Different, but Together

Yesterday at Hobart Baptist Church we  got together for our monthly Combined Service. We call it a Combined Service because the different congregations making Hobart Baptist Church come together in worship to celebrate our diversity and reaffirm our unity.

It is a different type of service with the children joining us for the entire time and our three congregations—our traditional Sunday morning crowd, our Karen folk and our Church With No Walls people—participating in some way. Then after the service we continue our worship by sharing a meal together.

Casserole
We shared a delicious lunch together

This is an important event in the monthly life of our church. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the focus of our worship services should be solely on God and with no thought of other worshippers gathered with us. However, God expects more of us than that.
In the New Testament it is clear that that we don’t worship merely as individuals, but as a people, a congregation. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church were to make sure that everything happens—whether it is singing, teaching, praying, and reading the Bible—is done in such a way that “the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
Rather than think of ourselves, we are to think of one another. We are to make sure the rich don’t get all the good seats (Jms 2:1-4) and that at communion no believer is excluded (1 Cor. 11:22-23). Worship should not only increase our love of God but also the love of our fellow believers. John reflects on this when he writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 Jn 3:16).
Jesus said: Love one another as I have loved you
Jesus said: Love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Bythis everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34, 35). Sadly, we are not always as good at loving each other as we ought to be. Many of us have experienced hurts, divisions and disunity in churches. It can often leave us hurt, and even bitter. In fact, the number issues of over which we can disagree are limitless whether it is about theology or worship style, power or cultural differences, the pastor or the leadership.

“It is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences”

While it is true that these differences will by nature bring disagreements, it is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences. When a difference brings disagreement it presents an opportunity to either create unity or division. Unity will one day finally be realised but only when Jesus returns, until then unity will always be in process and something we are continually working on so as to maintain it.
Our combined services give us an opportunity where we can exercise our love for each other. They are a visible demonstration of the unity we have in Christ despite our differences. They are a way to help us to maintain our unity in the midst of our diversity.
As we spent time together yesterday, in the service and in our meal together, we were all provided with two opportunities. Firstly, to experience the love and unity of being part of God’s family, a very encouraging experience; and secondly, an opportunity to express that love and unity to each other.
The challenge is to embrace being different, while working together. I pray that as you seek to express love and unity to those in your fellowship that God will bless you too, just as he blessed us yesterday.
Stephen L Baxter

Dream Weaving

Last Saturday many of the leaders from  Hobart Baptist Church took the opportunity to join with David Jones from Baptist Rural Support Services to dream and plan together about the ongoing work of God in and through the church.
One of the most important questions we can ask about our church is this: What kind of church do we want to be, or importantly, what kind of church does God want us to be? Answering such a question requires prayer and reflection, and over the past two years while I’ve been part of the church, we’ve done this on a number of occasions. Not that we can ever plan exactly what we will do, there are always interesting and different things God brings that change our best laid plans.

Our dreams as a church can become
concrete if we plan well

Despite these contingencies and changes there is one thing we can be clear of, we are called to be a church that witnesses to the good news of Jesus in the area God has placed us—Hobart. But what does it mean for us to be witnesses here in this location?
In thinking about this I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer that we be “in” the world, but not of “it” (John 17:14-15). This is important. Some churches are so “in” the culture and embrace it so strongly that they lose their distinctiveness. Others are so “against” the culture that in their opposition they lose their relevance. Still others are so “above” the culture that they “super-spiritualise” life and lose all points of contact in the culture. When Jesus prays that we live “in” our culture he is not expecting us to be lost in it, he is praying that we be “for” our culture and engage it with a view to seeing it transformed.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, suggests that to be “for” a culture, a church should commit to a number of key principles. Here are two of them I believe are important for us at Hobart Baptist Church to reflect upon.
The first principle is that we commit to learn and speak the language of our culture. This means we avoid using “Christian-ese” or in-house jargon. We don’t use technical theological terms unless we explain them, and we never use any “we-them” language always aiming to be inclusive. Our desire is that we never want a non-Christian to be “lost” in our language or feel alienated.
A commitment to always talk as if non-Christians were present would mean we treat each other with respect, we would be humbly willing to admit our weaknesses and failures, yet we’d always be joyful about the difference the Gospel makes.
Being mindful of our language leads to a second commitment where we resolve to listen to people and to their “stories”. By treating each person as unique with a story to tell treats them with respect. By sincerely endeavouring to listen, understand, love and respect them unconditionally we honour them and yet will be willing to demonstrate how the Gospel of Jesus will meet their deepest longings.

