Journal of a Novice Open Air Preacher by Adrian Clark
There is a garden on the banks of the Avon Cut running by Southville in Bristol. It’s called God’s garden and in that garden, adjacent to a mural of the Garden of Eden, is an old wooden cross. It is a cross like that used by the Roman executioner to hang Jesus Christ’s torn and broken body 2000 years ago. It is that cross that provided me the venue to practise and prepare for the privilege of preaching open air on the streets of Bristol.
It’s Sunday afternoon on 16 December 2012. Pastor Dia has already delivered a message from the Bible about the mission, message and master of the Church. It is time to stand on my box, crank up my amplifier and declare the news of Jesus Christ’s conquering of sin, death and hell. There are few passers by and some pause to find out what’s being said. Some remove an earpiece to hear, occasionally a head is shaken in disapproval, and a few mind their own business and just occasionally someone will show their appreciation. Sharing the Gospel in the shadow of an old wooden cross on the banks of a fast flowing river leaves me encouraged. The next morning, in pale dawn light I am back in time to meet Bristolians on their way to work.
And the next morning, the next and the next; each time the Holy Spirit’s teaching me and equipping me. When I am finished I am eager to head into town but I curtail my enthusiasm and head home. By Wednesday I am standing on the bridge in Castle Park, declaring Bristol’s wonderful heritage of open air preaching, warning of the terrible day of judgment that is to come for unbelievers, and offering the precious blood of Christ for Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists alike and all who will repent and put their faith and trust in Him. Fired up and following an Islamists brave but inadequate attempt to heckle I head off to patrol the streets.
This time I have a different approach. Just stood on my step, quietly wishing people a merry Christmas though my amp, while handing out tracts by St Nicolson Market – it’s like fishing in a barrel. My time leads to a friendly conversation with a gentleman belonging to a Christian community called Twelve Tribes. It seems, after reading the literature he gave me and having asked a few questions, that a global denomination (cult) has been formed around Acts 2:44. I hope that my questions regarding Jesus’ nature (Colossians 2:9) may have provided him food for thought. (After the delicious muffin from their market bakery I can see the distinct advantage of cultish life)
Having practised and rehearsed, I am ready for the crowds and on Friday, having warmed up in God’s Garden, it’s off to Broadmead. Now I am close and personal with those who I am to share. I get started by standing on the stool, with amplifier turned low, handing out tracts. People are pausing at the pedestrian crossing, and streaming by. Before long my simple greetings are lengthening into messages and before I know it, as people wait to cross the road, they are learning that those who tell lies are liars and all liars, thieves, adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals and unbelievers will have their place in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8). The invitation is to abandon the Pharisees, the religious professionals and mankind’s flawed theories to flee from the wrath that is to come (Luke 3:7). When I finish, after say 40 minutes, I am fired up to speak to everyone and head off to the individual witness: “Hi, are you from around here? Have you heard the news? That life is precious, a gift; ‘we see creation, we know there is a creator’, and that the Christmas story is true, does that make sense to you?” And from those openings, profitable conversations flow.
By Sunday I am battle hardened. After church I launch into preaching in the heart of Broadmead and it’s wonderful to see just a few people pausing to take a seat and listen. Later I stand at the crosswalk to Cabot Circus, enjoying banter with the mistletoe vendor and the young Big Issue seller, handing out tracts like confetti. I even get a couple of tracts into the hands of the Somali taxi drivers who, as ‘good Mohammedans’, remain ever vigilant not to take Christian literature. Isn’t that a mission for Spirit of Life Church, to reach our Somali taxi driver neighbours with the liberating truth of the Gospel? Christmas Eve is an equally fruitful day and I get the amazing privilege of warning those queuing to enter Bristol Cathedral for carols and lessons of the dangers of religious piety without being new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17.)
