The Tricky Nature of Loving Beyond Measure

During our Sunday morning gatherings I am currently in the middle of a series of messages focusing on what it is to be the Church in our day and age. Over the past two weeks we have looked at how the church is to be loved because Jesus loves it, and how being part of the church is not an option, but an integral part of what it means to be saved.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On both occasions I’ve quoted from one of my heroes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism. Right from the beginning he was an opponent. Just two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor he criticised him in a radio broadcast warning Germany against slipping into cult worship of its leader. He was also the first and virtually only person from the church who resisted Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews. He died a martyr, executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the prison where he was held captive was liberated.
Bonhoeffer’s short book Life Together is an exploration of Church life written during the time when he taught in an illegal underground seminary outlawed by the Nazis. Because it was written at a time when the German church was by and large caught up in idolatry of Nazism, it has profound insights into church life.
In his book he writes, “Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
In other words, we all have an ideal picture of what we believe our church should be like. But our picture, no matter how well informed by the Bible, will only be our picture not God’s. So before we can begin to fully appreciate what the church should be, we need to have our ideas broken down and shattered. If it is not, Bonhoeffer suggests, we will try and impose our picture of what the church should be like upon our church. All that will do is bring conflict and will end up destroying the very community I’m trying to build.
How many people do you know have left the church or criticise it because it hasn’t lived up to their expectations? My guess it is quite a few. These people, Bonhoeffer says, have a picture of what the Church should look like and their criticism is driven by the church’s failure to fulfil that picture. Yet their frustration and embarrassment is fuelled, not by a failure of the church, but their “idealised image” of the church.
We need to learn from this profound insight. Moving on from disappointment, frustration and embarrassment with the church is not easy and many people never recovered from their “great disillusionment.” As a result they remaining hurt, bitter and estranged. But it doesn’t need to be so.
In his book Bonhoeffer goes on to suggest that if you are frustrated with church and are willing to do something about it, then there is something you can do. The best place to start, he suggests, is to choose to love your brothers and sisters, particularly those causing you the most grief or frustration.
Being part of Jesus’ church is not easy. We are thrust into relationship with real, flesh-and-blood fallen people. Some are gentle, mature and lovable saints, but some are hard to live with, socially awkward, high-maintenance and simply difficult. And I’m talking about myself!
Yet there is a point that we all need to come to where we see that those we are criticising are just as messed up as I am, and that I am just as capable of hurting someone as the next person.
Rather than allowing my frustrations, hurts and criticism rule my thoughts and actions I choose to allow the grace of God and the love of God change me and my attitudes. As someone once said, “I haven’t really understood what it is to be part of God’s family until I’m called to love those members of God’s family that I find most difficult.”
So let’s continue to pray that by his grace God will enable us to be the church he desires us to be and that Jesus died for to enable us to become.
Stephen L Baxter

Being Willing to Count the Cost

English: PressKit photo of Rick Warren
Rick Warren

Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in the US, tells the story of how they paid for their first church service way back in 1980. Their small home Bible study of four people went $6,500 into debt using their own personal credit cards to ensure the service went ahead. While not advocating the use of credit cards in such a way Warren uses the story to illustrate how willing they were to pay the cost of reaching people for Christ. That first service attracted 200 people; today the church has over 15,000 members.
Warren suggests that when it comes to mission, evangelism and outreach most churches ask the wrong question. Instead of asking, “How much will it cost?” they should ask “Who will it reach?” Evangelism always costs money, but it should never be looked at as an expense – it’s always an investment. After all, he asks, “How much is a soul worth? If you spend $500 on a newspaper ad that reaches one unbeliever for Christ, is it worth it?”
This year at Hobart Baptist we’ve had the joy of seeing a number of people come know Jesus and witnessed 13 baptisms (including 10 on one Sunday in September). What a delight that has been. But we can’t relax and feel the job is done, as there is so much more to do. What will it cost us and what are we willing to pay to see people come to Christ in Hobart?
Next year Baptist churches across Hobart will be focusing, among other things, on each one of us reaching out to one other person who currently doesn’t know Christ (or perhaps once went to church). Our aim will be for each one to reach one.
This may feel a little daunting for some of us, but we can encourage each other to pray, make connection with, talk to and befriend another person. It may be a family member, a friend, or someone who we haven’t even met yet. We can pray for each other that God will lead us to the right person. If each of us are willing to pay the cost of reaching one person, imagine how the angels would celebrate and what it would mean for our churches.
Early next year (February Friday 24th and Saturday 25th) we will be holding our second engageHOBART conference. This is the conference of the Baptist Churches of Greater Hobart and is part of our 2020 Vision. The conference focuses on evangelism, mission and church planting and aims to increase our desire, capacity and capability to reach out to others. Let me encourage you to make the time to attend. Last year about 35 people from Hobart Baptist attended and it would be great to see at least that number again in 2012.
More information and registration details are available on the conference website at www.engagehobart.com.au or have a chat with Karen Stott, our 2020 Vision representative.
Getting serious about evangelism will cost something – our time, our money and our effort. Will you pray with me that God will inspire and motivate us all to reach out to one other person during 2012? Whether you live in Hobart or not, are you willing to pay that cost?
Stephen L Baxter

The Church – not to be written off

Many people in Australia, including some news media and sociologists, have predicted the death of the Church in Australia. Sure we Geoffrey Blaineyhave 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.Keith Suter
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