How (not) to reach Australia with the gospel
Jason Potter thinks we’re missing the point when sharing the gospel with one of the biggest mission fields on the planet
We live in a contested culture. That has always been true, but this is no longer just a contest of ideas or belief systems; it is a contest for the hearts and minds of children, teenagers and adults. It is deliberate, calculated, and primarily founded in the old enemy of the Christian faith, Gnosticism. Gnostic thought permeates our education system, news media, art, movies, TV, radio, books, social media, and other online content.
Gnosticism teaches that the material world is evil and created by a lesser being than God. The Gnostic God both created and lives in the perfect spiritual world. The human body houses a person’s spirit but does not integrate into it. The material human body is evil, and the spirit is good. So people can treat their earthly human body as disposable; it is already evil, but that evil does not corrupt the spirit.
This Gnostic philosophy is the basis of the rationale for social movements like group identity politics, euthanasia, the so-called sexual revolution and many others.
Australia is now one of the larger mission fields on the planet.
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At the same time, social forces are slowly squeezing Christians out of the public square. Authorities have banned chaplains from public schools in the ACT, removed Religious Instruction from schools in several states, and employers have fired Christians in the workplace for sharing their faith with their workmates or online. Authorities tell Christians to keep their beliefs to themselves, asserting that religion is a private matter and should not be imposed on others through evangelism.
As a result, Australia has become an unchurched nation. In 1972, when I was born, 33% of Australians or 3.6 Million people attended a local church. In 2022, that figure was closer to 5% or 1.8 Million Australians. Australia is now one of the larger mission fields on the planet.
A Scriptural Response
In 1 Timothy 3:15-16, Paul describes the church as God’s household, a family of believers united by their shared faith in the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. In this context, a household refers to an extended family, including immediate relatives living together. As God’s adopted family, we form a community grounded in truth, as revealed in the scriptures, through which we interpret the world around us.
This means we cannot adjust our beliefs to suit the culture or the times. We can only find our understanding of truth through the lens of scripture, the method God uses to teach us what truth is. Embracing Gnosticism is not an option, although some have tried.
The work and effort put in by pastors, leaders, academics and writers has transformed the local church.
A Church Attempting to Respond
Since the 1970s, there have been many attempts to change the church to suit the times. Changes in the style of worship, methods of discipleship, new leadership models and governance styles, new denominations, independent churches, and parachurch movements have all tried to help the church become what it needs to be to attract people. We have created new words like ‘Missional’ to describe the kind of church culture academics think will make a difference. Bible Colleges have launched new degrees, and we have invested millions of dollars in the academic pursuit.
The work and effort put in by literally thousands of pastors, leaders, academics, and writers to find a way to help the local church remain relevant in their context, up-to-date in ministry methods, and adaptable to their audience has transformed the local church and its ministry methods. New expressions of worship, new church locations and contexts, new governance models, and more flexible locations and times have seen an explosion in the types of local church expressions a Christian can attend.
None of this has made a measurable impact on our continuing decline.
The early church was constantly on a mission.
The Early Churches Approach
The book of Acts describes the lived experience of the early church as it sought to live out all that Jesus had taught the Apostles. I believe three core principles in the book of Acts form the basis of how Churches can align themselves with God and pursue the mission of Jesus in a way that bears great fruit.
1. Disciples are made in the context of evangelism.
The great commission gives us the context, “go into all the world and make disciples”, and the principle is then exampled in the book of Acts. When followers of Jesus speak their faith in words and actions to a person who doesn’t believe, they grow in their faith, deepen their experience of God, and grow as disciples.
When you read the book of Acts from beginning to end in one sitting, what stands out time and again is that the early church was constantly on a mission. They were preaching daily and living out the gospel together. Making disciples wasn’t an endeavour that happened exclusively within the church community at the feet of the Apostles; all learning was embedded, not just applied, in the mission field.
2. It is by focusing outwards rather than inwards that growth and change occur.
When the local church focuses on its purpose, as given by Jesus, to announce the good news that the Kingdom of God has arrived and salvation is available to all, it changes by bringing new Christians into the heart of its community life.
This truth is demonstrated in Acts 6 when seven Greek-speaking leaders are appointed to help resolve a dispute within the early church in Jerusalem. Each leader is also in the mission field; they aren’t appointed just to look after the existing community. Stephen preaches the gospel and becomes martyred, and Phillip baptises an Eunuch from Ethiopia. Leaders were never only focused on the internal life of the church.
From that moment onwards, Acts reports that the church began experiencing multiplication growth instead of just adding new believers daily. Even Jewish Priests started converting to follow Jesus for the first time.
3. The Holy Spirit acts most profoundly in the context of mission.
Whenever the Holy Spirit appears in the book of Acts, it is in the context of mission. We see it on Pentecost with the baptism of 3,000 new believers in one day. It continues in Acts 4 when Peter’s release from prison led the believers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to preach boldly. Acts 13 gives another example of the Holy Spirit’s action in the context of mission by sending Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, and the word of the Lord spreads throughout the whole region.
It is time to stop painting the chairs on the Titanic. Australia is a mission field; we are an unchurched country.
A New Season is Upon Us
It is no longer the time for us to keep trying to “fix” the church and make it more attractive to newcomers; it is time to stop painting the chairs on the Titanic. Australia is a mission field; we are an unchurched country. Prayer is the essential underpinning for any change, and this is where we need to start. But the early church had it right. It is time to take the principles we have learned and apply them.
1. Churches must embed evangelism in every aspect of discipleship.
The era when Connect Groups, Bible Studies, Youth Groups, and sermons could serve as practical discipleship tools without resulting in evangelistic activity has passed. The old models of discipleship that measured attendance, offerings, small group membership, serving in a ministry, and longevity have not served us well.
2. Churches need to focus their energy outwards and not inwards
Churches must evaluate every part of their community life to make evangelism a core focus of their energy, expenditure, and volunteer hours. 50% or more of the church’s efforts must focus on the three R’s of Evangelism: Rapport, Relationship and Revealing the Gospel. So much of our effort stops at rapport and relationship.
3. Churches need to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will propel any willing church community into the mission field. In the scriptures, we see repeatedly that when leaders listen and allow the Holy Spirit to lead them, doors are opened, people find faith in Jesus, and whole communities and regions are transformed.
We don’t need a new language, a new model of church, a new size or shape to a building, worship space, or better music; we don’t need the false gospel of excellence. It is enough to see people from God’s perspective, love them, and introduce them to Jesus.