At one recent deacons meeting we focussed on how difficult it is to talk about Jesus and church with our non-Christian work colleagues, family members and friends. We lamented their unwillingness to even begin to engage in a conversation about the things we find important. Talking about some of the ultimate questions of life, death, God and religion are ‘no-go’ areas.
Theologian Tony Kelly suggested these discussions lie “far outside any Australian context when the summer sun is shining, the barbecue is sizzling and the beer is cold… This is not the atmosphere for unsettling talk, let alone theology.”
‘ave a Go Ya Mug!
Here lies a paradox in the heart of Australian society. While a large proportion of the population still identifies itself as Christian, nevertheless most of them have never explored Christianity personally nor are even willing to discuss it. They rely on cultural stereotypes and second-hand data to form their understanding and that is where the matter rests. Any discussion that has the potential to move into these areas are quickly closed down.
Despite this, I don’t believe Jesus is irrelevant to Australians; it is just that for many reasons it is difficult to find a basis on which we can talk to them about him. While many people around the world show an indifference or hostility to hearing the gospel, Australians seem to have a unique, almost aggressive aversion.
Such aversion has its roots, I suggest, buried in the early years of European settlement. It is as Professor Richard Campbell suggests in his essay, The Character of Australian Religion, “… the timing and manner of our founding is reflected in the marginal position of religious doctrine in our national consciousness …”
While some maintain Australia is the world’s first secular society, historian Manning Clark emphasised the substantive contribution of religion in our formation. In his 1976 Boyer Lecture he identified “three different visions of God and man” that arrived with the first Europeans: those of the Enlightenment (Governor Phillip along with his officials and soldiers); members of the established Church of England (Rev Richard Johnson, officials, soldiers and convicts); and Catholics (convicts). Since then, other visions have joined the project and produced a complex interplay of ideas and influences, yet still, the foundations had been laid and remain significant.
At the same time, during the second year of European settlement, the French revolution took place. This signalled finally that Christianity had lost much of its official status across Europe. This was the Age of Reason and Enlightenment not Faith. Yet despite this the Church of England remained closely tied to government even if many church goers tended to be more practical agnostics and atheists, than Christian.
In Australia, the effect, as described by Clark in his Short History of Australia, was that the ‘enlightened’ Governor Phillip and his officers “mocked their religion in private as a false mythology, while in public they supported it for its social utility.”
A Moral Policeman
This ambiguity made life difficult for First Fleet Anglican chaplain Richard Johnson. Regarded by the state as their servant, Johnson received a salary for the performance of a range of religious and civil duties. Governor Philip found Johnson useful in helping maintain order through his preaching against drunkenness, gambling and prostitution, seeing him as being a moral policeman for the colony.
However, as Clark suggests, Johnson was a tormented soul “because those in power approved of his moral functions but were indifferent to his religious aspirations.” In fact, Clark goes on to suggest that Johnson and his successors’ “work as moral policemen so identified them in the eyes of the world with a particular social order that their charge to all to receive the gifts of divine love seemed arrant hypocrisy.”
Looking back it is clear to see how the gospel got off to a bad start in Australia. Given Johnson represented a church from the upper classes and most convicts were from the lower classes or Irish Catholics, made matters worse. It left Johnson’s gospel message both unappealing and unacceptable to the convict world.
Perhaps here, in the early days of settlement, that the seeds of reticence were sown into the Australian psyche with the gospel message being as unappealing and unacceptable in Australia today as it was then. Although the majority of Australians still identify themselves as Christian, our historical roots, fuelled by powerful thinkers, writers and a media that preaches a secular humanist worldview, has left most Australians unsure and too embarrassed to articulate what their identification as Christian means.
Given this, the church in Australia faces some significant challenges, none more than finding ways to dialogue with our friends, families and neighbours on matters – including spirituality, God and Jesus – that are important to us. We can only look to God and ask for help in finding ways to include our faith and spiritual story into everyday conversations without people being offended and reactive.
Four Responses to an Approach . . .
In his recent workshop in Hobart, former atheist Dennis Pethers reminded us that there are four different kinds of people who haven’t
responded to Jesus. Firstly there are those who have no idea about Jesus. Despite what we might think, there are many in our community who are interested and willing to have a civil conversation about important matters. Surprisingly, Pethers suggests that this is by far the biggest group of people.
Secondly there are those who know a little about Jesus but are confused; thirdly, there are those who have thought about it but aren’t convinced; and finally there are those who have are antagonistic and opposed. We can be fooled into thinking that this last group is the largest group. In fact it is the smallest; it’s just that they are the loudest.
Appreciating there are people who are genuinely interested should be an encouragement for us to begin to try and identify them. Then when we find them, it is important to remember the history they bring with them. We need to take things slowly, develop the relationship and look for appropriate opportunities to say something however small or seemingly insignificant.
Keeping it in Perspective
Remember that the only way a farmer gets a harvest is if he plants seeds. Every conversation we have is like sowing a seed helping people to get a little bit better understanding of God. Our focus is not just about reaping, when a person makes a decision for Christ, it is rather on having multiple conversations that each leave the person with a better understanding of God than if we didn’t have a conversation.
Although talking about Jesus may not be as easy in Australia as it is in other countries, it is certainly not as dangerous as others. Although we may run the risk of being abused or of a cooling in a relationship, at least we are not put in jail or executed for having conversations about faith and Jesus Christ. That is not to underestimate our difficulties, just to put them in perspective.
Thankfully talking to another about God is not something we have to do for God or for our salvation.
It is something we do with God because of the love of God. God knows the heart of Aussies; he appreciates our unique history and our unique place in the world. He had not given up on our friends, family and neighbours who don’t know him. So neither should we!
Brothers and sisters we have a job to do. May God inspire, encourage and bless us as we work to find ways to have unthreatening , helpful and meaningful conversations with those who don’t know Jesus as Lord yet.
Stephen L Baxter