Celebrate with those who Celebrate . . .

Sunday was Mother’s Day, a day which this year we celebrate between observing Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
Mother's Day
But unlike Christmas and Easter, Mother’s Day sits on our church calendar with no apparent meaning or context. It is much more part of our Western culture than it is part of following Jesus. Yet, there is no reason why we can’t join with our culture and honour mothers and motherhood.  After all, it gives us the opportunity to fulfil, if only in part, God’s commandment to honour our father and mother.
So on Sunday, I trust you took the opportunity to do just that, whether your mother is living or deceased. Yet, that will be easier some than for others.
Delights vs Realism
Sadly, for many in our community and churches Mother’s Day is a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand it conjures up memories of wonderful family life; of loving marriages and happy children. Thinking of our mothers brings warm and positive emotions to the surface. And when we think of our own children we remember the delights of motherhood.
In an ideal world all of us would have these feelings. In reality, it is true only for some. We can too easy fall prey to the idealised motherhood of TV, greeting cards, and gifts when the reality is that most women, if not all, do not fit these soft-focused fantasies.
The Bible shares this realism. Rachel, Hannah, and Sarah were infertile and experienced great heartache. Eve and Mary lost sons. And Ruth was childless and widowed at a young age. Far from fantasy, the Bible brings sober perspective to motherhood that is much more aligned with the realities of our world.
Today many women will experience motherhood as motherhood deferred due to late childbearing; or motherhood disrupted through divorce; or motherhood lost by infant/child death or miscarriage; and even motherhood unrealised due to infertility or undesired singleness.
Still others, male and female will experience the absence of motherhood due to distance, death, divorce or neglect. Many carry a scar or wound caused by the nurturing they failed to receive. Others will face again the suspicion that there is a link between their current emotional difficulties and their relationships with their mothers.

It is a day for celebrating with those who celebrate, and mourning with those who mourn

Moving on
So despite the ideal of Mother’s Day, there lies close to the surface the reality of a broken world. It is a great day for honouring and celebrating our mothers, but it is good remember this is easier for some than others. It is a day for celebrating with those who celebrate, and mourning with those who mourn.
It is also a day to remember, that despite our experiences and memories, we all have the opportunity to know and experience the love of God. It is as we accept his forgiveness and forgive others, mothers included, that we can move on from the pain and hurt of the past and be part of God’s worldwide family. Here everyone is loved, acknowledged, respected and cared for.
What does Mother’s Day mean to you? Are you able to celebrate with genuine joy and thankfulness? Or have you been scarred by  a difficult past? Either way, may I encourage you to move foward with hope and an attitude of acceptance and forgiveness.
Stephen L Baxter

Rolling out a Welcome

Hospitality! When it’s done well it’s never noticed. When it is missing, it’s like a gaping hole in the universe. Welcoming another person and making them the centre of our attention, even if for a small time, is perhaps the greatest, yet hardest thing we do.
You are welcome!The basic definition of hospitality is “love of strangers”. In the ancient world it was highly valued and practiced and the best example is of course Jesus himself. Throughout the gospels, Jesus welcomes those that others find unwelcoming – the outcasts, the poor, sinners and children all find a place in the heart of Jesus.
Following his lead, the early church practiced hospitality as it continued to welcome new people into its ranks. As a result those in the community took notice and many joined as a result.
Yet, hospitality can fall into neglect. We find in the New Testament warnings not to let it slip (Heb 13:2) as well as encouragement to make sure we keep it up (Rom 12:13); and not just to believers by to strangers and aliens also (Heb 13:2; 1 Tim 5:10).
But why is hospitality so difficult? I wonder if it is because it causes us to be welcoming of those we find difficult, confronting or just plain uncomfortable. Hospitality asks us to move away from an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach and to a more open mind. It calls us to dismantle any boundaries we might have that lead to an unwelcoming stance to others.
In this way hospitality asks questions of each of us. What does it mean for me to be proactive in dealing with any barriers there may be that would stop me making space for others?After all, this is what God has done for me. What am I willing to risk and give up in order that I share the love of God with all who come to me? What am I willing to give up in order to strengthen the life of the church so that all might find a place amongst us?
Hospitality isn’t just a nice thing to do if we can. It is central to the heart of God as so clearly displayed in and through Jesus. No wonder Jesus calls us to love others and make hospitality central to church life.

