Is that Walking on Sunshine? Or Perhaps It’s Eggshells!

For many Australians the very idea that there are Christian missionaries is offensive. Good willed people involved in such areas as agriculture, education, and medicine are okay, but if they talk about Jesus hoping to convince others of who he is, they become the target of anger and abuse. They are no longer acceptable.

“Seeing others come to acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Lord is the heart of what we are about”
Proselytism, the act of attempting to convert someone to another religion or opinion is an act some believe should never be attempted. Even some Christians are embarrassed about it, particularly in the light of the vocal and often strong criticism coming from many quarters.
Despite this, Christians are all called to be witnesses for Jesus endeavouring to help others see the reality of who he really is. Seeing others come to acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Lord is the heart of what we are about. Yet this leaves many of us feeling in a bind. The very thing we are called to do is often misunderstood, criticised and lampooned by family, friends and neighbours.
Over the past few months at our deacon’s meetings at Hobart Baptist we have been watching a series of videos titled “Missional Conversations.” It is a resource developed by Crossover Australia (an initiative of the Baptist Union of Australia) to help churches ask and discuss the hard questions about their church’s mission strategies. These videos have provoked deep and probing discussions amongst our deacons.
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(Church) Life is like a Jigsaw Puzzle . . .

There are things about doing jigsaw puzzles that can tell us about life

A couple of years ago I was given three jigsaw puzzles for Christmas. Over the years I have at times taken out one of them over holidays as a way to relax – maybe they were trying to tell me something! Interestingly, there are things about doing jigsaw puzzles that can tell us about life, particularly church life.
The best place to begin a jigsaw is to have the solution, normally the picture on the cover of the box. It gives you a picture of what all the pieces are meant to look like when completed. Funnily enough it is the same with the church. It is a mixture of a whole lot of different people, relationships and activities. Without the big picture it is easy to lose perspective of God’s big plan of salvation and to focus instead on all the small pieces, forgetting that they fit into a bigger plan.
But even though we have the picture, a jigsaw puzzle can still only be solved one piece at a time with great patience and perseverance. Similarly the church.
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Many Cultures – One Church

Childhood Girls
We are a church with many nationalities represented

As Hobart becomes more and more multicultural city we shouldn’t be surprised to see significant changes in many churches as they too become multicultural. It’s been our experience here at Hobart Baptist Church; we also are on a journey becoming more and more a multicultural church.
So what does it mean to be a multicultural church?  Obviously, it means we are a church with many nationalities represented. Our church is made up of people from quite a number of European nations, and . . .
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Better Together

Have you ever watched a film clip of a colony of Emperor penguins huddling together during a snow-storm?
It is fascinating to watch them pack in closely to each other and constantly change position moving from the outside in. Normally these penguins are territorial and reluctant to approach each other . . .800px-EmperorPenguinColonyClose
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Safe Passage

It was great to have Dr David Jones of Rural Support Services with us at Hobart Baptist a couple of weeks ago, and to listen to the challenging message he brought. The encouragement to be a church that provides ‘safe passage’ for those on the journey of faith echoes what is deep in the heart of the church.

Rural Regions
Although Hobart is a state capital, our population and comparative isolation put us in the ‘rural’ category

David asked us if we were prepared to make a guarantee to the people of Hobart: that if they walked through the front door of our building that we would guarantee to accept them, love them and forgive them. The guarantee to accept is . . .
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The Grace of God Breaks Through

It was a different morning at Hobart Baptist Church yesterday morning, when we welcomed our Boy’s Brigade, along with their family and friends and others who  joined us for the service. The service was special not only because Boy’s Brigade was with us, but also because it was a Combined Service, where the three congregations that make up Hobart Baptist Church came together at once. Normally the children would leave in the middle of the service, but yesterday they stayed for the whole time.

Spot the spelling mistake. Yes, this is the official logo!
Boys Brigade Australia

Hobart Baptist Church is made up of a diverse group of people. We come from many different backgrounds, languages, ages, cultures and experiences. There are among us many different expectations of what a church should and could be; yet we were together this yesterday, in the midst of our diversity, to worship the one and true God.
While there are many in our community who dismiss church as out-dated, irrational and perhaps even dangerous, there are also many who believe it is important and many who quietly admit they wish it were true. The notion that there is more to life than just breathing, eating, working, and death is enticing.
Many think people go to church because it makes God happy – as if God needs cheerleaders to tell him how great he is, while others think it is because God wants to be worshipped. However, we don’t come to church because of what God wants, (although worship is important,) but because of what we need. We come to be reminded that God loves us, that we are forgiven, and that life is much more than what our education, our media, and the world tell us.

