Australia is more open to Jesus than you believe
A Scottish Christian leader wants to help local churches reach their communities
“People in our culture are more open to the gospel than we think but the church is struggling to communicate [it].” So says Scottish minister David Robertson, talking about the country he’s just moved to – Australia.
Church leader, blogger and respected public Christian, Robertson has been imported to help spearhead Third Space, a new national initiative aimed at invigorating evangelism from Sydney to Perth, Wineglass Bay to Thursday Island. Launching tomorrow at a collaborative session in Sydney, Third Space has a big scope with one aim – more Australians giving their lives to Jesus.
“There’s no point complaining about a loss of freedom if you don’t use the freedom you do have to reach out.” – David Robertson
Robertson is a keen observer of culture across the Western World. Last year he travelled around Australia for several months preaching and presenting, and he observed that the wider society here is in a better place to hear the good news than many Christians might think. Despite apathy and antagonism to messages of the Christian faith in the Australian culture, Robertson points out a common undercurrent that remains: “The major questions that Christians deal with are questions everybody asks.”
According to Robertson, his homeland is ten years down the “regressive” road from Australia when it comes to being closed off to Christianity. Robertson lists several reasons why Australians are still poised to receive Jesus, including the ongoing influence of converts from the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the amount of Christian schools, and the diversity of governance and laws from state to state.
But with steady talk of religious freedom under threat, as well as parliamentary debates about contentious issues, Australia has recently struck some Christians as already being beyond the call of Jesus. Robertson maintains that Christians in Australia still have a choice about loving their neighbours.
“There are two ways you can go. One way is you can circle the wagons and try to protect what you’ve got. And you lose. The instinct is to do that, but you lose,” says Robertson about Christians turning inward and trying to preserve their way of life by keeping the good news to themselves.
“The other way is to say that we have got these tremendous resources; let’s use them not to maintain our churches but let’s use them to reach out. While we can.”
“There’s no point complaining about a loss of freedom if you don’t use the freedom you do have to reach out.”
Robertson is an engaging guy who makes you want to join in with whatever he is doing. Alongside prominent Perth pastor Stephen McAlpine, Robertson will lead Third Space as an intentional networking body that does not intend to duplicate what already is being done, or seek to compete with other Christian groups. “What we have in the [Christian] church is that we are quite disjointed; there are a lot of dots, but they’re not joined up.”
I believe the church is the best means of doing outreach.” – David Robertson
Third Space sounds like a conduit that will develop over time. Created by urban evangelism network City Bible Forum and named after the area between the wider community and churches, Third Space wants to organise speakers and events, link existing ministries together, as well as create content and resources to empower local churches to share the Christian faith with their community. An example of this is rolling out City Bible Forum’s Reel Dialogue movie events across Australia, an unusual evangelistic gathering using cinemas as a “third space” for bringing Christian insights and truths to the wider culture.
Those involved in Third Space want to model evangelistic endeavours and also consult to churches around the country.
“For me, the primary thing I want to do is to work with churches, to help them. I believe the church is the best means of doing outreach.” The collaborative approach espoused by Robertson fits with his assertion that Third Space is “not the solution for evangelism. Not at all. We are a part of it, but it’s a part that has a particular emphasis on what I would call ‘cultural evangelism’.”
Robertson has never surfed but he sees “cultural evangelism” as Christians and churches learning to ride the cultural wave. “My fear is that the church is always playing catch-up to the culture. What I would like to do is use cultural things to help communicate the gospel.”
“I just see there is a particular cultural moment. And my theory is that you get lots of Christians who analyse the culture and they don’t evangelise, and you get lots of Christians who evangelise but don’t know the culture. We’re trying to bridge that.”
Third Space also wants to create an association of Australian evangelists. Robertson wants Third Space to encourage local evangelists to understand their immediate context and help them to unite, rather than run solo. “Australia doesn’t need one Billy Graham. It needs 10,000 evangelists, if not more. And it needs churches which are genuine communities reaching out. Which we all agree with – but we need to be doing it.”
“I am 100 per cent committed to being an evangelical Christian.” – David Robertson
Robertson visited Australia last year and spoke openly and often about the need for Christians to make meaningful contact with those around them. A pastor for 35 years, Robertson remains invigorated by spreading the gospel – and encouraging other Christians and churches to do the same.
City Bible Forum co-founder Peter Kaldor approached Robertson and offered him what has become Third Space. Put that another way: Kaldor handed Robertson the opportunity to do what he wanted to do – fuel an evangelism movement to a national, co-ordinated and unifying degree. “Third Space is deliberately intra-denominational.”
Robertson grew up in the Brethren church before attending a Baptist church. He’s a Presbyterian minister whose previous congregation had Charismatic Christians, and he now attends an Anglican church. “I think in some areas of Australia there is quite a divide between different evangelical groups. Some of that has to be, I suspect. But some of it doesn’t have to be. And my interest is in evangelism, so I don’t care if you are Hillsong, Christian Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican or whatever – if you want me to be involved in evangelism with you, if you are seeking to teach the Bible and be faithful to it, and if you don’t tell me what to say, I’m there.”
“I am 100 per cent committed to being an evangelical Christian. I’m committed to the Bible and believe it’s without error. In my theology I am Reformed but because I’m Reformed, I can work with other people – because I believe God is sovereign and he may save people through Catholics, Charismatics and Anglicans.”
Commending the efforts and focus of many Christian churches and organisations around Australia, Robertson hopes Third Space enhances them so well that it ceases to exist: “Success for Third Space looks like this – We work ourselves out of a job, so we’re not needed any more because it’s in the DNA of churches that they want to reach out and they’re thinking about it and doing it.”
“No, the absolute success for Third Space is more people becoming Christians. That’s it. That’s the aim. And by ‘becoming Christians’, I mean Matthew 28: joining and being discipled. I’m not talking about just hands up at a rally or signing a form. I’m talking about disciples. Because that changes everything.”
Robertson doesn’t put a number on converts or specify the exact ways to reach out. He just wants to be part of encouraging Australian Christians to be part of what is a long-term goal. Some churches and organisations focus on short-term goals, such as growth in numbers of people attending weekly services. But Robertson wants to see seeds being sowed for reaping in the distant future, as generations of Australians are changed by their interaction with the gospel.
“I believe if Christians are energised, equipped and emboldened to communicate the gospel, people will be converted. I don’t think there is a formula for it but I believe that God’s word won’t return to him empty. So we get the end goal of more people becoming Christians is obtained through Christians being energised and equipped.”