Regular readers of this newspaper will agree on one thing: that in this age, as in any other, the only answer to the moral, social and economic ills of a nation and its people lies in the Word of God and the Saviour of whom we read in its pages. However, anyone who thinks it is easy to bring that Word to the people of our land understands neither it nor them.
One of the challenges facing us is the obligation to spare no effort in bringing the message of redemption to the communities where we live. The natural and cultural gifts with which we are endowed are to be used for more than just earning a living! Constantly changing social habits and legal restrictions make the fulfilment of that obligation more of a challenge year by year. Although we work within the constraints of the benign sovereignty of a gracious God, it is for us to look for ways and means to be effective in presenting the gospel to our careless and godless generation.
One such way is to approach people when we can expect their mood and circumstances will make them ready to listen. Visiting from house to house, when people are relaxing in front of their TVs, is notoriously unproductive. We have found that reaching them on a day out at their local agricultural show can be very effective indeed.
The Royal Agricultural Show
Since the early 1970s, a group of Christians has been able to attend the Royal Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire as an official exhibitor. A stand is erected year by year for the four days of the show, and visitors are offered light refreshments, for which no charge is made. Everyone entering the stand is given a Christian leaflet prepared for the event, and has the opportunity to chat with one of the workers. Over a cup of tea or coffee the conversation can be quickly turned to the gospel, and many visitors hear that gospel for the first time. Although accurate records of visitor numbers are not kept, we know that each year between eight and nine hundred men and women, boys and girls, are presented with a gospel to which they are strangers. A further two or three hundred believers come into the stand, some of whom find that troubles shared are troubles halved!
Following ten years in the capable hands of the Workers’ Christian Fellowship, the work became the joint responsibility of twelve Midlands churches in the autumn of 1984. These churches agreed to make the work at Stoneleigh an extension of their own ministry of evangelism. The number of participating churches has subsequently grown to twenty-one and is still increasing. These churches provide the required financial support, and from them we draw some seventy men and women who fill the three daily overlapping shifts of the witness teams. Each six-hour shift consists of six or seven people. The stand is open from 9.00am until about 7.00pm each day, with a maximum of fourteen at work in the stand at any one time.
Each worker has the opportunity to enjoy fellowship and relaxation over a meal. Refreshments for our visitors and meals for our workers are provided by the ladies of the catering team; this part of the work requiring a manager and her team of four each day. Naturally, our catering operation works within the usual public food and hygiene regulations. Three or four days are also needed to construct our stand marquee and remove it from the site at the end of the show; and for this we have a construction team of about a dozen men. Generous help with storage is given throughout the year by those with the necessary space. Other interesting statistics show that we use 800 tea bags, 16 lbs of sugar, 96 pints of milk, 20 litres of squash concentrate, 600 gms of coffee, and transport more than 300 gallons of washing-up water to a nearby disposal point!
More important statistics show that in 1998 a total of some 175,000 people came to the Royal Show, of whom between twelve and fifteen hundred visited our stand. With few exceptions, our visitors received Christian literature and were engaged in conversation about the Lord. Our workers reported many encouraging conversations, in which they were able to speak about the gospel. We are able to provide a service to those who visit the Royal Show — there are not many places where the foot-weary can sit and enjoy a free cup of tea! But our service had added value in that believers, trained and experienced in personal witness, make contact with every visitor, and where possible guide the conversation to the risen Lord.
Conversations which start with a friendly enquiry about why the visitor has come to the Royal usually turn quickly to why we are there, and what we have to offer. Such conversations can last minutes or hours. Through them, many minds have been opened to the truth about life, death, time and eternity, and hearts opened to the Saviour.
The degree of inter church co-operation in this venture is quite remarkable. All our churches are ‘like minded’ in that they are evangelical and sympathetic to the specifically Reformed doctrinal statement which has been written for the work. Within this framework of doctrinal unity, the church backgrounds are as different as could be found anywhere in Nonconformity. When it comes to the work of evangelism, whether in Executive Committee meetings, sessions convened for training, or at the ‘sharp end’ at the show, we have been privileged to experience real unity and commitment. Each year we have seen living proof that Christian unity exists by reason of the atonement, and has nothing to do with the efforts of committees and conferences.
A constitution which contains the doctrinal statement has been developed. In preparing such a statement, many of the issues which face us today in the defence of the faith have been included. The fundamental principles of Protestantism are recognized, and we have had to exclude those involved in the various facets of the ecumenical and charismatic movements. Training for those who work in the stand is taken seriously, a full-day being arranged each spring when those intending to work in the team are asked to attend lectures and seminars which provide a background to the ministry of evangelism. This training day has become a well-respected part of the Royal Show work, and some attend who are unable to work in the stand, but who want to be more involved in the day-to-day outreach of their own church.
Young converts are welcome at the training day and some go on to work in the stand, under the tutelage of more experienced workers. It has been a joy to see young Christians gaining experience and confidence as they work with us.
Closing doors and rising costs
Just a few years ago, nearly every local agricultural show had its representatives from Christian groups. In recent years, some of the organiszing bodies have looked unfavourably at those who attend to ‘proselytize’, and many doors have closed. Costs rise, too — the hire of a respectable marquee does not come cheap! Some churches feel that too close an involvement with other churches can involve compromise and, for mostly good reasons, barriers have been erected to preserve the distinctives of their local witness. And, of course, many evangelical churches are isolated in an ocean of ecumenism and doctrinal failure, and would find it hard to find anyone with whom to co-operate.
Are you interested?
The churches responsible for Town and Country Christian Witness, through the Trustees and members of the Executive Council, would welcome the opportunity to encourage and support other groups of local churches with the vision of presenting the gospel at their local shows. We would like to share the expertise which we have gathered over the years. We can advise on training and the operation of the stand, and could make our marquee and facilities available at a fraction of the usual cost of hire. Our long-term good-standing with the Royal Agricultural Society of England might be used in the approach to local organizations. And by working under the umbrella of Town and Country Christian Witness, with its constitution and clear doctrinal statement, no local congregation need feel that its standards are being challenged or compromised.
We would like to hear from any local church interested in this kind of outreach. For attendance at a major event such as a county show, it would probably take from a year to eighteen months to make all the necessary plans, which would bring us nicely into the period of millennium celebrations! The millennium aside, there is a potential mission field at your local agricultural show. Please make this a matter of prayer and careful consideration.
The Royal Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire was held for its final time in 2009