The clarion call of the gospel: An interview with Phillip Jensen

Tony Payne: This April marks the 21st birthday of The Briefing. You were instrumental in launching The Briefing back in 1988. Why did you do it?

Phillip Jensen: As best as I can remember (and history from an unreliable memory is the best way to do it!), at that time, we were still subject to the publishing agreement between the big British and North American publishers, and we found it hard to get anything Australian published.Phillip Jensen

But many Australian evangelicals were saying much more profound and relevant things than we could get from the books that were being published elsewhere. Furthermore, I wasn’t certain that what we really needed were books. What we needed were tools to get the ministry done. We had already written Two Ways to Live and Just for Starters, which we were having trouble getting published, so we needed a publishing house. And we needed somewhere to write essays about the Bible—the Bible in life and the Bible in contemporary society and the Bible in our church life. We didn’t need books; we needed a journal.

TP: You mentioned evangelicals. What do you mean when you use the word ‘evangelical’?

PJ: In the 16th century, the great Reformation took place when people went back and read the Bible for themselves, and saw what the gospel message actually was and how much medievalism had distorted it. From the Reformation grew Protestantism. But by the 18th century, there were many unconverted people within Protestantism. That’s why the Wesleys, Whitefield and others placed such an emphasis on personal conversion. Being a Christian was about responding personally to the great truths of the gospel.

This was the birth of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals were Protestant, Bible-believing, justification-by-faith-alone Christians. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Evangelicalism was the clear descriptor of born-again, Bible-believing Christians.

By the late 19th century and into the middle of the 20th century, ‘Evangelical­ism’ was a dirty word. No-one in their right mind wanted to be evangelical except for those who were genuinely born-again. However, with the liberals killing themselves off and the demise of the Tractarians, by the 70s, Evangelicalism was again a major force. Now everyone wants to be evangelical.

But what is Evangelicalism? Evangel­i­cal­ism is the theological position that takes hold of the Reformation truths and applies them to the individual for their personal salvation. How’s that for a new definition?

TP: Back in 2000, you wrote in The Briefing about the state of Evangelicalism and its future, and one of your concluding remarks was:

I am suggesting that the future of evangelicalism in relation to the denominational churches lies in direct evangelistic church planting. It may happen inside or outside the denominations. We need just to get on with it, wherever the gospel is welcome.1

First of all, what did you mean by “direct evangelistic church planting”?

PJ: I mean church planting that isn’t reliant on the denominations giving permission for it to happen—church planting based on gospel preaching to set up gospel churches. Sometimes denominations want to plant their own churches the way European colonies put their flags on different parts of the world in a previous generation. But it’s not about the gospel as much as it is about putting forward the name of Presbyterianism or Anglicanism. Evangelicals have got to plant churches that are about the gospel with or without the denominations—with them if we can, but without them if we have to.

TP: How do you think we’re going? If that was the future in 2000, where are we at now?

PJ: I think church planting has grown significantly in the last 15 years. Let me talk about inside the Sydney Anglican Diocese for a moment. Between 1950 and 2000, we closed down several hundred churches and planted almost none. But in the last five years, we have planted well over a hundred churches within Sydney. That is a huge turnaround!

And frankly, The Briefing has been one of the catalysts that have helped Anglicans wake up to the need to plant churches. Some of these plants have involved dividing congregations and replanting—‘re-potting’, as some people have called it. Some have involved starting new congregations within churches. Some have been out and out evangelistic—two or three people starting up in a new suburb (or even in an old suburb). Other denominations are following suit. Across Australia, evangelicals have been planting churches, and where denominations have been resistant, evangelicals have gone ahead and planted churches anyway.

I can think of about a dozen churches off the top of my head that were planted and connected up through the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. These aren’t Anglican; they are evangelical. As a movement, we are planting churches in a way that we haven’t for 50 to 100 years.

TP: As we’ve discussed in The Briefing and elsewhere in the last 10 years, church planting is not just starting any new congregation; it really only works if you have a missional, evangel­istic team whose goal is evangelism and conversion.

PJ: Yes, however the church growth movement identified the distinction between biological growth, transfer growth and conversion growth. Church growth was a mistake because it limited your vision to your church. Seeing kingdom growth is slightly different. For example, sometimes it might be better for the kingdom if my church ends and a number of new churches are planted. Furthermore, the church growth distinctions aren’t always helpful.

Biological growth is rejected as an illusion. But, as Rodney Stark pointed out in his book The Rise of Christianity, one of the ways the church grew in the first four centuries was through having children. We bred better than the Romans did, and we cared for kids. We didn’t abort our children or expose our unwanted babies to the elements, leaving them to die. In fact, we went and collected the children who were exposed, and included them in the Christian family. Don’t underestimate the importance of biological growth. In Australia, the people with the lowest birthrate are the atheists. The raising of Christian children is an important evangelistic strategy.

Secondly, transfer growth is often evangelism too. There are so many churches that don’t preach the gospel that often when someone moves to an evangelical church, they hear the gospel for the first time. Many, many people have been converted by changing churches. In suburbs where there are six or seven churches—none of which are preaching the gospel properly—it’s a good strategy to go and plant a church there.

However, an evangelical church will always be concerned for the salvation of people around about it. So there is a sense in which we want to build a church out of seeing people converted. Sending a group of people to a suburb to preach the gospel and, as a result of preaching the gospel, gathering a group of new Christians together is an important strategy.

