Tim Keller’s life and death point us to a great hope

I have decided to write a few words about the death of Timothy Keller, realising that many words will be composed over the coming days about Manhattan’s Pastor. 

Few evangelical Christians have not been influenced by Tim Keller in some way over the past 30 years. While he preached for New Yorkers and planted churches for New York, his Gospel-centred teaching has impacted Christians all around the world, including Australia. 

I first heard the name Tim Keller in June 2000 at the annual Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. The topic of the conference was church planting, and the speakers included Dick Lucas, D.A Carson, John Chapman, Phillip Jensen, and Tim Keller. Yes, the theological spiritual meal those days surpassed the menu at Eleven Madison Park. Keller’s preaching didn’t contain the charisma and firepower that was present among some figures on the platform, but over the years I began to increasingly appreciate and understand the hows and whys of his teaching ministry, and to learn from him.

I’ve only met Tim Keller once, and it was a conversation on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan; it was brief and unassuming. Over the years I have read some although not all of his books. Making Sense of God may well pass the test of generations like CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Another book, The Prodigal God has remained with me, helping shape my own heart before God and the manner in which I am seeking to learn to write and teach.  I am forever grateful for the ways Keller has helped me think and write, not through the prism of left or right, progressive or conservative, the legalist or the antinomian, but in that better space filled with God’s truth and grace, his righteousness and his love. Indeed, I haven’t needed to read every Keller book and listen to every Keller sermon to understand his theological heartbeat because he was all about Jesus and helping people to see and grasp and believe the greatest story the world can know: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By digging deeper into the treasure of God’s good news helps us see the key to Keller’s mission and ministry. 

Many will be mourning his death today, and understandably so. The world will see few Tim Keller’s in a generation. But then again, and going back to his heartbeat, what motivated Keller and what his ministry oozed with, was the same beautiful and powerful Gospel that is at work in the lives of all who trust in Christ. His unique and influential ministry is extraordinarily ordinary in that once, and that is what made it worthwhile. 

I am also grateful for the way Tim Keller helped uncover and encouraged a new generation writer by the name of Christopher Watkin. While I’ve had the joy of knowing Chris for 9 years and been deeply impacted by his thinking, few knew the name until Tim Keller read Chris’ book, Thinking Through Creation. Last year, Chris Watkin’s, Biblical Critical theory was published. Tim wrote the Forward and in it he explained how he had waited for years for someone to come along and write this book. Time will tell, but Biblical Critical Theory is already considered to be one of the most important books written this century. Thank you Tim Keller for encouraging Chris and in Christian service helping the world find more Christian truth to be read and grow and benefit.

The reason for writing this short reflection about Tim Keller is less about talking about Tim Keller but to offer a corollary point. Because you see, my mum is currently in palliative care and we don’t expect her to live out the day. She has been unwell for a very long time and the last 4 months have been particularly difficult for her and my dad. We have been called into the hospital numerous times over the last few weeks, as staff expected her to pass any moment. As I write, my mum is still alive although her final hours are coming to an end. But you see, my mum trusts and believes the same Jesus as Tim Keller. Her hope isn’t in her own righteousness but knowing that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. And that makes all the difference. It really does. 

My mum never wrote any books and will certainly not receive an obituary in the New York Times, but like Keller and a billion people around the globe today, she is known by God. That fact is both the great leveller and elevator.

The Apostle Paul famously wrote, 

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!”

The Christian cannot lose.

Our age of self-realisation isn’t producing great volumes of satisfaction, hope and life. We are more frail and fearful than ever. Among both the great and the small, the known and the little known, there really is concrete hope that frees us to live well today and be certain about eternity

Tim Keller’s son, Michael, shared on social media yesterday that his dad say, “I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”

I know my mum is thinking those very words as well, and I pray that others too might not just find some vague solace in the comforting words, but the living hope that is for all who come to the Lord Jesus.

The true significance of King Charles’ Coronation

Westminster Abbey is England’s storyteller, and indeed, perhaps that of 1000 years of Western Civilisation. The stone floors and walls, her columns and stained glass windows are filled with the memory of the world’s timeline since that of Edward the Confessor. Every corner of the naive from floor to wall, is covered in the markers, statues and tombs of Britain’s greatest. There are Kings and Queens, soldiers and poets, scientists and Prime Ministers honoured and remembered.

The Abbey is an extraordinary place to visit, especially when the crowds are absent. I recall one evening I was there to attend a concert. Afterwards, people left hurriedly while I gave myself a few moments to look up and gaze upon this giant memorial to the past. I found myself able to then walk down the Abbey without people brushing passed and interrupting the silence with nagging little chatter. There is something weird and wonderful about walking on stone and marble where Edwards and Elizabeths, Richards and Henrys once trode.

The coronation of a British monarch isn’t an everyday event. It has been 70 years since the last British monarch received the sceptre and crown at Westminster Abbey. The coronation of a King may no longer carry the political and cultural weight of centuries past, but the event remains to impress, inspire and unify.  

There is a tinge of sadness tied to today’s coronation, for the new King reminds us of the death of the great woman, Queen Elizabeth II. Her death may well turn out to mark the end of an era; not only the divorce with the 20th Century and the end of the Empire (with all the ills and goods associated), but also the age of Western Christianity. 

There is something awe-inspiring about pomp and circumstance. No doubt, there are republicans and complainers across Australia, and even inside the United Kingdom criticising the pageantry and tradition that will fill the coronation service of King Charles III. 

