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Review of Smithy: The John Smith Story

Sunday, 23 July 2017  | Dave Fuller




A feature length documentary film by Don Parham

I recently spoke at two school chapel services here in Melbourne at a Church-based school, with about 700 secondary students present. The chaplain had asked me to address the students on the theme of ‘ministry to those on the fringe of society’ in the context of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club. I rode my Harley-Davidson onto the stage that day, which caused a bit of a stir amongst the students!

During the break between the two services, the chaplain recounted to me a powerful story about the influence that John Smith, founder of the Melbourne Chapter of God’s Squad, had had on him as a young teacher during a mission hosted by his parish in 1985. John had challenged the youth to commit wholeheartedly to the Great Commission and to go and make disciples of all nations. This man took up the challenge, did some theological and counselling training and has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to working as a chaplain and student welfare officer among children and teenagers. This kind of story is not uncommon and, as the story of John Smith unfolds, countless people testify to having been profoundly transformed by God through his teaching and preaching.

Hearing this reminded me afresh of John’s influence in both the Church and the broader culture, particularly in the period from around 1970 to 1995. Apart from a couple of well-known archbishops, John Smith was one of the most high profile Christian leaders in this period through his work with the God’s Squad and his itinerant preaching, school seminars, community based missions, radio spots and TV appearances.

I worked on John’s staff as a youth evangelist and pastor from 1987 to 2001 and saw up-close John the man, John the apostle and John the prophet of God. To say that he was dynamic and energetic would be an understatement. He had enormous energy and capacity and travelled extensively throughout Australia and overseas, preaching and teaching in a huge variety of settings. He had a genius level intelligence and was a voracious reader. I have heard a lot of very good preachers in my thirty years as a Christian worker but, in my opinion, no one could put a candle to John when he was at the height of his ministry.

This DVD is a biographical look at John and his childhood, youth and early influences, particularly his parents. It covers his marriage to wife and life-long partner Glena and his move from being a rural secondary teacher to full-time vocational Christian ministry. It covers his own spiritual transformation in the late 1960s, from a conservative, fundamentalist and right-wing Methodist to a man who saw his faith engaging in the world through social justice, the embrace of the outcast and sinner and the call to costly Christian discipleship. It covers the founding of God’s Squad CMC and the planting and founding of the Jesus, Light and Powerhouse church that would eventually morph into the building of Truth and Liberation Concern (TLC) next door at 265 Canterbury Road, Bayswater. Sadly, a later section of the DVD recounts the tragic division at TLC that saw John resign from his leadership role in November 1982.

The writer, director and producer is film-maker Don Parham. Don has had extensive experience in documentary-making with both the ABC and SBS. The DVD was launched at St Martin’s Community Church, Collingwood (the clubrooms of the God’s Squad) on the evening of Saturday 19th November last year. Don gave an introductory speech to his work after a short viewing. He likened John Smith to a ‘maddie’, drawing on former Prime Minister Paul Keating description of the three kinds of politicians he had met during his political career: ‘maddies, fixers and straighteners’.

Don described John as a left-wing (compared to his own more right-wing convictions) ‘maddie’ in the life of the Church, explaining that God in his sovereign grace occasionally calls such characters out of obscurity to speak to both the Church and the nation, like a modern day Amos. John’s response to Don’s speech was humorous and gracious.

Don’s documentary has some wonderful visuals of John out on his Harley-Davidson, and old footage and photographs from television interviews and life and ministry settings. Interspersed with these visuals are interviews with John, family members such as his wife Glena and daughters Kathy and Lyndal, former and some now deceased God’s Squad members and a staff member who worked with John when he was the leader at TLC. The other person who is extensively interviewed is the Venerable Philip Muston, Vicar at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Warragul, and the Archdeacon for Latrobe in the Anglican Diocese of Gippsland.

Muston did a Master’s degree in missiology, focussing on the dynamic of ‘charismatic leadership’ in the founding of Christian movements. John Smith was his major ‘case study’. Mustin described John as a modern-day John Wesley, riding around on a motorcycle instead of a horse. It was his conviction that John had this dimension of charismatic giftedness that enabled him to found God’s Squad, a Christian motorcycle club that is now worldwide (see www.gscmc.com), and several churches and Christian youth organisations.

The story concludes with John’s reflections on the division at TLC and starting over again in the 1980s. It has a certain irony to him that, despite starting out again with almost nothing, he saw the 1980s and 1990s as one the most productive periods in his ministry with respect to media work, the writing of many books, extensive mission trips throughout Australia and the beginnings of God’s Squad moving beyond Melbourne into other Australian states and overseas into countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Europe.

John has had cancer for several years now, and we see some tender moments with Glena and his grand-children in the final scenes. What will John’s legacy be? Muston says he will be considered one of Australia’s great Christian leaders. Current Australian Christian leaders like Tim Costello, John Dickson and Mark Sayers are all quoted as saying how much John was foundational for their faith development. And then there is the unsung school chaplain I spoke about at the beginning of this review. I am sure there are many others like him.

Dave Fuller is an active life-member of the God’s Squad CMC Melbourne Chapter; Senior Minster, All Saints Anglican Church, Greensborough; and Archdeacon of the Yarra, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.


You can purchase Smithy from
http://www.parham-media.com/


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