At the recent engageHOBART conference, Jenny and I led a workshop on Developing an Aussie Gospel. In our workshop we explored what we might be able to do to make the gospel message more meaningful in our Australian culture.
This is no easy task. Our community has changed so much over the past 50 years, and recently we have witnessed a growing criticism of the church that is increasingly hostile. Although we are called by Jesus to be messengers of the “good news” of the Kingdom there are many who in no way believe our message is “good” news at all.
In addition to exploring new ways of doing ‘church’ and revisiting some of our many treasured forms, we also need to learn how best to communicate the gospel to Australians.
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Like many others leaders of messianic movements, Jesus’ life was nothing special when it ended as many of them did with a crucifixion. He was another dead leader with a band of
disillusioned and scattered followers. But something happened. Before long numbers exploded and over the next 300 years they spread across the entire Roman Empire.
What was the difference? This Messiah was alive.
The Jesus they followed was alive
For nearly two thousand years Christians have . . . Read More >>>
Over the past few decades many in the Western world have witnessed a growing hostility against Christians and churches. Such is the growth in this hostility that the word “christophobia” was coined in 2003 by Jewish scholar Joseph Weiler in his book, A Christian Europe? He used the word not as we might presume to describe anti-Christian behaviour in general, but focussed on what he saw as Europe’s particular embarrassment with its Christian past.
However, today, ten years later, the word’s usage covers a wider range of responses. This includes, as suggested above, the refusal by some to concede that Christian moral ideas have a place in the arena of public debate. Here christophobia is more likely to be defined as “having an irrational fear and hatred of Christ and of Christians.”
For example, in our community today it seems that one of the worst things one can be label is “homophobic”. While the technical definition is “having an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals” more often that not Christians are denounced, as has occurred here in Hobart, as “homohobic” just for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage.
We live in a strange world. Many who call for Christians to be tolerant of their point of view, are less than tolerant in accepting our point of view. And while they advocate for a diversity of views, they are quick to denounce views they do not agree with theirs.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Throughout history Christians have faced similar resistance. In fact, the more God’s presence is felt in a community, the more opposition God’s presence provokes. This was true for Jesus, so it will also be true for his followers. The more vigorously the gospel is presented the more the forces that deny it will intensify their opposing efforts.
Yet, while we may detect a growing christophobia here in Australia this cannot compared to the persecution faced by our brothers and sisters in other countries. According to the German based International Society for Human Rights (a secular organisation) some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year (411 each day, and 17 every hour). It happens in 133 countries, representing nearly two-thirds of all nations on earth. In countries like, Mali, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, Christians are murdered or forced to leave their homes in large numbers. Churches are destroyed and so too are Christian villages.
All this information could lead us to lose hope and despair. Yet, despite what we and our fellow Christians around the world experience we of all people should be full of hope and expectation. Why? We know how the story ends. We are those who live in the light of the resurrection and the promise it contains that Jesus will one day return and establish his Kingdom. We are those who live today with an eye to the future when God’s purposes will be realised and the world will live in peace.
It is in this hope that we are called to live. May God grant to his people around the world the ability to stand firm, be strong and endure in these promises despite what the world may bring against us.
Stephen L Baxter
Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.
Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”
However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”
My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.
How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.
“We too are learning what it means to be church . . .
Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.
In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .
So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.
Stephen L Baxter
There many things people find difficult about Jesus. One of them is believing his resurrection actually took place. In fact, the majority of Australians today consider such a view unreasonable, unrealistic, irresponsible and irrelevant.
Yet sadly, as never before, many in our community, families, schools, and businesses need to know the reality and power of the resurrection more than ever. Despite our affluence, many lives are full of despair, disillusionment and brokenness, while some endure a living death. They need resurrection, not just at the end of their lives, but tomorrow and next week. They need something to help them see past their misery and depression in hope and anticipation.
Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) one of the principle founders of the Harvard Law School, and possibly one of the greatest legal minds who ever lived, believed the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a hoax and set out to disprove it. He was certain that a careful examination of the internal witness of the Gospels based upon his famous Treatise on the Law of Evidence (still in print today) would dispel all the myths at the heart of Christianity.
However, after a thorough examination of the evidence he came to the exact opposite conclusion. “It was impossible,” he wrote, “that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead…”
Wouldn’t it be exciting if those we know facing hard times and are sceptical about the resurrection, came to the same realisation as Greenleaf and could see the resurrection for what it is? Life would take on new meaning and depth for them.
Wouldn’t it be exciting if those facing hard times could see the resurrection for what it is?
