I’m currently reading a book entitled The Holy Spirit of Promise by J.Oswald Sanders first published in 1940.
Oswald Sanders was New Zealand-born and served as the general director of the China Inland Mission (later renamed to Overseas Missionary Fellowship). He was born in 1902 and died in 1992. He was a prolific author between the 1930s and the 1990s. One of his better-known works is Spiritual Leadership (1967).
One chapter (chapter 12 of 16) in The Holy Spirit of Promise is entitled “The Administrator of the Church”. A story that Oswald Sanders relates in the early part of this chapter struck me and so I reproduce it in full:
A certain young vicar in England found himself in charge of a parish where a predecessor had given loose rein to ritualistic tendencies of the most ultra sort, and with them secular tendencies of equally pronounced character. The previous vicar had even encouraged a dance among his young people on the Saturday evening before the Eucharist as a means of attracting them to the church. Fairs, festivals, bazaars, and all the like group of worldly schemes were the common resort for raising money, but the spirit of prayer and the Spirit of God had little exhibition or administrative control.
The congregation was large, and the outward signs of prosperity were abundant. But the new vicar felt it was all a deceptive external shell, and that there would be no true life, health and growth where such sort of church conduct existed. Accordingly, he at once, with much prayer, began to preach against compromises with the world, and the use of worldly methods, and insisted vigorously on a Scriptural, spiritual, prayerful, Holy Spirit life and walk and service.
The church began to empty, and so rapid was the decline in the congregation that a deputation of twelve men, representing the officers, churchwardens, and others, went to the bishop to protest against the new vicar’s methods. The bishop sent his wife, a gifted woman, to visit the parish and especially the vicar. She was kindly received and inquired as to his reasons for the course he was pursuing in demolishing the Lord’s work as he found it in the parish. With affectionate frankness he proceeded to show how far the former ways of conducting the church were from Scripture. Then kneeling with the bishop’s wife, he earnestly sought light from above. He prayed in the Holy Spirit, and in the midst of his prayer his companion said: “Pray no longer; you are right, and I am wrong.”
The vicar went on with his reforms—until there were none left to reform. He went into church one morning to find but two persons present. They were in sympathy, however, and in place of the usual service, those three spent an hour and a half in prayer. They pleaded with God to take off them the burden of responsibility, and Himself take charge of the Church.
A powerful work of the Spirit at once began. The first fruits were the conversion of the twelve men who had waited on the bishop to have the new vicar removed. The church filled up with a new congregation in part, and in part with a transformed body of people, formerly pursuing secular methods and moved by a worldly spirit.
Prayer came to be a prevailing habit; the Holy Spirit was recognised as the presiding officer in all church life, with voluntary offerings through simple boxes placed at the church door and labelled, “For offerings from the saints”. A simple, primitive Gospel was preached without the inventions of formalism and secularism, and God’s blessing conspicuously rested on all the work.
Subsequently the bishop himself visited the parish, and sitting with his own chaplain in the vestry inquired of one of the churchwardens as to the number of communicants. The party inquired of was a humble blacksmith and represented a congregation of poor working people like himself; and he answered the bishop: “We never count our communicants; but when the Lord’s supper is celebrated, few, if any go out, and the church is always full.” “But,” said the bishop, “how do you keep your communicants together, seeing you have no guilds and societies and festivals?” “Well, I’ll tell you, my lord,” said the simple working man. “Our vicar first gets his people soundly converted, then he gets them cleansed, and then he gets them filled with the Holy Ghost, and then the Holy Ghost keeps them, and we don’t have to keep them at all!” The bishop, turning to his chaplain, remarked, ““We have nothing like this in the diocese.”
Further inquiry developed the fact that in raising money, for example, for missions, no appeals were made. The people were reminded of their privilege of contributing on the following Lord’s Day to the Lord’s cause; and thus poor people, whose average wages did not exceed sixteen shillings sterling per week, in one missionary offering gave one hundred and fifty pounds. They support six missionaries abroad, and one of them is kept in the field by a class of three hundred poor working women. The vicar says he has more money than is needed for all church expenses, and only New Testament methods are encouraged. A prominent man, whose work for God calls him to go into all parts of the land on mission work, and who has watched the history of this church, says that he knows nowhere anything that so closely resembles and reproduces the apostolic times.
It’s a great story. A little dated, but it powerfully illustrates the source of the churches administration and power. The Holy Spirit, welcomed and encouraged by prayer and submission!