7 (possible) Church trends emerging from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost all parts of society. The impact is minimal in some areas of life, and in others, the change is significant and life altering. Churches are not immune from the broader tremors that are shaking core social and economic foundations.

Today is our seventh Sunday without Church. Each week I am preaching a sermon which is then posted online for our congregation. On Sunday mornings many of our people join on zoom to listen to the sermon and then spend time catching up and prayer together. But it’s not church. During the week small groups once again meet on zoom for Bible study and prayer, and there are numerous other interactions taking place every day.

While the current arrangements are far from ideal, we understand them. Life has required Australians to make adjustments, some which cause grief and uncertainty. Most Churches I suspect are still adapting and finding a rhythm to manage society’s new pace, let alone thinking of what the status quo will be like in six or twelve months time.

It is now 3rd May 2020. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and what the long term repercussions will be. Most States across Australia are beginning to relax restrictions. Although in  Victoria, Stage 3 restrictions remain, but even here I anticipate that small groups will be allowed to start meeting again from later this month. Large gatherings, however (including church services) are probably months away.

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As we approach two months of COVID-19 restrictions, I have noticed a number of trends beginning to emerge among Australian Churches. These indications are based on my own experience and the many conversations I am having with pastors across the country. Also, standing behind the observations are these 3 theological premises:

  1. God remains Sovereign over the world today.
  2. Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
  3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains good, true, and powerful today.

 

1. A godly hunger.

Not only at Mentone, but as I speak with pastors and Christians from around the country, I am seeing and hearing countless stories of service and kindness. People are making an effort to serve others practically, in prayer, and in word. This eagerness to love the body of Christ is accompanied by a growing hunger for being together again as a church. Praise God!

At Mentone, we are not trying to replicate church on Sundays or to pretend that what we’re doing is church. We consciously avoid using the language of ‘church’ or ‘service’, and we have made deliberate choices not to include every element that would be present on a Sunday service. For example, we are not commemorating the Lord’s Supper while we are apart. Doing this, being clear about what we are and are not doing during this season, is not only theologically responsible but it is creating a godly hunger among our people to be together again in person, to see one another face to face, and to worship God as church, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper again.

If these weeks of isolation create a hunger in God’s people to love the church and long to be together as a church, then that is a sign of God’s grace.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4)

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy”. (1 Thess 2:17-19)

2. An ungodly separation

While many members of our churches are using this season to draw closer to Christ and to his church, others will sadly use the situation to create distance.

Without regular face to face church, it is easier for people to walk away. Churches will lose people during this pandemic. These people were probably already drifting prior to the restrictions, but without the accountability of regular and public gatherings, the cover of forced separation is their justification for leaving your church and perhaps Christ also.

I shared these verses from 1 Peter with Mentone during the week, to help us combat this temptation,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

 

3. The shift from fast to fatigue and then to rest

Adapting to the new environment has required an immense amount of time and energy. The ministry and mission of a local church don’t fundamentally change, but the immediate and drastic constraints forced upon us have necessitated rapid learning, quick responses, high energy mixed with headaches and new anxieties. It’s a classic recipe for fatigue.

Speaking personally, after running at a sprint for the first 5 weeks, I needed to take 3 days rest last week; I was toasted, baked, and grilled, all in one. Rest is important. Indeed, our doctrine of God becomes real to us. If he remains Sovereign over the world and if Christ is still Lord of his church, then we can rest in Him and trust that he has everything under his loving care. It’s okay to turn off the laptop. It’s okay to produce a sermon that’s not quite finished. It’s okay for online presentations to be a little rough. It’s okay if you didn’t manage to call everyone you had on your list for that week.

Government restrictions are likely to continue for some months, even if the tightest limitations begin to loosen during May. Therefore pace ourselves, set realistic goals for each week, be content with less efficiency and lower productivity. In this, we can rediscover the grace of resting in Christ and practising our doctrine of God.

 

4. Breaking the back of Christian consumerism?

My expectation is that apart from the grace of God our bad habits will continue on the other side of COVID-19.  This fourth observation is, however, a call for change. The example I have in mind here is the consumerism and obstinate individualism that is deeply ingrained in Australian culture and which is also pervasive in Christian attitudes toward the Church. Consumerism works against discipleship and long term committed members and instead creates short term attendees and parasitic Christians. The Church’s manual becomes some poor religious version of Vogue or Netflix when it should be the word of God and church covenants.

