The Church of Australia and its Challenge

Painting by John Allcott "The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27 1788

Since the beginning of European settlement in Australia in 1788, the church has played a major part in Australian life and culture. Church services began as soon as the First Fleet arrived and gradually churches grew including the provision of a wide range of welfare and education services such as schools, hospitals and orphanages.
Today much has changed. While the church is still heavily involved in providing services, its influence on Australian culture is declining, along with the numbers of people regularly attending church. Hardly a week goes by without the media making some mention of this decline. In fact there are many who predict the ultimate demise and disappearance of the church in Australia. It is certainly true there are critical issues the church needs to face, and the “good old days” of the 1950’s or 60’s will never return, but does that really signal the church’s death? I suspect not.
The challenge we face in Australia today is reflected across the Western world, not only in countries such as Canada, the UK and the US, but also right across Europe. Yet, this trend is not observed in the rest of the world. In fact, elsewhere Christianity is booming. Across many Asian countries, central and southern Africa and Latin America, the church continues to grow. Christianity is far from being on its death bed.
In fact, even in Australia there is a quiet openness to spirituality. As our population gets older, so the questions about life after death and eternity begin to take on a new urgency. People are not suddenly pouring back into our churches, but they are open.
We can go to them
In such a climate there is much the church can do to engage with this rising interest. And while people may not come to us, we can go to them and meet them in the community and dialogue about spiritual issues.
Rest POint tent
Rest Point Tent
This is one of the motivations behind “RestPoint,” the hospitality tent of the Baptist churches of Hobart at the Royal Hobart Show in October. The tent gives us the opportunity to engage with people as they rest and take a few moments to recuperate, renew and refresh before continuing their time at the show. In 2010 we connected with over 800 people as we served them, conversed with them and help them in any way we could. It provided us with a simple way of practically demonstrating our faith. It gave us a means by which we can move out of our church buildings and engage with our community.

Let me encourage you, if you have opportunity to engage with your local community you will find it an extremely worthwhile experience.

Stephen L Baxter

Discipleship – An exciting adventure

Last week was a significant moment in the life of Hobart Baptist Church, but more importantly, it was significant for the 10 people baptised. It began their life of discipleship. God not only rescued them from their sin, but calls them to the greatest adventure of all – the adventure of being transformed to be more like Jesus and working with him in his work in the world.

Who will you marry?

What will your career be?

House for sale
Where will you live?

Following Jesus is the most important decision we make in our lives. It far exceeds decisions such as who you will marry, your chosen career, or where you might live. But this decision is only the beginning of the life of discipleship.
BonhoefferA number of years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer(1906-1945) famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” These words challenged many over the past
60 years or so, and they still do so today. They remind us that our choice to follow Jesus is not just about being rescued, but it begins a lifestyle of learning to live according to his will rather than our own. We put aside our self interests and submit to his.
Many have taken the journey of discipleship before us and they are our examples. Throughout church history hundreds of thousands of Christians have put aside careers, families, hopes and dreams. For two of Jesus disciples, James and John, it meant leaving the family fishing business behind (Matt 4:21-22). For Abraham, centuries before, it meant leaving behind the middle-class comforts of Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and not knowing where he was going, trusting God would look after him and make him a great nation – and God did.
Living fruitful lives
Discipleship is not reserved for a special few but is the norm for anyone who believes Jesus is their Saviour and the rightful King of the entire world. Yet, Jesus warns us there are some who begin following Jesus that never go on to live fruitful lives for him.
There are many reasons for this but one of them is that following Jesus is not necessarily easy. Just like James, John and Abraham we can expect following Jesus will bring changes in our lives in many ways. We can expect to be challenged in every aspect of our lives: our thinking, attitudes, commitments and behaviour. We can expect to grow, and growth is often uncomfortable and challenging. We can expect to be confronted with things in our lives that are difficult to face. Even though we try to avoid them, God will not forget us. He is gentle, and while he will not force us to change, he will continue to pursue us because he loves us.

Costly discipleship: We can expect to grow, and growth is often uncomfortable and challenging.

What it means to follow
Being a disciple of Jesus is an exciting life of adventure, but it is challenging adventure. It demands things of us that in our own strength seem impossible; yet with God “all things are possible.” (Mk 10:27) It is only as we willingly follow him and allow him to change us that we begin to know him better and then he meets us in intimate and life-transforming ways.
Let us pray for the new followers of Jesus, even as we pray for ourselves, asking God to help us be purposeful, intentional and motivated in our following of Jesus. And may He mature us all to be more and more like Jesus and pray with him that His Kingdom may come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Stephen L Baxter

I Am Excited!

