Archive: Relocating the Church outside the Walls

Archive: Relocating the Church outside the Walls

Archive: Relocating the Church outside the Walls

By John Smith (1942-2019)
January/February 2000
Good News

For 35 years, I have been discovering that the world isn’t nearly as hostile to the gospel as I thought it would be. It is not nearly as frightening as we have been told it will be. Outside the walls of the church there are many people who want to be loved and would love to have a connection with someone that didn’t treat them like a prize to be won, but persons to be loved.

I was called to preach by God during the counter-culture days of the 1960s. I have spent most of my life rubbing shoulders with hippies, outlaw bikers, high school students, secular non-churched folk, artists, and just ordinary people. Sure, there are murderers and dangerous people out in the  real world. But I have discovered that most people who look a bit scary are actually quite ordinary. At the same time, a lot of people who look very suave are actually very dangerous. The mafia doesn’t go around looking like hippies. They wear the best Italian suits. So if you are going to judge from appearances, you’ll fail from the start. As Jesus said, man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.

One of the great recent scandals of the Christian church was the way in which she dealt with the young people of the 1960s, those we now refer to as the post-war baby boomers. They were confused, lost, and experimenting. They cried out for help, but the church largely sat back and watched. I fear we will repeat our mistake with the new wave of postmodern kids. If we are not attentive to their heart’s cry, we could very easily miss an entire generation of young people searching for community, meaning, and spirituality.

How do we make sure that we don’t repeat the past? Although this may sound terribly simplistic, I think we have to do exactly what Jesus did: He relocated. He came and sat with us. The Bible says he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. St. Peter testified that they beheld his glory when he went up on the mountain and saw the transfiguration. But they also beheld his humanity. The masses wouldn’t have beheld that as they did if Jesus had spent his time as a rabbi sitting in the synagogue.

Jesus did not say, “Come all ye sinners into the church to hear the gospel.” There are people who don’t get near the church. He did say, however, “Go ye into all the world to preach the gospel” to every “ethnos” – every culture and subculture.

Very simply, I take his command seriously. That is how I got involved in the lives of young people at rock concerts and outlaw bikers. I know that may sound incredible to some people. It’s not really all that weird. We just sit where they sit, and then the conversations come. It doesn’t take you long to be able to build a relationship. You can’t talk about a world out there if you don’t sit with them. You can’t make moral judgments of prostitutes if you never talk to them. You can’t castigate your teenage rock-and-roll kids if you never listen to their case. We have to listen, but first we must relocate. It has been said that we are meant to be in the world but not of it. Unfortunately, we may now be of the world and not in it.

I especially love working with people in pubs. I know of no place where people are more free to talk about their fears, sins, and failures. Not long ago, we were in a bar and we met a guy who was drinking himself to death because of some very serious problems in his life. He was about to go out to his pick-up and drive home when we offered to help him out. We said, “Hey man, you are not fit to go and drive that truck.” It turned out that he lived about an hour-and-a-half away. So one of my friends and I drove him home. We lost three hours of our day. All of his friends were saying, “What are you doing that for? He gets drunk like this all the time.” We told them that we didn’t want him to die, that we cared about him. A few days later, he was on the phone asking, “Why did you do that for me?”

Although I would love to win that brother to Christ, I would still do the same thing even if I knew he would never convert. Why? Because I know that is what Jesus would do. At the end of that day, what matters is whether we walk like Jesus in the world.

If I remember correctly, it was a clergyman of some distinction who said long ago that we must rediscover the fact in the church that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on a town garbage heap that was so cosmopolitan they had to list his name in several languages, in a place where men talked smut and where soldiers gambled for the only thing he possessed. That’s what Jesus was about and that’s what the church ought to be about.

In the late 1960s, we began a motorcycle club called God’s Squad. There was a great temptation in the early days for us to have a clubhouse like all the other motorcycle clubs. But I have always fought to say that our place is to be at the Hell’s Angels headquarters. After all, if all we did was hang out in our clubhouse we would never reach the outlaw bikers.

Several years ago, I was asked to perform a wedding at a Hell’s Angels concert. There were going to be roughly 20,000 outlaw bikers on a property where even the police weren’t technically allowed without a search warrant. Although it was going to be a rough place, that is not what worried me. I was dead-set scared about my reputation. I was concerned that my reputation would go right down the drain when my fellow clergy heard I did a wedding on the Hell’s Angels platform, with the best man being the vice president of the Hell’s Angels.

I already had fundamentalists writing savage articles against me, specifically about my music and long hair. I was worried I would be kicked out of the religious club. That’s frightening, especially when you’ve grown up in the church and your dad’s a minister and your granddad was a minister and it’s your home. I was very scared.

While I was talking to the young couple who wanted to be married, I asked them why they wanted their wedding at the Hell’s Angels concert. The young woman, who was raised Catholic, pointed to her companion’s arm. It was hanging there limp like a flipper, no action in it. She told me that while riding his motorcycle he had been run over by a very rich man in a Mercedes Benz.

