Starting small: Interview with Phillip Jensen

Tony Payne talks with Phillip Jensen about the history of The Briefing—how it began, what its aims have been, and where we stand now. 


Tony Payne: Phillip, The Briefing was really your idea. You drew together the resources to get it started, and you tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to drive it. What were you hoping to achieve?

Phillip Jensen: Well, partly it was because there was an obvious need. The publishing of Christian material in Australia was in a slump. The Australian Church Record had just closed. Southern Cross was not really addressing the issues. And most of the book publishing that was happening was controlled by the Brits and Americans, neither of whom were very interested in Australia or Australian authors—except as some cream on the cake for their bottom line.

So there was a dearth of opportunity for getting Australian material in printed form into people’s hands. And the arrival of desktop publishing made it possible for little people to start new publishing ventures in a way that hadn’t previously been possible.

And so we started (as the Church Missionary Society likes to say) in a small way, not with books but with The Briefing.

TP: Which in the beginning was just 11 pieces of paper, printed on one side only, with big margins.

PJ: But it was very good quality paper if I remember rightly, with a very nice font.

TP: Palatino I think—the height of 80s elegance.

PJ: The goal was really to seed and grow ideas, to explore evangelical theology and its implications for ministry—and to do that with our friends. We were building a community of like-minded evangelicals who wanted to see evangelical theology play out in their ministry practice. It was very personal and relational. In the early years, we would have known almost every subscriber personally.

TP: What were the key issues we dealt with, do you think— in terms of the theology and the ministry practice that flowed from it?

PJ: That’s a hard question to answer without understanding the background. One way of grasping the background is to say that in 1959 we had a united evangelistic effort, whereby all the denominations brought everyone they knew into the Sydney Showground and Cricket Ground to hear Billy Graham, and saw thousands converted. Five years later, a similar-sized crowd went to hear The Beatles preach the antithesis of the Christian gospel.

There was an incredible swing. 1968 is the year that people often point to as the year of great cultural revolution across the world, but it didn’t occur in a vacuum; and it didn’t stop there. In 1972, Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister and transformed our political landscape, for good and for ill. No-fault divorce came in, and changed the meaning and culture of marriage.

Nominalism in church life basically disappeared. It had begun to wane in the 60s with the rise of television, but by the 70s it had all but evaporated. At first we rejoiced in it, because the mixed or compromised nature of church life (with a large number of nominal members) was always a difficulty in ministry. But in due time we sorrowed in it, because our evangelistic opportunities diminished. Previously, we evangelized the nominals who were with us every Sunday in church. We evangelized their children in Sunday School. You never had to go outside church life to evangelize.

But all that changed. It seemed that, almost overnight, Christianity had become a marginal presence in our society.

In the midst of this rapid change, we had to rethink Christianity. The Uniting Church, which came into existence around this time, expressing the liberal wing of Christianity, basically accommodated itself to these massive cultural shifts, and went out of business very quickly. They used to have big youth groups—the Methodist and Presbyterian youth groups—but they started to run dances and all kinds of things to keep up with how the culture was changing. And in their accommodation to the culture they saw major decline quite quickly. They just lost the plot.

Accommodation was one strategy. The other was to retreat into a Christianized ghetto, to head back into the pre-war culture of British Empire Anglicanism, with its robes and dog collars and prayer books. In many ways, this was very attractive for evangelical Anglicans, because we loved the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles because they expressed the Reformed character of Anglicanism.

But this was not attractive to the outsider at all. It was no longer reaching the culture or understanding the culture. It was just culturally weird.

So we had to change and modernize—radically and quickly—without changing our theology. And that is very difficult for Anglicans to do—because our theology is connected with our Prayer Book and how we do church. Our theology is practised, not just taught.

This was the challenge of the 70s and early 80s: how do you change your practice without changing your theology? People tried all manner of things. Many were ineffective; many were wrong because they shifted the theology; many of them were just daft.

I was very keen not to shift our theology. Mind you, I certainly did things that were ineffective and daft—because we didn’t know what to do or how to do it.

By the late 80s when The Briefing was launched, I think we had found our voice—the voice of what I would call ‘Reformation Anglicanism’ (that is, from the 16th century) and ‘Evangelical Anglicanism’ (that is, from the 18th century), expressed in a language and a practice that reached out to contemporary Sydney and Australia. And that’s what we were giving voice to in The Briefing. It was arguing for the changes we needed to make, and against the changes that were wrong to make.

TP: What were the key changes that needed to be made?

PJ: Well, it affected everything we were doing.

Take one example: it came down to little things like how you took up the offertory in church. We stopped taking up the offertory. We left the box at the back, because we didn’t want to communicate to non-Christian visitors that we were after their money; instead, we wanted to encourage the Christians to give out of generosity and their commitment to the vision of the gospel.

