This is how to endure ...
Life and faith lessons from Hillsong’s Robert Fergusson
I first heard Robert Fergusson preach when I was 19 years old. He was the guest minister from Hillsong at our young adults’ ministry. From the moment he stepped onto our small platform and launched into a sermon he’d titled “Mastering the mundane” it was clear that this man had dug deep wells. He kept the room of young adults rapt through the 19 points of his sermon, one that my friends and I still reflect on to this day.
On a Wednesday afternoon, almost two decades later, I stepped into his office with one burning question, “What does it cost to endure?” In 2024 Robert Fergusson celebrates his jubilee, 50 years since he became a Christian, 50 years since he preached for the first time and 50 years since he met his wife, Amanda. Much of his long ministry has been at Hillsong Church, where he has served for 33 years as a teaching pastor since moving from England to Australia in 1990.
Fergusson was a university student on a path to become a biology teacher when he had a radical encounter with God. “I was interested in animals. I was doing a degree in zoology, but God had other ideas,” he says. He sensed the call of God to full-time ministry early but resisted. “I didn’t want to do it at all. In fact, I rebelled for a number of years,” says Fergusson.
During a class one day, he felt God arrest him. “He said, in my spirit, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, almost out loud, ‘I’m telling them about a leaf.’ And he said, ‘You should be telling them about me.’ I knew from that moment that I could never be a biology teacher. I had to be a preacher,” he shares.
“My passion has always been truth. And so, teaching – in whatever form – is my element.” – Robert Fergusson
Fergusson began his ministry in evangelism but never lost his passion for teaching. “Sir Ken Robinson talks about one’s element, the place where your skills and your passions meet. My passion has always been truth. And so, teaching in whatever form is my element,” he says.
“Looking back to look forward” is how Fergusson grasps truth: “What’s the wisdom I need in this situation? How can I overcome this challenge? 1 Corinthians 10:11 talks about the history of Israel having been written for our example and our warning. That has always been the way I operate.”
Leaders are readers
Surprisingly, reading was not something that came naturally to Fergusson. But understanding that the first quality of a teacher is to be a learner, he had to learn to read voraciously and widely, and encourages others to do the same. “One of the great qualities my mother taught me was curiosity. She said, ‘If you’ve got the gift of curiosity, you will go a long way in life.’ She instilled in me this desire to learn,” he says.
He laments that people have forgotten the art of learning and reading. “I need to read outside of my world. I need to read books that are not what I would choose personally. Let them illuminate something in my life, let them read me, if you will,” he explains.
Longevity is so daily
“Some people who I think will last [in ministry] don’t, and some people I think wouldn’t last do,” notes Fergusson, while adding that longevity isn’t necessarily a sign of godliness. “Just because I’ve been in the ministry for nearly 50 years, doesn’t mean anything other than the grace of God. Grace is essential,” he says. “I would think daily devotions are one of the absolute keys to longevity. So, the grace of God, the calling of God, and daily routines are essential.”
“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the secret of a long marriage? What’s secret of longevity in ministry?’ And I say, ‘It’s so daily.’”
He emphasises that “it’s what you do today that will determine how you live tomorrow and how you live in 10 years’ time.” He shares that “Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, was asked about the success and longevity of their marriage. She said, ‘Marriage is so daily.’ I love that. People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the secret of a long marriage? What’s secret of longevity in ministry?’ And I say, ‘It’s so daily.’”
Tests and trials
“You wouldn’t want to go to a dentist that hadn’t been tested,” Fergusson observes, highlighting that all successful biblical leaders had a wilderness experience. He highlights Moses, David, Paul and of course, Jesus. “When I started in ministry … I assumed everything would go wonderfully well, but God had designed a wilderness experience,” he says. Very early in his ministry, he went with an evangelistic team to Spain. “As soon as we arrived, all the opportunities and resourcing stopped. It looked as though God had left,” he says. In that season he studied the Book of Job. Job 23:8-10 was illuminated to him:
But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
“There are those big tests in life, where it seems as though God has abandoned you. It’s filled with disappointment. Uncertainty. For me, it didn’t matter how long that would last. I knew God knew where I was,” he says.
