Faith in a secular society

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When you look at the Adventist Church in Australia, what do you see as its greatest strength?

The top of my list is faithfulness. As I travel, visit and meet members in our small country churches, our larger city churches, young people in universities, people in offices and businesses and workplaces, I am consistently impressed to find Adventists who are a minority in their communities, living their faith with steadfastness and dedication. It’s not always easy being a minority. Our lifestyle is so dramatically different from the vast majority of Australians. Yes, faithfulness has to be right up there on my list. 

One of the biggest dangers we face is forgetting who we are as a people and what we’ve been called to do—I’m talking about identity.

What ideas or behaviours do you see as particular dangers to today’s Australian Adventists?

One of the biggest dangers we face is forgetting who we are as a people and what we’ve been called to do—I’m talking about identity. Everything flows from this. It’s very easy for an organisation to drift and forget, and consequently, lose what gave it its energy, vitality and focus. I believe the evidence is overwhelming that God guided in the establishment of our Church and that we have a unique and urgent message to share with Planet Earth about Christ in all His fullness, in the context of end times. Our church leadership—pastors and administrators—constantly need to remind the Church of its reason for being, its mandate, its marching orders.

Linked to this concern is a perception that has developed among some, that the word “doctrine” has negative connotations. I can understand how this can be the case when we have individuals dogmatically pushing minor issues and mindsets who insist that “you must agree with me”. But we must remember it is our biblical teachings, or doctrines, that bind us together as a people in a wonderful and Spirit given way. You would almost think that biblical teaching is unimportant for some.

  • Does it matter if we believe that Jesus was just a good Man, or that He was God incarnate?  
  • Does it matter that we believe salvation is a gift that comes through faith in Christ as opposed to teaching that we don’t need a Saviour and can get to heaven by ourselves?
  • Does it matter whether there is an eternal burning hell or not? 
  • Does it matter that we know how to discern between true and false prophets?  
  • Does it matter that God in Christ was the Creator?  
  • Does it matter that we know the truth about the return of Christ?

Are these significant issues? The answer is a huge “Yes” to every one of them. Much of the New Testament consists of biblical writers clarifying teachings or doctrine. We must continue to be known as a group of people who have a passion for biblical truth and understanding. 

Regarding behaviours, I also have a concern that, although we have been given, through the Spirit of Prophecy, stunning information that is increasingly getting the world’s attention as to how to live—that promotes a longer life with more vitality and less disease—that some members seem not to take advantage of these wonderful principles.  Of particular concern to me are the reports I hear that amongst some, alcohol is seen to be acceptable. I must be frank and say I don’t understand this. When I see the absolute carnage that alcohol is wreaking in our society it surprises me that some feel comfortable modelling the use of alcohol to our children and young people! We must not let the world squeeze us into its mould.  

Our stand against alcohol has blessed us immeasurably as a people.

You’re asking Aussies to give up their meat pies, their beer and their Saturday sports. That has to be a pretty big ask!

Yes it is, but remember that increasingly Aussies are looking for a better way to live. The objective evidence is overwhelmingly in our favour; that our way of life produces quality living in all areas of life. It is important for us to share our message positively, not as a series of negatives.

Also, let’s remember that the surrounding culture of the New Testament church was very similar to ours. It was sensual, hedonistic, given to excesses, morally lax, sports loving, focused on entertainment . . . they lived for the gods of this world. Yes, it is a big ask, just as it was in the days of Paul! And just as then, there are men and women just waiting to be called.

What are the greatest opportunities the Church in Australia has? 

I think we have exciting opportunities in relation to our work amongst Indigenous people. I am fortunate to hear reports from around Australia of the wonderful growth and development of our Indigenous work.  

Also, our schools provide us with great opportunities for witness and nurture. We have significant numbers of community young people in our schools. Thousands of parents pay for the privilege of placing their boys and girls in our charge. Our principals advise, at the time of enrolment, that there is a possibility their child may become a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Conferences provide chaplains and churches are being established in our schools.  Community perceptions of our Church are being changed because of the presence of community young people in our schools. Our schools are increasingly intentional with the evangelistic opportunities available to them.

