When John Chapman came to your church in the 1970s, it was like the evangelical circus had come to town. I don’t mean that it was entertainment (though he was gripping) or that there were clowns (though he was hilarious) or even that it was a spectacle (though he was larger than life). I mean that it was the best day of the year.
John brought together the best blend of important information and the enjoyment of that information, making everything else look pretty ordinary. I first heard him 40 years ago in 1972, and we needed no bouncing castles or wristbands or gimmicks to make the day work. He brought forth the word of God with such force and freshness and fun that unbelief looked stupid and every Christian gave praise to God for including them in the great plan of salvation.
We always of course looked forward to John’s visits, and we knew that we could ask our most hostile and resistant friends to come, because by the end of his message there would be nothing possible to say in the way of genuine criticism for the message or the messenger. John gave nearly 25 years to the Diocese of Sydney in his capacity as Director of the Department of Evangelism, and he was incredibly generous with his time and energy.
It was as if there was one special evangelist in the city (and there was), and if you could get him for your Sunday services or your men’s dinner then you knew it would be a good and well-attended time. Over the years John gathered and trained others in the evangelism team, but he must have been driving constantly during that time, speaking at everything he could and helping young pastors and old friends reach the lost.
When he stepped up to speak it was as if he catapulted into the pulpit—he could hardly wait to be preaching—and he was immediately on everyone’s wavelength with some gripping question or a tension-breaking story. It was persuasive, sane and happy preaching—as if he had come with good news (which he had!)—but it was also straight from the Bible, because John had no delusions that he was there to be clever or opinionated. He had searched the Scriptures and been searched by the Scriptures, and had worked out the best way to search his listeners with the Scriptures.
To write something about John Chapman’s preaching is a privilege, and yet (since thousands heard him) this is just one man’s tribute. Hopefully many more will distil the effectiveness of his ministry, and we will continue to thank God and seek his provision of more evangelists. Since there is no limit to the things that could be said, I have decided to comment on six things that stood out—using (or abusing) C–H–A–P–P–O to guide the process.
From the day that Jesus saved John, there was no-one more impressive or wonderful for John than Jesus. Did he ever get tired of telling people about Jesus in the gospels, or of stringing together the things Jesus did so you could see his greatness? John would get to a point in many sermons where he would suddenly pile up the miracles, from forgiving a man let down through the roof to raising another up from the dead, followed by the regular telling of the calming of the storm:
“Jesus said to the wind and waves “Down! Down!” and they went down. Pretty impressive, don’t you think? I mean, you try it next time you’re on the Manly ferry and the swell is up—go out the back and give it a go. I’d make sure there’s no-one else watching if I were you, so you don’t get too embarrassed.”
To say that John ‘preached Christ’ is not saying quite enough; he was not just faithful, he was forceful. He wanted people to come face-to-face with Jesus’ life so they could not settle down into ignorance or unbelief, but instead wake up and agree with his truth and love. And John wanted people to hear about the death and resurrection so they knew the depths of this truth and love, and could joyfully respond.
Phillip Jensen once told me that when inviting Chappo to preach, “You should never get him to preach on something new, but a tried and true sermon”, and he was right. You could invite John to preach a sermon so old that you knew every word of it, but John never tired of preaching it and we never tired of hearing. Every time he spoke of Jesus it was as if the message had just freshly broken in on him and you were refreshed yourself listening to it!
This may seem a cheap and unworthy word to describe John’s preaching, but I can only say that he preached like a man who knew ‘life to the full’. When I first heard him in my late teens, it seemed too good to be true that there was a God who loved you, who had provided the way of salvation, and who threw in so much of this world to enjoy as well.
This is not to say that John was always ‘up’, or that he was unacquainted with grief and pain, but when he put his mind onto the gospel and saw God’s hand in creation, salvation and all things, it filled him with great joy and happiness. So John was utterly at home preaching the gospel, but his illustrations covered a thousand experiences from travelling to golf to music to shopping to surfing to enjoying every cultural experience he could.
He was a natural comedian but he didn’t tell jokes; he told true stories. He loved to tell stories from the past—about his mother ‘coming forward’ at all his ‘appeals’ and being told “Go back to your seat”; about his times in Armidale bringing the Billy Graham ‘landline’ to the congregations (and the archdeacon getting converted); and about his everyday conversations:
“So when I dropped my dry-cleaning into Town Hall Station [obviously clerical robes], the lady behind the counter said to me ‘Are you a priest?’
I said to her, ‘You know I am’, and she said, ‘Well why don’t you wear one of those (collars)?’
I said, ‘To catch you out—we’re everywhere—watch out!’
Then she said, ‘Well, what I want to know is: can you forgive my sins?’
I said, ‘Not a hope in the world.’
She said, ‘No, that’s what I thought too.’
‘But,’ I said to her, ‘there is someone who can do it.’”
All of this comes back to me easily after 35 years, so well did John tell it.
It was said of George Whitefield that beside him people seemed to be only half alive. In some ways this was true of Chappo as well. He was large, larger than life,
and you knew it if he was in the room—or pulpit. He could command attention and yet—apart from his personality—this animated forcefulness may be what God builds into a real evangelist.
This is why when John was preaching it was often as if rival ideas or voices were pushed aside. When he took a section of Scripture, like the parable of the rich fool, he had not only worked out the thrust of the parable and the best (and simplest) way to present two unforgettable points, but the authority of Jesus was presented in animated power. Chappo preached these parables all over the world, and he was bursting with the wonder of forgiveness but also the seriousness of meeting God unprepared.
Who can forget the clarity of that imagined meeting with God that Chappo would present?
