Rolling out a Welcome

Hospitality! When it’s done well it’s never noticed. When it is missing, it’s like a gaping hole in the universe. Welcoming another person and making them the centre of our attention, even if for a small time, is perhaps the greatest, yet hardest thing we do.
You are welcome!The basic definition of hospitality is “love of strangers”. In the ancient world it was highly valued and practiced and the best example is of course Jesus himself. Throughout the gospels, Jesus welcomes those that others find unwelcoming – the outcasts, the poor, sinners and children all find a place in the heart of Jesus.
Following his lead, the early church practiced hospitality as it continued to welcome new people into its ranks. As a result those in the community took notice and many joined as a result.
Yet, hospitality can fall into neglect. We find in the New Testament warnings not to let it slip (Heb 13:2) as well as encouragement to make sure we keep it up (Rom 12:13); and not just to believers by to strangers and aliens also (Heb 13:2; 1 Tim 5:10).
But why is hospitality so difficult? I wonder if it is because it causes us to be welcoming of those we find difficult, confronting or just plain uncomfortable. Hospitality asks us to move away from an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach and to a more open mind. It calls us to dismantle any boundaries we might have that lead to an unwelcoming stance to others.
In this way hospitality asks questions of each of us. What does it mean for me to be proactive in dealing with any barriers there may be that would stop me making space for others?After all, this is what God has done for me. What am I willing to risk and give up in order that I share the love of God with all who come to me? What am I willing to give up in order to strengthen the life of the church so that all might find a place amongst us?
Hospitality isn’t just a nice thing to do if we can. It is central to the heart of God as so clearly displayed in and through Jesus. No wonder Jesus calls us to love others and make hospitality central to church life.

Hospitality is central to the heart of God as so clearly displayed in and through Jesus

Throughout history, whenever the church has faithfully practiced hospitality an indelible mark has been left on the lives of others and the church has grown as a result. Do we want all who come to us to know us as a welcoming church that shows the love of God by our hospitality? If so, why not pray that God shows you what it means for  you in your local gathering of believers.
Stephen L Baxter

Resurrection – just for fools?

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our Christian faith and the central event in the life of the Church. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, we celebrated that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is alive to this day.Easter Sunday
What happened that first Easter continues to be the power, hope and peace of our lives. So important is the resurrection to our faith, that that apostle Paul suggested that if Jesus has not been raised to life, then our preaching and faith is useless (1Cor 15:13). In such a scenario Jesus died a fool on the cross for nothing, and we are fools for believing it.  But if it is true that God raised Jesus from the death, then we too can look forward to the day when we also will be raised from death, to life in eternity with God.
Such belief looks foolish in our contemporary world, and interestingly it has been so, right from the beginning. While the apostle Paul focuses on how the cross and not the resurrection was a stumbling block in his day (1Cor 1:23), nevertheless, it is the Easter story as a whole that is difficult for people to swallow. Paul’s contemporaries wondered how God could be hung on a human cross and die. If Jesus was an exact representation of God in human form, how could God die? Such a proposition was a scandal and a stumbling block.
Today, it is the resurrection that is quickly dismissed as myth and nonsense, along with the stories of miracles, healings and the virgin birth. Using the scientific method as a starting point many find the stories of Jesus “scientifically” wanting. And it is not surprising. The scientific approach is that “truth” is built on repeatable empirical events. Using this as the criteria of truth no one can “prove” the resurrection. Why? Firstly, because no human being witnessed the resurrection, and secondly no one has repeated it. Therefore scientifically, the resurrection is not “scientifically” true. However, that doesn’t mean it did not happen.
The early church didn’t attempt to “prove” the resurrection in a scientific way; all they did was proclaim it to be true. Those who had met the risen Jesus talked to others about their experience. Those who listened chose to believe what they heard, or not. For those who did believe, what we find is that they grew in their conviction with clear and empowering insight that what they had heard was indeed true. Jesus is alive.
Faith had dawned and understanding followed. Throughout the history of the followers of Jesus this is the way of the life of faith. By believing you begin to understand. Sadly, many people operate the other way around, assuming they need to understand to believe. But belief has never worked that way.

“By believing you begin to understand.”

