Is ALL progress good?

In the words of the Mercury newspaper on Tuesday, August 28, “Tasmania is a step closer to becoming the first place in Australia to allow same-sex marriage after legislation was introduced to State Parliament.” 
On that day Labor Premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim co-sponsored the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012, claiming the “majority of Tasmanians believe the time has come for this change to occur.”
I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat bewildered by all of this. It raises many questions for me, among them the questions of whether the majority really know what’s best for the future of our community.
While I doubt the statement that the “majority” of Tasmanians believe it is time for a change, even if they do, does it logically follow that they are right? There is a fundamental question here: Can the majority be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways considered “moral” and “right”? I doubt it. One could argue that the majority of Tasmanians would like a change of government, yet no premier would willingly step aside because the majority believe it is time for a change. Even our politicians have doubts that change should occur just because a so called “majority” want it.
Across cultures and religions for thousands of years marriage has reflected the biological complement of the sexes and understood it to be the union between a man and a woman. This understanding existed long before our parliament was established. We can therefore legitimately ask what place parliament has in redefining something that has naturally existed for millennia.

Newly Married Couple

That our Premier believes such a redefinition is right and appropriate is predicated on an unspoken premise sitting at the heart of modern society: all progress is good. Such a premise suggests the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 is a logical progressive step in the maturity of humanity. Where for some, redefining an understanding that has existed for thousands of years would be a reason to exercise caution, in the name of progress it is heralded as a defining moment.
Not everyone shares their optimism. Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of the 20th century once noted, “The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.” (Church Dogmatics 4/3, p. 769).
Barth’s view is in sharp contrast to the confidence of the proponents of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill. Building upon God’s revelation in the Bible, he suggests humanity is blind to its own reality. It is not a surprise therefore that some people do not share such a positive view of “progress” that undergirds the proposed bill. For them, not everything heralded as “progress” is in fact “progress”. Karl Barth experienced it first hand living in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and he eventually fled back to Switzerland.
Yet, belief in progress is so deeply cemented in today’s culture that anything old is more often than not considered morally offensive. We worship progress; it is self-evident and infallible; anything less is retrograde and backward and regularly ridiculed and scoffed at.
Marriage fits this category. The fact it has been around for millennia crossing cultures and religions means, by default, that it is viewed with suspicion and perceived as old fashioned and out-dated. It is implicit that any reasonable “progressive” person would agree with this premise, and anyone who disagrees is regressive, antiquated and ultimately a threat to society and progress itself.
But as Christians we beg to differ. Not all progress is good, and the majority is often not right (as in Nazi Germany, the debate on slavery, violent and wide-spread racism found across different communities, or among the crowd who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion).

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit.

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit. We reject the presumption inherent in the Bill that a child no longer has the right to be raised within their biological family. We reject the notion that this is progress. We reject the opinion that marriage is outmoded. We reject the claim that a majority want change, and even if they did, we reject this justifies such a radical redefinition.
That the majority is not always right is clear, and God’s revelation confirms it. While there are many in our community who believe the majority defines what is right, the sad reality is that in the end the majority is not always right. And this is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of this debate. How do we know what is good for us and our future? To suggest, in the case of marriage, that a “majority” of Tasmanians knows what is best for our community, even if it flies in the face of thousands of years of understanding and practice, is either a height of progress or the heights of arrogance.
It is important we pray for our community, not just for the impending vote on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 in the upper House of Parliament, but that we move away from faith in progress, to a faith in Jesus and develop a healthy scepticism in the ability of humanity to know what’s best for itself.
Stephen L Baxter

Reading the ‘Signs of the Times’

It is an understatement to say we live in changing times. Not only do we experience change, we see the effects on our families and communities. It takes faith to hold on to the truth that God has it in hand, and we need not worry.

The gospels recount an incident where the religious leaders of the day came to Jesus and ask him to give them a sign to confirm he was from God. He rebuked them saying they were good at reading the weather, but couldn’t read the obvious signs of the times. His implication was that they didn’t understand him, his ministry or the times they live in. You can read the story here.
Perhaps it is the same for us. We too have difficulty interpreting the times in which we live.
Last year, the entire population of Australia participated in a census, the results of which were released only last week.

