A.B. Simpson was a true example of what it means to follow Jesus in his era and in ours.
I deeply resonate with Simpson’s experience with churches, both in Louisville, Kentucky and in New York City. As Simpson beginning to transition out of the Louisville pastorate to take a leap of faith into the chaos of New York City, he saw that God had used him to build a large ministry that was breaking social and racial barriers. But unfortunately the people around him wanted to go into great debt to build a large building. “Three thousand people crowded into the Broadway Tabernacle in Louisville on June 9, 1878, for the first service. But the debt and its cause hung like a dark cloud over the pastor. He refused to dedicate the elegant edifice and rejected any further salary until the debt was liquidated. In his remarks during the service, Simpson made it clear that a church building, whatever its design, served the supreme, single purpose of bringing within its walls “the great masses of every social condition who attend no other church and practically know no God.” And ironically, Simpson would return after moving to New York to help dedicate the debt free structure, and in another two months the beautiful edifice would be completely destroyed, burned down in a fire. (All for Jesus, 15)
Where are the A.B. Simpson’s of today? We live in an American Church culture plagued by large, debt ridden mega-church structures… many of which are even declining in attendance while pastors line their pockets with generous salaries. And here we have Simpson, on the verge of becoming a Christian celebrity in the 1800’s, and he refuses to take a salary until the building is paid off. He also charges the people in the church that the only point of even having the building is to reach the poor, and in his day the African-Americans, who were marginalized by the southern white church, and beyond that those generally just far from God who the conventional church failed to reach out to and love. He also sees that the people of this church are becoming consumer minded and inward focused, so he leaves and moves into New York City to do ministry amongst immigrants, diverse social classes and the urban poor. Then in New York the Upper-Middle Class church that he is a pastor of tries to stop him from inviting the poor lower-class immigrants into the walls of the building, so he leaves his denomination all together and starts a new church from scratch.
This was a man driven by principles. Many even today would call him impractical and insane, but God would only deem him to be faithful. We need more like him today in an American Church culture that is driven by money figures and numbers. We need more like him today in a religious imitation of the church that is filled with pastors who thrive on comfort and wealth while our economy is sinking. May we be inspired by A.B. Simpson, and further than that, inspired by the people of all generations who have lived out the wild life of following Jesus.