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John Smith: Australia’s apologist and evangelist

At 77 and after a long illness John Smith (Smithy) died peacefully in the arms of Glena his beloved companion of 50 years early on the morning of March 7, 2019.

The memorial service was as hand -crafted and non-conforming as was John Smith. Well over a thousand attending, with hundreds of bikers from most outlaw clubs, plus of course the God Squad founded by John and now an international biker evangelising movement.  A recurring theme placed John as the Aussie John Wesley.

John loved Wesley and read and thought deeply into his theology, methods and style. Like Wesley, John at his peak was probably amongst the most compelling preachers in the country. And the quarter of a million miles the founder of Methodism did in horseback the founder of the God Squad did on a Harley perhaps ten times as far.  Here are ten parallels between the two Johns separated by nearly three centuries, yet simultaneous in what is weighted with eternal reality.

1. Seriousness. A word Wesley often used to exhort his coworkers. Anyone who worked with Smithy felt the seriousness of his mission. There were priorities to fight for. Mediocrity or triviality was not in his bag.

 2. Delight in the Creation and adoration of the Creator. Wesley frequently referred to the beauty of landscapes. He was probably as skilled a cartographer as any, of England’s landscape owing to the quarter million miles he rode on horse-back all around it. Smithy’s house was full of flora and fauna species collected over his nation-wide mission sorties. I was pillion on his earlier ‘Kwaka’ 900 on the far West Coast through extensive scrub when he noticed one stand-out species, a eucalypt tetrapetra (I learned) amongst hectares of bushland. He gleefully collected the gum-nuts.

3. Church. Wesley never left the institutional church but pioneered a church planting movement unprecedented in history. Smithy challenged and exhorted the institutional church like no one else. He was once counselled by a (former) UCA Assembly president to stay out of it for the sake of his ministry. Both Johns knew the Word of God proclaimed was the life of church and society. Smithy’s base, the ‘Jesus Light and Powerhouse’ attracted hundreds of truth-hungry counter-culture youth, but it survived and flourished only by the continuous teaching of the Word of God.

4. Go first to the marginalised. Wesley magnetised to the Gospel the miners, oppressed farm labourers, prisoners and others of society’s discards. Smithy was the apostle to the urban marginalised. He was fair dinkum. One of the least would have his attention without his eyes wavering in a crowd after a meeting as others waited and waited to have his attention. He was like this to the end at his beloved urban church outpost, St. Martins.

5. Preaching method. Wesley’s most common purpose in open air preaching was to ‘reinforce the text’, meaning its application was shot home to heart and conscience. Mere descriptive or even explanatory preaching was insufficient. Smithy likewise sheeted home close application of Scripture. No mere talking about doctrine, or just describing doctrine; the hearers must take its truth to action.

 6. Physical resilience and stamina. Wesley lost his way walking across Georgia, went to sleep on the ground, awoke at dawn, prised off his garments frozen to the soil and continued. Smithy slept in the desert as he walked and worked with beloved aboriginal brothers to stir their courage with the Gospel. His body was the servant of his mind and mission.

 7.  Voracious readers. Both absorbed massive amounts of information in the service of the preaching yet were keenly and foremostly ‘homo unias libri’ as Wesley put it, ‘a man of one Book’. Brilliant with secondary and tertiary students, Smithy would master set curricula novels and texts, and then be able to critique and commandingly employ their ideas in the service of the Gospel. Thousands heard him at these events, and many were persuaded to follow Jesus.

8.  The doctrine of sanctification. Wesley and Smithy were both thoroughly reformed in doctrine, but they were not just that. They could constructively critique the greats and find the distinctive angles of the Gospel for their day. Regeneration was more important than unapplied confessionals. Living Faith that glorified God and issued from a changed heart was the object of preaching and the test of effectiveness and indeed faithfulness to the Gospel.

9. Preaching Perfection. Not a morally static thing, but a demonstration of true scriptural understanding shown in overflowing labours of love toward God and one’s neighbour. The way Jesus expressed it as an imitation of the Father by respectful sons. Fragile humans restored and complete in Christ now on the way with an abundance of opportunity to serve with the Master.

10. Critique of their culture. Where it had usurped or opinionated itself over the culture of the Kingdom of God. The tools of logic, a whip-smart lateral mind and a willingness to engage in any forum from a country pub bar to the national press council to scores of public meetings with hundreds of tertiary students and their professors lined up at the back was Smithy’s native air. On university campuses he was peerless. I asked him once if on these occasions he set out to win the argument of the truth of the Kingdom over the lie of materialistic humanism. Reflectively John replied, ‘no not primarily, but I do set out to make their arguments bleed’. He did that peerlessly and many students thought more deeply about their life goals as a result.

We thank God who endowed and employed for his purposes the gifts and graces which our brother, friend, inspirer and faithful servant Smithy, shared with so many Australians.

Thisarticle was published in the June 2019 edition of ACCatalyst

Rev. Ian Clarkson is the Minister for HopeNet in the South Australian Synod.