This article was originally published in the ACR’s latest journal, which contains lots of helpful reflections on evangelism. You can access the journal in full here.
At the 2017 session of synod a report was given in relation to diocesan mission and church growth. While there were some positives, the general tenor of the discussion was fairly bleak. Church leaders might be tempted to despair at the apparent fruitlessness of their efforts and perhaps withdrawal into a ‘holy huddle’. Spending all our effort on current members may seem like a more rewarding enterprise. To take this course, however, would not only be a dereliction of the gospel mandate entrusted to all Christians, it would be a radical departure from one of the most enduring and significant aspects of our diocesan identity: evangelism.
Richard Johnson, the chaplain who arrived with the First Fleet, had been offered a daunting task. As a thirty year old graduate of Cambridge he had very promising prospects and could have easily pursued the relatively high social standing and income of a late eighteenth century English clergyman. On the contrary, however, he chose to face deprivation, discomfort and difficulty. He left everything and everyone he knew behind. He and his wife Mary, who was the only ‘lady’ in the colony, opted to begin a family and raise their children among the dregs of British society. The commission of King George III was to ‘carefully and diligently to discharge the duty of chaplain by doing and performing all and all manner of things thereto belonging’… it was something of an open-ended job description. But Johnson’s friends certainly encouraged him about where his efforts should be directed. John Newton wrote these lines of encouragement to the departing Johnson.
Go, bear the Saviour’s name to lands unknown,
Tell to the Southern world His wondrous grace;
An energy divine thy words shall own,
And draw their untaught hearts to seek His face.
Many in quest of gold, or empty fame,
would compass earth, or venture near the Poles;
But how much nobler thy reward and aim,
To spread His grace, and win immortal souls.
Newton wrote to Wilberforce of Richard Johnson’s appointment: ‘It may seem like a small event at present: so a foundation-stone, when laid, is small compared with the building to be erected upon it; but it is the beginning and the earnest of the whole.’ Thus Richard Johnson’s arrival marked the ‘foundation-stone’ of Anglican evangelistic enterprise in Sydney.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Sydney Anglicans became keen supporters of numerous evangelistic rallies centred around visiting missioners. One preacher who left a profound and enduring legacy was Rev George Grubb who arrived in Sydney in 1891. Numerous men and women were converted and congregations were motivated to conduct their own evangelistic initiatives. An example of this evangelistic vigour is represented in the experience of D.J. Knox (father of D.B. Knox, later Principal of Moore College). Knox was converted at a Bowral parish mission. He entered Moore College in 1897 and soon after ordination was asked by the Archbishop to be curate-in-charge of Mill Hill (Bondi Junction). When he received the commission there was no building and no congregation so Knox pitched a tent and held a mission. Numerous people were converted, including R.B. Robinson (father of D.W.B. Robinson, later Archbishop of Sydney), and by 1906 Mill Hill had become a full parish.
Decades later, in the year before D.J. Knox died, Sydney Anglicans were instrumental in the city’s most successful evangelistic event: the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade. Archbishop Mowll issued the invitation for the American evangelist to come, and although Mowll died a few months before the mission, it certainly was a fitting climax to the priorities he had established through his episcopate. Bishop Kerle wrote in the Report of the Billy Graham Crusades, ‘Never again could I doubt that the Gospel is the Power of God, nor that men’s lives can be changed through “the foolishness of preaching”’. Countless people were converted, including many who would exercise leadership in the diocese over the coming decades.
The turbulent years of the 1960s and the more dislocated place of the church in wider society led Sydney Anglicans to more innovative evangelistic efforts. A key leader in the latter half of the twentieth century was John Chapman, especially through his work at the Sydney Diocese Department of Evangelism. He understood his job description as simply to ‘evangelise Sydney’. Rather than leave evangelism as merely the duty of the clergy, Chapman encouraged all Christians to be taking the gospel to the lost. He developed many resources to aid people in the task. He encouraged a growth in evangelistic ‘dialogue meetings’ and one-to-one evangelism, which grew in popularity through the diocese. This was not at the expense of public evangelistic campaigns (Chapman himself was a renowned missioner), but personal evangelism was a welcome addition in the diocesan outreach labours.
Throughout this period, Moore College has played a vital part in keeping the evangelistic emphasis as an essential aspect of ministry training. Every year the entire college breaks its routine to work together in the joys and challenges of evangelism. This practice and emphasis is rarely found in other Anglican theological colleges around the world. Yet, for decades it has been considered an essential aspect of Sydney Anglican ministry training. The experience usually involves cross cultural evangelism, one-to-one evangelism as well as public evangelistic preaching. The Moore College mission program instils in students what it looks like to be Christians who ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim 4:5).
Evangelism in Sydney Diocese has never been easy. It was not easy for Richard Johnson. It was not easy for D.J. Knox. It was not easy for John Chapman. Yet, evangelism is an essential aspect of Sydney Anglican identity. Our society has changed radically over the last 230 years, but our mission remains the same. Our methods have developed, and we must continue to work at developing them further. Whatever shape evangelism looks like in 2018 and beyond, one thing is certain: we must not give up on this essential task. Although the statistics may show little overall growth, we must not be discouraged, because ultimately conversion is the Lord’s work not ours. Our responsibility is faithfulness in the task entrusted to us… We are compelled to preach. Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)