Q&A with Phil
A broad-ranging chat with Phil Colgan about the opportunities and threats we face, about being proud of the gospel, about the two books everyone should read, and more.
In this month’s Q&A chat, I spoke with Phil Colgan, the Senior Minister at St George North Anglican Church in Sydney, and one of Sydney’s most gifted preachers. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
I kicked things off by asking Phil what he was preaching on at the moment.
Phil: As we're coming out of lockdown we thought we'd do something that's just really encouraging for people and it's proven that way. We’ve been preaching on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. And I've found it an incredible joy, because I've been moved to think how I’ve seen the fruit of the Spirit growing in people over the 18 years I’ve been at St George North—seeing the way people have grown in love, have grown in gentleness, have grown in showing kindness to one another.
It’s been an incredible encouragement to reflect on the work of God's Spirit through the teaching of his word over the time of our ministry here. It's a challenge as well because Galatians 5 also has that verse 25 about walking in step with the Spirit or following the Spirit.
Tony: Is there a fruit of the Spirit that you felt challenged about as you were doing your prep? I always find when I'm prepping to teach or preach something, God sometimes slips a dagger into my own heart and convicts me from the passage I'm reading. Have you found that?
Phil: Well, it's funny. It has been the same couple of fruit of the Spirit that have challenged me every time I've read Galatians 5 since I've been a Christian, which is patience and gentleness. They are the two. And for some reason, whenever I think of patience, I can immediately have something I need to repent of within the last 24 hours.
Tony: Oh Lord, give me patience and do it quickly! Phil, you are a solid and well known part of the fellowship of Sydney Anglican evangelicals here. In fact, I'd probably regard you as my friend who is probably the best connected amongst Sydney Anglicans. We're all part of this fellowship but you just seem to be one of those people who knows people. You’re part of the central diocesan structures a bit, you get involved in the committee work, but you're also out and about and you know lots of ministers and seem to have your finger on the pulse.
And so I thought it would be a helpful question to ask for the sake not only of people who are listening here in Sydney and are interested, but many of our friends all around the world who know about Sydney and its Anglican evangelicalism—if you were going to do a little mini SWOT analysis of Sydney Anglicanism at the moment, what would you are our strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats?
Phil: Well, when you look for those opportunities and threats and that sort of thing, that's a helpful thing to do—though with something as wide and complex as a diocese I sometimes wonder if it is that helpful. Sometimes I think every church should be thinking about that in their local area, which is actually a distinctive of Sydney Anglicanism, isn't it (our congregational nature)?
But I think our opportunities, our threats—they tend to be the same at every point; they just vary by degrees. And for me at the moment, the opportunity in Sydney for ministry is the opportunity of evangelism. We have the most wonderful news in the world and millions of people that need saving. We have this incredible situation of an Anglican diocese with a couple of hundred churches that faithfully preach Jesus, thousands of lay people ready to serve.
I think that is a peculiar thing about Sydney in the Anglican world and that is our opportunity. But although some say, "Oh, the fields are dry and the fields are hard”, I actually think we are at a point where people are more open to the gospel than at any point in my Christian lifetime. Some are more antagonistic, but I think they're a small number who are represented in the media and so forth. In my part of Sydney, which is incredibly multicultural, I think people are just open to talking about Christian things. We're seeing loads of people connecting with us at the moment through our evangelistic efforts. And I think it's a great time.
Most Westerners now don't have the cultural baggage of cultural Anglicanism or cultural Roman Catholicism. They're not immune to the gospel. They haven't been vaccinated. And for me, that's a wonderful situation. I think we're entering a great time. So that's the opportunity and that's the challenge in Sydney I think—it’s not to lose sight of the main game. And to take that opportunity in the diocese of Sydney, the challenge is to mobilize our resources I think—to mobilize our lay people, be focused on training and equipping lay people, and challenge our lay people and our gospel workers to have the right view of this city: that it's a harvest field, and we are all missionaries and evangelists in the diocese in Sydney.
The other issue is property. Can we better use our property to reach the city? Can we have churches to plant out in these massive growth areas of Sydney?
But in the end, the challenge is: don't get distracted. Let’s keep the main game, the main game, and keep putting that in front of people. That to me is the opportunity.
Tony: What do you think we get distracted by?
