Get a proper job!
‘So what do you do for a living?’ Most people asking this question expect the typical response; teacher, plumber, accountant, or the most common of all, ‘I work in IT’. ‘Street preacher’ often brings an, ‘Oh!’ followed by a silence as the person who asked the question struggles as to what to say next.
I suppose it’s a fair reaction, borne out of the common perception of open-air preaching – as soon as the words, ‘street preacher’ leave my lips there are images of finger pointing, megaphones and sandwich boards declaring, ‘The end of the world is nigh’ swirling around their minds. Thankfully those thoughts are misplaced. In the Open-Air Mission (OAM) we try to present the gospel message in as gracious and loving a way as possible; amplification is not usually helpful as it pushes people away rather than drawing them in close, finger pointing is actively discouraged, and I’ve never owned a sandwich board!
I have been OAM’s full-time evangelist to London since August 2007 following a one-year training course. I currently hold open-air meetings in Kingston-upon-Thames, Croydon and Hounslow on a weekly basis, as well as supporting local churches in their open-air evangelism. All the sub-headings in this article are questions or statements that have been put to me in the past.
Isn’t it a bit too in your face?
There’s no doubting that open-air preaching is ‘up front evangelism’. This puts many Christians off, for fear of being perceived as offensive, brash or just plain odd! However, as I read my Bible, I see clearly that taking God’s word to the streets was the method used not only by the prophets and apostles, but also by the Lord Himself; ‘On the last day of the feast… Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink…”’ (John 7:37). Open-air evangelism is a thoroughly biblical method of presenting the gospel, so much so that Spurgeon says:
No sort of defense is needed for preaching out-of-doors; but it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meeting-house.
The truth of the matter is that the gospel message is an offensive message. Of course, it’s our duty to show love and compassion when sharing with people the truth of God’s word, but to tell people that they are sinners deserving God’s righteous judgement will sometimes be met with hostility.
For example, a few months ago I was preaching in Croydon. I had only been speaking for a couple of minutes when two Muslim men began taunting me. As we openly discussed the deity of Christ a crowd developed. The men asked questions but wouldn’t let me answer and I began to feel that we were getting bogged down. Three women then began to hurl insults at me, followed by an elderly West-Indian man who began screaming at me to answer various questions, but he was unwilling to let me speak. The crowd grew larger and I was able to steal thirty seconds of peace to explain the gospel. Two onlookers then decided that I wasn’t up to the task and began to argue with the two Muslim men directly in front of the board. There was now a four way shouting match taking place in front of me as I tried to keep control and offer John’s gospels to anyone who was interested in what had been said.
However, in the middle of this God was working His purposes out. As I struggled to keep some semblance of control I heard a small voice ask, ‘Can I have one of those books?’. I turned round to see Sharma, a young lady who had been listening behind the board. She gladly received the gospel and then listened intently as one of the team spoke with her and explained the Christian message in greater detail.
Meanwhile, the argument taking place in front of the board was becoming louder and more chaotic, to the extent that I simply had to step away from the situation as we were getting nowhere. As I stepped down from my little plastic stool, I was approached by the Town Centre Manager and two Community Support Officers who had seen our meeting on CCTV and were concerned about the disturbance caused.
This, to be fair, was quite an unusual day – most open-air meetings pass without incident. But these incidents shouldn’t surprise us; what did the Jewish mob say about Paul in Thessalonica? ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also’ (Acts 17:6). Reading the diary of George Whitefield, I see that he too faced opposition to a much greater extent, ‘I was honoured with having stones, dirt, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cat thrown at me’. Satan hates any proclamation of the gospel and will attempt at every turn to stand in the way of people hearing about Christ.
You must find it difficult when no-one listens!
It’s amazing how many Christians have the uncanny ability to discourage open-air preachers. If I had a pound for every person who has walked up to me and said the above words, I’d be a very rich man!
Not only is this somewhat disheartening, but more importantly it’s just not true. Often when I’m preaching there are those who are listening, sometimes standing at a distance or sitting on a bench nearby. Usually though, it’s seldom that we preach without people stopping to hear what’s being said.
Most of those who stop are young people. So many older Christians despair of the younger generation, and often for good reason. However, I think there is real cause for encouragement as well. On the whole my generation has grown up without any knowledge of Christian things and most have no prior understanding of the gospel message. There is a real willingness, therefore, among many of them to listen and consider what the Bible says. Of course there are still many obstacles: atheistic teaching, evolutionary thinking, false religion and a materialistic mindset all stand in the way, but nevertheless there is real spiritual interest. For example, in Reading last year during a ‘Rock Festival’, a crowd of about forty young people stopped and listened as the gospel was shared and, in the course of two open-air meetings, over fifty John’s gospels were taken.
Do you really believe this stuff?
Yes I do. Do you? Do you really believe that those who come to know Christ receive the greatest gift of all? Do you really believe that all those who die without Christ as their Saviour spend eternity under the judgement of God?
I think the greatest danger facing the church in Britain today is ‘respectability’. We can be so concerned about appearing slightly odd that we try our utmost to convince those around us that we’re normal – the big problem with that is that we’re not normal! We’re saved; we don’t view this world with the same eyes as non-Christians, we view this world, this life, in the light of eternity.
This was really brought home to me a couple of days ago when I saw a picture from an open-air meeting held in Leeds in May 2006. The late Jade Goody passed by our meeting followed by photographers. One of the evangelists took a quick picture as she walked past the board – she was no more than ten feet away and would have clearly heard the preacher. I wonder, would she have stopped to hear the words of life if she had known then that she had less than three years left to live?
People are dying – they‘re dying in their thousands. In England and Wales, 509,090 people died in 2008. That’s over 1,394 deaths every day, which equates to fifty-eight people leaving this life and entering eternity every hour. There is a lost world outside the four walls of our churches and with church attendance so low, where are these people going to hear the gospel?
Tim Whitton is full-time evangelist in London with the Open-Air Mission.