God is up to something! On Sunday, we at Hobart Baptist, witnessed the baptism of 10 people in our service. It was a great time of celebration and thanks to God. I’m sure Jesus is pleased. He is building his church and we have the privilege to be part of it.
Events like this do not happen without the prayers, hard work and faithfulness of God’s people. Over the years many have prayed and asked God to be at work in and through Hobart Baptist Church. Many suffered through difficult times, others were patient and persevering when it seemed little was happening. And there have been quite a few changes that have opened the door for God to work. Now, we see the evidence of God’s answer to those prayers and the hard work.
Remaining level headed
This is a good time to remind ourselves that the church does not exist to serve the needs of the congregation. Instead it exists to serve the mission of God in the world. It is, as Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, [God who] “has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Cor 5:20, my paraphrase)

I recently read about the pastor of a large church who encouraged his leaders to be very clear that they are not to serve the “members” of the church, but make sure they focus on the “mission” of the church. “If we served the members,” he wrote, “we would have to significantly increase the employee mental health benefit of the leaders because members often disagree!”
Some of us may find it shocking to think that your church is not there to serve you. Yet the Bible is clear. In Colossians it says that “He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence” (1:18). Whose church is it? It’s not mine and it’s not yours. It belongs to Jesus. The NIV Application Commentary explains, “If Christ is the head of the church . . . the church does not exist to meet the needs of its members or to insure its institutional survival, but to fulfil the redemptive purposes of Christ, its head.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself expecting the church to first and foremost be here for me. I expect the sermon to be relevant to my life, the music should be a style I like, and the songs ones I am familiar with. The length of the service should suit me, and not ask too much of me, and so on. I’m sure it is true for all of us: it’s not hard to be dissatisfied with some aspects of our church as there is always something not to our taste or liking.
Adjusting our atitude
So how are we to deal with our dissatisfaction? There is nothing wrong with dissatisfaction in itself. If we were never dissatisfied we would never change anything. But allowing our dissatisfaction to become unhealthy can lead us to complaining, to bitterness and even to leaving. We can try to change what we don’t like, or be resistant to any change, even what really needs to happen.
But if the church is here to serve Jesus, and not me or the congregation, then there must be another way. If so, what should be my approach? I wonder if firstly we need to get our priorities right. Is having church the way I like it more important than proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and seeing people coming to know him as Lord? I suggest not. If Jesus is glorified in our times of worship, whatever the style, isn’t that something to celebrate? Today we live in a community where the majority of people don’t even bother and don’t care about Jesus, so if he is honoured, in anyway, we should celebrate with the angels.

If the church is here to serve Jesus, and not me or the congregation, then there must be another way.

That is not to say that God doesn’t enjoy diversity. Obviously the format of some churches will suit some people better than others. And that’s ok. God has made us differently, so he has different styles of church for different people.
At Hobart Baptist Church we have our own style. It is changing, but it is built upon a unique history and a unique future. The future will not be the same as the past, but it will be built upon it.
On Sunday, those who were baptised came from our morning congregation, the Church With No Walls  group, and our refugee Karen community. No one could have anticipated such an event, but it just goes to show that Jesus is at work building his Church, and part of it is happening amongst us.
Let us continually remind each other that there is only one head of the Church and only one person it exists to serve – and it’s not me (the pastor), it’s not the deacons, it is not the congregation and it is not you. It’s Jesus!
Stephen L Baxter

Dad’s Day D ‘n’ M*

Sunday was Father’s Day, a day full of commercialism and consumerism, yet one when we can pause and take time to give thanks for our dads, living and deceased. As with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is more than often one of mixed emotions. In an ideal world, all of us would have positive feelings about our fathers. In reality, it is not true for many people.

