Intelligence on Fire – RIP Rev. Dr. John Smith

I received the sad news today that a man I’m deeply privileged to have called ‘friend’ and ‘brother’ was promoted to glory last night. He has been affectionately called “Bullfrog”, “John Wesley on a motorcycle” and even “Intelligence on fire!” I am, of course, talking about Rev. Dr. John Smith – founder of God’s Squad Melbourne, Concern Australia, mission-troubadour and ordained-pioneer way before it was cool.

The following is an extract from a piece I wrote on him for my BA a few years ago. There’s a bit of extra pain in sharing this today, as after a lot of prayer and discernment, me and the family decided in January it was time for me to resign my membership of God’s Squad. The colours given to me personally by John Smith have gone back to the club, but the radical Jesus Movement culture we learned from him and others will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Every time I find myself in some shady bar or risky situation – I’ll be raising a glass of good scotch to you Smithy. Rest In Peace good and faithful servant.

The reason I want to share this paltry piece (alongside recommending that you read some of his own work), is that I believe Smithy had a pretty unique gift – in that he was the real-deal. A deeply faulted person, like all of us, but the real-deal nonetheless. I see a lot of Christians virtue-signalling on social media about the latest fad cause, but I don’t tend to see them in the soup-line sharing a meal with people. Smithy was different. He lived it. And he started living it in a time when it cost him his job at a Christian ‘mission’ agency, surely cost him some friends, and certainly cost him his reputation as a ‘clean-cut’ Christian minister. He was a man of his time, and some of his views might seem a little out-dated to the younger generation, but I hope you can see past this.

So if there’s one thing I’ll be taking from Smithy’s legacy, it’s this – I’m not going to try to gain kudos by talking about issues which affect people I don’t have proximity with. Smithy showed us a type of pioneering-incarnational-mission that came with blood, sweat, and tears. Literally. I hope this is an encouragement to people who’ve never heard of this great man, and comes with some comfort for those of us that are grieving. I’m glad to have been part of a culture where it’s ok for men to show their grief, tears, and affection for one another.

I might not be ok for a few days.


‘Smithy’, as he is affectionately known, was born in Melbourne, Australia, on the 7th of September 1942. Born into a working class family, his father was a fitter and turner, his mother a homemaker. He was raised in the way of ‘old school’ evangelical Christians who didn’t drink, smoke, chew, or ‘go with girls that do’.

John grew up with a struggling faith, at first a deeply conservative ‘suit and tie’ Christian, He went through a time of Agnosticism, once saying, “If there’s a God out there, I’ve tried to meet Him and it hasn’t worked”. He later had a profound conversion experience while training to be a teacher, and discovered what he called “an overwhelming sense of connection with God”.

After coming back to faith, and meeting his future wife Glena, John enrolled in Melbourne Bible Institute, with Glena joining as a student a year later, and he took up his first pastorate part-time in his second year, as a pretty typical Conservative Christian minister.

In 1969, the still suit & tie Smithy was given his first full-time ‘ministry’ job for an evangelistic organisation called ‘Campaigners For Christ’ . This came at time of great change both for Smithy and the world – the year of the Woodstock festival.

One has to consider the context of John’s early ministry to understand its significance. In his challenging book, ‘Advance Australia Where?’, he traces the brutal beginnings of the colonisation of Australia, a time of harsh corporal and capital punishment, and profound injustice. Witnessing this were Anglican Clergy who played a dual role as magistrates, sometimes turning a blind eye to the horrors going on. This brutal history, he believes, led to the indifference, suspicion and even hostility toward religion he encountered among many everyday Australians. A major turning point in his ministry was an evangelistic crusade with Campaigners For Christ in a tough rural mining community. It was here he began to truly realise how culturally irrelevant he was to everyday Australians.

At this stage a real change began to happen – he began to read more widely, being influenced by thinkers such as Francis Schaeffer. New possibilities began to bloom in his mind – “This is God’s world. He conceived it, made it, and continues to be concerned about every singe aspect of it”. At this time the growing cultural divide between everyday Australians and the Church became starkly apparent to him. Thus came a popular phrase of Smithy’s, “Jesus didn’t say ‘Come all you sinners into the Church to hear the good news. Instead he said, ‘Go, my disciples, into all the world to tell about the Gospel’”. Around this time he describes an experience he later recognised as “filling with the Spirit” while praying in the early hours.

“Jesus didn’t say ‘Come all you sinners into the Church to hear the good news. Instead he said, ‘Go, my disciples, into all the world to tell about the Gospel’” – Rev. Dr. John Smith

The protest music of the 1960s became a soundtrack to his life, and abandoning his previous reservations about appropriate dress and appearance, he became (as he described it) “hairier by the day”. He describes how “Having decided to put [himself] out to make contact with people who the Church didn’t traditionally reach, [he] began to look at the world differently”. During this transformation John naturally found himself part of the “Jesus Movement” – an emerging radical counter-culture movement on which he later wrote his PhD thesis.