The media were quick to pounce on the resulting figures regarding religion in Australia. They enthusiastically reported how the figures show a rise in those declaring they have ‘no religion’ (from 18.7% in 2006 to 22.3%) and how the numbers reporting affiliation with a Christian religion declined (from 63.9% to 61.1%).
Based on these figures many were quick to conclude, even pronounce, how the figures were a demonstration of the continuing demise of religion in Australia. Yet is that an accurate interpretation of the “sign”?
Reading the figures
Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and Associate Priest St John’s Anglican Church East Malvern, in Melbourne, suggests otherwise. In an article for Eureka Street, a publication of Jesuit Communications, he concludes that while figures show a decrease in the numbers of religion adherents, they also reveal increasing religious vitality.
For example, except for Anglican, Uniting and Presbyterian denominations, religious groups have increased in numbers even though their percentage of the population has decreased. In other words they have grown, just not as quickly as the population as a whole.
During the five years since the last census those calling themselves Christian increased to 13,150,600 up from 12,582,800. Over the same time Catholics increased by about 300,000, Pentecostals by almost 20,000, Eastern Orthodox by around 10,000 and Baptists by over 35,000. While those Christians nominating “other” rose by close to 200,000. Migration continues to influence the growth of non-Christian religions with Buddhists rising to 2.5% of the population and Muslims 2.2%. Both Buddhists and Muslims now outnumber Baptists (1.6%) and Hindus (1.3%) outnumber Pentecostals (1.1%).
Bouma’s conclusion is that “while ‘non-religion’ is growing, religion is certainly not dying out”. In fact, the increase in those choosing ‘no religion’ suggests those who say they are religious are doing so out of conviction. In other words, they more likely to be serious about religion than not.
In an interview with ABC radio Bouma stated,

“Religion’s been a low temperature affair in Australia for a long time … so those who become ‘no religion’ don’t feel like they’ve moved much perhaps. But those who are left in churches and those who are in new emerging religious communities are very much more likely to take their religion more seriously.”

Another insight into the figures is that “cultural Christians,” i.e. those with a nominal commitment who never attend church, are “being more honest” and ticking the ‘no religion’ box. The result is that the census reflects what many have suspected for a long time: many who say they are Christians are not necessarily followers of Jesus.
So while the latest census figures could cause some Christians to despair and give rise despondency, are there are other ways to read the “signs of the times?” Bouma’s suggestions give new insights and open up new possibilities. Perhaps the figures have some good news after all – we just need to read them correctly.
My prayer is that God will grant us the grace to read the census and the changing times we live in through ‘kingdom’ eyes; that we will see past the negative connotations of our media commentators, and catch a glimpse of God at work in our families and communities.

Australia and NZ Stop — ANZAC Day memories

WWI Charge
On the battlefront during WWI

This week I was taken again by the outpouring of emotion we see each year as Australia stops for Anzac Day.
The evening news bulletin showed men and women, young and old, taking the pilgrimage to Gallipoli with one grown man declaring it was the most significant day of his life. That the commemoration endures, when not so long ago that some declared it was about to die, could point to a hunger for spirituality that remains for many Australians.
Biblical scholar, and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, suggests spirituality is something like a hidden spring that continues to bubble up despite our materialism and secularism. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay seems to say similar in his book What Makes us Tick —The Ten Desires That Drive Us, where our “desire for something to believe in” makes his list. He writes that regardless of the debates “about the possible meanings of ‘God’… there is a powerful human desire to believe in something in the realm of the non-material.” Although people are attracted to memorialising Anzac Day for many reasons, it could be that for some it is this hunger for spirituality that we see at work. It is interesting to ponder why this is might be so.
Despite the enduring popularity of Anzac Day, there are those who are not drawn into its commemorations. Many a returned soldier has never marched preferring to bury the past and allow nothing, not even Anzac Day, resurrect the memories and the trauma. As one reflected recently, “I don’t like Anzac Day, my father returned from war an alcoholic, he was a gentleman sober, but violent when drunk.”
Post traumatic stress, as we now call it, didn’t have a name then and was never diagnosed at the time. Australia lost many young men in both WWI and WWII, but not only on the battlefield. There were too many who returned physically and or mentally wounded. The scars of war are still carried today by wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren.
There are others, who despite the scars of war, stop on Anzac Day to remember family members and the prices they paid. Without idealising war, they remember in the midst of their pain. They are confronted with the futility of war, but thankful for the giving of lives in the hope of making for a better world.
This perhaps comes closer to the ‘spirit’ of the Anzac. Although not commonly acknowledged, the diaries and the stories of the first Anzacs reveal how faith and religion were part of Gallipoli with many finding comfort in Scripture, song and prayer as they confronted the possibility of dying.
Then as Australians began to erect war memorials across our country in every rural town, they found inspiration from Jesus and quoted in King James English with Jesus’ words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Even at our modern Anzac Day commemorations we still sing the old hymns as we search to find reverence and meaning in our services.
Perhaps here is the spiritual link—the giving of oneself for others. Anzac Day commemorates what others did on our behalf and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate what Jesus did for us. Perhaps it is here that Easter and Anzac Day overlap and why Australians find Anzac Day strangely moving and spiritual.
Have you ever attend an Anzac Day March? What was your experience? Did it make you stop and think?
I’d be keen to know your thoughts!
Stephen L Baxter

