Reaching a lost city for Christ

Posted on October 14, 2013 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

Mark ThompsonPrincipal of Moore Theological College, Dr. Mark Thompson, delivered this address at the ACL Synod Dinner on October 14.

In his talk he gave three compelling reasons why we must never give in to the pressure to move evangelism down the list.

“At last count (2011 Census) the population of Sydney was 4.3 million. Even if you took out all the regular churchgoers — Protestant and Catholic — there would still be more than 4 million people who are lost. At the end of the Book of Jonah God reminded the prophet of the mass of lost people in the city — ‘more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jon. 4.11). Imagine what he’d say about a population more than 33 times the size!”

Read the full text below, or download the PDF file. …

Reaching a lost city for Christ

The ACL Dinner at the beginning of each synod is always a great occasion. It’s a wonderful opportunity to catch up with people and encourage each other to keep persevering in the Christian life and in Christian ministry. So I should start by thanking Gavin and the ACL Council for the invitation to speak tonight. It is a great privilege and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Our diocese, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, is loved or loathed throughout the world as the most consistently evangelical diocese in the Anglican Communion. There are, of course, evangelical Anglicans in other dioceses and other parts of the world. There’s the Diocese of Armidale and the Diocese of North West Australia for starters. We have wonderful bonds of fellowship with Anglicans in the New Cranmer Society in Melbourne and Brisbane as well. We have great relationships with congregations in Adelaide and Perth. We could multiply those with substantial links to Anglican parishes around the world: St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London, St John’s in Vancouver and St John’s Latimer Square in Christchurch, New Zealand all come to mind immediately but there are loads more.

Next week representatives of evangelical Anglicans worldwide — along with others it should be said — will meet in Kenya. GAFCON 2 brings traditional Anglo-Catholics and evangelical Anglicans together in vital partnership to chart a way forward for the re-evangelisation of the West. The partnership between these two traditions is not without its challenges, of course. We must not pretend that old differences have somehow been resolved. But both traditions recognise that Anglicans in the West have largely lost the gospel of Christ crucified and risen and their witness in the world to which they have accommodated so severely is negligible. So the gathering in Nairobi promises to be a fascinating time and a fruitful one as well.

But though we must never act as if we are the only evangelical Anglicans in the world, there is something rather unique about this diocese: its heritage, its convictions, its practice and its mission. We’ve taken our stand upon the authority of the God-breathed Scriptures, we’ve kept our focus on the atoning death of Jesus and his triumphant resurrection, we’ve maintained a priority on evangelism alongside the building up of the churches to the fullness of the stature of Christ. Throughout our history, but perhaps especially in the past ten years in a new and explicit way, we have identified ourselves as not only evangelical but evangelistic. The word ‘evangelical’ describes a set of theological convictions and the practice that flows from them. Again and again our diocese has made clear that, while we want to be gracious and generous towards others, we are determinedly evangelical. ‘Evangelistic’ has a sharper edge to it. Arising out of our evangelical theology is a commitment to, even a preoccupation with, the task of evangelism, the task of proclaiming the Christ who was ‘delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’, the task of calling men and women to repentance and faith.

‘Evangelism’ is not just an optional extra for us. It’s not just the particular interest of a group within our diocese. In 2001 we all signed up to the Diocesan Mission. We want to see men and women all over our Diocese converted and beginning a new life with Christ in the fellowship of his people. One of my favourite memories of my time on Sydney Synod will always be the debate in which we refused to let Evangelism Ministries change its name to New Churches. We insisted that the word ‘evangelism’ remain. So now we have ENC — Evangelism and New Churches. We recognised that alongside a strong theological college (Moore College) and a strong missionary arm (CMS NSW), our diocese needs a group promoting and resourcing the evangelistic edge without which we would soon default to purely institutional thinking. It was a truly remarkable moment, when our whole synod seemed to stand up and say ‘we’re not going to let that fade into the background. Not in Sydney.’

If we are not only determinedly evangelical but unashamedly evangelistic, it will change a whole lot of things. It will change our financial priorities. How do we spend the resources the Lord has given us? Primarily on recruiting, equipping and resourcing men and women to take the gospel of Jesus to our city. It will change the way we approach engagement with our culture. What are we trying to achieve when we get an opportunity to speak into the public square? Are we pursuing acceptability or the salvation of souls? It will change the way we think about church planting — not as an end in itself but as a strategy for pursuing the larger goal of reaching more men and women in this city with the gospel.

