When it comes to religion, Aussies behave somewhat differently to the rest of the world. We live, we are told, in one of the most secular countries in the world and the latest census figures tend to confirm it. Today more than 20% of Australians say they have no religion at all. Similar surveys in England and Wales say there are 16% with no religion, and only 1.5% in the USA.
We live in bewildering times. While many suggest that the church is slipping further into irrelevancy the statistics show that people’s interest in spirituality continues to rise. Despite the increase in the New Age, following Jesus and being part of his church is not accepted as normal and we are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with the people in our city.
What are we to do? How are we to live?
In his book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, Roland Allen tells the story of Big Hunter, chief among the Sioux. After fleeing into Canada and being visited by missionaries, he talked to them about his desire to become a Christian. The missionaries told him he couldn’t be baptised because he must have only one wife. Big Hunter, as chief, had many wives. He didn’t want to abandon any of them and leave them as widows so not knowing how to care for them he chose to hang all but one of them.
Now with only one wife he went back to the missionaries and informed them he was ready to become a Christian. But they drove him away a second time, this time because he was a murderer. In despair he returned to his heathen gods and although his children became Christians, he lived as an unbeliever for the rest of his life.
The Courage of Convictions
Big Hunter’s experience of Christian mission was both distorted and soul destroying. Sadly, millions across Australia, whether directly or indirectly carry within them a similar distorted image and much of it resulting from the activity of the church in our convict past.
I remember evangelist John Smith once remark that the first Europeans that immigrated to North America did so for their convictions – freedom of religion and freedom to trade. He went on to say that the first Europeans in Australian came for their convictions too, but very different convictions.
In 1778 Britain started using Australia as a dumping ground for criminals, and so began the history of our nation. Unlike America, we have no noble tales or inscriptions to inspire us from our past. We were the scum of British society and all we have is a ball and chain to revive the spirit of our founding fathers.
In sharp contrast to America, early Christian leaders in Australia were part of the ruling establishment. American Christian leaders were firmly on the side of the general population; Australia’s Christian leaders were very much against them. Rather than seeing convicts as humans needing hope, they were sinners needing punishment.
The cynicism that developed in this environment is reflected in the scorn for the Anglican priest Samuel Marsden. In New Zealand he is celebrated as having brought the gospel to the Maoris; in Australia he is, in the words of the convicts themselves, the “flogging parson” who “prays for our souls on Sunday, and takes it out of bodies during the rest of the week.”
I suggest that since the beginning, the church in Australia was compromised. Even to this day being a Christian leader attracts cynicism and ridicule which is perhaps best illustrated by an incident in 1832 when 300 female convicts in Hobart bared their backsides to the Governor of Tasmania during a chapel service.
Realising where we now stand
Similar attitudes still exist today. Ex-patriot Australian author and critic Robert Hughes suggests, “Any political candidate who declared God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser” (Time Magazine, September 2000).
Our past has inoculated our community against the church. In much the same way that a dose of disease can help the body build immunity, our city has developed immunity to anything to do with the church and God’s good news. Not surprisingly the church in Hobart today finds itself in the middle of an alien, hostile environment. We are only slowly coming to grips with the fact that our city is a mission field in its own right.
Even if we haven’t been fully aware of the trends in our city, we have felt them. It has been easy to feel threatened and form holy huddles wondering what on earth is happening and quietly getting on with what we have always done. However, many are seeing that such a response would be to turn our back all that Jesus Christ has called us to be and do.
Jesus created the church to be the visible and witnessing community of the gospel, a sign of God’s reign and the means to display it throughout the world. And despite the challenges of our current situation, nothing is impossible for God. From God’s perspective our present predicament is more of an opportunity than a threat. It is a time to rediscover, reinterpret, and revision church life and ministry within our city.
In fact such a rediscovery is already taking place. Some call it ‘missional’ church, other say it is just ‘normal’ church. Whatever the term, God is helping the church reclaim its missionary purpose and be a missionary presence with its community.
So where do we begin?
It is important to remember that Jesus didn’t leave behind any books, creeds, or a philosophy, but a visible community – the church. It is to this community that he has entrusted God’s ongoing work in the world.
Shaped by his story, the story of Jesus, the gospel itself is to be lived through the life and witness of his people. Allowing the story of the crucified, rejected Messiah to impact us again will help us in our weaknesses, and it will be our strength. We are to hold fast to the story of the cross and allow it to indwell our lives, witness, and worship. The Gospel is to be lived, not just talked about. As St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” It is mostly about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is a change of attitude.
Trends within Australia suggest that people are willing to listen to churches that step out of the stereotypes of the past and begin to engage with their local community. Social commentator Hugh MacKay writes in his book Reinventing Australia, “It is no accident that the resurgence of interest in values and morality coincides with a desire to recreate a sense of community within Australian society.”
It is clear that there is within the hearts of many Australians an increasing awareness of “emptiness” and a growing realisation that something is missing at their core. It is the good news of Jesus that they need and as Mal Garvin suggests, “If Australians could see Jesus for who He is, rather than the caricatures many carry, they would discover He is in fact the only King they could wholeheartedly accept.”
Our task is to let the reality of the life of Jesus shine through our living so that it penetrates past the distortions and preconceived ideas embedded in the Australian psyche and enters deeply into the heart of our fellow Hobartians. Let us pray that God who can do more that we could possibly ask or think, prepares us for the work he is about to do among us.
Stephen L Baxter