The first 50 lessons are the hardest

While not exactly Chappo’s words, “The first 50 lessons are the hardest” is more than a faint echo of something we often heard him say. I’m going to share with you something of Chappo’s legacy in the area of evangelistic practice. He taught me at least 50 lessons. Here are my top ten.

1. Keep doing evangelism

When I began working for the Department of Evangelism in 1992, Chappo told me that when he started work for the department in 1969 one of the first things he did was set about the task of seeing what similar departments in other protestant denominations were doing.

“The first fifty lessons are the hardest.”

John came to the conclusion that while they were doing a lot of talking about doing evangelism, they were doing very little actual evangelism. He determined that whatever else the Department of Evangelism of the Sydney Diocese did, at the heart of its existence, it would do evangelism. Chappo sought to apply that principle on a scale as wide as the ocean and as deep as the deep blue sea.

2. Train people to tell the truth

I heard it said, both before and after I joined John on staff with a view to following him as director, that the Department of Evangelism shouldn’t exist beyond Chappo’s tenure. The rationale went something like this: the department was built around Chappo’s personality as a platform evangelist, and had so taken on that persona that it wouldn’t have a reason to exist beyond him.

But this assumption was completely mistaken. Chappo was a trainer to the core. He poured himself into the training of others. Even in the years before he took on student ministers in their final year of formal theological study, to train them in evangelistic preaching, he was consistently training people in preaching and personal evangelism.

And he employed trainers in personal evangelism and as consultants to help church leaders develop evangelistic strategies.

It may come as a surprise to us to be reminded that he wrote Know and Tell The Gospel (1981), a training book, before he wrote A Fresh Start (1984), an evangelistic book.

Again, when I commenced working with him he told me that when he first came to the department he asked his boss and predecessor what his job description was. Geoff Fletcher simply said, “Evangelize Sydney”. When John asked him if he could be more specific, Geoff replied, “If I have to tell you that, I’ve got the wrong man”.

John never asked him again. He put his mind to how he could most effectively serve the parishes of the diocese in evangelizing Sydney.

It was a pre-emptive strike to prevent me from asking a similar stupid question (why else would he tell me the story?). Had I ever been tempted to, I wouldn’t have dared after him telling me that. But I did a lot of watching!

John’s heart beat to this drum: keep doing evangelism and keep training others to keep doing evangelism.

3. There’s plenty of work for everyone

Again, within my first month at the Department of Evangelism, Chappo simply said to me that there was plenty of work for everyone. I hadn’t questioned this. About 3% (give or take) of the Australian population trusted in Jesus alone for their salvation. It was a no-brainer that there was plenty of work to do.

But there were people setting up all sorts of para-church evangelistic ministries at the time. I think Chappo just wanted to make another pre-emptive strike in my mind before I got anxious about whether there would be enough to do and asked another silly question.

It was a helpful way of applying Jesus’ words about the harvest being plentiful but the labourers being few (Matt 9:37), a passage of the Bible that shaped a lot of Chappo’s thinking, praying and practice. What a sinful attitude it would be to think that the labourers were plentiful but that the harvest was lacking. And what sins of jealousy and resentment might flow from such thinking?

4. Effective evangelistic practice flows from faithful Bible teaching

Was Chappo a good Bible teacher because he was a gifted evangelist? Or did his effectiveness as a public and personal evangelist flow from his commitment to understanding and teaching the Bible clearly, simply and succinctly?

John didn’t set out to be the biggest, best and brightest evangelist he could be. He sought, under God, to faithfully and clearly teach the Bible, and his evangelistic effectiveness and leadership flowed out of that.

His early days in the Diocese of Armidale, first as a Manual Arts teacher, and then after a year at Moore College as the Youth Officer and Education Officer, were days of energetic activity to see the Bible taught with integrity throughout that diocese. He worked tirelessly at getting the teaching of God’s word right. Even his famous “always have a spare sermon in your back pocket” story from his rural days in Moree was testimony to this driving passion.

These were the years that shaped the Christ-centred, Bible-centred preacher who learnt to preach the gospel by teaching the Bible.