Phil: I think one distraction is thinking that everything is really hard and that evangelism's hard—because that often means you switch from bold gospel proclamation to defensive posturing, which I think is a danger for conservative evangelicals. We get worried about protecting our rights and protecting ourselves and that sort of thing. Or we switch to thinking that we have to apologise for the gospel and so forth, rather than just getting on with that task of proclaiming Jesus.
Tony: Sydney's a big place. It’s about 5 million people or thereabouts. Andf we have a generous kind of definition, there might be... let's say there are 150,000 born again, evangelical Bible-believing Christians in Sydney. If that’s the case, by my calculations, we're kind of at the 2-3% mark, and then there's 97% of this vast, great city. I think of Nineveh, that great city in which there are 5 million people who don't know their right hand from their left (as it says in Jonah). Not to mention the many cattle of course in Nineveh, but not so many cattle in Sydney.
Phil: A lot of cavoodles after lockdown.
Tony: Yes, if it was being written today, Jonah would conclude with “And many cavoodles”! But it is a great challenge to think about just what a lost city Sydney is, and how much opportunity there is for the gospel. In terms of the threats to us or the weakness for us as Anglicans, do you have any reflections there?
Phil: If I was to put down one threat, I would say that it's to respond to that great need by conceding too much to our world in a desire to be relevant. I think that's always the threat. And at the moment I think that is a threat for us, and I feel that temptation every time I preach. God is sovereign, but in my weakness, I do fear for our next generation. I wonder—have we been and are we preparing them well enough to stand up and believe and love biblical truth in a world that's now calling it evil rather than irrelevant, whether it's the truth that Christ alone is the way of salvation and there is no other way; or whether it's the truth on human sexuality, or the truth on gender and all these other issues.
I see that as a threat. I fear sometimes that we haven't done a good enough job with that generation. And I think our real challenge is to just teach those truths boldly to help our young people (and our older people for that matter) to be proud of Jesus and his word. That's the word I use: to be proud of the gospel; to actually stand up and be proud of it rather than apologise for it. The gospel is the answer, even if our world mocks it.
Tony: It is in many ways a challenge of unbelief. It's losing your confidence and boldness in the truth of the gospel and the truth of Christ and thinking that in some way we have to soften it, accommodate it, refashion it. And look, I understand that instinct very well. And it's why in a sense I'm sympathetic—or empathetic perhaps is the better word—to liberalism, because liberalism is that impulse. It's that sense that we're not relevant; that the world is moving on and they don't believe what we believe anymore. And so we need to jettison some of the harder edge stuff; we need to conjure a message that's more respectable, more acceptable, more comfortable in a way, one that we don't feel uncomfortable to speak. Or one that when we do speak it, we don't feel like we're standing out and saying something radical or revolutionary. That's the impulse. And I think we all feel that impulse in our hearts. And while we might feel horrified about the liberal theology that jettisons the resurrection and so on, and think that we would never go that far, we still feel the impulse that you’re talking about—to accommodate and compromise in order to receive a better hearing; to be “all things to all men”.
Phil: Yes, but being all things to all men is about how you live. It's about your actions. It's not about what you preach.
Tony: Exactly. I think it was at the Nexus Conference a few years ago, David Williams had this wonderful one-liner. He pointed out that in 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul was utterly and absolutely inflexible about his message. In fact, Paul says, I've got all these other people who want to hear this, the Jews want to hear that, the Greeks want to hear this. I don't tell them anything they want to hear—I tell them this instead: Christ crucified. And they think it's either weak or foolish, but that doesn't bother me, because God uses this supposedly weak and foolish method. That's his power and his wisdom. So I never change the message.
So Paul is utterly inflexible on his message, but in his person, in his behaviour, in the packaging of who he is, he's flexible as anything, because those things don't matter very much. And so David Williams said:
We contextualize the messenger; we don't contextualize the message.
Phil: I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it. And I think it actually captures the logical flow of 1 Corinthians.
Tony: I mentioned Nexus just now. You've taken over from me at Nexus—you've deposed me in a boardroom coup, and have shuffled me aside and you are now in charge of Nexus.
