Sydney Australia is, in many ways, a stereotypical Western city, with large scale infrastructure, developed social systems, a sprawling cityscape, and a vastly secular society. Atheism or agnosticism (the explicit rejection of God or at least the relevance of God to life), is dominant across the city. However, occasionally, you will find a suburb or two that push in a different direction. The area I am referring to as “Punchacre” is once such area.
Punchacre Is Highly Religious
Punchacre is a not a technical name for a suburb but my moniker for the area between the A22, A3, A34, and A6 highways. This is primarily Punchbowl and Greenacre, but also contains part of the Chullora, Wiley Park, Bankstown, Roselands, and Mount Lewis suburbs. You won’t find specific details for this area from the government statistics, but roughly speaking, nearly 50,000 people live within this area. They are primarily of Arab, especially Lebanese descent, though a substantial portion identifies themselves as Australian, and a significant minority are of Chinese or Vietnamese decent. By all appearances, Punchacre is highly religious. Not only do nearly 70% of the population identify themselves as Eastern or Catholic Christians or Muslim, but the main strip of the area is lined with religious buildings, with religious schools and churches.
Up north, St John Vianney Catholic Church and Good Shepherd Anglican can be found. Acros the road, there is Sydney Full Gospel Church, a Korean speaking Christian church. Down Waterloo road, you will find Greenacre Mosque, followed by Liberty Churches of Christ and Greenacre Uniting Church. Farther down, The Togan Evangelical Wesleyan Church meets at Greenacre Community Centre and across the road is a Melkite Catholic Church.
When you cross into Punchbowl, you find St Charbel’s Marianite Catholic Church, followed shortly by a Coptic Orthodox Church. Across the road is a Christadelphian Church, followed by an Antiochian church and the Association for Islamic Da’wah. Further down is a Mormon church and Korean Buddhist Temple. When you cross Punchbowl Road to the main strip of Punchbowl, you will find St Jerome’s Catholic Church, the AIM Islamic Centre and Punchbowl Masjid, Punchbowl Baptist Church, and Punchbowl Uniting Church. Finally, at the very bottom of the area, there is the old St Saviour’s Anglican Church building, which is currently used by an Indonesian Christian Church.
Imagine what Paul, a follower of Jesus and author of much of the New Testament, would say if he walked through Punchacre. I suspect he would say the same words he spoke to the men of Athens, “Men of Athens, I see that you are in every way very religious” (Acts 17:13). But as Paul makes clear, being religious is not enough.
Being Religious Is not Enough to Save Punchbowl and Greenacre
God is not pleased with Punchacre because it is so religiously charged, nor is he pleased with us because we practice religion with fervour. Religion without truth is not the religion God will praise. If we ask concerning true religion, we will discover that Punchacre is actually impoverished.
According to the Bible, true religion is doing good works in the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of All (Matt 19:16-30; James 1:26-27). Without a proper understanding of Jesus, there is no salvation; there is only judgment (Matt 7:21-23; 25:31-46; John 14:1-7). One can love and revere Jesus all they want, but if they do not do what Jesus commanded, this is a dead faith with no reward (James 2:14-26). However, to all who come to Jesus in faith, confessing his life and death, trusting in him for life and salvation, and turning from sin, to these God will give eternal life (John 3:16-21).
The Christ of the Bible and the life demanded by his claim to be Lord is not dominant in Punchbowl and Greenacre. Instead (if the statistics are anywhere accurate) his name is spoken but his power is absent here.
Our Muslim neighbours put us to shame with their rigorous practice of religion, and they claim to believe Jesus is the Messiah, yet if they do not accept the finality of his work, his own claim to be the God of the Bible (e.g. John 8:58), or his death and resurrection, they will not be welcomed into his kingdom. Apart from God’s grace shown in Christ Jesus to forgive sin, none of us can do enough to earn God’s favour. How could we please a perfect God with our imperfect works? In the Old Testament, God required spotless, blameless, defect-less, perfectly clean sacrifices to postpone the punishment for sin. Jesus lived without sin (Isa 53:7-9; Heb 4:14-16), yet none of us can claim blamelessness or perfect cleanliness. If perfection is God’s requirement, who can qualify?
Many who attend Catholic and Eastern churches have what Protestants call “Evangelical” faith, not only believing in God but actively seeking to trust, know, and serve him. However, many in such traditions, as in classic mainline Protestant traditions, have developed what some call a “cultural Christianity.” That is, Christianity, its dogmas and rituals, is the water in which they have swum since they were born. It has become the lens with which they view themselves and the world. However, in the case of a merely cultural Christianity, their religion goes no deeper than basic beliefs about God and Jesus and rituals regularly practiced. Absent are genuine conviction for sin and repentance, dependence on Christ in life and in death, and surrender to his claims to be Lord of all things. What is left is what Scripture calls dead works, which cannot save (Heb 6:1; Jam 2:14-26). Without genuine faith, none of us will see God (Matt 7:21-23; Heb 11:6, 12:14).
Still others will acknowledge Christ as a “prophet” or religious figure, an admirable human, but not saviour, Lord, or God himself.
In each case, without faith in the living Christ, there is no salvation. Thus, for all its religiosity, Punchbowl and Greenacre—Punchacre—desperately needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Punchbowl and Greenacre Need the Unknown God
When Paul declared to the men of Athens their religiosity, he did not stop there. He then drew their attention to something missing from their religious practices—something they desperately needed (Acts 17:22-34). So eager were they to please the many deities they worshipped, they even created a statue for the “unknown God,” in case they missed one. So, Paul introduced them to the unknown God, whom they worshipped in ignorance. He made known the one who they suspected might be there but did not understand in full.
What Paul told them would transform their world. The Unknown God wasn’t just another one of the many gods they worshipped, he was the one, true God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. He was the God who held judgment in his hands and would someday come to call all to account for their sins, to expose the darkness of the human heart and call us to repentance.
Many in Punchacre know something of Jesus the Messiah, but they need to grow in their understanding. They need to see him as he truly is if they are. They need to hear and believe his Gospel.
If our neighbours are going to meet Jesus, we need to introduce them to him. We need to share the Gospel over a cup of coffee or read the Bible side-by-side with our neighbours. We will also need to train leaders and plant some more churches so that as God brings a harvest, we can disciple those whom he calls to himself.
This website is simultaneously an invitation to meet the unknown God and a call for those of us who know the risen and exalted Christ to engage with our neighbours for his sake. Consider doing so with me. If you are interested in learning more about Jesus or in sharing Jesus with your neighbours and being part of a church here in Punchbowl and Greenacre, please contact us. Also explore the resources we will be adding the in coming months, exploring topics addressed in the Bible and the intersection of the Bible and the various cultures and religions we encounter in these suburbs we call home.