The challenges of putting on a Christian event in secular England
At the beginning of March Steve Lee and his team put on The Big Story, a free event telling seven dramatic biblical stories that reveal God's 'Big Story' of love for us all.
Now that Steve and his team has had a chance to reflect on the week, we asked whether it had met his expectations and if there were anything he would do differently another time.
As a self-confessed 'quirky evangelist' what can Steve teach the rest of us about putting on a week-long event in a UK town – and about simply engaging with our friends and neighbours about the Gospel?
CM: What sort of numbers did you have through the door each night? And what age range?
SL: The numbers were lower than expected but reflect the enormous struggle to get people to go to a Christian event even though those who came loved it. We had around 200 to 250 each evening with a high percentage of visitors and all ages – from students right through to the elderly.
CM: Did you find people came back more than once?
SL: Yes, many came back, some even attended every night for the full seven nights. I think for those of us in the core team that was life-changing. We were all on the edge of burn out at the end of it practically as we'd breathed it 24/7 for two months!
CM: Did anyone make a commitment?
SL: Yes we saw a steady flow of people responding each night but most were through personal conversations at the end rather than the conventional 'hands up' – although there were many who did that too. Around 50 people responded through the week in different ways.
We are now in the middle of Big Steps and we have people coming to that from Big Story. (Big Steps is the follow up programme of four consecutive Tuesday events looking at the four steps to becoming a Christian: Admit, Believe, Commit, Receive.)
CM: What kind of feedback did you have?
SL: We took a lot of feedback from the church and had responses from visitors too. Here is just a selection:
From a member of our church: "The Big Story was a new, refreshing and inspiring way of bringing the gospel to our friends, really clearly and passionately explained, which beautifully led to conversation and question asking. The atmosphere was welcoming and love-filled, which had a great impact on my non-Christian friends that came along!"
And from a non-believing friend that that person brought along: "I believe that Steve is an incredible and inspirational storyteller. The way in which he talks about the Bible, about Jesus and God is so utterly captivating and thought provoking. He has this amazing ability of explaining the Bible in such a real, down to earth and meaningful way. I felt that I was able to connect and relate to the evenings and I feel blessed that I was able to attend and witness Steve talk about 'The Big Story'. Amazing experience."
As we all know, it isn't just about making a commitment – everyone is on a journey and this testimony shows the progress one woman made during the week (the cousin of someone in our church):
"At the start of Sunday evening's Big Story she said she was an agnostic, she would like to think that there was something out there but she was not at all sure that there was. She was really impacted by Sunday night's talk on the cross and said at the end of it 'I must come back tomorrow', which she did. At the end of Monday's talk she chatted to me for ages and said the following: 'I feel I must decide whether I can trust the Bible, and whether there is God and Jesus is who he says he is.' Then said 'I must come back to Friday's BS' (She had commitments on Tues, Wed and Thurs evenings.).
"Friday came and she spent an hour or two chatting to me about God prior to the Big Story, asking questions like, 'What does it mean to live your life for God?' 'How does that work out practically?' 'Give me an example please?' and then at the end of Big Story said that although she wasn't ready to stand up to say she was a Christian that she now did believe in God and Jesus.
"She came back home to ours and spent 1.5 hours asking us more questions and just chatting. She says she knows she's on a journey and she has taken a Bible and Amy Orr-Ewing's book 'Can I trust the Bible?' and is going to read Luke and Acts.
"I believe she has moved massively from a place of no knowledge to hearing the gospel and opening up her heart and mind to the truth of God. She wants to come along to church on some Sunday mornings and we are expectant that Jesus will save her."
CM: What disappointments did you have to deal with?
SL: The numbers to be honest. It was a huge undertaking and we needed each other's support, particularly when the numbers were lower than we had hoped for. We had half what I expected and a third of what I wanted. But I was very encouraged at what we achieved.
Other members of the team agree: "Although numbers on the evenings were lower than we had been wanting, and been praying for, the truth is that there are always disappointments and things we felt we could have and should have done better. What remains is that more people heard The Big Story, more people encountered God and the church grew in faith – and in her focus on those who are not yet part of the church family.