While changes have been made to reflect multi-faith realities of 21st-century Britain, the service remains deeply Christian. For example, the coronation service takes place in a Christian Abbey, the very same place where English Kings and Queens have been crowned for nearly 1000 years. The Scripture readings and the prayers and the oaths are Christian in words and meaning. While there are some theological question marks over connections made between an English monarch and that of Kings David and Solomon, there is a right link established between God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the rule of the new monarch. The King serves under God and serves the people under his watch.

There is something weirdly wonderful about this ceremony: from the music and liturgy to the symbols of State and the oaths, and the seriousness and awe that will envelop each moment. This service pushes our hearts and spirit beyond the ceiling and sky and makes us ponder heavenly realities. 

In a rush to eradicate the centuries of police and traditions, we can lose something that is important for the present and our future selves. The paucity of the materialist frame is exposed and filled with the light of prayers and defining words of God and accountability to the One who rules from heaven.

“Therefore, you kings, be wise;

    be warned, you rulers of the earth.


Serve the Lord with fear

    and celebrate his rule with trembling.


Kiss his son, or he will be angry

    and your way will lead to your destruction,

for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:10-12)

I remember Stephen Mcalpine writing a piece some years ago, explaining why millennials are turning to more traditional forms of Christian worship. In the race to be contemporary and relevant, we too readily disconnect ourselves from the past and become the boat that’s lost its mooring. We need to place our souls and something in a schema that is bigger than just me.

Nick Cave is one of a few select Australians invited to attend the coronation. When news broke that Cave had accepted the invitation, some of his fans were bewildered and annoyed. They couldn’t understand why this super cool non-conforming rock star would attend what is about as traditional and conservative an event that will probably take place this year. 

Nick Cave responded in an open letter

This “will more than likely be the most important historical event in the UK of our age. Not just the most important, but the strangest, the weirdest”

I hold an inexplicable emotional attachment to the Royals – the strangeness of them, the deeply eccentric nature of the whole affair that so perfectly reflects the unique weirdness of Britain itself. I’m just drawn to that kind of thing – the bizarre, the uncanny, the stupefyingly spectacular, the awe-inspiring.

And as for what the young Nick Cave would have thought – well, the young Nick Cave was, in all due respect to the young Nick Cave, young, and like many young people, mostly demented, so I’m a little cautious around using him as a benchmark for what I should or should not do. He was cute though, I’ll give him that. Deranged, but cute.

So, with all that in mind, I am looking forward to going the Coronation. I think I’ll wear a suit.

Love, Nick

The true weirdness isn’t in the crowning of a man named Charles, but in the words of the Bible about The representative man to whom all Kings and Queens and people owe their allegiance. Strangeness meets realness in the man who was crucified and raised from the dead.

The true significance of King Charles’ coronation may well be found elsewhere, in Africa. In what is even more strange (in an amazing way) are the events that took place in Kigali Rwanda, only 3 weeks ago. The meeting place may have lacked the splendour of Westminster Abbey, and there were few monarchs, presidents and celebrities in attendance. However, that meeting will do more to reach the heavens and the earth, than the enthronement of King Charles III. While world media ignored this meeting of global Anglicans, with time I suspect it will have greater influence in the shaping of things to come. 1400 Anglican leaders, representing around 85% of worldwide Anglicans, declared that the Archbishop of Canterbury had lost his spiritual authority over the church. Indeed, all 4 instruments of communion were declared broken.

It is difficult to think of another event in the past 500 years that carries such importance in the Anglican Communion as the recent GAFCON meeting.

William Taylor of St Helen’s Bishopsgate (London) said, 

“Canterbury has walked away”

Rico Tice from All Souls Langham Place stated, 

“We really are serious…we are serious because this is a first-order salvation issue”.

During the ceremony, the King will be asked this question by the Archbishop of Canterbury, 

“the Church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to

maintain, is committed to the true profession of the Gospel, and, in so

doing, will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and

beliefs may live freely. The Coronation Oath has stood for centuries and is

enshrined in law.

Are you willing to take the Oath?”

The King:

“I am willing.” 

His Majesty will take an oath to a church, that while is established in law, has divorced herself from the true profession of the Gospel on account of her bishops and their wayward teaching. Sadly, the Church of England has abandoned the faith once for all delivered, and the vast majority of global Anglicans no longer see themselves in communion with Canterbury.

But why mention such a contentious issue on a day like this? First of all, this is truly historic. Second, we are witnessing a shift of in the world but we mustn’t conflate the failure of Westminster with the demise of Christianity.  I suggested last year that with the death of Queen Elizabeth, we are perhaps marking the end of an era in the beginning of something new. With her passing, we are probably witnessing the closure of the 20th century and British imperialism (with all the bad and good that came). More so, Her Majesty’s death may serve as a bookmark, signalling the shift from West to the 2/3s World, and with this, a work of the Holy Spirit that sees Christ’s Church ground firmly in the soils of Africa and grassland and jungles of East Asia. 

The coronation of King Charles III will pound with echoes of eternal truths, but living faith in the living Christ is more likely found in unlikely places: in Kigali and Lagos, in house churches across China and Iran, and in the favelas of Brazil. And yes, even in the ordinary suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. To break the materialist glass ceiling and grasp. To find mystery and awe that meets real life, visit a local church and hear the greatest story.