What specific event or project are you most excited about right now?

There are lots of plans and initiatives being developed here in Australia. I personally am excited about our initiative to tell the story of God’s providential leading in the establishment of our Church, via a series of DVDs, using historical drama. This is a project that will benefit the church worldwide and help to motivate us in terms of who we are as a people and what we have been called to do.  

It’s no secret that Australian Adventism was rocked by theological controversy in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Has the Church healed from the scars inflicted during those years?

There were a number of theological challenges during that time. It was difficult and quite divisive for some. The challenges forced us to study deeply and out of that study our understandings have strengthened, developed and grown. I personally think there has been considerable healing in the Church but no doubt some scars will remain.

Many of the kids I grew up with in Sydney and Melbourne, are no longer in the Church. What can we do to bring them “home”?

I certainly have a burden for the many who used to worship with us and no longer do so. We have taken an initiative to establish a new ministry across Australia called Reconnecting Ministries. The aim is for us to think strategically about this issue and be intentional in relation to reaching out to these dear people. Wherever the Church has been established, there are significant numbers of former members in that community. Interestingly, in most cases, the issues that drew them away were not theological. We plan to challenge each church to intentionally reach out to former members. Already Conferences and churches are doing some very creative thinking in relation to this issue. Of course, what we need to make sure of is that our churches are warm, nurturing, accepting places so that people never even think of leaving in the first place.

How are the demographics (ethnicity/age) of the Church changing in Australia, and what does this mean for the future of the Church?

The Church in Australia continues to become more culturally diverse. I believe this has brought a richness to our Church. But there are some indications that it is a growing challenge attracting Caucasian Australians to Adventism.  The Christian church in Australia is ageing and whilst Adventism is not immune to this, it is on the whole represented by diverse age groups. The Church invests hugely in our young people with Adventist education and strong youth programs at Conference and local church level. For the security of the Church’s future we need to ensure our young people are involved and engaged and feel that they are valued members of the church community.  

By any measure, Australia is one of the wealthiest societies in the world. How can the Church reach a culture that is “rich and in need of nothing”?

Yes, we are a very blessed country in so many respects and we are grateful for that, but I personally believe that there is an increasing poverty of soul and heart in Australian society. Beautiful cars and lots of things don’t bind together broken hearts, fix up marriages or help hurting young people and children.  

There is a very interesting book put out by two academics from the Australian National University in Canberra, entitled Affluenza. This is a serious scholarly work that is based on huge amounts of sociological research. The findings are very clear. Australians are longing to have meaning in their lives. They desire a society that has stronger sexual standards and clearer moral values. The overarching theme of the book is that Australia is gripped by a disease of affluence and consumerism which has negatively impacted society physically, emotionally and mentally.  

As a Church we have the values that can supply the longings of Aussie hearts.

According to General Conference statistics, Australian Adventists are among the most generous in the world. Does your experience confirm this report?

Yes, I think they are. A recent report indicated that the Church in Australia is the fourth largest national contributor to tithe in the world field. United States is first, followed by Brazil, Canada and then Australia. Apart from tithe and local church offerings, our people are very generous to various ministries and causes. Also, some time ago, I read a report that Adventists give more to the Church per capita than any other Christian denomination in Australia.

What contribution have Australian Adventists made to the World Church?

We have made a huge contribution to the World Church in all kinds of ways. We are looked upon as enthusiastic, open, can-do sorts of people. We have served at all levels of the Church. We’ve gone to serve in all parts of the globe. If I listed all the names of Australians and their contributions, it would be a very long list! Perhaps just one example is the Australian colporteur who, approximately 100 years ago, was the first Adventist in the Philippines and now there are over a million Adventists in that country. It’s a proud heritage of service we have to the World Church.

