When you think of ‘church’ what comes to your mind? A building, an institution, a local congregation or a multitude of believers spanning the world? Your perspective of the church will have a great influence on how you view her future. If you believe all you hear in the media, you could conclude the church is ineffective, irrelevant and a dying institution. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the church in the Western world is facing challenges, the demise of the Christian faith is a long way from an actuality. Try suggesting the church is dying to Christians in Seoul or Nairobi . . . they would wholeheartedly disagree with you! Throughout Africa, Asiaand Latin America, the church is experiencing tremendous growth. At the start of the 1900s about nine per cent of Africa was Christian. During the 1960s, the proportion of Christians surpassed that of Muslims for the first time, and today about 50 per cent of all Africans are Christian. This amazing growth in different parts of the world is bringing a shift to the demographic centre of Christianity. Since the Day of Pentecost the centre of the church has resided in the northern hemisphere, but soon the centre of influence will move from the northern hemisphere and places like Rome, Paris, London and New York, to the south and cities like Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, Seoul and Nairobi. This move south will bring changes in the way Christians express their faith. Some Christians in these developing countries express their faith in different ways to our traditions and their faith can look strange to our Western eyes. Yet, despite these differences, many who make up the church in the southern hemisphere are quite biblical, sometimes more so than we are. They take the supernatural – prophecy, spiritual healing, dreams and visions – seriously, and they are enthusiastic and charismatic. In fact, projections suggest that by 2040 the number of Pentecostal Christians will exceed one billion. How should we respond One of the most important things we should do is to choose to look at the bigger picture of what God is doing rather than just our immediate context. God is at work in the world, there is no doubt about that. The questions is, are we aware of it? If we believed the media reports that the church in Australia is backward, archaic and in danger of falling over, we can easily be left feeling despondent and despairing. However, looking at the bigger picture of what God is doing around the world can change all that. Despair is replaced with hope and we’re strengthened. We begin to see our context within God’s overall strategy. It gives us the strength and will to persevere and stand against the false images and expectations the media serves us. Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18) Despite the challenges we face, this remains true and the growth of the church across the world proves it. So let us not lose hope with our current situation, but be encouraged and spurred on by all God is doing around the world. What are your reflections on the nature of church growth in Australia? Stephen L Baxter Global Statistics for all Religions, 2001
Have you ever gone to an event and felt completely under-dressed for the occasion? Or have you been somewhere where you feel totally out of place? Maybe you have had the privilege of meeting a very important person face to face and felt utterly out of your depth. That is the picture the writer of the book of Hebrews has in mind when he explores the reality that Jesus is our Great High Priest. In the back of the writer’s mind is the picture of the grandeur of the awesome creator God and we are being ushered into the throne room of this Supreme Being of the universe. How would we fare? My guess is we would feel completely under-dressed for the occasion, totally out of place, and utterly out of our depth. We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves! We would be totally at a loss. This is the reason we still need a priest today. Although all our sins have been forgiven, each day we still need to live in relationship to the Almighty God. And if we have a small glimpse of the majesty of this God, we will understand that we would be somewhat uncomfortable in God’s presence. We still need a mediator or priest, one who bridges the gap between us and our Creator.
We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves!
As human beings living in a fallen world we have many needs. We face discouragement and doubt, temptation and guilt, opposition and persecution, suffering and trials. How can we know that God cares for us in any of these struggles? How can we find mercy and grace to meet us at the point of our need? As we come before God’s holiness in our brokenness, what right do we have to expect anything other than condemnation and judgment? We not only need to know that through the work of Jesus on the cross our sins are forgiven once and for all, but also that we are in constant need to be renewed in relationship every day. The writer of Hebrews shows how a lack of appreciation of the ongoing priestly work of Jesus for us each day not only robs us of a great part of our Christian heritage, but means we will remain an immature baby Christian. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people live boring Christian lives or are dropping away. Christ’s work as High Priest is relevant to our lives, not just in the abstract sense that we know his death has paid the price for our sins, but in the earthy reality of our daily lives. Here in the midst of our struggles and weakness we have the resources available to meet and deal with our stress, doubts, sin, guilt and depression. Jesus not only deals with our sins, but meets our need when we are tempted in our weakness (Heb 2:18; 4:15), are in need of mercy and grace (Heb 4:16) , are discouraged and doubting (Heb 6:17-20), are accused by Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and are wearied by opposition (Heb 12:3). Knowing we have a Great High Priest who understands our journey in all its weaknesses gives us a basis to endure, without growing weary or losing hope. I pray that you might hear the encouragement of the book of Hebrews and take advantage of all Jesus our Great High Priest has to offer. Stephen L Baxter
Back in 1999 Australian psychologist, social researcher and writer Hugh Mackay suggested that given the uncertainties at the end of the millennium, the time seemed right for a revival of religious faith. But he then went on to predict that it wouldn’t happen, and he was right. Even so there continues to be growing interest in spirituality in Australia where two-thirds of us claim that a spiritual life is important. You may find it surprising to know that most Australians believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force (74%) with nearly half (42%) believing Jesus was divine. So despite the fact that only 15% of Australians attend church regularly, there are many non-church going Australians who are still intrigued with Jesus. One such person was R. M. Williams the Australian bushman and entrepreneur who rose from being a swagman to become a millionaire on the back of his unique Australian style of bushwear.