“Jesus is the only one who can fulfil their greatest desire

To understand their deepest longings we would need to take time to gain knowledge and appreciation of their culture as it is encountered in the movies they see, the books they read and the music they play and so on. In understanding these hopes, dreams, stories, and fears, we look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate how Jesus is the only one who can fulfil their greatest desires.
What would happen to your church if you committed together to follow these simple principles? What do you think?  Would you like to give it a go?

Aussie Attitudes to Christianity

Karl Faase
Karl Faase, Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist, Sydney, since 1996

Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.
Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”
However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”
My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.
How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.

“We too are learning what it means to be church . . . 

Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.
In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .
So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.
Stephen L Baxter

Uniformity . . . or Diversity?

God loves diversity. That’s not just a theological ideal, but ecological observation.
I’m sure many of you, like Jenny and me, enjoy watching and appreciating TV shows that illustrate the vast array and diversity of the world. Those documentaries give us the opportunity to marvel at the almost infinite variation and colourful display of wildlife, plants, fish and insects that share this planet with us. I guess you could say we “glory” in the creativity that designed and made this rich diversity of life.

A red eyed tree frog perched on a flower shows the incredible diversity of the created world

God loves diversity, not uniformity. A quick look at God’s creation tells us that uniformity is not what God is after. Uniformity, from this point of view is actually a betrayal of God’s purposes. Across the world one can see that a healthy world is a diverse world. Even the Bible is indicative of this diversity. There are different writers using different approaches. There are parables and genealogies, poetry and proverbs, songs and symbols.  This variety reiterates the reality that God is a God of variety and diversity.

Yet why is it that human diversity proves difficult for us? Why do people so readily object to persons, places and things that are different? Even a quick look at your average local church makes it difficult to believe God is a God of diversity. We struggle over simple things like differences in taste in music, or what we believe, or what we wear. We love to have things done the way we like them and bristle when things are done differently. Moreover, many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking.

Many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking

Sadly too, often we desire the comfort of uniformity rather than the challenge of diversity.  If God had left the planning of the church to us we would have required everybody to be alike and avoided many problems and difficulties. Yet God chose diversity and therefore diversity is important to the church. In fact, right from the beginning (on the day of Pentecost) the church has been made up of people from different cultures, ages, gender, experience and preference. We in Hobart are no different.
I’ve heard it said there are three kinds of people who struggle with diversity in the church: the immature, the legalistic and the proud. While we all struggle with change, immature Christians are afraid of change. Legalists, on the other hand, don’t like change because it upsets their control which is based on conformation to rules and regulations. And the proud people do not like change as it forces them to ask whether things can be done better than they were in the past.

Diversity calls for the immature to grow up in their faith (Heb. 5:11-14), the legalist to not give up their freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1), and the proud to humble themselves and allow God to act in new ways (Acts 7:50-52).

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries. Warren Wiersbe (American pastor, speaker and writer) once said, “One of the best ways to promote unity in the Church is to allow freedom for diversity. That may sound like a paradox, but it is true. You cannot have true unity without diversity, for unity without diversity is uniformity; and uniformity can destroy the life of the Church” (Building Christian Unity, pg. 19-22).
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist we celebrated our first Combined Church Service. It was a time to celebrate our diversity. At this service the different congregations that make up Hobart Baptist church got together to worship God. This was an opportunity to “glory” in the diversity God has given us. It was an opportunity to remind ourselves that uniformity is not what God desires. It was an opportunity to affirm God is bigger than our individual dislikes and preferences. It was an opportunity to express our unity in Christ despite our diversity. It was an opportunity to encourage each other to maintain and foster the unity God has given us despite our diversity.
As you reflect on the importance of diversity in your fellowship, will you pray with me that God will be honoured, and many will be encouraged to follow Jesus in unity, celebrating his amazing diversity.  
Stephen L Baxter