"What it meant for us as a team is that we grew closer together, leaning on one another and leaning into God. It galvanised our praying together, and I think helped focus our hearts on those we were wanting to, and those we continue to want to, impact with the message of The Big Story.
"One of the challenges from the work on the streets is how many people find it difficult to receive a free gift. We were pointing people towards the Big Story café, with the promise of free coffee, tea and cake; and people would refuse the invitation. Nonetheless, our daily, regular presence on the streets opened up opportunities to chat to people who'd seen us the day before, or earlier in the week."
CM: What lessons do you think you and your team have learned that you can take forward?
SL: The publicity was bigger than anything I have ever attempted in 25 years but still not big enough! I learned that to reach a city we need to saturate it with publicity. Also there is much work to be done across the Winchester churches so people get a taster of the event and are confident to invite friends to something that is being put on in a church other than their own. We had to battle against the age-old problem of Christians living very insular lives with very few real friends from outside the church too...
Another member of the team reflected on the huge role of audio/visual in the evenings, "Lighting, music, mood and the building all had great effort, money and practice put into them. The band was highly rehearsed, each section of the evening had a specific light setting etc. All of this was met with praise and appreciation. For me that raises the question of why do we sometimes allow ourselves to settle and not push for greater excellence and creativity. Of course, we do not want to go over the top and make church a performance. However, the rising generation in particular is a visual and emotionally driven, instant gratification one and the church needs to engage people on a greater way on this level."
CM: Is there anything you think you would do differently another time?
SL: Yes! I put together what was essentially a hybrid of my creative/visual/quirky style and a regular church service format. Next time I will stay out of the box! I underestimated the church's appetite for something very different I think. I had thought it needed to be a little safer in order to get the local churches behind the initiative but that wasn't the case in actual fact.
CM: What impact do you think the event had on the town, as you were out on the high street during the day weren't you?
SL: We had huge contact with many hundreds of people from all walks of life, including the MP for Winchester (who is a Christian).
We were out on the high street on the opening Saturday and every weekday lunchtime during the event. With the busy-ness of the lunch break rush hour, we saw many people coming past us, good numbers staying to watch as we performed music, and used the guillotine, or strait jacket, and even a torture board or two, all advertising the evening events, and inviting people to the lunchtime café.
A small team was dedicated to this throughout the week, and each person struck up conversations, many of which were with people for whom church would not be a major element in their life! A good number of people came along to the café; we had some good interactions with other street performers; the general experience was overwhelmingly positive. Even the rain stayed away most of the time!
We also took the Mobile Stage out and about and every afternoon, to local housing areas delivering more invitations and generally raising the profile. Where we stopped to chat, it seemed that practically everyone knew about The Big Story having seen the back of the buses, posters, newspaper ads etc.
For example, in one of the local coffee houses the person serving saw our Big Story T-shirts and said that they had already been invited by someone from the church, and our visit was a timely reminder to come along to one of the evenings.
CM: What are your plans for the coming months?
SL: We will do it again in Winchester and almost certainly tour it to other places. Right now, we are preparing to move our 30 tonne Mainstage trailer 1,000 miles up from the South Coast of Spain to Normandy for a big evangelistic festival in Normandy to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the liberation of Europe. I always knew we would retrace the path of the liberation of Europe from the beaches of Normandy to Berlin. We have spent the last few years on a European adventure, creating outdoor events and festivals in Germany, Spain, Holland and France and seen huge numbers gather and respond.
CM: Would you say that it is easier to put on such events in Europe rather than Britain?
SL: I would say that the poorer the environment the easier it is to reach them with the Gospel. Spain has been devastated by the financial meltdown particularly and the openness we discovered there was amazing.
In terms of the UK I believe that the polarity between those who are open and those who are closed is becoming greater and more profound. And as Christians we can end up living lives that lack authenticity. We create terms like evangelism and friendship evangelism – neither of which is in the Bible. What this means is that people become our targets rather than our friends.
Jesus was a friend of sinners, not somebody who tried to get them to His events. Actually it seemed that His events were created by His magnetism on the street and the overspill of the miracles. My view is that we must live in the world, not simply make sorties into it. One of the big lessons from the Winchester events is that some will come through publicity but most come because they are invited. I think the challenge is that we must move towards a place of bringing our friends rather than inviting people who are not our friends!