Alfred Place Baptist Church

John Newton, The Open Air Missions +

Jan 25

JOHN NEWTON, THE OPEN AIR MISSION, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, THE ECCENTRICS’ CONFERENCE, A NEW PREACHER IN ABERYSTWYTH

For me the New Year begins with the Carey Conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, that beautiful hilly county with many of its fields lined with dry stone walls. I spoke on the life of John Newton to 150 people. It is his bicentenary year though he did not die until the December of 1807. A little man, bald and latterly overweight, short-sighted without the voice of Whitefield, but possessing his theology, he died as the most well-known preacher in the world. His church was opposite the Bank of England in the city of London. Today it has no Sunday services, standing empty – except for Masses for a tiny Anglo-Catholic group on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Yet Newton preached to large congregations of mature and intelligent Christians who hung on his lips and went away fed. His strengths lay in his sympathy and compassion. He could speak to the affections. He was a restored prodigal and listening to him his hearers believed that they too might be reconciled to the Father. William Jay of Bath loved his company. He was witty and humorous but perfectly harmless. One day a strong sneeze shook off a fly which had landed on his bald head. He said, "Now if that fly keeps a diary he’ll write, ‘Today a terrible earthquake.’"

Just before Christmas Iola’s father’s cousin died in his late seventies. I did not know him well but have liked the family very much. He attended a Methodist church. We went to the cremation service and there for the first time was sad to hear a minister (an ancient Presbyterian) say that he would be reading to us from the Apocrypha. The other minister who chaired and spoke gave the customary light hearted approach to funeral services that I might have been guilty of in the past. I don’t know if I have been, but this recollection of the deceased’s misadventures and quips, did not suit me. I hope I learned again the futility of that dumbing down of such a solemn occasion. The service was pretty dark until they asked an old friend and member of the family to pray. I could have wept as he succeeding in praying without preaching at his hearers but brought in the gospel and grounded all he said in the sinner’s hope in the finished work of Jesus Christ. It was movingly done, his sadness, his own trust and yet the message of grace breaking out of the earlier anecdotage and apocryphal confusion.

The funeral service was held an hour later in a full Methodist church where the deceased was obviously greatly respected. Every seat was taken and the Methodist minister did well, capturing the deceased admirably, giving us long strong readings from the Bible. We sang good hymns and he spoke at the end of Jesus Christ and the deceased’s faith in him. I trust it was so. I spoke to the minister afterwards and thanked him especially for telling the congregation about the Lord. Of course it could have been more urgent and fuller, but in days of barrenness one is glad of the crumbs of truth one has to pick up in religious circles.

For the rest of the week I was speaking in High Wycombe at the Wycliffe Bible Translation headquarters at the annual conference of the evangelists of the Open Air Mission. The Mission started over 150 years ago when in 1853 in London on a Sunday afternoon a young Scottish lawyer called John MacGregor was on his way to a Bible class. He came across a man preaching in the open air. The preacher was struggling to deal with a Roman Catholic heckler in the crowd. John entered the fray and wrote in his diary that he felt the hour spent conversing with the Catholic man had ‘done some good’. So began a concern for open-air outreach. John MacGregor spent every hour of his spare time in all sorts of evangelistic and philanthropic endeavour, but for the remainder of his life his chief concern was to reach out to lost souls through gospel preaching. Within two months MacGregor had formed ‘The Open-Air Mission’. For the first twenty years of the Mission’s existence, it appears that the professing church by and large was disdainful of open-air outreach. That was an age in which 50% of the nation attended church. The wheel seems to have turned full circle. Many Christians today (when 5% attend church) consign ‘street preaching’ to a bygone age. Many preachers conduct their ministries as though there were a clause in their call which required them to ‘Preach the Word … in season and out of season’, but not inside and outside.

Lord Shaftesbury was one of the early supporters of the work and he spoke a number of times at the annual meetings as did C. H. Spurgeon who included in his famous Lectures to my Students two chapters on open-air preaching. He described OAM as ‘that excellent society’. He also included a challenge to the ministers of his own day: ‘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’.