The pandemic is a great opportunity to go simple and return to Bible basics. Do we need a professional band in order to worship God acceptably and to lift our hearts? Do we really need stand up comics in our pulpits? Are academy award winning visuals necessary for weekly announcements? 

I’m not saying that aiming low is somehow more sanctified. Let’s be clear, the quality of production is not a measure of faithfulness, whether it is created by a television crew or by a 6-year-old helping out Dad to press record on his iPhone.

A likely scenario is that Churches with high production value online will most likely attract the greater number of visitors once the crisis ends. This is great news if it is the Gospel drawing people. My question is, are our online ‘services’ reinforcing the consumer mindset or can we break the culture by doing things differently? By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

5. Churches may become more local and smaller

This point may seem to contradict the above suggestion, but not necessarily. Culture normally shifts in multiple directions and so it’s quite possible for two different paths to be true at the same time.

Are the days of mega-churches over? I doubt it (and this isn’t a criticism of large churches), but the longer restrictions remain in place for large gatherings there may be a turning toward people joining local and smaller churches. For example, the ABC last week reported that large crowds may not be permitted to meet until a vaccine is available; that means 2021 or even beyond.

With restrictions on large gatherings and with people driving less and staying closer to their own community, we may see a transition toward local church. I do think such a shift will benefit Gospel work. Of course there is is no ‘right’ size for a church. Every size and location has peculiar strengths, but there is something compelling about belonging to a church that’s found in your local community. It enables closer and deeper Gospel community and it created more evangelistic opportunities. Is it easier to invite a friend living 5 minutes drive away or 50 minutes?

6. Financial loss and ministry recalibration 

Churches are very much part of society. When the community is hurt or impacted, so are Churches, and that is not a bad thing. Many Australians have lost jobs in the past month, and many more are now working reduced hours with less income. Given that most churches rely solely upon the generosity of God’s people, it’s inevitable that churches will face financial reduced giving.

There are options available for assistance from both Federal and State Governments, which may alleviate some of the financial pressures (there are pros and cons for churches joining these programs). The reality is, as a result of long term restrictions and economic downturn, some churches will close permanently, others will need to reduce staff, and the way churches conduct ministry may need to change.

To repeat my earlier contention, what we believed prior to this crisis is what we will carry with us through to the other side. Hence, for many declining churches the fundamental problem is not the pandemic but years of poor teaching and bad theology that has left congregations destitute and spiritually dry. Churches who sold their soul to the culture will simply advertise the fact when they put the ‘for sale’ sign outside their front doors. There is also grief for small and faithful churches who will struggle to remain open into 2021. We can do without faithless churches but Australia doesn’t need fewer faithful churches.

Given the huge numbers of people who are losing jobs, the extraordinary debts now being accumulated by Governments and businesses, economic constraints are likely to continue for a very long time. This acute situation may also serve as grace to force churches to reconfigure their mission and ministry priorities. It is a time to be asking, what is the church? What is the mission? How can be best arrange Gospel priorities in our budget?

 

7. People looking for hope

“now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

I think it is true to say that many Australians are nervous and even fearful of the future. There is an audible note of despair and reassessing life values. Whether this results in people turning to Christ or not, we’ll learn over the coming months.

Time will tell whether this pandemic is the watershed moment that’ll bring about revival or further wash Christianity into the culture’s sewers. My sense is that we are unlikely to witness either. History shows that significant social events rarely create the ground for revival or great influx of people returning to church. If two World Wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear war, September 11, and the 2008 Stockmarket crash, didn’t cause societal attitudes toward Christianity to improve, why do we think this most current crisis will be any different? 

Jesus teaches that such things have always been and will continue to be experienced,

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

Accompanying world events, Jesus also explains,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

While I’m reticent to place confidence in a ‘changing’ world, the Bible tells us that “today is the day of salvation”.  God remains Sovereign and the Gospel remains good, true and powerful. Therefore God is perfectly able to grow his Kingdom beyond our expectations and prayers. God is not bound by my glass half empty views.