Being Baptist – more than meets the eye

It was a privilege to have Nigel Wright as speaker at Engage Tasmania, our Baptist State Conference, last weekend. Nigel is principal of Spurgeon’s College, London, and with his wife Judy, journeyed to Hobart for the conference. It was a delight to have lunch with them last Monday and show them both around our buildings at Hobart Baptist. Given the influence of Spurgeon, and his son Thomas, in the early life of Hobart Baptist Church it was a great reminder of the profound heritage we have.
Under the conference theme “Back to the Future”, Nigel suggested a “church without a past is a Nigel G Wrightchurch without a future” and reminded us that historically, Baptists are the “radical Protestants.” Better described as a “movement of Christians” than a denomination, Baptists have often been at the pioneering edge in areas such as the abolition of the slave trade, issues of religious liberty and the ministry of women.
Nigel called us to revive the radical stance of our forebears and return to a New Testament vision of the church which is at the core of our Baptist Heritage: believers’ church, believers’ baptism, disavowing Constantinian influences and the separation of the powers of state and church. While acknowledging the positive and negative influences of tradition, he called for the ongoing transformation of our congregations to meet the challenges of our day.
All this reminded me of the great heritage we have here at Hobart Baptist Church. It was encouraging to remember that while the church faces significant challenges, those who have gone before us have travelled similar roads. They too faced challenges that at times seemed insurmountable, yet they persevered and God brought them through. Why can’t it be the same for us?
By recalling our radical roots we can be inspired. Taking time to look back at our history reminds us of where we have come from, and of the journey we are on with the Holy Spirit. Church can and should be an exciting place to be. It may be difficult at times, and increasingly difficult in the midst of an increasingly hostile environment, but the future need not be dark and glooming, but exciting.
God still loves his church, Jesus is still building his church, and the Holy Spirit is at work. Let us be encouraged and continue to ask God to enable the church, no matter what denomination, to be all that God desires it to be.
Stephen L Baxter
If you have some time, why not check out this 15-minute video put together by the Baptist Church in the UK, explaining some of the profound heritage of the Baptist Church >>>

Reach One . . .

Over the past few weeks at Hobart Baptist I’ve talked about our program Reach One. Reach One is an encouragement for each one of us to connect with one person who does not yet know Jesus, just like the disciple Andrew did.
I’ve always enjoyed the story about the disciple Andrew. He was Peter’s brother, and the first thing he did when heard about Jesus was to was to find his brother and tell him, “We have found the Messiah,” and brought him to Jesus (John 1:40-42). The results of that encounter are significant: while Andrew remained in the background as a disciple, Peter became a major leader among them.
An initiative of 2020 Vision, Reach One aims at encouraging every person attending a Baptist church in Hobart to be involved connecting with our community. It is not a major undertaking, it just asks each one of us to befriend at least one person who does not know Jesus and reach out to them in love, service, and prayer. It is not a program, but a journey where we each develop a relationship over the coming year. Then later in the year there will be events where we can invite our prayerfully gained friends to get to know others and hear about Jesus.
Reaching one person at a timeHobart Baptist is not alone in this. Baptist Churches from across Hobart are working together trusting God will reach out through us into our families, schools, work places and communities.
It is not a new idea. Writing to the Corinthian church Paul says, “God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ‘s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20, The Message Bible). It doesn’t matter whether we are young or old, God has given us a task: to share with others the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). Imagine what could happen if every one of us took this challenge seriously and began to pray asking God to help us reach out to at least one other person.
But some of us will ask, how do I tell someone about Jesus? What do I say? Where do I start? The story of Andrew is a great example and our series on the book of Acts gives us some pointers. While we don’t know everyone, we all have a circle of relationships including friends, neighbours, or family. Among them there is no doubt somebody whom we could get to know with the hope that one day we’ll be able to share about our personal experience with Jesus. It is one person introducing Jesus to another.
My prayer is that God may encourage and inspire you to pray and ask, who is Jesus prompting me to get to know? Who does Jesus want to reach out to through me? Imagine what the outcome could be if we all were inspired to Reach One.

