The ACR was privileged to hear from David Robertson, author of The Dawkins Letters and blogger at TheWeeFlea.com, on his recent visit to Sydney.
David, tell us a bit about yourself and why you have recently been in Sydney.
I’m a 56-year-old Scottish Presbyterian minister (the Free Church of Scotland). I’m married to Annabel and we have three children and two grandchildren. My church, St Peters in Dundee, is famous for being the church of the well-known 19th century Scottish evangelical, Robert Murray McCheyne. I have been there for 26 years, so it was time for a sabbatical! As I was speaking at the KCC convention and we have a daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in Nowra, we decided to spend our sabbatical here. We were offered accommodation by Simon and Kathy Manchester and so the deal was done!
Whilst here I have been writing an apologetic/devotional book for 15-17-year-olds and doing a lot of different types of speaking—from lawyers breakfasts with City Bible Forum to media interviews with the Centre for Public Christianity; from Menai Anglicans to Chinese Presbyterians; from men’s outreach in a pub to school chaplaincies and Q and As, and from Moore Theological College to Queensland Theological College. It has been a busy, diverse but wonderfully encouraging time.
What strikes you as unusual about the Sydney diocese?
I’ve never come across anything like it in Anglican circles. In the UK we have some very good individual Anglican churches but no dioceses that are predominantly biblical/evangelical. In that sense it is unique. Overall, although there are the usual personality and some theological differences, there is a greater unity than I experience elsewhere.
What are Sydney Christians doing well in our ministry and mission?
As an outsider I am reluctant to comment. I have a very limited knowledge and experience and I don’t think it’s wise for me to make anything other than generalised observations. I accept fully that these may be wrong both in this question and the next one.
In terms of what Sydney is doing well, I love the emphasis on clear Bible teaching and on quality contemporary praise. I think Moore College is a real asset. You also have some fine leaders and I have met a great many quality people. KCC and City Bible Forum are great organisations. My wife has been impressed with what she has seen of Anglicare and the work amongst refugees. I am also very encouraged with the work that is being done in schools through chaplains, Scripture classes and other things. You also have some impressive church youth and student work.
Where or what could we do better?
I am even more reluctant to answer this! However I think that there are some key areas of weakness. In an era where people are looking for community, I’m not convinced that having an hour on a Sunday is sufficient to build strong community. It’s a strange thing for me to hear people talking about belonging only to the ‘10 am’ or the ‘5pm’ congregation. Although I was prepared to give it a go when we came, after three months I’m not convinced it is the best model for church—unless people have strong community groups and other places where they can meet together, be taught and have fellowship. I wonder if the whole concept of ‘the Lord’s Day’ has been lost?
The whole question of prayer is also vital. When do we have corporate prayer?
I suspect the biggest area of weakness is with the 25-40-year-olds. Are our youth programmes preparing them for living in an increasingly hostile world? At one meeting I suggested that you might be in danger of losing a significant number of this generation and there was some pushback against that idea. However one leader came up to me afterwards and said “You are spot on… my own children are in that boat. What can we do?”.
There is one other area that I think is weak—but I will leave that until the last question!
What can we learn from evangelical ministry in Scotland?
Mostly how not to do it! We are in a far worse position that you. We turned away from the Bible gradually—either moving in a liberal or a legalistic direction. The liberal was particularly invidious. Many evangelicals have become broad evangelicals seeking to influence the culture by toning down the biblical proclamation. That has been a disaster, because broad evangelicalism in one generation leads to no evangel (gospel) in the next. We have also not been good at engaging or challenging the culture. And we are far too divided, petty and parochial, which gives the impression that we are more interested in building or maintaining our own wee empires, rather than promoting the Kingdom.
I fear we have looked to American evangelicalism far too much. There are some wonderful churches and Christians in the US, but I think that the wealth and power of the US church have tempted us to follow some of their methodologies that just will not work in our own context. Please don’t go the same route. The Australian church can learn from the wider church throughout the world, but I would not follow the corporate branding and methodology that many American organisations export. You need to continue to develop your own models, as you have been doing. Don’t buy an off the shelf ‘made in America’ (or the UK) product!
Having said that, where sin abounds, grace super abounds! There are some encouraging things in Scotland too. Churches that have remained faithful to the word and refuse to give in to the culture experience hard times and growth. We are seeing some significant ministries in different denominations beginning to develop and grow. The interest amongst young people in increasing. As the promises of post-modernism and progressivism are shown to be false, people are looking elsewhere for answers. In the post-modern market place of ideas, the gospel is by far the best product! Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who have never heard it is wonderful… it’s like giving cool water to people who didn’t even know they were thirsty!
Do you have any other insights or observations in Sydney as an ‘outsider’ looking in?
This one kind of shocked me a bit. I came here expecting to learn a great deal about evangelism. I have learnt about church structures, praise, organisation and leadership training—all of which is essential. But in my limited experience I’m not convinced that evangelism is a strong point amongst Sydney Anglicans (or indeed some other Christians). There is a little bit of a sense of living on past glories and seeking to maintain legacies. I have very much enjoyed reading about Australian Christianity, not least in Meredith Lake’s wonderful book on the Bible in Australia and the memories of ‘Chappo’, whose shadow seems to fall everywhere. It seems to me that he was an extraordinary and wonderful man who had a phenomenal evangelistic impact (along with others). But where are the ‘Chappos’ today? I don’t think that people should try to imitate the inimitable. Chappo was a different man in a different era. But we do need people with his passion, theology and personal evangelism skills. Most of all we need churches that have evangelism in their DNA.
I have come across many ordinary people who recognise the need for a fresh communication of the gospel in a society which is either apathetic or becoming increasingly hostile—but they just don’t know how to do it… and we should not expect them to be able to do it on their own. We need to rediscover the practice of church-based evangelism.
My view is that because of several factors (and Sydney Anglicans have been key here), Australia is about ten years behind the UK in its slide away from Christianity to a regressive Greco/Roman/Pagan view of the world. You have the resources and the opportunity to prevent that happening. You can’t save Christendom, and shouldn’t waste time and money trying, but you can proclaim and live the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that Australia will be turned upside down.
There is often a view in the UK that Australia is somehow at the ends of the earth and, whilst being a nice place to visit, is of little significance. I think that Eurocentric view of the world is wrong. In the first century, the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and others from heading into Asia and instead sent them into Europe, but perhaps in the 21st century it is Asia and the Pacific Rim that will be the great areas of church growth and expansion. In that sense I think Australia is as important to the Pacific as the UK was to the Atlantic. The growth and prosperity of the church in Australia is therefore of importance to the worldwide church, not just the suburbs of Sydney, or the various city-states that make up this great nation. In God’s grace we hope to return to see how you are getting on!
 See Meredith Lake, The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, NewSouth Publishing, 2018, and David Mansfield (ed.), The Chappo Collection, Anglican Aid, 2017.