If people are asking questions, let’s offer the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are fearful, let’s offer His comfort. If people are looking for hope, let’s present the secure hope of Christ.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4)

 


I’ve written (May 17) a follow up piece, but this time examining potential changes to the culture at large – https://murraycampbell.net/2020/05/17/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world/

Looking For Justice

The case of George Pell is one of the most important legal trials to be heard in modern Australian history. Not only is the Cardinal the highest ranking Catholic clergyman to be convicted of child sex crimes (with the conviction being overturned as of yesterday), he became representative of all the anger and frustration that has been mounting in the community as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

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Throughout the entire process, from the time police began their investigation until yesterday’s High Court ruling, I remained quiet. I declined from offering an opinion, not because I didn’t have thoughts on the matter, but because I am not privy to the truth of the allegations. The last thing I want to do is cast aspersions on someone who is coming forward as a victim of child sexual abuse. At the same time, I was also aware (through friends who work in law) that there were significant legal shortcomings with the case. These issues have come to light in the High Court and were responsible for all seven High Court Justices overturning the guilty verdict against George Pell.

I hate the abuse of children. As a Father with 3 children, the idea that there are people in the community who would commit such evil acts sickens me in the stomach. Even in writing about the subject, I can feel the temperature rising in my gut. Also, as a pastor of a church, anger is too poor a word choice to describe how I feel toward clergy who have betrayed trust and destroyed the lives of thousands of young innocence. While I loathe the idea of children being abused in any context, there is something particularly ugly about this taking place by men who claim to serve God.

In 2016 I was interviewed by journalists at The Age.  I had spoken up for concerned citizens in Mentone who were bewildered that their local Parish priest remained in office even though he had been found guilty by the Melbourne Catholic ArchDiocese for mistreating young men.

When George Pell was convicted in 2019, I accepted the verdict. Yesterday, I accepted the High Court’s decision. I didn’t accept these decisions because they confirmed any prior opinions that I held. The fact remains, I do not know what happened. If we took a snapshot at the last 24 hours it appears as though everyone knows what took place.

Lest we pretend that a virus has united the country, as soon as the Court announced its findings, social media divided into two very loud and unrelenting camps. Emotions are running high and prejudices are unyielding. It is a dangerous thing for opinion makers to ignore the High Court ruling and to insist upon Pell’s guilt. The cries of vindication by some conservative voices is not pleasant either. Indeed, much of the public posturing in the last 24 hours, from Premiers to newspaper columnists and to needy musicians, has been disgraceful. It would seem that no matter the findings of Courts, we all know better. Each of us has the truth because whatever our gut tells us must be true. It is an insane way to address such important matters, but that this is the landscape Australians have created for themselves. We have judged ourselves to be the purveyors of truth telling and righteousness, and authorities can only be trusted when they support our course.

The fact remains, you don’t know what happened and neither do I. We can theorise and speculate, and we can mould the evidence according to our prior assumptions, but let’s be careful about throwing our personal judgments about in public.

I note the irony and irreconcilable nature of this following observation, but of all the commentary that I’ve read in the past day, the most gracious remarks that have been written thus far are by the complainant and by George Pell.

Sometimes, the wisest option is to suspend personal judgment and to trust the legal system. We can be thankful for our judicial system, even with its imperfections. Having said that, this inner compulsion for justice and right doing requires us to look beyond ourselves and the very best of humanmade systems, and dare to hope there is God who will judge rightly and without any error.

Psalm 7 offers this kind of hope, a comfort to victims and a warning to perpetrators,

“Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
    save and deliver me from all who pursue me,

or they will tear me apart like a lion
    and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.

Lord my God, if I have done this
    and there is guilt on my hands—

if I have repaid my ally with evil
    or without cause have robbed my foe—

then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
    let him trample my life to the ground
    and make me sleep in the dust.

Arise, Lord, in your anger;
    rise up against the rage of my enemies.
    Awake, my God; decree justice.

Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
    while you sit enthroned over them on high.

    Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
    according to my integrity, O Most High.

Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
    and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
    who probes minds and hearts.”

 

Leaving the George Pell case aside, there’s no avoiding the fact that the Catholic Church has a lousy record when it comes to child sexual abuse, both in the number of cases and in the ensuing cover up and protecting of guilty priests. Their history is truly appalling. While Catholic Institutions are at the fore of public attention, they are not the only ones who have been found wanting. Most Christian denominations have examples, and many other organisations (such as the Scouts) have also been found as having sexual predators in their midst.

As a result of the Royal Commission and the countless stories that are coming to light, I understand why trust in Churches has been shredded. We should be able to say of Churches, these are safe communities for families. The reality is that most Churches are amazing communities where people may come and join, and discover the most important and beautiful truths that can be known to the world; namely the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, how can we blame our fellow Aussies for doubting and for suspecting Churches of being complicit with the Devil?