But I don’t want to despise biological growth or transfer growth. Nor do I want to discourage splitting one congregation into two because the two will often grow faster as more people get involved and take ownership and responsibility. If you get to a point where people are passengers rather than active members of a church, then you’re missing out on opportunities.

TP: In that same article back in 2000, you said that one of the most important things we can do as evangelicals is to keep doing what God has called us to do: “to pray, to be holy, to preach faithfully”. Those are three themes that have come through in your writing in The Briefing. Is prayer still the evangelical’s greatest weakness?

PJ: How do we know? God hears our prayers; we don’t hear each other’s prayers. However, everyone you talk to has a sense that they should be praying more. I don’t think anybody in this lifetime is satisfied with their prayer life. Part of it is a wrong view of prayer. (This reminds me of a great book published by Matthias Media called Prayer and the Voice of God!)

We sometimes think we’re heard because of our many words. You only have to say that Wesley got up and prayed for three hours every morning, and every evangelical feels guilty. I remember hearing about the Koreans who were praying on mountains for five hours every morning. We had a Korean pastor come and join us, and people asked him if the Korean revival was a result of these hours spent on the mountains in prayer. He laughed and said that actually they were new converts who hadn’t let go of their Buddhism yet. They thought that God would hear them because of their many words.

Part of our problem is false expectations about prayer. But then, another part is that none of us trusts God properly. Prayer is just articulating and expressing our dependence and trust on God, but our natural tendency is to take things back into our own hands rather than handing them over to God. That’s a normal failing of evangelicals—and all people.

TP: You also talked about holiness. Where do you think evangelicals struggle with holiness today?

PJ: I don’t want to be seen as a grumpy old man, but… [laughs]. I think we’ve gone backwards in that area. The word ‘holiness’ means ‘to be separate and distinctive’. We’re to be separate and distinctive for God. Holiness has a moral character to it, but it is about being separate and distinctive. Whereas our evangelical forefathers were distinctively separate and almost proud to be so, we have been desperate to become all things to all men—unfortunately not in order to win some, but because we don’t like being discriminated against. Australians in particular hate eccentrics. We don’t want to be one; we want to be conformists.

Peer group pressure doesn’t stop when you’re a teenager. I heard of a lovely interview the other day with a woman who was turning 107. They asked her what it was like to be 107, and she said at least you don’t have to worry about peer pressure anymore. She’s the kind of woman who probably never cared about it. But most adults still care about it. We want to fit in. And so many of the things that marked us out in a different generation in terms of our personal ethics have been swamped by the world. Materialism, individualism and consumerism are all marks of Australian life, and I don’t see evangelicals being very different on any of those.

We approach church as a consumer. We go to see if it suits us, and if it doesn’t, we’ll go to the next one. We don’t go with a sense of fellowship or ministry, or a sense of caring for the people there. We think individually, not as a community. We are terrible materialists. My friends doing overseas mission come back every two or three years and are horrified by how much we have grown in affluence together with the community. You couldn’t pick evangelicals by the character of their houses. (You can by their cars, though. They drive family cars because we still have lots of children. Car parks at Christian conventions are full of people movers.)

TP: You also mentioned preaching in your three themes. Recently I’ve heard criticism that evangelical preachers and Sydney preachers are boring preachers. What do you think the state of preaching is?

PJ: Well, where I am, it’s terrific. I only ever get to hear me, and I’m not boring! [laughs]. What I want to know is how do people know? There are huge generalizations about Sydney Anglican preachers, but how many preachers have you heard to make that judgement? You should have been in your local church listening to your pastor. He is a man who cares for your soul, so you should listen to what he has to say about the word of God. Even if he delivers it badly, you should be sitting in church and paying attention.

There are certain factors. With podcasting, you can hear the best preachers in the world, but we forget that they’re the best preachers in the world. The Southern Baptists have 50,000 preachers. Inevit­ably, among 50,000 there are going to be a couple better than your local pastor, but they are the only ones you are hearing. If you listened to the 50,000, a lot of them would be worse than your pastor.

Secondly, we need to distinguish between the engaging style of the preacher and the engaging content of the Scriptures. I heard a preacher at a conference recently who so opened the Scriptures that my family and I were enraptured by the great things he taught us about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. A couple of people we talked to later just told us he was boring. On reflection, his delivery may have been a little boring, but what he said was nowhere near boring. They were listening to the preacher, not the message, and were judging the preacher, not the message. Maturity in the listener needs to be advanced. When someone tells me the preacher is boring, it’s generally a reflection on them, not the preacher; they need to go and look in the mirror.

TP: We’ve been looking in the mirror recently at The Briefing. If God’s kind and gives us another 21 years, what should we focus on?

PJ: The Briefing is the place for the clarion call of the gospel. It’s the place where evangelicals should turn and hear once more what the central message of Christianity is about. It’s the place for seeing the movements and shifts in society and church life in the light of the faithful teaching of God’s word. Society is bound to shift, but we mustn’t shift with it; we need to hold onto the central gospel truths while expressing them in terms of these shifts. I want to see it continue with a clarity of voice—the clarity of the gospel voice.

  1. Phillip Jensen, ‘The future of evangelical Christianity’, The Briefing #259-60, August 2000.

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