From walking the streets in my distinctive dress, I am known to many of those who live and beg on the streets. There are those who are courteous but for others, if you are not going to put warm soup in their belly or cash in the cup, their hostility to the Gospel is manifest. It helps to be equipped with knowing where the Compass Centre and night shelters are. There are others who have simply decided to live on the edge of society in squats, earning a meager living selling the Big Issue (£3 for the Christmas edition). My question to those from churches who have programmes of soup kitchens, would be: How can it be loving, kind and just to fill bellies with warm soup while people die and face God’s wrath having rarely heard the Gospel? Surely they must be warned, in the most strident tones, that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31.)
I’ve enjoyed profitable conversations with so many tribes, colours and people groups: An encouraging word from two African men providing street security; the Bristolian born in 1947, a widower who lost his wife 8 years ago, who after a chat walking along the street together welcomed a tract; the black man in his 20s, walking in his ghetto rig, who appreciated being told Christmas was not folklore, legend, or myth but reality; the three shady fellas in the Bull Ring underpass, clearly dealing, who were taken aback to have a man in a kilt telling them if you see a creation you know there is a creator; the four hooded youth, dragging on totes in the doorway of a church, at night, who failed the good person test and were warned that hell is just punishment for their rebellions; the man getting soaked in the pelting rain, listening to me preach who took shelter under my umbrella and told me of his battle with depression; the man and woman begging, who asked me questions and dismissed my patient answers with disdain and profanity (the man was angry with God who took his wife while they slept, leaving him the next morning alone with a dead wife and crying three year old.) And many more: the common man, with his tattoos and gold watch chain who loved his million pounds tract; the Chinese man at the bus stop I counseled to reinforce his shaky twelve year marriage with the direction of Jesus Christ; the erudite Turkish relativist, the Iraqi Muslim, the man angry at my preaching from Revelation 21:8.
In the seven days leading to Christmas I likely proclaimed the Gospel to more people than most Bristol churches reach in a month of Sundays. Why is it that in the city God used to raise up, amongst others, George Whitfield, John Wesley, and Bob Bateman, there is only a clumsy preacher like me is available to, ‘proclaim His marvelous works among all the people’ (Psalms 96:3 ESV)?
Tony Miano, an ordained Baptist minister, and long time open air preacher, shared these thoughts in an article on the Christian Apologetic Research Network www.carm.org :
‘According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners. Anyone who faithfully delivers that message, under whatever circumstances, in a large meeting, in a small meeting, from a pulpit, or in a private conversation, is evangelizing. Since the divine message finds its climax in a plea from the Creator to a rebel world to turn and put faith in Christ, the delivering of it involves the summoning of one’s hearers to conversion.
With the above in mind, and for the purposes of this article, the definition of “biblical evangelism” is as follows:
The communication, in either spoken (Romans 10:14-17; 1 Corinthians 9:16) or written (1 John 5:13) form, of the law of God (Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 2:12-24; 3:19-20; 1 Timothy 1:8), the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26; 1 Corinthians 15:1-14; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 4:10), and the call to sinners to repent (Luke 13:1-5; Acts 17:29-31) and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:9-10) in such a way as to be consistent with sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:9-11; Titus 2:1) contained in the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17).’
Within seven days I went from hesitant open air aspirant, speaking to a few passers-by from the safety of a garden, to being stood in a throng of people boldly declaring the Cross, Him crucified and resurrected. My week on the streets in Bristol has convinced me that it would only take a few faithful men to make a radical difference in this city. Equipped and trained to proclaim the full counsel of God, we would be a force proclaiming a message that this city has not heard for a hundred years. I would dare to suggest that 1970’s Billy Graham with his packed stadiums, encouraging people to invite Jesus into their hearts, missed the full counsel. It is the mirror of God’s law that will bring a man to conviction and a place of repentance. Whitfield writes of seeing the white streams on the faces of Bristol miners from the tears that washed away the coal. Why did the likes of Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley preach the law before bringing the Gospel? Because they were men of the Bible, and they were following the way of their master, and my master, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World; have mercy on me.
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation, for all who believe, first for the Jew and then the Gentile…(Romans 1,16.)