For example, I was saddened by this comment that I saw today under a twitter thread belonging to Annabel Crabb. A woman said,

“Let the children come to me.  Makes me ill now. It used to be my favorite page in my illustrated bible.”

How can one respond to her? There will always be people who detest Christianity because of firmed moral commitments and because of stubborn a priori epistemological beliefs, and yet when Churches shame the name of Jesus, there is something profoundly wrong. In this case, it has led a woman to doubt the goodness of Jesus’ words. I wanted to reach out to this person and say to them, you can trust the words of Jesus. He remains true and good. Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not. Take a look at the meaning of Easter to see how loving and good Jesus is. He went to the cross, he endured the shame and guilt of the world out of love to redeem the unloveable and those crying in the silence. He rose from the dead to defeat the depravity of death and evil, and to offer genuine hope of healing and new life.

This draws us back to Psalm 7. If the words of the Psalmist resonate with our inclinations and hopes for justice and for healing, then take time this week to look at where God has most vividly demonstrated his justice and love, on the cross.

 

Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not.

Mocking prayer or turning to prayer?

The Prime Minister of Australia prayed for the nation and asked other Australians to join him.  There was a rare muted response by some of the usual religious critics, quite possibly due to an awareness that this is not the time to knock our national leaders or God for that matter. But as predictable as a toddler throwing their late afternoon tantrum, other secularists couldn’t control their outrage at Scott Morrison.

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Arguments against the Prime Minister praying in public are varied, from the ridiculous to the illogical and to the popular but erroneous.

For example, one of the first complaints I saw on social media took aim at  Scott Morrison for using the Prime Minister’s office and Government time to broadcast this prayer. Seriously? Give the man a break. He’s probably working 100 hours a week at the moment, sleeping little, and barely seeing his own family. Are we really going to take issue with him for taking a few minutes to pray?

One complaint, that might at first seem to carry some weight, is the perceived undermining of cultural pluralism. For example, Jane Caro tweeted,

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

The problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism,  it is a shining example of it. Unlike Communist States where religion is banned and unlike religious totalitarian States like Iran, our political representatives have the freedom to speak of their deep-seated beliefs about God and the world. We can agree or disagree. We can support them or not. We are free to join with them or not. 

Jane Caro is known for wanting to remove religion from the public square altogether. She is okay with religion being practised in private but not in public. This, however, is neither secularism or pluralism, it is, as a friend suggested last night, fundamentalism. This is the state of play in countries like North Korea and China. Do we really want Australia following their lead?

A truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism). Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism provides a framework for social pluralism, and pluralism shouldn’t drive religion underground but encourage honest adherence.

But what about s.116? This section of the Constitution has been floated as a directive against the Prime Minister’s action. For example, this tweet,

“s.116 of the constitution states we have no official religion. Previous PMs have been more sensitive to our diverse polis. Using the PM’s office to dedicate the nation to his particular denominational god is poor form.”

What does s.116 say?

‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

This clause does not preclude people of faith from holding public office or force them to keep their convictions at home while they work. S.116 explains that Australia will not be governed by any single religion, as though Australia should become an agency of the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish our secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. Let’s not pretend that atheism equals moral and philosophical neutrality or superiority. Some of the most extreme and inhumane regimes in the world today are those controlled by atheistic political systems.

True secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. What would violate the Constitution are demands that politicians keep their religious beliefs away from the public square.

As Australians begins a third week of self-isolating, we have already learned that Governments are unsure what to do. Plans are changing almost daily. Medical experts are offering the best advice they can, while still not knowing how COVID-19 will play out in coming days and months. Economists are grappling with the short term survival requirements and theorising about the long term damage that will be made to the economy. It is natural and necessary for us to lift our eyes and to inquire of God and to ask God for his grace and mercy. I for one am thankful that such a God exists and that through Jesus we are invited to call upon him in times of need.

“Hear my prayer, Lord;

    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

    when I am in distress.

Turn your ear to me;

    when I call, answer me quickly.”

(Psalm 102:1-2)

Stay at Home

Stay at home. This is the new warning being issued to my suburb.

I’m typing away on a beautiful autumn day here in Melbourne. The sun is out, the sky is blue and the temperature is nudging toward a perfect 25.