God’s grace breaks into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways

In a similar way there are many who think the main purpose of the Bible is to tell us how to live a good life. But that is far from the truth.  While the Bible does have commands, promises and teachings, its main purpose is to illustrate how God’s grace breaks into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways. Almost against our wills, we are invited to respond to God’s love —a love that saves us from our sin and our brokenness; and a grace that rescues us from all that overwhelms and engulfs us.
My prayer is that everyone, including you, may sense the reality of the presence of God, receive a glimpse of the love of God, and be touched by the reality, the mercy abd the grace of God.
May God bless you,
Stephen L Baxter

Dream Weaving

Last Saturday many of the leaders from  Hobart Baptist Church took the opportunity to join with David Jones from Baptist Rural Support Services to dream and plan together about the ongoing work of God in and through the church.
One of the most important questions we can ask about our church is this: What kind of church do we want to be, or importantly, what kind of church does God want us to be? Answering such a question requires prayer and reflection, and over the past two years while I’ve been part of the church, we’ve done this on a number of occasions. Not that we can ever plan exactly what we will do, there are always interesting and different things God brings that change our best laid plans.

Our dreams as a church can become
concrete if we plan well

Despite these contingencies and changes there is one thing we can be clear of, we are called to be a church that witnesses to the good news of Jesus in the area God has placed us—Hobart. But what does it mean for us to be witnesses here in this location?
In thinking about this I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer that we be “in” the world, but not of “it” (John 17:14-15). This is important. Some churches are so “in” the culture and embrace it so strongly that they lose their distinctiveness. Others are so “against” the culture that in their opposition they lose their relevance. Still others are so “above” the culture that they “super-spiritualise” life and lose all points of contact in the culture. When Jesus prays that we live “in” our culture he is not expecting us to be lost in it, he is praying that we be “for” our culture and engage it with a view to seeing it transformed.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, suggests that to be “for” a culture, a church should commit to a number of key principles. Here are two of them I believe are important for us at Hobart Baptist Church to reflect upon.
The first principle is that we commit to learn and speak the language of our culture. This means we avoid using “Christian-ese” or in-house jargon. We don’t use technical theological terms unless we explain them, and we never use any “we-them” language always aiming to be inclusive. Our desire is that we never want a non-Christian to be “lost” in our language or feel alienated.
A commitment to always talk as if non-Christians were present would mean we treat each other with respect, we would be humbly willing to admit our weaknesses and failures, yet we’d always be joyful about the difference the Gospel makes.
Being mindful of our language leads to a second commitment where we resolve to listen to people and to their “stories”. By treating each person as unique with a story to tell treats them with respect. By sincerely endeavouring to listen, understand, love and respect them unconditionally we honour them and yet will be willing to demonstrate how the Gospel of Jesus will meet their deepest longings.

“Jesus is the only one who can fulfil their greatest desire

To understand their deepest longings we would need to take time to gain knowledge and appreciation of their culture as it is encountered in the movies they see, the books they read and the music they play and so on. In understanding these hopes, dreams, stories, and fears, we look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate how Jesus is the only one who can fulfil their greatest desires.
What would happen to your church if you committed together to follow these simple principles? What do you think?  Would you like to give it a go?

Knowing Love for One Another

Early on in our marriage Jenny and I committed to making a priority of meeting with a small group of fellow Christians during the week.
We have hosted weekly small group meetings in our home in since that time. They have been variously been called home groups, small groups, growth groups, cell groups, bible studies, life studies and so on, and yet have generally retained the same key components – time to share life together over a meal, a Bible study and prayer.

