Disciple-Making Can Transform Institutions!

A clear and convincing illustration of how God can use one man to transform the institutional church is in the life and ministry of Charles Simeon. He was born on September 24, 1759, and at the age of nineteen, was soundly converted to Christ while a student at King’s College in the University of Cambridge. For the next three years after his conversion, Simeon often walked by Trinity Church in Cambridge, he tells us, and said to himself, “How should I rejoice if God were to give me that church, that I might preach the Gospel there and be a herald for Him in the University.” His dream came true when Bishop Yorke appointed him “curate-in-charge”. He received the assignment and preached his first sermon at Trinity Church on November 10, 1782. But his dream was more like a never ending nightmare as he met with opposition and difficulty from the start and continued for many years.

In spite of incredible, persistent, pervasive opposition, for fifty-four years, evangelical Charles Simeon was the pastor of this dysfunctional Anglican church in Cambridge, England. His congregation didn’t like him or the gospel he preached. At one point they changed the locks on the church doors and shut him out of his own church building.

Then the church members locked their pew doors on Sunday mornings and refused to attend the services and refused to let others sit in their empty, personal pews. So Simeon set up seats in the aisles and nooks and corners at his own expense. But the churchwardens took them out and threw them into the churchyard. When he tried to visit from house to house, hardly a door would open to him. This situation lasted at least ten years. The records show that in 1792 Simeon got a legal decision that the pew-holders could not lock their pews. But he didn’t use it. He let his steady, relentless ministry of the word and prayer and community witness gradually overcome the resistance.

When he began his ministry in 1782, there were maybe a dozen other evangelical ministers left in the Church of England. He changed that. Without permission and without an offi­cial position, he took responsibility, and he did something. Simeon saw the students in this university town of Cambridge as future leaders, and so he formed relationships with them through concentric circles and discipled them to Christ and to maturing disciples and leaders who would reproduce the disciple-making process. His multifaceted plan involved:

  1. Engaging the entire student body at Cambridge, many of whom at first ridiculed him.
  2. Then those who begin to show and interest in spiritual things were invited to Conversation Parties where Simeon served tea and took questions.
  3. Students who were willing to met after the Conversation Parties were invited to a weekly sermon class.
  4. Then Simeon selected an inner circle of six to eight students who met for supper and reflected on what they had learned that week.
  5. A few who worked with Simeon as disciples/interns.

As he got to know them, Simeon recommended students for future leadership as pastors and missionaries. He also recruit­ed evangelical students to Cambridge, and if they couldn’t afford tuition, he raised funds for them. Simeon wanted to place evangelicals in growing population centers and centers of influence, so when an important church became available, he would bid for it and then go out and raise the funds to place an evangelical in the pulpit. Some of his graduates became missionaries with the Church Missionary Society that Simeon had founded.(“No evangelical Anglican in the early nineteenth century exercised a greater strategic influence on the course of the British missionary movement than did Charles Simeon of Cambridge.”)

When he began his ministry, there was a handful of evangelical ministers left in the Church of England. When he finished, fifty-four years later, evangelicals led one-third of the churches in England. The vast majority were men influenced by Simeon, including many who had been converted through his influence. He was a man of the Word and a man of prayer. “He rose early each morning to study the Scriptures, and often could be seen pacing the roof above his rooms as he prayed for friends and enemies.””

Simeon didn’t blame the system; he acted. He didn’t wait for permission or funds; he raised the money he needed. Simeon staked his life on the authority of the Word, he prayed, and he trusted God to do the impossible. Two hundred years later, his legacy continues. Today two-thirds of the world’s Anglicans trace their origins back to the work of the Church Missionary Society, founded by Charles Simeon.

Simeon’s strategy for turning around an institution was to launch a movement that changed the institution from within by making disciples who would reproduce their life, love, and learning in others, Others, and OTHERS! (2 Timothy 2:2)