Top Ten Obstacles to Becoming a Christian

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.

The Church in the City

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

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

The Church of Australia and its Challenge

Painting by John Allcott "The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27 1788

Since the beginning of European settlement in Australia in 1788, the church has played a major part in Australian life and culture. Church services began as soon as the First Fleet arrived and gradually churches grew including the provision of a wide range of welfare and education services such as schools, hospitals and orphanages.
Today much has changed. While the church is still heavily involved in providing services, its influence on Australian culture is declining, along with the numbers of people regularly attending church. Hardly a week goes by without the media making some mention of this decline. In fact there are many who predict the ultimate demise and disappearance of the church in Australia. It is certainly true there are critical issues the church needs to face, and the “good old days” of the 1950’s or 60’s will never return, but does that really signal the church’s death? I suspect not.
The challenge we face in Australia today is reflected across the Western world, not only in countries such as Canada, the UK and the US, but also right across Europe. Yet, this trend is not observed in the rest of the world. In fact, elsewhere Christianity is booming. Across many Asian countries, central and southern Africa and Latin America, the church continues to grow. Christianity is far from being on its death bed.
In fact, even in Australia there is a quiet openness to spirituality. As our population gets older, so the questions about life after death and eternity begin to take on a new urgency. People are not suddenly pouring back into our churches, but they are open.
We can go to them
In such a climate there is much the church can do to engage with this rising interest. And while people may not come to us, we can go to them and meet them in the community and dialogue about spiritual issues.
Rest POint tent
Rest Point Tent
This is one of the motivations behind “RestPoint,” the hospitality tent of the Baptist churches of Hobart at the Royal Hobart Show in October. The tent gives us the opportunity to engage with people as they rest and take a few moments to recuperate, renew and refresh before continuing their time at the show. In 2010 we connected with over 800 people as we served them, conversed with them and help them in any way we could. It provided us with a simple way of practically demonstrating our faith. It gave us a means by which we can move out of our church buildings and engage with our community.

Let me encourage you, if you have opportunity to engage with your local community you will find it an extremely worthwhile experience.

Stephen L Baxter

Being Salt and Light

Taking seriously Jesus’ call to impact our community
A few years ago at the Australian Christian Heritage National Forum held in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra I heard an encouraging story of faith. Keynote speaker Stuart Piggin talked of the impact of one man living the values of Jesus in his workplace and its effects on the company – and it happened here in Tasmania.
It is the story an underground mine where a dramatic increase in safety was the result of the work of one man who applied the personal and relational values of Jesus to his workplace.
Bob Mellows, a Christian mine manager, at the Cornwall coal mine in the Fingal Valley, saw that safety was best regulated not by the law of the land, but by the law of Love. He spoke to his men about how different the workplace would be if they treated each other in a way consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Cornwall Coal from Fingal Valley, Tas