Hospitality is central to the heart of God as so clearly displayed in and through Jesus

Throughout history, whenever the church has faithfully practiced hospitality an indelible mark has been left on the lives of others and the church has grown as a result. Do we want all who come to us to know us as a welcoming church that shows the love of God by our hospitality? If so, why not pray that God shows you what it means for  you in your local gathering of believers.
Stephen L Baxter

Resurrection – just for fools?

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our Christian faith and the central event in the life of the Church. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, we celebrated that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is alive to this day.Easter Sunday
What happened that first Easter continues to be the power, hope and peace of our lives. So important is the resurrection to our faith, that that apostle Paul suggested that if Jesus has not been raised to life, then our preaching and faith is useless (1Cor 15:13). In such a scenario Jesus died a fool on the cross for nothing, and we are fools for believing it.  But if it is true that God raised Jesus from the death, then we too can look forward to the day when we also will be raised from death, to life in eternity with God.
Such belief looks foolish in our contemporary world, and interestingly it has been so, right from the beginning. While the apostle Paul focuses on how the cross and not the resurrection was a stumbling block in his day (1Cor 1:23), nevertheless, it is the Easter story as a whole that is difficult for people to swallow. Paul’s contemporaries wondered how God could be hung on a human cross and die. If Jesus was an exact representation of God in human form, how could God die? Such a proposition was a scandal and a stumbling block.
Today, it is the resurrection that is quickly dismissed as myth and nonsense, along with the stories of miracles, healings and the virgin birth. Using the scientific method as a starting point many find the stories of Jesus “scientifically” wanting. And it is not surprising. The scientific approach is that “truth” is built on repeatable empirical events. Using this as the criteria of truth no one can “prove” the resurrection. Why? Firstly, because no human being witnessed the resurrection, and secondly no one has repeated it. Therefore scientifically, the resurrection is not “scientifically” true. However, that doesn’t mean it did not happen.
The early church didn’t attempt to “prove” the resurrection in a scientific way; all they did was proclaim it to be true. Those who had met the risen Jesus talked to others about their experience. Those who listened chose to believe what they heard, or not. For those who did believe, what we find is that they grew in their conviction with clear and empowering insight that what they had heard was indeed true. Jesus is alive.
Faith had dawned and understanding followed. Throughout the history of the followers of Jesus this is the way of the life of faith. By believing you begin to understand. Sadly, many people operate the other way around, assuming they need to understand to believe. But belief has never worked that way.

“By believing you begin to understand.”

We know the truth of the resurrection not because it is scientifically proven, but by faith. The Bible reveals that it is only through the grace of God that anyone believes. It is God who gifts us with the faith we need and it is through this gift we are convinced, assured and affirmed in our knowledge of the resurrection and the saving work of Jesus.
As you think about Easter Sunday may your faith in the One who rose from the dead be nourished and strengthened. Whether you are a believer or one who struggles with claims of Jesus, my prayer is that you may find faith in your heart this Easter season. If the resurrection is a stumbling block, tell Jesus about it, he’ll listen and help you. You can’t create faith yourself; it is a gift of God. And that is what the resurrection is all about—the gift of hope and faith.
Happy Easter!
I’d keen to know about your experience: Did you come to belief and then understand what it was all about?
Stephen L Baxter

