Reach One . . .

Over the past few weeks at Hobart Baptist I’ve talked about our program Reach One. Reach One is an encouragement for each one of us to connect with one person who does not yet know Jesus, just like the disciple Andrew did.
I’ve always enjoyed the story about the disciple Andrew. He was Peter’s brother, and the first thing he did when heard about Jesus was to was to find his brother and tell him, “We have found the Messiah,” and brought him to Jesus (John 1:40-42). The results of that encounter are significant: while Andrew remained in the background as a disciple, Peter became a major leader among them.
An initiative of 2020 Vision, Reach One aims at encouraging every person attending a Baptist church in Hobart to be involved connecting with our community. It is not a major undertaking, it just asks each one of us to befriend at least one person who does not know Jesus and reach out to them in love, service, and prayer. It is not a program, but a journey where we each develop a relationship over the coming year. Then later in the year there will be events where we can invite our prayerfully gained friends to get to know others and hear about Jesus.
Reaching one person at a timeHobart Baptist is not alone in this. Baptist Churches from across Hobart are working together trusting God will reach out through us into our families, schools, work places and communities.
It is not a new idea. Writing to the Corinthian church Paul says, “God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ‘s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20, The Message Bible). It doesn’t matter whether we are young or old, God has given us a task: to share with others the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). Imagine what could happen if every one of us took this challenge seriously and began to pray asking God to help us reach out to at least one other person.
But some of us will ask, how do I tell someone about Jesus? What do I say? Where do I start? The story of Andrew is a great example and our series on the book of Acts gives us some pointers. While we don’t know everyone, we all have a circle of relationships including friends, neighbours, or family. Among them there is no doubt somebody whom we could get to know with the hope that one day we’ll be able to share about our personal experience with Jesus. It is one person introducing Jesus to another.
My prayer is that God may encourage and inspire you to pray and ask, who is Jesus prompting me to get to know? Who does Jesus want to reach out to through me? Imagine what the outcome could be if we all were inspired to Reach One.

Work by faith for the glory of God

One of Martin Luther’s more provocative statements goes like this: “…the farmer in the field, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit.”
Brother Lawrence said something similar thing in his book The Practice of the Presence of God where he determined to make sure he saw the presence of God in his kitchen as well as the church. His simple daily prayer was, “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.”
Every Christian is called. ‘Calling’ is God’s way of expressing his will for each and everyone of us. We are all called to be saved, it is God’s desire “that no one perish, but everyone come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) We are also called to grow in discipleship, love of each other, and move onto maturity.
When we respond to his call it is an act of faith, belief and obedience. Each of us has a choice. We can choose to live ordinary lives, doing ordinary things, in ordinary ways without any extraordinary sense of purpose. Or, we can choose to invest time, talent and treasure in being obedient to God’s will and direction in our lives no matter what the task and how simple it seems.
This was one of the great rediscoveries of the Protestant Reformation: it doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, when God calls you he calls you to a life of serving him. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is whether we do it faithfully and lovingly that matters.
This is both an encouragment and challenge to us all. We can ask ourselves, is my life lived by faith for the glory of God? We can easily discount what we do just because it doesn’t seem significant, big, or spiritual enough. But we need to be reminded that anything we do, whether it is at work, at home, at school, voluntary or not, can be the highest and holiest of calls.
As you live this coming week, let me encourage you to talk it over with God. You may be surprised that he sees what you do in a very different way. Perhaps you work for the glory God in a way you hadn’t previously considered!

Stephen L Baxter

Living for God’s Glory

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

During our recent holiday, which included time in Europe, Jenny and I visited our fair share of church buildings. Magnificent monoliths, towering ceilings and incredibly ornate interiors greeted us in every city. Although they were said to be built “for the glory of God,” we had our suspicions that more than just God’s glory was in focus. It was the glory of an emperor, a ruler, a nation or of humanity itself that was also being glorified.
These grand structures seem far removed from the church we find described in book of Acts. Rather than displaying glory and power through breathtaking and awe-inspiring buildings, God’s glory in Acts is evidenced in changes in lives and the formation of new all-embracing communities. Rather than focussing on what the church does for God in promoting his glory in the world, the story of Acts focuses on what God is doing for humanity through his people the church.
Luke’s account of the life of the early church in Acts reinforces that it is Jesus who builds his church, not us. In a world obsessed with success, activism and results, this is a much needed reminder.
In his book The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul observes how our modern society seems to believe the only purpose of life is to get things done. Whether it is personally