Hospitality and the Healthy Church

Writer Henri Nouwen once noted that hospitality means,

“The creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”

In other words it is the art of creating an environment where people feel valued, cared for, comfortable and become open to change.
I believe God wants every church to be like that, including amongst the gathering of Christians I lead at Hobart Baptist. People remark how friendly our church is and that’s great feedback. But not an excuse to rest; we have still more to learn. It is easy to let our friendliness gravitate to being friendly to each other and forget about our guests. I often wonder about the number of people who have recently moved to Hobart and visit us for one or two Sundays but never return. I ask myself, do they find us friendly?
The apostle Peter hints that creating an environment where people feel valued, cared for and comfortable is not easy. In one of his letters he encourages Christians “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9) suggesting he knew it would be no easy task and one we can easily allow to fall away.
Although we may be a “friendly” church, I’m not sure every visitor experiences us that way. There are many reasons why, but one has to do with the fact that friendliness means different things to different people. Some visitors are more reserved and find too many conversations and too much fussing somewhat overwhelming, whereas others enjoy lots of contact and being made a fuss of.
Similarly, some are motivated by the gaps they see in a church and so feel wanted, whereas others will easily feel overwhelmed by the needs and sense they being “recruited” by well-meaning folk even on their first Sunday with us.
Such diversity in peoples’ likes and dislikes calls for great sensitivity on the part of the church. Creating the environment where people feel free to enter and explore according to their own pace requires sensitivity to know how to talk with people being careful not to overwhelm them with our enthusiasm.
Some of us are more gifted and sensitive in this regard than others. Some have the ability not only to enjoy meeting new people and helping them feel welcome, but are able to set them at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. Others of us don’t find it quite as easy, feeling a little overwhelmed ourselves at the thought of making the first move to greet another. Yet this is no reason not to try. Those who are more gifted can be an inspiration and model to the rest of us.
I heard recently the suggestion that the expression of hospitality is a sign of a healthy church. Just like Jesus was open and sensitive to people around him, the church that offers a welcome displays a heart like Jesus’. It is not surprising that words hospitality and hospital have a similar Latin root; and interesting in that they both lead to the same result: healing.
Hospitality is not an option for us. It is an extension of Jesus’ work through his Church. As we were welcomed by him into God’s family, he calls us to welcome those he brings into our midst. Whether that is before, during or after our service; we need to be alert for visitors standing by themselves. They can’t be left like that, but greeted with a smile and a sensitivity that doesn’t overload or overwhelm them.
Peter reminds us that hospitality is not an option. So let us be encouraged to get on with it and be alert, welcoming and sensitive. Let us work together to create an environment where people feel valued, cared for, and comfortable, and let’s get on and do it without grumbling.
Everyone has had good and bad experiences when visiting new churches. What’s your story?
Stephen L Baxter

Boldness and Courage!

In 1611 Thomas Helwys boldly led a small group of Christians back to Britain from Holland where they had sought freedom from religious persecution in England. Returning to Britain they formed the first Baptist church in Britain in a place called Spitalfields, London. But it was not long before Helwys was arrested and put in Newgate Prison where he died before 1616.

Adult baptisms were conducted by Thomas Helwys & John Smyth in 1609

This did not deter the group from meeting however, but spurred them on in their shared commitment to their convictions including the priesthood of all believers, the importance of the Word of God, sharing God’s story with others, freedom of religion and the pursuit of justice. But they continued to face persecution, and some 50 years later they were still being sentenced to death.
Thankfully we don’t face such opposition today, yet we do live in times of great change. The increasingly post-Christendom and Jesus-illiterate world around us is forcing us to rethink how we ‘do church’. We are having to re-learn how to communicate the good news that Jesus is Lord to our neighbours and communities.
Times such as these call for great creativity and courage, and thankfully we have our rich heritage we can all draw on for inspiration. Our forebears’ willingness to risk persecution and even death for their convictions has the power to fill us with hope that God can equip us with the same passion, strength and wisdom they had. We can be inspired to move into the future God has for us.
Let us continue to pray that God will fill us with creativity, boldness and courage as we face the task of sharing his good news to our communities.
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