Born in 1908, Reginald Murray Williams was given a state funeral in Queensland in 2003. Premier Peter Beattie, said at the time, “When you pull on a pair of R. M. Williams boots everyone knows you walk taller. It’s not just the size of the heel, it’s the spirit of the man who made them in the first place.” The spirit of this man was a recognisably Australian spirit. It could be argued that they don’t come more Australian than R. M. Williams. Being an Australian obsessed the imagination of Williams, and Jesus was part of that obsession. In his autobiography, Williams reveals a man deeply concerned over religious issues. He knew his Bible, and he knew the words of Jesus. His private life did not always run smoothly. Williams suffered the physical and material deprivation of the Great Depression, and the mental pain of a spiritual depression that seems to have never left him. As one of the few white men who could not only survive, but actually thrive, in the outback, Williams was invited to help a number of missionaries in their work amongst the most isolated of Aboriginal tribes. Throughout his life Williams would not or could not give up on Jesus. He wrote, “Although I can never claim to have standing with either rich or poor, still I believe that the Man who flogged the money-changers from the temple still calls all men to the heights of moral courage and spiritual peace. I should like to feel that there lies my allegiance.” Williams was also a capitalist, and doubted if Jesus approved. After making lots of money, he wrote: “When I had done this, my conscience bothered me. ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ ‘How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’” Such deep exploration of spiritual and biblical themes may seem striking to many Christians. However, I believe that there are many other Australians who think and feel in similar ways to Williams. They may not connect with the church, but they find a connection in Jesus. Perhaps this is because the practices and symbols of Australian churches grew in other cultures at other times and are not particularly suited to the Australian landscape or psyche. Although they shape the expression of Christian faith, they don’t seem to penetrate the core of everyday Australians. Maybe this explains why MacKay says a revival won’t happen. The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture. Yet, if we are attentive to the spiritual search of people like Williams, and listen to their questions, then maybe we will begin to discover the traces of an answer.
The Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture.
At the end of his autobiography, Williams asks: “… if the Man Jesus were to step inside my door or come knocking, would I know Him? … Would I welcome Him? I might. What would He say to me, looking through my façade of respectability into my soul? … I am torn by the tragedy of it all. How do I follow Him? How would I know God if I saw Him? I shall look for Him among the uncouth, the sorrowful, the have-nots. Maybe He will be there. And will He know me?” What do you think? I would value knowing what your experience of the Aussie church is. Stephen L Baxter
What are your times of greatest need? It may be sickness or grief, depression or despair; it could be times of doubt and unbelief, or times where addictions and obsessions such as money, movies, sex, sports, spending or drinking binges, or even unbalanced priorities gain control of your life. In our series on Hebrews at Hobart Baptist we have recently explored the invitation in Hebrews 4 to approach the “throne of grace” with confidence and boldness. In times of need we are encouraged to do so, for here we will find grace and receive mercy. Where do you turn in your times of greatest need? The image of the “throne of grace” here in Hebrews is a picture of entering into the very presence of the Almighty God, Creator of all things. Here, in the throne room, the atmosphere is charged with splendour, majesty and awe. Entering into such grandeur we can guess how we might feel. On the one hand, unsure of the reception, we may feel overwhelmed, hesitant, and fearful. Yet, depending upon our perception of what awaits us, perhaps we could also be excited and elated. The book of Hebrews encourages us to enter with boldness and not with fear. Sadly, too often too many people perceive God as a cruel, distant, and unloving taskmaster who doesn’t care and because of that, they turn away from God. Yet in Hebrews we find a quite different picture. Here God is shown to be full of mercy, grace, patience, love and faithfulness. And why? Because we have the greatest priest the world has ever known, Jesus, advocating for us. As a human being he understands and empathises with our weaknesses. He stands alongside us ushering us into God presence. He declares that he is our brother and pleads our case for us. He presents us before God and we are accepted. We receive mercy and find grace. That is not to discount God’s displeasure with our sin and the fact we are sinners. There is a profound reality to our sense of unworthiness to receive such a welcome. Yet, this is the good news – Jesus has dealt with any unworthiness whether real or felt, and we can enter into the God’s throne room, confident of the reception we will receive. Our task is to stand alongside Jesus allowing him to represent us and accept with gratitude the gift of life and relationship, all the while ignoring any feelings of guilt, shame or hesitation. We stand and receive the mercy and accept the grace we have been given. So whenever you feel distant from God and feel like running away from his presence the encouragement is to stop and think again. In your time of need, whatever the need, you are invited to be bold and enter with confidence into the presence of God. Not because you deserve it, but because you have been given the privilege as a gift. So no matter what you feel about yourself or your situation, you are guaranteed a reception which is full of mercy and grace because of the work and presence of our great priest – Jesus. Have a go – practice coming into his presence knowing you are loved, valued and accepted. Stephen L Baxter