Dare I say it, it’s almost beach weather. It would be a stunning day for lazing about at the beach except that my local council has today closed all the beaches in the City of Kingston. I happen to live in a beachside suburb of Melbourne. In fact, both Parkdale and Mentone beaches are within walking distance of my house. Despite the close proximity, I have a small confession to make, I rarely wander down to the sand and water. As a lifelong Melbournian, Melbourne and beach have never quite synchronised, as they do for Sydney. Melbourne should be about food and culture, enjoyed under gloomy skies and drizzly rain, not this pseudo subtropical lifestyle for living in Byron Bay and Bondi.

 

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Speaking of Bondi, last night we discovered that Melbournians are as poor at doing maths as our northerly neighbours in Sydney. Only a day earlier we tut-tutted the masses in Bondi for flouting the new social distancing rules, but then St Kilda beach revealed that we are as stupid.

The warning coming to us beachside homemakers has become, Stay Home. 

The new limitations being brought to bear on our lives are a challenge for many. We don’t like our freedoms being curbed. Like the Law of Moses, we read a prohibition and subconsciously begin to plot how we can break it. 

In Australia, we have lived the dream. We have maximised pleasure and autonomy. Melbourne is regularly voted the most liveable city in the world, and not without good reasons. But what are we discovering? All this is fleeting. The good life is not certain. 

The book of Ecclesiastes should become required reading for this season. We would do well to listen to the wise person and in their pursuit for meaning.

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

    I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

    and this was the reward for all my toil.

11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

    and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

    nothing was gained under the sun.”

The COVID-19 crisis will eventually subside and a new normalcy will settle into our lives. We will return to the beaches and to the footy. We’ll once again hang out at the cafe and pub, and splurge on shopping and holidays. These can be good things to enjoy, but will we learn the lessons that are now being forced upon us? How will we understand life’s meaning? Will we return to all the extras and scoff them down in a frenzied attempt to make up for lost time, to will we discern that contentment and happiness can be had without them?

Here is a simple word of advice: don’t waste your stay at home. This forced homestay presents us with an unusual and unique moment. We could, by God’s grace, learn the answers to the biggest and most important of questions.

Accompanying these social closures are some very real dangers; we can anticipate growing social distancing and loneliness. Authorities have good reason to be fearful about increased domestic abuse in our homes. We need to be conscious of these awful realities and to combat them.

Without diminishing the negative, there are also enormous benefits and possibilities to be seized at this time. Here are a few:

  1. We can spend more time with our children
  2. We can rediscover the long lost art of creative thinking
  3. We can reevaluate the big questions of life
  4. We have the time to form healthy spiritual disciplines: regular prayers and Bible reading
  5. We can catch up on sleep
  6. We can develop intentional habits for looking out for friends and neighbours
  7. We can learn how to enjoy and be content with the simple things

How are you planning to maximise your home stay?

The ever present evil that is anti-semitism

A video appeared on my Twitter feed this afternoon that has already been viewed 1 million times.

It features a ‘pastor’ in America claiming that the Corona Virus is being spread in Jewish synagogues because they oppose Jesus Christ. He suggests that God is judging Jewish people for their rejection of Christ with this virus

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I had never heard of Rick Wiles until an hour ago, and frankly, I’d prefer not to know him. After doing a little investigating I discovered that he’s not a pastor of a recognised Christian Church, but  belongs to an outlying cultish group, much in the vein  of Westboro Baptist. They claim to be Christian and to speak for Jesus, and yet their words and actions could not be further from Him.

Rick Wiles has a history of coming out with  the most egregious statements, including anti-semitic attacks.

His tirade exhibits the worst of religion and how words must surely grieve the Lord Jesus Christ.

There has been a rise in anti-semitic behaviour and speech in the last couple of years, even here in Australia. It is disturbing and Christian leaders have a responsibility to call it out for the evil it is. 

To claim to speak for God when God has not spoken is bad enough. Rick Wiles’ words are not mere speculation, his speech comes from the pits of hell. 

Let us remember that the Lord Jesus was Jewish and raised Jewish.

The first Christians were Jewish.

The Apostle Paul was Jewish. 

In what is the greatest theological tome ever written, Paul’s letter to the Romans, he begins with an explanation of the Christian message, in which he argues that the Gospel of Jesus is given a special place among Jewish people

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”(Romans 1:16-17)

Paul is suggesting that there is a theological priority for the Jewish people. Why? Because they are special to God. They are loved by God. 

In an extensive argument that begins in Romans ch11., Paul argues that Israel remains precious to God and that his grace is not finished with them. With great clarity and conviction, Paul states, 

“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.  God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” 

Anti-semitism has no place in our society. Anti-semitism has no place in a Christian Church. Jewish people have a place in our society. They have the right to worship in their synagogues. They are welcome in my home and in my church.

