You may remember the story a few years back of the sad shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in the US that took the lives of five Amish girls and injured five others. With this tragic event the life of these simple Amish folk for a moment became international news. The simple, 18th century lifestyle of the Amish seems quite strange in our modern age of conveniences and comforts. Yet their unique, genuine and deep faith in God shone through the media coverage.
Almost instantly after the killings they offered forgiveness to the killer and established funds not only for the families of those killed and wounded, but also for the family of the man who committed the murders. Consistently the Amish have explained that their motivation has come from Jesus’ command to forgive those who hurt you. One Amish man wrapped his arms around the killer’s father and tried to comfort him in his grief saying, “We forgive you!” It is interesting to read the comments reported in the media:
“We’re really strongly taught to forgive like Jesus did. We forgive the way Christ forgives us.” “You need to go on and just trust. God will take care of us.” “We think it was God’s plan, and we’re going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going. A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth because we believe in the hereafter. The children are better off than their survivors.” “We need to go through trials to strengthen our faith. We need to accept it. There is no other way we can go on.”
As the injured girls began to recover some incredible stories started to be told. One was an interaction leading up to the shooting where the oldest girl in the school, 13 year old Marian Fisher, pleaded with the gunman, saying, “Shoot me and leave the others alone.” Through their Christ-like response to this tragic event, the Amish demonstrated something of Jesus’ love and forgiveness to a world they normally withdraw from. Even in the midst of their own grief they turned media attention away from themselves and toward God. Their humble trust is an example to us all. They showed how to allow God to be at work in our hearts in the very toughest of trials. They showed how a tragic event can become a witness to God’s love. It is good for us to take hope and inspiration from their example. It helps remind us that no matter what we might be going through there is always a way to continue to trust in God and his goodness. Stephen L Baxter
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist we had our sceond Combined Service.It’s a time when the three different congregations making up Hobart Baptist Church came together to worship at one service and celebrate our diversity. The children did not leave for their programs in the middle of the service, but remained with us for the entire time; and later we continued our worship by sharing a meal together.
Why would we do something like this? Why expend all this effort to change our normal pattern? In Galatians 3:28 Paul says we are “all one in Christ,” “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” He reminds us that God does not see his people as the world sees them. God does not operate in categories of ethnicity, status or gender, but is in relationship with each person in the same way. When we gather together in our diversity we are reflecting something of the way God regards each one of us. Making room for each other and treating each other in the reality of that “oneness” becomes of itself an act of worship. Throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament letters, there is a theme of the promise of God of a New Creation – a world where everything is set right. In it, God’s Spirit fills everyone regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, or class. It is a place where that same Spirit gifts everyone for the common good of all. It is a place where broken lives and relationships are healed. That’s why Jesus commanded us to be in unity. John records him saying (13:34-35), “A new commandment I give to you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Being in unity despite our differences is a command of Jesus. From this passage, the American theologian Francis Schaeffer concluded that according to Jesus, the world has the right to decide whether we are true Christians based on the love we show to other Christians. So when Jesus said we are to love on another he was talking about something real and observable, something that needs work, yet it is something that is at the heart of what it means to follow him. That’s why we take being together seriously and why we make the effort to worship God in all our wonderful diversity. It was an enjoyable time together yesterday. For some there may have been things that happened that were not exactly to their taste and therefore a little uncomfortable. I encouraged those people to, as an act of worship, move past the discomfort and choose to celebrate the diversity God has blessed us with. Perhaps you too find it difficult to embrace all God’s wonderful diversity and choose to stay in an environment where you are safe and comfortable. Let me encourage you too, to look past these things as your act of worship. Stephen L Baxter
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.
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
Back in 1981 when Wesleyan Heritage Church of Rock Island, Illinois numbered 80 people they began focusing on the importance of seeing people coming to know Jesus. They embarked on an evangelism program that saw 17 people receive Jesus as Saviour in the first four months. Every one of them already had a connection with the church in some way it was just that they had never been asked. Today, just over 20 years later, the church numbers over 2,800 people across four locations. Four years ago their pastor John Bray challenged the church to never go another week without someone coming to Christ through the activity of the church or its members. They installed lights on crosses at all four locations and lit them when someone comes to faith. They have now been lit for 188 consecutive weeks. Beginning in 1973 with a church of just 24 Bray says, “Our growth was slow for a long time, it took 20 years to get to 200. Nobody in town really knew we were here but we just kept focusing on reaching people for Jesus. I’m convinced that every church is surrounded by people who need Christ, so every church can grow… We’re a large church and should have regular professions of faith but that challenge sharpened our focus. Smaller churches might not be able to celebrate a decision every week but why not every month? Everybody knows somebody who needs Jesus.”
