One Year in Sydney: An Interview with David Robertson

1. Hi David, thanks for agreeing to share with us again. In 2018 we spoke to you after you had a sabbatical here in Sydney. What has happened since then and how come you now call Sydney home?

I think what has happened is a warning to those of us who have big mouths – or at least think out loud! After I spoke to you, I returned home to my church in Scotland, safe in the knowledge that I would not have to put into practice what I suggested. But the Lord had other ideas! Peter Kaldor of City Bible Forum challenged me to come to Sydney and put into practice the ideas I was talking about. Through a variety of push and pull factors it was made clear to myself and my wife, Annabel, that the Lord was calling us here. In one sense it was a hard decision – giving up home, country and a now well-established church to come to the unknown. But the opportunity to set up a new evangelistic opportunity called Third Space, and to work with Steve McAlpine and CBF, was one that ultimately, we could not refuse.

2. When you spoke to us then, you caused a bit of a stir! You helpfully drew attention to some of our shortfalls in evangelism:

“…in my limited experience I’m not convinced that evangelism is a strong point amongst Sydney Anglicans… there is a little bit of a sense of living on past glories and seeking to maintain legacies.”

These reflections were warmly welcomed by many here as a fresh ‘outside’ perspective on how we are really going—”faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6). One year into living and breathing in the Sydney diocese, do you stand by your observations? Has anything changed?

I never really thought of them as wounds! They were just limited observations on what I could see happening. A year on I would suggest that I stand by them – with a few clarifications. Firstly, there is some excellent evangelistic work going on here – but it is very ‘bitty’, and I think churches are still struggling to come to terms with how to reach out in a rapidly changing culture.

A year that has included drought, fires, floods and plague has been both challenging and an opportunity. I think of evangelism as ploughing, sowing and reaping. It appears to me that the Lord has been doing a lot of ploughing this year – things have really been shaken up. My question is how much sowing have we been doing?

One other thing has changed – I had this somewhat optimistic and idealistic view of a Sydney evangelicalism much less tribalistic and much more united than the church in my native Scotland. I have discovered that you have your own tribes – it’s just they are a wee bit more sophisticated and hidden than ours. Real biblical unity is for me a crying need of the hour.

3. How does your current work with City Bible Forum and Third Space seek to address these shortcomings you’ve observed in evangelism here? 

City Bible Forum continue their work of trying to reach workers in the CBDs throughout Australia. Third Space was set up to do a different kind of work. I support and help the work that CBF do through, for example, City Legal, Bible Shots, and other outreach initiatives. But Steve McAlpine and I have three different areas of focus – media (both secular and Christian), education and the churches. We believe that the local church is the primary means and focus for evangelism, and yet for many churches, evangelism is difficult and remains a somewhat fringe, rather than core, activity. Our aim is to try and help churches with that.

4. Can you tell us a bit about the reboot of Third Space and your hopes for it in the coming months and years?

To be honest things have been hard – which is fine because in 35 years of ministry I have never found it to be otherwise. The reboot is simply because I felt we were drowning in a sea of confusion and change at a time of great cultural change and upheaval in society. We needed to be more focused. I have been thinking a lot about new wine and old wineskins!

So we have looked again at how we do ministry, and how we can best help churches and engage with the media and education. Obviously online has now become even more important. Personally, I think that online church is an oxymoron. The church is incarnational, and we need to meet together. Online is a wonderful tool and in our current situation probably necessary, but it cannot be a medium-term solution. On the other hand, online is the primary marketplace now. It is our ‘Athens’. So we need to produce resources and help people to have a combined online and in-person outreach. The church will contact people online (a kind of spiritual online dating?) and bring them to meet Christ amongst his people. That is what we are focusing on at the moment.

We are developing a number of resources for churches to use – Never More Hostile, Never More Open is a four-week course helping Christians to understand our current culture. Cyber Café Evangelism helps churches use the internet to reach out. I was especially glad to trial this at my own church, St Thomas’ in North Sydney. Engaging Atheists helps in personal and collective witness to our secular friends. A.S.K. is based on my book of teenage questions – using these questions to help young people think through Christianity. We also hold consultations with churches and we are redeveloping the Third Space website. Steve and I also do a lot of talking, schools work and media material – as well as individual conversations. The Kitchen Table is a weekly short discussion video – and we have just started a longer monthly one called The Dining Table.

5. Have you changed since coming to Sydney? Do you think differently, or hold different views now? What are you most thankful for in the past year? 

I think the hardest part of coming here has not been the change of home, country or church, but rather the change of job. There is a world of difference between being a pastor in a settled charge seeking to evangelise, and being an evangelist in a new inter-church ministry, which is far from settled! The routines, disciplines and methodologies are very different. And then there is COVID. In my view, COVID has changed nothing and everything. In one sense nothing has changed because human beings still have the same needs, sins, joys, pains and questions. Yet everything has changed because ‘event evangelism’, meeting people face-to-face and collective public worship have all become much more difficult. Travelling to other countries (or even other states) seems like a distant dream. It’s as though our global village is splitting apart and we are once again confined to our own little islands!

And then if I can be a bit more personal… I don’t think any of my views have substantially changed in the past year – although my passion for outreach is perhaps even stronger. Perhaps at a practical level I now realise that many Australians are far more open to the gospel than I had anticipated. I find that immigrants, ABCs (Australian Born Chinese) and ‘tradies’ seem wide open to discussing Christianity. I’ve had many stimulating conversations . Yet I have at times a sense of personal failure and discouragement (‘Have I got this wrong?’, ‘Can I be of any use?’) as well as a heartrending sorrow at the state of the world. Sometimes the burden is overwhelming. Who is sufficient for these things?

I feel like Paul at the end of Romans 7 when he cries “O wretched man that I am – who is going to deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – our Lord Jesus Christ!”. And that is what I am most thankful for in the past year – the gospel is good news for a world that is drowning in bad news. I am so thankful for the church – the Lord’s people. I am thankful for my partner in life and ministry, Annabel – and for my family here and on the other side of the world. And for those Christians I have met here who share the same vision and dreams. It’s not as lonely as it once was.

I feel the time is short. I suspect my visa will be up long before the repercussions of COVID-19 are over. I just hope and pray that I will be able to be of some service to the Lord for the time that I have both in Australia and on this earth.

If anyone has any questions or thoughts please feel free to contact me at david.robertson@thirdspace.org.au