Ishmael: Connecting children's work with Holy Spirit ministry

Thursday 1st April 1993

Tony Cummings and Gavin Drake talked to the children's worker extraordinaire, ISHMAEL.


If there's one man who has brought children's ministry out of the cosy nostalgia of Sunday Schools Past and wrenched it screaming (though with hands raised in the air) into the blaring world of electric guitars and cracking drum beats it's Ian Smale, known to one and all as Ishmael. But not only has Ishmael made a rock 'n' roll beat respectable for lisping tiny tots as well as acned pubescents. He's also taken Holy Spirit ministry into places undreamed of when the Charismatic Renewal began.

For under Ishmael's watchful ministry British Christendom is seeing a swathe of British children not only experiencing the Holy Spirit as a very real person, but operating His gifts. Any unsuspecting soul who has stumbled into an Ishmael children's praise party expecting a piece of Everybody's Favourite Uncle With Balloons And Songs About Jesus and finding instead children eight, seven and younger prophesying, bringing words of knowledge and praying for the sick (often with spectacular results) will be stunned. But under the wise old headship of Ishmael, the Spirit has well and truly been introduced to children's ministry.

For those parents who've yet to experience the ministry phenomenon that is Ishmael, he has given the church a legacy of songs that few but the most fossilised Sunday Schools can ignore. Songs like "Father God I Wonder", "God You Put A Tongue In My Mouth" and "Jehovah Jireh" have crossed over not only from the Praise Parties that Ish has pioneered directly, or indirectly, in thousands of fellowships, but have touched many an adult too. His albums, often fronted by a set of tear drop-shaped cartoon characters called the Glories have been mainstays of the Christian bookstall racks while his seeming omnipresence at Spring Harvest has spread the radical image of children as true worshippers and true Spirit-filled Christians far and wide.

Intriguingly, Ish isn't too keen on the tag children's ministry. "I prefer the phrase family ministry. Many of my albums and much of the work that I do is targeted at the whole family."

Ish has been fighting a long-term crusade to raise the status of children in our churches. "It's the old story. It's not just enough for a child coming along to church and being babysat or whatever, a child has to know that they have a present and a future with us in our churches. It's so important that we can put over to our children that they're the church of today and they are leaders of the future, and we need to put this over to them. But to do this we need to spend time with them and we need to know them. I, as an elder of the church, need to know the children within our churches. I need to love them and respect them as well. We have subdued our young people so much. If you want to see what a child is really like you want to go round a primary school playground. That's how God made them, little bubbly fun people. We suppress them. Church life suppresses life out of people sometimes. We've told children how we want them to behave, which is fine. But sometimes we've taken the life out of them. You can't just say you've got to be quiet when adults speak. They've learnt to be seen and not heard in church life. I'm saying to children I want to hear you. That'll take time but again with perseverance and encouragement children will start contributing to the family of God. But it won't happen immediately."

Ian 'Ishmael' Smale speaks about alienation from church life as a child from personal experience. Born in Bristol, Ian and his family moved to Worthing when he was eight, lan's father was a director of Turn To Christ, the organisation that published Challenge Newspaper, and the whole Smale family lived in a Christian community. But Ian rebelled and at age 15 moved away from home. "I was miles away from God," remembers Ishmael. "I went to agricultural college. Then, when I was 19 or 20 I became a Christian. It was the prayers of my parents rather than anything I found in the very boring, very traditional churches that I encountered."

Music had long been an interest for Ian. "I had a school band when I was 14 or 15. We were called The Handsome Beasts and were dreadful but we had a pretty good stage act, setting fire to crowns on stage and stuff."

After his conversion, Ishmael decided to go around as an itinerant evangelist with a friend called Paul, round the villages of Surrey. "We had no financial backing of any sort and would often sleep rough in the car. We'd do door-to-door work during the day and concerts at weekends. We got picked by the police for vagrancy sometimes! But it was good training."