Casseroles and Chocolate Cake

The Real Meaning of Fellowship
Last Sunday at Hobart Baptist we got together for the first of our monthly opportunities to share a “Fellowship Lunch”. This will be an important part of our life Casseroletogether, and we shared a delicious meal and lots of good conversation in the rear hall.
But why are these sorts of events important for a church family? When I preached last week, I explained how from the beginning God’s purpose in sending Jesus was not just simply to save individuals but to create a new humanity. For some this is a radical insight, particularly if you see Chocolate Cake“church” as attending a service for an hour or so on Sundays. But church is more than attending an activity, it is a lifestyle.
From its beginning the Church has been enlisted by Jesus to work with him in bringing God’s plan for a new humanity to completion. Throughout history the Church has done this with varying degrees of success. At times it has come close to being a true reflection of God’s future vision other times it has failed miserably.
If we look back to the church in its earliest days we can gain a glimpse of what it means to be part this big plan of God’s for humanity.
In the book of Acts we read that the early church devoted itself to four things: the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). We can easily understand why they devoted themselves to “teaching” and “prayer”. “Breaking bread” could mean sharing a meal or the Lord’s Supper (Communion) and we can appreciate the importance of that. But what is “fellowship”? And why is it so important that they just didn’t have fellowship but they devoted themselves to it. And why is it second in the list before breaking bread and prayer?
Today we can reduce “fellowship” to the casual conversations we have over tea and coffee and biscuits in the hall on Sunday. Not that this is bad, but it no doubt falls short of what Luke is describing in Acts.
Four aspects to ‘Fellowship’
A quick look at how “fellowship” is described in the New Testament reveals it has four aspects—relationship, partnership, companionship, and stewardship.
1. Relationship: all believers are in relationship with each other because we share a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We are together in Christ and together form his community. Devoting ourselves to fellowship is not just about turning up at various activities but being devoted each other. Because we belong to each other, in that we share the same Lord, we commit ourselves to each other for the long term.
2. Partnership: Whereas relationship describes community, partnership describes activity. As sharers together in the person and life of Jesus Christ we become co-partners with him in his enterprise. Just as a business partnership is formed to attain a particular objective, we too are united together in a community relationship with a particular objective—to experience and demonstrate the new humanity God is bringing. Partnership says that we are called to work together in common purpose to obtain common objectives for the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Companionship: Being in relationship and working together with common purpose we will naturally enjoy companionship. Key words describing companionship are exchange, unity, and sharing. Working together we share concepts, feelings, ideas, information, needs and so on, which build relationship, empathy, regard and care. We are in it together.
4. Stewardship: A steward is one who manages the property of another. As stewards we recognize that all we have belongs to God and has been given to us in trust for his purposes. Believers in the early church willingly shared their material possessions. It came out of their shared relationship in Jesus Christ and their partnership in his ongoing work in the world.
As we shared lunch together these four words enable us to appreciate the importance of our “fellowship”. Sharing a meal together can be a demonstration of our devotion to it. What we are saying is that we appreciate that “fellowship” is foundational to living out the gospel in our community. It is just as important as teaching, prayer and breaking bread together.
Obviously fellowship just does not happen over a meal. Every time we join together, whether in large or small groups, our relationships, partnership, companionship, and stewardship is an expression of what it is to be part of the new humanity Jesus came to establish.
Being part of the church of Jesus Christ in Hobart is a challenge. Jesus calls us to a lifestyle that is countercultural to its secular orientation. Jesus calls us to be a demonstration of just how radical his vision is.
Let us keep on devoting ourselves to fellowship—relationship, partnership, companionship and stewardship—not only will it keep our faith alive and growing but it enable us to be the church God desires us to be.
What is your experience of sharing meals together. Do you think it enhances all these facets of fellowship?
Stephen L Baxter

Your Kingdom Come!

Setting the world right, both now and in the future
When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray Jesus suggested a prayer to them. We call it the Lord’s Prayer, but it’s not really the Lord’s, it’s ours. It is a model given by Jesus for how we should pray. Most of us can recite it by heart, yet I’m not sure that was how Jesus meant it to be used. Jesus didn’t say, “Pray in these words.” He said, “Pray in this manner.

