A wide-ranging interview with Richard Chin, National Director of AFES, about life and ministry – including why he’s on a crusade to promote extended Bible memorisation, why he refuses to give up his role in local campus ministry, the challenges and opportunities of ministry to Millennials, coping with the death of his first wife, and what it’s been like to remarry and become a ‘twicer’.
GR: Richard, you were born in Malaysia and you moved to Australia when you were eight 8 years old. What are your earliest memories of Australia?
RC: Meat pies, hearing people say ‘G’day mate’ but not realising what they were saying, and going to a primary school which was co-ed. The only schools I had attended were not co-ed, so it was strange seeing girls next to me in Year 3.
Did you grow up in a Christian family?
No, I grew up in a non-Christian family, although my mother had a belief in God and she was from a Roman-Catholic background – she went to a Roman-Catholic convent school in Malaysia. My father came from a synchretistic Buddhist family, but he would describe his own life or pilgrimage as an agnostic of sorts, or a free thinker.
I still recall my mother talking about ‘penance’ without knowing what the word meant. As a high school student, she would have to kneel on the ground until she was bleeding in order for her to make right the wrongs she had done. And I had one uncle who was especially into animalistic religions. I literally saw him do this: he would supposedly turn into an animal – he would allegedly take on the soul of a tiger and become a tiger. I grew up with all this fairly freaky stuff, so I have no problems believing the New Testament when it speaks about evil spirits and the like, because that’s the world that I grew up in.
How did you then become a Christian?
I always believed in God through all of that, and I believed in the grace of God. I went to a youth group in Singapore – I was born in Malaysia but I grew up in Singapore for the first eight years of my life. One of my best friends had become a Christian, and he took me along to his youth group, and it was there that I discovered something of the friendliness of people and where I saw a life that adorned the gospel.
But I don’t think I really heard the gospel there. That happened during my first year of university. I went to a conference where the speaker was a man named Paul Barnett. I remember he said, ‘If you want to know whether you are a Christian or not, ask yourself: is Jesus number one in your life?’ I realised Jesus wasn’t number one. He was a good number two or number three, but he wasn’t number one. I mean, I was moral, I was a teacher’s pet – I didn’t even have an overdue library book! But I knew Jesus wasn’t number one, and I think that was the real turning point. So I prayed a prayer to become a Christian at that conference, and in God’s kindness I haven’t looked back.
You’re now directly involved in student ministry and have been for a long time. Is that partly because you became a Christian at university and those were formative years for you? How do you look back on those university years for you and what God did in your life then?
They were very formative years indeed. I remember at that first Mid-year Conference: the lives of people and their love for one another. I couldn’t get over the fact they didn’t lock their rooms, even though they had their belongings in there. It was a life that adorned the message and it made me want to find out more. Seeing lives transform even from the Monday to the Friday of this week-long conference helped me see that the Bible really is the word of God, living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It really penetrated the lives and hearts of people, right before my eyes.
The following year at Mid-Year Conference, we looked at the death of Jesus, and a verse that stuck in my mind was from 2 Corinthians 5, which says: “For Christ’s love compels us, for we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” I realised then that I am no longer living for Richard anymore; I’m living for Jesus. I’d discovered that the year before, but now I saw that it meant everything: my career, my family, my everything. I’m just signing a blank cheque for Jesus. That’s what life is all about in the end.
Those formative times helped me to see that there is such a wonderful window of opportunity for university students to see those big issues clearly at that vital stage of life.
You are the National Director of AFES, but you have quite deliberately stayed focused on the local campus as well. Why have you set things up that way, when you could easily have stepped back from the local work to focus on the national role?
It’s part of the ministry DNA I grew up with. It’s also my personality. I can’t sit around an office in front of a laptop all day. I know part of the role involves raising partnership and support development, which of course I have to do. But if that’s all that I did, I would wither on the vine. I need to be with people, and I need to teach the Bible.