Phil: I am, I am. And actually we are doing a Nexus Refresh, coming out of lockdown, where Kanishka, the new Archbishop of Sydney, and I are speaking. It’s in early December and praise God, we can come together as people in ministry in Sydney and be refreshed by God's word. And what I'm going to try and speak on is actually that it's as we think of the task before us—that's the most refreshing thing to be reminded of what a great gospel we have to preach and what a privilege it is to do it. That refreshes me far more than any day off or any holiday..
Tony: Indeed. And that's really what Nexus is, for those of you who haven't heard of Nexus. It's basically a little fellowship of Sydney evangelicals, mostly Anglicans, but evangelicals in Sydney who are in gospel ministry—refreshing and pushing each other forward for this great task. So it's great that you are taking it on and pushing that forward. And I'll certainly look forward to seeing you there in December. When is it in December?
Phil: Friday, December 3.
Tony: If you just look up nexusconference.com.au you should be able to find the details there. Phil, every now and then, when I put out a Payneful Truth, you very kindly zip me a little email. And after I did that little series on apologetics a few weeks ago, you wrote in with some enthusiasm. We’ve kind of being dancing around that subject in what we’ve just talked about, but I know it’s a subject that you are exercised on. What's important about apologetics or what's wrong with apologetics in your view?
Phil: Well, yes. I loved what you said. And for those who haven't read it, I encourage you to read the two Payneful Truths that Tony put out on it (see here for part 1 and part 2), because you crystallized something for me I've been blundering around on for some time. I'm all for apologetics in some senses, but some modern apologetics makes me feel really uncomfortable. And I've been trying to work out why that is. And what you crystallized for me is that whatever apologetics is, and there are things that it is, it shouldn't be trying to make the gospel seem rational and reasonable to a person with a worldly worldview. That's the point I got out of it.
You've mentioned 1 Corinthians 1-2 already. The wisdom of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. That shows you that as you preach the gospel, if a person hasn't had their world view transformed by the word through the Spirit, they are going to think it's foolishness. So it should never be our intention to make a person who doesn't come to trust in Jesus think we are rational.
One of your categories of apologetics was what you call ‘positive apologetics’. And I found that a really helpful category. You said that there is some legitimate ‘positive apologetics’, as we how good the gospel is, and show how the gospel makes sense of the world.
But the thing is that the gospel will never be seen as good for you if you think this world is all there is, right? You can't make a person think the gospel is good for you if this world is the end and there is no God. It's only when you accept there is a God who is righteous, who created the world. It’s only when you accept that there is a heaven and a hell that the gospel is good—otherwise it's foolishness. So any apologetics that's trying to say the gospel is good for you even if you don't share our view, I think has missed the point.
All of this sent me back yet again to 1 Peter 2, which for me is the key passage of the scriptures on this question. And in particular 1 Peter 2:12. (I’ve got my Bible open on that page, you'll be pleased to know.) It says:
Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will by observing your good works glorify God on the day of visitation.
And as you look at that, and then the flow of thought that goes through to being ready “to give a reason for your hope” in chapter 3, the argument is that the greatest apologetic is living a godly life. As you live out a godly life, you also set out the gospel plainly, as you give a reason for your hope. But what 1 Peter shows you is that they won't understand you. They will call you evil. And you'll reason with people (what you called, I think ‘responsive apologetics’ or something like that). You'll reason with people, and you'll then try to show the rationality of the gospel, the historical evidence, and so on. And you'll always do that with gentleness and with respect—1 Peter makes that very clear.
But someone who then doesn't repent and believe is unlikely to think you're rational and is unlikely to think you're reasonable. And that's where I want us to say that being Christian in our world should be a conundrum to people. On the one hand they go, "He's irrational. His logic doesn't seem to work. He believes in a guy who rose from the dead 2000 years ago and says he's the answer to everything. He's a bit crazy.” But they also say, “And yet he's so gracious. And he is so gentle and he is so loving. And he is so patient. I can’t help wanting to listen to him.”
But you see, when we try to remove the conundrum by trying to make it rational and reasonable in the world’s terms, it's actually as bad as removing the conundrum by not being gentle, by not being gracious!
Tony: That kind of dual way in which the world thinks about the behaviour of Christians and what they say, in the end it is only resolved on the “day of visitation”, isn't it?
Phil: Although we pray they resolve the conundrum prior to the day of visitation because we give them a reason for our hope and they come to know Christ.