"You matter to me"

Amongst any group of people there are those who did not or do not have a positive relationship with their father. From a biblical point of view this is not surprising given we are all broken, fallen human beings; coming from families that are never all they could be. But that doesn’t take away from the hurt, pain and sadness many of us carry. The result is that we can come into adulthood with what some psychologists call a “father-hunger’ which simply means that some of us have never truly been validated, nurtured or affirmed by a father figure.
Yet, the Bible calls us to honour our parents, something we can do despite the difficulties of the past, and something this Day gives us the opportunity to do.
Many men, despite having a “father-hunger” nevertheless go on to be very good fathers. Many women marry a man who is not emotionally absent like their father, and, by the grace of God, enjoy happy and fruitful marriages. Others, of course, are not as fortunate.
So what is a good father?
In the past a man was a ‘good father’ if he worked hard and provided well for his family. Today, we realise how much children need their dads to be loving and involved fathers. Children need time given generously and graciously, even if other matters are pressing. When a father takes time to listen to his kids, to laugh at their jokes, have fun with them, be present for the important events of their lives, he communicates an unmistakable message: “You matter to me.” Nothing says it better.
A good father loves his wife, and gives example to his sons what a loving man is like, while showing his daughters what they should expect in their own future. A good father has integrity. He keeps his word especially to his kids and his wife. In a time when a sense of honour and responsibility seem in short supply, children need such a model. Yet, a loving father does not live through his children. He does not expect to find his own identity nor sense of worth in what his children can accomplish, even as he takes pride in their good works.
Despite the stereotypes of men in our society, a good father is also a man of faith. He believes in a God of mercy and goodness. He is not embarrassed to talk about it, or to show his dependence on God. Such faith is a precious heritage to his children when lack of faith is everywhere.
Grace and mercy
Sadly, most have not experienced a father like this, and so Father’s Day is a day full of mixed feelings. As we remember our own father, no matter our own experience and memories of him, we have the opportunity to know and experience God as Father. Our Heavenly Father does not and will not let us down like our earthly fathers, and always has our best interests at heart. It is as we experience the love of our Heavenly Father that we can honour, and where appropriate forgive, our earthly fathers.
For us who know our Heavenly Father, it is possible for Father’s Day to be a day of honouring, forgiveness, healing and freedom as we allow the grace and mercy of God to impact our lives.
May God bless you and your family this Father’s Day.

Stephen L Baxter
*(Deep & Meaningful)

Baptism: Dying and coming to life again

On September 11 this year a significant event will take place here Hobart Baptist Church. And it has nothing to do with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York. On that day the focus of our service will be the baptism of at least ten people coming from across our church including from our Karen community and our Church With No Walls congregation. What a wonderful day of celebration it will be. Water

Baptism is central to our life as Christians. It marks a significant point in our life of discipleship and is a public declaration that we follow Jesus.

Baptism is not a religious ritual or church tradition. It is far more important than that. Its significance and meaning is found in the death of Jesus. Jesus died in our place and for our sins, but more than that, as the Messiah and Son of God he was victorious over death. His resurrection confirms that victory and is a guarantee of the promise of new and everlasting life.

Baptism therefore is the means by which people who have repented of their sins and chosen to follow Jesus demonstrate their union with Christ. Baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection. By being immersed in water, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each person acknowledges that Jesus’ death and resurrection is their death and resurrection. Baptism symbolises burial and cleansing; death to the old life of unbelief and resurrection to new life; purification from sin; the receiving of the Holy Spirit and becoming a member of the body of Christ.

Baptism is the defining mark, the crossing over a line, of moving from living in the kingdom of this world to living in the Kingdom of God. In many deep and profound ways, it is a demonstration of the good news of all that Jesus has done for us.

If you are considering baptism have a chat to your pastor or church leader; perhaps God is calling you too in a celebration of faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection.

How Does Your Church Garden Grow? By planting of course!

