David Robertson: from Dundee to Down-Under

Gavin Matthews spoke to David for Solas, about his plans.

SOLAS: Everyone has heard that you are leaving Scotland, but no-one knows much about what you are going to be doing! What are you are planning next?
DAVID: I’m moving to Australia! I’m going to be working with an organisation called the City Bible Forum. They are excellent at doing outreach in the cities, businessmen’s lunches, events for lawyers and things like that. I’m going to help develop something called “3rd Space”. That means, if you view the Church as one space, and the culture as another space, “3rd Space” is the kind of thing Solas does here, with cafe evangelism. So my main task will be to do evangelism and help facilitate churches doing evangelism.
SOLAS: So is this work a new start-up?
DAVID: Well City Bible Forum itself is well established, but the bit I’m going to be doing is a new idea. They felt they were doing well in certain areas, but when I was over there on sabbatical last year and did some work for them, they really felt that they could use more of what I was doing. For me, the “3rd Space”, is really where I fit in.
SOLAS: So what will your daily work-life look like when you get there? 
DAVID: Well, according to some of my friends, it will be on Bondi Beach! Actually, I don’t know what it will be like. I will be part of a team with guys like Steve McAlpine in Perth, and Sam Chan. It’s really important that I’m working as part of a team. I’ll be Sydney based, but covering the other cities as well, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide. Steve will cover Perth, but it’s as far from Sydney to Perth as it is from Dundee to Moscow! I will be directly involved in evangelism, but my new role will also involve preaching, writing, and training people as well.
SOLAS: So are you moving Down Under for good?
DAVID: No, its a two-year commitment, because it’s a two-year visa. So, yes, two years. The unique thing I do though, is cultural engagement – and that’s what we really need to try and develop. That’s the plan, but who knows!
SOLAS: I remember when you arrived in Dundee. I was a member of the University Christian Union, and you came to speak at our lunch at Pete’s Bar in the Union, billed as the ‘new guy!’
DAVID: Yes, and that was a looooonnng time ago, 27 years!
SOLAS: So, you have two years planned ahead of you in Australia. What are your goals, what’s your vision, what do you hope to achieve? Two-years is quite a narrow time-space?
DAVID: Yes, it’s a very narrow time-space! My view is that if you are coming to work in a local church here in Scotland it takes you five years just to get settled in. We were here 18 years before we began to see any significant fruit. So, it’s a very, very different thing. We still don’t have our visas yet, we’re still waiting for those. My aim is provoke, to stimulate, and God-willing we’ll hit the ground running.
SOLAS: Provoke? You!!!?? Surely not!!
DAVID: No, not me!! I feel that I don’t think I’ve been provocative enough! The phrase in Hebrews 10 though is to ‘provoke one another to love and good works’.
Australia though isn’t as far down the road as we are. I used to think that it was more secular than us, but is in fact considerably less secular. I think that in Australia they can turn back the tide, and I think that it is evangelism that is needed to do that. Especially evangelism that is culturally engaged, not stuck in the Christian cultural ghetto, hence the “3rd Space” idea. I think the situation in Scotland is a good bit different. I would like to come back, love to come back to Scotland, the UK and Europe, but this just seems like the right thing to do at this moment in time.
SOLAS: How does the Australian church scene differ from Scotland?
dr2DAVID: It’s very different! So there are some similarities, but Sydney in particular is different. The older denominations are much more evangelical there. I was speaking to the Anglican Bishop of Wollongong, he has sixty churches in his diocese and every single one of them is Evangelical/Reformed. There are probably only five congregations on the whole of the Scottish Episcopal Church that would describe themselves in those terms. In Australia they have Hillsong on the Charismatic side, and other large churches like that. There’s a growing F.I.E.C. movement, there are the Sydney Anglicans. There are also a lot of Chinese people there, and I have previously really enjoyed working with the Chinese Presbyterians. My aim is to work with all of them. Whether that will work, and whether they’ll want me to, I don’t know! The whole thing is that this is a huge “gamble”. It may not work at all, on the other hand it may take off! Who knows?
SOLAS: And City Bible Forum works across the denominations?
DAVID: Yes, it’s an interdenominational thing. They’ve done a lot of big events in the past, but they have also organised smaller ones too and I’m wanting to move it beyond the event-type thing.
SOLAS: And is there a sister-church to the Free Church of Scotland that you have natural, existing ties to?
DAVID: Well, there’s the Presbyterian Church of Australia, which used to be closely tied to the Church of Scotland, but because of the Church of Scotland’s direction over recent years on issues like same-sex marriage, they have loosened their ties. They are now closer to the Free Church of Scotland.
There is also the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia which is a more traditional Free Church. Since the Free Church of Scotland has started singing hymns and so forth, I don’t think they are speaking to us! (I’m joking!) I have actually written for both of those denomination’s magazines, and I would hope to work with them.
On previous visits we have been very involved with St Thomas’s Anglican in Sydney, so we hope to work with them again. However, we’ve also been asked to help with a new church plant, in a hippie-ish student area, which I’m really tempted by. Then the Presbyterian Church has a church revitalisation project, right in the heart of Sydney, which I would want to help with. I think that because my remit will be to encourage evangelism through all sorts of local churches, I won’t be tied just to one church.
SOLAS: And many opportunities for student work?
DAVID: Oh yes! So many opportunities. When I was there before I did some work in the “Eton and Harrow” of Australia, which was fantastic! How many opportunities? Well, how long is a piece of string!? The opportunities for evangelism are tremendous, and that’s what I want to do.