The cost of discipleship
Fergusson emphasises that Jesus taught on the cost of discipleship, saying, “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” “When I became a Christian, perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me did happen to me. Firstly, I lost all my friends when I became a Christian, they abandoned me, never spoke to me again,” he shares. Shortly after this, the people who had discipled him also gave up on their faith. “I had to make a double decision: I’m not going to base my life and calling on other people’s dislike of me or their failures.”
Throughout the New Testament, Fergusson points out the expectation on Christians to endure. “They had persecution. People were dying all the time. Imprisoned, tortured. I think it is about perspective,” says Fergusson.
Two things that have enabled Fergusson to endure are his conversion and his calling: “James Hudson Taylor’s biography recounts that God said to him, ‘Go for me to China.’ Those five words changed his life,” he shares. “He gave up everything on the basis of that call; those five words defined him,” he says. Fergusson’s own calling – when God said, “You should be telling them about me” – has been just as life-defining. “It is the one thing that’s kept me through the ups and downs of ministry. And the challenges and the difficulties. God has spoken to me and I cannot deny it,” he says.
“The best questions leaders can ask are about ‘how can I become like Jesus?’ and the wrong questions are ‘how do I do this?’ You can help them with their skills but the real joy and the real meat is how can you become like Christ?” Fergusson says.
He learned this from personal experience when, as a young man, he asked his pastor how to pray. “I was expecting a formula. Instead, he invited me to pray with him. So, I turned up and I prayed with him for months,” says Fergusson.
“The challenge with seasoned leaders, including myself, is that I think I know what I’m doing,” he says. The key, Fergusson has found, is maintaining the desire to learn.
“After I preach, I will ask respected people, including my own mentees, how can I improve that? How can I do that better?”
God is faithful, people aren’t. Remain in hope
As a younger man, Fergusson believes he put too much confidence in people and less confidence in God. “Now I’ve got much more confidence in God and less confidence in people. I still choose to trust people, even when it hurts, because love trusts,” he shares. “And the act of trusting can cause the person to be trustworthy.”
Many people find this very difficult teaching. “People say, I’m not going trust an untrustworthy person, but God did that with us.” He illustrates this with the story of Jesus dealing with Peter after the resurrection. Peter had just denied Jesus three times and Jesus commissions him to feed and care for the flock.
“That’s an act of love,” Fergusson says. “He trusted someone who proved himself to be untrustworthy. And this is what I find intriguing. The act of trusting caused the person to be trustworthy. We’ve got to choose to trust people, knowing that sooner or later they’re going to let us down because that’s the nature of people. We’re all like that. I have high hopes and low expectations of people.”
The faithlessness of humanity doesn’t in any way damage his hope. “My hope ultimately is in God – Christ in people. And Christ in people has never let me down. So that’s what I’m hoping for. My focus is on Jesus, not on people’s flaws,” he says.
Fergusson’s great-great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister for 60 years and his great-grandfather was a minister for 50 years. He has a rich personal heritage to draw on for inspiration to persevere. His greatest instruction, however, comes directly from Scripture. “Hebrews 12:3 says, ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, lest you lose heart and grow weary.’ The writer of Hebrews says, ‘Fix your eyes on Jesus,’” shares Fergusson. “For me, as I get older, my focus has become much stronger and more clearly focused on Jesus,” he says. “He is our source. He is our goal. He is our destiny.”
Fergusson recalls that Henri Nouwen recounts his visit with Mother Teresa in his book Spiritual Direction. “He spent 15 minutes telling Mother Teresa how difficult his life was. She just patiently listened, and then she said, “If you spend an hour a day adoring your Lord and then choose not to do anything that you know to be wrong, you’ll be fine,’” shares Fergusson.
“I started ministry very complicated – a complicated person in a complicated world. I’ve learned simplicity. The simplicity of the gospel. It’s all about Jesus. Fix your eyes on him. You’ll be fine,” he offers.