Just thirty years after the crucifixion of Christ, the apostle Paul made this remarkable claim: ‘all over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing’ (Colossians 1:6).
Writing in the third century, Tertullian told the Roman world: ‘We are but of yesterday and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palaces, senate and forum. We have left you only your temples’.
But while many are still being added to the church every day, the church in the western world, and in Australia, is in decline.
‘Land of the Holy Spirit’
In 1605, two Portuguese sailors landed in what is now known as Vanuatu. One of them, De Quiros, believed he had found the ‘great south land’, and named it La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo [Australia of the Holy Ghost]. He claimed it for the Roman Catholic Church and King Philip II of Spain.
One of the most popular Christian songs in Australia today is entitled ‘The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit’. It is a prayer for revival, but with no biblical content.
It is just a wishful longing that God would do something. But his Spirit will not move in the hearts of a people apart from the true gospel.
There is a distinction to be made between gospel growth and church growth. Sometimes, for the gospel’s influence to spread, the church in a given location has to shrink (as it did in Jerusalem: Acts 8:1,4). The modern preoccupation with church growth for its own sake is often self-centred.
The gospel scene in Australia is very different from the UK. There has never been an exodus of Evangelicals from the denominations such as took place in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, most evangelical life is still found within the denominations.
Evangelical unity is rarely demonstrated outside of large Keswick-type conferences. However, this is beginning to change. Allegiance to the gospel is taking precedence over denominational loyalties.
There is a new urgency to preach the gospel, demonstrated by a growing movement to plant gospel churches, irrespective of denominational boundaries and scruples.
This has led to tensions with de-nominational hierarchies, over parish boundaries, the meaning of ordination, and church rules; the sort of battles that Wesley and Whitefield faced in their day.
The bulk of Australia’s 19 million population live in large, modern cities, beautifully situated, but with all the problems of the human condition. Philip Jensen, Anglican chaplain at the University of New South Wales, has developed a strategy to multiply gospel ministries, called ‘Club 5’.
During the first five years, more than five hundred full-time evangelists have been recruited and the aim is to double this number in the next five years. The object is to create 10,000 ministry teams, each evangelising and pastoring 200 people, and so reach 10% of the Australian population.
Tied in with this is a ‘ministry apprenticeship’ for theological training at Moore Theological College or Sydney Missionary Bible College. This model has spread to other parts of Australia and to various denominations.
According to Colossians 1:28-29, the Spirit’s activity is evidenced by Christians labouring in gospel ministry. There is real hope, therefore, that Australia may yet become the ‘Great South Land of the Holy Spirit’.