Nils von Kalm
22 July 2022
When I was a young Christian I was taught that the most important preoccupation for believers was the Great Commission. It was to go out and bring as many people to faith as possible. Evangelism was the number one task for the committed Christian.
It was a few years after that, influenced by people like Reverend John Smith and Martin Luther King, that the social demands of the gospel became equally as important to me. As I remember someone saying back then, the greatest command is not to preach the Gospel, important though that is, it is to love God and neighbour.
At the time though, I didn’t see much of that in the church. A major reason for that was the theology that many of us grew up with. It was an “escapist” theology that basically said that Jesus was coming back soon, the earth will be destroyed and we will all be taken away to heaven. As a result, issues like social justice and care for the environment – while good things to do – were nowhere near as important as people’s eternal destinies.
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One of the aspects of the Anglican liturgy I like is that we pray the Lord’s Prayer every week in church. As I have grown older, I appreciate more the repetitive ritual of the liturgy. And what could be more beneficial than every week praying the very way that Jesus taught us? In my work of aid and development, the request that God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven is a reminder of why I do what I do and of the hope we share, that we can actually play a part in bringing in the reign of God – the reign of love, peace, justice and joy – right here on earth. It’s not about having to wait to go to a place in the sky when we die.
Unfortunately, much of the church in Australia is not known for living out that message, either in word or in deed.
In 2020, the Barna research group in the United States released information about the perceptions of the church by the general public. It revealed that a large percentage of unchurched people have negative views of the church, thinking that local churches are judgmental, hypocritical, irrelevant, disconnected from real issues in the community, and known more for what they are against.
That hits quite close to home. It does so because I’m confident that the same could be said of the Australian situation in many cases.
The most recent census results show clearly that adherence to the Christian faith is in serious decline. I don’t think that’s a real surprise to anyone, the Census is stating what has been the reality for some decades.
So, why is it that the church seems to have done such a bad job at bringing the best news in history to our society? Why is it that so many people respect Jesus but can’t stand the church? What have we done wrong?
Firstly, there is much we have done and continue to do right. As the Centre for Public Christianity stated some years ago in their series For The Love Of God, Christians have been at the forefront of some of the greatest social progress in history. For instance, the abolitionist movement was almost entirely Christian, and the civil rights movement in the US was based on the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. Additionally, the birth of universities, hospitals and charities was predominantly led by Christians.
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I have also seen an encouraging trend over the last 35 years or so in the Australian church. I have seen more of an emphasis on caring for people who are marginalised, poor and generally underprivileged. More Christians are realising the social implications of the gospel, that caring for the poor and the environment are central gospel concerns.
Despite this, there is much work to do. It’s the people who walk their talk who are the most respected by Australians. And when much of the church is more concerned with its own rights, fear of what it calls persecution, or a longing for the days when our churches were full, than it is about loving our neighbours, we are not following the Jesus of the gospels, the Jesus who said that all the Law and the Prophets is summed up in the command to love God and neighbour, and to do unto others as we would want them to do for us.
How can we rectify this? Many years ago, Reverend John Smith wrote that the church in Australia hasn’t had a distinctive faith language that is understood by the average Australian. Almost 35 years later, I would say that is still the case as we continue to copy either the American mega-church model or a British model that is hundreds of years old.
There is still a huge gap between secular Australia and the church. The church is not just seen as irrelevant, it is hardly even considered by the majority of people.
More than ever, Australia needs to hear a message of good news, a message that speaks to the heart of where we are at. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that has some of the highest rates of loneliness, depression, anxiety and suicide, Jesus’ words that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions speak to the heart of Australia. So to does his question, “What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your very sense of self?”. Jesus is more relevant than ever in 21st century Australia. But the church is seen as so irrelevant. Something is not adding up.
How do we present a God that Australians can take seriously? If Jesus is who he says he is, then he is central to all of life. So, let’s talk more from our pulpits about economics, politics, sexuality, the cost of living and its effects on people of low income, the effects of a changing climate, and the war in Ukraine. Let’s talk about what Jesus has to say to those issues. These are all central gospel issues because they go straight to the heart of God’s concern for people. And let’s do this by quoting people who are outside the church. Let’s speak the language of the people. Acts 17 is a great example for us. St Paul, when in Athens, quotes one of their own poets in a song written to Zeus. By doing so, he convinced many of them.
Many churches are of course doing this and doing it very well. It is the churches that are outward looking and speak to the heart of where Australians are at that are respected. May we be more like those churches, and be followers of the Christ who speaks to the hearts of all people no matter who and where they are.
Nils von Kalm is a Melbourne writer who focuses on the links between Christian faith and culture.