Last weekend, as part of 2020 Vision of the Baptist Churches of Hobart, Grant Morrison from the Hunter District (Newcastle region, NSW) led a training workshop in church planting and evangelism.Hunter Valley, NSW
Grant is involved with the Baptist churches of the Hunter region and their vision is to grow to 100 healthy churches by 2030. This is not dissimilar to the vision of the Baptist churches of Hobart to grow to 2,000 people, attending 20 communities of faith by the year 2020.
When we think of church planting we often think of buildings, programs, budgets and staff, but these were far from the mind of Jesus and the disciples (except perhaps Judas). The early church met in homes and small groups and there is no historical evidence of church buildings until after 300 AD. So when it comes to church planting as part of our 2020 Vision the concept needs to include a wide variety of churches, some meeting in settings we are familiar with and some meeting in different ways.
An example from the Chinese Church
The training program last weekend was based on Mark 4:26, the parable of the growing seed, and introduced a simple way for believers to meet together in homes with a focus on the important issues of evangelism, discipleship and leadership development.
Coming out of the experience of the church in places Chinese House Churchlike China our training taught how such meetings can be effective in engaging people who are presently far away from God. Christians in China are often forced to meet in their homes due to persecution, yet in this format the church is growing rapidly. The training took what the Chinese have learnt in their situation, adopting and adapting to our situation.
Saying ‘Yes’
One exciting aspect of our training over the weekend was the way it brought together evangelism, discipleship, church planting and equipping leaders all into one process. More often than not the pattern of churches in Australia is to have a series of programs for evangelism, discipleship etc. but here they are part of the sYES!imple process. Each person is discipled, trained and equipped, by being taken on a journey of saying “yes”—yes to listening to the gospel, yes to following Jesus, yes to baptism, yes to becoming church, yes to witnessing to others, and so on.
As part of our 2020 Vision we are praying we will see a new era of church planting emerge where new communities of faith are established across Hobart. Last weekend’s training was another small step in the process with a focus on building desire, capacity and capability of our churches in evangelism and mission.
Will you also pray we will see people in Hoabrt come to know Jesus? Remaining motivated and focussed – these will make the diference to church growth in Hobart, no matter what denomination!

Which Wolf Wins? Staying ahead of the anxiety battle

Do you remember that feeling of excitement and worry of your first day of school? It’s a Was your first day of school full of anxiety?long time ago for some of us, but it was the beginning of our future. Which was it for you – excitement, anxiety, or something else entirely? How did you respond? Feeling anxious often brings out some funny behaviour. Some of us talk too much, and some of us withdraw. Some don’t know where to look, while others look for a hole to climb into.
Of course that is not the only time we have felt anxious. It happens throughout our lives. In fact, most of us are anxious about something now, even as you read. Surprisingly, we tend to deal with every moment of anxiety in similar ways. If we look back on our lives we can see recurring patterns of behaviour.
Anxiety is part of our lives both as individuals, and as larger groups such as church congregations. Researchers suggest that congregations behave in ways similar to individuals and families. Each congregation has its issues that bring anxiety. And when it comes, similar recurring patterns of behaviours rise to the surface. We can’t avoid these moments of anxiety, but we can be aware of them, observe our behaviour and chose to respond rather than react. This is not as easy as it might sound; nevertheless, it is no doubt part of what it means to be the body of Christ.
A real-life example
I sense that perhaps one of the underlying issues causing anxiety for the church I am a part of, Hobart Baptist Church, is an ongoing concern that we are not all we would like to be as a church. In fact we are not all we believe we can be and we are not really sure what God wants us to be in the future.
Hobart Baptist has an amazing history going back 125 years at our site in Elizabeth Street. What is more, we can trace a link back to the first Baptist Church in Australia in Harrington Street. Over the years our building has been filled with community, business and political leaders, including state and federal ministers, even hosting a State Funeral in 1963.
Such a history can be a burden to carry, particularly when attendances are dwindling and budgets are difficult to meet. Given this reality it is not an exaggeration to suggest that a low level anxiety simmers below the surface of our congregation. Most of the time we hold it in check, but now and again it flairs up and it is not a pretty sight.
But we don’t have to succumb to this anxiety. We can take a deep breath, look towards the future and not react to our anxiety. Anglican bishop Jim Kelsey once wrote:

“This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn closer to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy. . . . We are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.”

If we allow loss, grief and anxiety to get the upper hand we stop trusting each other, our vision becomes clouded and we are unable to see the present clearly. Our future can also look bleak. When anxiety rises, it is important for us to deal with it in helpful ways.
A good analogy
There is a Native American story about a grandfather who was talking to his grandson about how he felt. The grandfather said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The grandson asked him, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered: “The one I feed.”

Howling Wolf
“Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered: “The one I feed.”