If all I did was sit around the office and increase our middle management, I’ve just lost it. I really have to be with students.
My view is that my primary role is to teach the Bible. God leads his people by his word, so I take it the way to lead his people now is by teaching his word. I’m not at all suggesting that I’m the best Bible teacher. That’s far from the truth in the fellowship that I am a part of; there are amazing Bible teachers that are far better and more gifted than I am. But I take it that the best way I can serve God’s people in this role is by teaching his word.
I also want to operate in such a way that I’m not working with yesterday’s memory on how to do student work. If all I did was sit around the office and increase our middle management, with 50 layers of authority between me and the front line campus worker and the front line student, I’ve just lost it. So I really have to be with students.
I still meet with at least three students one-to-one, I teach the Bible on campus, and half my week is spent with students on campus. That’s the DNA of our AFES fellowship. None of us really wanted this role. I felt like everybody stepped back and I drew the short straw! The members of the AFES Executive are all on campus in some capacity. It’s not slick, and it feels really messy in so many ways, but I think our colleagues appreciate that because we know what we are talking about; we have the same vocabulary when we talk about real ministry.
What else do you see at the heart of the National Director’s role?
I think my role is to continually set vision for the whole movement. By ‘vision’, I don’t mean a man-made vision. It’s a biblical vision. We have a vision statement that comes straight out of Colossians 1:28: “Him [Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s our vision.
But we’re also focused on reaching the world for Christ, not just our local campus. I long for our graduates to go to the world first, and then other parts of Australia, and then to think about the gospel locally. So my role is to set that kind of vision everywhere I go. We want people to hear the gospel of Christ, go to the ends of the earth to proclaim it, and to see the implications of that gospel in their lives in all sorts of ways: Loving God and loving their neighbour.
How do you personally stay spiritually refreshed and alive?
I’m just going to steal a line that I think Don Carson stole from someone else: constantly come to the foot of the cross. It sounds so rhetorical, but I think it’s so true. Second, another thing I stole from Don Carson: at least once a month, think that you are wrong. Thirdly – and this is the case for everybody – keep reading the word and praying; doing that with self-discipline, with your spouse and with your family.
Can you talk a little bit more about the second of those ideas you mentioned: once a month, think you are wrong about something. Do you find that hard?
Oh sure. I’m as proud as everybody else. But if you are in a relatively public role and you’re teaching the Bible constantly, you’ll be on the receiving end of critique. It’s always helpful to hear that. I’ve had people disagreeing with the way I understood things very recently, and whatever the differences were, I needed to keep thinking graciously. Even though I held to my position, I still had to respond in utmost grace and think, “Could I be wrong in how I’ve understood this?” I had to try to understand their point of view and just sit with it, rather than to seek to respond immediately. I just had to listen. It’s hard, but it’s a good and godly thing to do.
So what would you say to ministers and Christian workers about how to respond to criticism?
Listen. Ask clarifying questions as to what exactly is being said, because sometimes it may not be as bad as it sounds. If it really is as bad as it sounds, think: “Maybe this person is not only right, but maybe they’re having a hard time for some reason.” Try to sympathise with them as best you can. Listen graciously, clarify anything that’s not clear, make sure you’re really on the same page as to what’s being articulated, then think and pray about that. Even if you still end up disagreeing after a period of time, try to find the kernel of truth in what’s being said. Look for something that you can take on board.
Of course, these are simple things to say, but it’s really hard in practice! The cross undergirds how you interact with one another and love one another in the process of conflict. Graciousness is just so important in how you speak to one another.
On staying spiritually refreshed, are there books that you return to often, or that you’d recommend to others to help them stay spiritually refreshed?
Without wanting to be clichéd, the Bible!
I have to prepare to give a series of talks from Colossians at a conference next year, so I’ve made it my goal this year to memorise all of Colossians. I’m on a crusade to get people to memorise whole books of the Bible, not just verses.
That’s seems overwhelming. Is there a method you’re using?