John, no longer shackled to the Church as the only place for ministry, discovered that “Coffee shops, poolrooms, university forums, and rock concerts were the place of dislocation, reorientation, and transformation” journeying “in an atmosphere of the extreme liminality of revolutionary ideas”.

A truly revolutionary moment came when John one day drove past a large pack of bikers who were parked at the side of the highway, sporting club insignia, tins of beer and all the usual trappings, he thought:

“I can’t see the local minister making much headway with people like that. I began to pray from that time that God would raise up someone who would be able to get alongside bikers and be able to show them something of the love of Christ. I felt a reply: ‘Why don’t you answer your own prayers?”

It’s important to note that this was not out of a “Victorian sense of pity”, bikers were, at the time, a distinctly marginalised and disliked group of people.

The final nail in the coffin for the ‘conservative Smithy’ was his and Glena’s attendance with a group of Christians at the Sunbury Music Festival (Australia’s Woodstock). While being a deeply challenging and formational experience for John and Glena (they even baptised some people there), it was a step way too far for the establishment. This led to his dismissal from Campaign For Christ. 

This, in turn led to Smithy’s writing of a radical Christian publication “Truth and Liberation Concern”, the founding of an organisation of the same name, and more famously the Melbourne chapter of the fledgling God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club (originally started in Sydney) in 1972. The original Sydney chapter folded soon after, and the club grew in its new shape under Smithy’s leadership. God’s Squad was, and still is, revolutionary. Following the example of God’s incarnation in Jesus, John knew that to reach motorcycle clubs with a message of hope, they had to become a motorcycle club, with culturally appropriate structure, language and insignia. To quote the late Eddy Pye, a founding member of the club, “We were going to places the Church had never hoped of going”.

Tracing John Smith’s impact is a daunting task. Senator Michael Tate (Former Federal Minister for Justice in Australia) once said of him “I can think of no other Australian who has earned the admiration and respect of so many, in spite of challenging the assumptions and practices of their lifestyles”. This pretty much sums up Smithy – while living a life of prophetic assault on contemporary culture, he somehow wins the respect of those he preaches to. To use the words spoken to me by an officer from a notorious UK motorcycle club, “Smithy is the most beautiful person I have ever met”.

“Smithy is the most beautiful person I have ever met” – anon. 1%er

He has presented an appeal to a full session of the UN Human Rights Commission. He was sentenced to death by firing squad (and narrowly escaped) for direct action on behalf of oppressed peoples in the Philippines, during an Evangelical Alliance conference (Who refused to publicly pray from him and his team during the ordeal as it was ‘too politically hot’).

Smithy is a long time lover of musicians and troubadours. A conversation he had with Bono led the singer to write the U2 song ‘Beautiful Day’ – Bono honours Smithy as a “Very eloquent speaker with a brilliant mind” in a U2 biography. He has also been a long term friend and influencer of Martyn Joseph, Sammy Horner, Bruce Cockburn and many other musicians.

“I was influenced by a preacher I know called John Smith […] who is a very eloquent speaker with a brilliant mind.” – Bono, U2

Despite its humble beginnings, the God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club has extended to many different countries and chapters, rapidly spreading into the Northern Hemisphere after the founding of the UK Chapter. Naturally where new chapters exist “agencies of hope, of community of primitive Church and of social welfare” spring up. It is believed that God’s Squad is the oldest Christian back-patch motorcycle club in the world, and the first Australian club to become international.

Another huge impact has come through Smithy’s founding of what is now known as Concern Australia – “hundreds of thousands of High school students and university students” have been reached, including “every high school in the entire city of Adelaide and almost all of South Australia’s school regions”. 

Smithy’s influence and focus on incarnational mission communities led Sean Stillman, founding President of the UK chapter of God’s Squad, to start Zac’s Place in Swansea, a “Church for Ragamuffins”. After visiting Zac’s, former Arch-Bishop Rowan Williams’ founding and promotion of the “Fresh Expressions” network was significantly influenced by God’s Squad and Sean. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, authors of ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come’, refer to John as “One of the truly great missional leaders in Australia” and the leader of “one of the most prolific incarnational mission movements in that country” in their book. At the Forge Grassroots Mission Festival, Melbourne, Australia, 2008, Hirsch publicly honoured Smithy, saying that “There is no doubt in my mind that the whole incarnational mission movement stems from the vision and passion of this man” he is “Intelligence on fire”.

