An overview of PJ Smyth’s sermon to Covenant Life Church. PJ is allegedly the lead pastoral candidate and this post looks at the history of PJ and touches on GodFirst Church in Johannesburg. While at CLC Eagle noticed that Covenant Life Church is in pain and that the ghosts of Sovereign Grace are alive and well and need to be dealt with in order for the church to become healthy.
“In fact I can’t remember a time when I was not leading something.”
“We get the best of it which is friendship and accountability but we avoid the trappings and the red tape that often go with a denomination,” says PJ.
PJ Smyth on New Frontiers and GodFirst
“I think the greatest defence is to come along and take a look—or take a swing. I don’t mind which. Take a swing or take a look, just don’t criticise from afar.”
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Acts 17:30 NIV
Last week someone from SGM Survivors reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to attend Covenant Life Church and listen to PJ Smyth teach and just give some feedback as an outsider. I explained in this post how I am willing to write about churches in the DC area, and thought this would be interesting to observe. Plus I love to meet people. I’m not someone who wants to hide behind a computer screen. Instead I like to shake someone’s hand, talk face to face or give someone a hug. So with that I set out to listen to PJ at Covenant Life and hear what he had to say. Some observations up front in that I was amazed as to how the attendance of CLC went down. People were late, and some of the seats in the back rows were filled up toward the end. Overall maybe I’d say about 400 to 500 people where in attendance. If I am wrong then I welcome correction. I do understand that the attendance was much higher than usual for PJ Smyth. The other thing that surprised me is that the ghosts of Sovereign Grace were present at CLC and still remain. However, I will get into that below. I also want to state that today’s post will not be about the Advance Movement, I am reading and researching that now and plan to have another post in the near future. But before I continue we need to ask the question…who is PJ Smyth?
GodFirst and Who is PJ Smyth?
PJ was born in England in 1971, and is 44 today. He has always believed himself to be a strong leader. In this blog post here he talks about leading since the age of 12 and being a head boy at junior school. He also was involved in sports, was a captain, and head boy in senior school. PJ moved to Zimbabwe in 1984 which is where he did high school. He then studied Theology and Church History at Cape Town University. I noticed when I Googled Cape Town University that I kept getting redirected to the University of Cape Town, which is the oldest university in South Africa and the second oldest operating university in Africa. It appears Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone is first. PJ married his wife Ashleigh two weeks after finishing his final exams. The Smyths have three sons Jack, Ben and Sam. PJ taught high school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and after teaching for a few years decided to plant his first church at age 25 which is River of Life Church in Harare, Zimbabwe. It grew to a thousand attenders before being decentralized into 5 smaller churches. You can read about River of Life Church and PJ planting it here. In 2004 PJ moved to Johannesburg to plant a new church which is called GodFirst. GodFirst launched January 30, 2005 and its first location at Bryanston. In the course of time GodFirst became several different churches to include City God First Church, Core, East Rand, Fourways (St. Peters) , Rosebank, Tembisa, University of Johannesburg, and Wits.
At GodFirst he is simply known as PJ. He is aware of the scandals and baggage that comes in evangelical Christianity. In an article in the Guardian written by a member (I believe…) of GodFirst PJ says, “Modern evangelical churches have an appalling reputation. High-profile church leaders are in scandals with money, getting divorced. The reputation is that our kind of church is dubious at best. I completely appreciate that and we are not critical, we’re humbly trying to do church like it was done in the Bible so that’s why people don’t call me ‘pastor’, I don’t get paid an enormous amount and I love my wife.”
As to individuals he looks to as leaders that includes Matt Hosier who blogs for New Frontiers. He is also inspired by David in scripture. PJ is also friends with Adrian Warnock and a popular speaker in the New Frontiers movement. He is also a leader who has ties to Terry Virgo. PJ Smyth also gave a talk to the Acts 29 boot camp outside Seattle and was hosted by the Resurgence. While the Resurgence was taken down you can see the evidence of the talk here. Mark Driscoll’s Twitter account in February 2010 retreated this tweet from PJ Smyth. Also PJ is the driving force behind the Advance Movement which I will tackle another day.