“Everybody knows somebody who needs Jesus
That’s what’s behind our Reach One strategy at Hobart Baptist. It aims to encourage each one of us, no matter how young or how old, 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 with them as we pray that they may receive a chance to hear the good news about Jesus. It is not a new idea. It’s been at the centre of church life from the beginning, as recorded in Luke’s story of the early church we call the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Then when writing to the Corinthian church Paul reminds them, “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). It’s encouraging to hear what happened at Heritage Church when they accepted the challenge to take evangelism seriously. I wonder what we would see if we did the same here at Hobart Baptist, or even what you would see with you and those in your fellowship. I’m sure we all know someone, or there is someone in our wider networks of friends, neighbours, family or acquaintances that we could pray for and could get to know with the hope that we’ll be able to share our personal experience of Jesus. Ultimately, whether a person accepts Jesus is out of our hands – it’s in God’s hands and theirs. And while there are no magic formulas or special techniques that ensures church growth, a commitment to share Jesus with others is critical not only because we are called to but because many people have never been asked. If you have already begun praying for a person as you seek to Reach One, let me encourage you to continue in patience and perseverance. If you have not started yet, I encourage you to ask God whom you could be praying for and start now. Stephen L Baxter
One of my favourite verses in the gospels comes from Matthew where Jesus says, “…every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (13:52). This is the last of eight parables strung together in Chapter 13 where Jesus first uses parables to explain what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Here Jesus reflects on his new way of teaching saying it is like a householder who, to meet the needs of the current situation, brings from his supply old things and new things. In other words every student or learner of the Kingdom is like a head of an enterprise that is able to apply both new and old learning to every circumstance. It is about making the right response as demanded by the current situation.
“Every student or learner of the Kingdom is like a head of an enterprise that is able to apply both new and old learning to every circumstance”
In Australia today the church is facing challenging times. The world continues to change and we are struggling to keep pace. Today the active Christian population has become a minority and the majority of our neighbours and friends never set a foot inside a church. In fact, they are increasingly ignorant of even our most familiar Bible stories. Although some of the outward trappings of our Christian past reside with our society, it is now overwhelmingly secularised. It is not surprising that as the number of people familiar with the gospel dwindles and those ignorant of the church increase, that many children have never heard the Christmas story. I recently read of a young student fascinated with hearing the story of Christmas for the first time went to his teacher to thank her. Yet one thing disturbed him, ‘Why did they give the baby a swear-word for his name?’ Living in a post-Christendom society that has lost the memory of its Christian past, people today actively choose not to associate with churches. If they do happen to be in our buildings it will be at a wedding or a funeral or as curious tourists totally ignorant of their own Christian legacy. Long past is the expectation that churches have anything relevant or even understandable to say to them. Needless to say this poses enormous challenges for us. Hobart Baptist has not been exempt from the effects of these changes. Perhaps our biggest threat is that we will continue to operate as though nothing has changed. Overwhelmed by the changes, the danger is that we continue to be the church the way we were before the dramatic events of the past century. So what do we do? Jesus’ parable can be a bit of a guide for us. The way ahead is not a simplistic “out with the old and in the new” nor is it a matter of sticking with the wisdom of the past. While our traditions may not necessarily continue to be helpful or essential, neither will the new be helpful just because it is new. There is a tension at work here. We cannot, and must not, lose sight of what has been, yet what has been is in need of constant renewing to meet current challenges. While it makes no sense to discard the accumulated wisdom of the past, neither should we refuse to seek out God’s new transforming future. God still calls us to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) but the world around us has changed so significantly that unreached people are no longer only overseas (if they ever were) they are now our next door neighbours. Those ignorant of the gospel are in the streets, schools, and clubs of the communities we live in. The changing world has made us all into missionaries. This is the challenge we face. How do we communicate the gospel in this new world? It’s like we need to learn a new language – the language of our secular world. We need to learn how to be church in our changing world so we can become “light, salt and leaven” (Matthew 5:13-15, 13:33) again. To do so we will need to bring “treasures old and new” praying for God’s enabling to meet the challenges of our time. What challenges do you face in communicating the gospel with those you see daily? What ‘old and new’ treasures will you bring out as you relate to them? Stephen L Baxter
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.
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.
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.”