I have 3 shorts sentences for Rick Wiles:

Stop it. Shut up you fool. Repent.

Imagine there is God

Imagine there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or goal toward which our lives are headed.

Imagine there is no overarching design and no inherent significance. 

Imagine if our lives were reduced to the pot luck outcome of billions of years of impersonal atoms and molecules running around hitting and missing, making and destroying.

Imagine a world where the reality of conscience and moral choice has no grounding in a purpose beyond that of group survival in the evolutionary race to the top.

Imagine human affections are ultimately an illusion, a cruel joke orchestrated by the impersonal rules pf physics.

Imagine all the people living for today, for tomorrow is the end.

Welcome to the world offered by John Lennon’s song, Imagine.

A group of celebrities have posted a new version of Imagine. The only reason this is going viral and being watched by millions of people is that these people are celebrities. Otherwise, the at times tone-deaf warbles in the rendition of this average pop song would probably have attracted zero attention. Music criticism aside, the song itself is hardly a suitable anthem for a time like this, or for any time in the world history for that matter.

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In contrast to Lennon’s nihilist proclamation, people want to know that there is hope beyond a crisis and that there is hope when faced with mortality. Times of economic uncertainty can drive people to the kinds of selfish and greedy hoarding of supplies that we have been witnessing. A health crisis can lead to further fragmentation in societies. Indeed, the longer this crisis continues the more likely we are going to witness the breaking of social cohesion. And yet as these economic, social and health pressures tighten, it is all the more necessary for people to hear news of hope.

There is little consolation to a gravely ill person that not only is death imminent, but that it is ultimately meaningless. This atheistic ethic doesn’t do much to help grieving families who have just witnessed a loved one being ripped from their lives.

We want there to be a heaven, a better world with a better life. We want the cessation of sorrow and suffering, but Imagine cannot offer any such promise. 

At the same time, hell is also a necessity, for we do not want to live in a world where evil wins or where injustice prevails. While we should be thankful for our judicial system, it is not full proof and many terrible deeds are never prosecuted. People need to know that in death the wicked do not escape justice. Imagining there is no hell would be a form of hell its self.

John Lennon’s song collapses in on its own irrationality. He imagines ‘living life in peace’, and there being no “greed or hunger”, but such talk demands a form and purpose, but atheism and naturalism cannot provide such a definition. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a voracious reminder of the fragility of life and the uncertainty of building society on credit. Hedonism is vanity. Pushing against greed and social disharmony suggests meaning, but meaning is disqualified in a God absent universe. As Solomon the wise wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

    says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

    Everything is meaningless.”

Nietzsche was right, at least as far his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

What if there is heaven and hell? What if God exists? Everything must change. What we think and say has greater import. How we live and how we treat others has far more consequence. 

What if the God who exists is the God of the Bible: who is Sovereign, and altogether righteous and loving, just and kind? What if Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, the One who as John testifies, 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These words are far more sustainable and substantial than the sentiment of living in a world without Divine structure. A Biblical view of the world both assesses its beauty and its horror, the worth and the uncertainty. These Scriptures bring us to the most astonishing words, ones that counter John Lennon’s pipe dream with concrete hope, 

 “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.” (John 3:16)

Mentone’s COVID-19 Policy: neither alarmism nor complacency

We have communicated with the Mentone family our policy for COVID-19. Of course, with changing circumstances, the policy may well change over coming days. I’ve posted a copy here for readers as an example of what one church is communicating.

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Dear Church,

Over the last two Sundays at Church we have explored Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Our preaching schedule is usually organised months in advance and in God’s providence he has been provided us with a timely word. In light of living in this age, the Lord Jesus cautions us against both alarmism and complacency. We don’t need to resort to panic or irrational behaviour because God is Sovereign and the Lord Jesus remains on the throne. Neither should we be careless or thoughtless.

The certainty of our hope in Jesus Christ gives us great freedom and impulse to love our neighbours. A significant way we can serve one another during this current health crisis is to adopt sensible measures as a church.

Mentone Baptist Church will follow government and health department advice and wish to put forward the following as our policy from today:

1. If you have been in countries now on the travel ban list or have high cases of infection (China, South Korea, Iran, Italy), you are required to quarantine yourself for two weeks before gathering with your brothers and sisters from Mentone Baptist Church. 

We expect this list will expand in the near future. In light of this, we are requesting that anyone who has recently travelled internationally to not attend Sunday services for 2 weeks (upon the date of your return to Australia).

