I am a “Sim”

ABOVE MY DESK is an old lithograph of the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, England. At the bottom are the words, “Trinity Church in the Rev. C. Simeon’s time.”

After the Bishop of Ely appointed young Charles Simeon to be Trinity’s priest in 1782, the wealthy pew-owners locked their pews and absented themselves for 14 years. But a purpose-driven Simeon preached to the poorer people who stood in the aisles and heard him gladly.

Simeon came to Cambridge as a student and was converted to Christ and spiritually mentored by Henry Venn, an early evangelical in the Church of England. Appointed to Holy Trinity after studying theology, he stayed for 54 years.

I “met” Charles Simeon when I was a young pastor and leading a New England congregation through an era when the church (in general) was seen as obsolete, irrelevant, and needing to get out of the way of the so-called parachurch organizations who were “really doing the work of Christ.” Hugh Evan Hopkins, Simeon’s most recent biographer (Eerdmans, 1977) was my introducer, and soon I was a “Sim,” as his disciples were known.

The man’s pastoral style encouraged me to believe and say that the church is the center point of God’s saving work in the world and that a call to pastoral ministry is among the greater graces a person can receive.

Simeon was an evangelistic pastor. Stoutly evangelical, his sermons—though dry by today’s standards—were powerful and compelling. Quickly his church bulged with converts, particularly students.

His conversation parties—Friday night gatherings of spiritually curious students—grabbed me. These parties accounted for scores of young men becoming evangelical pastors and missionaries under Simeon’s mentorship. I could do parties like that, I thought—and I did.

Simeon “small-grouped” his congregation long before the modern small group movement came on the scene, and that too tantalized me. When I read how he set out to support fellow-pastors (and their spouses), I birthed a dream to do the same through seminars and consultations at our church.

His commitment to the first modern foreign missions efforts convinced me to do the same.

I'm not sure he would have used the term leadership developer, but that’s exactly what Simeon was. William Wilberforce (Member of Parliament), John Venn (pastor at Clapham Parish), and the members of the Clapham Sect (the group that was at the epicenter of the Victorian revolution in nineteenth-century England) all looked to Simeon for spiritual direction. His influence was pervasive among those unusual people. I could hear Simeon saying to people like me: make sure your leaders are thinking, growing, connecting, and birthing big visions. And I tried.

Charles Simeon taught me spiritual discipline. Perceived by some as short-tempered and arrogant (his journal reveals his awareness that he hurt people with his lack of sensitivity), he was driven into God’s presence every day to seek a humble spirit. I determined to follow him there so I could deal with my own impurities.

When Simeon died in 1836, the city of Cambridge closed down and gave him the largest funeral people had ever known.

Simeon’s influence remains powerful today. You’ll see it in the ministry of John Stott and modern evangelicals of the Anglican communion. And it reaches into the life of an ordained Baptist minister like me. Each time I look up at the litho of the sanctuary where he preached, I reaffirm that I am trying to carry on his vision. CH

By Gordon MacDonald

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership, chair of World Relief, and author of Ordering Your Private World.
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