The Diversity of Jesus’ Church – in India!

Back in 1990, Jenny and I with our three young children and nine eager fellow travellers set out for a short term mission trek visiting our sister church which worked in the slums of Chennai (then called Madras). Chennai is in the province of Tamil Nadu, and is famous for its curries and very dark-skinned inhabitants. 

For six weeks we shared life with our Indian brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there we learnt about the diversity of God’s church in ways we could never have imagined. It was a confronting, uncomfortable and challenging time; yet it was nevertheless an encouraging and life-changing experience.
On Sundays we sat on the floor through 2½ hour long services, with women on the right and men on the left, in humid, sweltering conditions. Most of the time we had little or no idea what was going on as men prayed and preached and women sang and wailed. We watched as the pastor prayed for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike and then asked us to join in.
Dance in Worship
Two of our group in ‘half-saris’ (worn by older teen girls) dancing to a worship song as learnt at home. They are dancing surrounded by the women’s half of the congregation.

As leaders, one of our main tasks was to counsel our team as they experienced culture shock, and guide them to a godly and biblical way to understand the gulf of differences that existed between the Indians and us. The way they lived their Christian life, their theology and practice of church was something we had never encountered or experienced before.
We often pined for home, yet we learnt so much during those six weeks and it was sad when we came to leave. While their church services seemed so disordered, often leaving us confused and uncomfortable, we could not deny the reality that God was at work amongst them, despite our disquiet and questions.
As I look back now I think it was the first time I realised that despite what I’d assumed, the opposite of disorder is not order, or certainly not my idea of order. When things are uncomfortable, confusing and seemingly out of hand, I look for stability in what I know and what I experience. But living in Chennai  that was impossible, there was no escape. I couldn’t walk away, I couldn’t withdraw. After all, I was the leader.
Jenny with our three children and some Indian friends

What God taught me was that peace is the opposite of disorder, not order. The apostle Paul says as much in a little verse in 1 Corinthians where he says, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (14:33). What a simple but profound statement, written to what was most likely the most dysfunctional church of the New Testament. Here was snobbery, sexual promiscuity, over-enthusiastic expression of spirituality, and disorderly times of worship. The church was divided and confused, and in the midst of their disarray Paul reminds them of the importance of peace, after all Jesus is the King of Peace (Hebrews 7:2) and the angels announcedat his birth that he would bring “peace on earth.”
Here I am preaching at 2am at the New Year’s Eve all night prayer vigil!