Melbourne Academics admit the obvious about Drag Performances for children

The plunge into the world of sexual fantasy and the normalisation of all manner of sexual proclivities continues, and probably will so for time to come. There is little left that remains a no-go zone, so long it’s prefaced by the word ‘consent’. I’m glad we are now having a national conversation around consent. It’s 50 years too late, but at least society and schools are now talking about it. Hopefully, consent becomes one of several essential components that are required for building a healthy sexual ethic. Indeed, consent is a Bible idea, showing us both the evil of when it’s not given and the beauty of biblically framed consent.

Like most people, I don’t enjoy dipping my feet into these conversations, because they are less conversant and more spitting anger, insult, and worse. It’s always easier to let things be. We’re damned if we do and if we don’t.

Photo by Marko Lukiu0107 on Pexels.com

The latest episode of ‘what happens in America Comes to Australia’, is Drag Queens performing for children.

Councils across Melbourne are deciding that what children really need is exposure to men dressing up as hyper-sexualised parodic women. While this seems to be relatively new, like previous iterations of our sexular age, what is possible soon becomes normal and then it’s defined as a moral imperative and any dissenters are deemed to be the worst of bigots. It’s not that men dressing in drag is new to society, but hosting such events for young children is new. 

Let’s be clear, there are people in the community who are responding in inappropriate and even dreadful ways. One doesn’t correct one wrong by making another. There is no place for making threats against individuals or organisations, or screaming and shouting obscenities and slanderous name calling. If that is you, please shut up, stay home and take this Proverb’s warning to heart, “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.” (Proverbs 29:22)

Having said that, is the only alternative to that kind of unsociable behaviour, acceptance and affirmation? Of course not. 

University of Melbourne Theatre teachers,  Sarah Austin and Jonathan Graffam O’Meara, have written a defence of Drag Story Time for The Conversation. In ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children? Their agency is ignored in the moral panic around drag storytime’, they rightly call out uncouth protestors, although they also suggest that anyone concerned by sex performers must be phobic and bigoted. The trope, while now common usage, is both lazy and false.  

Their main thesis is that parents should let their children decide. They argue that children have moral agency and therefore the best thing to do is expose them to queer theory. There is of course a tiny little flaw in their contention: Parents have both a moral and legal responsibility to their children, which includes raising them according to what they believe is right and best. Should we let a 5-year-old look at porn, just because they ask? Should we invite our children to watch Game of Thrones or other highly sexed-up shows because we’re giving them agency?

Leaving aside this weird and yes, dangerous, proposition, the authors admit the very thing that’s not meant to be said about children’s drag story time: there is an agenda.

“Drag pokes fun at the gender binary and, in doing so, it aims to blur the boundaries and expose the artificiality of gender roles.” 

Austin and Graffam O’Meara have confessed that these drag performers have an agenda and it is to dismantle and even destroy male/female distinctions. 

The admission continues,

“the way drag asks us to question the socially constructed nature of gender offers children a vision of self-determination. You can do what you want to do, you can be who you want to be.”

By this self-determination, the authors mean ‘queerness’.  

This is nothing short of education for young children, teaching them to reject biological realities about sex and rejecting gender differences (as though these are inherently bad for you) and instead adopt a queer view of the self.

It is somewhat ironic that Premier Daniel Andrews, among others, will defend Drag story times for kids as though this is a moral good. And yet, if a religious person prays with or talks to another individual about sex or gender, they can face criminal charges and imprisonment. Alice has jumped down the rabbit hole and we haven’t hit rock bottom yet!

Indeed, Victoria’s sex agenda may have more to offer. Victorian Legislative Council member, David Limbrick, today tweeted, 

“In Victoria, we will soon have new censorship legislation. We already suspect that the Greens will happily support criminalising the expression of the definition of a woman as “adult human female”. The real question is, will the Labor Government go this far? Will the Opposition even resist?”

The legislation hasn’t been released yet and so we don’t know what it will contain, but at least one MP is asking the question.

This isn’t about hating on anyone, this is about loving our kids and believing that young children shouldn’t be exposed to sexualised behaviour and agendas. 

If there was ever a sexual revolutionary that we should be following, it’s the one started by Jesus. Jesus didn’t accept the sexual norms of First Century Judea and Rome. He stood up against men who treated women as property and objects of sexual gratification. He affirmed the Biblical pattern for marriage: 1 man and 1 woman for life. He also showed great compassion toward those who were sexually broken and struggling, and he loved and forgave those whose sexual lifestyle transgressed God’s good ways. 

The problem today is that just about every issue is hijacked by the loud and mean and crude and the most militant of adherents. This is true for opposing sides in many of these debates. The ability to partner disagreement with love is anathema to many today, although as people we are in desperate need of this combination. A parent who only ever agrees or affirms their children is travelling down a very unsettling and selfish path. How much more should this be said of God, if he only ever affirms every whim and thought and desire we want.

When the next Melbourne Council proposed a children’s drag queen story time, let’s not pretend there are no sexual connotations attached.  Also, don’t follow the lead of the hyper right and reach for the boiling point of outrage. If we’re serious about navigating a better way for having important conversations and to present a better sexual ethic, we need to return to one man who can truly claim to be a Saviour. 

Peter Hollingworth keeps his ‘holy orders’ and victims are understandably angered

I have to confess, I was shocked to read that Peter Hollingworth has kept his holy orders. I was also surprised to learn that he hadn’t been removed from ministry years ago. 