Over the years there have been times when anxiety has tended to overtake good sense, yet over all it has been met with good grace, patience and love. If it were not so, Hobart Baptist Church would have ceased to exist. Now, as we move into a new future we could allow anxiety to rule our behaviours, or we can let go of all that we think we are supposed to be and embrace all of who God has called us to be. Doing this honours the past, but it embraces the future.
In a world full of brokenness, violence and oppression, a safe place where you can be accepted and loved makes all the difference in the world. I believe Jesus wants his church to be a place where anxiety is not allowed to rule, so that those with a broken heart can find rest and have it gently mended, and move into a better future. Peace, love and trust can prevail over anxiety, because that is what Jesus died for.
What about you? What was your first day of school like? Can you stand back and observe if this is still the way you manage anxiety? What does your future look like?
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

Join the Club

Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill 1875-1941

What on earth is the church for? I don’t know if you’ve ever asked this question, but I often do. Can it be described as a friendly club?

Evelyn Underhill, a well-read English writer known for her works about spirituality once remarked in a radio broadcast in 1936, “The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways.”
Writing 75 years ago Underhill highlights how easy it is for us to slip into assuming church is a “comfortable religious club”, rather than a participation in the work of God in the world. And in doing so exposes the false assumption that the work of the church is done by those trained and ordained rather than by “every one if its members.” She underlines how it is ordinary Christians pursuing the work that has been given them that are the ones carrying out the saving work of God in the world.
Don’t I have to get my act together?
Too often we assume that God’s work is for others, those training or the more spiritual, but not me. But in doing so we ignore the clear teaching of the New Testament that we are all called to be God’s witnesses and to work with God in his saving work. We assume we need training, more education or a certificate before we can get involved. Yet this is sheer nonsense. There is no evidence that God ever delayed plans waiting for people to “get their act together”. Think about Moses, or Peter, or Mary the mother of Jesus, or Paul (previously known as Saul). None were chosen for their training, their impeccable record or their overwhelming competence.
God chooses ordinary people to do his work and that includes you and me. Martin Luther and the reformers had it right – baptism is our ordination to ministry. Every one of us is called by God to be ministers of his grace and carriers of his good news in the world. The church is NOT a “comfortable religious club”, but an active community on a mission – a mission we have been called to by God.
Please pray with me that each of us who are part of Jesus’ Church will find our place in God’s mission to our locality and the world. 

Will You Be My Friend?

 Friendliness, Fellowship and Hospitality . . . Churches like to be known as friendly, welcoming and inviting. And that is not a bad thing, but is it all we should be?
We can define fellowship as: “a body of individuals joined together through similar interests, beliefs, and brotherhood.” In general, churches do join in fellowship through worship, various events and community outreach activities.Being friends
Yet often fellowship and friendliness have more to do with finding people like ourselves who are part of our social group, educational background, lifestyle and values.  We find these people friendly because they are comfortable to be with and a “good fit”.
But God expects more of us than that. At the heart of our faith is that God welcomes all of us home into his family. Although we are strangers to God, and quite incompatible, he nevertheless invites us into relationship. While the Bible is clear that both fellowship and hospitality are important parts of church life, it is clear that we are not to have one without the other.
Fellowship between Christians is a foundational part of our life together. So is hospitality. But hospitality is more than being in relationship with other Christians. It is about being open, vulnerable, and relational with strangers and those who don’t fit in.
What did Jesus do?
Jesus spent a lot of time with these people, called “sinners” in his day. In fact, he spent so much time with them that he made many around him quite uncomfortable.
One example in the gospels is the story of how Matthew became one of Jesus disciples, found in Matthew 9:9-13. He approaches Matthew, a tax collector at the time, and calls him to follow. The next thing you know, there is a party at Matthew’s place and his tax collector friends show up as well. The Pharisees are quite offended, but Jesus explains that these are exactly the people he has come for. Just as it would be silly for a doctor to avoid sick people, it would be ridiculous for Jesus to avoid sinners.
Here Jesus demonstrates that hospitality is more than mere fellowship between friends – it is showing hospitality to the stranger. He shifts the focus from our own comfort to that of the heart and mission of God, to reaching out to those who need befriending, healing and family.
What it really means to ‘offer hospitality’
While being friendly often grows out of the idea that the person we are meeting will have much in common with us, by extending hospitality to a stranger we are assuming that this person most likely will have little in common with us. In fact the person could be someone unpleasant or even dangerous, yet following Jesus’ example we engage them and offer “hospitality.”
God calls us to be a friendly and hospitable church. Our fellowship is not just with those we get along with, but it is to reflect the nature of God, who sent Jesus into the world to save those who are lost and don’t fit in.
Jesus, I think, would have been at home with the old saying, “there are no strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet.” Let’s pray that your church fellowship responds just like Jesus did.
Stephen L Baxter