Open Air: Hot Off The Press

And what is this we see in today’s Telegraph’s “Top Stories”, hot off the press? “Christians now a minority in England and Wales for the first time.” Well, well, who’d have thought it? You could have knocked me down with a feather! Never mind, eh? Apparently, 46.2% of the population still call themselves Christian, according to the Office For National Statistics. The Pantomime Season is upon us, so: “Oh no you’re not!” “Oh yes we are!” “Oh no you’re not!” Anyway, an hour or two with us in the middle of Manchester will soon show how few folk really are genuinely born-again believers…

Admittedly, there are those who try to pull the wool over our eyes. Here comes one now: he’s a young man of Lithuanian origin, and his command of the English language is not good. Nevertheless, he attempts to draw us into conversation by pretending to be conducting a questionnaire about people’s attitudes to religion. Stephen answers his questions, until it becomes clear that his purpose is to interest us in some sect or cult which teaches that God is female and a mother… “See Galatians 4,” he says! I’ll leave that one with you.

When he’s gone, I survey the scene. The pavement is wet, and the sky is mostly grey, with just a patch or two of blue. It’s busy enough for a weekday, but - but here I break off as Peter arrives. He’s already been out and about in a couple of towns on his way here. We talk as Stephen readies himself. By the time Peter is off to his usual station near McDonald’s, Stephen is already on to the Fall of Man, and “because of Adam’s sin…” Well, you can take it from there, I’m sure.

In terms of ambient noise, it’s quieter today. The tram tracks directly ahead of us have been blocked by a big, white, water-filled plastic barrier, the sort you often see alongside the motorway. The trams are still running round the bend to our left, however. There are no shorts or crop tops today, it’s all overcoats and anoraks and winter wear in variety. Tracts are going slowly. I offer one to the companion of the dark-clad gent taking a photo of our poster. “No, no!” he says, and they go on their way.

What’s that? “What about dinosaurs? What about dinosaurs?” Someone is shouting, but he’s away over in front of Gregg’s. I wave to him to come across and explain himself, but he simply shouts out the same question a few more times. Why is he afraid of talking to us face to face, I wonder? The wind gets up, and Stephen straightens our poster without breaking off from his oratory. The tracts start to go out in a steady stream. Listeners come and listeners go, a few perch on bollards or lean on lampposts, but there aren’t many of them.

Here comes a middle-aged lady with white hair, in a jacket of pale blue check. She’s from Elwood Church in Salford, she says, and she’s glad to see us. As she goes, here comes a gent with close-cropped hair, in a navy-blue anorak generously trimmed with fake fur. He’s an evangelist, he says, David by name. He’s seen us before, and would like to stand with us at some time. Well, born-again bible believers are always welcome, I tell him. In my bag is our Salem Open Air Ministry Statement Of Faith, but I’ll leave that for later.

When he’s gone, I note that Brendan has arrived and is standing with Peter. That’s good! The wind rises again, and some of the last few leaves from the trees behind us blow away over our heads. The cold seems to be encouraging folk to visit the street food stalls. Suddenly, dozens of pigeons descend from all points of the compass and encircle one particular bollard. Then they fan out across the pavement, pecking up any discarded scraps that they can find.

Stephen comes to a close with: “My friend is going to say a few words…” “And get wet,” I add, as the first few raindrops fall. The forecast was for fine weather, of course. I ready myself. David returns, smiling broadly, and introduces himself to Stephen. My phone rings! It’s in my bag, and I don’t usually hear it, let alone answer it. It’s my daughter asking for a lift home, since she’s been blocked in the car park at work. She’s forgotten that it’s Wednesday. Fortunately, even as we speak, a colleague is offering her a lift home, so: problem solved!

It’s raining properly now, but, no matter. “The three great questions of the human heart” is where I begin, as hoods and umbrellas go up. A matronly lady and her child are listening, and she takes the tract that Stephen offers her. “Just a couple of listeners over by the shops,” I think, as a young man passes by and calls out “We’re all going to die!” I’m about to run with that one when the speaker cuts out. It can’t be the batteries, they’re all charged up. Is it the rain getting in? I deal the little receiver a sharp blow, and we’re back on track again.

Time passes. The rain eases off, David speaks to Stephen for a while, and then talks on his phone as he continues tracting. I say, as usual, that we’re not here to have a go at anyone who holds to another religion or philosophy of life, but then I find myself lambasting the idea of purgatory as an insult to our Lord - and so it is…

The drizzle stops, and there is some weak and watery sunshine for a while, as I speak on the theme of judgement and the plight of the lost. I explain why it is that we hear “My Way” played at funerals these days, all the while counting listeners, of which I reckon there to be half a dozen or so. That man in black jeans and a zipped-up, cream-coloured anorak has been there for at least twenty minutes. His hood is up, and I can’t see much of his face from here. When I ask if there is anyone within the sound of my voice who has never sinned, two girls passing by put up their hands, only to receive the traditional response, with which regular readers will be familiar. They don’t challenge my assertion that they are little liars…

A young Asian man in a smart suit stops eating as I focus on the last few moments of man’s life. He seems to be taking it seriously. I certainly am. And then I’m done, and on my “Amen!” the man in the cream-coloured anorak who has listened for so long turns abruptly and makes his way down Market Street. I hope that what he heard has helped him.

We talk with David about sowing seed and why people don’t want the gospel, and then he prays with us, and departs to carry on tracting. And then it’s the Arndale and the Bagel Factory, where Brendan and Peter tell us about the young man who took a tract, went into McDonald’s, then came out again and shook their hands, saying that what he’d read was amazing…

It’s a good note on which to end.

Please pray for any or all of those mentioned above, if the Lord lays it on your heart to do so.

Every blessing!