A season for pruning churches in Australia

Does God sometimes allow unbelievers to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

God used Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as a weapon of judgement against Judah, and God used Cyrus as an instrument to bring God’s people back to the land and to see the Temple rebuilt.

While we cannot say with certainty that any specific person or organisation has been handed the pruning shears by God (for the simple reason, God hasn’t told us), we do know from the Scriptures that God is concerned with cutting off dead branches, pruning lives branches, and bearing fruit in the lives of his disciples.

In John ch.15 Jesus uses one of his many analogies to describe his relationship with his people, namely that of the vine and branches.

Jesus says,

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

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There is no doubt that churches have been entangled in many scandals over recent years. Clergy have been guilty of committing terrible abuses on children, while other ecclesial authorities have at times covered over these crimes. Popular preachers have been called out for marital unfaithfulness, embezzling money, acting like mini-dictators, and saying some really dumb and unwise things relating to an array of social and political issues.

Australia has a band of public figures and journalists who are always quick to castigate, shame, and then to investigate, all manner of evils perpetrated by Christians (and by people of various kinds of religious perspectives). This is no bad thing, for why should Christians be given a jail free pass, simply because they allege a diplomatic Jesus card?

At the same time, Churches and Christians are being increasingly condemned for believing and practising things that are in line with their Scriptures. Whereas abusing children is abhorrent and aberrant to the Christian faith, believing in heterosexual only marriage is consistent with biblical and historical Christianity, and yet many do not care for such moral distinctions.

Broader Australian culture has lost its cognitive awareness, rarely knowing what is and isn’t Christianity (and this blurring will only increase as Governments further squeeze out Christian education and religious freedoms); let’s return to the good old days of Pliny the Younger, who assumed the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings! Weeds, plants, trees, and grass, all look the same, and the temptation to mow it all down is too great for some. This unfortunate and unsurprising trend toward religious ignorance is one reason why our society struggles to differentiate between the real sins in Churches and Churches who are properly exercising their faith.

Another problem is that in the world of today’s social media madness, the noise is at a crescendo, with people shouting and screaming at everything they don’t like, forgetting that not everything that they disagree with is necessarily wrong or harmful or evil. Religious and irreligious people are both guilty of the unsociable new norm, and it’s a worrying trend because when the volume reaches triple forte, it becomes near impossible to any worthwhile and important discourse.

Juxtaposed to these Metallica like screams is a deafly quiet that we find in some religious quarters. Rare moments of stillness can be of some value, but we should not confuse the appearance of saint-like silent meditation with spiritual authenticity; sometimes it’s nothing more than a magician’s trick to hide cowardice or complicity.

You see, at one level we can’t blame the culture, because it defines good and bad by its own standards, even if those moral lines keep moving around like a cat chasing a laser light. We are not expecting secular Australia to define moral goodness according to the Christian faith, because we understand, even as Jesus taught, that the two are not synonymous.

It’s not as though God’s righteousness is only true for the Church and is irrelevant to the outside world, for there is nothing in creation that escapes God’s good design and intent. The entire cosmos, including Governments, is subject to the rule of God, and yet they are in a state of rebellion, whereas the Church is meant to be a redeemed people, a city on the hill revealing the glory of Christ.

The greater responsibility lays with Churches and religious organisations, who have too often neglected the faith once for all delivered, and have instead adopted the moral and epistemological posture of the prevailing culture.

One of the persistent problems we have in Australia is with many Christian leaders failing in their responsibility. They have failed to stand for orthodox teaching. Instead of refuting bad and dangerous doctrines, these ideas are promoted and taught, or they give a silent endorsement. After all, can anyone really say that they know what the Bible says? Surely, only a puffed-up bigoted Pharisee would ever suggest that Biblical truth is clear and mandated? While far too many theologians and pastors have hired smoke machines to create ambiguity over pretty much every Christian doctrine, others have failed to act against bullies and abusers, perhaps through incompetence, more often, through neglect or not being willing to pay the cost.

