The professedly evangelical scene within Australia presents a kaleidoscope – active groups within larger, compromised denominations; a small number of independent congregations; and a burgeoning multitude of neo-Pentecostal causes.
Unlike the UK, there are no wider Evangelical associations, nor is there a substantial sprinkling of ‘Evangelical Free’ churches.
Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches are few in number, save perhaps in the enclave of Sydney Anglicanism (all other Anglican dioceses are predominantly Anglo-Catholic).
Many evangelical congregations are scattered oases in a spiritual desert, with believers gathering from different theological traditions, thirsty for the preached Word.
Even in strongly confessional local churches, there will be adherents who do not agree wholeheartedly with the polity. They hold different ecclesiastical convictions but are thankful for an evangelical ministry.
Converts and the community
The majority of Independent churches have been planted within the last generation. In these younger assemblies, most believers come from non-Christian homes, having been clearly converted from openly godless lives. They are passionate about Christ’s gospel, and personal witness is a strong feature of their public and private lives.
Many conversions in Australia have come about through persevering witness in personal relationships, rather than through the pulpit. There are notable exceptions, but powerful preaching is desperately needed and hungrily sought by young converts.
Within the local community, any regular church-going beyond the popular category of ‘hatches, matches and despatches’ is viewed as ‘a little weird’. The Christian commitment of born-again believers is an object of derision and the butt of rough humour.
When one of their members is converted, a family may become antagonistic, both against the individual and the congregation attended. Sunday is a key family day, dedicated to the ‘barby’, beach and watching ‘footy’ together. Family gatherings are important to Australians, and believers constantly find themselves tested by the idea that ‘blood is thicker than water’.
Aussie Christians love getting together, particularly on the Lord’s day and beyond the morning and evening services. Mixed gatherings are commonplace, with believers eating together and conversing into the afternoon or evening. Other unstructured opportunities for fellowship occur each month, outside the normal mid-week meetings.
These informal occasions are highly valued, and attract married, single, young and old, alike. Homes are opened. Unsaved people often hear the gospel for the first time as invited guests at this type of gathering.
One feature I have appreciated since my conversion in 1983 is the fact that Christ and his Word are never far from any strand of conversation in these get-togethers. The exchanges that take place are often akin to good-natured arm wrestling, but they can be remarkably uplifting!
The human mix within congregations is broad and open: solicitor and builder’s labourer; teacher and tyre-fitter; rank and file; all integrate easily and enjoy un-strained relationships. The gospel reaches into every sector of a society that is not class conscious.
There is little emphasis on conventions of title, liturgy and dress – open-neck shirts and first-name address are the order of the day. But there is a strong desire in Evangelical churches that Christ should be preached, and that pulpit-teaching should be biblically based and relevant to the life of faith.
If the preacher asks a question from the pulpit, he may well get an answer, even if the question was rhetorical! Ministry is viewed as involving all the members of the church.
During worship, several brethren as well as the pastor may read the Scriptures or lead in prayer before the sermon. Children’s work is extensive, and regularly succeeds in addressing parents as well.
Significant numbers of Australian missionaries have gone to surrounding fields in the Pacific and South East Asia. Indigenous churches planted in this way have known particular blessing, and often proclaim the gospel of grace. Such efforts have sometimes been supported through co-operative association between several Australian congregations.
Evangelical inter-church ties in Australia can be tenuous. This is due both to the tyranny of distance (like-minded churches may be hundreds of miles apart) and to the national temperament.
Paul cautioned Titus concerning certain characteristics among Cretan locals (Titus 1:12-13). The gospel worker in Australia also has to wrestle with some difficult national traits.
People from ‘down under’ do not like authority-structures and, while ‘mate-ship’ is sacrosanct, formalised commitment to an organisation is not!
Two results of this are the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – if someone sticks his head up he should be tackled (good for rugby, but bad for pastors!) – and the phrase ‘she’ll be right mate’, which usually means nothing needs to be urgent or clearly planned.
There is often a significant ‘floating population’ amongst the churches in any one area. People dip in and out. A church may contain folk who have been in a number of other local churches, moving on because of unresolved disputes over the years.
Tensions and breaches among Independents have been frequent, dispersing people into smaller groups and tempting them to seek comfort in insular huddles.
More recently there have been helpful signs of Evangelical co-operation. But a key challenge remains, especially for Reformed Evangelicals, to learn how to go forward together, united and expectant in the gospel of Christ.
Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on the ‘new commandment’ of our Lord, namely, to love one another. People need to be convinced that this is a primary truth, to be pursued as zealously as any other biblical injunction.
Australia has never known a major awakening in 200 years. Yet there is no reason why great blessing should not fall from the hand of God in this generation, as it did on Korea during the past century. If it comes, its beginnings will be forged in repentant pleadings at the throne of grace.
Australia is a relatively young nation with all the age-old problems of sin. Only Christ, our Saviour and our King, has the enduring solution.