The claim is sometimes made that you can make statistics say anything. Well here is a statistic that clearly speaks for itself — around 93.5 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom do not attend church.
About 62 million people now live in the UK. So when we ‘do the math’, as our American cousins say, we discover that we are describing roughly 57,970,000 people. Each one of these, one day, will have to stand before God and give an account of their lives.
Each one has a soul that will live on into eternity, either in heaven or hell. Can there be any doubt that today the UK is a massive mission field and one that we dare not overlook?
The 3 June will mark the date when the Open-Air Mission (OAM) will be 160 years old. It was in 1853 when a young Scottish barrister helped to found a new society which had two simple and straightforward aims.
The first was to seek to reach the unchurched for the Lord Jesus Christ, by going out into the highways and byways and compelling those who might be found there to come in to the kingdom of God. The chief means by which that would be achieved was through the public proclamation of the gospel of the grace of God.
The second aim would be to encourage others to be involved in this vital work, be they churches or individual believers; seeking to help them get started in their own town or city.
It is lovely to be able to report that all these years later, the OAM has not departed from those two aims. Preaching the cross in an engaging and winsome way is still the priority of the 11 full-time and 53 associate evangelists, as is providing resources and training for any who might like to start going out with the message of the gospel to where people are.
Of course, there are so many legitimate ways that are available to the church to make the Saviour known today. We are so thankful ourselves for opportunities to run Bible exhibitions for school children in nearly 40 different locations.
The OAM evangelists are able to take regular school assemblies in their own localities and speak at gospel meetings in various church settings, as well as in prisons and old people’s homes. The Mission has also run beach missions for over a century and continues to do so in Tenby and Weymouth.
C. H. Spurgeon
A very helpful book on preaching by Charles Spurgeon, called Lectures to my students, contains not one, but two, chapters on open-air preaching. The first of these chapters is called ‘A sketch of its history’. Here the author helpfully sets out just how biblical a form of evangelism outdoor preaching really is.
Spurgeon makes reference, not only to the many biblical characters who were open-air preachers, including the Lord himself and his apostles after him, but also to a great line of faithful men since, including Wycliffe, Knox, Latimer, Bunyan, Whitefield and Wesley.
A sober challenge is given right at the end of the chapter, ‘“If by any means I may save some” must still be our motto, and this must urge us onward to go forth into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in. Brethren, I speak as unto wise men, consider what I say’.
The second of the two chapters is called ‘Remarks thereon’ and provides lots of wise and helpful advice on preaching in different open-air situations. Part way through this second chapter, Spurgeon makes reference to the founder of OAM, John MacGregor, and quotes him describing an occasion in Hyde Park where he was dealing with a heckler who questioned the reliability of the Bible.
Spurgeon lists the 12 qualifications for open-air preachers which he found in an OAM tract. These include ‘a good knowledge of Scripture and common things, a large loving heart’ and ‘entire dependence on the Holy Spirit for success’.
It is humbling to read how Spurgeon described the OAM. He referred to it as ‘that excellent society’. This is high commendation indeed, coming from such an eminent and godly man, as he most certainly was.
Spurgeon rightly pointed out something that is still the contention of OAM today: that ‘the great benefit of open-air preaching is that we get so many newcomers to hear the gospel, who otherwise would never hear it’.
This is something backed up by the experience of the evangelists today. They are regularly meeting people who admit that they have ‘never heard this message before’, and — perhaps, even more telling — ‘you’re the first Christian I have ever met in my life’. These statements may seem incredible, but are probably indicative of our failure to realise the mission field that we are now living in.
It is thrilling to know that OAM records over the years show how greatly the Lord has blessed its ministry. Annual reports going all the way back to 1854 provide details of numerous souls who have been saved as a result of an encounter with gospel preaching in the open air.
In 1913, for example, a young girl in Doncaster left home one Sunday afternoon on her way to Sunday school, or so her parents thought. However, she and her friend decided it would be far more exiting to visit the famous St Leger race meeting instead.
The girls managed to sneak into the grounds of the racecourse and, as they were squeezing through the vast crowds, they happened upon a little group of Christians and an OAM evangelist preaching to the crowds.
In the next few minutes, as the girls stood and listened, the Holy Spirit brought one of them under conviction of sin and there and then she cried out to the Lord to forgive and save her. Imagine the twofold surprise of her parents later that afternoon to discover, first that their daughter had become a Christian, and second that it had happened, not at Sunday school, but at the racetrack!
The blessing is not just to be found in the Mission’s archives though. In December last year we heard of a young man recently released from prison, who was challenged by the preaching he heard in the centre of Aylesbury.
This led him to attend a church in Chesham, where we was converted shortly afterwards and has since been baptised. There was also a man who had stopped and listened to the preaching in the centre of Manchester last September. He stayed on to talk personally to the preacher at the end.
After a good conversation, the man was given details of a good church not far from his home. The man attended the church on a couple of occasions over the next few weeks.
Then one Sunday morning, in January this year, he felt a strong compulsion to go back to the church again. He did so and, after hearing the gospel, asked the Lord Jesus to be his Saviour.
Director of Open-Air Mission