How many christian denominations? Who cares? And why do they care?

Almost 6 years ago I posted on How many christian denominations worldwide. I had been asked this question by an internet friend (not a christian believer) who was tired of hearing unsupported claims.

It has become my most visited and most commented page, accounting for almost half the visitors to this site.

I can’t help wondering why the interest in such a subject.

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Have we really fallen this far?

Last week Fariborz Karami committed suicide. And I don’t think many Australians noticed.

He was just 26 years old, and he had been held behind bars for 5 years without any hope of safe release. His mental health had been deteriorating for years.

But I don’t think many Australians cared.

Worse still, I don’t think many christians cared.

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Letting the Bible be what it is, not what we would like it to be

I didn’t grow up in a christian family, but I was sent to Sunday School from when I was young. And so I learnt to believe that the Bible was true.

It was only later, in my late teens, that I began to discover some anomalies in the Bible that didn’t fit what I had been taught.

I didn’t continue to believe what I was taught, despite the problems, as many people do. And I didn’t decide that if the Bible isn’t what I thought it was, it couldn’t be true at all, and so give up my faith faith, as others do.

Instead I grappled with the anomalies and often ended up modifying my understanding of the Bible and of God.

I want to share my journey with one such anomaly that has changed some of how I think about the Bible and about the christian faith.

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How a deep and growing divide is killing Protestant christianity – or maybe renewing it!

Right from the earliest days, there have always been disagreements within the christian community. Some are resolved, but some lead to major splits, new denominations or new doctrinal positions.

I have the feeling that a major, and probably irreversible, divergence is brewing in the western Protestant church, between those we may label “evangelical” and those we may label “progressive”.

Both evangelicals and progressives generally hold to the core truths of christianity as expressed in the Apostles Creed – the trinity of God the father and creator; Jesus the incarnate son, teacher, healer, dying saviour and resurrected Lord; and the Holy Spirit living within each believer. But there are some distinctives of these two viewpoints which I think will continue to lead to divergence and separation.

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Who’s the boss? Leadership in the christian church

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

You can read a lot about leadership, whether in companies and in the church. You can attend conferences, read books, check out websites about leadership. You can find lists of the essential characteristics of good leadership.

But what does Jesus say about leadership? How does it fit with what the leadership gurus tell us? And how does it match with what we see in our churches?

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Mission vs maintenance

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

How much does modern western christianity come from Jesus, and how much comes from somewhere else?

A few weeks back I introduced the theme of Did Jesus mean it to come to this?, in which I want to examine the modern western church, and muse on how much it may, or may not, have departed from the teachings and pattern of life left to us by Jesus.

In this post, the mission of the church vs maintaining the organisation.

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Grasstree Gathering: surely it’s time for recognition, unity and respect?

Grasstree Gathering

Australia’s indigenous peoples form a small minority (2.8%) in the country they once had to themselves, and have suffered significantly since white colonisation (which can reasonably be seen as an invasion). About three quarters identify as christian.

They tend to be a spiritual people, but it can be difficult for them to meet with other indigenous christians, because of their small numbers and often remote locations. Grasstree Gathering was organised to offer this opportunity.

Grasstree was held in Sydney this past week. 85 indigenous christian leaders and potential leaders attended for several days, some leaving their remote community for the first time. Non-indigenous christians were invited to support the Gathering in several ways, including attending several of the events.

We were privileged to attend, and meet many of the delegates.

Symposium

A full day symposium was held to inform white Australians like me about indigenous culture and viewpoints.

Aboriginal christians see their indigenous spirituality as consistent with the christianity they now believe, and one theme of the symposium was correcting what they see as a wrong impression among non-indigenous christians that their traditional spirituality is pagan or worse. They believe, I think with some justification, that they have a lot to offer the white christian church.

They naturally feel they have in the past been unfairly invaded and mistreated, and since then displaced, marginalised and disrespected. They feel they are still often treated as second class citizens who have to change to adapt to white people’s ways that they often feel are not good. It is hard to argue against this, even though it hurts to admit that “my people” have perpetrated injustices and mistreatment.

Even more hurtful is the clear fact that many white Australians simply don’t care about the hurts aboriginal peoples have suffered, and still feel, often thinking they should “just get over it”. I was asked by one aboriginal leader why I think that there is so little empathy and support even from white christians, was the issue simply too political? I had to say I suspect it is laziness and lack of christian love – for if we care, we will have to do something about it.

The interesting, and sometimes surprising, thing is that the aboriginal christians bear so little malice. Their plea is simply that we non-indigneous christians walk with them. They ask us to be accomplices in making change, helping make a better Australia and a stronger church.

The symposium also addressed aboriginal history, writing, art and education. I learnt a lot, and made a few new friends.

Uncle Rex and his wife Ida, from remote Central Australia are interviewed by Steve Bevis (a white pastor and singer from the same area) about life, spirituality and art.

Artist Safina Stewart explains the genesis of one of her artworks.

Prayer gathering

At a previous Grasstree Gathering, Brooke Prentis, who organised this gathering, had a vision of a place she had never visited, where she foresaw aboriginal and non-aboriginal christians gathering together to pray for reconciliation. Almost two years ago, Brooke came to speak at our church, and we took her to Kurnell, where Captain Cook first had dealings with aboriginal people. There she saw the place she had seen in her vision, a significant location in Australian and aboriginal history.

Her vision came to fruition this week as a large group of indigenous and non-indigenous christians (as in the photo at top) came together to pray for unity and to symbolically express solidarity.

It was a deeply moving time for me.

Sand and ashes from places all over Australia were placed on the map of the 300 aboriginal nations, and mixed, to symbolise the unity in diversity of indigenous and non-indigenous christians across this land.

Safina explains the symbolism of the sand and ashes.

Celebration night

This was more of a fun night, as a range of indigenous artists performed song and dance.

An ad hoc singing group from North Queensland and Torres Strait.

Aboriginal artworks, one of which was presented to the school whose venue was used for the night.

Sightseeing day

The day after the gathering concluded, we led about 30 of the delegates on a sightseeing day around Sydney city and harbour. It was a great opportunity to make some new friends.

On the ferry.

The group after lunch at Watsons Bay.

Reflections

Grasstree 2018 was a great blessing to us. We learnt, shared a small part of the journey, made new friends and gained a new status as “accomplices” in bringing indigenous and non-indigenous christians together. I don’t see this as my main mission in life, but I think christian love demands that I respond as best I can.

Aboriginal people have much to offer the Australian church – for example their humour, their sense of community, their laid-back nature, their spirituality and their focus on the essentials of following Jesus.

I hope many Australian christians are willing to journey with them, learn from them, support them and make a better Australia.

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

More than two billion people in the world today identify as followers of Jesus. This includes a fair percentage of inhabitants of the USA, currently the world’s most powerful nation, its most influential via film, TV, social media and popular music, and home of some of the world’s richest people.

My country, Australia, still has a significant christian presence (maybe 10%), and you’ll find followers of Jesus in every first world country, as well as all over the rest of the world.

It is a long way from rural Galilee, a small backwater of the ancient Roman Empire, to some of the richest and busiest cities in the world. How have the teachings of Jesus survived the journey?

I wonder if Jesus came back whether he would be surprised and pleased at how his followers are doing? Or not?

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