Churches across Victoria had a great Sunday

Praise God for the good news of Jesus Christ that was preached across Victorian churches yesterday. In a weird kind of way, our newspaper friends seem to be obsessed with the casual clothes being worn by those speaking from the front, but whether in a t-shirt and jeans or in dressed in a robe of some sort, Christ was preached and for that, I say, Amen. Instead of throwing eggs at all of the folk who’ve been deriding Christians and churches this week, we prayed for them and longed for them to grasp how good is God’s grace.

While Christian churches enjoyed time together and welcomed visitors,  I noticed there were a few religious voices preaching on the street corner from a different book. They are unhappy with Guy Mason and Andrew Thorburn, and Christians like them. Some have even come out in support of Essendon Football Club.

Writing in the Guardian, Uniting Church minister, Elenie Poulos, suggested that Andrew Thorburn’s exit from Essendon Football Club wasn’t a religious freedom failure.

“It is about leadership and organisational values. As many commentators and engaged observers have already pointed out, Thorburn’s appointment appears to have been a failure of the recruitment process. He found himself leading two organisations with values that clashed, one just happened to be a religious organisation.”

It seems as though a few people have bought into this theory.

One Melbourne Baptist repeated the rumour, 

“It isn’t controversial or problematic to suggest that someone can’t lead two organisations with opposing values simultaneously. City on a Hill is a church organisation that espouses a very specific set of views on women and sexuality, among other things. They do not allow women to be ministers or to preach. They do not allow LGBT people full participation in the church. They have particular views on divorce and remarriage. The AFL have a different set of views. They clearly promote LGBT inclusion and equal rights for women. It’s clear that you couldn’t possibly lead with integrity toward these two opposing visions. 

The former Essendon CEO was not sacked for being a Christian and was not punished for going to a particular church. He was asked to choose which organisation he would lead. He made his choice. That’s how religious freedom works.

Essendon’s grievous error was in failing to have the conversation before he was appointed. That’s on them.”

These attempts to reconstruct events that transpired only a few days ago is like returning to the scene of the crime and trying to hide the murder weapon while everyone is looking on. 

As we know, revisionists are often the ones who write the history books, so it’s important to challenge this disinformation. Anyone who has read the Essendon Football Club’s statement and read Andrew Thorburn’s statements, listened to Premier Daniel Andrews, and a host of journalists and commentators, will know that this issue is precisely about the man’s religious beliefs and his association with a mainstream Christian Church. 

Let us be clear, the only reason this became an issue is that the church Andrew Thorburn belongs to holds views about homosexuality and abortion that contravene the dogma of 21st Century authoritarian secularism. If only he had chosen the right kind of church, one that our Premier approves. If only Thorburn was Chairing one of those dying progressive churches in inner city Melbourne. We know the ones, we drive by and we see the, ‘for sale’ signs on the front gate. 

Trying to split hairs over being Chair of the Board s vs being a church member, or belonging to church vs holding religious beliefs, is ridiculous and ignores the very words spoken by the various parties involved.

Andrew Thorburn knows why he was forced to resign,

“today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square”.

Essendon has even admitted that had they known about the beliefs taught at Thorburn’s church they would not have hired him in the first place. The Victorian Premier made it clear to the entire State that Christians holding to what are essentially normal Christian beliefs, is unacceptable. It is not without reason that many Victorian Christians are now wondering when they will be asked to leave their places of employment. 

Ro Allen, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, is under no illusion. Allen told the ABC,

“It’s definitely a values conflict to employ someone who’s not just a passive member of a church [but on the board]…They’ve [City on a Hill] actively worked against LGBTI people.”

By the way, both of those comments are untrue.

If that’s not enough to convince the revisionists, read  what The Age’s Business Columnist, Elizabeth Knight, said,

“A decade or two ago, corporations and their stakeholders may have tolerated Thorburn’s association with a church with strong views on the homosexuality and abortion. But not today.

Whether Thorburn personally holds those extreme opinions is irrelevant, Essendon is a valuable and highly recognised brand, and it cannot afford to be tarnished by any proximity to views that are deemed offensive by a big chunk of its fan base and the broader community.”

It is sad although not surprising to find that among the revisionists are some voices who belong to certain churches. They are our modern-day Demas’ and Alexanders, and so it’s important to call them out. But let’s not allow their efforts to cast a shadow over what took place in Bible-believing, Jesus honouring, people-loving churches across Victoria yesterday.

