Churches need to be more like the world?

I’ve just read Nikki Gemmell’s latest contribution to The Weekend Australian, “Why the Anglican church must evolve or die”. At first, I assumed this must be satire, for the essence of her argument is that for Churches to succeed they need to become more like majority culture!

“the majority of Australians do support same-sex marriage. It feels like the archbishop is damaging his church and Jesus’s teachings of tolerance, gentleness and inclusivity. “

“The church has been on the wrong side of public opinion recently on abortion as well as same-sex marriage. It’s slowly killing itself by refusing to open its heart to others.”

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Without question, Gemmell’s call to the Anglican Church sounds almost identical to what Jesus says, in a dysutopian Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of way.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18)

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)

It’s almost as though Jesus is saying the precise opposite of Nikki Gemmell. Jesus doesn’t think the world is always the best measure for what is good and true. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is telling us that the world’s understanding of life is frequently at odds with God.

The wonderful paradox that is Christianity is that while the world’s beliefs oppose those of God in his word, and while God stands in judgment over a world that subverts his creational purposes, God still loves. “For God so loved the world”. This love is not a sign of moral alignment with our culture, far from it.

“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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 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. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”. (John 3:16-19)

To be like Jesus isn’t to support same-sex marriage, abortion,  and a myriad of other popular moral messaging, but it does involve loving those who are different and to desire their good despite vehement disagreement.

Gemmell’s offering is such a silly argument. Only the majority are ever naive enough to believe that majority equals right. Majority opinion or minority opinion doesn’t establish a position as right or wrong, just popular or unpopular. In addition, being in opposition to majority opinion doesn’t make one’s own position any more correct. It could be the case that both groups are advocating stupid ideas. What makes Christian belief, well, Christian, is that it conforms to the Christian Bible, as rightly understood through the lens of Jesus Christ. In the case of Glenn Davies’ recent comments to Anglican Bishops, they may be uncomfortable and even sound intolerant, but Jesus and the Apostles also used pretty strong language toward leaders who attempted to subvert his Church with erring ideas. That’s the point, the Sydney Anglican Archbishop was calling out fellow bishops who have abandoned Christian doctrine in favour of popular culture.

Not only does Gemmell equate Church success with supporting what the majority of Australians believe, but she also makes another blunder by lumping everything she doesn’t like about Churches under the same umbrella of ‘bigotry’.  This is poor theology and it is misleading sociology. For example, the Sydney Anglican Diocese believes strongly in mandatory reporting, whereas the Catholic Church does not support it.  However, the former is an expression of Christian concern that arises from biblical principles, the latter is the result of longstanding tradition but not Biblical principles. Apples and Pineapples may share the same name but they are hardly the same fruit. As an Anglican, Gemmell should know better.

To be sure, Christians sometimes espouse Christianity with a distasteful tone. That is disappointing and dishonours the good news that is our message.

Nikki, Gemmell is correct about one point, and that is when she notes how Australians are confused about Churches and Christianity.

“The public image: a riven and confused church that doesn’t quite know what it stands for but is pushing people away in the process. Not only members of the congregation but non-churchgoing parents with children in Anglican schools.”

Yes, there is confusion. The average Aussie is confused because there are Churches leaders taking her advice and diluting the Christian message with the dominant moral posturing of Aussies. They are confused because there are ‘Christians’ redefining Jesus into their own image in order to support all manner of popular sexual revisionism. The answer, however, isn’t for Churches to give up Biblical Christianity and to adopt more of society’s moral inclinations. We need our Churches to be more biblical, not less. We need our Churches to be more like the Lord Jesus, not less.  For what have we offer Australian society if all we are doing is preaching the society’s values back to itself? Could it not be the case, that Christian Churches are convinced that God’s design for human life is better and more satisfying than some of the alternatives that have currently captured the imagination of pop culture?

To quote one famous Anglican Bishop, who facing the unpopularity of 16th Century England, stood firm and found himself in a public firestorm, “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” 

The major problem with Gemmell’s presentation is that she equates Christian gentleness and tolerance with agreement of current cultural norms. For Gemmell, to be the Church of Jesus Christ is to say yes to what the majority of Australian want in regard to sexuality and abortion. What a puerile thing to say.

Does she not realise from history that Churches who align with the values of majority culture are those most likely to witness decline? While Churches who believe, teach, and practice good old fashioned Christianity are more likely to experience growth. It is a demonstrable fact of history that people have been persuaded by the truth and goodness of Jesus Christ because Churches have stood out as distinct from the surrounding culture.

I’m still not convinced that Nikki Gemmell’s piece isn’t satire. If it is,  I’m just slow to see the humour, then I apologise for my sluggishness; it is Saturday morning after all.

Indonesian Church attacks: some reflections

Surabaya

At approximately 10:30am, during the Sunday service at Mentone Baptist Church, three churches in Indonesia were attacked. While our children were heading out for Sunday School and the adults opening their Bibles for a second Scripture reading, suicide bombers entered 3 churches in the city of Surabaya. 11 people have died, with another 40 people injured.