Believing in the resurrection brings hope and helps to bring appreciation that there is more to life than we face now. In the midst of our trials and struggles, we need to be reminded that God loves resurrection and is willing to bring it to our lives today.
However, there is a catch. The paradox to resurrection life is that you cannot have it without dying first. God only gives resurrection life to those who need it. So many of us want such life but without the dying part.
Yet, surprising as it may seem, when we go through difficult times we are closer to experiencing resurrection life than before. It is as if the experience of suffering and despair herald the coming of resurrection.
What difficult things are you currently facing that God wants to see changed? He is longing for you to reach out and trust him for the impossible, bringing new life out of dead things.
Are you ready to trust him?
Stephen L Baxter
Last week at Hobart Baptist I began a series of sermons to work through the Book of Acts. I expect that as we read through Luke’s account of the early days of the church, we will be struck by the sense of momentum and adventure.
Those early days saw the emergence of communities of faith that were unique in the world because of their mutual accountability and generosity. People were drawn to God through an amazing mixture of radical community, miracles, and Holy Spirit-empowered living and witness. The result was a church that grew at an exponential rate.
But it was not all easy. The adventure was full of moments of great challenge and crisis. There were imprisonments and conflicts, persecution and even premature death. In a strange way these all added to the sense of wonder and adventure.
The impression you get reading Acts is that Jesus is building his church and the people are playing ‘catch up’. Time and time again God pops up and takes the initiative and everyone has to readjust to the new thing that his happening. Just like a surfer who sits on his surfboard waiting for a wave, Acts is like a story about a wave generated by the Holy Spirit which the followers of Jesus struggle to catch. It is the story of God on the move and his people going along for the ride.
Perhaps you could also work your way through the book of Acts over the next few weeks?
If you do, it is my prayer that God will help you to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church community today; and then having perceived what he is doing we will have the courage to “catch the wave” and continuing being part of God’s great adventure.
I’d love to have your thoughts as you read it through! How does your ‘surfing’ go?
Stephen L Baxter
The Church comes in for a bit of bad press these days and many ask, “Why even bother with church?” There are many followers of Jesus who have given up on the church. Many have been hurt and tell painful stories of bad experiences with our institutionalized forms of Christianity.
I’ve heard it suggested, and I have no reason to doubt it, that across Hobart the largest grouping of people calling themselves Christians don’t belong to any church. And by church I don’t just mean our more traditional congregations but also home churches, pub churches, small groups, and so called ‘para’ church organisations. There are many people, Christians included, who just don’t bother with church anymore. They must have once, how else would they know Jesus?
It is not easy to have a positive view of the Church in our community today. There is a strong secular voice emerging across Australia that paints Christians as freaks, fanatics, and frauds. It paints the church as the problem rather than an answer, and calls not for freedom of religion but freedom from religion. The impression one is left with is that the church is somewhat under siege, so why bother with it at all?
Last week (Sunday January 15) I began a sermon series on the Church and suggested a number of reasons why we should bother, and we’ll explore them in subsequent weeks . . . but here are two of them:
The Church is God’s idea: Matthew 16:18 records Jesus saying, “I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Jesus makes it clear that the Church is his not ours. The Church is not a human idea or construct but comes from the heart of God. Sure we have put our human touches to it, and at times made a complete mess of it, but at its core the Church belongs to God not us. (Here the word ‘church’ can get a little confusing because we use it in so many different ways. Church can mean worship services, buildings, denominations, the body of Christ, and so on. When Jesus uses the word ‘Churc’h here he is talking about the people that make up his Church in its many and various forms and places.)
Jesus also makes it clear that the job of building the Church is not ours but his. That is not to say we are passive, we have work to do, yet it is sobering to remind ourselves that Jesus is the owner and builder of the Church. If we believe things are going badly then our first recourse is to direct the problem to him, not try and fix it all up by ourselves.
Secondly, the Church is precious: In his letter to the church in Ephesus, in a section about marriage Paul makes the point that “Christ loves the Church and gave himself for it” (5:25). Elsewhere he says, “You have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20).
The Church is so precious that the eternal son of God was willing to become a human being and suffer the agonies of the cross and death for the sake of the Church. In other words, in giving up his heavenly riches, Christ made it possible for the Church to share in those riches. That makes the Church the most precious thing on earth. This may be a bit hard for us to fathom, especially those of us who have been hurt in our churches, and it challenges our attitudes towards the church. Doesn’t it?
