yet in Australia many are now suggesting that it is one of our greatest strengths and successes. They cite the relative lack of violence in Australia as evidence of the willingness of residents to be changed by the new arrivals, and the willingness of migrants to adapt to a new life. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Australia has one of the highest rates of inter-cultural marriage in the world.
It is normal
On a recent visit to Hobart Alan Marr, Director of Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria, explained how almost all Baptist churches across Melbourne are seeing increased ethnicity in their churches. New immigrants either arrived as Christians, or are more open to the gospel than long term resident Australians. It is good to know that some of the issues facing us here at Hobart Baptist Church are not uncommon and that what we are experiencing is a nation-wide trend. In fact recent reports suggest that right across Western countries the multiethnic church is becoming the normal and natural picture of Christianity.

Christ destroyed the dividing walls and hostilities
between ethnic groups

We shouldn’t be surprised. Although we have become used to churches that are relatively mono-cultural, the church didn’t start that way. Jesus left his followers with the command to go and reach all nations. Through his death on the cross, Christ destroyed the dividing walls and hostilities between ethnic groups, enabling people of all races to unite (Ephesians 2:14).  And once the Holy Spirit demonstrated that the gospel was for Jew and Gentile alike (see the story of Peter in Acts 10 and 11) congregations of faith in Antioch and Ephesus were very multiethnic in flavour. In Revelation 7, John describes a vision of heaven where people are gathered from every nation, tribes and tongue and united together in worship before the throne of God.
Challenge and diversity
So God is at work among us as he brings a diverse group of people together as Hobart Baptist Church – a multiethnic community of faith. But having said that doesn’t mean the journey is or will be easy. Our Karen* folk have not only had a difficult journey coming to Australia they are now learning a new language, navigating our welfare system and endeavouring to understand a different culture. For the rest of us who do not face these challenges, the task of welcoming and accepting our Karen folk takes us beyond our comfort zones, our abilities, and our experiences.
God has an exciting future for us in Hobart, but that does not mean the journey will be plain sailing, in fact it probably means the opposite. But it is in meeting these challenges together in all of our diversity that we will grow together to become all that he has called us to be.
What’s happening at your church? Is there a trend toward a mulitethnic congregation? If so, I’d be interested to know how is everyone tracking your comments are welcome!

Stephen L Baxter
*Over the last three years Hobart Baptist Church has gathered a significant number of Karen refugee families who have settled in Hobart from Burma.

Being Strategic About Mission

This week at Hobart Baptist we welcomed Marc Rader who brought to us an enlightening message on the book of Esther on Sunday morning. Marc is Senior Associate Pastor at Gymea Baptist Church in southern Sydney. He is also a faculty member at Morling College, the Baptist Bible and Theological College of NSW and ACT, where he lectures in Biblical Studies, Languages and Preaching. Born in Canada, Marc is married to his Aussie wife, Nicole and they have three daughters.

Marc Rader

Marc was in Hobart this weekend as one of the keynote speakers at engageHOBART, the conference for Baptist Churches from across Hobart as part of our 2020 Vision strategy. He challenged us to see how knowing Jesus relates to reaching into our communities, seeing people come to Christ, and growing strong and vibrant church communities.
It is now nearly two years, since May 2009, when the “Growing Together – Hobart Baptists’ 2020 Vision” report documented the decline in membership and attendance amongst Baptist churches across Greater Hobart. As a result the Regional Missional Strategy (2020 Vision) was developed by representatives from Baptist churches across Hobart.
engageHOBART  is just one activity in this strategy which aims to see a turnaround in Baptist church life in the Greater Hobart Region so that we grow to 2,000 people attending 20 communities of faith by the year 2020.
For the strategy to be successful  three key issues were seen as essential:

  1. Firstly to increase the  level of cooperation and collaboration amongst  the Baptist churches in the Hobart region
  2. Secondly, to see a significant increase in desire, capacity and capability in the area of local church and city-wide evangelism
  3. Finally to see a new era of church  planting  to  establish  new  churches (communities of faith) across the Hobart region.