Another point worth noting is PJ’s battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2010. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes, if you want to read more about it you can do so here. When diagnosed it was at stage 2a and localized to his neck and chest. He took 6 months off for chemotherapy and the cancer went into remission. In 2011 at GodFirst church PJ used the cancer as a means to ask the question “why do bad things happen?” in a billboard campaign around Johannesburg. Speaking of billboard campaigns in 2009 GodFirst ran a “Sex in the City” sermon series which caused controversary and the billboard campaign was axed by the Advertising Standards Authority. The slogan for this series was “Jozi loves sex. God loves sex. Let’s talk.” PJ also believes that there is a crisis of masculinity (paging John Piper, paging John Piper…) When he talked about that crisis of masculinity PJ said the following, “Nine out of 10 sex offenders are men, eight out of 10 prisoners are men, for every one woman who commits suicide, four men do. There’s a lot of work to be done on men and there’s loads in it for women.”
At Ed Stetzer’s blog PJ Smyth wrote an article about Nelson Mandela and of his own tribute and salute to Mandela. While PJ quoted from differing sources, what touched me is this quote from the Discovery Channel documentary on Mandela which said, “Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela had every right to hate. Instead, he taught the world how to forgive.” Smyth closes his post at Stetzer’s blog by saying, “I will never forget the day of the Rugby World Cup final when President Mandela pulled on the No 6 Springbok jersey, considered by many to be the moment when he won a nation. I find that moment profoundly moving at two levels: As a South African, that President Mandela would take on himself the symbol of all that hated him. He did it to reconcile white man to black man. As a Christian, it reminds me of the President of All Presidents, Jesus Christ, who took on human likeness, the symbol of a race that hated Him. He did it to reconcile man to God. As Christians around South Africa and the world, Nelson Mandela, we salute you. He also did a series on “What Would God Say to _____” and the President of South Africa showed up to listen. (Quick side note Lon Solomon at McLean Bible did a similar series a few years back, as I remember sitting through it.)
At GodFirst PJ is a firm believer in using the culture. Social media is embraced, and the church in Johannesburg has done active and controversial billboard campaigns. He’s also pioneered differing ways of church to include church in casinos and nightclubs which drew strong criticism from other evangelicals. PJ states, “Interestingly, the people who give us the most stick for being here are very religiously minded Christians who say you can’t do church in a casino. Which we’d think is a silly response because Christ would have been in this sort of place. He was always accused of hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time.” PJ led GodFirst from a mono church to a multi site church then to autonomous churches which you can read about here. He believes that the first strength of the multi site model at GodFirst is mature eldership teams. The second strength is what he calls “apostolic atmosphere.” You can read about all of that here. Another point worth noting is that PJ devoted himself mostly to the Advance Movement . In his own words PJ states, “whilst I will remain an elder on Glenn’s team and thoroughly committed to the mission of our local church, I will be giving most of my time to developing Advance Jo’burg, and Advance more broadly.”
GodFirst is also a firm believer in membership, and its explained here. The five reasons given to support church membership are the following:
- Its stated in the Bible in which PJ draws from Acts 2:41and 47.
- Membership is implied in the Bible. Here is the exact quote from the website. “The Bible describes local church life as warm and personal, and the prominent “body” metaphor for the church assumes functioning, meaningful membership.”
- In scripture some people are born to lead while others are born to follow their leaders. At GodFirst they state, “followers are instructed to obey their leaders.”
- Its also part of the New Testament structure.
- You can also practice church discipline of members and expel those in unrepentance. (Quick side note how would unrepentance be defined by PJ? I would find that quite interesting.) This is from the GodFirst website, “In cases of on-going unrepentance Paul instructed the churches to expel members from the church. Don’t choose to live in this place voluntarily… join a church!”
GodFirst closes out the section on membership by quoting Terry Virgo of New Frontiers.
If you want to read more about PJ and his thoughts about church to include what he means by being a mission driven church, escaping from the church ghetto, what church mission is, what is the local church and the importance of leadership that is all contained on this page here.
What Did PJ Teach at Covenant Life?
If you want to listen to the talk that PJ gave you can do so here. Before writing this section I decided to listen to it again. PJ preached on Acts 17: 16-34 in which Paul talks about preaching in Athens to those who are worshipping the unknown God. I actually like this part of Acts on a personal level. Here are some notes I took, but PJ broke down his talk by 10 points.
- Be distressed. Paul was greatly provoked when he saw the city was not in great shape. How are you distressed for Gaithersburg, Damascus, and the place where you live? Jesus wept over Jerusalem, PJ talked about how he wept over Johannesburg. 60% of those in Montgomery County claim no religion. There is a lot of work to do in the area.
- Be engaged (vs. 16). When Paul saw how many idols existed Paul got more engaged. As US Marines run toward the sound of the gunfire so should Christians. Jesus wasn’t crucified between two candles in a cathedral he was crucified between two thieves. Christ’s people ought to be engaged.