The lessons I learnt in Chennai served me well just a few years later when I became the Managing Director of Australia’s largest Christian magazine at the time (On Being magazine). Through the magazine I came in contact with people with quite a wide diversity of experiences and expressions in following Jesus. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Christians from all persuasions and walks of life. Some were more conservative even fundamental, some were liberal, some charismatic and Pentecostal, some were orthodox and some unorthodox. Many thought their way of being and doing church was the “right” way, and some really struggled to appreciate the uniqueness of each other’s gifts, heritage and experience.
However, I found the experience of learning about all this variety was rich and rewarding. I was constantly reminded of God’s love of diversity and the how body of Christ is made up people from different backgrounds, heritage and experience. Such a range in understanding is not a problem to God, and I learnt that it shouldn’t be a problem to me either.
This is one of the things I find delightful about Hobart Baptist. We are made up of three quite distinct and different congregations. In essence it is a small expression of the diversity of the body of Christ. Alongside our more traditional Baptist heritage, we have our Karen congregation and their experience of church, living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. And alongside these we have Church With No Walls expressing their faith in God in different ways again.
I am constantly encouraged by the willingness of people to work at being one church in the midst of our diversity, endeavouring to encourage one another through the exercise of grace, forgiveness and love. Despite our differences we are to work at being united, and in doing so be obedient to the command of Jesus. On the night before he died Jesus prayed for us (John 14-17) and insisted that as disciples we demonstrate our unity by our love for one another.
That is not to say we agree on everything, in fact the reality is we don’t. But we can agree to be united despite our differences. Often Christians make the mistake of wanting other Christians to think the way they do. Still others believe everyone should worship or work the way they do. But we were made to be different – different gifts but the same Spirit, different services but the same Lord, different ministries but the same God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The Bible is clear: we are called to unity but not uniformity.
Unity is not about having big services with all the congregations together, nor is unity singing the same songs and doing everything the same way. That is conformity or sameness. Such uniformity is unbiblical.
How is it possible to live with such diversity? I believe unity is a journey, not a static point. Our focus is not order (although that maybe important) but peace. Why? Because we can experience peace even in the midst of disorder or when we feel uncomfortable. Unity is being united in purpose and allowing each other to get on with what they are called to. We may sing different songs, conduct our services differently and see the world differently, but what is important is that we all reach for the same goal. We want to see each other’s ministries flourish; we therefore pray for each other and help out wherever we can. This is unity! That is what God taught Jenny and me in India.
We discovered God is much bigger than our experience, our theology and our ability to understand. Our thinking was too small at the best of times. Once we relaxed and experienced peace, we were able to see God at work in new ways, and learnt to appreciate their “dis”-order in a new way.
We learnt that we can’t limit God to our comfort zone and say, “God, I only want you to work in what I’m comfortable with.” We learnt that Jesus is not a comfortable Saviour, and if we were looking for comfort we need to look elsewhere than Jesus. So despite the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, it did not mean he was the Prince of Comfort. And although the Holy Spirit is called the comforter the Spirit’s job is not to make us comfortable.
God has not finished with Hobart Baptist Church, there is much more that the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – desires for us. And if God is at work amongst us, we can guarantee that the journey will be uncomfortable and challenging; for me as well as you. Our assurance is that God is with us, and Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is our Saviour.
I encourage you to be at prayer for the various forms of the Church in Hobart and elsewhere. Pray also for those who are experiencing a sense of disorder wehre they are; that they may seek God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding; and that they may grow in love for others despite differences.
Stephen L Baxter

Living for God’s Glory

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

During our recent holiday, which included time in Europe, Jenny and I visited our fair share of church buildings. Magnificent monoliths, towering ceilings and incredibly ornate interiors greeted us in every city. Although they were said to be built “for the glory of God,” we had our suspicions that more than just God’s glory was in focus. It was the glory of an emperor, a ruler, a nation or of humanity itself that was also being glorified.
These grand structures seem far removed from the church we find described in book of Acts. Rather than displaying glory and power through breathtaking and awe-inspiring buildings, God’s glory in Acts is evidenced in changes in lives and the formation of new all-embracing communities. Rather than focussing on what the church does for God in promoting his glory in the world, the story of Acts focuses on what God is doing for humanity through his people the church.
Luke’s account of the life of the early church in Acts reinforces that it is Jesus who builds his church, not us. In a world obsessed with success, activism and results, this is a much needed reminder.
In his book The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul observes how our modern society seems to believe the only purpose of life is to get things done. Whether it is personally