2. If you suspect you have been in contact with any of the community COVIC-19 infections that are being reported in the news, please consult a GP and also self-quarantine.

3. There are also regular colds beginning to circulate among us that aren’t and won’t be COVID-19. We ask that you use commonsense.  If it is not COVID-19 there is no need to quarantine yourself. However please be mindful of others in the church community and minimise the chances of infection by taking care in your personal contact and when we gather.

4. As a policy, we will now be urging our church members not to shake hands or hug (or high-five) with one another. Given the nature of Christian community, this is not easy among brothers and sisters in Christ, but we do so in order to love our neighbour and honour those who are in authority over us.

5. In addition, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing with a tissue, or cough into your elbow.Dispose of the tissue into a bin and then wash your hands afterwards. 

6. Wash your hands regularly, using soap and water, including after using the toilet, and before eating. Alcohol-based sanitiser (greater than 60 per cent alcohol) is a good back-up if soap and water is not readily accessible.

7. If you are planning not to attend a service, we encourage you to contact us (Mike or myself) and let us know how you are going and if there is anything we can be doing to help.

We are monitoring advice that is being issued from the BUV (Baptist Union of Victoria) and from Government agencies. We will keep you informed if the situation arises where we need cancel public gatherings for a period of time (inc. Sunday services). In the event of cancelling public gatherings, we will inform you of alternative arrangements (ie livestreaming).

We encourage you to look after each other by following these steps. Also, given there is a shortage of some supplies in supermarkets, if you are needing something please ask people in our church family. The church’s private facebook group is an easy way to do this. Let us show generosity toward one another.  Let us check on the elderly in our church and ensure that are ok. Let us pray for each other, and pray for our local community.

Above all, know that the Lord Jesus is sovereign over his people and he tends his flock like a shepherd (Isa. 40). We have his love and peace and security over our lives because nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8). So go in peace to love and serve him even in the midst of this crisis. Speak liberally and graciously about the peace Jesus offers to those who are most anxious and worried at this time.

Educator recognises that boys and girls are different

In what may be a betrayal of much contemporary philosophising about boys and girls, I’ve just a read an article in The Age arguing the case for single sex schools, “particularly for girls”.

Loren Bridge (Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia), contends that while,

 “Positives can be found in every type of education, but there are just so many more positives for girls in a single-sex school.”

This educator suggests that both research and experience demonstrate that girls perform better academically and adapt better socially in a single sex environment, 

“There is simply no doubt that single-sex education benefits girls. Research shows unequivocally that girls thrive in an all-girls environment – they do better academically, socially and emotionally. Not just a single study but a plethora of data from across the world supports these findings.

Research aside, you only need to visit a girls’ school to see the difference. Girls in co-ed schools tend to be more self-conscious and less confident. They are less likely to speak up in class, ask questions or take on a leadership role. They are also more likely to have a negative body image and to experience sexual harassment or bullying. In contrast, those in girls-only environments feel empowered to be themselves. They participate more freely in discussions, are more competitive and take more healthy risks with their learning – skills that are advantageous for life success.”

But hang on, I thought there were no differences between boys and girls? Until recently it was permissible to acknowledge biological differences between girls and boys, but no longer. Talk about biological distinctions is now considered social blasphemy and a quick route to public cancelling (see here for an example). Why? The woke brigade preach’s that biology has no bearing on what defines a boy and girl, because boys can fall pregnant and girls can have a penis. 

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What is interesting about the article is that Loren Bridge isn’t discussing physical differences; she goes much further. She suggests that there are psychological and social differences between the sexes, such that it warrants single sex classes in schools. Whether conscious or not of the fact, she has crossed the line and entered that chilling space known as woke heterodoxy. 

I happen to agree with her. As a Dad with two boys and a girl, it’s one of those self evident truths; boys and girls are not the same. Gender makes a difference not only with appearance and physical attributes, but it also impacts how we think, react, and relate. This is not something to be ashamed of or to be denied or ignored, but is part of who we are. In making male and female, God didn’t make a mistake. 

To be sure, cultural conditioning influences the way boys and girls view themselves. But this cannot fully explain the why’s and how’s and what of boys and girls. As Bridge has noted,  it is the case that some approaches to education work better simply because boys and girls are not the same.