As shocking as this news is, it is sadly not an unusual story for Christians in Indonesia. The persecution of Christians has been commonplace for many years in certain Indonesians provinces: in East Kalimantan, Aceh, and the city of Medan, just to name a few.

Not only in Indonesia, but similar horrific events are happening around the world on an almost weekly basis. Churches are attacked in Egypt, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, and many other parts of the world. The reality is, for millions of Christians in the world today, belonging to a Church and even attending a Church service, comes with an awareness that the cost may be great.

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Source: ABC news

Abusing our religious freedom

As I’ve reflected upon the juxtaposition between Mentone and what happened inside those Indonesian Churches, I remembered one of the verses that I preached on today,

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)

This verse follows the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Previous to becoming a Christian, Paul was a renowned persecutor of Churches, killing Christians and imprisoning others. After a period of persecution, came a time of peace for these new church being planted across Judea and Samaria.

In the New Testament we learn that there can be seasons when there is relative societal peace and tolerance of Christianity, and there are also times of acute and dreadful opposition. In the book of Acts, we discover that Churches can grow and flourish in both situations.

Joining a Church in some parts of the world is potentially life threatening. On the other hand, attending Church in Australia is easy. We wake up on Sunday mornings, perhaps following a sleep in. We eat breakfast, get dressed, and drive down the road to a local church. There’s a good chance that we’re running late, and have already missed the first 10 minutes, but the temptation to spend those extra minutes at home is hard to fight against.

Making it to Sunday Church is easy in Australia, and yet how many of us find it hard, if not a burden? No one is going to enter our buildings and blow themselves up. The Government isn’t going to arrest congregation. And yet, so many of us Aussie Christians struggle to attend Church weekly. The situation has become so dire that once a month is now considered regular attendance! Imagine only eating one meal a month with your family and arguing that it is ‘regular family time’! Picture an employee informing their colleagues that turning up for 1 in 4 meetings was suffice and a demonstration of real commitment!

Of course belonging to a local church can’t be reduced to Sunday attendance, but it is the primary and central gathering of God’s people to whom you have covenanted. We meet to encourage others, just as they are meeting in order to love and grow us in Christ.

Making it to Church regularly should be easy. Unlike millions of Christians in other parts of globe, we have the freedom to meet, and we have the means: we can walk, we can drive, we can take public transport. And yet, we find it so hard. We don’t need the threat of bombs to keep us away from Church, the allure of the beach or of a coffee shop is more than equal to the task.

I once tried to calculate how many “ordinary” Sundays were in the calendar year. To begin with, there are summer holidays which take out about 6 Sundays, and then another 3 Sundays for each of the Autumn, Winter, and Spring school breaks. On top of that, in between there’s a highway of long weekends with public holidays attached to them, and we mustn’t forget Mothers Day and Fathers Day. I also assume, that like myself, other people catch winter colds and flues, and so that might mean we miss another 1-2 Sundays. If we have children, we can strike out a few more weeks with sore throats, head colds, and bouts of diarrhoea.

It is so easy to attend Church in Australia, and yet we find it so difficult. Australian society offers so much, promising our children every dream, offering us every heart desire. How hard it is to saying to our kids, we can’t play footy on Sundays because we have Church. We work so hard to climb ladders and create success and to pay extravagant mortgages, that we find ourselves with little energy for much else. We need the fishing trip and the late Sunday brunch, because we’ve exhausted ourselves in trying to drag heaven onto earth. I wonder, are we not worshiping God with his people on Sundays because we are no longer worshiping Him with our lives from Monday to Saturday?

Instead of using freedom of religion to minimise effort and commitment, should we not maximise the time we have? Are we so arrogant as to presume that freedom of religion will continue forever in Australia?

There are of course legitimate reasons for missing Church on a Sunday morning. Churches (and Pastors) should be understanding of members who are simple unable to attend every week, because of poor physical or mental health, because kids are sick or that long awaited annual vacation has come around. There are professions where workers are rostered for Sundays; after all, we can’t run hospitals or police or trains without people.

Make Church a habit

I was speaking with one of my church’s members recently. He and family are going through a difficult time, and so when they arrived late one Sunday, I said to him that I would understand if they couldn’t make it to Church on occasion. He responded with this gracious and rather memorable rebuke,

“Murray, of course we come to Church every week; it’s what we do.”

By this, he didn’t mean that Church attendance was a ritual or tired tradition. Rather, it was a helpful habit. Going to bed on Saturdays, they already knew what they were doing the next morning, because as a couple they had already settled in their hearts and decided made with their minds, Church matters. It wasn’t always easy, but they didn’t have to make the choice each Sunday because the decision was settled and the habit formed.

Consider Church a Joy

Tonight, as I pray for Indonesia and for Mentone, I want to cherish the local church and to make the most of the freedoms we have to meet each week, and even more.

May be I should be thinking, what temporary offerings can even begin to compare to the wonder of knowing God and to be part of the Church that Jesus has promised to build? Would I settle for playing football on the X-box if an AFL team called me to join their side? And yet we easily sacrifice Church, for small moments that will soon be forgotten.

According to Hebrews, a sign that our hope is directed in the right place, is that we are fight against the temptation to diminish Church. Those who draw near to God, are those who not give up on one another.

22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10)