The LOrd
The Lords Prayer in Aramaic

It begins suggesting our prayers should always honour God and bring glory to his name, it then quickly moves to three short words full of meaning, “Your Kingdom Come.”
Throughout the gospels Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) more than anything else. It is the dominant theme of his ministry, but despite it being so prevalent and clearly about God’s rule and sovereignty, interestingly Jesus never clearly defines what it looks like. Rather than giving us a clear definition he chooses to describe it through hints, analogies, parables, and images.
He says, among many things, that the Kingdom of God appears as something small and insignificant that grows silently before yielding a great harvest (Mark 4:26-29). Wheat and weedsHowever, it involves a great deal of wasted seed as much is sown that fails to take root (Mark 4:1-9). The Kingdom of God is also like a large fishing net dragged through the water gathering everything in its path, good and bad, useful and useless (Matthew 13:47-50). It is also like a paddock sown with wheat but is riddled with weeds. Yet contrary to good farming practice, the farmer leaves the weeds growing alongside the wheat until harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). The Kingdom of God is like a rich person who leaves town and places his property in charge of his servants (Mark 13:34-36) or a businessperson who sells everything just to gain it (Matthew 13:44-46).
Now but not yet
We could go on with many more images that Jesus used to illustrate the point—the Kingdom of God is something that is difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand and see. His stories suggest that the kingdom is here, but not quite. It is surprising and unexpected, yet playful and intriguing; it is threatening and reassuring; very real yet equally elusive. It is a bit like standing on your head and seeing the world upside down.
So when we pray, “Your kingdom come” what are we praying for? I don’t think Jesus was giving a pious plea to be offered in the hope that someday, somehow it might be answered and achieved. In fact, it is important to note that in the original Greek this sentence is a command. We are to pray it not just as a request to God, but as a command to God!
This is quite provocative. The idea of instructing God to do anything no doubt offends you in much the same way it does me. Yet this is what Jesus taught his disciples to do. Try praying, “Your kingdom come!” as a command to God; it doesn’t come easy does it.
What is easier for us is to pray that God would rescue us from mess of this world and whisk us away to join him in eternal bliss in heaven. Yet the Lord’s Prayer gives no hint of this. Jesus goes on to suggest we command that, “Your will be done here on earth as in heaven.” We are not to pray that we be taken from earth, but rather command that heaven, where the Kingdom of God is totally at work, comes here to earth.
The focus of “Your Kingdom Come” is not us, but the world we live in. It should be translated “Set the world aright,” says British Bible scholar N.T. Wright. To “set the world aright” means to make the world a better place. This is what Jesus is calling us to pray and not surprisingly it was the central to his work also. Seeing the Kingdom come here on earth was so much part of the ministry of Jesus that he was sentenced and put to death as a social activist wanting to set the world aright.
Ever since Jesus first taught this prayer, it has been prayed millions of times by millions of people around the world. Each time, it is an instruction for the rule of God to be brought to this planet. Each time it is a call to God to bring justice and peace to planet earth. Each time, God is pleased to answer and bring more of his rule to individuals, families, communities, cities and nations. One day it will culminate in the Kingdom of God coming in all its fullness here on earth as it is in heaven.
Let’s keep praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, across all facets of time and place.
Stephen L Baxter

Pass da Pasta

Over the past months a number of people have made reference, often jokingly, about my preference not to be called pastor, minister or any other associated term. I thought it was perhaps time I explained why.
When Jenny and I were talking about getting married and spending the rest of our lives together my sense of call to church leadership was part of the discussion. I remember Jenny saying that she didn’t want me to be a “pastor”. Why? Not because she had anything against pastors, she just wanted to make sure any children we might have didn’t grow up inoculated against God because of their experience of church. It was an important and profound desire I shared and so I agreed I would not be a “normal” pastor. By that I meant I would endeavour to put the welfare of our children before my pastoral ambitions and endeavour to protect them.

Leaving the wedding reception
Yep - we looked young then!