St Stephens Vienna
One side chapel in St Stephen’s Cathedral

and corporately, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them, or at least trying to accomplish them.
For instance, when we introduce ourselves to others one of the first things we mention is what we do, what we have done, and were we have succeeded. Our worth, and the worth of every organisation is measured by what it has done and the difference it has made in the world.
Ellul goes on to suggest that Christians are no different. While it is true we are called to accomplish things for God, we often slip into measuring our worth as Christian on the basis of whether we are doing something “worthwhile” or not. However, this is not how God would want us to view things.
Beginning with Genesis and picking examples throughout the Bible, Ellul suggests that meaning and worth is not to be found in activism, results, and success.
Genesis 2 describes Eden as a luscious garden providing all the food Adam and Eve needed. But just a few verses later, God commands Adam to work the soil and care for it? The obvious question is what for? If Eden provided the food, why did Adam need to work the soil?
Then when it comes to prayer, Ellul asks, if God knows what we need, and is able to do everything whether we pray or not, then why do we need to ask? It’s the same with the gospel, we are saved entirely by grace and any work we do to gain salvation is inconsequential, so what is the point of living a life a righteousness life? What does it accomplish?
We are confronted with the same questions in the book of Acts. Here we face the question, “What did these early Christians do for God that he could not have done just as well without them?” The answer is nothing!
After studying Jesus’ parable about faithful service in Luke 17:7-10 with its conclusion “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,” Ellul argues that the world has got it wrong when it believes aiming for success and accomplishment is the only effective motive for action. A more reliable and effective motive is to act out of love for God, and you do it just because he asked.
Ellul’s conclusion is that “we have nothing to achieve, nothing to win, nothing to provide” and although there are things to do and tasks to accomplish, we are under no illusion that God needs us nor that we have made any essential contribution to his work.
The supreme example of this is of course Jesus. He did not strive for success or accomplishment, in fact in the eyes of his world he died a failure as another false messiah on a Roman cross. The gospels record that throughout his life he was concerned with one thing: faithfulness to the will of Father. It was his faithfulness, not his accomplishments that won for us salvation.
What is true for Jesus is true for his people and this is what we find working out in Acts. The early church was not focussed on accomplishments, activism, results, and success. Its focus was on loving God and loving each other, and allowing Jesus to get about building his church. They are constantly playing catch up as Jesus moves ahead of them time after time. As they do this they experienced the grace and freedom of God. Saving the world wasn’t up to them, that’s God’s job.
As we work our way through Acts during the next few weeks as Hobart Baptist, it is my prayer we will experience more and more of the grace and freedom these early Christians experienced. Grace allowed them to rest and let the Holy Spirit be at work in and through them, and the freedom released them from the tyranny of striving for success.
May you too experience the job of living for God not as work, but as the delight of worship.
Stephen L Baxter

Happy New Year!

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...
Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait

How did you go with your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re anything like me, probably not too well. In fact, I have now decided not to make New Year’s resolutions anymore. I, like many thousands of others, have found that they are not much use; you just tend to break them within four or five days. In fact, studies show that 88-92% of all New Year’s resolutions fail.

But why? There are many reasons, but one I find compelling is that resolutions are more often than not desperate attempts to change something in our lives using a form of self punishment. We subconsciously punish ourselves for those things that we haven’t yet achieved, or those things we wish we could do better.  Our hope is that a resolution will somehow bring about a change in behaviour and ultimately help us feel better about ourselves.

Like all punishments, resolutions come from a negative base and when we fail we more often than not end up feeling guilty. So the best solution is not to make them at all.

So while life without resolutions may be freeing, it does not mean we throw out goal setting altogether. In fact, goal setting is quite different to making resolutions.

The difference between a goal and a resolution is that resolutions are focused on what you don’t want rather than on what you do want. Goal setting is about overcoming obstacles to reach a desired end. A resolution such as, “don’t eat chocolate,” can be made into a goal like “eat more healthily.” The difference between the two can be quite profound. I believe Vincent van Gogh was hinting at the same idea when he said, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” In other words, replace the negative with a positive.

The other difference between a resolution and a goal is the fallout when it is not achieved. Often once you break your resolution that’s the end of it, you’ve failed. But if you miss your goal, the goal still remains, it is still an aspiration and something that can remain positive by reviewing progress, learning from it, celebrating the effort so far and continuing to move toward your goal.

Goal setting rather than making resolutions maybe the best way to go and New Year is an obvious time for thoughtful reflection and decision. Throughout the Bible, God makes it clear that we ought not to be anxious about life, but nor should we be so lazy as to make no plans at all. We are encouraged to look at our lives and become all that God has called us to be (Philippians 3:12-14).There is a place of humility where we submit our plans to the Lord, and yet we are to “continue to work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

So while I’m not making any resolutions again this year, I have been reflecting on the past year and setting goals for the new. My primary focus is following Jesus and serving him.