What these two points highlight for us is that being part of God’s Church is not really an option. In fact, being part of God’s Church is part of God’s acceptance of me. Our forms of church may vary from time to time and from place to place, but even so, when I was rescued by Jesus I was saved into the Church and its local expression.
The idea that I was saved to be a solitary Christian was never in God’s mind. In fact, a person who follows Jesus but is not part of church is like a baby born in an orphanage. They are certainly a human being and a part of the human race, but it was never God’s intention that any child should live outside of family.
Jesus died for the Church and despite its faults and failings loves it immensely. There are many reasons why we should bother with church, I’ve named just two, but ultimately it is because Jesus loves the Church. Do you?
Stephen L Baxter
Earlier this month Olive Tree Media, led by Karl Faase pastor of Gymea Baptist in Sydney, launched the results from their Australian Communities Report conducted by McCrindle Research. The aim of the research was to discover what Australians really think of Christian faith, Christians and the Church.
It found that “Church abuse” is the number one obstacle to Australians believing in Christianity with more than three-quarters of the people surveyed (76%) saying church abuse was a “massive” or “significant” negative influence on them. The report goes on to list further top 10 “belief blockers” for Christianity as hypocrisy, “judging others”, religious wars, suffering, issues around money, that the church is “outdated”, Hell and condemnation, homosexuality, exclusivity and celebrity endorsement of Christianity.
The results are based on a national online survey of over 1000 people who were subsequently followed up in three focus groups made up of non-Christians. Although a small number were used in the survey, it used standard processes that can be extended to the broader population.
Further findings in the report suggests that just over half of the population (51%) are “not open at all” to changing their religious world view, while parents and families are by far the biggest influence on their attitudes to Christianity and the church (67%). Interestingly 80% believe Jesus died on a cross and 52% believe he rose from the dead, 42% said Jesus was just a man who with no divine powers while only 17% said he did not exist at all.
As a sample of the Australian, and Hobartian, population the report is a valuable resource for us in that it helps us appreciate what the average person in the street thinks. Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen said at the launch, “The first thing I noticed as a communicator is how ill-informed the audience is. My expectation of what people know is far higher than what, in fact, the research has indicated.”
This is important for us. It is easy for those of us who live mostly in Christian circles to assume we understand what people think. However, religion, Christianity and church are often no-go areas and so we never get the chance to talk about them.
Despite the fact that the report’s findings are a real challenge for us, we should not be discouraged. In fact, as Archbishop Jensen suggests, the findings should help us “translate the faith in a way which will be heard by the real people we deal with, and not the imaginary people that I think we ought to be dealing with.”
If you would like a copy of the summary of the report Click Here
Stephen L Baxter
PS Apologies for the late upload this week. I’ve been away in Melbourne.
Many people in Australia, including some news media and sociologists, have predicted the death of the Church in Australia. Sure we have some problems and the “good old days” of 1950s and 60s will never return, but one should never write off the Church.
In his recent book, A Short History of Christianity, veteran Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, suggests that while Christianity is in decline across Europe, such a “decline cannot yet be viewed as permanent.” In fact he writes, “A conclusion of this book is that Christianity has repeatedly been reinvented. Every religious revival is a reflection of a previous state of decline; but no revival and perhaps no decline is permanent.” So despite what some people may have hoped, his book is not an obituary of the church, quite the contrary.
Dr Keith Suter, economic commentator, author and foreign policy analyst for Sky TV agrees and suggests there are many indicators why the Church will not die. Firstly, the decline is not uniform. There are many places where churches are not declining but are experiencing significant growth. This is as true in Australia as it is across Europe. Secondly, denominational loyalty, which was a major issue in Australia in the past, is now virtually meaningless. Today people feel free to move around from church to church until they find what they want. While this is threatening to some, it is also a window of opportunity for churches willing to think and act flexibly.
Thirdly, churches have a monopoly over death. Death still haunts people. So while there is no law saying you have to be buried via a church, most Australians are buried via some form of a religious service.
Not surprisingly Suter concludes that despite the fact that Australia is often thought of as one of the world’s most materialist countries, spirituality has never disappeared and people continue to wonder where they might spend eternity.
He is not suggesting that people will suddenly start pouring back into churches. Yet there is much in our society upon which churches can enter into a dialogue with those who are seeking. Here we have the opportunity to present to them the gospels but in ways they can engage with. His one condition is that churches need to learn to be flexible and accommodating.
Let us continue to pray that God will enable us to be flexible and accommodating as instruments of his purposes in your locality.
Stephen L Baxter