At Hobart Baptist, we are currently working our way through the book of Hebrews, perhaps the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament apart from Revelation. One commentary describes Hebrews as “a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles.” So although the logic and flow of thought are unusual for most modern people, careful and patient study yields rich results. Written as a work of encouragement for a church under pressure, and drawing heavily on Old Testament themes, it focuses in on Jesus and explores the implications of his humanity and divinity for day-to-day practical Christian life. It aims to lead us down a path of faithful and confident trust in Jesus Christ. However, in arriving at a place of faith and confident trust, Hebrews stretches our perception of Jesus causing us to think again of who he is and what he has done. What we find is that there is a vast difference between Jesus, as we conceive of him, and who he actually is. We discover that the mystery of Jesus, God becoming human, is full of mystery. It reminds us that God is never exactly like we imagine. As author and pastor, AW Tozer, said “The child, the philosopher, and the religionist have all one question: ‘What is God like?’” The answer to that question is not limited to what we can imagine. As the prophet Isaiah records God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways;” (Is 55:8) and Paul wrote years later, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). God, the one and only Creator God, is incomprehensible to us creatures and is capable of surprising us at any time, any place and in any way. Such is the mystery, sovereignty and freedom of God that we are required to hold loosely the way we see him.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”
No matter who we are, our image and conception of God is filtered through the limitation of our human imagination and moulded by our needs, experience, dreams and wishes. Our journey through Hebrews tests, prods and challenges our preconception and calls us to allow our understanding of God to be remoulded, reframed, renewed and refreshed. It invites us to allow our reasoning to be still and hearts to wonder. To fix our thoughts on Jesus without trying to categorise, explain, prove or nail down who he is, but allow ourselves to be swept into the beauty of who he is and all that he has done for us. What our minds find incomprehensible our hearts recognise and acknowledge. Hebrews encourages us to keep our hearts in awe and worship so as to safeguard us from the arrogance of thinking we know all about God. I would be interested to know if your perception of Jesus has changed while studying the book of Hebrews. Stephen L Baxter
What are your plans and goals for this year? Do you have any? One of the key components of my 12 month appointment with Hobart Baptist Church is the development of a vision and plan to position the church for its next steps. During the later months of last year we completed the first phase of this process and now a small planning taskforce has begun to develop the key points of a plan based on feedback from phase one. Planning the future like this is a challenge for Christians because it opens up the heart of a tension. We are called to go into the world to “be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and rule over it” (Genesis 1:28), yet God says he has plans to prosper us and give us future (Jeremiah 29:11). As Walter Brueggemann explains, God both “gives us permission to choose our futures,” yet also “chooses a future for us that is gracious beyond our choosing”. So we are called to plan for the future, but know that God always has a plan in store for us. Did you know that ancient Middle Eastern cultures, and some people groups today, conceive of time very differently to us westerners? For them the past is something they face, it is before them. The future lies behind them and at their back. They picture themselves as walking backwards into the future. Our modern society works the opposite way around. For us the past is at our backs, it lies behind us and we walk forward into the future. I’m not sure that either way is the right way, just different. Walking backward into the future has certain logic about it. The reality is that we often don’t know where we are going and the future is a big unknown. Walking backward acknowledges that the past is all we know and we can learn from it as we approach the future. But walking backwards has problems. We can’t anticipate obstacles or the unexpected. We can easily stumble and hurt ourselves. It can give us a false sense of security as we imagine that future will be a repeat of the past. Walking backwards can also cause us to focus on the negatives – what we’ve done wrong, how we’ve failed, where we’re hurt – and these disappointments induce fear that leaves us unable to move on. So despite what we can learn from the past it can also be an unreliable guide to the future. Our biblical worldview enables us to walk forward into the future with confidence, because, as the old Sunday school song goes, “I know who holds the future and I know he holds my hand.” God is the author of the future, and because he knows it I need not fear it, I can go about planning for it knowing God will be there in it with me. So as we move into 2011 and begin our planning we can do so with confidence. The confidence is born not from the fact that we can clearly see where we are going, or that we can trust our planning, but that we know the creator God stands behind us looking forward, guiding us into the unknown. So let’s pray and play with confidence for the future God has in store for us. Here is a link to an article entitled The Conception of Time in the Ancient Near East Stephen L Baxter