'That excellent society!'

The work of the Open-Air Mission, 1853-2003

Recently I met a man who, five years before, had been converted to Christ after no less than 15 years as a heroin addict.

The Lord's means of his deliverance and salvation was an open-air preacher who had faithfully made Christ known outside Whitechapel Tube Station in London.

Interestingly, it was in Whitechapel one Sunday afternoon in April 1853 that a young Scottish barrister called John MacGregor, on his way to a Bible class, happened upon a man preaching in the open air. The brother in Christ was struggling to deal with a Roman Catholic heckler in the gathered crowd. A combination of a sharp mind and a warm heart meant John was ideally suited to enter the fray, which he soon did. He later wrote in his diary that he felt the hour spent conversing with the Catholic man had 'done some good'.

The beginning

So began an interest in, and concern for, open-air outreach. John MacGregor spent every hour of his spare time involved in all sorts of evangelistic and philanthropic endeavour. However, the chief burden of his heart for the rest of his days was reaching out to lost souls through the preaching of the gospel. Within two months of his Whitechapel encounter, John MacGregor had formed a committee of like-minded men who all felt concerned to see street evangelism both encouraged and regulated. On June 3 1853 the work of 'The Open-Air Mission' began.

Who can say just how many perishing souls have had eternal 'good' done to them through the ministry of this Society over the last 150 years? Throughout that time an Annual Report has been produced by each successive Secretary of the Mission. What fascinating and thrilling reading these reports make. Stories galore of front-line gospel labour. Responses to the message of salvation of every description, from violent opposition, through passive indifference to glorious accounts of brands plucked from the burning. In many ways, it would be true to say that very little has changed. Sin is still ruining so many lives, the natural man still does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and yet, praise God, the Son of Man still has power on earth to forgive sins.

From comments made in the reports over the first 20 years of the Mission's existence, it appears that the church, by and large, was rather disdainful of open-air outreach. The wheel seems to have gone all the way round. Many Christians today have consigned 'street preaching' to a useful tool, but of a bygone age. Many preachers even conduct their ministries as though there was a clause in their call which stated that they are to 'preach the Word... in season and out of season', but not inside and outside.

When we consider that John MacGregor lived in a day when more than 50% of British people attended church regularly, and he still had a burden to reach 'the other half', should we not seek to rouse ourselves to go outside of our church comfort zones and preach the gospel, knowing that today the number has fallen to as little as 5%?

No defence needed

Illustrious supporters of the work over the years have included Lord Shaftesbury, who was a good friend of John MacGregor and regularly preached in the open air when his busy schedule allowed. He also spoke a number of times at the Annual Meetings, which until recently were always held in London. Another speaker at some of those meetings was C.H. Spurgeon. In his famous work, Lectures to my Students, he included two chapters on open-air preaching and even described OAM as 'that excellent society'. He also included what was both a rebuke and a challenge to the ministers of his own day when he wrote: 'No sort of defence 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'. It is both amazing and humbling to know of this link with such great and godly men.

Evangelists today

The Mission currently has 11 full-time evangelists. Each one preaches in different local towns on a regular basis. Christians from a variety of evangelical churches will usually support these opportunities and in many places a team of believers go out and seek to engage with the world. There are also 21 men who are Associates with the Mission. They go in their 'spare time' preaching and distributing tracts. One of these, after preaching in Pontypridd recently, had the joy of meeting an 11 year-old girl who was saved, having stood with two friends listening to the message.

From the earliest days of the Mission teams of workers have been joining together for large events such as the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot. Many racecourses and fairgrounds continue to draw crowds and usually the people encountered would never enter a church. City centre opportunities have always been very worthwhile. For a week in London in June each year, a team of evangelists and volunteers preach in places like Speakers' Corner, Covent Garden and Leicester Square. Last year, more than 100 meaningful conversations were recorded during the London outreach. This included a young man called Tobias from a Christian background on holiday from Germany. He is still in contact with one of the team via email and gives every indication of having been saved.

The Lord continues to open many other doors for sharing the gospel. The evangelists are regularly visiting prisons, taking school assemblies, speaking at family services, helping to run one of three Bible exhibitions and beginning this year, an exhibition on Pilgrim's Progress as well.

The Mission produces a great deal of evangelistic literature. Over 440,000 tracts were given away in 2002, and around 2,500 Gospels of John were given out or sent to those who wanted to know more about the Saviour. Realising that not everyone is willing to read these days, the Mission has produced a gospel message on cassette, CD and most recently on two 20-minute videos. Every item of literature contains the Mission address with the offer of a free Bible study. Around 50 people each month contact the office in London asking for that study.

Grace in prison

One was a lady called Grace, who until fairly recently was receiving quarterly Bible reading notes from the office, having professed faith about five years before that. The address where these were sent was a women's prison near Maidstone. Grace wrote to say that she would be able to purchase her own reading notes from now on as she was being released. Intrigued to know her story, a letter was sent enquiring about her testimony. The reply revealed that Grace had served a long sentence for killing her boyfriend while in a drunken rage. Twice her prison term had been extended because of violent behaviour. Then, one day, while cleaning out a cupboard in another cell, Grace found a tract. Through what she read Grace came to know the One who 'is able to save completely those who come to God by him'.

Time would fail to tell of others who have recently come to the Lord through the simple, clear and direct approach used by The Open-Air Mission: a lady in Nuneaton saved after 30 years in the Jehovah's Witnesses, a devout Sikh in Leicester, converted after having been bitterly opposed to the gospel, and a young woman in Bilston suffering the ravages of drug addiction, now serving the Lord overseas. Only eternity will reveal the true harvest from the precious seed of the gospel being sown up and down our land.

Burst through false shame

John MacGregor wrote of open-air preaching in 1868 words which are still true today: 'It sends men to church, to school, to read, to feel, to think and to pray, so it helps every other means of good. Let those who will take part in such a blessed work burst through the false shame which Satan ties up many hands with, cast aside the slothful habit with which the flesh paralyses even active spirits, and brave the sneer of the world, which must sneer if both it and they are consistent. Once having begun they will not soon stop, for they are in a track well-trodden by saints and martyrs and sprinkled with the blood, even of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.'

A small book detailing the history and work of the Mission has been written by former Secretary Alan Greenbank, and is available for ?3.00 (including p&p) from 19 John Street, London WC1N 2DL.

Andy Banton,
Secretary, The Open-Air Mission