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In one of his books, author Charles Kraft tells the following story:
A southern Nigerian invited my wife and me and three missionary candidates to share a meal with him. Before the meal he prayed, “Lord, help these men to realise that it is not they who are taking you to Africa, but you who are taking them.”
When we asked what he had in mind when he prayed that way, he explained, “When missionaries first came to my country, they spoke of the God who created the world as if he were a different God from the one we already knew about. We listened and compared what we heard and read in the Bible about this God and discovered that he is the very same God we had always known about. We received many new insights from the missionaries and especially we heard that we could come to know God personally through Jesus Christ.
“But everyone except the missionaries realised that your God is the same as our God. In other words, our God had brought the missionaries to add to our understanding and commitment. The missionaries had not brought a new God with them. And this is what I would like these young missionaries to realise before they go so that they don’t waste so much effort trying to change our ways but devote themselves to building something worthwhile on the foundations that are already there.” 
In the midst of our secularised, consumer, individualistic society it is easy for us to slip into a negative attitude towards it. The result is that we tend to focus on what is incompatible and incongruous with the gospel and emphasise the discontinuities. In doing so we overlook what is compatible and congruent; and miss the opportunities to share the good news.
Just like these missionaries to Nigeria, our prejudgements about our culture leave us with blind spots and like a fish in a fishbowl we are totally unaware of the water in which we swim. But rather than take a negative stance we can choose to appreciate both the good and bad elements to our culture. We can look for those places where God is already at work. Such places will most likely be different to what we traditionally have grown to expect, but we must not let our expectations blind us to what God is already doing.
The German theologian Helmut Thielicke once commented,“The Gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address because its recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence.” In other words, just because one method of communication worked in the past, we can’t presume it will work again today. We need to constantly rework our communications strategies and skills to meet the changing world in which we live.
In other words, we are the missionaries of Hobart. In the past we believed that to be a missionary one had to go overseas. But not anymore – the mission field has come to us. It is in our families, our schools, our businesses, our clubs and our community groups.
It has been suggested that Australians have no peculiar culture of our own. We are a mixture of American and English, but nothing could be further from the truth. Developing an Aussie gospel requires us to do the hard work of understanding Aussies and their culture.
This was one of the key themes that grew out of our engageHOBART workshop. It became increasingly clear (particularly for the older participants) that despite the assumption Australian culture is much the same today as it was when they grew up, the reality is quite different. Living within the world of our church communities we can be unaware of the changes taking place in our wider community and the differences that continue to grow between our worldview and that of our neighbours.
So we have a job to do. Not only are we called to share the good news, we are to explore ways to ensure our communication of the good news is relevant to our context. This requires us to do our homework to understand the unique context that is Australian community. We take the story of Jesus, which took place in one historical context 2000 years ago, and translate it so it communicates with our own historical context. Scholars have a technical term for this; they call it ‘contextualisation.’ It is the process of taking the truth of the gospel and presenting it in a relevant way to the hearer.
When Jenny and I reflected on the workshops we were very encouraged. There was a quality and depth to our discussion and reflection that the workshop group is taking the job seriously and are prepared to make the effort needed. It is also a challenge and encouragement to us at Hobart Baptist Church. Are we willing explore what it may mean to make the gospel message more meaningful in our culture? Are we willing to relearn what the gospel message is, rethink the way we do ‘church,’ and revisit some of our many precious forms?
May God both equip us and find us willing to explore how we can bring the “good news” to the Australian community in our day.
Stephen L Baxter
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