Let’s thank God and rejoice in what was a great day for churches. I’ve heard exciting things from City on a Hill yesterday and my own church had a super day. 

One of the things that struck me most during church was how the words of the songs came even more to life than usual. The reality of Jesus and his cross, the beauty of God, and the hope found in Him, really does matter more than everything. No wonder the congregation sang with such gusto and praise.

As we opened the Bible together and heard about Jesus, I was reminded how Victoria needs more of Jesus, not less. He may not be welcome at the footy or in the workplace or school, but there are communities of ordinary Victorians meeting every Sunday and getting to know him more. People from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnicity, sex, gender, and jobs, yet find in Christ the greatest joy and hope.

When we read the Bible, we discover how Jesus frequently disagreed with people’s morals, lifestyles, and beliefs. We also find how Jesus could show extraordinary love, grace, and kindness toward those very same people. Biggest of all, in love, Jesus sacrificed his life for people who disapproved of him in the strongest terms. The social and political leaders were so incensed by Jesus’ views that they nailed to a cross, and on the cross, he cried out, “father forgive them”. There really is something astonishing about this Jesus.

CS Lewis once said,

“I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. …I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”

Even to our Premier and the Essendon, come along one Sunday and visit a Christian church. You may be surprised by what you see and hear, and perhaps even persuaded.

Boxing Day: the hardest Sunday of the year?

The hardest Sunday of the year for organising church is the first Sunday following Christmas Day. As it happens, this year the Sunday falls only one day after Christmas,  Boxing Day.

Boxing day in Melbourne is huge.  For Melbourne Boxing Day means cricket at the MCG and shopping sales at Chadstone and eating lots of delicious post-Christmas food. I love all those things and later on our family will be participating in each of those activities today. But as Melbourne awakes from its Christmas slumber and drinks enough coffee to get the body going, something else is happening around Melbourne today. Gathering in small groups across hundreds of locations there is something taking place that is of even greater significance and will do more to accomplish the direction of 2022 than everything else Melbournians will be doing and enjoying this Boxing Day.

For most of us at Mentone Baptist, holidays have started and the majority of our congregation are already away interstate visiting family whom we have not been able to see for almost 2 years; that’s important. Others at Mentone have returned for church, only 24 hours since we last met.

Despite meeting in smaller numbers than usual (and yet counting many thousands across Melbourne), men and women are praising God and remembering God’s good news about his son and we are committing to God in prayer the year that has been and the year that is about to start.

Such praise,  we are told in the Bible is like a pleasing aroma to God and which reaches heaven and is accepted by him. The voracious sounds of the MCG cricket crowd today is nothing compared to the praises of God‘s people.

And the prayers we pray to our Father in heaven may be of such consequence that lives will be changed and the very fabric of society can move. After all, God heard the pleas of his people in the Old Testament and answered them by sending the saviour of the world. The kaleidoscope of history is pitted with God answering prayer and fulfilling all his promises. There is nothing in all the world, no event, no pandemic,  no government that can outbid or outlast what God will accomplish through his Son.

To the many and the few who are this morning meeting as church, be encouraged. We are probably feeling tired this morning and we’re looking forward to Melbourne’s Boxing Day allures (as am I).  Also be encouraged, that as you meet for those precious minutes as a church today, this praise and prayer is of infinite worth and pleases God. And we can trust that God will use these petitions to accomplish his purposes in 2022.

The Myth of Finding a Church like me

“I’m looking for a church that is just like me.”

Few people would say it quite so crassly, but the sentiment is commonplace. When visitors come to Mentone, and when people join the church and when others leave, too often the issue has to do with finding a church that has the right fit. By which people mean, it’s just like me. I need a church that provides the ministries I am looking for and with people I can identify with and where the style reflects my personal preferences.

Both as a pastor of a church and as a church member, I’m aware that finding a church that mirrors my own cultural and personality preferences isn’t an easy task. There are not many churches in Melbourne where I can find fellow opera listening, cricket watching, Carlton supporting, history loving, fine food eating, Rothko admiring, Christians. It’s not that I’m a cultural snob as such, but that everyone else is a philistine (don’t be offended, that’s a joke…sort of!).

