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John Dickson steps down from church ministry

“I have to jump into the fray full-time to write and speak to people who don’t believe”

Well-known Australian writer, speaker, minister and apologist John Dickson has announced his decision to step down from local church ministry to focus more fully on reaching the “doubting public outside the church”.

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Dickson has been in part-time church ministry for two decades, and Senior Minister of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Roseville for the past nine years. He will retire from this position at the end of March 2019 to be a writer and speaker on a full-time basis.

Dickson, who describes himself as “a public advocate of the Christian faith”, has written 15 books, including the award-winning Simply Christianity: Beyond Religion. Two of his books – The Christ Files and Life of Jesus – were made into documentaries that aired on national television.

“I am still convinced that the local church is the best defence and commendation of the gospel.” – John Dickson

In 2007 he co-founded the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), where he still serves as Senior Consultant. Dickson played a key role – along with the CPX team – in creating the highly-acclaimed documentary For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than you Ever Imagined. Released in June, the documentary screened in more than 150 Australian cinemas and on the ABC’s Compass program.

Dickson is also well known as an historian and academic, and will continue to teach a course on the Historical Jesus at the University of Sydney as well as pursue a long-term research project as a Visiting Academic at Oxford University in the UK.

In notifying the St Andrew’s congregation and Anglican Diocese of Sydney about his decision, Dickson expressed his belief in the local church as the coalface of public engagement. He also expressed his reluctance at leaving.

Archbishop Glenn Davies responded to Dickson’s decision: “I shall miss you as a valued pastor and preacher, yet I recognise that God has gifted you in such measure that we should release you to a wider audience, where you can concentrate your energies more intentionally and full time for the benefit of many throughout the world.”

Eternity asked Dickson why he feels compelled to step beyond the church walls to “commend Christ in the public square.”

Why have you decided to step out of local church ministry?

It’s been a torturous decision to be honest, but we also feel great clarity about it … I am still convinced that the local church is the best defence and commendation of the gospel. The Christian community can offer a real-life expression of the love of God that a public apologist can’t. I’ve always wanted to be part of that, and it’s been a privilege to, but I’ve also had this growing sense that the other half of my life – the writing and speaking for the sceptical public – is more what I’m wired to do.

I’ve always felt the tension between an intellectual and theological commitment to the local church, as the most important defence of the gospel, and a sense that actually I’m wired to reach the sceptical world. That has combined with a growing sense that the need is very, very great, and our country seems more sceptical of the Christian faith than it’s ever been.

I arrived at this point – as heartbreaking as it is to leave the church that I have loved for so long – where I feel I have to jump into the fray full-time to write and speak to the people who don’t believe.

What will a full-time job of “commending Christ in the public square” look like?

I have four or five books in my head that I haven’t had time to write, so I’ll be doing that. I want to get out and speak about Christ in every setting I can. One of my favourite settings is a rolling three-week ‘mission’ with local churches, where people can invite their friends. Over the years I’ve seen some wonderful responses to these three weeks of talks. Often [churches] follow it up with a Simply Christianity or Life of Jesus course.

I also want to jump into as many mainstream public settings as I can. I spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year, and that’s the sort of thing I’d like to do more of. I want to write for [mainstream] media and engage in radio interviews.

In this climate where there is a lot of anger and hurt towards the church, how can Christians be heard in public conversations?

I think we’ve entered a perfect storm of scepticism, that probably began with the new atheists 10 to 15 years ago, who tried to steal the headlines and the intellectual space. That was combined with the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], which found terrible historical behaviour on the part of the church. As if that weren’t enough, the same-sex marriage debate left traditional Christianity looking judgemental and mean-spirited. Even if some of that criticism is unfair, we ended up looking like Christianity is implausible – like the church doesn’t have answers to give.

So, what can we do about it? I think we need, simultaneously, more courage and more gentleness …

“What we really need is courage and gentleness together.” – John Dickson

I think true courage is where you are willing to jump in, be asked anything, discuss anything, but do so with great gentleness, respect and graciousness – and even be willing to lose well … to cheerfully lose debates that you get in. Because I think the way people conduct themselves, and the way people win or lose arguments, actually says a lot about what they genuinely believe deep down.

I don’t want to see this bifurcation of the courageous Christian, who is a bit of a meanie, and the sweet, gentle Christian, who never sticks their head above the parapet.

What we really need is courage and gentleness together.

In which public conversations do you think it’s most urgent for Christian voices to be heard?

The normal topics aren’t going away – suffering, what about other religions, and so on. I don’t think those difficult questions have diminished. But what has happened is a bunch of other questions have come to the fore around human sexuality, and whether traditional Christianity has anything half-reasonable to say. Although it’s not a topic any of us like talking about, I do think we need to work out how to express traditional forms of Christianity that don’t sound dumb and mean.

I think the topic of hell is massive … That’s related to this sense that Christianity is dangerous. It speaks about these dangerous ideas of eternal punishment.

And then the Old Testament is full of violence and genocide, and lots of the sceptical public have become aware of those bits we’ve always known about in the Old Testament that we skip over when we read it to our kids. That feeds into this general feeling that [Christianity] might not actually be good for kids, or adults or our culture. It’s in that space that we need to jump in with courage, and with grace and gentleness, to point out how there is still a way to think about all this stuff that is not just true, but it’s beautiful and good for the soul and society.

What do you hope will be the outcome of your move?

On one hand, I hope to keep helping local churches do their mission to reach sceptical neighbours. I just hope to be able to do a little more in the public square to leave the average Australian doubter thinking, “Oh, maybe Christianity is not as dumb and mean as I thought”, so that they will be open to the next conversation they have with a Christian or open to the next letterbox drop they get from the local church and have a look.

It’s really there that they are going to find the gospel and be transformed by it, but I want to be a part of that conversation.

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