A few people from Hobart Baptist recently attended an excellent workshop with Dennis Pethers, an international evangelist based in the UK. Dennis is founder of Viz-A-Viz Ministries, International Director of “More to Life” and spends around seven months each year outside the UK equipping Christians, churches and church leaders.
There is a good chance that Dennis doesn’t fit your perception of an evangelist. He is quietly spoken, unassuming, humble and very down to earth. Although he has spoken at large rallies, he pointed out that the era of the big evangelistic rally is almost extinct in our contemporary Western community. Our society has changed and because people just don’t come like they did once.
One insight Dennis shared was . . .
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Among the many tensions that exist at the heart of any church, it is my observation there is one that we often overlook. A tension, I believe, is where we are pulled in two directions at the same time by two important truths.
Another tension in the church has to do with the focus of its life. Should it be inward or outward looking? In any church there are forces at work causing it to focus inward on itself. This is not necessarily bad as God calls us to love and care for each other. This inward looking behaviour is important for any healthy church. It is the necessary work of maintaining our unity, nurturing new Christians and ensuring growth in maturity.
But there is also a force that moves us to focus outwardly to those around us, sending us out to the people outside the church . . .
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It’s most likely true that everyone has at least one physical scar that with a good story behind it. Do you? For some of us, those who are a little bit older, there are more scars and more stories to share.
Our scars are often the result of accidents, and are noticeable because of the marks in the skin where it is a bit tougher than it used to be and doesn’t bend as easily as undamaged tissue. Yet, despite this, scars are God’s plan and part of our body’s healing response. They are part of life, part of God’s design and we all carry them.
Not all our scars are visible. Some are covered because of their location while others are covered because we don’t want them seen. Neither do all scars carry a good story . . .
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At the recent engageHOBART conference, Jenny and I led a workshop on Developing an Aussie Gospel. In our workshop we explored what we might be able to do to make the gospel message more meaningful in our Australian culture.
This is no easy task. Our community has changed so much over the past 50 years, and recently we have witnessed a growing criticism of the church that is increasingly hostile. Although we are called by Jesus to be messengers of the “good news” of the Kingdom there are many who in no way believe our message is “good” news at all.
In addition to exploring new ways of doing ‘church’ and revisiting some of our many treasured forms, we also need to learn how best to communicate the gospel to Australians.
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Over Easter the New York Times ran an article that commented in passing that Easter Sunday is the day Christians honour Jesus’ “resurrection into heaven.” A mistake which, once pointed out, was quickly corrected. Nevertheless, such an error reminds us of the growing ignorance in our Western world of Christian belief.
This year’s Easter has come and gone and life returns to normal, almost as if the resurrection has no effect. But it wasn’t like that on the first Easter. I wonder whether Easter should make more of an impact in our lives. Maybe we too reflect the ignorance of the rest of our community.
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We use the word “church” in so many different ways that sometimes it becomes quite confusing. When we say we are “going to church” we could mean we are meeting with others to worship God, or that we are just going to the building. Sometimes we use the word church to mean a denomination, and other times we use it to mean the wider body of Christ of which all believers are part.
Sadly, none of these ways of using the word are 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.
Nevertheless buildings are important. While many churches exist without a building, they can serve a useful function. For Hobart Baptist our buildings help us go about the ministry God has called us to. What is more, did you know that our buildings are used seven days a week? Many other groups find our buildings helpful too.
From time to time, for many reasons, churches need to develop their buildings. These may include the buildings being too big or too small, they could be falling down or crumbling, or often they are wrongly designed for today’s church or community needs.
Hobart Baptist Church is in the middle of a process of dreaming about how we might develop and use our buildings to help us in our ministry both now and in the future. When we began the journey nearly two years ago we were just looking at upgrading the kitchen and having meeting rooms with appropriate technology, but since then the vision has grown and we are now in serious discussions with the owners of neighbouring properties about how we might do something quite large together.