Tony: Yes! In the whole discussion about apologetics and the gospel—which I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past 12 months—it has really come home to me how we've often we get it back to front. So often these days we spend ages on the ‘softening up period’, trying to connect with people, gain traction for ideas, present some metaphors that might connect with them, find some common ground, say ways in which the gospel is good—all kinds of things to try to ease them up towards the terrible moment when we give them the bad news that this is gospel about Jesus dying for your sins and rising from the dead.
It strikes me, we've got that the wrong way around. We'd be much better if we led with Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus (in light of our good behaviour and our reputation for being the kind of people who live differently). We then tease through their questions and answer their questions and respond and interact and explain, and do the responsive dialogue style of interaction—having told them what the gospel is that makes all the difference, rather than keeping that in reserve for some future point where we might eventually get to telling them.
Phil: I think what you're saying is absolutely right in what I'd call the personal sphere. I don't have the answers for the public sphere where you only get a sound bite. And sometimes the sound bite you want to give is just to commend the gospel. That's why I'm very slow to judge anyone who gets lauded or pilloried by the media or by the world in that sense.
Tony: It's a very artificial environment, isn't it?
Phil: Yes, but I think it really helps if we have that attitude of what is first and foremost important.
I had another thought about all this, and it's just a thought bubble for me at the moment. As you got to your final category of prosecution or ‘kategoria’ as you called it—I don't think we do enough of that in our preaching. I fear that if we do too much of the other types of apologetics in our preaching—if we do too much apologizing—then you actually create a church that's in constant need of being argued into its faith. I think our preaching should go more on the offensive, be more prosecutorial.
And that goes back to what I said before—we should be prouder of the gospel. And so I think more of our preaching should say, "Brothers and sisters, this is what you believe—isn't it wonderful? Look at how foolish our world is. Look at how much better our world view is than our world’s.” And I wonder if we did more of that, then we'd prepare our people better to be not apologizing for the gospel, but ready to express the power of the gospel—to sort of crack through to the world. Anyway, that’s just a thought bubble I've got. I've got to be careful though, it's not just about rationalizing my personality.
Tony: Your belligerent personality, Phil? I think we always have to be careful of rationalizing our proclivities towards particular kinds of approach.
Now, part of the format of this thing is that you also get to ask me questions. So have you got anything that you are wanting to throw at me at the moment?
Phil: Well, yes. As I thought about that, I thought, “Tony's my book guy; he's one of the few people I know who is a genuinely published author”. So I thought not including your own books (or perhaps you can!) is there a book you would want everyone to read? What would it be for pastors and then for people in our churches—what would be the one book you'd say, you must read this?
Tony: Oh, gee, that's a hard one. The one that's in my mind at the moment that I think everyone should read and come to terms with is David Seccombe’s new book, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Jesus’ Revolutionary Message—which as it happens is right in the ballpark of all the things we've just been talking about. It's David's attempt to try to summarize what the gospel is, and to connect together the gospel of the kingdom that is so prominent in the Gospels and the gospel of justification and Paul and all that kind of thing, the gospel of the cross and forgiveness. And the way he weaves them together using his research in Isaiah and in the Old Testament and in biblical theology—is just brilliant.
Like all good books it's got its angles and its things that you scratch your chin about every now and then—but on the whole, it’s excellent. He argues that the resurrection is the culmination of the gospel message—not just a denouement, or a kind of a footnote or a sort of wrapping up of loose ends. The resurrection is where it all comes together. In line with the kind of conversation we've been having, he argues that the resurrection is our message, the resurrection of the crucified saviour, who is now the Lord and rules all, and who calls on everyone everywhere to come to him for forgiveness of sins and to enter his kingdom and live with him as their Lord.
That's our proclamation. It's the proclamation of the risen Christ who is saviour. And the way he draws and ties all that together and challenges the way we often think about the gospel just really brilliantly done. It pulls together a lot of the thoughts that we've all been having over a number of years in a really helpful way. So I'd recommend The Gospel of the Kingdom by David Seccombe. It will shake up and clarify how you think about the gospel in the most helpful way. I would say for pastors, definitely that's the book to grab and read at the moment.
And for thoughtful lay readers? David’s book is not written in an overly technical or obscure way, so also go and grab it.