As part of this 2020 Vision Strategy, engageHOBART hoped to contribute to an increase in cooperation, desire, capacity and capability across our churches in evangelism and mission that will ultimately see people come to know Jesus as well as lead us into a new era of church planting. Will you continue to pray that we will see a growing momentum in evangelism and mission that will see many come to know Jesus as Lord in Hobart.
Having a collaborative approach to local mission is a big challenge to Baptists in Hobart. However, my real heart is to see ALL churches in Hobart working together for the extension of the Kingdom. Do you think this is in the realms of possibility?
Stephen L Baxter

As Aussie as They Come

Back in 1999 Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer Hugh Mackay suggested that given the uncertainties at the end of the millennium, the time seemed right for a revival of religious faith. But he then went on to predict that it wouldn’t happen, and he was right. Even so there continues to be growing interest in spirituality in Australia where two-thirds of us claim that a spiritual life is important.
You may find it surprising to know that most Australians believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force (74%) with nearly half (42%) believing Jesus was divine. So despite the fact that only 15% of Australians attend church regularly, there are many non-church going Australians who are still intrigued with Jesus. One such person was R. M. Williams the Australian bushman and entrepreneur who rose from being a swagman to become a millionaire on the back of his unique Australian style of bushwear.

RM Williams
RM Williams

Born in 1908, Reginald Murray Williams was given a state funeral in Queensland in 2003. Premier Peter Beattie, said at the time, “When you pull on a pair of R. M. Williams boots everyone knows you walk taller. It’s not just the size of the heel, it’s the spirit of the man who made them in the first place.” The spirit of this man was a recognisably Australian spirit. It could be argued that they don’t come more Australian than R. M. Williams.
Being an Australian obsessed the imagination of Williams, and Jesus was part of that obsession. In his autobiography, Williams reveals a man deeply concerned over religious issues. He knew his Bible, and he knew the words of Jesus.
His private life did not always run smoothly. Williams suffered the physical and material deprivation of the Great Depression, and the mental pain of a spiritual depression that seems to have never left him. As one of the few white men who could not only survive, but actually thrive, in the outback, Williams was invited to help a number of missionaries in their work amongst the most isolated of Aboriginal tribes.
Throughout his life Williams would not or could not give up on Jesus. He wrote, “Although I can never claim to have standing with either rich or poor, still I believe that the Man who flogged the money-changers from the temple still calls all men to the heights of moral courage and spiritual peace. I should like to feel that there lies my allegiance.”
Williams was also a capitalist, and doubted if Jesus approved. After making lots of money, he wrote: “When I had done this, my conscience bothered me. ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ ‘How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’”
Such deep exploration of spiritual and biblical themes may seem striking to many Christians. However, I believe that there are many other Australians who think and feel in similar ways to Williams. They may not connect with the church, but they find a connection in Jesus. Perhaps this is because the practices and symbols of Australian churches grew in other cultures at other times and are not particularly suited to the Australian landscape or psyche. Although they shape the expression of Christian faith, they don’t seem to penetrate the core of everyday Australians.
Maybe this explains why MacKay says a revival won’t happen. The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture. Yet, if we are attentive to the spiritual search of people like Williams, and listen to their questions, then maybe we will begin to discover the traces of an answer.

The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of
Australian life and culture.

At the end of his autobiography, Williams asks:
“… if the Man Jesus were to step inside my door or come knocking, would I know Him? … Would I welcome Him? I might. What would He say to me, looking through my façade of respectability into my soul? … I am torn by the tragedy of it all. How do I follow Him? How would I know God if I saw Him? I shall look for Him among the uncouth, the sorrowful, the have-nots. Maybe He will be there. And will He know me?”
What do you think? I would value knowing what your experience of the Aussie church is.
Stephen L Baxter