We know the truth of the resurrection not because it is scientifically proven, but by faith. The Bible reveals that it is only through the grace of God that anyone believes. It is God who gifts us with the faith we need and it is through this gift we are convinced, assured and affirmed in our knowledge of the resurrection and the saving work of Jesus.
As you think about Easter Sunday may your faith in the One who rose from the dead be nourished and strengthened. Whether you are a believer or one who struggles with claims of Jesus, my prayer is that you may find faith in your heart this Easter season. If the resurrection is a stumbling block, tell Jesus about it, he’ll listen and help you. You can’t create faith yourself; it is a gift of God. And that is what the resurrection is all about—the gift of hope and faith.
Happy Easter!
I’d keen to know about your experience: Did you come to belief and then understand what it was all about?
Stephen L Baxter

Casseroles and Chocolate Cake

The Real Meaning of Fellowship
Last Sunday at Hobart Baptist we got together for the first of our monthly opportunities to share a “Fellowship Lunch”. This will be an important part of our life Casseroletogether, and we shared a delicious meal and lots of good conversation in the rear hall.
But why are these sorts of events important for a church family? When I preached last week, I explained how from the beginning God’s purpose in sending Jesus was not just simply to save individuals but to create a new humanity. For some this is a radical insight, particularly if you see Chocolate Cake“church” as attending a service for an hour or so on Sundays. But church is more than attending an activity, it is a lifestyle.
From its beginning the Church has been enlisted by Jesus to work with him in bringing God’s plan for a new humanity to completion. Throughout history the Church has done this with varying degrees of success. At times it has come close to being a true reflection of God’s future vision other times it has failed miserably.
If we look back to the church in its earliest days we can gain a glimpse of what it means to be part this big plan of God’s for humanity.
In the book of Acts we read that the early church devoted itself to four things: the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). We can easily understand why they devoted themselves to “teaching” and “prayer”. “Breaking bread” could mean sharing a meal or the Lord’s Supper (Communion) and we can appreciate the importance of that. But what is “fellowship”? And why is it so important that they just didn’t have fellowship but they devoted themselves to it. And why is it second in the list before breaking bread and prayer?
Today we can reduce “fellowship” to the casual conversations we have over tea and coffee and biscuits in the hall on Sunday. Not that this is bad, but it no doubt falls short of what Luke is describing in Acts.
Four aspects to ‘Fellowship’
A quick look at how “fellowship” is described in the New Testament reveals it has four aspects—relationship, partnership, companionship, and stewardship.
1. Relationship: all believers are in relationship with each other because we share a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We are together in Christ and together form his community. Devoting ourselves to fellowship is not just about turning up at various activities but being devoted each other. Because we belong to each other, in that we share the same Lord, we commit ourselves to each other for the long term.
2. Partnership: Whereas relationship describes community, partnership describes activity. As sharers together in the person and life of Jesus Christ we become co-partners with him in his enterprise. Just as a business partnership is formed to attain a particular objective, we too are united together in a community relationship with a particular objective—to experience and demonstrate the new humanity God is bringing. Partnership says that we are called to work together in common purpose to obtain common objectives for the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Companionship: Being in relationship and working together with common purpose we will naturally enjoy companionship. Key words describing companionship are exchange, unity, and sharing. Working together we share concepts, feelings, ideas, information, needs and so on, which build relationship, empathy, regard and care. We are in it together.
4. Stewardship: A steward is one who manages the property of another. As stewards we recognize that all we have belongs to God and has been given to us in trust for his purposes. Believers in the early church willingly shared their material possessions. It came out of their shared relationship in Jesus Christ and their partnership in his ongoing work in the world.
As we shared lunch together these four words enable us to appreciate the importance of our “fellowship”. Sharing a meal together can be a demonstration of our devotion to it. What we are saying is that we appreciate that “fellowship” is foundational to living out the gospel in our community. It is just as important as teaching, prayer and breaking bread together.
Obviously fellowship just does not happen over a meal. Every time we join together, whether in large or small groups, our relationships, partnership, companionship, and stewardship is an expression of what it is to be part of the new humanity Jesus came to establish.
Being part of the church of Jesus Christ in Hobart is a challenge. Jesus calls us to a lifestyle that is countercultural to its secular orientation. Jesus calls us to be a demonstration of just how radical his vision is.
Let us keep on devoting ourselves to fellowship—relationship, partnership, companionship and stewardship—not only will it keep our faith alive and growing but it enable us to be the church God desires us to be.
What is your experience of sharing meals together. Do you think it enhances all these facets of fellowship?
Stephen L Baxter

Pass da Pasta

Over the past months a number of people have made reference, often jokingly, about my preference not to be called pastor, minister or any other associated term. I thought it was perhaps time I explained why.
When Jenny and I were talking about getting married and spending the rest of our lives together my sense of call to church leadership was part of the discussion. I remember Jenny saying that she didn’t want me to be a “pastor”. Why? Not because she had anything against pastors, she just wanted to make sure any children we might have didn’t grow up inoculated against God because of their experience of church. It was an important and profound desire I shared and so I agreed I would not be a “normal” pastor. By that I meant I would endeavour to put the welfare of our children before my pastoral ambitions and endeavour to protect them.

