What do singing puppets, friendly face painters, church members praying with passers by and a visiting evangelist preaching the gospel have in common?
Well that's what a recent Saturday looked like on our town's high street. Our church had evangelist Jonathan Conrathe come and work with us for the weekend. We had plenty of gatherings at church but we also set up in town during the day on the Saturday. My husband was involved in the puppets, which always draw a crowd, and my daughter and I were face painting.
Those types of activities are almost 'safe' evangelism – we are 'doing' things so don't have to put ourselves on the line too much (although it was good to have some fruitful discussions with parents, who were so much more open because their kids were happily entertained).
What struck and challenged me most about the time, however, was how people responded to the gospel being preached. I was amazed (and then repented of being amazed) by how Jonathan simply gave the gospel message and people responded to it there and then on the street and we had the privilege of praying with them.
Listening while face painting I can remember thinking a few times "I could never say that" and "Isn't that rather politically incorrect – can you say that on a British high street?" Don't get me wrong, Jonathan preached with grace and clarity, not damning fire and brimstone. And when he called for a response there were those whose hearts had obviously been touched who wanted to make a commitment to Jesus.
The experience of being on the high street that day caused me to reflect on how the gospel certainly is timeless – and it also holds an unfathomable power. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
So often we get caught up in trying to package the gospel to make it more palatable to our 'sophisticated' culture. The heart behind that could be positive – trying to get the message out to as many people as possible in a way that they will stop and listen to it. But isn't it possible that it could also be out of a fear of rejection? That verse from Corinthians reminds us that those who don't want to accept the gospel will think it is foolish, and possibly us too, but others will have hearts that respond and open up to God's power.
And Romans 1:15 says: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes." So why can we sometimes seem to be embarrassed about the gospel?
I'm as guilty as the next person, so I'm pointing no fingers here. As a naturally shy person I can cringe at some evangelistic endeavours. And yet once again I've had a timely reminder that we don't have to 'win people to Jesus' ourselves – the gospel holds the power to do that within itself so it isn't about us striving but simply making ourselves available to be God's hands and feet in the places that we live and work.
I asked Jonathan how he has such confidence to preach so boldly in the open air, and he said: "For me it is really an overflow of three powerful realities that consistently impact my Christian life and ministry. Firstly the compelling love of God as expressed in the cross... when I preach to those without Christ I am consciously aware that Jesus is the only way. Secondly, in our messed up, pluralistic society, the world is crying out for truth, and it is a huge privilege that we can preach with clarity, with conviction, because the gospel is 'the word of truth' (Ephesians 1:13). Lastly, and very importantly, I preach with total dependence on the Holy Spirit, for He gives both the words and the boldness to preach the Gospel with the radiant love of God, free from the fear of man.'
I don't believe that we all necessarily have a call to stand in the middle of a town centre and preach the gospel message, as Jonathan does so well. But I do think we need to keep reminding ourselves that the very message that caused our hearts to soften towards God is still very much alive and powerful today. We should have confidence that the gospel will touch people's hearts, whenever and however we share it.
Let me leave you with a couple of challenging quotes Jonathan reminded me of, from two of the great open-air preachers, which champion taking the gospel out of our churches to the people:
John Wesley: "I feel if satan can convince the Church to stop preaching the good news of the gospel in the highways and byways of England, he will have gained a great victory."
George Whitfield: "If you want to save England, you will never do it within the four walls of a church!"