Peter Hollingworth served as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane from 1989-2001 when he was appointed the Governor General of Australia. He was also made the Australia of the Year in 1995. Two years into his role as the Queen’s representative in Australia, Hollingworth resigned due to serious allegations made against him for covering up pedophile priests. Calls for Peter Hollingworth to be stripped of his ‘holy orders’ led to an inquiry which has this week determined that he is fit for ministry. While the Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church recognised Peter Hollingworth’s failures and has limited the type of ministry he can now engage in, he will remain a priest of the Anglican Church and able to conduct weddings, funerals and baptisms. 

Our society often gets it wrong when it comes to evaluating churches and church leaders, but sometimes they are right. And it’s frustrating when churches cannot even meet that low standard. The standard for churches is not the same as society at large. It is far higher, or at least it ought to be. 

I want to be clear and make the important distinction between the bar for someone becoming a Christian and the bar for those wanting to serve as Christian pastors. The bar for becoming a Christian is in one sense, very low: the Son of God died for sinners. Repentance is necessary and trust in Christ, but God justifies and forgives on account of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, not by any resume or sense of holiness that we might attribute to ourselves. That’s good news because I’m not redeemed by religiosity or spiritual intensity, but simply by saying yes to the one crucified and raised from the dead. By definition Churches are not made up of the self-righteous but those who realise we are not. But of course, that kind of life-saving work turns life around and begins to change affections, attitudes, and actions.

However, for those who desire to serve as ministers, the bar is set high. Take a look at this one example passage from the New Testament, 

“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

The role and responsibilities attached to being a shepherd of Christ’s church are so important that the qualifications are set high. Hence, I appreciate why many people are not only scratching their heads this morning, but are feeling sick at hearing the news that the Anglican Church believes Peter Hollingworth is fit for duty.

The Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church is perhaps privy to information that the public is not. Although, Peter Hollingworth has admitted fault. I acknowledge that I am not across this story as fully as others, but the optics look bad. More than public perception, there is a serious question here about doing what is right in the eyes of God and for the sake of victims of horrendous evil. 

It shouldn’t surprise us to see that where denominations or dioceses play loose with the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and where orthodoxy is treated as optional, morality and godliness is also found wanting. Where doctrine falls it only takes a few steps for godliness to fail. Indeed, it often works the other way around; we change our doctrine to fit our desired morality.  Of course, there are other reasons for excusing or covering up child sexual abuse: complicity, fear,  power, and an array of unbecoming qualities for any who has the responsibility to care for Christ’s Church.

I think it is also the case that even 20 years ago,  we were unaware of the extent to which such evil was taking place in some ecclesial quarters. Churches and Christian denominations have certainly upped their game in recent years.  There are healthy and rigorous processes in place, not only for those seeking ordained ministry but in order to keep their qualifications. That is a good thing. But that’s what makes this decision so baffling and understandably survivors of sexual abuse are angered, confused and losing even the tenuous hopes they had in churches doing the right now. 

If you are baffled by the decision made by the Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church, so am I. At the very least, greater clarity needs to be provided as to why Peter Hollingworth is fit to keep his ‘holy orders. In the meantime, I grieve the repeated failures of our churches. I know most are unlike the villains portrayed in the media, but can we blame our secular friends for finding it difficult to see the difference?

These words from the book of Ezekiel are formidable. The religious leaders in Ezekiel’s day weren’t taking the responsibilities seriously, both in terms of what they taught and how they lived. God gave a damming assessment, and it’s one that perhaps ecclesiastical leaders need to once again read and tremble before, 

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”

Thank God He provides a Shepherd who never fails or falls short, the Good Shepherd, 

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” 

Melbourne is officially the biggest city and yet churches are declining

News broke yesterday confirming that Melbourne is Australia’s largest city. Thanks to the city planner who has redrawn the city limits, Melton is now part of Melbourne and hence, Melbourne is the biggest city in Australia, with now 4,875,400 residents and growing!

A certain degree of pride is deserved. After all, until we grabbed the title of the world’s lockdown capital, Melbourne was acclaimed as the world’s most liveable city. And while we may have lost that near totally useless title, we still have the best coffee in the world and the MCG!

The day after capturing another somewhat superfluous title, the Herald Sun exposed a not-so-secret story about our town, namely, fewer people are attending and belonging to churches in Melbourne.

Mandy Squires reported,

“Christian churches are closing in Melbourne suburbs like Box Hill and Victorian regions like Ballarat

Once the anchor of communities, increasing numbers of Christian churches are closing across the state. This is why suburban and regional Victoria is losing traditional religion.”

But “the faithful” are ever fewer in Victoria, and Christian churches are closing their doors across the state at an alarming rate – a process some research suggests was hastened by harsh Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

Dwindling congregation sizes have combined with rising insurance fees, maintenance costs and increasingly onerous building safety compliance expectations, to make the price of keeping ageing churches operational simply too high for many denominations.

The burden of upkeep has also largely fallen to an ever smaller group of, also ageing, parishioners.”

There is a complex web of data and factors that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating how churches are doing in Melbourne today. COVID has impacted every part of life and it’s hit churches hard, both financially and with peoples’ capacity to serve and volunteer. At the same time, I think Squires’ summary is fair. The pandemic didn’t kill churches, it simply sped up the dying process. There is something to grieve in this; An ageing congregation can be a faithful church and yet unable to keep going under the weight of regulations, rules, and costs. It’s difficult enough for a middle-sized church where I serve, let alone a congregation where all that remains are 20 elderly members.