St Stephens Vienna
One side chapel in St Stephen’s Cathedral

and corporately, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them, or at least trying to accomplish them.
For instance, when we introduce ourselves to others one of the first things we mention is what we do, what we have done, and were we have succeeded. Our worth, and the worth of every organisation is measured by what it has done and the difference it has made in the world.
Ellul goes on to suggest that Christians are no different. While it is true we are called to accomplish things for God, we often slip into measuring our worth as Christian on the basis of whether we are doing something “worthwhile” or not. However, this is not how God would want us to view things.
Beginning with Genesis and picking examples throughout the Bible, Ellul suggests that meaning and worth is not to be found in activism, results, and success.
Genesis 2 describes Eden as a luscious garden providing all the food Adam and Eve needed. But just a few verses later, God commands Adam to work the soil and care for it? The obvious question is what for? If Eden provided the food, why did Adam need to work the soil?
Then when it comes to prayer, Ellul asks, if God knows what we need, and is able to do everything whether we pray or not, then why do we need to ask? It’s the same with the gospel, we are saved entirely by grace and any work we do to gain salvation is inconsequential, so what is the point of living a life a righteousness life? What does it accomplish?
We are confronted with the same questions in the book of Acts. Here we face the question, “What did these early Christians do for God that he could not have done just as well without them?” The answer is nothing!
After studying Jesus’ parable about faithful service in Luke 17:7-10 with its conclusion “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,” Ellul argues that the world has got it wrong when it believes aiming for success and accomplishment is the only effective motive for action. A more reliable and effective motive is to act out of love for God, and you do it just because he asked.
Ellul’s conclusion is that “we have nothing to achieve, nothing to win, nothing to provide” and although there are things to do and tasks to accomplish, we are under no illusion that God needs us nor that we have made any essential contribution to his work.
The supreme example of this is of course Jesus. He did not strive for success or accomplishment, in fact in the eyes of his world he died a failure as another false messiah on a Roman cross. The gospels record that throughout his life he was concerned with one thing: faithfulness to the will of Father. It was his faithfulness, not his accomplishments that won for us salvation.
What is true for Jesus is true for his people and this is what we find working out in Acts. The early church was not focussed on accomplishments, activism, results, and success. Its focus was on loving God and loving each other, and allowing Jesus to get about building his church. They are constantly playing catch up as Jesus moves ahead of them time after time. As they do this they experienced the grace and freedom of God. Saving the world wasn’t up to them, that’s God’s job.
As we work our way through Acts during the next few weeks as Hobart Baptist, it is my prayer we will experience more and more of the grace and freedom these early Christians experienced. Grace allowed them to rest and let the Holy Spirit be at work in and through them, and the freedom released them from the tyranny of striving for success.
May you too experience the job of living for God not as work, but as the delight of worship.
Stephen L Baxter

Prayer – the Narrow Road to Church Growth

Last week at the engageHOBART conference I hosted, David Jones from the Presbyterian Church shared something of the journey of the growth in their churches in Hobart over the past decade which has resulted in four new Presbyterian churches coming in to being. Among the many factors involved in this growth he focussed on the important of the gospel and of prayer. At one stage they had up to 85 people from St John’s gathering to pray each week.
David was keen to stress that the growth they had seen was a result of God’s action, but that prayer was critical to it.
It got me thinking about the church in South Korea, particularly the one lead by Dr David Yonggi Cho. Reported to be the largest church in the Yonggi Choworld, it currently has 875,000 attendees. There was a time in its growth when they were starting a new church with 5000 people and pastor each week because of the lack of space.
In his book, Prayer: Key to the Revival Cho writes, “Our people have been taught the central nature of prayer, so they pray over everything. They fervently pray for the church, the nation, and for a continuation of revival in Korea and throughout the world. They also pray for potential new converts so the church may continue to grow.
“…we plan carefully: We have a strategy, we have a plan, and we execute that plan like a well-trained army. Yet, most importantly, we bathe our plans in prayer so that God may breathe His breath of life into our efforts, and they will be fruitful.”
As we look to the future and God’s work in and through the church in any locality, what will it take for us to become a praying church? It is something that will require some serious reflection and hard work.
When reading the accounts of the early church in the book of Acts, it is good to note that they often gathered together to pray. If we want to see the work of God move forward, it is important for us ro pray and not only by ourselves, but also together.
What will it take for us to be involved in fervent prayer together?
Stephen L Baxter
This is my last post for a few weeks as I am taking leave from now until Easter. My next post will be on Monday April 9, 2012.