The mission currently has eleven full-time evangelists and they were all at this Conference. Each one preaches in different local towns on a regular basis. Christians from a variety of evangelical churches usually support these opportunities. There are also 21 men who are ‘associates’ with the mission. They go out in their sparetime, preaching and distributing tracts. They also were at the Conference. We were 45 altogether.

From the earliest days of the mission, teams of workers have joined together for large events such as the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot. Many racecourses and fairgrounds continue to draw crowds, and those encountered are usually people who would never darken the doors of a church. For a week in June each year, a team of evangelists and volunteers preach in London locations like Speakers’ Corner, Covent Garden and Leicester Square. There are many other doors for sharing the gospel. The evangelists regularly visit prisons, take school assemblies etc. They also help to run three Bible exhibitions and, beginning this year, an exhibition on Pilgrim’s Progress as well. Every piece of literature which they distribute contains the Mission’s address with the offer of a free Bible study. Around fifty people each month contact the office in London asking for this study.

For example, a woman called Grace was until fairly recently receiving quarterly Bible reading notes having made a profession of faith about five years ago. The address where these notes were sent turned out to be a women’s prison near Maidstone. Then she wrote to say she was able to purchase her own reading notes as she was being released. On inquiry she explained that she had served a long sentence for killing her boyfriend while drunk. 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’.

They were a warm-hearted and serious group of men. A Mission which forty years ago would have been suspicious of Calvinistic preachers has now come to enjoy our preaching and confidence in the word of God. Andrew Bowden and I were the two man speakers, Andrew giving four messages on the book of Jonah. It was a privilege to hear him. One man, an associate evangelist, and retired bank manager, told me how he stands outside London night clubs on Friday and Saturday nights and speaks to the people as they leave. He talks to the scantily clad half-drunk girls, points out the different kinds of danger they are in. He talks to the men as they leave and is well-known to them. He says the big muscular bouncers guarding the doors are pec
uliarly open to talk of God; they are men with nothing to prove. The shorter younger bouncers are something else, aggressive and mean. Our brother had a heart by-pass last year and for six months he did not go down to the city, but then took up his post again. The first night as he was walking to the entrance of the night club a man spotted him and came running up to him. His two companions took off with him and he was confronted with three young men running towards him. "Where’ve you been mate?" said the man. "I have been in hospital and had an operation," he replied. "Well, I always respected you," the young man said, "and especially now since you’re half dead."

On Thursday night the Conference ended and on Friday Iola and I spent the day together. We ended the afternoon at a performance in the West End of London of Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter playing the main parts. Shakespeare wrote this play exactly 400 years ago in 1607 just after he had written Macbeth. The Royal Shakespearean Company is now half way through presenting the Complete Works of Shakespeare – the 40 plays – in the course of a single year. Shakespeare lived for fifty-two years dying in 1616. For the first half hour in any Shakespearean play you are thinking, "What is all this about?" You are missing so much and don’t understand what is happening, and then the words do their work and an event of recognition takes place, and one’s interest is aroused. Others who attend Shakespeare more than I do were way ahead of me. There were gales of laughter at the author’s quips. What intelligence.

The programme of the play contained an essay on the importance of the audience, that attending a play is a two-way street and that a complacent or disrespectful audience forgets this at their peril. There must be an engagement with those words which the people are hearing. I was of course immediately thinking of the part a congregation plays in listening to preaching and so read on with appreciation . . . "The best audience is made up of eager, attentive listeners, folk who don’t necessarily leap up and down with excitement but lend a subtler, equally charged focus to the event at hand with that voluble forcefield of silence as the words grab the audience’s attention. There is nothing like active listening to lift an occasion so that the speaker and the hearers come together to create a shared event." That, much more should be the case when gospel preaching in the power of the Spirit occurs.