The question is if Churches are unclear about discipleship and if Church leaders are failing to fulfill their ordained responsibilities, perhaps God will employ another to do that all-important work of pruning?

I understand why some Aussies look at our backyard, and conclude, religious and especially Christianity is waning. The culture has shifted, and every leaf and twig not conforming to the new pattern will be picked off for mulch. But that is to misunderstand what is happening. When a tree is pruned, it looks so bare and feeble that some might mistake it for being dead. That was certainly the reported diagnosis in the wake of last year’s national census, and with regular reminders about church closures and dipping church attendances. Is the Church dying? Is Christianity on the way out? Or is God in the process of cutting off dead branches and pruning those that bear fruit?

While many Australian Christians are concerned with happenings both inside Churches and in our surrounding communities, it would be wrong to respond with despair or hopelessness. It is a work of grace that God so loves his church that he attends to it: watering, feeding, and yes even pruning her. The vine is Jesus, and the branches are those who have been united with him. Remaining in Jesus is the only way to be fruitful, and remaining in Him is to remain in his word, namely to keep trusting and obeying his words. 

Surely we can be thankful as dead Christendom is removed from the scene, and while the culture isn’t savvy enough to discern between real and fake Christianity, the season can also be used of God to refine and prepare. In other words, pruning may hurt, but it’s good, and it’s the necessary prelude to a bumper crop. 

 

Confusing Friends with Family

“How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)

The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne sent out this tweet this morning, following a service which saw Peter Commensoli installed as the new Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne:

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”  (Ps 133:1). @catholicmelb honoured by Anglican, Greek, Coptic, Antiochian, Lutheran, UCA, VCC, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh guests @BishopComensoli Reception @ABFreier @BishopSuriel @MelbAnglican

 

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For the sake of Gospel clarity, there are some important things that need saying.

First of all, we should enjoy friendship and mateship with people across the religious spectrum. We want to love these neighbours and to do good to them; they are valued fellow Australians. But pretending that we are somehow united to God together is appalling, for the simple reason, it’s not true.

I have no issue in inviting people from other religions to church, for special occasions, and for normal Sundays. While Church is for Christians, you don’t have to be Christian to visit church services. One of the things I love about my home church is how people are welcomed from all kinds of religious and nonreligious backgrounds; it’s fantastic.

To quote a friend of mine on twitter today,

“Muslim Friends: Are you sure it’s okay that we keep coming to church? We’re Muslims, but want to learn more about Jesus.

Us: (Internal voice) YES! THIS IS THE BEST! YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW EXCITED WE ARE TO HAVE YOU!!! LOVE IT SO MUCH!

(Out-loud voice). Yes, you’re most welcome.”

I said a big ‘Amen’ to my friend’s comments. There is a difference, however, between inviting and welcoming leaders from other faiths to a Christian event and assuming some spiritual or theological unity between everyone.

Second, it’s important to note that while this tweet contradicts Christianity as found in the Bible, it does, however, fit with the theological revisioning that took place at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Karl Rahner’s term, anonymous Christian, was adopted by the Catholic Church, which is a signal for soft universalism. Anonymous Christian refers to people who are formally outside the Roman Catholic Church and yet are still be saved by Christ, whether they are from Protestant Churches and even from other faiths. The idea is that Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists could find themselves in heaven with God. Apparently, they even know the Christian God, despite being unaware of the fact or viewing God with a different name and personality.

This tweet by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne isn’t speaking out of sync with its own theological position, however, it was strange to see the Melbourne Anglican Archbishop, Philip Frier, retweeting the comment. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t agree with the misuse of Psalm 133, and yet it does send an unhelpful message to Anglicans, Christians, and Melbournians in general.

Third, so what does Psalm 133 in fact mean?