He made a study of the practical meaning of the word love in the New Testament and shared his findings with the miners. In a report to the ’98 Coal Operator’s Conference, he said, ‘It is not because of legalism that Jesus Christ told us to love God and love one another. It was because he knew it was essential to our well being in all aspects of life’. He went on to say that ‘The Foundation of Safety is loving one another (and ourselves). This is not merely an emotional condition. It is a choice of behaviour and the only basis for a satisfactory relationship.’
The Cornwall Mine’s safety improved when a breakthrough in relationships occurred. This resulted from the removal of barriers, the development of trust, and concern for the welfare of the other. The result? A dramatic turn around.
Between 1980 and 1990 there had been about 200 accidents reported each year at the Cornwall coal mine and the company paid between $50,000 and $250,000 per annum in compensation. But then during 1991/92 Bob Mellows’ biblical values were embraced and the accident rate dipped dramatically. By 1993 it dropped to practically zero and it has remained there since. Not surprisingly the cost of compensation also fell to almost zero.
Here we see a clear picture of how the values of Jesus work in the real world and a result when one person takes Jesus seriously and becomes salt and light in the community.
I wonder what would happen if all of us, inspired by the example of Bob Mellows, attempted something similar in our lives wherever we are – at work, home or school?
Stephen L Baxter

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.

As Aussie as They Come

Back in 1999 Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer Hugh Mackay suggested that given the uncertainties at the end of the millennium, the time seemed right for a revival of religious faith. But he then went on to predict that it wouldn’t happen, and he was right. Even so there continues to be growing interest in spirituality in Australia where two-thirds of us claim that a spiritual life is important.
You may find it surprising to know that most Australians believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force (74%) with nearly half (42%) believing Jesus was divine. So despite the fact that only 15% of Australians attend church regularly, there are many non-church going Australians who are still intrigued with Jesus. One such person was R. M. Williams the Australian bushman and entrepreneur who rose from being a swagman to become a millionaire on the back of his unique Australian style of bushwear.

RM Williams
RM Williams

Born in 1908, Reginald Murray Williams was given a state funeral in Queensland in 2003. Premier Peter Beattie, said at the time, “When you pull on a pair of R. M. Williams boots everyone knows you walk taller. It’s not just the size of the heel, it’s the spirit of the man who made them in the first place.” The spirit of this man was a recognisably Australian spirit. It could be argued that they don’t come more Australian than R. M. Williams.
Being an Australian obsessed the imagination of Williams, and Jesus was part of that obsession. In his autobiography, Williams reveals a man deeply concerned over religious issues. He knew his Bible, and he knew the words of Jesus.
His private life did not always run smoothly. Williams suffered the physical and material deprivation of the Great Depression, and the mental pain of a spiritual depression that seems to have never left him. As one of the few white men who could not only survive, but actually thrive, in the outback, Williams was invited to help a number of missionaries in their work amongst the most isolated of Aboriginal tribes.
Throughout his life Williams would not or could not give up on Jesus. He wrote, “Although I can never claim to have standing with either rich or poor, still I believe that the Man who flogged the money-changers from the temple still calls all men to the heights of moral courage and spiritual peace. I should like to feel that there lies my allegiance.”
Williams was also a capitalist, and doubted if Jesus approved. After making lots of money, he wrote: “When I had done this, my conscience bothered me. ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ ‘How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’”
Such deep exploration of spiritual and biblical themes may seem striking to many Christians. However, I believe that there are many other Australians who think and feel in similar ways to Williams. They may not connect with the church, but they find a connection in Jesus. Perhaps this is because the practices and symbols of Australian churches grew in other cultures at other times and are not particularly suited to the Australian landscape or psyche. Although they shape the expression of Christian faith, they don’t seem to penetrate the core of everyday Australians.
Maybe this explains why MacKay says a revival won’t happen. The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture. Yet, if we are attentive to the spiritual search of people like Williams, and listen to their questions, then maybe we will begin to discover the traces of an answer.

The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of
Australian life and culture.

At the end of his autobiography, Williams asks:
“… if the Man Jesus were to step inside my door or come knocking, would I know Him? … Would I welcome Him? I might. What would He say to me, looking through my façade of respectability into my soul? … I am torn by the tragedy of it all. How do I follow Him? How would I know God if I saw Him? I shall look for Him among the uncouth, the sorrowful, the have-nots. Maybe He will be there. And will He know me?”
What do you think? I would value knowing what your experience of the Aussie church is.
Stephen L Baxter