Now, passing the plate was a very old and venerable tradition. In the Reformation it was passed for the poor, not for the sake of the clergy or the running of the church. In some ways, putting money in a plate is a lovely expression of fellowship.

But for a range of reasons—particularly to do with the Wells Scheme of the 60s, where we had gone around to every nominal Anglican in the suburb and badgered them for money to support the church—there was a palpable negativity about money. Even in the 70s and 80s, when many of those nominals were no longer in church, the latent hostility and suspicion about the church being after your money was still very strong.

So with all this in mind, we looked carefully at 2 Corinthians 7-9, and asked: what would this mean for the practicalities of how we collect money at church? We then approached the congregation about taking their financial responsibilities seriously and generously from the heart—and it was extraordinary. The amount of money we were given vastly increased, even though we stopped passing the plate. It was amazing how much people gave when they gave from the heart, as the Scripture taught, rather than out of convention, as our history taught.

Now that kind of thing we did in every area of church life. As we read and studied the Scriptures, we looked at what we were doing and said, “Let’s work out from first principles what we can or can’t do, what we should or shouldn’t do, in this place and time”.

It affected the language we used—for example, expressing the biblical concept of ‘sin’ by talking about it being ‘rebellion against God’, because for most Australians ‘sin’ was a confused and confusing word, mostly to do with sex.

Or it meant training our people to take the gospel to their homes and neighbourhoods and workplaces, rather than thinking that evangelism would take place primarily in church (as it once had). It meant taking off the robes and dog collars of a former age and dressing in a way that didn’t put up a cultural barrier.

It affected everything.

TP: Would you call that ‘contextualization’?

PJ: I wouldn’t, no.

TP: Why not?

PJ: Because it’s a trendy word that takes us in the wrong direction. It puts the emphasis on the relativism of different contexts instead of the importance of taking God’s word with obedient seriousness, regardless of the context. It makes the context sovereign rather than seeking to change the context by the message of the gospel. Contextualization usually degenerates into accommodation, and fails to call the context to repent.

We were seeking not to modernize the gospel message but to recapture the gospel message, because (if you like) ‘the context’ no longer allowed our previous theological and evangelistic sloppiness to continue.

We were just seeking to be obedient to what the Scriptures were saying and applying them to our situation—which we should have been doing a long time before the 60s revolution. If we had, we wouldn’t have suffered as much from that revolution.

TP: So the Bible and its theology should continually drive what we’re doing in practice, and critique and reform what we’re doing in practice—not just at the moment of crisis.

PJ: Nor just because we’re in a new context. It should always be what we’re doing. If we’re going to retain our theology but change our practice, the Scriptures must keep driving what our theology is. So teaching the Scriptures was fundamental.

Now the centrality of Scripture wasn’t a new idea. John Stott had come in the 60s and encouraged us to be expositors, and modelled it for us; Broughton Knox had been teaching for years about the centrality of the Bible and exposition; John Chapman (‘Chappo’) and Dudley Foord taught us to do it, and set up the School of Preachers, and so on. So the idea of expository preaching of the Scriptures was already there and active. And I’m an heir of that.

Likewise, biblical theology had been developed by Donald Robinson and then Graeme Goldsworthy. So teaching the Scriptures as a whole, with a Christ-centredness of understanding, was part of our inheritance. And that was distinctively important.

Where we moved was: if that’s what the Bible says, and we are preaching and expounding that, let’s change what we’re doing to be in accordance with it. It was the practical outworking of that movement of expository Bible teaching and biblical theology.

We weren’t alone in it by any means. Lots of others were trying to do the same. And they were pushing all kinds of different things that needed changing. There was a group of brothers who were captured by the idea of lay eldership and were trying to create lay eldership within the structures of their parish. They were grappling with whether the parish council could be the lay elders, or whether there needed to be a different structure, and how should they be appointed, and what’s their job, and so on.

I never particularly focused on that discussion, but I’m just saying I wasn’t the only one trying to reform our practice in light of the Scriptures.

However, some of the ‘reformers’ were taking us off beam. The charismatic movement was trying to do it. The feminist movement came a little later, but also were trying to influence us. I guess in my period of history, they were two of the groups and movements we had to struggle most with.

The charismatic movement was a reformation from within. But theirs was a movement of spiritual experience rather than expositional Bible teaching. The aim was always twofold: evangelize the unbeliever and spiritualize the believer. But the second aim changed the theology of the gospel very significantly, and the resultant splitting of the evangelical cause in the late 60s and 70s was quite dramatic. It was called in those days the ‘neo-pentecostal’ movement—it was not outside but within the mainstream churches, and the aim was the spiritualization of the churches. It was a movement that sought to change not just the practice but also the theology, and so had to be resisted.