But if there was one book though that I was going to suggest that every Christian should read for their Christian growth—a book about the essence of the Christian life and how I can grow in it—I think I’d recommend Paul Grimmond's, Right Side Up. It's just a brilliant book about what the Christian life is and how it proceeds, and probably the most under-rated book I ever published in the time I was at Matthias Media. I think it's a book every Christian should read at some point—Right Side Up by Paul Grimmond.
Phil: I've always been amazed it didn't get more airplay. It has always seemed a perfect book to hand to a new Christian as part of a follow-up course or to do with young Christians.
One last question for you, Tony—what topic would you like to see a book written on at the moment? Is there something you wish either that you could have the time to write a book on, or that you wish someone else would write a book on?
Tony: Okay. I'll throw out a few, because I've got a long and large ideas file, and some of these are things that I'm going to do, God willing, in the future. But if someone wants to get to them first and do it, then please do. I'll mention three. Is that okay?
Phil: Well, it's your podcast.
Tony: Hey, so it is! Why I'm I asking you permission?
I have thought for a long time that it's funny that we've never really written an outstanding or widely used book that explains the gospel using Two ways to live. We've got tracts various things—courses and videos—but not a book. The closest we came was when Dominic Steele did his Introducing God course, and he turned the content into a little book that you could give away. But it didn't take off massively and didn’t become a go-to evangelistic book. That's a book I'd love to write sometime, or if someone wants to beat me to it—go for it.
The second book I'd really love to see written is one that I am going to target fairly soon. And that is all the research I did about one another ministry and the word ministry of every Christian. You mentioned before how important you think it is to train and equip every Christian? I think there is a significant book to be written about why that's important and what role every Christian has in not only the gospel, but in the word of mutual encouragement and teaching and helping one another within the Christian community. So that's a book I think desperately needs to be written. And that's is one that I'm hoping I'll be starting very soon based on all the research I did.
And the third book, I’d love to see some smart person write is I've thought about trying but I’m not sure I'll ever get to it. I'm really fascinated by the connection between Neoplatonism, Augustine, C.S. Lewis and John Piper. I have this theory that running through the Reformed tradition, and especially through Jonathan Edwards and then into our contemporary Christian milieu, is a stream of thinking that owes a bit more to Platonism and Neoplatonism than it does to the Bible—especially to do with how desire drives the Christian life and how the Christian life is is about us rising up to the joy of God, driven by our desire for joy (or happiness), and that this shapes what the Christian life and Christian theology is about.
That seems to have the smell of Neoplatonism about it. And I'd love to have time to tease out that connection. Because I think that while there's a truth there—as indeed there is truth in Platonism, and a truth in man things—when you make it your system, it subtly shifts the way you think about things. It changes the emphasis of your theology and then changes how you read the Bible. You see it lot in C.S. Lewis who was quite explicitly influenced by the Cambridge Platonists. And I think you also see it coming out in contemporary evangelicalism in different ways. And that's a book I'd love some clever person somewhere to write.
Phil: Hopefully that person might be listening …
Tony: You just never know.
Phil: Well, I would read all three of those books, but I do think your Two ways to live idea is so true. There hasn't really been a standard give away book since the Chappo books.
Tony: Since A Fresh Start. In fact, I had an idea—and maybe this conversation with you will spur me into action to actually do it. I was thinking of taking a little run of Payneful Truths between now and the end of the year, or maybe over summer, and using them to write six chapters of this Two ways to live evangelistic book, and send it round to everybody and to see what they think. Make it a community effort, and see if we can pull together a short evangelistic book that utilizes the strengths of Two ways to live, but in a way that works for now and is in today's language. Maybe we should make it a communal project.
Phil: I think it's a great idea.
Tony: All right. I'll see what I can do!
Phil, thanks a lot for talking today. It's been great to catch up with you. Thanks for encouraging us and stimulating us as you always do. And all the best for your ongoing preaching at St. George North and your involvement in all the other things you do.
Phil: Thanks, Tony.
Hope you enjoyed that wide-ranging conversation as much as I did. To get every edition of The Payneful Truth every week, consider becoming a subscriber …
Some links you might like to chase up:
Information about the Nexus Conference in Sydney on Dec 3