While we were on holiday, I sat by the pool and read an out-of-print book, Not Made for Defeat, Doug Hall’s biography of Oswald J. Smith the founder of The Peoples Church in Toronto. I more or less read the book in a single sitting. I’ve mentioned him in passing here before such as,
The Peoples Church was Canada’s first and for many years only megachurch, and this long before the term existed. The Toronto church was also independent, a rarity in its time. It was founded by Oswald J. Smith whose ordination was Presbyterian and had also founded an earlier church with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Smith had been turned down by several missions agencies because of his health, but ended up living to 96 and traveling all over the world. You can read more at Wikipedia. (As a young child, I attended Oswald Smith’s funeral, where Billy Graham spoke.)
as well as one time mentioning his philosophy when he would be gone on mission trips:
Oswald J. Smith built Toronto’s Peoples Church into Canada’s first — and for a long time only — megachurch. When he was away on missionary trips, some of which encompassed months at a time, his philosophy was to always book guest speakers that he felt were better than himself. If you’re an aspiring teacher or preacher, I can’t stress the value of listening to great speakers; of going out of your way to hear the best, especially hearing them in person.
I also included a number of quotations by him at Christianity 201, such as:
Give according to your income lest God make your income according to your giving.
So long as there is a human being who does not know Jesus Christ, I am his debtor to serve him until he does.
The church that does not evangelize will fossilize.
We talk of the Second Coming; half the world has never heard of the first.
No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.
This was the church where I spent the extremely formative years from when I was 11 to age 21. I continued to have contact for many years after. Peoples Church has only ever had five pastors — Oswald J. Smith, son Paul B. Smith, John Hull, Charles Price and now Brett McBride — so I grew up hearing the stories about the church’s founding and although the torch had been passed to Paul Smith, I got to hear Oswald on a few occasions. In the later chapters, there were several names I recognized.
For those reasons, the book may not have held the interest of others, but for me it was a page-turner. A few quick takeaways as I’ve actually misplaced my copy as I write this:
- The idea of calling: Smith’s was cemented at a very early age when he took a train trip from rural Ontario to hear an evangelist at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
- The idea of vision: Smith experienced success early on, but would walk away from pulpits in Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles to pursue a vision for a particular type of church.
- On non-denominational churches: Smith had seen abuses of the idea of church membership and wanted a place not governed by the denominational requirements to have such.
- A megachurch apologetic: Smith believed if you want to see many people converted to Christ through preaching, you need to preach to many people.
- A maverick spirit: Churches weren’t air-conditioned in those days, so one summer Smith erected a tent on a vacant property for an entire summer. Followers were told to bring a chair they weren’t using and leave it there, leading to people clogging the buses and streetcars of the pubic transit system carrying seats to the first meeting.
- An understanding of media: Smith’s Sunday night “Back Home Hour” was an unscripted radio program for parishioners to end their worship day at home, though they could stay after the evening service for the broadcast. Not only did many stay, but people started arriving from other churches, stretching the Fire Department’s approved capacity for the building.
- On marriage and ministry: Smith’s wife Daisy freed him to take worldwide mission trips, yet strangely, despite being away extensively, he didn’t want ministry immersion to damage his home and family life.
- On church leadership: Smith was an iconic leader but was neither autocratic nor a micro-manager. He would return from overseas and discover new innovations initiated in his absence and would be moved to tears.
- Legacy: Though known for the independent Peoples Church, Smith was a major force in the early years of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
- The Faith Promise Offering: Smith’s then unique contribution to the fundraising component of missions conferences; only once did actual annual missions giving not exceed the amounts pledged; though pledged is the wrong word, people committed “in dependence upon God.”
Oswald J. Smith was a man for his times but with an approach to ministry that would work in our times as well, even if the fine tuning of the methodology would differ today. We need a lot more like him.