In January of this year Annabel and I were blessed in being able to visit our daughter and son-in-law in Australia. It is an extraordinary country, with a great variety of beauty, incredible space and nature, and a mix of cultures about which one could write volumes, even in a short visit. Sydney and Melbourne are two of the most beautiful cities in the world, the Blue Mountains are stunning; hidden gems such as kangaroo valley are worth crossing the world to see, and the beaches of Jarvis Bay more than match those of Harris and they have better weather! However in this article I want to offer some observations about Christianity in the Land down under. These are written to encourage us to pray for our brothers and sisters and they are written merely as observations of an outsider who fully accepts that they could well be wrong!
Kangaroo Valley Jarvais Bay
Church Missionary Society
In Katoomba we attended the Church Missionary Societies annual missionary conference. This seems to be the Australian equivalent of the Keswick convention. 3,500 Christians (mainly Anglicans) gather in this beauty spot in order to hear good bible teaching (past speakers include John Stott, John Lennox and others of the great and good in English speaking evangelicalism), hear about missionary work throughout the world and commission missionaries to go from this furthest flung part of the earth, to other furthest flung parts of the earth. It was interesting to hear of Australian missionaries in Spain and Germany. We could do with some more in Scotland!
We attended CMS for only one day but I have to say it was impressive. The praise was quality – an Anglican songwriter called Rob Smith seems to be the Stuart Townend of Aussie evangelicalism – a couple of his songs we heard were absolutely excellent. The main teaching was from John Yates from the US. It was typically Stott-style bible teaching – clear, concise, contemporary. I love the Aussie sense of humour. Dry, acerbic, biting and yet friendly. Any Scottish Highlander would feel very at home. My favourite was the missionary at the CMS conference who was talking about being a dentist in Africa and at the same time seeking to preach…he said he was a dental Spurgeon!
Nowra Baptists and Anglicans
I preached my first sermon in Australia in Nowra Baptist church. It meets in a large hanger-like building with excellent facilities and car parking. Most interestingly it runs Nowra Christian school that caters for about 350 pupils. It is wonderful that this small town has two Christian schools (the Anglican being the other – with 900 pupils). How is this possible? Because the Australian government has an enlightened policy of subsidising each pupil in ‘private’ education by around $10,000 (Australian – that’s about £5,000). If only our more militant atheistic secularists in the UK could grasp this – it is possible to be a secular government and to support Christian based education.
In the evening we went to the Anglican Church that I assume was typically Aussie Anglican, in the Sydney mould. They had a mission on with 60 young people having come from all over NSW and beyond. I guess that somewhat swamped and distorted the normal congregation, but again it was good to see, hear and participate in the worship of God. The preacher was a retired bishop, whose infectious enthusiasm and jovial matey Aussie humour, was matched by his simplicity. I don’t mean that in a negative way. The sermon was very simple and clear – but biblical and no less profound because of that. Personally I would prefer a little more ‘meat’ but I suspect, given the context and congregation, it was spot on.
We don’t really hear much of the state of Christianity in Australia – why should we? Our secular media have no ability to understand and no desire to communicate. But my initial impression is that Christianity in Australia is far healthier than in the UK – and much of that is to do with the impact of the Sydney Anglicans. Maybe it’s my Presbyterian bias but I find Anglicanism in Australia to be quite different from most Anglicanism in the UK. Overall there appears to be a spiritual liveliness and a biblical faithfulness that is heart warming and encouraging. Of course there will be many exceptions to that (just as there are exceptions to the general theological liberalism and spiritual dryness one often finds in UK Anglican churches), but at least in NSW, the Sydney Anglicans have made a considerable and lasting impact. We have a lot to learn from them.
Bookshop without Books
Although there are many signs of spiritual health there are also the clear indications of the atheistic secularist thinking which so blights our society. You can learn a lot from a culture by what it reads. An indication of the needs was given when we visited the massive Dymocks bookstore on George Street. It has more than 100 sections spread out over three floors but only two were on religion. The Christian books were pathetically few and those that are actually worth reading were even fewer. If it were not for CS Lewis and Tim Keller the gospel would hardly have been represented at all. I was intrigued to visit a small Catholic bookshop in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains that had only a handful of books amongst the religious trinkets.
Of Making Many Churches there is no end….
Another observation. Picking up the Nowra advertiser – the kind of ‘newspaper’ that offers a little news and lots of adverts – I was struck by an advert for “Generational Church” who, “exist for the glorification of Jesus Christ through service, community and multiplication”. I asked our hosts, who are wonderful, experienced native Nowra Christians, about this church and they did not know about it. Nowra is a small town (32,000 people) with around 2,000 of those people going to church – and yet it seems to have a multiplicity of small churches. Does this not say something about the disintegration of Protestantism and the way that our poor ecclesiology is harming our witness? It seems as though everyone, including yours truly, is into ‘church planting’ (which could often be more accurately described ‘church re-potting’). It also appears far too easy for any Tom, Dick and Henrietta to start up their own church, maybe with best of motives, maybe because they have fallen out with their previous church, and then go on to further confuse the situation. Non-denominationalism sounds so ‘right’ but in practice is in danger of creating enormous chaos. And since when was chaos the work of the Holy Spirit? I have no idea about the ‘Generational’ Church and who knows but that the Lord may use it for his glory. But its name is dreadful and its mission statement is full of Christian missional jargonise, which is utterly meaningless to non-Christians and even I suspect to most Christians.
There is an easy going and relaxed attitude to much of life that is best summed up by the phrase ‘no worries’! Of course Australians are sinners the same as the rest of us and have plenty to worry about (from having ten of the most venomous spiders in the world, to the weather, Islamic terrorism and fear of immigration/racism etc.), but I loved that motto. Ultimately for the believer we can cast all our cares and worries upon him. It was good to share with brothers and sisters in Christ, who are truly able to say ‘no worries’!
Part two next month
This article first appeared in the March edition of the Free Church Record