More than just reading history, I love learning from it. For example, some great lessons are gained from a church in Los Angeles which, in 1906, birthed an explosion of revival that dispersed leaders and missionaries all over the world. Some of these have come from my reflections on Cecil Robeck’s Azusa Street Mission and Revival (and the accompanying photo came from my recent trip to the site). The Azusa Street Mission was led by an African-American, William Seymour, in times of deep racial prejudice but provided more lessons than those of revolutionary social equality for contemporary Christian worship. Here are just three crucial insights that still speak volumes today.
1. An Insight into Marketing. Apart from the obvious infusion of genuine Spiritual fervour and prayerfulness, the Azusa Street church was ahead of its time in many areas. The Apostolic Faith newspaper was an effective periodical that was sent to a global audience in a short-lived marketing coup. Other missions existed and other isolated Pentecostal refreshings had been experienced, but for this one up to 50,000 copies of its major publication were sent out. They regularly included correspondence from the dozens of letters received each day to involve readers in the work. Many of the letters received then included unsolicited financial support. The later decline in the mission was significantly impacted by the editor’s defection to a breakaway church, probably after feeling spurned by Seymour’s decision to marry another woman within the congregation! The rapid end in the paper meant the rapid decline in the mission’s impact, even though there were other factors that also contributed to the fall-off. Today’s successful contemporary organisations are investing into informative, inspiring, testimony-based brochures, blogs and social media sites, creating perceptions that often exceed the realities they depict by simply presenting the truthful best of their successes.
2. An Insight into Receiving. C.T. Studd, had famously forsaken his fortune and turned his back on an international cricketing career to become a missionary to China as one of the ‘Cambridge Seven’ which included Cecil Polhill. After Polhill was unable to continue there due to ill health, he travelled to Los Angeles with Studd’s older brother who also played cricket for England. Both were fascinated by the Azusa Street Mission, attending its thoroughly Pentecostal meetings when the revival was in early decline after key leaders had left. People argued over the need to receive financial offerings at the time, but Polhill simply blew the issue apart as he gave a then huge sum of ₤1500 to pay off the whole mortgage on the Azusa Street church. This caused Studd to remark that the Devil had been defeated that day. It was the next day that Polhill was then filled with the Spirit! Hunger for God that pushes through despite the undermining work of Satan, plus generosity to the work of God irrespective of the attitude of others, creates an open heart that receives blessing, a heart that can be used by God for a greater good than is measured within the life of any one individual
3. An Insight into Conflict. In 1907, the stage was already set for the eventual downfall of the Azusa Street revival, even though the church itself continued for more than twenty years. A prominent leader had networked interstate churches into the loose coalition that became the Apostolic Faith movement, just as intended. However, she broke away from it’s base and presumed leadership of the rest of the movement through relationship with those newer congregations (and the addition of the Azusa Street newspaper and its editor). Just a few years after surviving this attack, Seymour was also usurped by William Durham who was in the process of influencing the formation of the Assemblies of God through his teaching at Azusa Street which drew crowds back to the mission in Seymour’s short-term absence. Durham had to be locked out of the building to prevent a popular takeover (and actually died soon after). After Seymour’s later death, his wife then offered lodgings to an elderly couple in exchange for pastoral assistance, only to find the husband trying to take control of the church’s leadership, too. Sadly, a protracted legal dispute eroded the church’s assets and the building was lost and demolished. Division is always the result of a decision and it often dishonours rightful leaders and unnecessarily distracts Christians from their god-given mission to reach others.
Imagine the ease today of marketing an attractive conflict-free community of grace that is receiving from God and outworking a compelling New Testament faith. The Devil would love nothing more than to oppose it, but God would love nothing more than to endorse it. Of course, we have to decide to bring unity, just as we choose to bring our best leadership initiative and our best passion and hunger for God for maximum effectiveness. No matter how much it struggles and limps along at times, though, Jesus is still building His Church, building it better day by day through the likes of us, and the gates of Hell will surely still not prevail against it.