The Next 40 Years

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Last time I wrote, I reviewed the events of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia 40 years ago. Our attention then turned to our side of the fence. I assessed the Parish of Benalla using six characteristics of the Presbyterian Church of Australia today, as identified by our present Moderator-General, Rev. John Wilson.

The question remains, ‘What will the next 40 years hold for us?’ and how can we prepare for them? The unavoidable answer is that we must address our shortcomings. Dealing with John Wilson’s list is a good place to start:

  1. A tendency towards theological pride and self-sufficiency;

Jesus repeatedly gave strong warnings against hypocrisy. The most familiar is Matthew 7:1-6. His warning that we must remove the speck in our own eyes before attempting to remove the log in a brother’s eye.

As we’ve been seeing in James, it’s not enough to say we believe the right thing; if we don’t live what we believe, then our faith is dead (James 1:4, 22-27; 2:14-26). If we really believe in “God, the Father Almighty” we’ll be less concerned with self-preservation. If we really believe in “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Saviour”, we’ll want to introduce people to Him. If we really believe in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life”, we’ll be regularly and passionately praying for Him to give life to the spiritually dead, rather than making excuses for why they don’t believe.

  1. A failure to appreciate the shortness of the time until Jesus’ return (especially in our evangelistic efforts);

This relates directly to our evangelistic efforts. We don’t know how long it will be until Jesus returns. We don’t even know how much longer we’ll be free to tell people the good news about Him (I suspect that the pressure to keep quiet will quickly grow). So what can we do?

Our goal has to progress from inviting people to church, to introducing them to Jesus. That’s a different conversation completely. Instead of talking about our building, our friends, and our minister, we’ll talk about Jesus’ identity, His mission and His call to repentance and faith. We’ll know we’ve been heard, not just when people appear at the front door on Sunday morning, but when they understand who Jesus is, they agree with the message they’re hearing, and they are changed by it.

Let’s have those conversations, urgently!

  1. A reactive (rather than proactive) stance to cultural changes;

The continual waves of social and cultural change will not be reversed by us wringing our hands and remembering how it used to be. Neither is it our task is simply to oppose what is wrong. We must speak and act for what is right.

Not only should we speak against proposed changes to Australia’s marriage laws, but we need to encourage and support marriage ourselves. Young people need to be in our homes to see what Christian marriages look like. Engaged couples need our counsel and advice as they prepare for a lifetime together. Married couples need the assistance of other Christians in dealing with the issues that inevitably come when two sinners live with each other.

Our culture says that marriage is only about love, and that when love is gone, the marriage can end. We need to say and show that love is a choice and an action, not just a feeling. It’s no accident that men have to be commanded to love their wives and give themselves for them (Ephesians 5:28) or that older women are commanded to teach younger women to love their husbands (Titus 2:4)! We can only do that kind of teaching when we have real relationships of trust and love.

Then we’ll be proactive, rather than waiting for problems to appear, which the minister will somehow be able to solve.

  1. A tendency to fight among ourselves (including with other Reformed and Presbyterian groups);

As I noted last time, our parish has been repeatedly divided, not so much through theological disagreements, but by the failure of relationships. We have sinned and been sinned against, and yet have refused to repent or forgive, and be reconciled.

Jesus taught His disciples to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us,’ (Matthew 6:12). If we will not do what Jesus calls us to do, and go to our brother to be reconciled to him, our very claim to be Christians is called into question (Matthew 5:23-24).

Some level of disagreement is unavoidable, even in the Church. Wherever sinners are, there will be sin. But how we deal with this sin is the bigger issue. Christians should be able to disagree without fighting. And Christians who fight must be able to be reconciled. The world is watching to see if we really are Jesus’ disciples who love one another (John 13:34-35).

  1. A nominal commitment to Presbyterianism, which is actually strongly individualistic rather than connectional (both in our understanding how people relate to God and one another, and in how congregations work together);

Many of us are happy to be called Presbyterians. But our practice of Presbyterianism is another issue.

Do we actually believe that being ruled by elders and being connected to other congregations is the Biblical form of Church Government? That doesn’t often match our practice.

The love which Jesus commands us to have for one another isn’t just a feeling (James 2:8, 15-16). We have to actually help one another. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’

It seems that our commitment to one another’s welfare only comes to the surface when there is an opportunity to discuss their problems with others. The elder’s oversight of us is not something we seek out; instead, we tend to hide our troubles. And our interest in other congregations really comes to the fore when there is trouble (especially if the trouble isn’t being handled the way we think it should be).

Our membership vows commit us to sharing regularly with our fellow Christians in worship on the Lord’s Day, to giving a God-honouring proportion of our time, talents and money for the Church’s work in the world, and submitting to the authority of the Session as they exercise pastoral oversight of the congregation. Again, this will only happen when we develop real, deep relationships with one another based on trust and truth. We need to depend on the Holy Spirit to equip and enable us to be faithful to these promises.

  1. A love of money, with many of our resources dedicated to maintaining property and programs as they are rather than taking the Gospel to the lost.

In our decision-making, we tend to prioritize our preferences over what is needed to proclaim the Gospel to others and build up believers. Our first question shouldn’t be ‘What can we afford to do?’ but ‘What does the Gospel require us to do?’ Our priorities should not be limited by what we have, because as we commit ourselves to God’s work, He will provide what we actually need through the generosity of His people. As we work together to spread the Gospel, it will demand real, financial sacrifices from us. Until we are ready to give the Lord our wallets, we cannot be sure that we have submitted ourselves to Him.

So, then, what will the next 40 years bring for the Parish of Benalla?

If we keep going the way we are, we will not be here in 40 years. But if we address the heart issues that are before us, we may see the Gospel bearing fruit among us and in our communities in ways we haven’t for many years.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

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