Phillip Jensen was chaplain at the University of NSW from 1975 till 2005, where God blessed his work with remarkable growth and influence. He has pioneered a host of outreach and teaching resources, preached across the world and been a driving force behind many gospel initiatives. He was Dean at St Andrew’s Cathedral, now runs Two Ways Ministries to train young men and women, and has recently produced a new book, The Coming of the Holy Spirit. Married to the “surpassing” Helen, he has three children and plenty of grandchildren. He speaks to Simon Manchester.
Phillip, did you grow up in a Christian home with Sunday school and youth group as part of life?
My brother and I spent so much time at church my mother accused us of using our home as a bed-and-breakfast establishment.
You (and brother Peter) were converted at the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade – do you remember the message that you heard and was there anything that you hadn’t heard before?
No, I can’t recall the message of that day. For me it was more the realisation that Christianity is not simply inherited but required a deliberate response to God.
Were you determined to do Christian ministry from that point and what sort of guidance did you get?
It was only a couple of years later, while still at high school, that I decided to pursue full-time ministry. I told a mate’s mother as she was a churchgoer and she encouraged me to do so. I told my minister, and he informed me I had to be 19 to go to college. As we only had five years in high school it meant a wait of two years – which was in no way encouraging but in hindsight very helpful.
Working with John Chapman (in the Department of Evangelism) must have been a great time – what were those days like in the 1970s?
Chappo was always a great encourager. Full of fun and intense arguments, we drove to town together most days and I learnt so much from him. In later years he prayed for our family and rang me most weeks for a quick five-minute catch-up. It consisted of one joke, one question of how I was doing, and one prayer point.
The 1970s were difficult because the impact of the 1960s social revolutions were being felt at the local level of the parish church. Youth groups and Sunday schools, while still large, were declining in numbers and impact.
Why did you take on the chaplaincy role at the University of NSW and not a typical local church position?
Sir Marcus Loane, our Archbishop, was persistent in asking, advising and encouraging me to. It was only to be a four-year appointment. I was then expecting to go into parish ministry. But after three years, again at the Archbishop’s ‘request’, I combined the role of chaplain with the position of rector of St Matthias’, Centennial Park and so stayed for 30 years.
Can you summarise the way you planned campus ministry and how the Lord opened doors and opportunities?
From my teachers and elders I was taught the strategy of prayerfully expounding the Scriptures to evangelise both Christians and non-Christians. However, my arrival at UNSW was not smooth. The Christian Union was not particularly welcoming and the AFES discouraging.
Some students I knew pointed out that there were no Bible studies on the campus and asked me to run one. We had 12 attend on the first week and 20 in the second. The rest of the year saw the growth of what we called Campus Bible Study and, with it, the development of the tactics needed to reach the campus.
The Katoomba conferences were booming from the ’80s on – maybe 6000-7000 at the Youth Convention one year, I think. What was happening then that seems harder to capture today?
Other than losing Australia Day as a long weekend, it was no easier or harder then or now. We simply didn’t compromise on serious quality Bible exposition. Starting with the first Youth Convention in 1974, we developed a platform where God’s word was more dominant than youth culture.
How do you remember your visits to England – conferences where you rocked many boats and launched many as well?
England was a great disappointment to me. Having been raised on British history and especially evangelical Anglican history, and having been educated by English books and preachers, I was horrified to see the weakness and frailty of the evangelical movement. With some marvellous exceptions, the accommodation of evangelicals to the national Church presaged its current divisions, decline and disaster. So, when invited to speak on the subject, I spoke.
If your grandchildren asked you for a few “special memories” what would those be?
How great it was to be married to their grandmother. How wonderful to be a father and how greater still it is to be a grandfather.
I’ve known you to focus hard on ministry and not church politics, then work hard at Synod policies. Can (and should) pastors do both?
We all have responsibilities and sometimes those responsibilities are so time-consuming that we have work out our priorities and choose wisely where to put our efforts. In my early years of ministry, I relied upon others to bear the burdens of synodical government. However, there came a time when it was my turn to bear those burdens for other people. I never enjoyed the church politics side of those responsibilities. I don’t think I was very good at them and am wonderfully relieved to be no longer involved in them. However, it has to be done, and done well, to protect and provide for the ministry of the gospel.
How is Two Ways Ministries going and are you and Helen having quieter days?
Two Ways Ministries has been and is a delightful way to continue teaching the Bible to another generation. With forums and conferences, training of student ministers, preaching, podcasts and writing we are kept too busy to take up all the opportunities and requests that come our way. The staff team at Two Ways Ministries are a wonderful family enabling me to keep going. And yes, Helen and I are having some quieter days in that the pressures of the senior pastor role have been removed.
Your fine book on the Holy Spirit is out – what should those who read it expect (and not expect)?
It is not a polemical book continuing the debate between charismatic and non-charismatic Christians. It is aimed at a fresh but serious look at what the Bible does teach about the coming of the Holy Spirit and why Jesus sent the Spirit into the world. In other words, it aims to let the Bible set the agenda of our inquiry about the Holy Spirit rather than our controversies setting the agenda. I pray that those who read it will come to rejoice more in the work of the Spirit in our lives.