What about you? May your new year be filled with a genuine desire to grow in your commitment to Jesus Christ and may you experience the joy, peace and fulfilment that come from being on that journey with him.

Stephen L Baxter

The Church. What is it really?

Do you find the word “church” confusing?Is a 'Church' a building, or a group of people?
When I was with Fusion I regularly taught a short course called “Church and Mission”. As an introduction I would brainstorm with the students different ways the word “church” is used. Usages such as “go” to church, which could mean a building or a service; would come up, but so would the notion of denominations such as the Anglican Church and how we use the word for congregations themselves as well as for the wider “body of Christ”. Most classes would come up with about 12 different ways in which we use the word “church”. No wonder there is confusion around what the church actually is.
Historically, our English word “church” has come to us via German and Latin from the Greek kyriakon which means, “hat which belongs to the Lord”. Originally it was an adjective, doma or oikia meaning “the Lord’s house”. That’s why we use the word for the building in which we conduct worship. However, sadly, this origin of the word “church” is not from the Bible.
In the New Testament the word we translate “church” is ekklesia, which means a public gathering, assembly or meeting. Never throughout the New Testament does ekklesia refer to a building; it only always refers to people.
It literally means a “called-out people” however there is little of this meaning found in the New Testament. Following on from the Old Testament ekklesia is used to describe the people of God assembled to worship. The ekklesia is not a “sect” that separates itself from the world, but a people of God gathering to and for the Lord in worship and fellowship so as to be formed into Christ and serve the world.

A history of redefinition

Given that the word “church” has both biblical and extra-biblical meanings it is not surprising there is some confusion about what the word means, and, that throughout history there have been various attempts to define what “church” is.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258), suggested that “where the bishop is, there is the church”. Medieval scholars developed a dualistic notion of both the “visible” and “invisible” church. The Reformers proposed that “where scriptural doctrine is adhered to, there is the church” whereas the Anabaptists said, “where converted believers are gathered, there is the church.” Pietists (a movement within Lutheranism from late 17th to mid 18th century  influenced Protestantism, Anabaptism, John Wesley and the Methodist movement and Brethrens) organised “little churches within the church” for Bible study, fellowship and prayer, here the church is a small group of committed followers. We can see elements of all these different perspectives in our different denominations.
To add to the confusion the number of Christian denominations has increased from about 1,000 to 22,000 over the past century.

The “real” church

So who or what is the “real” church? It’s not easy to define, but ultimately the “real” church is the one Christ loved and for which he gave his life. The picture we have in the book of Revelation is of the “bride of Christ” finally perfected and prepared for the final consummation. It is only in this grand finale that the church is final and completed. Until that time it is perpetually in transition experiencing transformation and change.
In other words, from its earliest beginnings until now the church has always been in the process of becoming. It remains incomplete, immature and in the process of being perfected until then. It is always changing. Living in the midst of such continual change is not easy. I believe that change, or perhaps more accurately the fear of change, is one of the greatest impediments to the ongoing development of the church.
We long for the confusion to disappear so that we can rest and retire. But Jesus does not let us. He is preparing his bride.
At Hobart Baptist, where I am in leadership, we have accepted the reality that we need to continue to change to be all God wants us to be. And yet we fear growth, we fear parting with cherished traditions, we fear dominating leaders and losing power. However, the same challenges have faced by God’s people throughout history, and are also pehaps faced by the fellowship where you worship.
Jesus is at work building his Church. It can be very confusing at times, and quite confronting. However, he is always calling us to become more and more like him. It is challenging, but as  John Wimber suggested the best way to spell “faith” is “R, I, S, K”.
Stephen L Baxter