What Jenny and I knew intuitively then is now, more than 30 years later, much clearer. There are things about the way churches and pastors relate and work that is far from healthy working against the message of the good news.
Avoiding the terms of pastor or minister is not an attempt on my part to avoid leadership, but in a small way try to help us rethink, redefine and reform the way we do church and church leadership.
Being a Baptist
One of the foundations of the “Baptist” way of doing church is the “priesthood of all believers.” We believe the church is one body in Christ and all the members of the body occupy the same relation to Him, whatever
their special gift or office. We have no distinctive class of priests with all members being “priests unto God” by the death of Christ (Rev. 1:5-6).
But sadly, we often slip into ways that undermine our heritage. We operate as if there are two tiers of Christians, the “clergy” (Priests, Pastors, and Ministers) along with the rest of God’s people – the “laity”.
I recently read it in less flattering terms. We have the “up-fronters” and the “pew-warmers”, or the “leaders” and the “followers”, or the “workers” and the “watchers”, or the “performers” and the “audience”, or the “elite” and the “masses”, or the “trained” and the “untrained”, or the “qualified” and the “unqualified.” Such distinctions are not only un-Baptist, they are unbiblical and they debilitate the effectiveness of the church. Calling all Christians priests is not only about our access to God, it has also to do with serving God and fulfilling the ministry of the church.
The implication of the priesthood of all believers is that every member of the church is called to share in the church’s ministry and mission. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-12, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Yes, there are leaders, but their job is not to do the ministry but to equip others to do it.
The concept of a pastor or minister up front doing most of the stuff and “lay” people in the pews or seats responding as an audience most of the time has no biblical basis. For the church to be effective every one of its members is called to be a minister. Here ministry is not concerned with running church programs or services, but being salt and light in and across our community. This is the real work God has called us to, and he has called each and every one of us to it.
It is my belief that our misunderstanding of the place of ministry in and through our churches cuts to heart of one of the biggest issues we face in our churches and the single biggest reason why the church is so ineffective in the world. This is true for Hobart Baptist Church (HBC) too, the place where I am in leadership. If the church is to again become an effective force in our community it is going to take the combined effort of all of us, not just a few leaders. This ministry will take place in the boardroom, the marketplace, the doctor’s waiting room, the local park, the political party, the local council and every imaginable sector of society. This is where God calls us to be his salt and light.
That is not to say that I’ve given up on the local church. I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to work among HBC if I had. But I see my job among the believers there  more like a “coach” than a pastor.
As I said in a recent sermon, gathering together on a Sunday is a bit like a huddle in a football match at quarter or half time. We huddle together to be encouraged and re-energised so that we can then go out in our week to “play the game” of mission in the world. Our challenge is not so much what we do in our “Sunday morning” huddle, but what we do when we break from our huddle and head to our Monday morning assignment. This is what it is to be the church of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion
On a more personal note, I too need to be careful in the way I see myself. I need to be on guard that my identity and sense of purpose and meaning doesn’t get swallowed up in the role of pastor.  I need to ensure that being a “pastor” does not end up defining who I am when the reality is that that I’m just carrying out a task. I want to ensure that I am not defined by the expectation of the role rather than who I am as a person.
It is my privilege that for a time I am serving among HBC as “pastor,” not so much as a “normal” pastor, but as a “coach” helping us work as a team as we each go about fulfilling the work Jesus, the head coach, has called us to do.
May God bless you all in each of your particular ministries.
Stephen L Baxter
PS A note from Jenny: Not so long ago our two older girls, in their early 20s, were at a conference where a session for PKs was held – Preacher’s Kids. They had never really thought of themselves in that category, but were encouraged to go along, which they did in good humour. They were amazed to discover most of the other participants had a great deal of bitterness and resentment to work through as a result of their parent’s lifestyle choices. These parents were no doubt well-intentioned, but sadly, their kids had not come through unscathed. Perhaps our girls have been affected too, but their surprise at the others responses seems to suggest they have somehow escaped the worst!

“Acts of God”?