 

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There are good reasons for joining and leaving a church, and not so good reasons. There are sad reasons and sinful reasons. But among the most common that I hear relates to what I’m calling a spiritualised version of natural selection.

I’ve given up trying to recall all the times’ someone has said to me, ‘Murray, there are not enough young families at ‘your’ church’. Or, there are too many children. Or. the youth group is too small. Or, there are not enough people my age. Or, where are all the elderly people? Or, the Church is too large….too small. The music is too new….too traditional. No doubt, you’ve also heard all these reasons, and perhaps you’ve used them yourself. The problem is, these categories don’t come to us from the Scriptures, but from the world around us.

Why do we place so much value on finding people our own age or people who share our social preferences? On one level, it is natural for us to congregate with people like ourselves. Uni students are naturally drawn toward other uni students. Families with children find it easy to mix with other families who have children. None of this is wrong as such, but the Gospel brings together people not on the basis of natural and intuitive networks but on the basis of a supernatural work of God’s Spirit in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If we dig a little deeper into the psyche behind natural selection, we discover that there is something rather insidious about choosing a church based on natural selection rather than criteria set by the Gospel of reconciliation.

The Bible reveals a vision for God’s church that is better and is the perfect counterpoint to the monotonous song that remain no.1 on the Aussie charts. One of God’s goals through the Gospel is to bring together people who have nothing in common and yet in Christ share everything.

At the time when Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, the great cultural divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminded them of who it is that brought them together,

“remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

To the Galatians the Apostle said,

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:18)

God didn’t choose us according to the rules of natural selection, but according to supernatural grace. When we judge our church according to the whim of natural selection we are cutting against the very means by which a church is formed and grows.

In contrast, the early churches consisted of an array of people from different cultures and classes. The fact that rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, alike were members of churches, serving one another in love, was one of the realities that made the church attractive to surrounding people. Here was a place where status didn’t matter, and where otherwise unlike people found the deepest and most stable bond that can be had in this world.

There are of course some criteria that do matter when it comes to joining a church and remaining in that Church. For example, theology. There needs to be sufficient theological alignment, otherwise, you’ve already set the trajectory for an unhappy ending. Language is another important factor. It’s difficult to talk and listen and build relationships when you don’t share the same tongue. And we mustn’t neglect location. If you’re travelling 40 minutes each way to Church on a Sunday, how involved can you be in the life and health of that Church? Are you prepared to drive that distance every week, on Sundays and for a midweek Bible study? Are your neighbours and friends (who presumably live near your home and whom you’re inviting to church) also prepared to travel that distance? Perhaps you should find a local church or be prepared to move closer to the church that you have covenanted to join.

When we allow the Bible’s vision of Church to inform and transform our own agendas and expectations, the gains are immeasurable. We begin building a church on grace, not on personal gain. We prove to the world that Christ is true and that he is enough. We demonstrate the breadth and beauty of Gospel reconciliation.

So long as we live by the insatiable individualism that is eating away at our culture, we will diminish the beauty of the church, we will deny the power of the gospel, and we hamstring Gospel centred grace and growth. To be blunt, we will walk away from brothers and sisters for the simple reason, they are not quite like us

When Susan and I were living in London we joined a small group made up of members from the church we were attending. At 23 years of age, I was the youngest in the group. The eldest was well over 80. Each week we met in someone’s living room, 12 people from very different walks of life: students, workers, retirees, singles and married, children and no children. The fact that we had little in common with other members of the group didn’t detract from the group. The opposite was true. Together we had Christ and this unity in Christ was enough Jesus. Around Christ, we learned to love and encourage one another. That’s what the Gospel does. It brings people together who in other spheres of life would never connect let alone build friendship.

While it may be counter-intuitive, by joining a church where you are perhaps one of only a handful of under 25s  or the only family, you may well become that new branch whom God uses to bring more young adults or more families into the church. Instead of try and walk out, why not trust and commit?

Finding a church filled with people like me is a myth that we need to dispell. As an individual who has his own social preferences, I understand the pull to find people with whom we have many things in common. These patterns of socialising can be a good from God and therefore to be enjoyed, but they ought not to be the criteria upon which we join or leave a church.

Instead of looking for a church that is like me (or like you), let’s join and serve churches that look like Jesus and want to become more like Him.