I don’t think there’s any secret. You just keep going, one verse at a time. I’m doing this with a couple of students that I meet one-to-one, and they’ve done it. They’re just ordinary students. They’re not the best in the world at memorisation, but we’re just hanging in there. It’s like anything: you make it a priority and you make time for it.
There are also great books I keep on coming back to over and over again, like Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and The Cross of Christ by John Stott.
I’d like to ask you about your first wife, Bronwyn. A lot of people reading this will know that she passed away on Easter Sunday in 2013. What are your overall reflections on that time?
I do want to say up front that death is awful. It’s just really awful. I don’t want to gloss over it in any way, shape or form. It was a horrendous time – to actually see her basically die before our very eyes. We did see her take her last breath. To see this healthy, beautiful woman turn into almost a skeleton by the time she passed away was awful. To see my wife of 23 years go through that suffering and pain was awful.
It certainly made us reflect on sin and its effects. Of course we didn’t believe that it was a specific judgement for any specific sins whatsoever. But in general, times of sickness, no matter how grave they are, are great times to confess sins to God.
Bron was still ministering to people. They would come in to visit her, thinking they were ministering to her, but people always left her feeling like they were ministered to. She would just turn the attention back to how they’re going. She didn’t have a lot of energy to speak, but they just kept speaking about their own situation. She had more ministry in the last three years of life than almost all the other years put together.
The gospel and salvation became bigger and bigger as sin became bigger and bigger. God’s glory was far more at stake in how I lived my life. It really was the severe mercy of God.
She became more and more beautiful, to the point where she wanted to talk about remarriage and I refused. I constantly turned away from the subject, but I have no doubt that she prayed about that, and every now and then she talked openly about it. Well, the answers to her prayers are in my meeting Jeanette, my beautiful wife of today. Almost a year on now, it’s been wonderful.
But going back to that time, it just made us rely more and more on God. In his severe mercy, God used that awful situation to draw us closer to him and not drive us away from him. Even though the meaning of the Bible didn’t change, there was a sense where the feelings did. We experienced things first-hand. Habakkuk and Job became close friends, and so did the Psalmists, who really struggle in pain and torment. Those were the verses that were speaking more strikingly to my heart.
I also recall not long before Bron passed away, I preached on John 11 – the raising of Lazarus. I still remember preparing for that – it just became so very real. The response of Jesus, that he was both angry and compassonate in the face of death. I can remember feeling that anger at death, the last enemy. It wasn’t anger at God, but at sin and its effects. That’s why I really want everybody to appreciate that the ultimate offence we cause is a vertical one against God. When we speak about sin, while it’s true that we sin against one another, and that we live in a broken and divided world, the broken and divided world is not the heart of sin. The heart of sin is the vertical rebellion against God that causes his almighty and righteous wrath to be expressed, and ultimately to be poured out on Jesus. The heart of the gospel is in Jesus turning aside God’s wrath and rising again as Lord and Saviour.
During Bron’s illness, the gospel and salvation just became bigger and bigger as sin became bigger and bigger, and God’s glory was far more at stake in how I lived my life. So going through that experience really was the severe mercy of God.
And God has been very kind. He’s held us all close to him. Each of our children continue to love Jesus and follow him, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
Can you talk about how you loved them and shepherded them through that time – what were the things you did to help them?
I don’t know – it just kind of happened! I remember reading a paragraph out of some article that said the best way you can love your children is to walk as closely with Jesus as you can. I continued to pray for them daily, and I sought to share eveything quite openly with them. I tried to be lovingly vulnerable with them and pray for them. That’s all I can say I tried to do. I stumbled through all of that, but I just chose to pray with and for them as much as possible, and to be vulnerable with them.