Psalm 133 is a short and wonderful Psalm, lauding the beauty of unity among God’s people. God here is not undefined and does assume unity among gods. The context of his Psalm explains that this is a unity established in the God of Israel, who has made himself known and covenanted himself to his people. This is the same God who spoke at Mt Sinai saying,

 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

 “You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)

Imagine if I went home today and said to my wife, “babe, you know I love you and believe in you, but I now think our marriage should be broader and more accommodating of other women.”  Does anyone think that Susan would or should be happy with that attitude? Would any spouse welcome a third party into the marriage? Why then would we think that it’s ok to try and force onto God, religious polygamy?

We can learn how to respond to our multi-religious society by looking at examples like that of Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16:34). When the Apostle Paul visited Athens and noticed the religious pluralism that stretched across that culture, he didn’t respond by suggesting, ‘hey, look, I see we all worship the same god, but we just call him by different names and worship him in different ways’. He could have conformed to the zeitgeist of First Century Greece, but instead, Paul adopted a loving and honest approach.

Paul didn’t walk around Athens admiring their gods nor did he stop to graffiti their statues and temples. The alternative to religious pluralism isn’t strong-arming people or adopting uncouth tactics like we see in some other places around the world. Paul spoke. He explained. Paul began by acknowledging the Athenian worldview, and their hopes and noting their own acknowledged ignorance. Paul then proceeded to explain who God is, and to persuade with words and argument that Jesus is Lord. The outcome was that some people hated his message, some dismissed him, some were curious and others were convinced.

This is yet another sad and recent example of Churches muddying the waters, and confusing Australians about God and the Lord Jesus.  No wonder most Australians attache little relevance, truth, and beauty to the Gospel of Christ when they see churches walking down the aisle with adultery on the mind. This is not communicating unity, it is communicating conformity to a philosophic position that God heavily criticises in the Bible.

Yes, SSM is about more than just marriage

Australians have been told again and again that the marriage debate is only about love and equality for marriage. Fairfax columnist, Aubrey Perry, has today argued that “it’s about much more”. Perry admits that changing the Marriage Act is about removing all influence of Judeo-Christianity in Australian political and public life:

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

 

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Inadvertently, Aubrey Perry has just torn a sizeable hole in the ‘yes’ campaign for same-sex. Readers who share her fears about Christianity will no doubt be elated, but other Australians are left wondering, so this whole debate is really about religion? And it is about education, politics, and even abortion? As though mediating Roz Ward, who has insisted that she authored the Safe Schools curriculum to program children toward socialism, Perry presents marriage as the front line fight against Christianity in this country.

Unfortunately though, Perry’s presentation of Christianity often looks more like a cartoon than it does authentic Christianity, and in doing so she makes a series of factual errors.

For example, contra Perry, Christianity cannot be defined as right wing politics. There are many Christians who feel comfortable across the political spectrum. Is Perry whitewashing the Christian convictions of members of the Australian Labor Party? Christian theism is neither defined by left or right politics but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This good news from God cannot be squeezed into the small and narrow reaches of any political party, for it counters all such human categories and gives us a greater and more stunning alternative.

Also, in a fantastic revision of history, Perry alleges that, “Religious intolerance has kept the possibility of same-sex marriage an impossibility for decades”. Well, no. Until recent years no one, anywhere, in the world would have believed marriage was anything other than between a man and a woman. It didn’t matter whether one believed in God or not, same sex marriage was a non starter. It remains the case today, that many religious and non religious people simply don’t believe that same sex marriage is logical or good for society.

Finally, it needs pointing out that true secularism is not the absence of religious thought, but the freedom to speak regardless of ones religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Perry’s argument for a secular state is not true secularism, it’s imposed atheism. It is anti-pluralism. If the only permitted discourse is void of language deferring to God and religion, then what we will have is exclusive and intolerant atheism.

Anti-religious world views have had a shot at taking charge of nations, and they have produced for the world Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot,  and North Korea. I’m fairly sure that this is not the kind of country most Australians are wanting to become.