A more successful, if not more serious, venture emerged in 1970 when Ish joined forces with fellow musician and pre-conversion boozing partner Andy Piercy. As Ishmael & Andy the duo became a sensation in Britain's burgeoning Jesus music scene. "We were very humorous and wacky, a kind of fun folk set and quickly the word got around and we became big fish in a small pond. We did an album 'Ready Salted'. But we became very proud and had to be hauled over the coals by British Youth For Christ for running a little wild, chatting up the girls and stuff."

Ishmael sorted himself out, married a lady called Irene and enrolled at the Elim Bible College. His partner, after a spell at Elim as well, went on to form After The Fire, the rock team which came within an inch of finding the secular Big Time.

After finishing at Bible College Ishmael was appointed assistant pastor to three London churches before becoming pastor of a church in Accrington. "We saw an amazing work of the Spirit," remembers Ishmael, "and before long the church was overflowing. But the people getting saved needed a pastor and I was more of an evangelist."

Ish was also a musician. Though possessing a voice of distinct musical limitations and being a strummer rather than a picker, he was a born communicator, a wacky funny man and knew how to rock it up. He moved again into fulltime Christian music ministry. In 1978 Ish formed a "fun rock band" Ishmael United, whose raw and raucous album, when released in the States, was perceived as British punk music. The following year Ish launched Rev Counta And The Speedoze who really were punk, or close to it. But despite being a hit at Greenbelt, no mainstream Christian company would touch this zany bunch of anarchic evangelists. "Rev Counta fell between two stools really," remembers Ish. "We were too Christian for the secular mainstream and too way out for the churches. Things were very tough, financially." But then in 1980 things turned around in a most unexpected manner. "I'd written this childish kind of song with Ishmael United that the rest of the band absolutely hated but I thought was great. Children particularly really liked it. I began writing more songs in a similar vein. Then I got this idea about these little characters called the Glories. So many Christians seemed miserable (similar characters called the Miseries were also soon developed) and I wanted to communicate that being in the Kingdom was a lot of fun. An uncle of mine drew these little Glories and Kingsway, who realised that there was nothing being targeted at young people that wasn't American, released 'Land Of Hope And Glories'. Things took off from there."

Ishmael: Connecting children's work with Holy Spirit ministry

The next decade was one of phenomenal activity for Ishmael and, as his family grew, for his wife and children as well. An astonishing torrent of songs and albums poured from the prolific pen of Ish. Using his own kids, topped up with children from local fellowships, for the recording sessions his albums were decidedly rocking though the early ones lacked a little in production values. "When I hear some of those early ones it hurts a bit... we had kids on them who didn't even get NEAR the notes," laughs Ish. "But we never rejected anyone though maybe today we're a little more careful in getting kids who can hold a tune." In its final year at Prestatyn in 1985 Spring Harvest extended a rather cautious invitation to Ishmael and his team to come and lead the children's work. "What I was doing, encouraging children to enter into an encounter with the Holy Spirit was considered very, very controversial. And it wasn't just traditional churches that criticised me. Even some streams in the charismatic renewal thought it was wrong to see children baptised in the Spirit! A lot of sensitivity was needed not to unnecessarily upset people." For some it was hard to get a handle on what precisely Ishmael was advocating. They could certainly see that children and young teens thoroughly enjoyed his praise parties of jumping, shouting, singing, rock 'n' roll praise. But Ishmael was teaching that children needed to begin to minister.

"If they'd been going on with God they'd be reading their Bibles, they'd pray regularly, some of them would be using all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They'd say, 'What do we do now?'. Now I do believe that everyone, children included, has got some sort of ministry responsibility. One of my team's role is training them in that responsibility. We start to say, 'What's God got for you?' For some it's going to be pastors, teachers, prophets, evangelists, administrators and so on. One of the things we do is, the worship leaders spend time training up young worship bands, the preachers get alongside the young preachers, and the street evangelists teach the little evangelists. We show that we trust them. We need to say, 'here's a chance of preaching on Sunday, come and do a children's talk. Alright, so you might only be 10, so what, come and have a preach.'"

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