As I look back, what was really helpful was being open about things, rather than secretive. I know of people who’ve gone through suffering and have chosen not to share what they’re going through, and it’s been a very lonely experience for them, to the point where they’ve felt people have not looked after them. It may sound strange, but I think suffering can be a really selfish thing. When you suffer, you want the world to stop and take notice that you’re suffering. That’s not how we’re meant to be, but it’s how I felt at times. You feel like, “how can everyone else keep going on with their lives? Look at the mess here!” So I think it helped me to appreciate what it’s like when someone else is going through suffering. All you can do is help by loving with physical things around the home, and by praying with them and for them.
When you share, people are all too willing to get alongside you. That’s lovely, but that doesn’t necessarily deal with the issues either. I remember that people mowed our grass, they gave us food, they did everything they could. But that’s all they can do. They can’t take the pain away. But it was still so lovely – I was part of a spiritual family. When Jesus said, ‘These are my brothers and my mother…’, not his biological ones, but his spiritual family – it was so real.
How did you approach the process of becoming a ‘twicer’, as you put it – the process of remarriage?
It’s been absolutely beautiful. For me, I learnt one or two things from my marriage to Bron. I certainly made mistakes. But I wanted to start afresh in all sorts of ways with Jeanette. I didn’t take anything for granted. Jeanette’s a different person. So we did a marriage course, and we read all the books on marriage. I didn’t want to assume that I knew stuff. I learned all sorts of terrific things about marriage.
When I was courting Jeanette, [my children] were the first ones to know. I remember walking with each one of them, one by one, and talking that through.
Let me ask you about the student ministry world. How long have you been doing student ministry in one form or another?
Somewhere between 25 and 30 years now.
Thinking back over that time, has the average student changed?
Oh I think so, yes. When I started, university was a different beast. Most universities had a common lunch hour. Most students studied full-time, so they were on campus regularly. There was a life on campus, a sense of community expectation. So we had all this time with students. They wanted to be at university. They didn’t have the distraction of the part-time job that everyone has – at least in Australia – these days. There still wanted at least some elements of wanting to get educated, not just to get on the conveyor belt to get a job. And I think there was an expectation of exercising some kind of responsibility for the campus, at least for a core group of people.
These days it’s quite a different situation. Most full-time students I’m meeting are only on campus three or four days a week, if that. There’s a part-time job. The whole online situation means that they can stay off campus even more, so what would have been three or four days ends up being more like two or three days. And students don’t quite have the same sense of responsibility for the campus, or of wanting to be on campus for that time.
A generation before that, lots of people – I’m talking historically now, coming out of World War 2 – were trained captains in the army! They came on campus as very mature and responsible. But the students when I was studying, and through to today, don’t have that same experience. Also, social media wasn’t on the scene at all when I was a student, but now it’s just everywhere. So we’re just in a different world altogether. Students are facing different challenges – not through any fault of their own, but it’s just a state of life that they’re in.
Have you started to see ways that you can flip some of those challenges into opportunities?
There’s a video by a man named Simon Simek, where he speaks about the characteristics of Millennials. One thing he described is the sense of responsibility: Millennials wanting to change the world, and if they haven’t changed the world in six months they feel like a failure. I agree that a sense of responsibility often seems to be lacking. The general truth with Millennials is that they’re people who’ve constantly been told they’re wonderful, and they want to change the world, but they don’t necessarily have the sense of responsibility to bring that about, or they’re very impatient to bring that about. I think we want to teach them patience and responsibility, and to nurture a sense of responsibility terms of gospel ministry.
The best campus staff are the ones who are so well trained that they equip students to do the stuff on the front line. People sometimes say that more staff means less responsibility for students; my counter to that is, “No, more really good staff means even more empowered students on campus”. The best staff are going to bring that out in students. And I want a barrage of those on campus. I want really well trained staff to do that: give students a sense of responsibility.
What are the key topics you want to know they’ve thought through and gotten under their belts during their time with you?
