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Sunday Night Live Sermons


23rd June 2002

There is a concern worldwide for the future of main-line denominations like the Uniting Church in Australia. Main-line denominations are in decline everywhere. Church membership has been eroding for the better part of the twentieth century. Some observers have predicted their demise. Prof. Thomas C Reeves, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin in his well researched book "THE EMPTY CHURCH: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity" asks: "Why are (mainstream) churches failing to teach right from wrong? Why are young people abandoning them? Why are church leaders so quiet in the face of growing moral anarchy? And why do they spend much if not most of their time promoting counter-productive social and political causes?" 

The American mainline churches have been in a serious and unprecedented numerical decline, losing between a fifth and a third of their membership. The US Methodist Church has lost 1,000 members every week for the last 30 years! Theologically liberal churches are rapidly greying due to aging membership. Methodist Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School said recently "God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we goddam well deserve it." The Anglican Church in Canada is being bankrupted by claims from sex abuse victims. The Roman Catholic Church in America, although powerful and wealthy is facing the greatest crisis in its history. How do theologically liberal clergy, out of touch with the members in the pews, gain control of mainline church structures? Why are views expressed by the hierarchy so often out of tune with their members? 

Dr Jim Heidinger of the United Methodist Church claims the hierarchy "often have difficulties in the parish because of their views, and then they begin searching for power. There is little else for them to do. Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to stay out of the political side of church life and concentrate on spreading the gospel. The result is a liberal takeover of church authority." That is true of the Uniting Church in Australia. Consequently mainline denominations have fallen for current fads, political correctness, and cultural captivity. Liberal Christianity is indistinguishable from a dozen humanitarian causes. It may cease to be really Christian. 

The result is terminal. Secular humanism has triumphed over the faith of our fathers. The social, political and sexual agenda of church officials find little support in the pews. Members of the church are discouraged about the direction and future of the church we love. The Uniting Church has undergone an intensive debate over sexual standards among church leaders, and the acceptance of homosexual activity as a Christian standard of behaviour. Yet Adelaide's "Pilgrim Church" in the heart of the city has just appointed a prominent lesbian minister and her live-in lover, a situation we had here in Sydney until recently. These appointments are made in great secrecy without proper debate even though they affect the standards and public image of all of the churches. In the Uniting Church the weapons in such a debate are not Biblical arguments but slur words. Members who seek to uphold Biblical truth are called: fundamentalist, reactionary, sexist, homophobic, while critics describe themselves as inclusive, modern, liberated, victims. 

Rev Craig Bailey says: "Our denomination and its structures have been hijacked by those who reject an informed, Biblical position on matters of life and faith. They have rejected it in favour of a liberal ideology that relentlessly extols universalism at the expense of truth; experience at the expense of revelation; and humanism and subjectivism at the expense of Biblical standards." Many members feel they are suffering more from the church than they have ever been called upon to suffer for the church. Can people who believe Biblical standards are the norm, accept what is not true to their convictions? Thousands of members have moved from mainline denominations into charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Others remain "believers" but cease to be "belongers". 

The National Church Life Survey just released says we have become a church of older women. Close to two thirds of UCA members are women over 60 years, one third being over 70 years of age. Our numbers have declined: twenty-five years ago we were double the number of Baptists, today we have equal numbers. The Australian Christian Church, a network of Pentecostal, Apostolic and independent churches has replaced the UCA as Australia's third largest denomination. It has 1,000 churches and 180,000 members. In Sunday attendance it ranks as number two denomination in Australia. The inaugural President, Pastor Brian Houston said: "The ACC has drawn together a huge network of churches. Together they represent a vibrant, united and thriving Church with answers to the challenges of modern day life. This means a focus on social justice, supporting people in need through our welfare organizations and providing contemporary worship relevant to every sphere of Australian society." 

That was the kind of statement said a hundred times, 25 years ago when the Uniting Church came into being. Dr Keith Suter tells me, that Wesley Mission's International Congregation is the only very large evangelical charismatic congregation remaining in the Uniting Church. All the others have left. 