Our Cell Group in Hawthorn, celebrating our daughter’s 18th birthday

I believe these informal get togethers have been one of the keys to the ongoing stability of our marriage, our family, our ministry and our lives. By sharing our lives with others over the years we have learnt and grown, laughed and cried and seen many answers to prayer. Our children were an integral part to our times too; they contributed and learnt the faith not only from us, their parents, but from other significant adults. The adults in turn were enriched by their presence.
These weekly gatherings have become so much a part of the rhythm of our lives as Christians it’s hard to imagine life without them. It’s hardly surprising that, as a pastor, it would be my preference that every Christian is part of one, whether it is a weekly Bible study, home group, small group, prayer group, mission group, or a task focussed group.
There is ample research to show that effective small groups are the backbone of growing, healthy congregations and the glue that holds them together. They are the place where people experience deeper levels of community, acceptance and accountability. They are the place where people learn from each other’s wisdom and experiences. Here trust can grow and vulnerabilities be shared. Here one can lean on another through times of trial and growth. Small groups are the place where personal care of each other deepens at a practical, prayerful and personal level.
One of the surprises Jenny and I received when we first started being part of Hobart Baptist Church was how few small groups and Bible studies there are. I’ve often wondered why this is the case.
One reason is perhaps that in the past many found their primary small group was Sunday School, but with the decline of the all-age Sunday school over recent decades, they didn’t move onto new forms. For others, perhaps, the idea of a Bible study may be threatening. For others the thought of small group may look too intimate and personal, still for others the possibility of being asked to contribute or read out loud might be daunting and for others the idea of going out at night could be a problem.
What is more, being a city church makes it difficult to have home groups. We are so scattered across the suburbs of Hobart that it is difficult to easily organise ourselves into groups. However, I don’t believe this shouldn’t stop us from trying. After all, if we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are. Ultimately I would love to see everyone who is capable having the opportunity to be a member of a small group whether that be in a home or at our church during the week, even on the weekend whether it be during the day or the evening.

“If we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are.

The early church culture we read about in the New Testament is one where Christians are praying together, studying God’s word together, and caring for one another. For Jenny and me, our experience is that small groups are the simplest and easiest structure to allow us to do this.
I believe every practicing Christian should be part of a small group of some description, and if you are not already, then I encourage you to seriously consider it. Look up the pastor in your local expression of the church, and ask him or her what groups you can join in your gepgraphical area. Costly though it may be, one day you will be very glad you did!
Stephen L Baxter

Aussie Attitudes to Christianity

Karl Faase
Karl Faase, Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist, Sydney, since 1996

Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.
Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”
However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”
My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.
How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.

“We too are learning what it means to be church . . . 

Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.
In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .
So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.
Stephen L Baxter

Dad’s Day D ‘n’ M*

Sunday was Father’s Day, a day full of commercialism and consumerism, yet one when we can pause and take time to give thanks for our dads, living and deceased. As with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is more than often one of mixed emotions. In an ideal world, all of us would have positive feelings about our fathers. In reality, it is not true for many people.

"You matter to me"

Amongst any group of people there are those who did not or do not have a positive relationship with their father. From a biblical point of view this is not surprising given we are all broken, fallen human beings; coming from families that are never all they could be. But that doesn’t take away from the hurt, pain and sadness many of us carry. The result is that we can come into adulthood with what some psychologists call a “father-hunger’ which simply means that some of us have never truly been validated, nurtured or affirmed by a father figure.
Yet, the Bible calls us to honour our parents, something we can do despite the difficulties of the past, and something this Day gives us the opportunity to do.
Many men, despite having a “father-hunger” nevertheless go on to be very good fathers. Many women marry a man who is not emotionally absent like their father, and, by the grace of God, enjoy happy and fruitful marriages. Others, of course, are not as fortunate.
So what is a good father?
In the past a man was a ‘good father’ if he worked hard and provided well for his family. Today, we realise how much children need their dads to be loving and involved fathers. Children need time given generously and graciously, even if other matters are pressing. When a father takes time to listen to his kids, to laugh at their jokes, have fun with them, be present for the important events of their lives, he communicates an unmistakable message: “You matter to me.” Nothing says it better.
A good father loves his wife, and gives example to his sons what a loving man is like, while showing his daughters what they should expect in their own future. A good father has integrity. He keeps his word especially to his kids and his wife. In a time when a sense of honour and responsibility seem in short supply, children need such a model. Yet, a loving father does not live through his children. He does not expect to find his own identity nor sense of worth in what his children can accomplish, even as he takes pride in their good works.
Despite the stereotypes of men in our society, a good father is also a man of faith. He believes in a God of mercy and goodness. He is not embarrassed to talk about it, or to show his dependence on God. Such faith is a precious heritage to his children when lack of faith is everywhere.
Grace and mercy
Sadly, most have not experienced a father like this, and so Father’s Day is a day full of mixed feelings. As we remember our own father, no matter our own experience and memories of him, we have the opportunity to know and experience God as Father. Our Heavenly Father does not and will not let us down like our earthly fathers, and always has our best interests at heart. It is as we experience the love of our Heavenly Father that we can honour, and where appropriate forgive, our earthly fathers.
For us who know our Heavenly Father, it is possible for Father’s Day to be a day of honouring, forgiveness, healing and freedom as we allow the grace and mercy of God to impact our lives.
May God bless you and your family this Father’s Day.

Stephen L Baxter
*(Deep & Meaningful)