- Be accurate (vs.17) in how you present the Gospel message. The Gospel message doesn’t change but how you present it should. Scratch where the itch is. Some cities Paul mostly preached and yet in other cities Paul did signs and wonders. People respond in differing ways. Paul was accurate, we need to be accurate as well.
- Be authorized for the city. Men of the church also need to be authorized for the city. PJ talked about holding church in a casino. Paul is an apostle to the gentiles. GodFirst existed because the city is being pastored. Pastors are on the forefront, and pastors pastor the church and also the city. Have a message to those in Gaithersburg, or DC. When you get a pastor get someone who will not only care for us, but care for the city. The question is how is your city doing? How are your neighbors doing?
- Connect First (vs23) as Paul had so much in common with others. In GodFirst they did a series on “What would God say to _______?” It was a sermon series to people in South Africa culture, government, music, etc… Find ways to have things in common to relate to others.
- Answer questions that are being asked (vs 23). Have conversations with people who ask questions. PJ mentioned both Nicodemus, and the women at the well who both had questions.
- No Compromise (vs.27) on the faith. Engage but don’t compromise.
- Some of our own poets have said…meaning using people to introduce or teach. PJ mentioned using Oprah or Lily Allen an English rock star to make a point. These are the poets of our times. Use culture whenever you can.
- PJ spoke about the divine being and how some people are closer through a divine being in some form. Think of faith as a funnel.
- Have a sense of destiny about where you live. Gaithersburg, Damascus, Montgomery County is not placed by accident. Benjamin Gaither in 1802 started God’s plan when he started to build on a bit of land. From that bit of land will cause a railroad to be built, and agriculture to attract others. Its not far from DC. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the technology boom will take place. People move in and by the time of 2015 there will be 6,000 people per square mile. God will make it the tenth richest county in North America. Gaithersburg will be in striking distance of DC, and those who come to Christ will have a mission to their neighbors. In the 1980’s God will raise up CJ Mahaney and Larry Tomczak and they will preach the Gospel and hundreds will gather. God will use them greatly and they will have a waxing and waning and they will have seasons. From time to time they are not here for their jobs or education that they might be their missionaries in the neighborhoods. Amongst other churches they will have their destiny and the Lord will have their hand upon them.
Ghosts of Sovereign Grace
What struck me as an outsider is how the ghosts of Sovereign Grace linger and remain unresolved at Covenant Life. They stand stark and ominous and it raised its head during the baptisms I witnessed. Kenneth Maresco who is leaving CLC for Sovereign Grace Fairfax baptized his son. I watched it realizing that it put SGM Survivors in a new twist in that I was watching someone who had been discussed online. I also find it interesting that Kenneth would leave ground zero for the largest lawsuit in evangelical Christian history and choose to get involved in another church that hemorrhaged child sex abuse stories and was also discussed heavily at SGM Survivors. That was followed by the baptism that was performed by Mark Hoffman, and even hearing a reference to the lawsuit in a testimony that was read. From Kenneth Maresco, to Mark Hoffman to Charles Llewellyn strolling around wearing his bow tie SGM Survivors came alive in a very different way…in that I could place names with the faces. It also showed me how much CLC is struggling with its past. But before I get into the next section of observations about PJ Smyth it also begs the following thoughts.
I don’t know who the other pastoral candidates are but the one thing that strikes me is that in his talk the one thing that PJ didn’t address which is a major let down is that he didn’t talk about Covenant Life Church repenting. Amidst the ghosts of Sovereign Grace I almost got the feeling that PJ thought he could take a hold of the reigns and continue like business as usual. There was really no talk in his sermon about either repentance and forgiveness and I would have to say that Covenant Life is hurting and is in deep pain from the shepherding movement, the SGM lawsuit, child sex abuse, bad doctrine, CJ Mahaney being an idol, and then fleeing, and destroyed families and friendships torn apart by Sovereign Grace. While Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I believe Jesus would also weep over the pain at Covenant Life. The cancer of Sovereign Grace remains and the only way to deal with it and effectively change course is to be open about this issue and have the church repent both collectively and individually. Unless these problems are dealt with they are going to fester and stew, and hang over the church. After all problems don’t go away, they often get worse and grow with the passing of time; that’s part of the reason why you must deal with it. Without repentance and forgiveness which must be linked the pain will remain. This is an incredible opportunity if indeed PJ becomes the pastor to have CLC repent. However, it also brings another thought.
