I enjoyed having a full and frank discussion with Mark Powell on AP’s excellent podcast. https://ap.org.au/2020/08/21/evangelism-interview-with-david-robertson-australian-christian-life-podcast-episode-4/

It’s now one I subscribe to – not because of this interview but because of earlier ones such as Carmelina Read’s superb discussion on Women’s Ministry, and David Cook’s on preaching.  I trust that all readers of AP subscribe!

In this interview we discuss why the Church in Scotland has declined; opportunities in Australia (education); differences in Presbyterianism in Australia; Australia’s cities; poor ecclesiology; public worship; an honest assessment of Third Space; the Lord’s Day; Anglicanism; the Gospel vaccine; the trickle-down theory of evangelism; celebrity Christianity; youth work at St Thomas’s; Geneva Push and Reach Australia; role of the Elders; the churches’ response to Covid; online church; online evangelism; and much more.

I have always found it strange that many in Reformed churches – including Presbyterians ones – do not think of themselves as being ‘evangelistic’.  I was once in a large Presbyterian church in the US which had a notice board welcoming ‘new members this month’.  Virtually all the new members were transfers from various Baptist churches.  In over 40 new members there were only a couple who were by profession of faith.  Bearing in mind that this includes those who have grown up in the church, it does indicate that evangelism to people ‘in the world’ was not a significant priority in that church.

This article is entitled ‘Presbyterian evangelism’ – not meaning that there is a particular Presbyterian version of the Gospel, but rather that Presbyterian churches, like all true churches, should have evangelism in our DNA.  That is sadly not always the case.  I have met many clergy who see themselves primarily as teachers, but few who see themselves also as evangelists. 

It is sometimes an attitude within Reformed churches of ‘we will let the charismatics and Arminians convert them and then we will teach them the way of God more perfectly’.  Apart from the arrogance of that statement, what bothers me is the view that somehow Reformed theology is not evangelistic.   Clearly those who think like this (I suspect it’s a feeling based on experience of failed evangelism rather than worked out thought) have not grasped the passion of the Puritans or read Packers Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.  When I moved from an Arminian to a Calvinist position (without really knowing either of those terms – it was only in later years that I discovered how to describe what had happened to me in theological terms!), it made me more passionate in my outreach, because instead of rushing round like a headless chicken desperately trying to convert people, I now believed not only that it was God who converted – but that he would.  I suspect that a lot of Reformed people hide behind the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as an excuse for not doing outreach.  It’s a day of small things and God alone can convert – and we don’t know that he will.  We don’t appear to believe that God’s word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), nor do we obey the command to go into all the world and proclaim the good news (Matthew 28:19). 

So how can churches do evangelism well in Australia today? 

As we discuss in the podcast evangelism is best done through local churches.  The idea of the spiritual trickle-down theory (start at the top of society and eventually the Gospel will work its way down) is not biblical.  The local church is an incarnation of the body of Christ and therefore needs to meet.   Online church is not a substitute for that meeting – but it is a significant part of the marketplace where we need to proclaim the Gospel. 

Todays’ society is an open door for the Gospel, but as churches approach that door, we find that the ground beneath us is shifting sand – we need to better understand the culture within which we seek to proclaim the good news.  The biblical imagery of the church consisting of living stones – not dead stones – not living reeds.  There is warmth, life and solidity amongst Gods people which is a tremendous witness for the truth of the Gospel.  “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

To reach today’s society we need honesty, repentance and prayer.  We should recognise our hubris and react in humility, without ever losing hope.  Our hope is not in ourselves, our church or our denomination.  Our hope is in Christ.  May it be that those who come into contact with us recognise that we are those who have been with Christ (Acts 4:13).  Then we will be ready and able to give a reason for the hope that we have within us. 

David Robertson
Third Space.