The reality is, it is a Judeo-Christian framework that enshrined into law how no single religion would control public policy, but instead the people should persuade and argue their case. Is this so bad? According to Aubrey Perry it is worse than bad, and we must use the marriage survey as a demonstration that we will no longer tolerate religious views in the public square.

Perry has done Australians a great service though, in being honest enough to show Australians that same sex marriage is not really about marriage, but is about removing the religious and social foundations that have given this country the freedoms, prosperity, and security that we today enjoy. I hope Australians will read her article and consider their decision in light of these confessions.

What the Census reveals and doesn’t reveal about Aussie religion

If Tuesday’s headlines in the Melbourne’s media were anything to go by, the most important news coming out of the national census is that Melbourne is better than Sydney and we are about to become bigger. After all, you can’t dispute numbers! A closer inspection of the data however points out that Melbournians will have to wait a little longer for this prestigious non-title title, about 33 years!

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A more important conversation has exploded across the country, that of the religious contour of Australia, or should that be, its lack thereof?

Lobbyists have begun spinning census numbers their way, for greater numbers supposedly means more social power and influence. However, statistics can be less useful than we are being led to believe, this is certainly true regarding the question of religious affiliation. The census is useful as a sociological exercise, for it is asking Australians to self-identify. Census data is the national collation of Australian opinion and self-allocated identity, but the numbers however may not always reflect what some are alleging.

Let us take the following two groups as an example, ‘no religion’ and ‘Christian:

No religion

Tosca Lloyd wrote a piece in The Age, with this headline, “End Australia’s Christian bias”. His was one of several examples of census overreach. It is truly an odd piece, take this comment for example,

“Does secularism commit the same offence, imposing the views of the nonreligious onto the religious? No. The advantage of a secular society is its tolerance of, and neutrality between, different groups and individuals in society providing they obey the law and do no harm.”

Lloyd equates the ‘no religion’ numbers with atheism, he wrongly defines secularism as non religion and therefore with atheism, he ignores the fact the the majority of Australians still identify as Christian (22% higher than ‘no religion’), and he doesn’t appreciate how many non Christians value much of the Christian heritage Australia has and would like this to continue, and he ignores the fact that atheistic secularism is not neutral but is frequently intolerant of other world views. Indeed, his own article reeks of intolerance toward Christianity.

I understand people feeling tempted to inflate numbers, but it is not a particularly rational response to the data. One senses from social media that some of our atheist friends have been looking for the knock out punch against Christianity, and they believe the census is just that. It seems that they don’t always know what they are swinging at.

The Australian suburb with the largest percentage of people ticking ‘no religion’ is North Fitzroy in Melbourne, with 47%. In an interview for SBS,

“Local councillor Misha Coleman said the high number of “no religion” responses may just have been a reluctance of responders in the area to identify with one particular faith.

“It’s more than privacy, it’s maybe a reticence to say they’re one thing or the other,” she said.

“Maybe people in the area don’t want to be defined, or categorised, or labelled as a particular religion.”

In other words, don’t conclude that ‘no religion’ always means no belief in God.

In the words of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS),

“Australia remains a religious country, with 60% of our population reporting a religious affiliation. However, the proportion of people reporting no religion, including people with secular and other spiritual beliefs, increased to 30% in 2016 – up from 22% five years ago.

The current state of the nation’s faith breaks along age lines. Older people keep their faith. Younger people tend to report ‘no religion’. This response was most common among younger people, with 39% of those aged 18 to 34 reporting no religious affiliation.

Part of the decline in religious affiliation is a general move away from the traditional Christian denominations. Nevertheless, 52% reported an affiliation with a Christian religion – predominantly Catholic (23%) and Anglican (13%). New South Wales and Queensland remain the most Christian states, but there is an overall decline in the percentage of Australians reporting their faith as Christian.

About 8.2% of us reported a religion other than Christianity, with Islam (2.6%) and Buddhism (2.4%) the most common.”