As Mandy Squires notes, church closures are not only happening across Melbourne suburbs but also across regional Victoria. This isn’t a Victoria only phenomenon, this is widespread across much of Australia and indeed the Western world. Alternative belief systems, most notably the god of the self, have captured the imaginations of our streets and roads. After all, the priests of expressive individualism promise freedom and happiness and a sinless life for sin is nothing more than oppression dipped in sanctified language. We don’t need God, for Melbourne is as close to heaven as it gets. Sure the pandemic proved otherwise, but now we are waking up from the nightmare and hoping that normalcy returns.

Squires notes that there are evangelical churches growing and attracting younger people. This growth isn’t at a rate that can overturn the overall decline but these churches are often an oasis in the middle of a spiritual desert. Reader, please note, by evangelical, we don’t mean some American religiopolitical craziness. I use the term with its proper meaning: Evangelical refers to churches that are grounded in and preach the evangel (evangel is an English word for gospel). These are churches that believe and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as handed down to the church by the Apostles in the Bible. 

Reading Squire’s piece can feel like another dreaded reminder. But before the doom and gloom set over the conversation like a Melbourne winter, we do well to remember that this same ancient Gospel is growing around the world today. For example, while the UK may be becoming less Christian, there are more people in London today who belong to a church than in many decades. And in France, evangelical Christianity is seeing remarkable growth, with around 745,000 adherent today in contrast to around 50,000 in 1950. And if we’re interested to see where Christianity is truly blossoming, look to China and Iran and to Africa.  While  Church of England parishes are declining in England and in many parts of Australia (take note, it’s not all cities and regions), Anglicanism is growing across Africa. Indeed, Anglican’s home is no longer Canterbury but places like Nigeria and Rwanda where GACFON is currently meeting.

Christianity isn’t dying, Melbourne is witnessing the death of nominal Christianity. Where classical Christianity is believed and taught, there is growth. It may not always be in line with population trends but nonetheless, unbelievers become believers.

The church where I have the privilege of serving grew from 30 people in 2005 to over 200 people by 2017. We then planted a church near Monash University (Regeneration Church). Praise God, they continue to grow. They are seeing people become Christians, especially university students. To be honest, Mentone Baptist Church has struggled to grow in the last few years (COVID has been a substantial factor), but this year we are again seeing many visitors and people curious to find out more about Jesus. I know of many more Melbourne Churches that have seen growth in the past decade and at higher rates than Mentone.

There is of course no silver bullet when it comes to church growth, as though employing the right technique or strategy is the key. The missing ingredient isn’t to give people what they want. Sure, we can find the odd church that puts on a weekly production that’s as impressive as U2 in concert, but also note how people leave these performing venues through the back door almost as quickly as they enter through the front.

There is, however, a connection between what is believed and taught and the health of a congregation. Churches that have a high view of the truthfulness and sufficiency of the Bible, who believe in the sinfulness of humanity, who trust the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and who follow the Gospel call for repentance and faith in Jesus, are more likely to experience health and growth. The more progressive a church is, the more likely it will experience decline. The classic example is the Uniting Church which has lost something like 50% of is adherents since its beginning in 1977. Anglicans and Baptists who’ve followed this liberalist agenda of dumping the Bible of its Divinity and reliability also find themselves with a growing number of empty chairs as the years move on.  Faithfulness to the Bible actually works.

The topic of gender and sexuality is an interesting one. We know for example that the Christian view on these matters is a significant reason why millennials are disinterested in Christianity. Part of this misunderstanding is the product of successful campaigning by Hollywood, social commentators and activists who demonise even Jesus. What’s interesting,  is that those churches that adopt the culture’s sexual ethics are more likely to shrink, while churches that uphold the classical Christian teaching on these matters tend to either hold their ground or see growth, including among millennials. 

After all, why join a church if all it does is mirror popular culture back to me?

I recall an observation made by British historian Tom Holland in 2020. He said,

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Holland isn’t a Christian but he understands the lunacy of ecclesiastical leaders sacrificing Christian beliefs at the expense of pursuing favourable opinion polls or trying to draw in potential pew sitters. Didn’t Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”?

What makes Christianity distinct and enthralling, shocking and appealing, is that it does not sit comfortably in any given culture. The Church is the community where people from progressive and conservative backgrounds, religious and nones, all find in Jesus Christ the God of truth and grace, love and goodness.

Melbourne (and Victoria) needs more churches. 

For a moment, let’s leave aside the religious aspect of church life. Of course, this is impossible given how the Christian faith is embedded into every song, brick and cup of coffee.  And it is, after all, the Christian message that gives birth to a church. But from a sociological perspective, the loss of Christian churches is creating a social vacuum in local communities that has not been replaced. Human beings need social interaction and relationships and such spaces are rare in today’s fast pace and time-poor society. Sure, there are schools, the local cricket club and a men’s shed, but there’s little else that brings people together, especially bringing together people who have little in common. And let’s stretch the imagination for a moment, what of a group that meets regularly and has little in common and yet shares everything in love and with happy sacrifice? 

Going back to the expressive individual that we idolise today. This good news message of ‘being yourself’ and ‘expressing yourself’ is popular and attractive, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t build togetherness, much less bring together diverse people into deep friendships. The very ethos Melbournians are taught to pursue, pushes against belonging, and without that sense of community we lose ourselves. As Jesus argued, there isn’t much point in gaining the world if in the process we lose our soul!

Melbourne needs 50 new churches today (and with 200 people in each) just to keep up with the annual population growth which stands are around 100,000 people. Melbourne needs small churches and big churches, meeting in different shaped buildings with different styles of music and preaching in different languages. Melbourne may be a great city, and the city I love, but it’s still going to hell without Jesus. Premier Daniel Andrews can’t atone for your sins. Governments, schools and universities aren’t fitted for the task of reconciling God to us. The footy club might provide exercise and a beer, but it won’t fill the soul. An afternoon of shopping at Chadstone might bring a little relief but it can’t heal the human heart.