Earlier this year the North German Union voted to ordain women pastors, and three US Unions have made noises about following them. What is the AUC’s perspective on this move?

It is clear that the vast majority of Adventist theologians feel that there are no theological reasons why women should not be ordained. Here in Australia we have an increasing number of women who are working in ministry and doing a wonderful work; at this time these ministers are “commissioned” rather than “ordained”, but their function is largely analogous. 

As you know, the worldwide Church is engaged in a major study on the theology of ordination and the findings of this will be presented at the next General Conference Session in 2015. We are looking forward to the results of that study.

Some of these issues are incredibly challenging for a truly worldwide Church such as ours. It would be fair to say that in some parts of the world there is significant opposition to the ordination of women, due predominately to cultural factors. This issue has the potential to threaten the unity of the Church.  

Interestingly, however, I was sitting next to a Division president from Africa at meetings in Washington and I asked him if they had women elders in his Division. He said they have many of them, and that in most places women elders are no longer an issue. I am sure that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago, just as was the case here in Australia. Perspectives are changing, but there is a need for patience as it is only through patience that we can move forward in unity. 

We should not underestimate how remarkable and precious our global Adventist family is—and how fragile it is.

There are a lot of Australian and American ministries that raise money in Australia. What benefits and challenges does this bring?

First, we should remember that when people join the Adventist Church in Australia, they become net givers to the World Church effort. A lopsided growth that is focused only on poor nations creates a church family that is unable to care for itself and unable to promote further growth. It’s also critical to remember Australia is a mission field. What’s more, it’s a tough mission field!  

So, from every angle, if we want to have a strong global mission future at home and abroad, we have to support the Adventist Church in Australia.

That said, I am glad that I belong to a Church that is generous to its mission. In terms of benefits, it means that there are a large numbers of ministries and projects around the world that would not function were it not for the generosity of our members. Australian Adventists tend to have a big picture of the Church.  

In terms of the challenges, I’m happy for church members to give to the many appeals from around the world for the Australian Adventist dollar, but we have to be careful not to do so at the expense of the Church here at home. Sometimes the appeals for overseas projects or ministries are very exciting and challenging. But all the hoopla sometimes obscures the breadth and depth of our organised work. We work with the kind of oversight necessary to ensure accountability, and the kind of thoughtful planning to ensure money isn’t wasted on a flash-in-the-pan here and a grand display there. Our goal is for substantial, sustainable growth that doesn’t merely count the baptisms, but also is accountable for retention and nurture.

Does supporting the “mission field” remain a key priority of the Church in Australia?

One of the rewarding aspects of the faithful giving of one’s tithe is the realisation that it’s dispersed not only locally, but also to the mission of the worldwide Church.  In that sense we continue to be strong supporters of the worldwide mission field of the Church. But as well as that the Australian Church’s liberality to our local mission fields is very significant. 

Also, when I think of the number of people who have been on fly’n’builds across the Pacific, and of the many who’ve raised funds to establish churches, clinics, schools and hospitals and run evangelistic programs, it’s clear to me we are committed to supporting “the mission field”.

What’s your favourite thing to do, when you’re not leading and pastoring?

In that I travel frequently—sleeping in my own bed! Seriously, it’s a very full program. I enjoy my early morning walk at which time I do my devotional reading. I also enjoy gardening as Melbourne is a wonderful place to grow tulips, daffodils and deciduous trees. On holidays with my family, we enjoy the sun and surf and our tent at Stuarts Point.  

What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited, and why?

A couple of years ago I was invited to Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. Standing on the shore of Saibai–Australian soil–you can look a couple of kilometres across the  sea to the mainland of Papua New Guinea. The AUC has a vast territory! We were there to baptise our first believers on that island. It reminds me that this is the very spirit of Adventism: to continue to reach new people groups; to preach the Gospel; to establish new churches; and to see the joy on people’s faces as they rise from the waters of baptism to a new life in Christ.
 

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