As a parent with a daughter I found Bridge’s article interesting and persuasive, but I’m also conscious that her opinion contradicts the Victorian Education Department’s own understanding of sex and gender (as evidenced by the  Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships Curriculums). At the end of the day, reality either catches up or catches us out. No matter how much we suppress and explain away the realities of boys and girls, what is true eventually insists upon being recognised, and it’s encouraging to find educators acknowledging  this.

Viral Mocking Prayer Tweets Fall Flat

A viral photo has been passed around social media this week, mocking Vice President Pence and the Coronavirus Task Force. The photograph shows the group in prayer.

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Mocking Christians is hardly an original idea. Ridiculing prayer has been a popular pastime since ancient times. So forgive us when we roll our eyes at this supposed great gotcha moment. Perhaps the disdain has less to do with prayer, and it’s really about politics and searching for another reason to throw mud at the current administration. Whatever the motive, may I suggest that you haven’t quite thought through the logic of this attempted smear.

I understand that for those who hold the belief that there is no God, prayer would seem like a foolish use of time. Of course, this conviction has little to do with the efficacy of prayer but with the firmed a priori belief that prayer is wasted breath. As though, I don’t accept that this medicine will save my life, therefore I refuse to take it!

The commentary pinned to this photograph reveals a wallop of smugness and a waft of superiority breathing over those who practice prayer, as though the truly wise and smart amongst us know that prayer is a useless activity.

If praying was the only thing this task force completed, then we’d have reason to complain. Or is it the fact that they first gathered to pray and then proceeded to work, and to use all their knowledge and wisdom to put together an action plan? Has praying hampered their duties? Has spending a few moments in prayer defused them of the ability or desire to work effectively for the good of the American people?

In what is an interesting twist, the Bible does on occasion empathise with Thomas Chatteron Williams. In Isaiah ch.44, God mocks the idea of praying to wooden statues and gods of human creation.

“From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

    he bows down to it and worships.

He prays to it and says,

    “Save me! You are my god!”

They know nothing, they understand nothing;

    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.”

The question about prayer is, does the God to whom we pray exist and does he hear our prayers and can he answer them?

Prayer is not an irrational response to situations facing us, but is perfectly legitimate in light of the biblical view that there is a God and he is truly sovereign. This is the conclusion that only for those men in the room, but for hundreds of millions of people, including many of the most revered minds of our age.

Few tirading twitterers will admit it (or perhaps even realise this simple fact), that many of the smartest people in history (and of today) believe in God and pray to him. 

Try standing in front of Francis Collins and call him stupid. Or tweet a photo of William Newsome praying and add the tag, “we’re screwed”. I reckon the really intelligent people among us should create a meme about Nobel Prize winning physicist, Antony Hewish, jeering his belief in God. Of course, It’s not so easy to smear the intellectual credentials of people when we take politics out of the equation.

In fact, a case can be made that without those Bible believing and praying Christians over the last 2,000 years, civilisation would be screwed! Many of the vital scientific and medical breakthroughs, socio-political advances, and ethical foundations that we rely upon today are ours to enjoy thanks to those praying Christians. 

But here lies the problem, evidence doesn’t support the thesis that prayer indicates lack of intelligence or capability to perform one’s job.  My own church has several members who teach at universities in Melbourne, others are doctors and lawyers. This is not a point not boasting, for the intellectual aptitude of church members does not signal the ‘success’ of a church in any way. I’m simply making the point that intellect does not cancel out belief in prayer.  A high IQ or position of great authority and responsibility does not equate to or necessitate a-theism. Belief in prayer has nothing to do with intellectual ability and everything to do with humility. Prayer is for both the genius and the simple, who are both sufficiently wise to know that we can trust God.

Perhaps there is another misunderstanding at play here, as though prayer is currency used to collect what I want out of God. The Bible’s view of prayer is far richer and deeper and more meaningful. Prayer is a gift from God, that we might commune with him and share with him. As Jesus taught, God is Father and like a loving Dad, we can approach him and ask him anything. Also, like a wise Father, he sometimes says yes, sometimes no, and sometimes the answer is to wait.  It makes sense to pray to an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God. But does he exist?  More important than any the opinions of any scientist or politician or journalist, the person of Jesus Christ says yes. And by his life, words, and deeds, he has demonstrated the reality of this God.

The success of these prayer mocking warriors has failed to evidence high functioning cognitive ability. All it shows is a high level of epistemological narrow-mindedness infused with pride.

I thank God for his gift of prayer, and I’m thankful to see people from all walks of life being humble enough to ask God for wisdom and help.