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

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

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

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

Why Even Bother with Church?

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.

Just like trees, people are stronger and gain protection from storms when they are clumped together rather than remaining solitary

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

Christmas . . . all about Humility

Christmas RushChristmas is just around the corner, and another year is drawing to a close. As we approach Christmas life gets busier and more frantic. Amidst the rush and tinsel it is difficult to remind ourselves of the “reason for the season.”
Over the next month churches around the world will be filled with millions of Christmas reflections focusing on the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth—the shepherds, the stable, and the feed trough for a cot. We will sing again Christmas carols inspired by such humility and we will again be thankful of wonder of God becoming a human being.Mary and Jesus
While it is right to be reminded of such humility, it is also a reminder that God asks the same humility of us. The Bible explains that we can only receive Christ through something of the same meekness and humility (Matt. 5:3, 5; 18:3-4).
While such humility may seem simple and obvious, Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York suggests, it takes great humility to understand humility. In other words, once we begin to focus on humility, pride us just around the corner. As C.S. Lewis comments, “If we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the Devil.”
Once I ask myself the question, “Am I humble?” I’m opening myself up to pride. Keller suggests, examining one’s heart “often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.” Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, suggested C. S. Lewis.
What this means is any talk about practical ways to help us become humble will always be counterproductive. Focusing on our attention on how to be humble will end up destroying what humility we may already have.
So what can we do? Are we left in an impossible situation? Thankfully not.
While focussing on humility destroys humility, there are other things we can focus on. When Jesus summarized why people should following him, he said it was because he was meek and humble (Matt. 11:29). Jesus put himself forward as our model of humility. We focus on his humility rather than our own and in doing so take our eyes off ourselves, and begin to think of ourselves less.
Humility then has a chance to grow in our lives, not because we try to be humble but as by-product of our focus on Jesus and our trust in the good news. This good news is that God accepts us not because of what we do but because of love. This love is demonstrated supremely in the humility of the second person of the trinity becoming a human being and living among us.
Christmas is an opportunity to celebrate and marvel at the miracle of the God’s love and acceptance. It captures our focus by sheer wonder and diverts our gaze away from ourselves. We are given a chance to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”
So as we begin to enter the Christmas season this year and as we listen to the stories again, let’s pray that we move past their familiarity and that our hearts, our imaginations, our thinking and our lives and be struck again by the extraordinary humility of Christ.
And then without us even noticing, and by a miracle of God’s grace, we to may begin to live humble lives. Not because we are trying but because we are living in the fullness of God’s grace and love.  May the humility of Jesus grow in, through and among us.
Stephen L Baxter

Top Ten Obstacles to Becoming a Christian

Earlier this month Olive Tree Media, led by Karl Faase pastor of Gymea Baptist in Sydney, launched the results from their Australian Communities Report conducted by McCrindle Research. The aim of the research was to discover what Australians really think of Christian faith, Christians and the Church.
It found that “Church abuse” is the number one obstacle to Australians believing in Christianity with more than three-quarters of the people surveyed (76%) saying church abuse was a “massive” or “significant” negative influence on them. The report goes on to list further top 10 “belief blockers” for Christianity as hypocrisy, “judging others”, religious wars, suffering, issues around money, that the church is “outdated”, Hell and condemnation, homosexuality, exclusivity and celebrity endorsement of Christianity.
The results are based on a national online survey of over 1000 people who were subsequently followed up in three focus groups made up of non-Christians. Although a small number were used in the survey, it used standard processes that can be extended to the broader population.
Further findings in the report suggests that just over half of the population (51%) are “not open at all” to changing their religious world view, while parents and families are by far the biggest influence on their attitudes to Christianity and the church (67%). Interestingly 80% believe Jesus died on a cross and 52% believe he rose from the dead, 42% said Jesus was just a man who with no divine powers while only 17% said he did not exist at all.
As a sample of the Australian, and Hobartian, population the report is a valuable resource for us in that it helps us appreciate what the average person in the street thinks. Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen said at the launch, “The first thing I noticed as a communicator is how ill-informed the audience is. My expectation of what people know is far higher than what, in fact, the research has indicated.”
This is important for us. It is easy for those of us who live mostly in Christian circles to assume we understand what people think. However, religion, Christianity and church are often no-go areas and so we never get the chance to talk about them.
Despite the fact that the report’s findings are a real challenge for us, we should not be discouraged. In fact, as Archbishop Jensen suggests, the findings should help us “translate the faith in a way which will be heard by the real people we deal with, and not the imaginary people that I think we ought to be dealing with.”
If you would like a copy of the summary of the report Click Here
Stephen L Baxter
PS Apologies for the late upload this week. I’ve been away in Melbourne.