Belonging and Believing

Over the past few Sunday mornings we’ve been moving through a series of messages on ‘the Church’ at Hobart Baptist. A number of times I’ve made mention of the increasing numbers of people in our community who “believe without belonging”. These are people who somewhere along the way have dropped out of attending church but nonetheless would still claim to be believers. No doubt Belonging &/or believingmany of us are still friends with some who have done just this. They may even be part of our own families.
I’m sure you, like me are asking, why has this happened? What are the causes behind so many leaving the church over the past four decades? Most likely there are a number of contributing factors including the following “-isms”—consumerism, individualism, privatism, relativism, and pluralism.
One other “-ism” I would like to focus on is anti-institutionalism. Many in our community feel alienated from the institutions of our society. Since the 1960s there has been growing cynic-ism toward public institutions so that today people are more inclined to make their own decisions irrespective of conventional traditions or social mores. Because we are seen as one of the institutions of our society, the Church has been caught up in the disillusionment and alienation, and has had difficult time over the past four decades.
It’s not that people are less interested in the religious dimension of life, it’s just that they are wary of the church suspecting it is more likely to hinder their search than help it. Not surprisingly they rarely come to the Church looking for answers. They have moved away from what some call a “spirituality of dwelling,” where God is associated with places, to a “spirituality of seeking” where they prefer to navigate their own spiritual journey.
Their spiritual search is perhaps best captured by hit song of the 1990s by Irish band U2 (three of the four members claim to be Christians). Their song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” captures the mood of the “spiritual search” which is also reflected in films such The Matrix and Sixth Sense, and TV programmes such as Touched by an Angel and The X Files.

Today the Church struggles to find relevance in a world where many earnestly seek spirituality and a meaning for life, but reject the Church’s offering.  So what should we do?
Perhaps one important step is to change our expectations. In contrast to most of our evangelism in the 20th Century where we tried to convinced people to believe and behave so they can eventually belong, perhaps we should begin by finding was to include people in our community life before they believe. Here they can “belong without believing.” It’s not really a radical idea, in fact it is exactly what Jesus did. He chose his disciples before they believed he was the Messiah, before his death and resurrection and before they believed he was the Son of God.
So while there are some in our community who choose to “believe without belonging” there is also the possibility of a different group of people might “belong without believing”. These are people who prefer to think things through for themselves and welcome the opportunity to dialogue with others.  They are in the middle of a journey to belief and need the freedom to explore without having a pre-packaged belief system imposed.
By giving people the opportunity to “belong without believing” we offer them an invitation to explore God together and see where the journey takes us. In other words they can participate in church life, volunteer their services and begin to belong while they journey to believe. I’m not talking about church membership, but about belonging to a community that is welcoming, accepting and loving.
In our series on the Church we have been reflecting on the type of Church Jesus would want us to be. What would it mean for us mimic Jesus and accept people as his disciples before they believed in him? ‘Belonging before believing’ is an interesting idea worth thinking about.
Stephen L Baxter

The Church and Discipleship in Acts 2

Intense conflict and difficult behaviour

In his book, Never Call Them Jerks, Arthur Boers asks the question, “Are churches particularly vulnerable to intense conflict and difficult behaviour?” Sadly his conclusion is yes, and his book explores some of the reasons why and what we can do about it. Thankfully, we don’t have to be prisoners to conflict and difficult behaviour but anticipate healthy relationships.
In the early chapters of the book of Acts, Luke describes the birth of the church which has been a role model for churches ever since. It can serve as an encouragement to us of what can happen with a mixed group of ‘ordinary people’!
I recently read a list of 10 points of a ‘healthy’ church, drawing on Luke’s description of the early church in Acts 2:42-47.