I love our denomination. I will spend the rest of my life within the Uniting Church in Australia. I have no intention of leaving, but I am not content to leave it as it is! I am working to improve it, to be a true church of Jesus Christ, obedient to His will and word. I am committed to remain within the Uniting Church and change it. This is a great time to renew our church! How have we gone over these past 25 years? The Union went well although some remained outside. We are the most democratic, offering the best opportunities for women, the most aware of social injustice, the most committed to community welfare and offer the greatest variety of worship styles. We worship in many languages and have lots of mono-cultural churches. We are not really multi-cultural in most congregations. As Elva Harris from Old Toongabbie sums up in "Insights" this month, "Our church is open to new ideas, welcomes new people, takes new outreach initiatives, isn't perfect and doesn't please everyone." She is right. There is much that is good in it, especially the ordinary church members in the pews. I frequently praise the Uniting Church for its strengths and accomplishments. We are a democratic denomination giving many people a voice in church government through an incredible series of councils, assemblies, synods, conferences, committees, reference groups, boards and so on. 

There is a spirit of mateship abroad. Everyone can have a place in the Uniting Church so much so that we do not possess a recognisable leader. We have domesticated leadership passing it round among a bunch of mates. We opened the doors to women in leadership completely. There is a strong community focus with service ministries to every kind of human need involving an army of staff and volunteers. We are contemporary in our concerns and occasionally in our worship. We are Australian in culture and viewpoint. However, the Australian Christian Church can now make each of these claims. We must renew our church in several ways: 

1. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST PUT THEIR FAITH IN CHRIST NOT IN STRUCTURES. Professor Herbert Butterfield said: "Hold onto Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted." At the heart is our commitment to Christ as the incarnate Son of God, Saviour from sin, risen, reigning and soon returning Lord. We evangelicals have that commitment to Christ, so we weather aberration within or attack from without. Denominational structures are very human institutions, full of man-made regulations and less than Christian politics. Our faith is not in the structures of men but in the Lord of glory! The temple of God is holy, but that doesn't mean it is perfect. With Christ in our hearts, we can live in an imperfect structure. The problem is that structures move money from mission to bureaucracy. More structures, more Synod staff, more regulations, more duplication of oversight and over lapping committees, more meetings - but no increase in membership except for membership levies to fund the structures. Wesley Mission Sydney pays over $800,000 in bureaucracy fees and levies annually - $18,000 a week to belong! How that could be used to evangelise! 

2. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST HOLD TO THE SCRIPTURES. Church leaders do not decide Church doctrine. We hold to the living word as revealed through the written word. The battle is: does the Bible have authority and significance today? Evangelicals present the intellectual and faith responses to the nature and place of the Scriptures in the church and our lives. We do not propose interpretations of the Scriptures: liberationist, feminist, post-modernist, or any other, which are available only to the select few with particular training. We simply state in advance: we commit ourselves to obey what the Bible says as can be understood by committed Christians. We believe, not what is new, but what is true. 

3. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST COMMIT THEMSELVES TO PERSONAL HOLINESS AND MORALITY. High personal moral standards set Christians apart, help them witness to their faith, and uphold Christian values. Dean Kelley states, "No strong religious movement ever got far on a diffident, believe-and-let-believe approach." There is no future for any denomination in which anything goes and nobody cares. Any move from Christian moral standards is to a moral vacuum. We are committed to moral standards and that includes what we do in secret and in our bed-rooms. Holiness and morality are expected of all Christians, especially those ordained.

4. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST OBEY THE GREAT COMMISSION TO EVANGELISE. We call the world to Christ, not the church to be conformed to the world. Without a commitment to bringing people outside of God to faith in God, from sin to righteousness, from death to life, the church is already dead.

The only way a church with membership decline, growing older and failing to retain its youth is to survive, is to practise aggressive, intelligent and effective evangelism. Young adults respond to that enthusiastically. 

5. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST COME TO GRIPS WITH MULTI-CULTURALISM. The Uniting Church has the highest proportion of people born in Australia of any denomination with more than 90% being English speaking only. But evangelical congregations have started more than 100 ethnic congregations throughout Australia with Korean, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders predominating. But most of these are mono-cultural, not multi-cultural. It was the people from non-English speaking backgrounds and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Congress that supported our views in the sexuality debate. They hold Christian values that should be in every church. 

6. UNITING CHURCH MEMBERS MUST SERVE THE COMMUNITY. Many liberals talk about justice, but it is the evangelicals that do the work and give the money. Visit any of our caring centres for the aged, the sick, the mentally ill, the disabled, the disturbed, the homeless, the drug addicted and so on, and you will find evangelicals who express their faith in caring service. There is great community service being done in the Uniting Church, and the people who are active in personal service are the evangelicals. 

This is a great time to renew our church! I intend to stay within it and change it. I intend to work until this human structure is more closely aligned with His church, its purposes and program as revealed in the Scriptures. Will you join with me to make a difference?

Wesley Mission, Sydney.