“What are you doing here unforgiven?”
“Well, I didn’t think it mattered much.”
“You must think I’m a fool. I gave up my Son to die for you, and you thought it didn’t matter?”
I played this talk once to a non-Christian friend as I drove him to the airport, and he emerged from the car physically shaking.
The animation of John’s preaching was the Spirit of God taking the word of God and working through a man of God in the service of God. It was gripping to experience and—conscious of my own dullness—it was easy to see why Chappo stood out as someone who seemed alight with truth.
It is well known that John was theologically razor-sharp. (Broughton Knox asked him to follow him into the principal’s role at George Whitefield College in South Africa—but John thought it best to find another.) He had a rare gift of getting to the heart of a biblical passage. For example, if he was preaching on the prodigal son he would go straight to the shock of the father running to his son and how all of this would show up the Pharisees—all in one thrust. John also had an incredible knack of re-thinking old truths to show they were still new underneath, or—like developing a joke—he could work back from the punch to the beginning. A classic example was his take on God’s generosity in sending Jesus:
“How many of you here—if you had a young child—would give the child away… to strangers… to strangers who would attack and kill the child? You’d rather die yourself, wouldn’t you? So when God the Father—who is in total command with absolute love and wisdom—gives up his Son to strangers to kill him… it’s got to be pretty serious, hasn’t it? And our sin is serious.”
What a brilliant way to humble the sinner and exalt the Saviour with unbeatable logic and completely fresh, illustrative power.
John was theologically, biblically and communicatively perceptive in a way that is rarely brought together. Many have had one or two of these strengths, but John was gifted by God in all three areas.
I think John was naturally at home in the gospels—their evangelistic punch was there for all to see. But he really knew his Bible—he had pored over it in a disciplined and perceptive way, and his grasp of the epistles was a joy to hear. Those who were able to get him to ‘do a houseparty’ would be taken on a canter through the letters with a huge amount of joy and wisdom thrown in. This part of Chappo’s preaching to the believers was also a rare gift. By the time you had heard four talks in Philippians or Colossians (it was said unkindly that whatever the letter you got the same information!), your local church had been seriously warned, wonderfully sharpened, and truly comforted. And because John lived the Christian life and experienced temptation, loneliness, disappointment and sickness, he was able to give comfort with the comfort he himself had received. I remember his wisdom on ‘doubt’ in the Christian life:
“So when I get up in the morning and have had enough of being a Christian, I sit on the end of the bed and swing my legs over the side, and I say ‘John Chapman—have you had any fresh information that Jesus Christ did not live?’
‘No, I have not.’
‘And, John Chapman, have you had any fresh information that Jesus Christ did not die for you… rise from the grave… promise to return?’
‘No, I have not.’
‘Well, John Chapman, keep going—it is obviously the best thing to do.’”
He was a pastor to the saints.
In case anyone thinks that John’s preaching was the only worthwhile preaching there was, or that everyone pales in his light, we need to remember 1 Corinthians 15:10: that “by the grace of God I am what I am”. John was original and unique—but so is every servant of God. And in a funny sense, a weekend of John Chapman was enough for a year! It’s not that he wouldn’t have been a huge asset to a church staff or to an evangelistic outreach in one location, but he was too big for a single place, and he criss-crossed Sydney, Australia and many seas to bless many listeners.
He loved his visits to the UK because he was so different and so well-loved. The ‘prophet’ overseas was truly revered, and the fact that he genuinely understood a spectrum of cultures meant he could yell at a football game or follow an opera at Covent Garden. John could speak sensitively to the English elite and he could speak perfectly to the blue-collar Australian. On one occasion at a men’s dinner for Lalor Park, he had driven straight from a family funeral where he had preached across a relative’s open grave. He came to us with extra urgency and spoke on ‘Four reasons to take Jesus seriously’. I sat as he spoke and I watched a man across the room from me—with eyes out on stalks—literally getting converted. (He went on to lead his wife and daughter to Christ.) There must be people scattered everywhere who can trace God’s grace to this original servant Chappo.
One more thing about Chappo’s preaching is that it was original in its fearlessness. He seemed to be so gifted and authoritative that rank and position gave way in his presence, and all who were there—whether children or bishops—would acknowledge his biblical role. (I once saw John sit before an Episcopal leader with his Bible wide open on his lap, as if to say to his leader, “Now teach us the Bible, because that is why we’re here and that is why you’re being listened to”. On that occasion it was all in vain.)
He could bring the word of God to bear on young and old because it was the Bible he proclaimed, and it was the Bible that carried the weight.
As the years passed, Chappo’s preaching never lost its scalpel-like effect but I did notice a shift from warning to wooing. In the 70s he would often preach on hell, and I remember from his sermons the imaginary man waking to find himself in hell:
“I finally plucked up the courage to call out ‘Is anyone here?’
A voice came back, ‘No, there is no-one here’.
So I called out, ‘What about my wife and my children?’ and the voice came back, ‘They are not here’.
Finally I called out, ‘Oh God, are you here?’ and the voice came back, ‘No, God is not here either’.
You see, hell is not something to be joked about.”
It was fearful in the very best sense.
But in the 80s and 90s John’s presentation of Jesus became so all-encompassing that there was no need to ask any question except “Why would you go anywhere else instead of to Jesus?” He seemed to present Christ with greater and greater sympathy to a lost and sad world.
So John really was a ‘gifted’ preacher (as in Ephesians 4:11): someone who showed in his life and ministry how wonderful Jesus is. It is Jesus who made him a Christ-filled, happy, animated, perceptive, pastoral and original preacher, and the same Lord Jesus will provide all we need for the days to come.