  1. Teaching (v.42) In the last chapter of Matthew gospel Jesus says to the disciples to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Throughout Acts we see the disciples passing on Jesus’ teaching and this forms a foundation to the growth and maturity of the Church.
  2. Quality Fellowship (v.42) ‘Koinonia’ is the Greek word we translate ‘fellowship’. It is a special quality of relationship that is quite removed from the individualism, isolationism, separatism we find in our society today.
  3. Breaking of Bread (v.42) This can mean either sharing meals together or the Lord’s Supper. This was the focus of their fellowship and a constantreminder of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  4. Prayer (v. 42) and also in
    Prayer to be a first resource

    Acts 1:14, Luke describes how prayer was a vital partof life for the early disciples.  It was their “first resource, not the last resort.”
  5. Supernatural Awareness (v.43) God was at work in their midst which left keen sense of awe of the presence and power of God and an expectation of what he would continue to do.
  6. Authentic Community (v.44) They were together, not just in theory and not just on Sunday, but in the day-to-day experience of community. Care for each other’s spiritual, emotional and physical needs cannot not be done at a distance with only infrequent contact.
  7. Extravagant Generosity (v.45)They had a radical attitude to possessions which was outrageous, extravagant, impractical, and dangerous by our standards in a world obsessed by getting. Their  generosity sprung from the great joy they experienced in community.
    Genuine hospitality
    Genuine hospitality
  8. Genuine Hospitality (v.46) They opened their homes to each other whichwas an extension of their fellowship and generosity. Such hospitality of an open heart and an open home gives value of every human being and reflects the very heart of God.
  9. Grateful Praise (v.47)Thanks, acknowledgement and worship of God as creator and redeemer is the centre and heart of their life and helped keep all things in perspective, and is a sure sign of the work of the Spirit of God in their midst.
  10. Evangelism (v.47) Not surprisingly their life was infectious and others joined their community. This is the outcome and overflow of a healthy church life. When believers live together in authentic, consistent, powerful community, people are saved.

The exciting church reality Luke describes is available to us today as we live a life of discipleship. What happened then Jesus can bring to reality in and through us now.
Stephen L Baxter

Saving ‘Yes’ for the Best

Has God ever answered your prayer with a “No”? Have you ever prayed for fervently for something then sat back and waited for an answer? Nothing happens and you begin wondering  “Is God listening” or “Why hasn’t God answered?”

In  Acts 16:7 Luke records how Paul and his companions were travelling through the region of Phrygia and Galatia when they came to the border and tried to enter into Bithynia. “But,” Luke writes, “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”

(On this map, the numbers refer to stops Paul made during this 2nd missionary journey.)
It doesn’t seem like a big deal but I am sure Paul felt crushed by being told not to go. He had a passion to reach the people in Bithynia and being willing do whatever it takes, he wanted to tell them about Jesus, but Jesus said “No”!
What the…!
Personally I find it bewildering when things don’t work out like I’d like them to or thought they would. I can easily feel neglected or a failure, or that I am totally out of sync with God. However, this “No” from Jesus was a significant turning point in the life of Paul and in the story of the history of the church.
Despite his plan to go further across Asia, Paul was sent to Macedonia instead (check the map again); part of what we now call Greece. This was the beginning of the church in Europe, where it has been significant for 20 centuries. So God’s “No” was in fact a “Yes” to planting the first Church in Europe.

If you are discouraged or doubting and just holding on, remember God has his plans which are greater than ours . . .

Maybe you, like Paul, have expectations of the way God is leading you, and thought you were supposed to take a particular step of faith but nothing seems to be working out the way you planned.
Just remember you are in good company. Many of God’s people have experienced that before. And the reason that the answer could be a “No” is because something else more strategic and important lies beyond the “No.”
So if you are discouraged or doubting and just holding on, remember God has his plans which are greater than ours. Our task is to remain faithful and patient and not try to force our way and mess it all up, but wait. Many times the reason God says “No” is only because He is waiting to say “Yes” to something greater later.
I’d be keen to hear from any readers who have discovered this to be true . . . a devastating ‘No’, being an incredible ‘Yes’ to something else. What’s your experience?

Stephen L Baxter

Celebrating HOPE at Pentecost

The Spirit came like a doveYesterday was Pentecost Sunday, the day the church remembers and celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In the churches I grew up in there was some caution around this day, not so much with ‘Pentecost’, but with ‘Pentecostal’. There were concerns with ‘Pentecostal’ theology and styles of worship, and sadly this caution sometimes lead to an avoidance of the Day of Pentecost itself.
Pentecost was originally an Old Testament festival, called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). It began as an agricultural festival celebrating and giving thanks for the “first fruits” of the early spring harvest (Lev 23, Ex 23, 34) but by the early New Testament period it had became associated with the celebration of God’s creation of his people and the giving of Torah (the “Law”) on Mount Sinai.
In Acts 2 Luke records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those in the upper room during Pentecost celebrations in Jerusalem. They link these events to the prophecies of Joel 2 and promises of Jesus (Acts 1:8). The emphasis is primarily on an empowering by the Holy Spirit to enable the people of God to witness to Jesus the Christ.
There is debate about exactly what happened at Pentecost, whether it is once off or repeatable event; and whether it should or should not be the experience of all Christians. Whatever one’s preference here, what it most clear is that Pentecost represents God’s gracious presence, enabling his people to live as witnesses for him.
Pentecost Day is a day to celebrate hope. It reminds us that God is at work through his Holy Spirit among his people. It is a time to celebrate God’s ongoing work of saving this world, and that the way this is done is through his people through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost reminds us that Jesus is not finished with his church. There is much room for celebration and hope.
Let us pray God will enable you to be open to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in your life, and in the life of your local church.
Stephen L Baxter