Now it is a wonderful thing to come into a room like this and know right away that we have a common mind on the priority of evangelism. So much of our time and energy is already focussed in this direction. But there is a constant pressure to push evangelism off the agenda, or at least a little further down in our list of priorities — especially when we feel under attack or feel the squeeze of reduced resources.

Perhaps you recognise the pressure. Perhaps you’re feeling it right now. It comes with the perfectly reasonable suggestion that there are more urgent matters that need our attention; and, let’s face it, there are always urgent matters that need our attention. So even though we know the wonder and significance of gospel proclamation, of taking the message about Jesus out of our buildings and into our community, it slips off the agenda. It’s not pushed quite as hard. It’s still there, but it’s one of a number of things we do.

But there are three reasons — at least three reasons — why we must resist that pressure and, in this next decade, be more active in evangelism not less.

1. Our diocese is still full of lost men and women. The word ‘lost’ seems to have fallen out of the vocabulary of some Christian people. It sounds so judgemental. It’s so negative. No one likes being described as one of ‘the lost’ and so to talk like that or even to think like that is bound to stymie us right at the start. However, it is, of course, the language of the Bible. ‘The Son of Man came’, Jesus told Zachaeus and those with him, ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19.10). The parable of the prodigal son is the last of three in which there is rejoicing when what was lost is found (Luke 15). Those outside of Christ, those without the Messiah, are without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2.12). Indeed they are children of wrath (Eph 2.3). With the Law or without the Law, with the privileges of the Jewish race or without them, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23).

A clear view of the lostness of the world — of the terrible danger men and women are in if they try to stand alone in the judgement, just as real when they try to pretend there is no judgement at all — is critical if we are to maintain our focus on evangelism in the face of enormous pressure to abandon it. I sometimes hear that what we need at the moment is a recovery of the doctrine of creation. We need to appreciate afresh the goodness of creation and affirm what we can in the world. I actually don’t think that’s right. Our world and its various cultures are being affirmed all around the place. What we need at the moment is a recovery of the doctrine of sin. We need to be reminded that what we look out on in the world, all of it, including ourselves, is tainted by sin and exists under the threat of judgement. On two different occasions the apostle Paul listed the behaviour he saw in the world around him and remarked ‘on account of these things ‘the wrath of God is coming’ (Eph. 5.6; Col. 3.6).

At last count (2011 Census) the population of Sydney was 4.3 million. Even if you took out all the regular churchgoers — Protestant and Catholic — there would still be more than 4 million people who are lost. At the end of the Book of Jonah God reminded the prophet of the mass of lost people in the city — ‘more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jon. 4.11). Imagine what he’d say about a population more than 33 times the size! All stumbling around under the illusion that there is no final accountability for all that they have said and done, all seeking to establish their own futures and those of their loved ones, all lost.

We have not even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to reaching this city and it is full of men and women who are lost. This is the mission field in which God has placed each one of us. And those most frightening words of Jesus must surely apply to a diocese like ours: ‘Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will be required’ (Luke 12.48).

The evil one will always seek to persuade us of the lie that things aren’t quite so dire as that. He will raise questions about how helpful it really is to look at the world like that. Yet when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about his motivation in ministry he spoke not only of the love of Christ which compelled him but of ‘knowing the fear of the Lord’ which drove him to persuade others.

Our diocese is still full of lost men and women. Our deep awareness of this truth must mean that our evangelical theology is matched by an evangelistic drive.

2. The word of the gospel is still the powerful way God saves people (Rom. 1.16–17). It still pleases God to save those who believe through the folly of gospel preaching (1 Cor. 1.21). Faith in Christ is still and always built upon hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10.17). Lives are still turned upside down as they hear about Jesus and what he has done for them.

We are tempted to think that success in reaching this city for Christ depends upon sound strategy and carefully crafted programs put in place by gifted, entrepreneurial leaders. I should say that I like strategic thinking and I get excited by gifted entrepreneurial leaders. But I can’t help thinking this is a misplaced hope. In fact it’s remarkable how similar it is to the way the world thinks about its endeavours: get the right strategy in place, driven by the right kind of leadership, and success is assured.

