Issues impacting mission in Australia: a rural perspective

Left to right, one step at a time. How a small, rural church community learnt they could work together to bring their mates closer to knowing Jesus.I’ve never quite understood the notion of ‘post-Christian’ in the Australian context. From the very beginning of white settlement in Australia, the desire of those first arrivals was to soften their environment rather than respond to its challenges. These disinherited and dispossessed souls were determined to blunt its rigours as much as possible. And whether it was alcohol, gambling, illicit sex or sport; the goal was to discover pleasure in the midst of so much pain. Thus Ronald Conway in his classic work, The Great Australian Stupor (1985), says, “From the Bondi surfer to the Melbourne Tycoon, the pursuit of pleasure has become the highest value and the avoidance of suffering the most vital of stratagems, in Australian life.” (page 13)

Conway argued that it was the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham that has left the most indelible mark on the assumptions by which most Australians live their lives. Bentham taught that happiness and welfare consists exclusively of pleasurable feelings of whatever kind and of freedom from pain.

White Australian society, urban and rural, from its commencement was set on the course of hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure in the escape of pain. It was difficult for religion to find relevance in such an environment, when everything that promised pleasure was prohibited as evil. And so, from the beginning, religion in Australia was relegated to the peripheral. Those in more recent times who have lamented over the decline of religion in Australia, falsely assume that there was previously something of magnitude to decline from. (Conway, 162)

The Australian church has always ministered to the masses from the edge of society. Sometimes, in past, the edge seemed a little closer to the centre, but the truth is that the average Aussie is cynical of the institutional church, irrespective of its brand.

Increasingly of late, I have been drawn back to some of the simple propositions of James Engel in understanding, and helping congregations understand, the mandate for evangelism. Engel makes the point that the average person is not, I repeat not, on the verge of becoming a Christian. Most are some distance away. In Engel’s model, he suggests that if the ‘new birth’ is 0 on a linear scale, then the average person is somewhere from minus 10 to minus 1, and most Aussies are probably around minus 7. Evangelism, says Engel, is anything that moves a person from the left to the right.

It’s about creating pathways that allow a person to make the journey from a minus 8 position to the place where they are able to make a life changing commitment to Jesus. Recently, in one of our rural NSW churches, I was presenting the Engel scale as a way of understanding the evangelism process. During the morning break I met Bob (not his real name). Bob, a bit of a rough diamond, has been a Christian for about ten years. Over coffee he told me about his struggle with evangelism, particularly his lack of success in leading a person to Christ, and by that he meant getting them to pray the sinner’s prayer. What the Engel scale revealed to Bob was that his great value to evangelism and the Kingdom of God was his ability to relate to men who were probably at the minus 7 or 8 mark (no understanding of the Gospel). By his life, his testimony of his own faith journey and his consistency, Bob was able to influence them to the point where they moved in their understanding of the Christian faith to somewhere around a minus 5 or even 4 (an improving attitude toward the Gospel).

If only you could have seen the smile on Bob’s face. For the first time he realised he was doing evangelism and doing it very successfully. The next step in the process is to make sure Bob’s mates know Trevor, who is really good with guys at minus 5 and can take them to minus 2, and then to introduce them to Macca who has the gift of leading men to the place where they meet Jesus, personally.

Nothing has changed; it’s always been about helping people move from the left to the right, one step at a time.

Country @heart: Exploring issues impacting mission in rural Australia. Left to right, one step at a time. by Rev Dr David Jones, Director. Baptist Rural Support Services. prac7.