For a number of years I have taught a church planting course for the Salvation Army in Sydney. I enjoy going back each year not only for the interaction with the students but also because of the location. The Collaroy conference centre is located on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the northern beaches of Sydney. Sydney is the most expensive city in Australia in which to buy real estate.
Every year one of the Corps officers will remind me over a cup of coffee that the Salvation Army once owned the land for as far as the eye could see. In 1900, Miss Elizabeth Jenkins bequeathed hundreds of acres of farming land to the Salvation Army in gratitude for the impact of their ministry on her life and faith. Today the land would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars as prime seaside real estate. The only problem is that over the years much of the land was sold off for housing or acquired by government for community use.
Every year I’m told, “Imagine what we could achieve if only we had that property today.” The trap is set. We go back into the next session and I remind them of the loss of the land and of the lost opportunity for ministry today. Then I tell them that at some point in their history the Salvation Army consisted of William and Catherine Booth sitting around their kitchen table with nothing but a conviction that God had called them. Church history is not made by well-financed, well-resourced individuals and institutions. History is made by men and women of faith who have encountered the living God. Without faith it is impossible to please God.
John Wesley’s genius was to combine spiritual power with effective organisation. One biographer describes him as a “reasonable enthusiast”. Wesley was open to the contemporary use of what he called “the extra-ordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost.” He believed the reason for their neglect was the love of almost all Christians, so called, had “waxed cold”. Many of those convicted by his unemotional preaching showed extraordinarily physical reactions. He wrote that some, “drop down as dead, having no strength nor appearance of life in them. Some burst out into strong cries and tears, some exceedingly tremble and quake.” On one occasion he describes spending hours together with others in prayer and singing and discussion. When, ‘About three in the morning,’ records Wesley, ‘as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his majesty we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.’”
Wesley and the Booths understood the importance of effective organisation but they knew that only a white-hot faith and an experiential relationship with God could provide the power and life to change lives.