I learnt this lesson in two of the parishes in which I have served. In one the Rector didn’t regard himself as anything particularly special. He readily acknowledged he tended to ramble as a preacher and really needed others to drive the teaching program. He was right. But I kept falling over people who had been converted after coming into contact with him. ‘I came to do some work at the Rectory and the Rector talked to me about Jesus and what he had done for me.’ Everywhere you turned there were people like that.

It was the same story in another parish. However, what made it even more powerful was the Rector’s fascination with the latest ministry strategy that had come out of the United States. He had reshaped the parish ministry to follow the pattern that seemed to be working so well in the suburbs of Chicago. It was a new church plant. Here was a chance to do something different and innovative. And as the church grew he was convinced that it was the strategy that was working. But I’m convinced he was wrong. You see, I talked to many of the newcomers when they first arrived. Almost everyone of them had the same story — ‘I’m the local newsagent and the Rector has been talking to me each time he comes in to buy the paper. He’s talked to me about Jesus and he helped me pray for forgiveness and a new life.’ ‘I’m an electrician and I came to do some work on the old church …’ ‘I’m a teacher at the local school …’ ‘I’m the local policeman …’ To his dying day that Rector will insist that it was the strategy that built that church but I know it was his personal evangelism. Persistent, yet unobtrusive. As natural as talking about someone that you love. And people heard about Jesus and put their trust in Jesus and their lives were never the same.

It is the word of the gospel which still saves people. It is the word of the gospel which connects them with the events of the gospel — the death of Jesus in our time and space in accordance with the Scriptures and his rising to life again three days later in accordance with the Scriptures.

I’ve come to recognise a feature of growing churches that they expect people to be converted when they hear the gospel of Jesus. They know the gospel works and they expect it to work. And week after week the evidence is before their eyes.

Our diocese is still full of lost men and women.

It is the word of the gospel which is still the powerful way God saves people.

And the third reason why we must be more active in evangelism and not less?

3. God still works miracles to reach the unreachable. Over the last 30 years or so, God has brought to this country men and women who otherwise would have had very little chance to hear the gospel. Each year people come to live here from countries where it is illegal to preach the gospel and call for repentance and faith. And they come to a country where it is still possible to preach like that, still possible to challenge people to ‘turn from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1.9–10).

I’ve heard over the last year of the revival happening among Persian people in Sydney. Some of you will know more of it than I do. God has made it possible for men and women from Iran and Iraq to hear the word of Christ and believe, even though the governments in their home countries outlaw evangelism and conversion. That is only just one of a myriad of people groups where God is at work transforming lives by his gospel which they can only hear because they are here.

We stand at a moment of time where this flood of men and women from ‘closed’ countries is matched by our continuing freedom to assemble, to evangelise, and to explain why ‘no one comes to the Father except through’ Jesus (Jn 14.6). How long both of those things will continue we do not know. But it seems that the convergence of widespread migration and the freedom to proclaim Christ gives this hour a special significance.

For some years now we at Moore College have been teaching our students that all ministry is cross-cultural ministry. No matter where you are in Sydney or Wollongong or the Shoalhaven, there are hundreds of thousands of people in your immediate vicinity who do not know Christ and many of those speak English only as a second language and inhabit cultures very different from the mainstream Anglo-Australian culture. The population of the Greater Sydney Area is culturally diverse but they have one thing in common. They need to be forgiven. They need to hear of Jesus. They need someone to stand with them and talk with them about Jesus.

It has been a year of extraordinary change for many of us. A new government, a new Archbishop, a new principal of Moore College, a new realisation of the challenges of limited resources and a harvest field still white and ready to be brought in. A range of things keep pressing in on us. Many of them are urgent and cannot be avoided. But just as we cannot for a moment loosen our hold on the determinedly evangelical shape of our diocese, we cannot for a moment be distracted from the main game of seeing men and women brought from darkness to light — won for Christ and growing to maturity in him.

So let’s remember that

our diocese is still full of lost men and women (we must not lose sight of the biblical doctrine of sin and what it means for the world and everything in it)

it is the word of the gospel which is still the powerful way God saves people (there really is no substitute for opening our mouths and talking about Jesus)


God still works miracles to reach the unreachable (he has brought the nations to us and so at precisely this moment we have an opportunity that is both daunting and exhilarating)

Determinedly evangelical, unashamedly evangelistic — that is who we are.