Of all the candidates for the pastor position at CLC PJ Smyth is unique in this one sense. He would be coming from South Africa and likely witnessed both the system of apartheid as a student in Cape Town as well as the system being dismantled. Apartheid ended in 1994 and PJ was probably in university during this time if I am going to take an educated guess. From 2004 onward he must have witnessed a nation state struggle with its dark past of deep racism and the efforts made to address the injustices both in sports, and in life as blacks and whites struggled and learned to co-exist. This is actually the reason why I started this post with the clip from the movie Invictus. To hail from South Africa and see what happened both in reconciliation and forgiveness under Nelson Mandela and to not have a plan or mention the need of Covenant Life Church to repent is what shocked and dismayed me. PJ made several references to repentance but never said that Covenant Life, its leaders, and the members need to repent. In his talk PJ talked about Gaithersburg being a stone throw away from DC , and to talk about having a sense of destiny about where you live…well if PJ had a sense of destiny he would address the pain that is looming over Covenant Life and deal with it personally and walk a church through a long and personal season of repentance. People in Sovereign Grace and former SGM churches need to heal. They need a new morning, they need restoration and hope. Repentance and forgiveness can help bring that about.
Observation and Questions That Need to Be Asked
These are my thoughts after listening to PJ. I find him to be a gifted orator and his speaking skills live up to his reputation online. In his styles he reminded me of other celebrities, for example when I read about his talk about sex in South Africa that brought images of Mark Driscoll to my mind. When I read about his battle with cancer that brought images of Matt Chandler to my mind. When I read about his comments about New Frontiers being a family of churches and his style of apostolic atmosphere that brought images in my mind of CJ Mahaney. He’s a good speaker I am not disputing that but is PJ what CLC needs? This needs to be discussed. One thing that needs to be said is that when PJ did his series on sex in Johannesburg I also think that needs to be read in perspective. During my faith crisis I read a lot of Philip Yancey and I recall Yancey talking about pornography in South Africa as having stricter standards than in other countries. But there are many things that I like and respect about PJ. I am a firm believer in using culture. There is a lot in the culture that screams out God, and its why I have written about theological themes from Rush and The Dark Knight Rises. Its why I would love to do a post about the problem of evil and pain and suffering from Extremely Loud and incredibly Close and the Life of Pi while examining themes from the Book of Job. So I agree with what the says about culture, and find it neat that they also do church in a casino. As I reflect on what I heard and also researched about PJ these are the questions that I would be asking before he becomes a pastoral candidate becomes finalized.
- First of all what are other pastoral candidates for CLC? Why has Covenant Life not revealed or told the congregation who they are? Why has it been hidden from them? People who are members there deserve to know who their pastoral candidates are…after all this is a church, its not the Central Intelligence Agency that operates in the shadows. The secretive nature reveals the cultural baggage from SGM.
- In reading PJ Smyth’s website I get the vibe that he has an authoritarian bent. After its history of being governed and ruled by CJ Mahaney does CLC need another authoritarian leader? Isn’t that kind of like the Soviet Union trading Joseph Stalin for Nikita Khrushchev?
- What is PJ Smyth’s stances on membership covenants?
- What is PJ Smyth’s stand on 9 Marks and church discipline? How is church discipline defined? This is key because of how people were disciplined and treated for minor infractions in Sovereign Grace.
- What is PJ Smyth’s affiliation with Terry Virgo and New Frontiers? That alone should raise many people’s concerns.
- Since PJ Smyth spoke at an Acts 29 bootcamp in Seattle and since Mark Driscoll’s Twitter account occasionally tweeted a couple of things from PJ it begs the following question. Is there any business behind the scenes between PJ and either Mark Driscoll or the late Mars Hill Seattle or Acts 29? If there is than PJ should explain what those contacts are, and the extent of the relationship.
- What about the assets at CLC will he have any access to them especially with all the changes and turmoil? I am not an accountant but those in the know should ask about this issue.
- Are those pastors in the know steering the church toward a certain pastoral candidate? Where does CLC leadership stand on the pastoral candidates?
If PJ does indeed become the Senior Pastor of Covenant Life, then what I would like to do is write an Open Letter to him and address the issues that are affecting CLC. I will also go into detail about South African history and write about the legacy of apartheid, sin, confession and repentance. This history major, and former grad student would love to dive into the details about apartheid in South African history but also the forgiveness that took place afterward. If you are involved in CLC what are your concerns or thoughts about PJ? In closing I will leave you with Lily Allen who PJ referenced, please understand that this is explicit. CLC has a lot of issues facing it and what it needs is someone who will love it, and help them address and face their issues, not continue on as business as usual. The only way forward for CLC is to face its past.