The centre of Australian evangelical life in Australia is the Anglican diocese of Sydney – centred on Moore College, the publications of Matthias Press, and the national leadership of Archbishop Peter Jensen.
Its influence radiates outwards into the whole of Australian Christian life and work. While some aspects of this influence give me cause for concern, the heart of the gospel of God’s saving grace is undoubtedly proclaimed, and that forcefully.
Dr Peter Jensen has given stalwart leadership both inside and beyond his own denomination on issues such as homosexuality and women’s ordination.
Reclaiming the foundations
In the last generation (since 1977 when the Uniting Church was formed from parts of the Presbyterian Church plus the Methodist churches), the Presbyterian Church of Australia has turned itself around – from being a thoroughly liberal denomination to reclaiming its foundations. These are, of course, the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith, evangelical missions, spiritual life, prayer and unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In every pulpit and ministry, almost without exception, God’s Word is now proclaimed and applied as the source of theology, a guide to Christian worship, and the basis of outreach in evangelism.
Since rediscovering their theological and spiritual roots the Presbyterian churches have been energetic in outreach, publishing, theological education and church reform – with varying degrees of success.
Two of the theological colleges (Sydney and Melbourne) are enjoying record numbers of students and a growing reputation for solid biblical scholarship and spiritual training for all kinds of church-based ministries.
This year the Melbourne College introduced a course training missionaries in cross-cultural outreach within multi-cultural Australia and in overseas contexts. Ministry ordinands are being grounded in biblical faith for future ministry in the hard soil of Australian secular culture.
Short courses for the Christian public are run each semester, addressing current topics such as sharing the gospel with neighbours, understanding and winning Muslims, women’s ministries in the churches, and cults in the community and the churches.
In publishing, a reverent modern translation of the Westminster Confession of Faith is now in its third printing, an edition of Love rules has been published to counter the antinomian tendencies of some sectors of Australian evangelicalism and a new series of publications deal with current issues like euthanasia, homosexuality, and gambling.
Most recently, a set of popular pamphlets introducing Christian people to complex issues in bioethics has been put out. There are plans for further publishing projects to meet the needs of the times.
Evangelical Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist churches are active in outreach into local communities, where only about 10% of Australians attend churches regularly.
The Victorian Presbyterian Church has recently sponsored a centre for theological training in Malawi. Ministers from Victoria will visit there over the next five years to give intensive teaching in basic subjects and support the project – which is under the jurisdiction of the Malawi Presbyterian Church, a denomination with more than a million members.
The potential for this project is great for the future well-being of the church in a country that is increasingly under threat from Muslim influences.
The Presbyterian Inland Mission (the only evangelical ministry to outback white Australians) is experiencing a revival of interest and support. It continues the pioneer ministry of John Flynn, founder of the inland mission to the scarcely populated desert parts of the continent.
Around Melbourne new congregations are being planted and old ones rejuvenated. For example, in Melton on the western (growth) side of Melbourne, a thriving congregation has been established in recent years and a new work is under way in a neighbouring suburb.
In South Yarra, close to the centre of the city, a congregation has been built up ministering to young professionals, Asian and Australian university students, and prospective students for the ordained ministry.
The historic Scots Church, in the centre of the CBD, is seeking to become a centre for evangelical life and witness by means of a four-team ministry reaching out to the city-flats, business and university communities.
Does this mean that the progress of the gospel of God’s grace is assured in Australia in the 21st century? Of course not! There have been disappointments, not all trends are healthy, and the evangelical and reformed movements remain a minority in an overwhelmingly secular culture.
But gospel churches are alive and well in many parts of the country and across the denominations. There is a growing acceptance that our denominational differences are less important than the larger cause of Christ and his kingdom.