For many, mention of open air work conjures up images of a bloke wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with ‘turn or burn’ shouting into a megaphone ‘the end of the world is nigh!’ For sure, such people exist out there but they are few and far between. It bears saying, in the 25 years or so since I’ve seen regular open air work done, nobody I have known or worked with has engaged in anything approaching this sort of thing.
It’s also worth noting that open air work needs to be done with care. Some news stories about open air preachers – whilst unfortunate inasmuch as those involved are having their right to free speech impeded – must be weighed carefully. It is the case that some speak in ways that cannot credibly be considered winsome and address topics, crassly at that, which speak past the real reason to be there at all. In the latest edition of Evangelicals Now, a piece regarding Open Air preaching – specifically one open air preacher – finished (rightly) with a caution from Paul Washer:
There’s a difference between being bold trying to reach people and being obnoxious. I think we need to be very, very careful. We are servants, so whatever technique, you need to be a person that people see a graciousness to you. I just see a tendency – as the old Puritans used to say – the preachers are making themselves obnoxious to the hearers. Not because of the gospel, but because of the way they’re doing things. (quote abridged)
Nonetheless, at their best, open airs are simply public forums, not at all different to a hustings. Whilst a gospel presentation is given, we are looking to engage with people and want to discuss ideas with them. We should certainly be gentle in our approach, careful about what we say and how we say it, and – as Dick Lucas so rightly pointed out – not ‘be weirder than you have to be’. But when those things have been considered, open airs are a great means of taking the gospel to the lost.
Let me briefly share four reasons why I think open airs are seriously worth considering:
It reaches those who won’t come into church and don’t know any Christians
All too often we turn the decidedly uncomfortable call of Christ to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel’ into the much more comfortable ‘stay in your church building and share the gospel when people wander in’. It is difficult to do the former without actually going somewhere. Going, so far as I can tell, involves getting up and leaving where you are and moving to where others happen to be. Wherever ‘the world’ are, they mainly aren’t in church. The problem with focusing our evangelism on the church building is that we inevitably end up preaching to the converted.
Ah, I hear you cry, that is why the move towards ‘missional’ evangelism. Whilst this form of outreach is valuable and important – of course we should be on mission to our friends – this is the specific limitation of the approach. Sharing the gospel over coffee with our mates is an excellent way to share the gospel, but if all of our eggs are in this particular basket, we will never reach beyond our own small circle. How do we reach those people who don’t have Christian friends and wouldn’t come into the church?
The open air is a great answer to this. It takes the gospel out into public places and engages with people who wouldn’t otherwise hear it. I can think of few other ways to reach those we don’t know. It goes to where the people are and it presents the gospel overtly. The open air reaches those people who won’t come to us and aren’t in our particular circle of friends.
The opportunity for deep gospel conversation is enormous
Have you ever been at a church event and struggled to turn conversation to spiritual things afterwards? How hard is it to start discussing spiritual things when just out and about with our friends? Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try but discussions can be difficult. Often this is because – although we hopefully haven’t mis-sold the event at church and made clear it is a Christian meeting with a gospel talk – our friends have usually not come specifically for the talk. The talk is the price they pay for coming to the event they really wanted to enjoy. When talking with our friends over coffee, it sometimes just feels unnatural to crow-bar gospel conversations into what were otherwise billed as just a standard get together. I’m not poo pooing these approaches to evangelism, they are important and valuable, I’m just saying why they can be hard.
The advantage of the open air is that people know what they are getting even before they engage. Those who don’t want to talk simply don’t stop. Those who show an interest and engage have come to you, specifically because they have heard gospel content and want to discuss it. The awkwardness is taken away when, in response to gospel presentations or listening to gospel discussion, they want to engage with you. The difficulty in starting those conversations is just that much easier because your stall is clearly laid out and others come to engage with you knowing what you’re about.
I asked the minister and evangelist, Glen Scrivener, if I could get some visuals from a book he had written that I could turn into an open talk. I was heartened to find out he also supports open air work. In discussion with him, he noted that he had never been out in the open air intending to have a gospel conversation with somebody and not managed to have at least one. I have generally found the same. The gospel opportunities are greater – inasmuch as the open air reaches everyone who is out rather than just those who have come in – and never fails to yield good conversations. I can have better, deeper and more frequent gospel conversations in the open air than I could in months of meeting up with individuals and going to events. The opportunity is enormous if only we would determine to take it.
Jesus and the apostles repeatedly did them and clearly believed in them
What means did Jesus and the apostles use to reach out? Whilst they did a range of things, front and centre is open air preaching. The Sermon of the Mount was effectively an open air. Jesus, before feeding the 5000, had been speaking to the crowds in the open air. Then look to Peter at Pentecost, Stephen before he was stoned, Paul in the areopagus and repeated examples throughout the book of Acts.
Open airs may have fallen out of favour with some, but Jesus and the apostles clearly believed in them. They didn’t go out with sandwich boards shouting at people, but they did go outside and publicly preach the gospel to those who were round and about. I am convinced many of us refuse to take this fact seriously because it is a means of sharing the gospel that we find deeply uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it is the one that Jesus and the apostles seemed to use more than any other. We surely aren’t better and wiser than Christ and the apostles, and doubtless no more winsome, and yet it often sounds a little like we think we are when we find reasons to avoid open air work. If Jesus saw fit to do them, and the apostles followed suit, might we not want to think about doing the same?
It increases faith and assurance
How do we learn to give straightforward answers to real and personal questions? Unless we are actually engaging with questions from real people that have them we will never learn. It is in being asked and, yes, sometimes having to say ‘I don’t know but I’ll try to find out’ that we increase our own knowledge and learn how to answer the genuine questions of others.
Likewise, when does the Lord promise to grant us grace? When we are weak and feel unsuited to the task he has given us. When we do not feel capable of going out and sharing the gospel publicly with complete strangers, the Lord gives us the grace to do it. He does not promise that we will be able to imagine what it feels like to do the work before we do it. He promises grace at the point it is needed. Like Paul, we often go out in much fear and trembling, but God gives more grace; but he gives it when we go.
Open air work also increases our assurance. Why, for example, would we go out and share the gospel in this way unless we genuinely believed it? Why would we face people’s questions, and sometimes feel a little feeble and a bit foolish, if we didn’t really love the Lord and didn’t truly believe the gospel? The very act of going out, in the strength of the Lord, and doing work that we would not under other circumstances countenance doing, increases our faith and assures us that we truly do belong to him.
So there are four reasons we should seriously consider doing open air work. Why not try it and see what happens?