5. Get hold of biblical theology, and let biblical theology get hold of you

Chappo was deeply appreciative of the scholarship of the likes of Robby,1.] Goldy2 and PTOB,3 and sought to apply in a balanced way the principles of the biblical theology championed by these and other scholars.

He would throw out questions like, “Should there be any biblical preaching that is not in some sense evangelistic?” Every text had a context, and the big picture of the Bible was Jesus and salvation. He argued that to always put the text in this wider context of biblical theology was surely less of a mistake than to never do it.

However, he was critical of those whose exposition of a passage in evangelistic preaching so often ended with a little Two Ways To Live-style summary tacked on like an afterthought.

6. Don’t make a great distinction between the big ‘E’ and the small ‘e’

Chappo never drew a sharp distinction between the gift of the ‘Evangelist’ and the responsibility, albeit the privilege, of all Christians to share the faith with others.

Chappo’s view on the gift-list in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds/pastors and teachers) was that these were the ‘word’ gifts that Christ our ascended king gave the early church to ‘get the show rolling’. He didn’t have much patience for the pedantry of those who laboured over the few texts on offer to make a big deal of the big ‘E’ gift at the expense of the small ‘e’ efforts of people who longed (as we should all rightly long) to see others come to Christ.

Nor was he up for the legalism of those who qualified every mention of every form of gospel proclamation as being the particular preserve of the specialist. If there were some who wanted to convince us that there weren’t explicit references in the Bible to believers being proactive in evangelism, John would ask, “Where are the explicit references in the Bible about reading your Bible?”

John would prefer to tell stories of people who just got on with it, and then ask us why we shouldn’t do the same. I remember a story he told about a couple he met who had recently come to Christ. Their teenage daughter, who had become a Christian at the local youth group, had such an infectious love for Jesus that it got her parents thinking. This girl told her parents about Jesus, and her changed life at home so adorned the gospel that the parents decided to look into Christianity for themselves.

At the end of this story, Chappo said, “Whatever that is, I’m all for it, and a bit more of the same around the place won’t do any of us any harm”.

7. Be a disciple in the true sense of the word

Chappo always sought to learn and improve, and to repent and change. He learnt from his embarrassments, worked on his weaknesses, sought to correct his mistakes, and sharpened his strengths.

Michael Orpwood relates a story illustrating this in his book Chappo: For the Sake of the Gospel.4 Early in his Christian life, an enquirer asked Chappo if he could explain how to become a Christian. Chappo said that he couldn’t, but that he would take the enquirer to someone who could. Chappo then resolved that such a situation would never happen again!

He could, of course, have walked away from that encounter concluding that he wasn’t a big ‘E’ type. But he didn’t, and the rest is history.

Another example of Chappo’s humility and teachability is that he deplored preachers who were ill-disciplined, self-indulgent, lazy, long-winded show-offs who went far too far over 20 minutes! But when he was guilty of the very things he decried in others (which he was from time to time), I saw him take swift action to repent and work to get it right the next time.

He would often say, with classic understatement, to people who asked him how he developed good disciplines in his life: “Each day you just roll out of bed, read your Bible, pray, and get on with the rest of the day.”

“Each day you just roll out of bed, read your Bible, pray, and get on with the rest of the day.”

It would be too simple a cop-out for us to conclude that all these things came easily to John—that he was a ‘natural’. Nothing could be further from the truth. He worked hard on his talks and their structure, points, illustrations and application. He laboured over simplicity—and exactness in simplicity. He rehearsed ways of saying things more precisely, sharpening his stories and searching for the right word economy until he was satisfied that there wasn’t a better way of expressing something.

Sometimes when I rang him he would be very matter-of-fact, brisk, and off the phone in a flash. I knew those were the times I was disturbing his working of something out.

At other times, he would answer the phone and launch into a rehearsal of ideas or illustrations. It would be 10 or 15 minutes before I could get to the original reason for my phone call. He was using me as a sounding board to sharpen the ideas in his mind.

