The paradox of history is that those keenest to tell it are often the ones you least need to learn from, and stories of weaknesses and struggle most likely to give hope to flawed people are easily lost in the highlights reel.
That’s why when Isaiah injuncts us to:
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
It is most reassuring that it is Genesis 12-25 that he is pointing us back to. The story of Abram, the archetypal man of faith, who name was lengthened, and whose influence goes on today. When the people in exile needed hope that the Lord might comfort them again, make wildernesses and deserts bloom, and give them joy, gladness and thanksgiving, it was Abraham Isaiah is divinely instructed to turn their attention to. Why? Because God called him when he was a solitary figure, and multiplied his influence on an exponential scale when he found a spark of faith in the ancient man.
But in the account of Abraham it would be a strange reader indeed who is not as struck by Abraham’s flaws as by his faith, flaws that are passed on generationally and culminate in crisis. The high point of Hebrew history pales in comparison to the crucified Christ. Indeed, many a reader of the Bible in One Year, comes away from January scratching their head, wondering what on earth they are supposed to learn or imitate from the first family of faith.
So, does Isaiah’s exhortation to look back to this rock Abraham remain for New Testament people today, and, to push this a little further, should a Christian suggest to each other that we should look back on our Christian history for hope in our own wilderness times?
As I come to the end of this mini-series on John Collins I want to suggest to you that whatever season of the church we think we are currently in – there is much we can learn from our history – not as recipes to repeat, or a heroes to hallow, but for proof that we can have hope in the God of history. God is a God who reveals himself in increasing measure through his interaction with humanity.
God who acts in Abraham can do it again. God who acts in the extraordinary chain of people including John Stott-John Collins-David Watson-David MacInnes-John Mumford-Sandy Millar-Ken Costa-Nicky Gumbel can do it again. God who acts in 1963, 1984, 1994 can do it again.
Of course, it’s not the highlights reel most likely to help us. We struggle to hear shorthand accounts of successes. Nor is it our task to ‘put windows into other men’s souls’ – no-one can really know the heart save God alone. Yet Evangelicals and charismatics in the UK have a crying need to learn our history, and it is rapidly being lost to posterity. We have no idea what price people have paid to get us this far, we have no idea how interconnected the current ‘tribes’ of evangelicalism once were, we have no idea what heritage we stand on, and we have no idea how close we are to throwing away a living legacy that should help us leap forward. If we would only look to the rock from which we are hewn, there is a chance that we could build on this legacy a little better than Abram’s descendants often managed to.
For various reasons I have to sign off these Saturday instalments today, but I hope they may have inspired you to dig a little deeper yourself. John is a private person who is not easily drawn to the limelight, but has been surrounded throughout his ministry by prominent people.
Many church leaders have been involved in some incredible churches, but to find one unassuming man who was there for the massive growth of All Souls Langham Place and there for the massive growth of HTB, and in the meantime saw massive growth in a working class parish in Kent and a middle class parish in Dorset, who steered a church in 1963 through three weeks of tangible revival, who pursued the presence of God to the point of rejection by those who once championed him, and who is still pursuing what is right and good and praiseworthy and humble into his old age, it’s hard not to come away thinking that the church of today should be learning from him, regardless of background, class or context, because above all else this is a story of character – and character that even today is more interested in the legacy of others, and the glory of God than his own being told.
It’s why I included the book by his namesake ‘J.Collins’ in the first edit of the last blog. Jim Collins tells of ‘Level Five’ leaders characterised by ‘extraordinary humility’ who enable other (often more brilliant) ‘Level Four’ leaders to flourish around them. Level Four leaders might get their face on a magazine, become a household name, achieve a great breakthrough on a product launch or achieve public position, but high up in a company that grows over the longterm there is likely to be a person of deep humility, publicity shy, whose story is nevertheless, almost inexplicably associated with growth.
I’m continuing my studies for my doctoral work in the history of UK charismatic church and it will be good to submit my thoughts to academic accountability. There is so much left to tell, and wonderful spiritual wells that I hope can be reopened soon… but for now I’ll let Archbishop Justin have the final words, and if you watch to the end you’ll get to hear from John himself…
email your John Collins story to: firstname.lastname@example.org