Your Kingdom Come!

Setting the world right, both now and in the future
When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray Jesus suggested a prayer to them. We call it the Lord’s Prayer, but it’s not really the Lord’s, it’s ours. It is a model given by Jesus for how we should pray. Most of us can recite it by heart, yet I’m not sure that was how Jesus meant it to be used. Jesus didn’t say, “Pray in these words.” He said, “Pray in this manner.

The LOrd
The Lords Prayer in Aramaic

It begins suggesting our prayers should always honour God and bring glory to his name, it then quickly moves to three short words full of meaning, “Your Kingdom Come.”
Throughout the gospels Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) more than anything else. It is the dominant theme of his ministry, but despite it being so prevalent and clearly about God’s rule and sovereignty, interestingly Jesus never clearly defines what it looks like. Rather than giving us a clear definition he chooses to describe it through hints, analogies, parables, and images.
He says, among many things, that the Kingdom of God appears as something small and insignificant that grows silently before yielding a great harvest (Mark 4:26-29). Wheat and weedsHowever, it involves a great deal of wasted seed as much is sown that fails to take root (Mark 4:1-9). The Kingdom of God is also like a large fishing net dragged through the water gathering everything in its path, good and bad, useful and useless (Matthew 13:47-50). It is also like a paddock sown with wheat but is riddled with weeds. Yet contrary to good farming practice, the farmer leaves the weeds growing alongside the wheat until harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). The Kingdom of God is like a rich person who leaves town and places his property in charge of his servants (Mark 13:34-36) or a businessperson who sells everything just to gain it (Matthew 13:44-46).
Now but not yet
We could go on with many more images that Jesus used to illustrate the point—the Kingdom of God is something that is difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand and see. His stories suggest that the kingdom is here, but not quite. It is surprising and unexpected, yet playful and intriguing; it is threatening and reassuring; very real yet equally elusive. It is a bit like standing on your head and seeing the world upside down.
So when we pray, “Your kingdom come” what are we praying for? I don’t think Jesus was giving a pious plea to be offered in the hope that someday, somehow it might be answered and achieved. In fact, it is important to note that in the original Greek this sentence is a command. We are to pray it not just as a request to God, but as a command to God!
This is quite provocative. The idea of instructing God to do anything no doubt offends you in much the same way it does me. Yet this is what Jesus taught his disciples to do. Try praying, “Your kingdom come!” as a command to God; it doesn’t come easy does it.
What is easier for us is to pray that God would rescue us from mess of this world and whisk us away to join him in eternal bliss in heaven. Yet the Lord’s Prayer gives no hint of this. Jesus goes on to suggest we command that, “Your will be done here on earth as in heaven.” We are not to pray that we be taken from earth, but rather command that heaven, where the Kingdom of God is totally at work, comes here to earth.
The focus of “Your Kingdom Come” is not us, but the world we live in. It should be translated “Set the world aright,” says British Bible scholar N.T. Wright. To “set the world aright” means to make the world a better place. This is what Jesus is calling us to pray and not surprisingly it was the central to his work also. Seeing the Kingdom come here on earth was so much part of the ministry of Jesus that he was sentenced and put to death as a social activist wanting to set the world aright.
Ever since Jesus first taught this prayer, it has been prayed millions of times by millions of people around the world. Each time, it is an instruction for the rule of God to be brought to this planet. Each time it is a call to God to bring justice and peace to planet earth. Each time, God is pleased to answer and bring more of his rule to individuals, families, communities, cities and nations. One day it will culminate in the Kingdom of God coming in all its fullness here on earth as it is in heaven.
Let’s keep praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, across all facets of time and place.
Stephen L Baxter