Even at the end, when Chappo went to hospital and didn’t return home, there was next to his bed a box containing many of his sermons and stories. They were on hand for easy access, as he never wanted to waste a few idle minutes here or there. His style may have seemed extemporary, easy-going and flowing, but only because he disciplined himself to be fluent and precise.

8. Love your Lord and love your neighbour to the last

John knew he was far from perfect, and his friends knew it too. At times he could be cranky and insensitive. He also prayed constantly for the need to be content and not faithless in every circumstance in his life.

We would do John a disservice to lionize him in death. In Teddy Kennedy’s words at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life”.5 John was a forgiven sinner who never lost the wonder of his Saviour’s love. He taught me to hate my sin, cherish my forgiveness, love my Saviour, and have compassion for lost people.

John loved his family, his friends and the children of his friends. He loved his neighbours, and he never tired of making the people around him feel welcomed and loved.

One night in the 90s, we had some guests over for dinner, and as soon as the food was consumed our kids (aged about 19, 17 and 12 at the time) couldn’t leave the table quickly enough. Sadly, our friends had not attempted to engage our kids in conversation but had only talked about themselves. The next night Chappo and Dick Lucas came over for dinner. None of our three kids left the table before Chappo and Dick bade farewell late into the night.

They engaged our kids in a range of subjects, from politics to theology. They listened carefully to their questions, doubts and opinions. There wasn’t an attempt by any of the kids to withdraw from the social banter and serious discussion until it was way past all of our bedtimes.

I have watched with wonder, and gratitude to God, John’s capacity for caring for people of all ages, the very young to the very old, in order to help them deal with their doubts and difficulties, and to make the truth about Jesus clear and simple.

9. Master humour, and never let it master you

Chappo was one of the half a dozen naturally funny people I have met during my life. The rest of us can pull off a secondhand joke from time to time. No other person has helped me to laugh so much and learn so much. In that lies the key to Chappo’s understanding of humour.

“No other person has helped me to laugh so much and learn so much.”

Much has been said of his self-deprecatory style. All the best humour is like that. But with Chappo there was more. Humour wasn’t an end in itself. He could have done stand-up, but he had a bigger dream.

Chappo was constantly on my case to make humour appropriate to context—both the context of the part of the Bible I was explaining and the context of the audience I was addressing.

The humour with which he was naturally endowed had to be used in a legitimate (as opposed to manipulative) way to serve the greater purpose of getting people to process the gospel. If humour came easily to him, this desire to use it in such a disciplined way came with discernment, restraint, hard work, and demanding self-denial.

10. Keep doing evangelism

So I come to my tenth and final lesson. (No, it’s not a Chappo joke about a senior’s moment.) But it would be much better to hear it in Chappo’s own words.

Michael Orpwood includes the text of Chappo’s speech given to a gathering of friends in 1995 to mark his 25 years of service at the Department of Evangelism. As ever, he took us to the Bible and to the words of Jesus in Matthew 9:35-38 and concluded:

If we are obedient to this command [to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest], there is no doubt in my mind that we will discover that we are the answer to our own prayers. It will dawn on us that we can swell the ranks of the witnessing workers by one more.

As I look to the future, it is my prayer that, however long it pleases God to spare me, my love for him and my love for my fellow humans will grow more and more and that, as it grows, evangelizing them will become a greater and greater delight. It is my prayer that the Lord of the harvest will send you into the harvest field too.6

  1. Donald Robinson [from the same Australian nickname tradition that produces ‘Chappo’ from John Chapman—Ed
  2. Graham Goldsworthy.
  3. Peter O’Brien.
  4. Michael Orpwood, Chappo: For the Sake of the Gospel, Eagleswift Press, Russell Lea, 1995, p. 13.
  5. James Stevenson, ‘R.F.K., R.I.P., Revisited’, New York Times, 1 June 2008.
  6. Orpwood, p. 240.

5 thoughts on “The first 50 lessons are the hardest

  1. Pingback: Winston Hills Anglican Church – What’s On This Week « Northmead Anglican Churches

  2. Thanks David. I valued Chappo’s efforts at Moore college to train preachers who handled God’s word faithfully and not bore or confuse the congregations that they would be let loose on.

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