The Church in the City

We live in bewildering times. While many suggest that the church is slipping further into irrelevancy the statistics show that people’s interest in spirituality continues to rise. Despite the increase in the New Age, following Jesus and being part of his church is not accepted as normal and we are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with the people in our city.
What are we to do? How are we to live?
In his book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, Roland Allen tells the story of Big Hunter, chief among the Sioux. After fleeing into Canada and being visited by missionaries, he talked to them about his desire to become a Christian. The missionaries told him he couldn’t be baptised because he must have only one wife. Big Hunter, as chief, had many wives. He didn’t want to abandon any of them and leave them as widows so not knowing how to care for them he chose to hang all but one of them.
Now with only one wife he went back to the missionaries and informed them he was ready to become a Christian. But they drove him away a second time, this time because he was a murderer. In despair he returned to his heathen gods and although his children became Christians, he lived as an unbeliever for the rest of his life.
The Courage of Convictions
Big Hunter’s experience of Christian mission was both distorted and soul destroying. Sadly, millions across Australia, whether directly or indirectly carry within them a similar distorted image and much of it resulting from the activity of the church in our convict past.
I remember evangelist John Smith once remark that the first Europeans that immigrated to North America did so for their convictions – freedom of religion and freedom to trade. He went on to say that the first Europeans in Australian came for their convictions too, but very different convictions.
In 1778 Britain started using Australia as a dumping ground for criminals, and so began the history of our nation. Unlike America, we have no noble tales or inscriptions to inspire us from our past. We were the scum of British society and all we have is a ball and chain to revive the spirit of our founding fathers.
In sharp contrast to America, early Christian leaders in Australia were part of the ruling establishment. American Christian leaders were firmly on the side of the general population; Australia’s Christian leaders were very much against them. Rather than seeing convicts as humans needing hope, they were sinners needing punishment.
The cynicism that developed in this environment is reflected in the scorn for the Anglican priest Samuel Marsden. In New Zealand he is celebrated as having brought the gospel to the Maoris; in Australia he is, in the words of the convicts themselves, the “flogging parson” who “prays for our souls on Sunday, and takes it out of bodies during the rest of the week.”
I suggest that since the beginning, the church in Australia was compromised. Even to this day being a Christian leader attracts cynicism and ridicule which is perhaps best illustrated by an incident in 1832 when 300 female convicts in Hobart bared their backsides to the Governor of Tasmania during a chapel service.
Realising where we now stand
Similar attitudes still exist today. Ex-patriot Australian author and critic Robert Hughes suggests, “Any political candidate who declared God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser” (Time Magazine, September 2000).
Our past has inoculated our community against the church. In much the same way that a dose of disease can help the body build immunity, our city has developed immunity to anything to do with the church and God’s good news. Not surprisingly the church in Hobart today finds itself in the middle of an alien, hostile environment. We are only slowly coming to grips with the fact that our city is a mission field in its own right.
Even if we haven’t been fully aware of the trends in our city, we have felt them. It has been easy to feel threatened and form holy huddles wondering what on earth is happening and quietly getting on with what we have always done. However, many are seeing that such a response would be to turn our back all that Jesus Christ has called us to be and do.
Jesus created the church to be the visible and witnessing community of the gospel, a sign of God’s reign and the means to display it throughout the world. And despite the challenges of our current situation, nothing is impossible for God. From God’s perspective our present predicament is more of an opportunity than a threat. It is a time to rediscover, reinterpret, and revision church life and ministry within our city.
In fact such a rediscovery is already taking place. Some call it ‘missional’ church, other say it is just ‘normal’ church. Whatever the term, God is helping the church reclaim its missionary purpose and be a missionary presence with its community.
So where do we begin?
It is important to remember that Jesus didn’t leave behind any books, creeds, or a philosophy, but a visible community – the church. It is to this community that he has entrusted God’s ongoing work in the world.
Shaped by his story, the story of Jesus, the gospel itself is to be lived through the life and witness of his people. Allowing the story of the crucified, rejected Messiah to impact us again will help us in our weaknesses, and it will be our strength. We are to hold fast to the story of the cross and allow it to indwell our lives, witness, and worship. The Gospel is to be lived, not just talked about. As St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” It is mostly about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is a change of attitude.
Trends within Australia suggest that people are willing to listen to churches that step out of the stereotypes of the past and begin to engage with their local community. Social commentator Hugh MacKay writes in his book Reinventing Australia, “It is no accident that the resurgence of interest in values and morality coincides with a desire to recreate a sense of community within Australian society.”
It is clear that there is within the hearts of many Australians an increasing awareness of “emptiness” and a growing realisation that something is missing at their core. It is the good news of Jesus that they need and as Mal Garvin suggests, “If Australians could see Jesus for who He is, rather than the caricatures many carry, they would discover He is in fact the only King they could wholeheartedly accept.”
Our task is to let the reality of the life of Jesus shine through our living so that it penetrates past the distortions and preconceived ideas embedded in the Australian psyche and enters deeply into the heart of our fellow Hobartians. Let us pray that God who can do more that we could possibly ask or think, prepares us for the work he is about to do among us.
Stephen L Baxter