It’s amazing how culture changes and we don’t notice it. The practices that one generation took for granted become unknown, and slightly shocking, to a later generation. Even for those of us who live through the change it happens too incrementally for us to observe it. It is when we revisit the old times that we detect how much we have changed – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and often without any real difference.
Recently, I had the privilege of publicly interviewing John Chapman as he recounted his many decades of Christian ministry. In the interview, he unwittingly challenged us about changes happening that neither he nor we had noticed.
John is a greatly loved and widely honoured senior citizen of our Diocese. Raised in Oatley, he was saved in his teens. He became a high school teacher before being ordained in the Diocese of Armidale in 1957 at the age of 27. He returned to Sydney in 1968 to work as an evangelist in 1995. During this time, he was deeply involved in many aspects of the Diocese of Sydney. In retirement, he was made a Canon Emeritus of our Cathedral, and at Moore College the single men’s quarters became officially and affectionately known as John Chapman (“Chappo”) House.
Those of us who have had the pleasure of hearing him preach – and most Sydney Anglicans over 30 have heard him often – enjoyed his self-effacing humour, his personal warmth and his oft-recounted stories. His extroverted personality, enormous sense of fun, and ‘joy of living’ enable him to this day to take control of a crowded room and fill it with laughter. John is a “people person”, who has a deep and affecting love for other people and a wise understanding of the joys, hardships and foibles of the human condition.
However, behind this engaging personality lies a keen intellect, an exceptional teacher, a deeply-thinking theologian, a studious communicator and a popular author. John’s passion for Christ, for other people and for their salvation has led him to develop in himself, and in many others, the ability to proclaim and explain the Bible. Faith comes from hearing God’s Word – and John works to make that Word accessible and understandable to all.
In the interview, John recounted the days of his youth when Graham Delbridge used to run camps for young people at Port Hacking. As he spoke, several basic evangelistic principles emerged that I think we have lost. Presumably, not everybody has lost them and some readers could testify to their present practice. In addition, society has moved on so that we cannot simply replicate the activities of sixty years ago. Still, there were two principles in particular that challenged me as being very important in our gospel work, and as having slipped off our (or at least my) agenda.
The first was the evangelistic nature of house-parties and camps. In John’s youth, it was the pattern to run camps for the non-Christian to hear the gospel rather than to run camps for Christians to confer with each other.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with running camps for Christians. But the intention, and therefore the programme, was different – and not just the intention and programme but also the team work and invitation. It was the aim and practice of the Christians going to camp to bring non-Christian friends. The camp wasn’t for Christians – it was for their friends. This was the normal understanding, not just of the leaders but also of the Christians who attended those Youth Department camps.
Last week, I wrote about the growth and wonderful progress in university student camps. In researching for that article I was sent a copy of the brochure for a Sydney University Evangelical Union camp in the 1940’s. This was aimed at non-Christians. It was an invitation and challenge for anybody in the university to come for a week to Mount Victoria. (“We don’t actually expect the whole 10,000 students to turn up, but all are invited”). I am not aware of Christian tertiary students even trying to run camps for non-Christians today.
The second principle that I think we may have lost is personally challenging individuals about their standing with God.
John recounted that as a leader on the camp he would be asked to give account of each individual camper’s standing with God. It was the leader’s responsibility to make sure every person in their cabin was personally challenged some time during the weekend. Nobody was to go home without being confronted with Christ’s claims over their life.
In contrast to that, I recall talking to a recent convert about why he had drifted away from our youth group and church prior to his conversion. He was a very good athlete and told me that every time he came to the youth group, we would talk to him about sport but never about Christ. He knew we were interested in him and supportive of his endeavours – but all he wanted was to find out about getting right with God and nobody would raise the question with him. He didn’t know how to broach the subject so he left dispirited.
It requires a great love for other people to confront them about their lives. It is much easier and more comfortable to leave people alone in the privacy of their own thoughts and reflections. It is always easier to build bridges of friendship than ever to walk across them.
When we think of the prophets of old, or John the Baptist or the apostles or even our Lord himself – they all confronted people about their stand with God. It lies at the heart of the work of the gospel. I am not talking about doing it rudely, insensitively and ‘always only all the time’ – but I am talking about doing it! And I suspect – just suspect – that this has slipped from our culture and practice, too incrementally to be observed.