Training in Open Air Evangelism
Written by Michael Green and Jane Holloway.
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
The term ‘open-air evangelism’ is used to describe the many ways we can communicate our faith on streets, beaches, and shopping malls, in attractive and thought-provoking ways, to people who do not normally go near a church.
The manner in which this is conducted is just as important as what is said, sung or acted.
Permission needs to be obtained for most open-air work from local authorities, shopping mall managers, etc. Many cities are willing to allow a mission team to do something once and see how it goes down with the local shopkeepers. Each mall manager will have his own special instructions. Make sure all the team is aware of what these are.
You need to choose a time of day when many people are around. This is important. It is not worthwhile planning something, and just hoping people will turn up. We need to be where people are: for example, in the middle of a busy shopping day, a place where people eat their lunch is good.
This can use whatever medium is appropriate - drama, music, circle dancing, puppets, juggling, sketchboard. It usually requires a small ‘stage area’, which focuses people's concentration on a planned programme.
There are two different groups of people in such a presentation. The ‘upfront’ people (musicians, dramatists, speakers), who need to remain free from engaging in conversation while the programme is going on; and the ‘crowd’, who will gather around the performers, watch, and engage in conversation with those who stop and watch. Contrary to what is often thought, the ‘crowd’ is more important than the ‘upfront’ people.
The performers will have planned a programme (usually no more than twenty minutes), so that the material follows in a logical sequence, presenting different sides of the gospel. Every sketch, testimony or song is linked by a speaker. The idea is to have a fast-moving programme (with no pauses) that will attract a crowd.
The team needs to meet together for prayer and praise before going out on to the streets. We are entering hostile territory whenever we take the gospel out, and we need the cleansing and protection of the Lord before we go. Each team member needs to have an ample supply of literature advertises something where people can learn more.
At the time arranged, all involved will meet to start the presentation. The `crowd` should form a fairly close circle around where the presentation is to be done, allowing enough space for actors, and yet not blocking walkways.
When you’re in the `crowd', watch, pray and be sensitive to those who gather around you. After a sketch it is often a good idea to turn to some person and ask, `What did you think of that drama?', wait for the reply, and take it from there. You may well not be used to speaking to complete strangers - nor are they! You will get both friendly and hostile responses. Keep your conversation light, and yet be bold in inviting people and handing out literature.
Other `crowd' members may well stand further away, handing out literature and engaging in conversation. Again, be alert to those around you. Allow people space to stop and watch before going up to them. Never pester passers-by. Smile!
Be sensitive to the ending of the presentation. That is the time for all to get involved in one-to-one conversations. If people have indicated an interest in coming along to an event elsewhere, look out for them when it happens.
This is another, quite different approach that is sometimes helpful in the open air. Singly or in twos, team members go out with a simple questionnaire and conduct a random sample of views, which can sometimes develop into really good conversations. At the very least, such encounters will give the person you are talking to a close-up view of a committed Christian chatting on the street, which may be unusual to him or her! It will also develop your own skills in chatting informally about important issues with complete strangers.
Here is a simple questionnaire used during a city-wide mission called ‘Celebration of Hope’. It had three questions in it:
- Do you think there are any solid grounds for hope these days?
- Do you think the Christian church has any real hope to hold out to people?
- If you could meet Jesus Christ, would you want to?
The encounter might go somewhat like this:
Q: Excuse me, but I wonder if you could spare a moment to help us with a short questionnaire we are conducting from Celebration of Hope here this week?
A: Very well, but I haven't long to spare.
Q: I quite understand. Here, then, is the first question: ‘Do you think there are any solid grounds for hope these days?’
A: Well, I suppose we have a great country - and our homes mean a lot to us.
Q: Right. But of course many people live wretched lives without much hope. So here's the next question on my list: ‘Do you think that the Christian church has any real hope to hold out to people?’
A: Well, I'd never thought about that. They seem to keep themselves to themselves.
Q: Alas, that is often true. But Jesus wasn't like that. He was always moving out among people, offering them the most wonderful things to celebrate, and the most solid grounds for hope. So here's my third question: ‘If you could meet Jesus Christ, would you want to?’
… and if that does not open up the chance for personal testimony to the living Jesus, I should be surprised!
There is of course no knowing how people will respond to your questions. But you can see how a simple three-question questionnaire like this can be used (with a minimum of imagination) to lead to a conversation which could be profitable. There is a progression about the questions. They start where you are — Celebration of Hope, which is happening as they speak to you; and with a question about the hopes which everyone must cherish in their hearts one way or another - for nobody can live long without hope. You then find your way to a narrower front in your second question, asking what they feel about the church, but more specifically planting in their minds the possibility that it might have some hope to offer, and something to celebrate. No matter what the response to that, it is easy to move on to the source of hope, and the solid grounds we have for it in the historical Jesus, crucified and risen.
Remember the following points:
- Your manner is more important than what you say.
- You are not there to argue, but to invite the person to answer questions which may gently lead them towards the light.
- You must not delay people long - unless they want to, and a good conversation develops.
- Your aim is to point them decisively to the hope that Jesus offers, and to show why it is so solidly grounded.
- You want to leave them with an invitation to join you and attend some further event — and maybe after a good encounter, you could leave them with something to read.
Hosting a booktable - often in a shopping mall - is another way to publicize your faith and engage in conversation with those who are interested. Posters and leaflets will also be needed. Free cups of coffee go down well.
These are a very powerful way to make a statement to a city, by drawing the local Christians together. All are encouraged to join in, from children on bikes to seniors, as the march moves slowly along a pre-arranged route, usually following a music group, singing and praising God. Banners can be carried. Leaflets can be distributed to those who watch. People can be invited to join in. At one or more points along the route there could be a pause to give time for more singing, some drama, music, circle dancing and possibly a short message aimed at those who have joined in.
Open air work can be enjoyable, if rather terrifying. Remember God's encouragement to Paul: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10, NIV).
Michael Green and Jane Holloway.
© Michael Green and Jane Holloway.