TP: From the early 80s and onwards, many of the neo-pentecostals left the mainstream denominations to join the new charismatic churches that were starting and growing—the Christian Life Centres, the Christian City Churches, and so on (the precursors of Hillsong and similar churches today). They were a challenge to Reformed evangelicals more from without than within. And this came out in The Briefing in the early 90s when John Wimber came to town. It was a call to evangelicals to join a new movement.

PJ: The ‘third wave’ as it was called. And it was very seductive to begin with. You see, up to that point the charismatic movement was nearly universally Arminian and taught a two-stage Christian experience—to accept Jesus as Saviour in stage one, and then to be baptized in the Spirit and yield to him totally as Lord in the second stage (to put it kind of crudely).

John Wimber accepted John Stott’s critique of all that, and agreed that there wasn’t a two-stage process. He was also taught by some former Dallas Seminary people not to be so blatantly Arminian.

And so there was this new movement that was accepting and promoting all the spiritual power experiences of pentecostalism, but not going along with the Arminian two-stage theology of pentecostalism. At first, it really rattled us—because the normal arguments or defences didn’t apply, and didn’t work.

It took time to listen carefully to what Mr Wimber was actually saying, rather than lumping him in with people he disagreed with. But once several people put their minds to it, and read his books and so on, it became apparent that this was a proposed reformation of the church that was theologically wrong. It was seriously misleading in a number of ways, and caused all manner of trouble to a lot of people. And so we had to resist it—which was difficult and painful.

TP: Yes, it was painful. Many people were very grateful for our critique of Wimber’s teaching, but we received plenty of complaints as well.

PJ: I remember we did get some flak for opposing it and resisting it. But when it tipped into the Toronto Blessing, as it did only a few years later, all kinds of people said, “You were right; it was mad”. But it was mad before the Toronto Blessing. It’s just that Christians tend to be generous people (as we should be) and so we’re gracious—but in our generosity we mustn’t be naive. There’s that lovely verse in 1 Corinthians: in understanding be mature; in sin, be babes. We tend to get that muddled.

TP: The problem is that experientialist religion, if we can call it that, keeps emerging in new guises all the time, even though the particular theological issues and practices will be different.

PJ: And if we don’t keep teaching about the dangers and errors of experientialist religion, some new version will come along with slightly different features, and again we will be confused and drawn away.

People don’t like us to be negative—and who can blame them? Who wants to be negative, or to be thought of as negative? But if you don’t keep explaining both what is right and what is wrong, you are not teaching clearly and people are just not prepared when something comes along. The Bible is full of negative as well as positive teaching—Jesus himself was not short of negating error.

TP: Looking back over The Briefing, we’ve published something like over 6 million words in the past 26 years, and only a very small proportion of those words could be described as polemical or critical or ‘negative’. So it’s interesting that we gained a reputation as the polemical magazine and for being negative—even though the vast bulk of what we published was very warm and positive.

PJ: I think there are three reasons for that. Firstly, the logical force of negating is more powerful than affirming. It tends to be more memorable. Secondly, when we negate, we step on somebody’s toes and they complain—not about the truth or falsehood of the argument but about their toes hurting. And thirdly, it’s a bit like newspapers: they’re full of bad news stories, because that’s what people want to read and talk about. And so with The Briefing. People don’t remember the good news stories, but the bad ones: “Did you see that issue?!”

TP: Over the past 26 years in The Briefing, we’ve played some role in gathering the evangelical community and speaking into that community about theology and ministry. What’s your view about where that community is heading now?

PJ: In any movement—and there’s a whole sociology to this—there is a central drive or theme that gives it momentum. As you push forward that central theme, so you attract more people to it. Over time, as it grows and becomes popular or effective, outsiders want to gain access to it and claim some membership or ownership of it. And a new generation of leaders emerge who want to establish themselves as leaders and take it into new directions.

Eventually as it moves into a phase of organization and institutionalism, it loses its central drive and growth. People start trying to attract fellow travellers so as to expand their organization, rather than letting the movement increase the organization by attracting people to its core beliefs. It seeks to accommodate people on the edges who are not really part of it, and so it loses its focus and momentum.

Our central focus is biblical Christianity; it’s the gospel. As long as we are pushing in that direction, the changes we make—the new songs we sing, the different ways we conduct meetings, the new ways we reach out in evangelism, and so on—can be good and productive. They can shift and be improved and develop.

But evangelicalism keeps going through surges in size and influence, where it becomes organizational and institutional and substantial. And then it becomes worth being an evangelical because it’s the only game in town. No-one at the moment is out there hawking liberal theology. There’s just no mileage in it. If you want to gather a crowd, you can’t stand up and say, “I’m a liberal”. No-one is going to join you in your phone box.

But if you say you’re an evangelical, then all kinds of people will be willing to get behind that—but what is ‘that’? If it’s just an institution or a sociological grouping or a particular personality, then it’s not the real thing. It’s got to be genuine evangelicalism

TP: How should we define genuine evangelicalism?

