John Smith, prophet, teacher, evangelist and biker takes his final ride
A final word from John Smith – Lessons from my cancer
John Smith, founder of the God’s Squad motor cycle ministry, evangelist, author died in the early hours of March 7 2019. By chance or providence Eternity published an essay by him in our 100th edition this month.
I have been battling cancer for almost 19 years. Eventually that has meant chemical castration and radiation therapy and becoming almost unrecognisable after losing my customary long hair and beard. But by God’s grace I am still alive, contrary to medical expectations, and determined to keep on doing my best to be useful. Here I want to share some reflections arising out of my struggle with cancer.
I’ve been thinking about the cancer cells themselves and what they are doing to me. As I understand it, virtually all normal cells in our body die and are replaced continuously by another generation, with some changes as we age. But cancer cells don’t have a use-by date; they just keep on dividing. And each new cancer cell produces spawns more cancer cells, and so on. In the end, unless the good Lord grants a miracle – a possibility I do not discount – it’s inevitable that these cells will take me out. And take me to a better place. So growth can be healthy or unhealthy in physical terms.
Economic growth is currently a major focus in Australia. But what kind of growth are we talking about? Can we call it healthy growth if we achieve a surplus but fail to meet the needs of the community, particularly the poor, disadvantaged or marginalised?
There is also an emphasis on growth in many churches today, both large and small. Globally, the Christian faith is now growing at a rate never, or rarely, seen before and faster than any other religion. But I am concerned. As I watch television and YouTube, I often see leaders of mega-churches whose teaching is quite contrary to the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. The question must be asked: what are we growing?
I witnessed a deeply disturbing example of disease within the church five years ago. A group of us, most of whom were Indigenous Christians, had been out in the Australian desert, waiting on the Lord and gathering together simply in the beautiful outback. We returned to a nearby town for a worship service where some of our group were to take part in preaching, music and sharing stories.
The venue, an old tin shed, was packed with local Aboriginal people. Most were living in poverty on welfare handouts in a community where alcoholism and family violence were rife, as evidenced by the broken arms of some women who attended.
To my horror, a visiting white preacher took over, even pushing aside the very capable Aboriginal leader who was supposed to preach. Just before the offering was collected, he asked an Aboriginal woman to read the Bible passage in which St Paul warns Timothy about the love of money, describing it as the root of all kinds of evil. But the preacher had added his own words between the lines from the Bible, which contradicted everything that St Paul was saying. Her reading ended with the outrageous “promise” that if their offering was generous, they would find that God had put a large amount of money into their account when they went to the bank on Monday.
Most of these people were uneducated and economically naive, ready to accept the word of a preacher without question. What a betrayal of their trust!
Sadly, this man is not alone in using inappropriate methods to promote giving for ministry or gaining converts. I watched a well-known American healer-preacher on TV saying with great cynicism: “You know there are many preachers who say give and expect nothing in return. How dumb thou art, how dumb thou art,” he sang. He seemed unaware that the words he was scorning were spoken by Jesus himself. Others are preaching that if you have faith you will become rich.
Jesus said beware of covetousness – an excessive desire to possess something or someone – calling it the sin of idolatry. He was referring to the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, which place devotion to the one true God as the highest priority and ban idol worship and covetousness.
When Jesus encountered a rich young ruler who believed he had kept all the commandments since he was a child, he said, “One thing you lack. Sell everything you’ve got, give it to the poor and come follow me.” In contrast, the advice of some pastors today would be to work hard, do well, give a tenth or more to the church and be good to people.
I don’t enjoy criticising my fellow preachers and I’m certainly not against healthy church growth. I know that all of us preachers fall short of being right about everything. We all make mistakes in interpreting the biblical text. Thankfully God is loving and powerful enough to deal with that.
For the church, as for cancer, the key question is not how fast you are growing but what you are growing.
But I have to ask this: if you build your church on a distortion or contradiction of what Jesus taught, what are you growing? Is it healthy growth or is it a heretical, cancerous growth that will threaten the spiritual life of both church and individual?
A church is also at risk of unhealthy growth if it emphasises the appealing inclusiveness of Jesus but loses sight of the exclusiveness inherent in the call for those who follow Jesus – the call to be committed to the godliness, goodness and integrity the gospel is meant to bring to our lives. While Jesus showed his compassion and acceptance by rescuing the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery, he also said to her, “Go and sin no more.”
I hear of some churches who rely on secular selection criteria such as education, age and physical attractiveness when making appointments, while neglecting spiritual aspects of the process. I know a very fine musician who offered to be part of the worship band at a large church. He was turned away because he was overweight and didn’t project the right image. Did this man’s deep longing to use his musical gifts to honour God and lead people to Jesus count for nothing? Elsewhere a musician failed an age limit test: she was over 35!
Throughout history, God has used ordinary people in extraordinary ways to grow his church. They didn’t need impressive qualifications or praise sessions well-crafted for television. They held prayer meetings where they cried out to God, sometimes through the night, until the Spirit fell. That passion and willingness to follow the promptings of the Spirit, whatever the personal cost, is at the heart of healthy church growth.
A focus on slick marketing, professional performances and trendy church buildings may attract a crowd. But is that necessarily healthy growth?
For the church, as for cancer, the key question is not how fast you are growing but what you are growing. Whatever the size of your church, is it reflecting Jesus and what he taught? He shed his blood not only for us but also for the church itself, so that it might be like a pure bride, walking morally and ethically in the goodness and integrity of Jesus himself.
I sometimes wonder whether, despite great growth of so-called Christian movements, we may be observing a departure from New Testament faith more dangerous than any since the time of the Reformation, when house cleaning was required because widespread worldliness had undermined the teaching and practices so clearly demanded by Jesus and his apostolic disciples.
Rev. Dr John Smith was an international speaker, author and founder of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club International, Concern Australia and St Martin’s Community Church in Melbourne.