Christian

The census no more reveals the number of convinced atheists in the nation than it does the number of actual Christians in the nation.

The census assumes Christianity is defined in ways other than by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The only category offered is, do you self-identify as Christian, and with which Christian denomination? This is not a fault of the census as such, for ABS is simply asking questions through a different grid to that which Christians would use for working out such things.

Who is a Christian in Australia today? The census gives great laxity here. A individual may define their religion according to their cultural or family heritage. It may be that they were baptised as infants, or that  their grandparents attend a church.The connection may be as tight or as loose as each person determines.

The percentage difference between the new census figures and those who regularly attend a church are vastly different, and the numbers of Australians whose membership is with an evangelical church is smaller again. Not that church attendance is the sign of being Christian, but it is a measure.

Again, it is beyond the scope of this census to determine, but decades of theologically liberal Christianity and spiritual soft drink Christianity have inevitably led to people turning away. If I held up a faded photocopy of a hand drawn chalk copy of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, drawn by me, and I tried to persuade people that this was a genuine Van Gogh, it would make sense that people were disinterested and skeptical. Who would want to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, given the fraudulent presentations so often given in Australian Churches?

One further question that was outside the parameters of the census relates to how evangelical churches are going in contrast to other Churches. While Christian denominations are overall witnessing decline, many individual churches are moving in the opposite direction. Evangelical Churches are not confined to any single denomination but are found within and across many Christian traditions. I’m using the term evangelical in the most basic way, to denote churches who uphold orthodox doctrine, and who preach and practice this faith. These Churches are Gospel-centred, Bible based, and active in evangelism. Such churches are regularly seeing growth not decline.

Australia is witnessing multiple changes in religion

There is not one religious shift taking place in Australia, but several:

1. Other religions are growing in Australia. This is primarily due to immigration, as opposed to conversion growth. There are of course a few Australian who formally convert to Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, but the numbers of probably very small.

2. Cultural Christianity (or nominal Christianity) continues to decline. Despite this decline, more Australians than not, still see themselves as having some affiliation with Christianity. More than that, it is highly presumptuous for social commentators to conclude that only “Christians” are interested in upholding Christian values across the cultural and political fabric of the nation. To strip away these heritages that a derivative of Christianity will eventually leave our country naked and searching for a fig leaf to hide behind.

3. Younger Australians are less likely than older Australians to align with a particular religion.

4. Humanist secularism is growing (as opposed to a properly defined secularism which gives ample public space and freedom for religious views). There are probably more atheists, as there are almost certainly more agnostics, more self-defined spiritual-not-religious people, deists, uncommitted theists, and so on.

5. Evangelical Christian Churches are growing, and there are more of these churches starting across the country.

What now?

Atheists gladly proselytise, they even organised a public campaign prior to the census, urging Australians to tick the ‘no religion’ box. Now that the figures have been released, their recruitment drive is on again. Christianity is also a missionary religion and a persuasion religion. The challenge in previous generations was to evangelise nominal Christians, today’s opportunity is to love and serve and evangelise people from other religions and those who identify with none.

Christians should not be discouraged by the census, because understanding what our fellow Australians think and believe and value, is enormously helpful.

We can expect mainline Churches to continue downward. Churches that obscure or who redefine the good news of Jesus Christ will inevitably collapse into irrelevance. While this saddens us, it is also a good thing because we don’t need more Churches painting faded fakes of Jesus Christ. More than ever Australia needs Aussie Christians to be clear on the Gospel. We Christians need to believe, trust, tell and show our fellow Australians why and how the Christian Gospel is the greatest and most vital message we can ever hear. This is imperative, not because we are trying to hijack a census or attempting to retrieve some lost national identity, but because the life of each and every Australian matters, and God matters. The ultimate numbers crunch isn’t Census 2016, or Census 2021 or 2026, but the book that will be opened on the last day. And this book will be more revealing than any census, and we long for our fellow Australians to have their names printed there.