There is something stunning and ordinary about the local suburban church. There is a goodness that can be uncovered, not inherent in the people but in the Christ whom they are getting to know and trust. Churches are not perfect communities. Indeed, we have learned how cassocks and altars are stained with the blood of innocent children. Most of the time, our churches are made up of ordinary people from all kinds of backgrounds who are together coming to know God. I can’t think of a greater community building project than this.

Melbourne needs Christian communities filled with thankful, gracious, loving, and truthful men and women. We need more churches that are clear on the gospel and convicted by the gospel and courageous to keep speaking the gospel. The question is, are churches up for it? Are churches ready to make the necessary changes (or should we call it reformation!)? I guess it depends on how much we love: love God, love the church, and love the people of Melbourne. 

QandA Episode raises questions about religion in Australia

Last night’s episode of QandA on the ABC featured a discussion about God in Australian life, culture and politics. Questions and conversations were wide ranging, and like in the real world, God’s talk wasn’t far away, although I suspect Easter had something to do with it. 

The program conducted an online poll, asking, ‘Should politicians still say the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each sitting day?’

Of course, conducting a poll on ABC today is like surveying AFL supporters and asking whether they prefer to watch AFL or lawn bowls?

The surprise wasn’t the 83.5% who said no to the Lord’s Prayer but the 13.6% who said yes. By the way,   if you’re interested to read what is a typical Christian view on this topic, take a look at this article. You may find the answer surprising.

Conversations among the guests were cordial and void of the spite that is sometimes present.  It’s not as though they were unified in political or religious agreement, but the Anglican Archbishop, Muslim Labor Senator, the Indigenous Academic, the young liberal, and the British journalist, went about it with a tone of respect and humility.

The online world is of course a different place. It’s like navigating the Australian bush,  with sharp teeth and claws ready to devour any dislikable opinion. Throughout the show, tweets were displayed on our television screens, selected by the producers. These pithy opinions played out a regular pattern: religion should stay out of politics, Churches should stay silent on the Voice to Parliament, and others citing with certainty what Jesus would do today! In contrast, panellist Anne Pattel-Gray and an Indigenous woman from the audience both called on Churches to be more proactive in speaking about the proposed Constitutional changes.

I want to address one question in particular which became the focus of the final minutes of the program.

The question came from audience member, Oliver Damian. He asked,

“According to the 2021 Australian census, those declaring that they have “no religion”, the nones, increased to almost 40 per cent second only to Christianity. David Foster Wallace said “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Do you think these “nones” really ditched religion or have they just shifted to worshipping things that are much worse? And what does this mean for the soul of our nation?”

Andrew Neil answered, “Of course. Reality television, worshipping themselves, validating things they believe in…”

People took offence at Neil’s suggestion and defended their non-religiosity. 

I threw my hat in the ring and tweeted this,

“There are no religious free people. We are worshippers at our core”.

People were similarly offended. But should the nones take offence? It’s worthwhile exploring this phenomenon and further explaining the thesis that everyone worships.

First, we can’t escape religion.

Andrew O Neil observed on QandA how Christianity is declining in Western nations, including France and his own United Kingdom. Australia can be added to that list. While we can’t deny the trend, there are also counter trends. For example, the number of practising Christians living in London is increasing, and the number of evangelical Christians in France is also growing, with around 745,000 adherent today in contrast to around 50,000 in 1950. Then, of course, Christianity is growing at phenomenal rates in many other parts of the world today. What we view as dangerous, millions of people in Africa, Asia, and South America are discovering is good news. 

Australia’s nones may claim neutrality as though there exists a pure secularist mindset freed from any religious entanglements. Such a posture is framed by self-righteousness and it’s one that is already beginning to fray and lose its shape. 

We can’t escape religion. Built from a narrow bend in the Enlightenment road, we Westerners love to mock belief in God. Our hubris convinces us that the world no longer needs notions of heavenly realities and life to come. This world is all there is and there is no overarching design or purpose beyond that which we determine for ourselves.

The British historian, Tom Holland has demonstrated in his book Dominion that our culture is not the only indebted to Christianity, but Christian ideas remain t deeply embedded in our subconsciousness, such that they continue to direct and influence our moral categories and judgements today.

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?” 

In cities like Melbourne, we are creating drought like conditions for the garden. That is, we are trying hard to remove theological language and spiritual concepts from the public space, but killing off every blade of grass and every root is harder than we might imagine.

As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, 

“God has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” 

We are wired to believe in God. Searching for meaning and hope beyond blood and brain, and behind the molecular and physics is instinctive. 

While the amassing nones like to claim autonomy, and a sense of epistemic and moral maturity, in blowing off God, they are, in fact, still relying upon posits or values instilled in us via the Christian God. Hence what we have today is not less worship, but rather a distorted worship.

Indeed, to rid ourselves of Christianity is to uproot basic societal goods such as notions of equality, forgiveness, and tolerance. All these things and more find their origins in the God of the Bible.  That is not to say that the atheist doesn’t have a moral framework, of course, she does. But these ethics have a Christian vein running through them and even when they don’t,  they are ethics created in opposition to the Christian God. 

Second, everyone worships.