The devastating tsunami which hit Japans east coast in March 2011

In a world that has largely dismissed God as irrelevant, antiquated or dead, it seems strange that one of the few things God still gets credit for are natural disasters.  Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and landslides are deemed “acts of God” – just read your insurance policy.
An “Act of God” is a legal term for events outside human control for which no one can be held responsible. Insurance companies use it to identify things they don’t cover in their policy and in Queensland this has lead to public outcry as it has left many without insurance cover.
All this talk of “acts of God” has not been good press for God or for the gospel. It only serves to reinforce a strongly embedded view within Australians that God is a wrathful overseer, inflicting unfair retribution on wayward humanity. But that is not the God we know and love, and it is in stark contrast to the teaching of Jesus. He taught of God’s unfailing goodwill to all and said God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Many ask: Was Japan’s earthquake a retributive act of God? Did he send the rains and floods into Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland as judgment? Did he shake Christchurch for their sins? We answer a resounding, “No.” That is not the God Jesus represented.
Yet, we are left with questions. While science can help us understand why natural disasters occur and Jesus helps us appreciate God is not causing disasters, we still struggle to understand why God allows them to occur.
So why do natural disasters happen?
Answers are not straight forward, but the Bible does give strong hints to where the answers lie. It explains how the natural world is held in the grip of decay and groans under the weight of this bondage. It explains how creation is waiting in the hope of liberation, transformation and freedom (Romans 8:19-22).
Here the Bible depicts the world not as fixed or settled, but in the process of becoming. Using the image of childbirth it suggests that ferment, unrest, confusion, and disarray are to be expected as the process of history unfolds.
In a similar vein Jesus said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come . . . There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7). He confirms that natural disasters are to be expected in a world still developing and becoming all it was designed to be. In fact he goes on to say that these are just the beginning of the birth pains.
Jesus encourages us to take a long term view of God’s plan for the world. It began in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago, it peaked in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth a couple of thousand years ago and only God knows how much long it will be before the end will come.
Until that time, Jesus was very clear about what he wanted us to do.
Those who exhibit true “Acts of God”
Once we appreciate that natural disasters are not “acts of God” but the consequences of complex earth systems still incomplete and awaiting liberation (although they are exacerbated by imperfect management by us humans) we can begin to see what true “acts of God” are – the actions of those who follow Jesus in loving others.
Today in Japan on the frontline of care are many who follow Jesus. Amongst them is the Salvation Army with their slogan, “Combating natural disasters with acts of God.” Think about that. It is brilliant.
“Combating natural disasters with acts of God” helps redefine “acts of God.” It reinforces the point that “natural disasters” are not caused by God. It refocuses “acts of God” on the actions of people one to another.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and the like will keep on happening, we can’t stop them. But we can, in the name of Jesus, make a difference to those who suffer. Let us pray that God will grant us, and our fellow believers across the world who are helping in disasters, grace to love and care just as Jesus would.
Have you ever experienced an “Act of God”?
Stephen L Baxter

Moving On

Hi All
Just to let you know I’ve taken a week off blogging.
My family is in the process of moving house, and my attentions are directed elsewhere.
I’ll be back with a brand new update next Monday evening!
Stephen L Baxter

The Church is Dead – Yes? … NO!

When you think of ‘church’ what comes to your mind? A building, an institution, a local congregation or a multitude of believers spanning the world? Your perspective of the church will have a great influence on how you view her future.
If you believe all you hear in the media, you could conclude the church is ineffective, irrelevant and a dying institution. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the church in the Western world is facing challenges, the demise of the Christian faith is a long way from an actuality. Try suggesting the church is dying to Christians in Seoul or Nairobi . . . they would wholeheartedly disagree with you!
Throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church is experiencing tremendous growth. At the start of the 1900s about nine per cent of Africa was Christian. During the 1960s, the proportion of Christians surpassed that of Muslims for the first time, and today about 50 per cent of all Africans are Christian.
This amazing growth in different parts of the world is bringing a shift to the demographic centre of Christianity. Since the Day of Pentecost the centre of the church has resided in the northern hemisphere, but soon the centre of influence will move from the northern hemisphere and places like Rome, Paris, London and New York, to the south and cities like Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, Seoul and Nairobi.
This move south will bring changes in the way Christians express their faith. Some Christians in these developing countries express their faith in different ways to our traditions and their faith can look strange to our Western eyes. Yet, despite these differences, many who make up the church in the southern hemisphere are quite biblical, sometimes more so than we are. They take the supernatural – prophecy, spiritual healing, dreams and visions – seriously, and they are enthusiastic and charismatic. In fact, projections suggest that by 2040 the number of Pentecostal Christians will exceed one billion.
How should we respond
One of the most important things we should do is to choose to look at the bigger picture of what God is doing rather than just our immediate context. God is at work in the world, there is no doubt about that. The questions is, are we aware of it?
If we believed the media reports that the church in Australia is backward, archaic and in danger of falling over, we can easily be left feeling despondent and despairing. However, looking at the bigger picture of what God is doing around the world can change all that. Despair is replaced with hope and we’re strengthened. We begin to see our context within God’s overall strategy. It gives us the strength and will to persevere and stand against the false images and expectations the media serves us.
Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18) Despite the challenges we face, this remains true and the growth of the church across the world proves it. So let us not lose hope with our current situation, but be encouraged and spurred on by all God is doing around the world.
What are your reflections on the nature of church growth in Australia?
Stephen L Baxter
Global Statistics for all Religions, 2001