The church has appointed a taskforce to work with the interested parties to work out what is possible. We are aware that any development needs to reflect and to speak of what the church stands for, what it wants to promote and how it can best be used in response to contemporary and future needs. So all our dreaming and discussion has taken place within the context of the mission of the church and our place in neighbourhood in mind.
Everyone the taskforce talks to is very excited with our vision and are keen to see the vision realised. However, the Taskforce is very mindful that despite this truly amazing opportunity, “the church” is not a building, no matter how beautiful, spacious or practical it might be. The building only exists to serve God’s people who are the church, and it is important for us to constantly remember this.
“The building only exists to serve God’s people who are the church, and it is important for us to constantly remember this.”
That, however, doesn’t take away the reality that the Taskforce is at a very important stage in our discussions and we as a congregation are praying earnestly. A full update will be given at our church meeting in April, but in the meantime we will be praying that God will oversee the process and that a shared understanding on how to proceed will be approved by all the respective parties.
We are looking forward to all that happens as Hobart Baptist Church charts its course into the future, with our great God at the helm.
Stephen L Baxter
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.
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, “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
Each year as our community celebrates Christmas it feels as if the name of Jesus is mentioned less and less. As multicultural sensitivities increase in the name of tolerance, the diminishing significance of Christmas is noticeable. More often than not it is called Xmas, and commercialisation has taken over.
Even phrases like “Merry Christmas!” are replaced with “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings!” It seems like it won’t be long before the true Christmas story will only be heard in Christian churches.
The trend is clearly captured in surveys by McCrindle Research which show that only 15% of Australians now take part in religious events such as attending services, carol singing, and nativity play s at Christmas. Yet, a massive 87% of those who say they are nonreligious celebrate Christmas in some way, just not with any religious or spiritual meaning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, 56% of those who belong to a religion that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, such as Buddhists and Hindus, nevertheless still celebrate it. Australians see Christmas as being about presents, shopping and celebrations and only a third (37%), believe traditions such as exchanging gifts and a general ‘Christmas’ spirit are important.
These trends cause one to ponder on the future of Christmas. If trends continue it’s not hard to foresee that increasing numbers of people will celebrate Christmas with little or no reference to the birth of Jesus. Even so, despite the decline, Christmas Day will remain a legal holiday because our retailers and the economy could not survive without it. And no doubt Christians who observe Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’ birth will continue to be marginalised. We will need to be increasingly assertive if the wish to maintain the right to celebrate the birth of Jesus publicly.
In the light of such forces it is difficult to know what the future of Christmas holds. However, there is no need to despair or to give up hope, there is more to Christmas that that.
At the heart of the Christmas story is the miracle of God’s love and grace. Christmas is the story of baby born to be king, but rejected by the world. We should not be surprised that such rejection continues today.
“In the light of such forces it is difficult to know what the future of Christmas holds.
However, even despite betrayal, crucifixion and death, God’s plans are not thwarted. Though his faithful obedience to death, his vindication through the resurrection, and his promise to return; Jesus still embodies for us the promise of a new and better world.
The angels who heralded the birth of Christ declared the promise of peace on earth. It was the fulfilment of the visions of the Old Testament prophets that told of God’s intention to once and for all deal with evil and establish a new world order. In it the wolf and the lamb will lie down together and the earth will overflow with the knowledge of God, just like water covers the sea. The future of Christmas is assured, justice and peace will reign.
As we celebrate Christmas this year and worship Jesus our Lord may our lives, family and community be filled with hope, joy, peace and love. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Stephen L Baxter
Babette’s Feast is the name of a favourite film of Jenny’s and mine. It is a gentle and moving story masterpiece that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987, and it’s a great one to watch again at Christmas.
The film is set in a small Lutheran community on the bleak and frigid coast of Jutland, Denmark where the living is strict, simple, sacrificial, and separated from the rest of the world. Two elderly sisters, daughters of the pastor, gave up opportunities to marry when they were young so as to remain in the village serving the church with their father. One day a mysterious Frenchwoman arrives and pleads for protection from persecution. The sisters have little money but allow her stay and in return she becomes their maid.