Leaving the wedding reception
Yep - we looked young then!

What Jenny and I knew intuitively then is now, more than 30 years later, much clearer. There are things about the way churches and pastors relate and work that is far from healthy working against the message of the good news.
Avoiding the terms of pastor or minister is not an attempt on my part to avoid leadership, but in a small way try to help us rethink, redefine and reform the way we do church and church leadership.
Being a Baptist
One of the foundations of the “Baptist” way of doing church is the “priesthood of all believers.” We believe the church is one body in Christ and all the members of the body occupy the same relation to Him, whatever
their special gift or office. We have no distinctive class of priests with all members being “priests unto God” by the death of Christ (Rev. 1:5-6).
But sadly, we often slip into ways that undermine our heritage. We operate as if there are two tiers of Christians, the “clergy” (Priests, Pastors, and Ministers) along with the rest of God’s people – the “laity”.
I recently read it in less flattering terms. We have the “up-fronters” and the “pew-warmers”, or the “leaders” and the “followers”, or the “workers” and the “watchers”, or the “performers” and the “audience”, or the “elite” and the “masses”, or the “trained” and the “untrained”, or the “qualified” and the “unqualified.” Such distinctions are not only un-Baptist, they are unbiblical and they debilitate the effectiveness of the church. Calling all Christians priests is not only about our access to God, it has also to do with serving God and fulfilling the ministry of the church.
The implication of the priesthood of all believers is that every member of the church is called to share in the church’s ministry and mission. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-12, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Yes, there are leaders, but their job is not to do the ministry but to equip others to do it.
The concept of a pastor or minister up front doing most of the stuff and “lay” people in the pews or seats responding as an audience most of the time has no biblical basis. For the church to be effective every one of its members is called to be a minister. Here ministry is not concerned with running church programs or services, but being salt and light in and across our community. This is the real work God has called us to, and he has called each and every one of us to it.
It is my belief that our misunderstanding of the place of ministry in and through our churches cuts to heart of one of the biggest issues we face in our churches and the single biggest reason why the church is so ineffective in the world. This is true for Hobart Baptist Church (HBC) too, the place where I am in leadership. If the church is to again become an effective force in our community it is going to take the combined effort of all of us, not just a few leaders. This ministry will take place in the boardroom, the marketplace, the doctor’s waiting room, the local park, the political party, the local council and every imaginable sector of society. This is where God calls us to be his salt and light.
That is not to say that I’ve given up on the local church. I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to work among HBC if I had. But I see my job among the believers there  more like a “coach” than a pastor.
As I said in a recent sermon, gathering together on a Sunday is a bit like a huddle in a football match at quarter or half time. We huddle together to be encouraged and re-energised so that we can then go out in our week to “play the game” of mission in the world. Our challenge is not so much what we do in our “Sunday morning” huddle, but what we do when we break from our huddle and head to our Monday morning assignment. This is what it is to be the church of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion
On a more personal note, I too need to be careful in the way I see myself. I need to be on guard that my identity and sense of purpose and meaning doesn’t get swallowed up in the role of pastor.  I need to ensure that being a “pastor” does not end up defining who I am when the reality is that that I’m just carrying out a task. I want to ensure that I am not defined by the expectation of the role rather than who I am as a person.
It is my privilege that for a time I am serving among HBC as “pastor,” not so much as a “normal” pastor, but as a “coach” helping us work as a team as we each go about fulfilling the work Jesus, the head coach, has called us to do.
May God bless you all in each of your particular ministries.
Stephen L Baxter
PS A note from Jenny: Not so long ago our two older girls, in their early 20s, were at a conference where a session for PKs was held – Preacher’s Kids. They had never really thought of themselves in that category, but were encouraged to go along, which they did in good humour. They were amazed to discover most of the other participants had a great deal of bitterness and resentment to work through as a result of their parent’s lifestyle choices. These parents were no doubt well-intentioned, but sadly, their kids had not come through unscathed. Perhaps our girls have been affected too, but their surprise at the others responses seems to suggest they have somehow escaped the worst!

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.
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