Faith and Cultural Diversity

Recently multiculturalism has reappeared in public and media debate after years on the sidelines.
Except for our indigenous people and unlike European countries, Australia is a nation of immigrants built on mass migration. The cultural diversity of those who have arrived over the past couple of centuries have shape our adopted homeland. We are a nation of different skin tones, religions and languages – few countries are as culturally diverse and cosmopolitan as modern Australia.Multiculturalism
Over the past couple of years a number of leaders of European countries, including Britain and Germany, have declared multiculturalism a failure, yet in Australia many are now suggesting that it is one of our greatest strengths and successes. They cite the relative lack of violence in Australia as evidence of the willingness of residents to be changed by the new arrivals, and the willingness of migrants to adapt to a new life. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Australia has one of the highest rates of inter-cultural marriage in the world.
It is normal
On a recent visit to Hobart Alan Marr, Director of Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria, explained how almost all Baptist churches across Melbourne are seeing increased ethnicity in their churches. New immigrants either arrived as Christians, or are more open to the gospel than long term resident Australians. It is good to know that some of the issues facing us here at Hobart Baptist Church are not uncommon and that what we are experiencing is a nation-wide trend. In fact recent reports suggest that right across Western countries the multiethnic church is becoming the normal and natural picture of Christianity.

Christ destroyed the dividing walls and hostilities
between ethnic groups

We shouldn’t be surprised. Although we have become used to churches that are relatively mono-cultural, the church didn’t start that way. Jesus left his followers with the command to go and reach all nations. Through his death on the cross, Christ destroyed the dividing walls and hostilities between ethnic groups, enabling people of all races to unite (Ephesians 2:14).  And once the Holy Spirit demonstrated that the gospel was for Jew and Gentile alike (see the story of Peter in Acts 10 and 11) congregations of faith in Antioch and Ephesus were very multiethnic in flavour. In Revelation 7, John describes a vision of heaven where people are gathered from every nation, tribes and tongue and united together in worship before the throne of God.
Challenge and diversity
So God is at work among us as he brings a diverse group of people together as Hobart Baptist Church – a multiethnic community of faith. But having said that doesn’t mean the journey is or will be easy. Our Karen* folk have not only had a difficult journey coming to Australia they are now learning a new language, navigating our welfare system and endeavouring to understand a different culture. For the rest of us who do not face these challenges, the task of welcoming and accepting our Karen folk takes us beyond our comfort zones, our abilities, and our experiences.
God has an exciting future for us in Hobart, but that does not mean the journey will be plain sailing, in fact it probably means the opposite. But it is in meeting these challenges together in all of our diversity that we will grow together to become all that he has called us to be.
What’s happening at your church? Is there a trend toward a mulitethnic congregation? If so, I’d be interested to know how is everyone tracking your comments are welcome!

Stephen L Baxter
*Over the last three years Hobart Baptist Church has gathered a significant number of Karen refugee families who have settled in Hobart from Burma.