The film starts slowly reflecting the insularity and mundane regularity of the austere community life. Twelve years after BAbette’s arrival, the two middle-aged sisters try to carry on the mission of their deceased father, yet it proves impossible without his strict leadership and the sect slowly splinters.
As the 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth approaches the sisters want to celebrate it in a way that will help their friends. At the same time Babette receives word she has won 10,000 francs in a French lottery. Although initially expecting to leave the village, Babette eventually begs to be permitted to prepare one last supper as a gift for the community.
The meal is the climax of the film and here we learn Babette was once chef at a top Parisian restaurant. As the tired, aging and suspicious community members sit down for the meal relationships are stiff and cold. They cautiously begin to dine on Babette’s delicacies and as they do their faces show a hint of thawing. As the meal progresses it is not only their bodies that are fed, but their souls as well. Old wounds begin to heal and closed hearts are gently opened.
The film ends with the aged community members outside joining hands around the fountain rousingly singing old hymns. In the kitchen Babette sits in the middle of the mess of dirty dishes, greasy pots, and leftover food. She is tired as she talks to the sisters and reveals she has spent all her money on the meal and will be staying in the community.
The film is full of meaning for Christians as many missioligists, such as Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, have noted. That there are twelve seated at the supper is a subtle hint inviting comparisons to the Lord’s Supper. In fact it almost seems that somehow the spirit of Christ has slipped into the room and joined them in the meal, anticipating the great banquet that SScripture reminds us is yet to come. The meal itself becomes a time of deep thanksgiving and fellowship not only demonstrating the power of celebration, but like the cross, demonstrating the costliness of grace. It cost Babette all she had.
The film also reflects the heart of the mystery of Christmas. Babette’s gift ushers in the gift of grace, unasked and unearned, just as God’s grace enters our world through the birth of Jesus Christ. And just as in the incarnation God embraces our human existence and sanctifies it, Babette’s gift celebrates the good things of the world over and against the lifelessness of religious legalism.
Ultimately, however, Babette’s Feast is story of grace and reminds us how grace works: it costs the giver everything and the recipient nothing. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
Yesterday the season of Advent began, and churches all over the world will be celebrating it over the next four weeks during the lead up to Christmas. Not all Protestant traditions celebrate Advent, and I certainly don’t remember it from my childhood. Yet millions of Christian will celebrate it again this year.
Advent is different from the celebration of Christmas. In the seasonal calendar of the Church, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve and continues for the next twelve days, ending on January 6 (that’s where the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, comes from). The celebration of Advent originated in the 6th century and is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. The word comes from the Latin meaning “arrival” or “coming” and is a time of preparation.
Over the four week period of Advent, Christians dedicate themselves to both remember and anticipate. They remember by looking back to Christ’s first coming, they anticipate by looking forward to his second coming.
By looking both back and forward we are reminded how we are caught between these two events. Looking back helps remind us that Jesus has come as a human being; that he was crucified, buried and on the third day was alive again. Death has been defeated and the victory won.
“Over the four week period of Advent, Christians dedicate themselves to both remember and anticipate.”
By looking forward we remind ourselves that full implications of the victory are yet to be seen and we still await its coming. Every day we still face the reality of death; in every community and individual the world is still plagued with sin; we are still to see peace and justice reign supreme; and hunger and disease are still with us. During Advent we anticipate the return of Jesus Christ the King and the time when all creation will be reconciled to God.
Advent can be a very personal time. As individuals we can affirm how much we need a Saviour and celebrate that Jesus Christ came for me. It reminds us that he is present in our world today whether we are aware of it or not. It brings us to the place where we again choose to draw near to him with the sure hope of resurrection and a new world.
My hope for each of one of us in this season of Advent is that in spite of the chaos, anxiety, hurts, and busyness that often fills our lives, we will take time to prepare.
My prayer is that in your preparation during Advent, you will find an openness to receive again the love and joy of Christmas. This joy flows from the celebration of God entering the world through the coming of the Son of God as a human being.