PJ: Well, you can describe evangelicalism sociologically: this group of people have certain characteristics and features. You can describe it historically: this is what the ‘evangelicals’ did, or were, and so on.

But an evangelical will describe evangelicalism from the gospel. Evangelicalism seeks to preach the gospel by being faithful in exposition of the Scriptures and being obedient to what we read there. That’s the heart of it. The aim all the time is not to become new lawmakers, but to apply the Scriptures such that people will understand the gospel better.

TP: I also hear people asking questions like, “Is it possible or valid to believe X or Y, and still be an evangelical?” I don’t think that’s a question that an evangelical would be particularly interested in.

PJ: No, the evangelical question is always: “In response to the gospel, and in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ as he speaks to us in the Scriptures, what should we believe and do?” And pursuing godliness and holiness in this way will almost always lead you to be out of step at significant points with the world and its culture.

It’s sad to see people who want to wear the label ‘evangelical’, but only up to the point where they might be disliked for it. And so they constantly accommodate.

They want to be more accommodating to our pagan culture, so they are constantly finding what is good in our culture to affirm in the hope of building bridges so as to share the gospel; or finding something in Christianity that our culture might still regard as good, and using that to build a bridge. But when we keep affirming the pagan culture in what it regards as good, in order for people to like us and cross over a bridge into Christianity, we have to remember that traffic on a bridge goes two ways. What we embrace or affirm or accommodate today ends up changing us and our churches tomorrow.

It’s the same battle we’ve always had. We don’t want to be disliked for critiquing experientialist religion and so we move to accommodate the charismatic end of the spectrum, and leave our people open to all the serious spiritual problems that result. Or we want to be more institutionally accepted and so we take up robes and collars, and bow and curtsey to bishops, and get onto committees, and so on. Or we don’t like to be put down by the intelligentsia or the chattering classes and so we reframe the gospel message into politically correct pap.

TP: Speaking of ‘political correctness’, do you think our relationship with society as a whole, and with the government in particular, has changed since The Briefing started?

PJ: Oh I think it has, and this will be a huge issue for the future of our evangelical community. In the 20th century and earlier, the British sense of being a ‘Christian nation’ undergirded what we did. That is now gone.

And just as the 60s and 70s meant that we had to rethink church, so now I think we’re going to have to rethink citizenship—because we are in dire peril now of all manner of restriction of religious freedoms. It’s going to be a hard time for Christians in the next generation.

And again, you’ll have the accommodators, and you’ll have those that withdraw into the ghetto. What we’re going to need are people who will get their Bibles out, and work out afresh how Christians are going to be Christians in society.

TP: In many ways, that’s been the agenda of The Briefing over all these years—to encourage and give examples of bringing the Bible and its theology to bear on the issues that face us. But over the next 25 years, it won’t be The Briefing providing that lead, because a paper-based magazine is no longer the best way, or even a viable way, of pursuing that goal. Desktop publishing has been overtaken by digital publishing.

We’re not going to stop encouraging, promoting and stimulating that process of biblical reflection. But the vehicle or the medium will be different.

PJ: That’s actually completely consistent with what The Briefing has been arguing since day one. The important thing is not the medium or the institution but the movement and the message. We’ve got to keep changing how we do things as times and circumstances change, but without changing the theology of what we do.

TP: Which is kind of where you are up to personally as well, isn’t it? It’s a time of change for you as well—you’ve announced that you’re finishing up as Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral at the end of this year. What does the next phase look like for you?

PJ: I’ve reached the stage where I can choose to spend time on the core aspects of pastoring a church, and can leave aside the associated work of committees and building maintenance. I think it’s now time for me to use the energy God has given me to concentrate on preaching and teaching the gospel, and recruiting and training the next generation—but without the burden of being responsible for a church.

So I’m not retiring—just resigning from the Cathedral.

Next year, I will be moving into a little organization called ‘Two Ways Ministries’ which is aiming to train evangelistic Bible teachers. It sounds so obvious to ‘preach the gospel by teaching the Bible’, but we tend to evangelize without the Bible, and teach the Bible without evangelizing. ‘Two Ways Ministries’ is about holding the two things together and showing people why and how we must combine them. So being free from the Cathedral and diocesan responsibilities, I am returning to itinerant preaching, spending more time modelling, recruiting and mentoring evangelists in evangelistic Bible teaching, and continuing to write and create training materials to help all Christians preach the gospel by teaching the Bible.

‘Two Ways Ministries’ is an old thing and a new thing. I’m back to where I started with Chappo in the early 70s, preaching the gospel through Bible teaching and trying to train others to do it. And yet it is a new thing starting up in the Church Missionary Society principle of a small way and seeing how it grows.

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