I was preaching in Shrewsbury on Sunday in the Evangelical Church where John Legg was pastor for many years. I had not been there on a Sunday, and in the 60 strong congregation was the new pastor, Paul and his wife (whom I have known since she was a bairn). They had moved to Shrewsbury from Durham on Friday, and his welcome service will be in the next few weeks. Paul has studied at the Highland Institute. It is grand to see a church and pastor coming together. May they be greatly blessed. There are four Aber. graduates in the congregation including a mother and a daughter. The mother and father could reminisce about series I had preached in the dim and distant past. Those are the series for which I am glad that the magnetic field of the earth destroys the magnetism of old tapes . . . So I am told. I think that by the time the daughter heard me I had improved, or am I deluding myself?!

Here we had Neil Richards preaching to what over the last four months have been slightly growing congregations. He spoke in the morning service on Psalm 88, one of the most desperate psalms in the Bible: "O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves." They are dark words, but the sermon was far from being despairing. The congregation was most appreciative.

In mid January we held another Eccentric Ministers’ Conference in South Wales, our second. Two dozen men, most of whom I wouldn’t otherwise meet, gathered in a conference centre. I go to them as the aged seer . . . and the conference is organised by my friend Steve Levy of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Swansea. They are his contacts; they are almost all ministers working in Wales, most in tough small congregations. The conference is by invitation only and lasts just two days, beginning on a Monday at 10.30 and ending on Tuesday at 3.30. We don’t sing, but we pack meetings in and pray. We had one discussion on theological training, but like all discussions on that theme it didn’t achieve much. I think discussion ought to be on practical themes.

The speaker on the first day was Dick Lucas. The more I know him the greater is my affection for him. He is the retired vicar of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and the founder and role model of the Proclamation Trust. His stress is on exegesis and the history of redemption as one means of reforming the church. He has an amiable and low-key way of dealing with controversies but is properly disdainful of the modernists; he roundly dismissed women presbyters – the first sign of a man losing his evangelical moorings would be his support for them. I like his civility in conversation and that soon he is asking you for your opinion of verses from the Bible and how you are approaching the books you are dealing with on Sundays. I like the occasional sharpness that appears in his sermons. I like his lack of vanity. I like his sense of humour when he deals in posh drollery with the follies of the world. I would like to be witty like that. I like his disdain of pose and posers. I like his instinct when to ratchet things up or down.

He told us he had been studying the first epistle of John over the last year and shared some conclusions with us over two hours. A commentary on a Bible book describes the sword, he said, but preaching is wielding the sword. He commended as the best book on I John Colin Kruse’s commentary. John’s letter was brought about because of the activities of the anti-christs. They are many, were active when John was writing having gone out from the church. Their leaving revealed that they were not of the church. They denied the Son and were a real danger to unbelievers. In fact they hated the brethren and espoused lawlessness. He quoted the Nicene Creed so well that I wish I knew it by heart, and pointed out that it has three statements on the Father, nine on the Holy Spirit and sixteen, all the rest, on the person of Christ. That is where the battle is and will always remain.

I led a discussion in the evening which developed into one on the marriage of believers and unbelievers. Then I spoke twice on the Tuesday and the first of those was better than the second, so I judged, but surely some found that the more helpful message – it always goes like that. Who knows what men’s needs are? I spent time with individuals discussing the marriage problems of former students and members of their congregations. What an epidemic divorce is.

On Saturday we had the induction service of Derrick Adams to be the new pastor of the Welsh language Evangelical Church here in Aberystwyth. That was held in our church at 2 p.m. There were 200 people from all over Wales; simultaneous translation equipment with headphones provided an English version for the non-Welsh speakers. The singing was superb, ‘The God of Abraham praise,’ and ‘A debtor to mercy alone’ and ‘Revive Thy work O Lord,’ all in Welsh of course. Gwyn Williams preached on
I Corinthians 2 on the posture and message of the apostle Paul, then a sumptuous tea awaited everyone downstairs. I have never seen our basement so full. Our old chapel looked grand. It was odd for me sitting in the congregation and standing on the fringes afterwards, looking with delight at so many friends immersed in the musical language. "Do I look like that when I stand in our pulpit?" I asked Iola, "Yes," she said quietly back to me, "but your hands are bigger." Iola and I could slip out and walk home without having to wash a single dish or Hoover the carpet tiles at the end.

GEOFF THOMAS