“He is like intelligence on fire. There is no doubt in my mind that the whole incarnational mission movement in Australia stems from the vision and passion of this man.” – Alan Hirsch

I could go on to discuss his extensive work among Aboriginal Australians and outspoken support of rights for First Nations peoples. The media attention at the forefront of standing against Australia’s vicious anti-association laws against bikers. Even his work at St Martins Church Collingwood, but that is beyond the scope of this work.

John Smith is a man who’s life and ministry has bridged two Epochs. Very much a child of the ‘modern era’ and very much an influencer of the ‘post-modern era’ of the Church. One of the greatest significances of this is the sense that John is a man deeply rooted in history. Also, unlike many ‘post-modern’ and emergent thinkers, his teaching, vision and ministry is somehow both deeply rooted in Biblical theology and yet explosive and challenging in terms of its imagination. To hear Smithy preach is to once again become deeply excited about the Gospels, to have a hunger to learn about the life of this Jesus of Nazareth from “The Old Book” as he calls it. It’s understandable that he’s been referred to as John Wesley on a motorcycle.

John remains fervently contemporary and yet deeply rooted, which is probably a significant reason for his great impact. Studies have traced the want for a sense of rootedness and ‘the old’ in spirituality for 21st century seekers.

At once an academic and an activist, John has never been one for ivory towers, and yet disdains the thoughtless reactionary attitude of ‘radicals’ who don’t see the whole picture. He is truly a visionary of a ‘third way’. As Tony Campolo once put it, “John Smith knows that sacred cows make great hamburgers”. What comes across more than anything when one sees Smithy in his natural habitat is his huge heart and his ability to communicate meaningfully with almost anyone. As a diagnosed sufferer of ADHD, he is thankful for the “crazy brain” that enables him to do this.

“John Smith knows that sacred cows make great hamburgers” – Tony Campolo

To me, John’s greatest legacy is a brand of incarnational mission that he has not only eloquently communicated, but lived, for over 50 years.

The influence of Smithy and God’s Squad in my own life has been profound. After almost 7 years journeying with the club, and spending a number of weekends with Smithy, I am fully aware that neither Smithy nor God’s Squad are perfect. Sean Stillman once said, “mission means getting your hands dirty” and there is a distinctly earthy feel to Smithy and his ministry – it is real, without the hype and pomp. I get the idea that if Smithy read this piece, he would probably hate it for being too close to a hagiography. 

“Mission means getting your hands dirty” – Sean Stillman

As someone who never fitted in, and who was always attracted to ministry among the marginalised, Smithy has been a significant help in finding somewhere I can belong – both ideologically and communally. As the son of a Methodist lay preacher, an ADHD kid, a former right-winger and a frustrated academic myself, I feel a great deal of comradeship with John. Like many others, John showed me that there is a place in God’s Kingdom for people who belong on the edge. John has been a profound influence on me and my family, and after I received God’s Squad colours from his own hands, we felt deeply humbled by the challenge to carry the torch of genuine incarnational mission to the next generation.


 

Thank you for reading, please keep in your prayers the Smith family, the wider God’s Squad family, and those of us who have been so touched by the life of this great man.

 


Essay Bibliography-

Fresh Expressions, ‘Sean Stillman – the Good Samaritan’, YouTube (YouTube, 2011) <https://youtu.be/0lVKmVQ428c&gt; [accessed 3 December 2015]

‘God`s Squad CMC International’ <http://gscmc.com&gt; [accessed 26 November 2015]

McCormick, Neil, and U2 group), U2 by U2, 1st edn (New York: HarperCollins Entertainment, 2006)

Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Australia: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004)

Parham Media, ‘“SMITHY” Doco Teaser (Nov 2013)’, YouTube (YouTube, 2013) <https://youtu.be/JrAju74kmK0&gt; [accessed 26 November 2015]

Parham Media, ‘“SMITHY” Pozible Update 1’, YouTube (YouTube, 2013) <https://youtu.be/qnVot2h0H2I&gt; [accessed 20 November 2015]

Smith, John, Advance Australia Where? (Homebush West, N.S.W.: Anzea, 1989)

Beyond the Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Fulfilment (Australia: Acorn Press, 2014)

On The Side Of The Angels, 2nd Revised Edition (Victoria, Australia: K John & Glena Smith, 2015)

Sharpening The Cutting Edge, Revised Edition (Northern Victoria, Australia: Urban Neighbours Of Hope, 2008)

The Origins, Nature, and Significance of the Jesus Movement as a Revitalization Movement (United States: Emeth Press, 2011)

Vincent, Warwick, ‘Alan Hirsch Honours Smithy (Rev. Dr. John Smith) at Forge Grassroots Mission Festival, Melbourne, Australia, 2008’ (Vimeo) <https://vimeo.com/74980516&gt; [accessed 26 November 2015]

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