Everyone worships. Worship does not necessitate a higher being or god of some description. Worship isn’t limited to temples, churches, prayers and choral music. Worship is about giving oneself to a person, object or idea. Worship means giving credence to and sacrificing for the cause that your heart most desires.

The Bible itself doesn’t reduce worship to acts of prayer and song that are contained within a religious ceremony and building. While there is a particular emphasis on communal worship (whether it is at the Temple or church), the language of worship extends to all of life. For example, Romans 12:1

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship”.

As both the law and Jesus teach, 

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Not only is worship an all-of-life attitude, but it is also often centring on areas of life that might surprise. Timothy  Keller has made this powerful and somewhat disturbing observation about American politics in recent years,

 “They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death “

As philosopher Dr Christopher Watkin notes in his best selling book, ‘Biblical Critical Theory (an idol is a Bible way of describing substitutes for God), 

“Any idol engenders this sort of dogmatic totalitarianism because it becomes, within creation, the ulti-mate measure of what is good, drawing a line down the middle of the created order and classifying some of its objects, impulses, and values as unmitigatedly good and others as unrelentingly evil. This is the lot of those who “have sup- posed that the Final Good and Evil are to be found in this life” and so “with wondrous vanity . . . have wished to be happy here and now, and to achieve bless- edness by their own efforts.”

The only way to escape this totalitarianism is to have an object of worship that is outside the created order. Any idol on the creature side of the creator- creature distinction will lead to a situation in which some thing or things in the world are pursued in an unqualified and undiscerning way, and other things (whatever gets in the way of or stands opposed to the chosen idol) will be denounced or loathed in a similarly dogmatic way” 

The convinced naturalist or materialist isn’t without gods and idols, they simply take on a different form. Dr Watkin again, 

“These idols have their own cultic rituals, argues Richard Bauckham, namely the advertising that mediates to us their values and desires. Adverts are not sell- ing objects; they are selling us ourselves, repackaged and dependent on the aura of this or that product to graft onto us a borrowed identity”.

Worship is an act and attitude of thankfulness, adoration, and love. It’s something we all do from the Internet to work, from the shopping centre and to the church. The only question is, who or what are we worshipping? Who or what are we giving our lives to?

Indeed, the ancient gods of Molech and Artemis may have changed their names, but their insatiable desires remain with us. We label them with sociological terms such as self determination and expressive individualism. 

The worship of gods can be oppressive and problematic. The worship of self is arduous, stifling, and egocentric, for it means that everyone else and everything exists to serve me. We can’t deny the fact that religion is responsible for all kinds of heinous activities throughout history, both as a distortion of religions and sometimes as a result of faithful adherence to religious beliefs.  It is also the case that our godless counterparts have been proud participants in what is called sin and evil.

Australia may be trying to move away from Christianity, but we can’t easily distance ourselves from the cross: that symbol of Divine love, justice and mercy. We do, after all, acknowledge Good Friday as a national public holiday. 

For all our advancements and developments, we haven’t found a substitute for the cross of Jesus Christ, and neither do we need one. If Jesus should die for my sins and then defeat death on the third day with his resurrection, surely that should at least cause us to consider, does my religion or lack thereof, offering this kind of freedom and new life?

Donald Trump isn’t the Messiah

Donald Trump is being compared to Jesus Christ this week. Suffering and crucifixion analogies have been thrown around during Passion Week as President Donald Trump prepared to learn of the charges against him and then presented himself to the authorities in New York State.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, protested in Manhattan,

“Jesus was arrested and murdered by the Roman government,” she said. “There have been many people throughout history that have been arrested and persecuted by radical corrupt governments, and it’s beginning today in New York City.”

As the President left the Course house and boarded his plane to Florida,  he joined in a ‘prayer call’, comprising an eclectic group of religious Trump followers.

I have seen footage of and tweets all week that make comparisons between Donald Trump’s trial and that of Jesus.  None of this is new. Adopting and hijacking the person and work of Jesus for political and social agendas is more common than we might realise. People have been doing so since Jesus’ actual trial and crucifixion. Constantine tried it at Milivian Bridge, David’s ‘The Death of Marat’ and 1000 other paintings that superimpose Christ’s sufferings,  the Confederacy and the KKK, the Taiping Rebellion, Horst Wessel,  some anti-vax campaigners, and more. 

Political agendas from both right and left have a long history of misappropriating the person and mission of Jesus Christ. I recall an incident only two years ago; a representative of the Victorian government informed a group of Melbourne church leaders what Jesus’ views on gender would be today, and then told us that contravening this thinking may lead to criminal charges. In case you’re wondering, this person was not even close to reflecting Jesus’ teaching. 

Sadly, there are times when members of Christian communities and leaders of Churches get swept up by these false narratives. That doesn’t mean that there is never any validity to the concerns they raise, but that it is bad theology and even blasphemous to equate their situation with that of Jesus’ suffering. 

Notice the religious language that President Trump chose for his speech following his court appearance?

 “America is going to hell”

Well, yes, that is a theological truism. It also accurately describes people in every nation, but it has nothing to do with allegiance to Donald Trump or some other political leader, but whether we can find atonement before God for our own sinfulness.

It is of course possible to think that the charges against President Trump are politically motivated and also believe that Trump has little moral compass. After all, behind the 34 felony charges of falsifying financial records are allegations of adultery and sexual immorality. There is no semblance of Jesus in this story. That is not to suggest for a moment that the political alternatives are morally or spiritually better. As a Christian leader, my responsibility isn’t to navigate political left or right but to follow Jesus and faithfully point people to him, a course that is altogether different.