Although the driver of the car was driving drunk on the wrong side of the road at high speeds, he was never charged because he had connections. The nerve endings in the biker’s shoulder were destroyed. “Nobody else cared and the guy got off scott-free,” she told me. “My man couldn’t work anymore and the only people who cared about us were the Hell’s Angels. They took us in and helped us when we had no money to feed our baby and all that stuff, so I want to be married there because they are the only people who cared.” It makes you wince a bit to hear a story like that.

“I will only marry you if you accept we have to do six sessions, at least an hour in length, on marriage and faith before you get married,” I said. “I won’t marry someone without taking that seriously.” She agreed and I showed up at her house. It was full of people.

“Is there a little room where we can go to talk!” I asked. She said, “We can talk here. These are our friends and all of them have been living together for years too, and they want to see what you’ve got to say because they might want to get married too.” So, I ended up giving intimate marriage counseling to this couple with all their friends listening in.

The night before the wedding, I was very troubled. I pulled an old stunt that John Wesley did on at least one occasion. I flipped the pages of the Bible open, hoping it would fall somewhere for guidance. It fell open in the Psalms and my eyes fell on the line, “where can I flee from your presence. Can I fly away by the wings of a dove! No there is nowhere I can go,” the psalmist says. And then he makes that extraordinary statement, “Though I make my bed in hell, … thou art there” (Psalm 139:8, KJV). I fell on my knees by the bed and said, “Lord if you are determined to be there I guess I’m coming too.” That was that.

It was a pretty wild time that weekend. There were times on stage where there were girls stripping – it was pretty gross. For the wedding, however, they stopped all the other commotion and had this ceremony at the center of it. I got on the stage and said, “I will quote to you the words of Australia’s most famous alcoholic.” Of course, all of these bikers began shouting, “Yea, Yea, Yea.” They couldn’t figure out where I was going with all of this.

There’s a great poet in Australia named Henry Lawson. He was an alcoholic and his marriage ended up dissolving. Lawson’s wife just got sick of him making promises and not keeping them. Nevertheless, he wrote a lot of poems about Jesus and he wrote one called “The Light of the World – the Crucifixion.” It’s got some rather hot lines in it because he was alienated by the church, but he was fascinated with Jesus. In his poem he said that if “Jesus came to earth once more, we would murder him again.” It’s a powerful poem about how self-righteous people killed the only hope of life.

I told the bikers, “You know he wrote a great poem in prison.” The poem was called “Keep Step 103.” He wrote poetry on the wall while in Darlinghurst Jail for drunk and disorderly behavior and a few other things. He said that despite all this horrible stuff, “the spirit of Christ is everywhere that a man can dwell. He comes like tobacco in prison or like news from a separate cell.”

I ended up giving that poem and talking to them about the fact there wasn’t anywhere that you wouldn’t find God. They could run their strip clubs and do what they liked, but God’s determined love was too big to be deflected by anything they could do. If ever there were words coming out of a drunk’s mouth that speak of the Methodist doctrine of prevenient grace, those did.

I also read a passage from I Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” I could see the women near the stage wiping the tears from their eyes.

Not long ago, I was in a pub in Lexington, Kentucky, when someone asked me a startling question. He was a local alcoholic who had been through a breakup with his family. He watched me for weeks with this grin on his face and wasn’t sure what to make of me and my biker jacket that reads: “God’s Squad.” On this night he called me over, looked at me with tears in his eyes, and asked me, “Are you a Christian, or do you love Jesus?” It was all I could do not to burst into tears myself.

His question may not be fair, but it shows the way much of the world sees us. They think if you are a Christian you are in the judgment business, the self-righteous business, the exclusion business. They view the church as a club that is hard to get into and be accepted. That’s what they think. We have to destroy that myth.

The biggest problem is not taking the gospel to the people, but undoing the damage and wrong impressions of the past. Before most people will give the gospel a real hearing, we have to explode the secular myths. At the end of the day just buying bigger, better, fancier religious lifeboats (churches), so people can jump from one to another is not going to challenge secular America.

United Methodism is finished if it doesn’t take evangelism seriously. I don’t care what your theology is, it’s a matter of sheer human, social reality. The American culture is like a seething, crawling, cauldron of people just looking here, there, and everywhere trying to find some answers. We can’t just leave the pagans happy where they are. Making a greater income in the richest country on earth is not really doing much to stop people from having to live on pills. America is in trouble, profound trouble. It is a trouble of the soul. You aren’t going to change that by prosperity. It’s going to change according to what the people of God are doing down the street at that local church. The gospel is the only hope for America.

At the time of the publication of this article, John Smith (1942-2019) was the head of Care & Communication Concern and God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club in Australia. He was the author of several books including On the Side of the Angels. John was the senior minister of St. Martin’s Community Church in inner city Melbourne, and the superintendent minister of a network of independent and indigenous churches.