I want them to understand the gospel clearly, first and foremmost. And I never take that for granted. I say this so often that those who hear me regularly just roll their eyes, but I think it’s true: what is taught in the first generation can be assumed in the second generation, before it’s forgotten or confused in the third generation and ultimately denied in the fourth generation. That’s the case with the gospel, the message of Jesus: the fact that he is Lord because of his death and resurrection. That is the message that has to be passed on, and not assumed.
Part of that means making sure people know what the gospel is not. The gospel creates a life of love, but the life of love is not the gospel. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself” is not the gospel. It is the implication, the inevitable outcome, of the gospel. If that’s not taking place, you can’t be a Christian. So I’m not saying it’s unimportant. But it’s actually not the gospel. I want students to be crystal clear on the gospel.
In this day and age, because of the culture we live in and the confusion with regard to gender identity, the doctrine of humanity is huge. What does it mean to be made in the image of God, as man and woman, reliant on God and representing God? They’re all big things.
These things are all related. In order to understand the gospel properly, you have to understand sin properly. That’s why I talked about the vertical element of sin. As I go around to various international conferences across all sorts of platforms, I keep hearing talk about the broken and divided world, and how we offend one another. If we keep on talking about sin that way, your solution is only ever going to be horizontal as well: you build hospitals, you dig wells, you build bridges, you stop conflict, you bring about racial reconciliation. Now, of course you work at those things. But they don’t deal with the vertical offence, which requires a vertical solution – which is based around who Jesus is and what he’s done in his death and resurrection.
What do you think is the biggest barrier for the average non-Christian student in Australia to considering Jesus?
Issues around gender and sexuality are specific examples of what I would label ‘secularism’. The word ‘secular’ just means ‘of this world’, and Christianity is very secular in that God really cares about this world. But ‘secularism’ is about the worship of this world, or the elemental spirits of this world, as Colossians describes it. The pointy end of the secularism that we’re experiencing today in 2017, I think, is the gender issue, which is a sea of confusion.
It’s not just ‘marriage equality’, but what gender you are. Someone described it this way: who you want to go bed with is your sexual orientation; who you want to go to bed as is your gender identity. The gender issue is increasingly coming to the fore. It comes out of this understanding of the authentic self that must be expressed from within. “I need to express myself, and finding and expressing the authentic inner self is really what life is about. That’s freedom.” But understood through a biblical lens, Jesus says that out of the heart comes sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc. So in the end, to express your inner self, biblically speaking, is actually the heart of sin.
We need to help people understand they’re like goldfish jumping out of the water. You might think you’re free, but you’re just dying.
These problems have been there since Adam and Eve, of course, in Genesis 3. But it took a particular expression in the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, where humans were seen to be at the centre of things. The individual’s ability to express themselves is seen as liberation and freedom. That’s what secularism teaches us. But that’s the exact opposite of what the Bible says about humanity.
But you are continuing to see that, as you preach the gospel, packaged carefully and thoughtfully, you’re seeing students respond to that…?
Absolutely. We preach the same gospel, but we help people to understand how our sin manifests itself in different ways. If you’re able to help people understand why sin is so offensive to God, then they start to get why they need to be rescued. We need to help them understand sin, and why God would be angry with them. “Why do I need a Saviour if I’m so well off? I’m free, I’m being my authentic self.” But we need to help people understand that they’re just like goldfish jumping out of the water. You might think you’re being free, but you’re just dying. And yet we need to do that out of compassion, love and kindness. But we can’t do that unless we really believe that they’re going to be judged, and they’re going to experience eternal conscious torment in hell. That is the inevitable result, because God is angry. We have to help them understand that, lovingly – not in a way that makes me sound like I’m angry with them, but in a way that helps them to understand: “If I’m going to run my own life my own way without God, then God is going to give me exactly what I want, which is life without him.” That’s why we tell people about Jesus – not just so they can live a good life.
Not everyone will want to hear, because there’s a confronting element to it. But in the end, it’s a loving message. It’s like telling someone standing in the middle of a highway that a truck is coming towards them, “Get out of the way!” Unless we believe that, we’re not going to evangelise.