SOLAS: And is there an equivalent of UCCF/IFES?
DAVID: Yes, Australian IFES is very active and I’ve been involved with the folks there already. They do lots of university missions, debates and all those sorts of things.
One of the things about the Australians is that they are not subtle, are they?! And I like that! An Australian pastor said to me, “you’re really unusual for a Brit, you really ‘get’ us!” I said, “I’m just who I am, you’re probably more like me than most Brits!” They are very direct!
In Australia you also have the Indigenous population, many of whom are Christians, which is really fascinating for me. Then you have the white Europeans, and many of them are moving towards a more secular world-view, like we have in Europe; and that is doing a great deal of harm. But Australia is very rapidly becoming much more Asian and churches are growing rapidly — especially amongst the Chinese; but also amongst Vietnamese and Indonesian people as well. My argument would be that from Scotland you can reach Europe; but from Australia you can reach Asia. Maybe that’s where the future of the Church is, I don’t know. But if I could be even a little, tiny part of that, I would be happy to be so.
SOLAS: In terms of the white European population. We know what the challenges to the gospel are here; is it similar for them? What are the objections that an average Sydney person will have to the gospel that you will have to address in your preaching? What are the key apologetic tasks?
DAVID: Well, pretty much the same as here, really. There is a good deal of indifference and apathy, and then there is very militant secularism in the academic institutions. I look forward to that challenge — if they’ve got the nerve! You know, as they say, “Come on, if you think you’re hard enough!”. We will face the same materialism as we do here, but we will also observe the same failings of secularism that I do in Scotland. The intolerance, the political-correctness, the greed and political corruption; all these kind of things. But all these things present an opportunity as well as a challenge for the gospel.
SOLAS: And what are the top three things you are going to miss about Dundee?
DAVID: Alright! Number one is St Peter’s Church. This place has been transformed over the years, it is very much my spiritual home, these people are my spiritual family. This was way and above the hardest part about this decision to go. In terms of physical family, I have family here, and in Australia; so that was ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’, but leaving St Peter’s is really, really hard.
Then, I really, really like the people of Dundee. Even though I think the way that this city is run is as bad as they way our country is run. People have said to me, “You’re running away from Brexit”. No, I’d love to be here for Brexit (if it ever happens). But I am much more concerned about the fact that Scotland seems to be moving towards a much more authoritarian, intolerant, anti-Christian point of view. I would still like to be here to fight that battle, but probably need a break for a while, because I’m knackered!
SOLAS: There are a lot of people who are your supporters and friends, all over Scotland. What they want to know is, what you would like them to pray for as you head off to this new work?
DAVID: Well, basically I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing, which is my way of operating! My modus operandi is to do things without really knowing what I’m doing. It’s a high-risk/high-reward strategy, but there’s also high failure risk too! So this could all be a disaster.
So in terms of prayer. Pray first of all that we get the visas! And pray about my health, because my health has always been mixed since 2011. Last year was a good year for me, because I wasn’t in hospital at all! I will be having another operation before I go to Australia. So please pray for the visa, for my health. Also I think that pray for the work, that God would give clear guidance as to what we should do. I don’t want to waste my time. I mean, to give up St Peter’s is to give up a lot for me. And also pray that in the Lord’s providence that I would be able to come back. And I don’t want to come back and retire and lead a quiet life.
They used to say that in your fifties you were at your peak in the ministry, because you have all that experience, but you still have energy! But Os Guinness said to me that now that’s your 60s! So I’m still three years off my sixties, so if God spares me I’ve got a lot more to give and I’d like to give it in as profitable and fruitful way as possible. And obviously I will continue to pray that the work of Solas continues to grow and develop.
It’s funny though, because since news about my plans has gone out, I’ve had some politicians contact me to say, “Good Riddance!”. While others have contacted me to say, “What are we going to do without you!” The very mixed reactions have been quite interesting. Both responses are quite humbling, actually.
SOLAS: And I see that you will be living very close to where “The Ashes” will be played in 2020-1!
DAVID: Well, that’s got to be booked in! Oh my goodness, I’d love that!
I love Dundee, I do. But as a city, Sydney is my favourite city in the world by a mile. I love New York as well. Annabel and myself are really city people. But Sydney – the opportunities for ministry are just amazing, Now I am aware of the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome, and that when I was there before I was the new-boy on the block, so everyone loves you. (Everyone loves you when you are new or dying!) But the environment and the opportunities for gospel ministry are amazing. Lat time God opened so many doors, in such a short space of time, it was remarkable. The were the kind of doors that here, you have to work long and hard to get through. And I have worked long and hard, but I think it is time for something different.
SOLAS: Well we’ll be praying for you, and for St Peter’s as it enters a new phase in its life.
DAVID: Well, I should also say that if I had stayed here it would have been very difficult to have stayed as the minister of St Peter’s and do all the other things I do in wider ministry. As a congregation it has grown from a handful of people to some 300 plus, and it requires a full-time minister, and I can’t be that, not with the stuff I do. And I can’t not-do what I do. I feel a calling to be pastor of this congregation, but also a calling to reach out, engage secular media, do evangelism. It was going to be one or the other, and the result of all that wrestling is that it is going to be the other. I wish it could have been in Scotland, but right now it can’t, but maybe in the future it will be.
SOLAS: Well, we’ll pray and see what happens!
DAVID: Thanks!
DAR Australia border