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
While David hid and waited for God’s timing for him to become king of Israel, he was joined by others from the tribes of Israel who risked their lives standing with him. Among them were the “descendants of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). As Christians in the 21st Century, we live in rapidly changing times which bring urgency in facing the challenges of these times with the Gospel of Christ. In many ways we need to be like the descendents of Issachar, and understand the times we live in so we can know the best course of action to take. But understanding the times is not easy. Living in the midst of rapid cultural change we feel threatened and fragile. Our longing for stability tempts us to withdraw, hesitate and avoid risk, when the exact opposite is needed. David’s men, on the other hand, did not seek stability, but sought to be alert, read the times, and be ready. Rather than stability, they endured fluid structures and constant innovation as they hid from Saul and awaited the moment when David would be king. Jenny and I have just returned from four weeks in Europe. Among the many things we saw, it was interesting to observe the contrast between the obvious position, power and wealth the church had across Europe in the past, with the seeming irrelevance it has today.
Reading the signs of the times, it is clear the church is increasingly moving to the margins rather than the centre of society. This is not dissimilar to Australia. Whether it is a good or bad thing can be debated. What is not debatable is that it is happening. And because it is happening we need to work out how we can best be witnesses to Christ in the culture in which we are called to live. It is with both excitement and some trepidation I return to my task as pastor at Hoabrt Baptist. I am excited with the opportunities that lie in front of us, and yet aware of the challenges that are there also. Let us pray that God may grant to us, wherever you are and whatever ‘brand’ of the church you are part of, to be like the descendents of Issachar who had the ability to understand the times and know what to do. Stephen L Baxter
The Church comes in for a bit of bad press these days and many ask, “Why even bother with church?” There are many followers of Jesus who have given up on the church. Many have been hurt and tell painful stories of bad experiences with our institutionalized forms of Christianity.
I’ve heard it suggested, and I have no reason to doubt it, that across Hobart the largest grouping of people calling themselves Christians don’t belong to any church. And by church I don’t just mean our more traditional congregations but also home churches, pub churches, small groups, and so called ‘para’ church organisations. There are many people, Christians included, who just don’t bother with church anymore. They must have once, how else would they know Jesus? It is not easy to have a positive view of the Church in our community today. There is a strong secular voice emerging across Australia that paints Christians as freaks, fanatics, and frauds. It paints the church as the problem rather than an answer, and calls not for freedom of religion but freedom from religion. The impression one is left with is that the church is somewhat under siege, so why bother with it at all? Last week (Sunday January 15) I began a sermon series on the Church and suggested a number of reasons why we should bother, and we’ll explore them in subsequent weeks . . . but here are two of them: The Church is God’s idea:Matthew 16:18 records Jesus saying, “I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Jesus makes it clear that the Church is his not ours. The Church is not a human idea or construct but comes from the heart of God. Sure we have put our human touches to it, and at times made a complete mess of it, but at its core the Church belongs to God not us. (Here the word ‘church’ can get a little confusing because we use it in so many different ways. Church can mean worship services, buildings, denominations, the body of Christ, and so on. When Jesus uses the word ‘Churc’h here he is talking about the people that make up his Church in its many and various forms and places.) Jesus also makes it clear that the job of building the Church is not ours but his. That is not to say we are passive, we have work to do, yet it is sobering to remind ourselves that Jesus is the owner and builder of the Church. If we believe things are going badly then our first recourse is to direct the problem to him, not try and fix it all up by ourselves. Secondly, the Church is precious: In his letter to the church in Ephesus, in a section about marriage Paul makes the point that “Christ loves the Church and gave himself for it” (5:25). Elsewhere he says, “You have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). The Church is so precious that the eternal son of God was willing to become a human being and suffer the agonies of the cross and death for the sake of the Church. In other words, in giving up his heavenly riches, Christ made it possible for the Church to share in those riches. That makes the Church the most precious thing on earth. This may be a bit hard for us to fathom, especially those of us who have been hurt in our churches, and it challenges our attitudes towards the church. Doesn’t it? What these two points highlight for us is that being part of God’s Church is not really an option. In fact, being part of God’s Church is part of God’s acceptance of me. Our forms of church may vary from time to time and from place to place, but even so, when I was rescued by Jesus I was saved into the Church and its local expression. The idea that I was saved to be a solitary Christian was never in God’s mind. In fact, a person who follows Jesus but is not part of church is like a baby born in an orphanage. They are certainly a human being and a part of the human race, but it was never God’s intention that any child should live outside of family. Jesus died for the Church and despite its faults and failings loves it immensely. There are many reasons why we should bother with church, I’ve named just two, but ultimately it is because Jesus loves the Church. Do you? Stephen L Baxter
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
Do you find the word “church” confusing? 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 Testamentekklesia 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