Let it be said again, lest anyone is unclear, there is no comparison between President Donald Trump and Jesus Christ. One is a deeply sinful human being, the other the innocent Son of God. The former President carries with him a lifetime of transgressions, Jesus went to the cross taking our sins onto himself.

It is intriguing to see how again our society never moves far from the cross of Jesus Christ. All of history pivots on those three days: from the cross to the grave and to resurrection. And despite our best attempts to rid the culture of Christianity’s DNA, people from all walks of life and with all kinds of agendas, still think it is advantageous to attach themselves to the image of the suffering and dying Christ. 

What if, instead of identifying with the crucified One, we understand what the Easter story really does tell us, and that is, we all stand against Him. Rather than seeing ourselves close to Jesus, we are more like Peter who disowns, Judas who betrays, the Pharisees who denounce, and the crowds who mock.

Donald Trump is no Messiah figure. He is not an innocent lamb laying down his life to save a nation. He may or may not be innocent of these particular charges. But neither Trump nor President Biden and any political leader comes remotely close to the one who had written above his head on the cross, ‘the king’.

Regardless of where we find ourselves on the political spectrum, it’s nonetheless intuitive for us to find a hero in the story. We walk through life searching for someone who triumphs over adversity and overcomes iniquity and who can bring about the new Jerusalem.

Sometimes we put ourselves in that position as the hero, but when the hubris dissipates we are left with despair.  Sometimes we elevate our favourite celebrity or politician, but none of them qualifies to carry the burden. There is only one hero and Easter reveals him, and what a hero Jesus is,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

An evening with Dr Christopher Watkin

Mentone Baptist Church recently organised a special event for our local community with Dr Christopher Watkin.

Knowing ourselves is one of the great questions. 

Christopher Watkin is an Associate Professor of European Languages (French) at Monash University, Melbourne. His books include Difficult Atheism (2011), French Philosophy Today (2016) and Biblical Critical Theory (2022).

Chris is emerging as an important intellectual figure in Australia today and he has a rare gift for explaining profundity and complexity with great clarity. Even more than his academic contributions, I value his epistemic humility and the gracious way he interacts with other people and ideas, and his servant’s heart.

His latest book, Biblical Critical Theory, has been likened to a 21st-century version of Augustine’s City of God. If you are able to find and purchase a copy, it is indeed well worth one’s time.

Both Chris’ presentation and QandA are recorded in the video below. Enjoy.

Email admin@mentonebaptist.com.au if you are interested to learn more about the subject matter raised in this presentation.

There really is hope: Why Easter is such good news

Sadness, shock, anger, disappointment, frustration, and despair. Such feelings are not uncommon in our streets and suburbs. Of course, there is much for us to enjoy, and opportunities abound for most people across Melbourne, and yet more and more data suggest that a cavity exists in many lives and it is only growing with time. 

In the extraordinary musical, Les Miserables, Fantine sings a song that haunts. The words tell her story. It is a story of lingering hope. It is a story of desperate hope that fades. It is a story that too many of our neighbours and friends resonate with, and perhaps even yourself.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by

When hope was high and life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die

I prayed that God would be forgiving

Then I was young and unafraid

And dreams were made and used and wasted

There was no ransom to be paid

No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night

With their voices soft as thunder

As they tear your hopes apart

And they turn your dreams to shame

And still I dream he’d come to me

That we would live the years together

But there are dreams that cannot be

And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream, I dreamed

In our search for hope, we are often urged to look inside ourselves or to carry on and push through barriers. On other occasions, we are encouraged to hold onto relationships or careers as though these can secure contentment and peace. What happens when these things fall apart or fail? What happens when we reach all our goals, only to discover that they cannot fulfil the burden we placed upon them? 

Easter really does give us the answer. Maybe that sounds a little too Christian for you; an unimaginative and prosaic offering.  I don’t mean the long weekend or colourfully wrapped chocolate bunnies and eggs. I’m referring to the historic events that took place just outside Jerusalem about 2000 years ago. Even today, with all our latest gadgets and knowledge,  the world hasn’t overcome the irresistible story of God who gave his life for hopeless and helpless people. 

Over Easter, my church is exploring (as will churches across Melbourne) the good news story that never dies or fades or disappoints. On that cross, the darkest dark fell upon the Son of God in the place of a sinful world. On the Sunday morning, a light more brilliant than the dawning of the sun pierced history and continues to shed light on millions of lives across the world. 

Our Bible text for Easter Sunday this year includes these breathtaking words from John’s Gospel, 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:16-21)

Notice, how God is described as recognising there is something not right in the world. Also, note how these verses assume God doesn’t agree with every want and desire and activity we pour our lives into; it’s as though we’re not the standard for righteousness. At the same time, there is a profound love spoken and expressed.

A lot of Aussies have given up on Church. Millions have discounted Christianity. When we’re being honest we can understand why this is sometimes the case, given the horrors uncovered in some church buildings and lives of clergy. At the same time, most churches aren’t playing games of pretension and hypocrisy, but they are filled with ordinary people who are convinced by the power and goodness of the God who has loved the world.

Many of our dreams cannot be and some ought not to be. But life cannot kill the greatest dream: God is forgiving. Jesus has paid the ransom. 

Why not visit a church this Easter? Perhaps open a Bible and read the Easter story for yourself (Mark chs. 14-16; John chs. 18-21)*


* You can read the Bible online for free. https://www.biblegateway.com/ is one of many great websites that allow us to search and read any part of the Bible)