[originally published in the Monthly Notes, December, 2012]
Last year, all of Australia participated in the national census. Though tedious at the time, the data gathered provided useful information for statisticians and planners from various government departments and industry. It also highlights the great variety [some say “inequality” but that is a loaded term] that exists among suburbs within the Greater Melbourne area. There are “expensive” suburbs, and “cheaper” ones; old, quiet, leafy ones and new subdivisions with hardly a tree in sight. Some suburbs have good social infrastructure; others leave people depressingly alone. Some suburbs are mono-cultural, whereas others are so diverse there seems to be no unifying element at all, while still others are in such a state of transition that no-one knows what they will be like in 10 years time. One of the great changes is the influx of people whose heritage is neither European, Ango-Saxon nor Celtic. In the midst of all this change, the Church is called to continue the witness to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes census data can be helpful. A study of demography can suggest to local congregations how they might prayerfully engage in evangelism. Sometimes it can be a hindrance: especially as some church growth theories encourage churches to niche-market themselves by identifying a particular group and to target them only. This might sound like good pragmatic advice until we remember that it is inherent in the gospel that social divisions are broken down, not reinforced. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The context is clear; when it comes to our status in Christ, all human distinctions such as social class, nationality, wealth and sexuality should make no difference to us because they make no difference to God. Success in evangelism is never given on the basis of statistics or class. The Gospel’s power is in Christ, and Him alone. This is why the apostle James [2:1-9] spoke so severely against what he called “favouritism”. It was a basic denial of the sufficiency of Christ, and to show such favouritism was a serious sin — akin to breaking any and all of the 10 Commandments!
In one sense, it is inevitable that congregations take on something of the ethos of the suburbs in which they exist, or the ethos of the majority of attendees. Our task is to ensure that this ethos does not close out visitors but opens up to embrace them. As the gospel is for all nations, it is able to break down dividing walls created by culture, language, place, education, time, wealth, etc. This is what the early Church found so hard to accept. For centuries, Gentiles who came to faith in God had to commit themselves to becoming covenanted members of the nation of Israel. Once the work of Christ was finished, all these requirements were done away with [Acts 10-11] and Jews and Gentiles stood on an equal footing. All one in Christ Jesus! As a result, the Church should be the one place in a fallen world where the variety that our different backgrounds represent does not deliberately alienate others.
The suburbs which surround our Church buildings are changing rapidly, but the Gospel we have to bring does not. As we ponder our calling, let us never forget the wonder that the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem as a result of a census, is the One who gives us the basis to rise above every variation in background and culture that modern censuses show. As we have occasion to welcome others, we are to do so with great joy, even if doing so takes us out of our comfort zone. In receiving them it is as if we were receiving Jesus Christ Himself[Matt 25:40]!